How to Foster Creative Thinking and Create Greater Opportunities
For me, it was typically second quarter where I started to feel more like a chicken with no head than an actual teacher. The Thanksgiving and winter break made it hard to pace my lessons, my personal calendar was full with family dinners and social events, yet the assignments kept pouring in. Keeping up with my life and with the papers I had to grade often seemed impossible. When faced with a stack of 160 tests/essays/projects to mark, it’s frankly overwhelming. This is why I would commonly give such stacks rides home at night and back to work the next morning without ever tackling a single paper. It is also why I was always on the lookout for new ways to grade smarter, faster, and better.
Images by Heather Lyke
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Don’t ‘Grade’ Everything
Most things we do in our classroom are designed to be formative, so why put such tasks in the gradebook? Sure, you’ll want to track students’ progress, but does all the progress you monitor have to be accounted for in Skyward? Does it have to be every assignment? What I’m seeing in a lot of classrooms in the district are students who are working just as hard, if not harder, for a comment in the margin or a verbal “great thinking in this paragraph.” So, if our students work harder for feedback that never goes into the gradebook, then why kill ourselves grading everything and then account for all of it in Skyward?
Want to explore this idea more? Consider reading the first two parts of our Grading for Learning series by Brandon Macrafic:
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Provide Feedback Verbally
Ways I’ve seen this used:
- In class one-on-ones — Teachers meet with each student individually (either at his/her desk or by popping by each student’s desk) to talk over a particular task that’s already been completed, work through a problem together, or discuss the student’s thinking.
- Small group — Teachers pull students back in groups of 2-4, often pairing them with others who share similar struggles/successes. Together the students explain their thinking on a shared task, work through a problem that all of them are struggling with, or brainstorm solutions to ensure future academic successes.
- Scheduled one-on-ones — Schedule meetings with each of your students to have them discuss their learning while minimizing the distractions that come from having a classroom full of other students. These can be sessions for all students focused on their accumulated learning/skills, or make-up sessions for students who missed an in-class verbal feedback day or for those needing a bit of extra help. In fact, some of our high schools have weekly Academic Seminars which is a great time to ask students to come in for a verbal feedback session. (Don’t have Academic Seminar? I’ve also seen teachers opt to use their lunch period, Target hour, prep period, and/or before/after school for this same purpose.)
- Make the most of your time together by having talking points sketched out in advance.
- Let students know ahead of time the general area(s) that will be discussed. This limits anxiousness that can sometimes turn into poor behavior choices while students wait their turn.
- Ensure that students, when not being conferenced with, are engaged fully in the day’s activity before starting to pull individuals/groups back for verbal conferences. This often means a culture of engaged learning has been established earlier in the semester, prior to the introduction of verbal feedback conferences.
- Keep conferences short and focused on the topic at hand. It’s easy to let other concerns and agendas squeeze in, but then there’s a risk of students not understanding the purpose of such conferences as well as you potentially not getting to all students in a sufficient timeframe.
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Have Students Assess Each Other
Ways I’ve seen this used:
- Homework feedback — Rather than collecting and scoring what student did the day before, have them get together with a partner or a small group and go over the problems or questions you’ve assigned. Have them identify what answers they agreed on and then what answers they disagreed on. Have them compare how they came to their answers—whether they be the same or different. Then, facilitate a full class discussion on the elements that the duo/group struggled with.
- Essay editing — Whether you have partners swap, do paper rotations with no names attached, or have students get together in struggle-alike groups, this is a great way for students to learn from each other while simultaneously being exposed to others’ writings, helping them broaden their own personal understanding.
- Lab report evaluation — Lab groups commonly follow differing procedures, arrive at different results, and/or have varying degrees of details in their notes. Giving students opportunities to see other groups’ lab reports allows them to see their own gaps, struggles, and errors (along with their own successes).
- Project evaluations — Putting students into like-topic or project-type-alike groups and having them provide feedback often gives students a chance to see what they personally missed.
- Students don’t often know intrinsically what good feedback looks like, so first model what these conversations should sound like and consist of.
- Consider norming their expectations by having them look at a “high,” “medium,” and “low” example (specifically when doing peer editing or having peers provide feedback on labs/projects) and having them provide feedback as a whole class, then you can guide them into what feedback is helpful, on pointe, and constructive before they go it alone.
- Provide a guide, such as a rubric or a checklist, to help them stay focused on the learning at hand.
- Commonly teachers have students do this before they turn in the final, often graded, assignment/essay/lab report/project. Adding in this step helps students see what to change before turning in the final version—helping them achieve a better outcome on the final version AND making that final version easier for you to provide feedback on (since work done well is often faster to mark).
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Have Students Assess Themselves
Ways I’ve seen this used:
- Self-scoring homework/quizzes — After students have completed a homework task or a quiz, give them some possible correct answers or some specific questions to help them decide if they went down a path that’s viable. Then, have them reflect on what they did well, what they could have improved upon, and what they misunderstood.
- Peer-scoring homework/quizzes — After students have completed a homework task or a quiz, have them join a partner or small group. Then, have them collectively decide on what answers are correct/viable. Once they’ve worked with peers, provide them with a key or detailed rubric, have them score their own work, and then reflect on what they did well, what they could have improved upon, and what they misunderstood.
- Metacognition on processes followed/learning gained — Have students reflect on their score/answers/feedback after you’ve returned a marked homework task, quiz/test, essay, or project. Go over what parameters you used to score them and then have students agree/disagree with this score using the parameters you shared (debate—making an argument that’s supported with detailed explanations—also has a high effect size).
- The trick here is to not simply have students score themselves using an answer key, checklist, or simple rubric, but rather to have them really look at how the decisions they made, the thinking they followed, etc. lead to the outcome. So, while an answer key, checklist, or rubric may be the first step, it’s important to then have students identify areas of struggle, answer questions about how they studied, and plan for how their learning today will impact their actions tomorrow.
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Embrace the Google Suite
Ways I’ve seen this used:
- Quick individualized feedback— In Google Forms, when you turn it into a ‘quiz’, you can provide individual feedback. Students receive the feedback almost instantly this way. Plus, for many of us, typing feedback is faster than handwriting it. (Likewise, for many of us, reading typed responses from students is easier than reading their handwriting.)
- Quick rubric feedback — Especially with writing, timely feedback can be difficult. However, in 2017 many of us are collecting our essays online. If you’re not already, consider having students write their papers in Google Docs and then turn their papers in via Google Classroom. If you do this, then you can utilize the Google Add-ons of Doctopus and Goobric. When used together, this makes returning feedback via a teacher-created rubric quick, simple, and paperless.
- Unless you’re super tech-savy, avoid tackling both of these at once.
- Providing individual feedback via Google Forms is the simpler of the two ideas listed above. Want to start simple? Try starting there.
Ideally, some of these tools can help ensure that you have a holiday break free of stacks of tests to grade and/or papers to mark.
When you return from break, hopefully refreshed and ready for the new year, let your instructional coach(es) or one of us from the secondary C&I team know if you’d like to explore any of these ideas together. We’d love to help you save some time.
Originally posted on the RPS Elementary C&I website on 11.21.2017.
Examining a traditional lesson plan template forces us to consider who our students are as learners, the learning objective of each lesson, what mastery of that objective will look like, and the materials needed to engage our learners by differentiating for their needs. Your overall instructional plan will also include interventions and extensions for those who fall below or far exceed the learning target.
That’s a lot to plan for, and for some, our pedagogical tool boxes are just full enough to carry us through the instructional phase; however, mindfulness about the desired learning results and evidence of learning should not be overlooked as we plan. Through John Hattie’s extensive research on student achievement published in Visible Learning (2009), we know that there are some educational practices that are more impactful than others. He found, “effective teachers set appropriately challenging goals and then structure situations so that students can reach these goals.” Being mindful about what we want our students to know and be able to do as a result of the learning experience and determining what that learning looks like is what Hattie termed “teacher clarity.” Teacher clarity ranked in the top 10 or over 100 positive influences on student learning that Hattie studied. He further defined teacher clarity as “organization, explanation, examples and guided practice, and assessment of student learning,” which brings us back to the lesson plan.
What if my lesson plan included:
- Pacing targets
- Differentiated experiences based on students’ prior knowledge, skill level or interest
- More than one strategy for engagement
- Planned time for all students to speak or lead
- Plan B for students who need more time
- Plan C for students who need more challenge
You might be thinking: “Won’t this take a lot of time to plan? I teach many grade levels or different content within the same grade—I am not sure I have time.” Determining the learning objective and success criteria are often already embedded in curriculum; making a purposeful plan to share them with students in a meaningful way may take time. Most classrooms post daily learning objectives already; taking those visuals a step further to include what success looks like may be the first step you could take to make the learning more visible.
Planning instruction that engages students, increases student voice, includes instructional dialogue, and is differentiated takes time; however, you do not need to reinvent the wheel. Many instructional strategies work well within many different content areas and for various ages and can be used in rotation. See what works for you and your students. Knowing what it looks like when they have met your objective, though, is an important piece of the plan.
Making changes to how we’ve always done something is uncomfortable and can be difficult and overwhelming. Try not to take on too much or overthink—start small. Don’t keep the learning objectives and what success looks like a secret to your students—clarity precedes competence! Successful experiences builds confident learners and teachers.
Feel free to connect with Kari on Twitter @KollingAnderson, via phone at 507-328-4122, or via email.
Hattie, John. Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement; Routledge, 2009.
A Hypothetical Corn Maze Competition
As you likely know, corn mazes are giant puzzles that have dead ends and multiple pathways where people can often get lost. To prevent the adventurers from getting permanently lost, farmers provide a map of the maze. For many people, the greatest satisfaction comes in conquering the maze without the use of the map.
Imagine that two teams are practicing how to navigate corn mazes and will participate in a corn maze competition at the end of the growing season. The coaches know that on the day of the competition, the students will need to navigate a unique maze without the use of a map. The coaches’ have a choice as to how or when to use maps in practice.
As you read the practice schedules, think about the parameters of the maze competition and ask:
- Which team practice schedule is analogous to: Traditional Teaching?/ Upside-Down Teaching?
- Which team has the better chance for success at the completion? Why?
The coaches provide the format for practice and specific instructions for participates as follows:
It is clear to see that team "A-Mazing" has used a preparation system that is more likely to lead to successfully maneuvering through the corn maze without a map on the day of the competition. The competitors who have experienced the struggles associated with problem solving without maps are more likely to be comfortable with struggle and be fearless in attempting to solve problems placed in front of them.
Many RPS teachers are using short daily exercises such as number talks to help our students feel increasingly comfortable in solving math problems and to validate individual student thinking. Number Talks use Upside-Down Teaching to foster a can do student mindset. Think of Number Talks as short math problem (loop in the maze) that takes about 10 minutes for students to navigate. The students find their own solution and then describe how they found their answer to the rest of the group. Number talks happen almost daily and are meant to foster students who are more confident and comfortable solving new math problems (entering the maze).
We are actively engaged in a teacher workshop to find Rich Mathematical Tasks (Mazes) for our students to navigate. Our teachers use Upside-Down Teaching when helping our students to navigate through the rich task (Maze). The strength of the rich task is in the discussions that students use to see all of the paths through a real world problem and to more deeply understand the concepts being studied. It is analogous to seeing the maze and its beauty in entirety.
Finally, we are working through articulation to align our curriculum with a focus on prioritized learnings to answer which concepts in the overall mathematical universe are worth our attention. It is analogous to deciding which mazes or sections of mazes are worth our attention. Articulation is about making sure that our students are flexible thinkers who are empowered to take on the many unknown challenges in their future. It is analogous to our students knowing how to navigate mazes, not about our students knowing a specific maze.
In Summary, the math teachers in RPS are in the middle of a process that is moving towards a new scope and sequence while developing a new and different pedagogical method in mathematics instruction. There are many RPS teachers using Upside-Down teaching in RPS. If you would like to increase your practice with Upside-Down teaching, enlist the help of a colleague or instructional coach who is experienced in its practice. By incorporating more Upside-Down teaching in your practice, you will open the eyes of your students to discover deeper connections and different pathways to mathematical success.
Create a “We Wonder” board.
No matter what content you teach students naturally have lots of questions. One classroom I visited had a spot on their board where kids wrote things they wondered about. The teacher spent the first week modeling good thought-provoking questions and then turned students loose. They could add I wonder questions throughout the week and once a week they took a fifteen minute research break to see what they could find out about these questions.
One of the most powerful things we can do as teachers is to admit we don’t know. The next time a student asks a great question that you don’t know the answer to, toss it back to the class to explore. This might sound like, “Does anyone know something about that topic?” or “Would anyone be willing to research that and report back?”
Poll your students to find out what they know and what they want to know.
Don’t underestimate the power of a simple Likert Scale to help you find out that students know and are interested in. I recently watched a teacher write five big concepts up at the beginning of a unit. Students were able to rate each concept with what they knew about it using these descriptors:
- I could teach the class about this concept .
- I know about this concept and could share a few examples.
- I have heard of this but need a deeper understanding.
- I have never heard of this.
Next, students were asked to rate their interest in the topic using these descriptors:
- I am interested in this topic.
- I am mildly interested in this topic.
- I will learn about this topic if I have to.
- I have no interest in this topic.
The teacher used this information to decide on which order to teach the concepts as well as how to approach the topics. Although students needed to learn all of the information, she knew that she’d have to plan a “ hook” for the one that had the lowest student interest.
Add choice whenever possible.
Humans love choices! Often we can build in more choice than we realize with a bit of creative thinking. Here are some simple choices I’ve seen teachers provide in their classrooms in just the last two weeks:
- Would you like to review your notes on your own or with a partner?
- You can skip two of the problems for your independent practice: you choose which two to skip.
- Would you prefer to do your reading before or after the break?
- Choose one of the two questions to answer for your bell work today.
The key with choices is to give two choices that are equally rigorous and that you are comfortable with. Try looking for at least one opportunity for choice in every lesson.
If you're looking more more ways to provide choice, watch the following two minute video by author John Spencer where he lays out ten simple choice strategies.
1. Open up the task so there are multiple methods, pathways, and representations.
- Ask students to extend their thinking by connecting as many of these representations as possible.
2. Ask the problem before teaching the method
- Instead of asking students to find the area of a 12 X 12 triangle, ask them how many rectangles they can find with the area of 24.
- Write an article to describe something. [ i.e. (y = mx + b) ]. What does this equation mean, how does it look visually, situations where it could be used, etc.
3. Ask the problem before teaching the method
- Use for any situation where a standard formula is used. [i.e. area of shapes, teaching pi, stats formulas].
4. Add a visual component and ask students how they see the mathematics
- Have students use drawings, graphs, manipulatives, or algebra tiles to help them to see the mathematics.
5. Extend the task to make it 'low floor' and 'high ceiling'
- Ask the students how they see the problem.
- Have students write a new problem that is similar but more difficult.
6. Ask students to convince and reason; be skeptical
- Ask students to explain why they chose particular methods and why they make sense.
- Ask students: convince yourself, convince a friend, convince a skeptic.
Incorporating one or all of these six changes does not need to be difficult. I saw a great example while visiting the classroom of a science teacher earlier this week. He was teaching a chemistry class where he was asking students to find the density of irregular shaped objects. The students were given an overflow cup and a very short list of instructions.
| DIRECTIONS |
All six of Jo Boaler's ways for making a task rich can be met with this simple set of instructions and with a purposeful instructional pedagogy that allows all students to enter the activity, use their creativity, and explain their thinking Instead of telling the students what to do. This teacher let them figure out what to do and how to represent their results. He did not have to search the internet for a creative and rich tasks on density, he only needed to make simple changes to an activity in front of him.
If you have traditional STEM task that you'd like to develop into a rich one, please do not hesitate to reach out to me. I would love to help you develop your idea.
“They want to learn,” he said, “but they seem to have too much energy to sit while they do it.”
This influx of energy was causing behavioral problems and productivity issues on the students’ part, and frustration and angst on his part. So, we brainstormed a few strategies (each of which are shared below).
It’s no secret that movement in the classroom is essential, and not just for behavioral and productivity purposes. In short, movement helps to “increase the baseline of new neuron growth” and this neurogenesis leads to “increased cognition, better memory, and reduced likelihood of depression” (Jensen). In fact, “the average learner, regardless of age, needs to briefly move their bodies every 20–30 minutes” because “this enables learners to maintain focus, integrate learning across both of the brain’s hemispheres, enter information into memory, and avoid feeling overwhelmed” (Lamprecht).
- Divide the class into two equal groups—have ½ form an inner circle and ½ form an outer circle
- Have the inner circle face the outer circle, each student partnered with one other from the opposite circle
- Ask the class a question that each pair then discusses
- Once done discussing, have the inner circle move to the right, the outer circle move to the left; then, stop the rotation whenever (try ending the rotation with music that ends, a whistle, or by clapping in rhythm)
- Again, have each inner circle student face an outer circle student—a new partnership has been formed.
- Repeat steps 3-5 until you have gone through all of the discussion questions
- When a circle doesn’t work with the room arrangement, try forming students into two lines (personally, I often took my students into the hallway to form lines because of classroom space issues): just be sure to explain to students how to rotate around when they get to the end of the line.
How it works:
- Set up stations around the room—each station includes a different item (an exemplar essay, a map, a set of fabric swatches, etc.) that each small group will analyze. Be sure the expectations for each station is made clear by having a set of directions set out or having them projected on a screen that all students can see.
- Break the class up into small groups and then assign each group a starting point
- Have students rotate through the stations until they have completed all stations
- If there is a place where students can leave their key takeaways at the station as they rotate through (such as on chart paper or a whiteboard near that station) then, once students have completed all stations, they could do a “Gallery Walk.” To do this, each group takes a few minutes after the “Active Rotations” have concluded to simply rotate through those stations they did earlier in the period, reading the key takeaways at those stations. This allows them to absorb and process the learning of those groups who came after them, adding to their own personal understandings.
Text-on-Text / Text-on-Pic in Stations
An added bonus of this activity: it is done without talking—a great way to ensure that our introverted students are comfortable in the learning environment, too.
- Set up stations around the room—each station has a quote/excerpt/picture in the center of a large piece
- Before rotating, ensure the expectations for each rotation is made clear by going through them ahead of time, as well as possibly having them printed out or projected on a screen that all students can see. (One possible set of expectations is shown in the chart.)
- Break the class into small groups and then assign each group a starting point
- Have students rotate through the stations until they have completed all stations
- It’s tempting to set up these stations at desks or tables, which means students are only moving when they rotate. Consider having the papers taped to the wall instead: this gets students reading and writing while standing, and standing is better for the brain than sitting.
Finally, consider when movement in the classroom is critical, and plan for it. Students are especially antsy the Friday of Homecoming week, during the high-sugar holidays of Halloween and Valentine’s Day, and any school day right before a long break—these are the times where classroom movement is especially welcomed by students.
As you work toward adding more movement into your classroom, please reach out to me or others on the C&I team. We would love to help you explore even more ways to get your students moving while they learn.
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Analysis & Inquiry
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