Carrots and Sticks

03 September 2009

A hefty dose of my doctoral work is based in motivational theory---in particular, achievement goals. It's one of three major areas of focus in the educational research regarding motivation (the others being ability and intelligence). As that work wraps up and I think about the applications of motivation to classroom environments, I can't help but also think about the adults in those environments.

Tim over at Assorted Stuff recently shared the link to Dan Pink's TED talk about motivation.



The talk is described as "Career analyst Dan Pink examines the puzzle of motivation, starting with a fact that social scientists know but most managers don't: Traditional rewards aren't always as effective as we think. Listen for illuminating stories -- and maybe, a way forward." As you might imagine, Pink is a proponent of increasing intrinsic motivation in the workplace (and, hey, what's not to like about that?). He focuses on the idea of autonomy, something I've struggled with recently in the workplace. I don't mind being given a task/goal and a timeline (after all, it is "work" and I am being paid in exchange for completing certain things), but what is so bad about giving me autonomy beyond that point? If I give my employer what is required, does it matter what time of day I do my work...much less where I sit while completing it? And, what if, I was given opportunity to pursue related projects. Suppose that in exchange for the 50 state assessment questions you want me to revise, I get to develop classroom assessment tools for teachers that I think will be useful? I think one of the major sources of my job dissatisfaction over the last year has been the lack of autonomy---no ideas had value, much less the goals I would like to set and reach. At least in the classroom with its various constraints, I was still allowed some creativity and problem-solving.

I can give several parameters for supporting and increasing intrinsic motivation in students. What does an intrinsic environment look like for adults in schools, I wonder? It's not merit pay. It's not canned curriculum. As much as we might like the idea of a Results Oriented Work Environment (ROWE), I have to admit that certain concessions where scheduling is concerned are necessary for schools. I do think it has something to do with choice and a sense of personal control in the workplace---and less to do with forced collaboration/collective action. I am wondering how much of it might have to do with some of these ideas of managing people in a 2.0 environment.

So, teachers, administrators, classroom aides, administrative assistants, and others in the schools, lend me your comments. What would you ask to be changed in order to foster your intrinsic motivation for your work? What would you like to see?

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Learning Isn't Its Own Reward

13 March 2009

Part of my EdD work involves student motivation, so I am always keen to see what the media at large is reporting in this area. Seems like over the last year, there have been a few articles describing incentive programs for grades. I am immediately distrustful of such programs. I don't think we can foster of a love of learning in students by substituting a love of "stuff," such as money or stickers. I also think that these programs either confuse or overgeneralize what we know about positive reinforcement. We can change the behaviors of all kinds of animals (including ourselves) through the use of rewards. If you need a kid to remember to raise his hand before asking a question or follow the rules for lining up at lunch, a rewards system will do that. These kinds of behaviors work really well within a rewards system. And while you can argue that learning of all sorts has a behavioral basis, critical thinking and analysis don't really fall into the simple "peck the dot and get a peanut" category. This is where I think rewards systems for student learning fall down.

The New York Times recently put Rewards for Students Under a Microscope. They note several studies that show that rewards based systems only result in short-term gains...not long term or permanent changes in students.

However, in today's testing and dropout accountability environment, I'm wondering how many schools won't see a downside in the lack of long-term change. If I just need to show some impact for the current year, what do I care if kids lose interest in a few weeks? Maybe I just get them pumped up for the testing...or stay in school long enough to not count as a dropout...and that's all I need. Because under NCLB, I'm trying to get rewards and avoid punishment, too, only at a much larger scale. I don't necessarily have to learn as a system, I just have to jump the hoops. Perhaps that's all I need kids to do, too. Does it matter than we don't really get anything from the experience?

I think it does matter, but this is a systemic issue. NCLB has its heart in the right place in terms of student equity, but its bludgeoning of "underperforming" schools is just plain wrong. In some ways, it has made it okay for schools to treat their students in the same manner. Can we hope to make learning its own reward for kids when we value trinkets?

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Thought Experiment

06 July 2008

So, let's say that Congress agreed to rescind NCLB on one condition: Every teacher in every public school classroom has to use standards-based grading and reporting practices. What would schools say? That they prefer annual testing...or that they're willing to make a k-12 change in how we evaluate students at the classroom level?

Keep in mind that colleges had a similar choice over a century ago. Unhappy with the uneven quality of incoming classes, colleges knew that they had two ways to determine whether or not students were actually prepared by their high schools. In the first scenario, they could insist that transcripts be more meaningful. An "A" at one school in math did not mean the same as an "A" in math from another school. If universities insisted on changes in grading and reporting to reflect what students actually knew and could do, they would be more knowledgeable about applicants. We all know that institutions of higher learning didn't go this route. Instead, they picked option B: develop a standardized test which all applicants would take. The scores from the tests would allow easy comparison among candidates. The SAT was born...as well as the standardized testing movement.

Do we really have no one to blame but ourselves for all of these exit tests and other standardized fair? If I could tell a college (or employer) exactly what skills a student did and didn't master, would they need to know what the SAT score was?

A commentary in Education Week asked if our traditional grading practices be counterproductive? The answer, I believe, is "Yes." It's the basis for my dissertation. Now, I'm not willing to throw out grades and grading---but I believe that our approach has to change. To read the full article requires registration, but here are some highlights:
What is shocking is how rare the following question is asked: Does this grade reflect whether or not the student has actually learned anything?

The problem with our grade-dominated system is that emphasizing grades and grading can distract us from a concentration on what really matters: whether or not students are comprehending and learning the material. A ridiculous, even tragic, amount of time is devoted by too many teachers to disputing grades with parents and students. That time could be better used discussing what the child is learning, or having other productive conversations.

Another problem with a heavy reliance on grading is the underlying assumption that grades are a necessary motivator for students. There are several problems with this contention. Psychological research has shown that students, and people in general, are more likely to lose interest in what they’re doing if they are promised carrots or threatened with sticks. Using grades as a threat or reward for completing or not completing schoolwork is extrinsic, or external, motivation. This type of motivation often results in a decreased focus on the learning objective.

I cringe when I hear students ask, “Is this for a grade?” We should try to eliminate that question in our schools. Don’t we, after all, want students to be motivated by the prospect of learning itself? In classroom environments where grades are pushed, the sad fact is that students will often choose the easiest path to high grades, rather than challenge themselves in meaningful and creative ways. In classrooms where students are intrinsically, or internally, motivated, excellence is more likely to occur.

Most students will want to learn if they are presented with engaging and exciting learning environments and experiences. At the least, I’ve found that more students are motivated to learn when presented with authentic, stimulating learning climates than by the threat-reward bargain of grades. Research shows us that the human brain is wired to enjoy discovery and novel ideas, experiences, and situations. If we focused more on creating ideal learning climates, grades could slowly be pushed aside, and we could concentrate more on the kind of constructive feedback that spurs more student growth. Unfortunately, the pressure of grade competition and comparison is ingrained in our system.

I work in a public school where grading is seen as an important motivational facet and feedback tool. But this is no reason for me to despair, despite the problems I have with the practice. We are changing, little by little. Members of the school’s math department, for example, are actively making strides by recording fewer grades, focusing instead on formative assessments and interacting with students to constantly gauge what they know. As a language arts teacher, one of the most productive paths I’ve found is to de-emphasize grades. Traditional grading is insufficient as I attempt to assess student learning, growth, and development.

Like every other student, I enjoyed receiving good grades in school. But I honestly didn’t care much about the grades in courses I was most interested in. There, what we were doing was for the sake of learning itself. That kind of intrinsic motivation can ultimately lead to the creation of students who display the greatest tribute to public education, a desire to keep on learning, long after they have left the classroom.
I hope that in coming years that we are prepared to turn the tide on testing by showing that our grades are meaningful. I'd like to think that public schools are brave enough to take this thought experiment to its logical conclusion

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Lies, Damn Lies, and Posters

07 May 2008


Can I just say right now how much I hate this poster?

This hangs in one of the classrooms of my morning school. It's at the very front of the room, so students have to look at it every period of every day. While the teacher does her thing, this is the message that's in front of them. It makes me feel unwell---I'm not sure what it does to kids.

This poster takes away hope and that's just wrong. It implies that there are no do-overs, second chances, or mulligans in life. That's such a lie. Whether it's retaking your driver's test, fussing with a new recipe to make things "just right," or building relationships with others, life is full of mistakes and opportunities to try, try again.

As I finish up my doctoral work, I know that I am hyper-aware of classroom factors which increase or decrease motivation. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the teacher put the poster up a few years ago and never gives it a second thought...but maybe she should. I wonder what would happen if her classroom reflected the value of learning over a lifetime as opposed to punishment for failure?

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The Faster I Go, The Behinder I Get

01 April 2008

Now that my grad school classes are out of the way...and I have a cooperating school district for my research...it's time to jump on some things for my dissertation. Since it's Spring Break, this is about my last chance for a chunk of time to revise my existing dissertation chapters, submit paperwork for Internal Review Board approval for my survey, and get a whole new batch of proposal paperwork to the new school district. Sure, it doesn't sound like the most attractive way to spend the second half of spring break, but it is not as bad as trying to do all this while simultaneously working for two school districts. :)

Oh---and did I mention that I have my first round of orals in two weeks? The more things I seem to finish...the more new things pop-up with deadlines.

So, dear Readers, I'm going to be offline for a couple of days while I tend to other business. But never fear, I have a stash of six posts in my queue (some of them have been sitting there awhile). I'll start getting them published momentarily so that I'm a bit ahead of the curve here. Ration your reading carefully and I'll be return by Saturday, just in time to whine about going back to work on Monday.

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Cooperative Learning and Student Achievement

If you're a regular here, you know the basic spiel about my doctoral work. My study is on how grading practices do or don't promote mastery goals in students. (I'm not going to restate the whole theoretical basis (again), but if you're not a reg or want a refresher, just click the EdD label and you'll see all kinds of things you can't unsee.) While my doctoral study deals with a tiny piece of the motivational puzzle, my broader interests are in how teachers create classroom environments which support mastery goals---from what they put on the walls to the words and phrases they use with students to the elements of the "hidden" curriculum. If we as teachers truly believe that we are about kids and their learning, do the actions we take match the end we have in mind? (This is the "congruence" idea I alluded to in a previous post.)

I was thinking about all of this when I saw this article on Science Daily: Cooperative Classrooms Lead to Better Friendships, Higher Achievement in Young Adolescents. Johnson and Johnson, the gurus of cooperative learning, "examined 148 studies that compared the effects of cooperative, competitive and individualistic goals on early achievement and peer relationships among 12- to 15-year-olds. The studies included more than 17,000 adolescents from 11 countries and used four multinational samples. No one was excluded from the analysis because of gender, nationality, or academic or physical ability. According to the studies, adolescents in classrooms that supported cooperative learning -- studying together to complete a project or prepare for an exam -- got along better with their peers, were more accurate on academic tests and achieved higher scores on problem-solving, reasoning and critical thinking tasks compared to adolescents who were in classrooms geared toward competitive learning -- studying alone knowing that success would mean only one winner and plenty of losers." (You can find a copy of the original Johnson and Johnson article here, including the methodology.)

This meta-analysis would match up well with much of the literature I've reviewed for my dissertation. While my study isn't about cooperative learning, the outcomes described here are consistent with those found in mastery-oriented classrooms. In fact, the authors do include a tiny piece of goal theory with their publication. These are all pieces of the complex puzzle of student achievement. I keep hoping that there will be a way to put them all together.

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W00t!

30 March 2008

I just finished my very last paper for grad school. Yes, I still have to do a dissertation. But assignments for a class? They are no more. Mind you, this current class doesn't officially end until April 20, but I have just uploaded all of my discussion posts and papers. Stick a fork in me: I'm done.

Let me eat cake. :)

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In Case You Were Wondering

29 March 2008

Thursday went very well. The various arenas of my life all seemed to meet up quite nicely, and I have to say I truly enjoyed the side-by-side comparison of the districts I work for.

But first, let me just say that Ryan is as thoughtful and amusing in person as he is on-line. We didn't get to have much in the way of conversation because he had laryngitis (poor man). I did way more talking than he did (again, poor man), but he did bring some really fun pictures of his near 2-year old daughter. What a cutie she is! He's going to be presenting at WERA next year, so get those meetings on your calendar now.

As for my presentation? I SO rocked it. I can't claim that it was well-attended (at least compared to the two sessions I sat in on), but I had a very enthusiastic audience. In fact, I had my own personal cheering section, composed of three people from my afternoon district (including the ass't. supe), excellent questions to discuss, and I only neglected to mention a few ideas from my notes. I have thought about using Slideshare to put a copy of my powerpoint here, but I don't know if it would make all that much sense. I'm not one of those Death by Powerpoint people. I have a brief outline present on the slides to guide discussion---as opposed to using the powerpoint as a text to read aloud to the group.

Anyhoo, as I mentioned mere sentences ago, the ass't. supe of my afternoon district was on hand, which meant that immediately following my presentation (which exceeded the standards), she went into the hallway to make some phone calls on my behalf. While my morning district took more than two months to think about my research proposal for my doctoral study before turning me down, the afternoon district only needed an hour to see what I have to say "Yes." I'm still not officially allowed to research (yet), but I just need to file the paperwork. Other phone calls which will be of help to me were also placed...but I can't talk about those right now. :)

Here are some other interesting things about the experience. My morning school district (where I have worked for 12 years) had about 15 people from various walks-of-education attending the conference. The number of people who came to support me in my session? One---who was really there out of curiosity about grading. (To be fair, I told one friend she didn't need to come to my presentation as she already knew what I would be saying.) The afternoon district (where I have worked for two months) had three people other than me attending. They all came to the presentation to support my efforts. My morning district paid no expenses for me (although they did for their other attendees). My afternoon district? They paid no expenses, either; however, they are going to have me do part of my presentation in some of their schools and will pay me for that in order to reimburse my personal costs for Thursday. When the day was done, the morning district peeps took off for their own devices. The afternooners? They invited me to join them for a frosty beverage and asked me to dinner.

I'd do a Venn for all of this, but there's really not much to compare...is there?

In total, it was a long, but very worthwhile, day. I got to shake myself out as an educational researcher. I got to know lots of fun new people. I got my project back on track. And I got to see who loves me, baby. In case you were wondering, I'm doing just fine.

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Meeting in the Middle

27 March 2008

Wish me good fortune. I'm off to WERA this morning and the various worlds I move in will be in one place at the same time for the first time ever:

  • co-workers and friends from my morning school district
  • co-workers from my afternoon school district
  • Ryan from the Edusphere
  • and me, presenting my doctoral study and some classroom info
I'm sure it will all be a bit surreal. I feel like the missing link between all of the pieces. I'm hoping that we can meet somewhere in the middle and have a great conference.

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A-maze-ing

16 March 2008


When I saw this cartoon by Mike Bannon, I felt like it summed up my current progress on my doctoral study. I was told last week that principals in three of the four buildings I want to survey find it too much of a burden to be aware of my project. Yes, you read that right. To even know that somewhere in the world, some research is going on is too overwhelming for them. One wonders how they even manage to function appropriately. Let's hope that they have coping mechanisms in place so that they never see a newspaper headline, new titles of books, the 11 o'clock news, or other sources which might place such great weight on their awareness level. I shudder to think what might happen if they were ever to see a calendar. They only work in schools. What possible good could come from new learning for them?

All sarcasm aside, I do know these people and I find what I've been told to be incongruent with my own experiences with them. They're actually reasonable and genuinely nice human beings. A couple are actually very good leaders. Whatever their message is or was, I'm not convinced it was appropriately translated by the Powers That Be. Or perhaps the PTB garbled mine. Somehow, that seems much more likely.

Let's recap, shall we? I had originally planned to survey the motivational levels 5th and 6th graders at four schools, each in different stages of implementing standards-based grading and reporting practices. I would make all copies of the survey. I would go to classrooms and administer the survey (no more than 30 minutes per class) on my own time. I would analyze all data. We have no costs to anyone, other than some instructional time. And we benefit by learning whether or not what we're doing in our schools is meaningful to the people we do it to: kids.

Someone in the district was quick to point out that I haven't officially been told "No." yet, but it seems pretty evident. I should have been collecting data around this time. The supe has had two months to make a decision. Doesn't sound like this is going to happen. Meanwhile, I'm losing time, tuition money, and the only data I'm gathering relates to how the supe isn't following school board policy regarding how research is conducted within the school district. As I'm allowed to appeal this to the school board (according to their policy), all of this may well become part of the public record---even if the outcome remains unchanged.

In the meantime, I'm refocusing things a bit and looking at Plan B. The other school district I work for is much more research friendly---or so I've heard. They, too, have implemented standards-based grading practices, but have done so very differently. Their demographics are also different. So, I may look at still doing something cross-sectional, but across grade levels as opposed to schools. I have struggled a bit with what to compare within the data, but think that I will be looking to see if the decreases in motivation (which are predicted through my literature review) are not statistically significant in light of the mastery approaches used in classrooms. I still have another day to ponder this before I make my pitch to district number two.

I have a five weeks left in my current (and last!) grad class. I just want to gather some data so that I can finish my dissertation and degree. It's time to get out of the maze.

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WERA Bound

18 February 2008

If any of you Washington Edubloggers is headed to the Washington Educational Research Association (WERA) meeting at the end of March, come hang out with me. I'll be handling a presentation on standards-based grading and hope you can join the conversation.

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Will you be my PAL?

31 January 2008

from Overheard in New York: I used to be a straight-A student until I realized I was just learning how to get A's.

The theory I'm grounding my doctoral work is achievement goal theory. It's one way of looking at how motivation operates in the classroom---and the lens through which there is the greatest amount of research.

Earlier in the week, I piloted my survey tool with my own students. I'm not going to use this data for anything in my doctoral study. The main thing I wanted was some data to practice with in terms of how to manage coding and statistical manipulations before I go out and get the "real" stuff.

The survey was pulled from the Patterns of Adaptive Learning Study (PALS)---a well-validated tool. It has several scales to use, depending on who you wish to survey and what the focus is. I selected items relating to student goals and the goals they perceived my classroom to have. Its existence makes my methodology a lot simpler to defend.

Anyway, I asked my students to answer the questions and also to be sure they provided no identifying information: no name, no class period, don't write gender or ethnicity, etc. Out of the 100 or so kids who responded, all but three appeared to have taken the questions seriously. (Why did I think some hadn't? They had just circled a "3" for every answer.) After they answered, I talked with them about motivation and different ideas behind it. We discussed ideas of intelligence...and ability...and goal theory. There were comments about the connection between the motivational values they had and the academic behaviors it could lead to. I asked them if they would have answered the questions differently if they had taken the survey in another class. Most said that they would have. Why? Ah, because the goals within any given classroom are different---and many students will adapt their personal goals to fit the environment the teacher sets.

So, what does my data show? I'm not done playing with it yet---and really, there isn't much I will be able to surmise. It's a small sample of kids...and one teacher's classroom. There are no generalizations that can be made; however, I can't help but be interested in what my students are after in terms of personal learning goals and how well those match my classroom philosophy. I have worked very hard this year to set up a mastery goal environment: one which values learning and improvement over grades. Research shows that students with mastery goals cheat less, use more learning strategies, take risks with their learning, and show deeper cognitive engagement. (Performance goals are associated with the opposite---kids who procrastinate or skip school, choose the easiest assignments possible, cheat, etc.) Here's the first bit of information I have from what my students said. On a scale of 1 - 5, students averaged a 3.95 in terms of claiming mastery goals, and 2.54 for performance goals. Yea! Kids in my class have a stronger affiliation with learning for the sake of learning: a beautiful thing, if I do say so myself. And how do they perceive my classroom? The average for mastery was 4.13...for performance 2.75.

Are the results statistically significant? I haven't run the tests yet. How do the results compare to a similar group of students who have another science teacher? I'll not be able to tell you that---nor if those results are meaningful. Can I say that the way I've structured my classroom has led to the stronger reporting of mastery goals by students? Nope. The numbers correlate, but there's no way to make an argument for causality.

All of that, for me, doesn't really matter at the moment. My main goal was to learn to use this sort of data and I'm getting to do that. The bonus is seeing that so many kids identify with the mastery environment I've worked to create and nurture with them. I can hardly wait to take the PALS survey out for the real run.

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Senioritis

21 January 2008

I need a term to describe the kind of malaise that emerges during one's final semester of grad school. "Senioritis" is inappropriate on two fronts. First of all, the "-itis" part refers to an inflammation of something, and possessing nothing on my body called a "senior," I can hardly claim that it is red, swollen, and tender. Literalness aside, the other reason is simply that there are no class distinctions for graduate students. I'm simply a "third year candidate." I'm thinking that some sort of "-algia" (pain) would be more appropriate to describe my rather blase approach to my studies these days.

I spent a good chunk of yesterday revising an assignment that was due and then constructing all of the work for the next three weeks. My goal in that was just to take something off of my plate so that I can concentrate on my dissertation---which I really am interested in working on. At this point, my qualitative research course just feels like so much hoop jumping. It's not that this type of research wouldn't be an interesting way to conduct an educational study, but it feels like this course is too late. Last semester was all about the dissertation. Doing a methodology course now feels like a step backwards.

And I am really tired of "canned prompts" at this point in my program. It makes the reading less interesting, if that makes sense. Instead of being able to make connections between the text and myself and my research, there is a constant stream of regurgitation of basic ideas found in the resources. It's kind of insulting at this time, especially when the discussions could be richer...and time is so precious as it is.

Ah, senioritis. Here's hoping this latest bout passes quickly.

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Doing Justice to Motivation

13 January 2008

I remember the first time I was asked to read Plato's The Republic. The first chapter was all about the idea of Justice. The first character defines it as telling the truth and returning what you receive. The second argument comes down to helping your friends and harming your enemies. Another character weighs in with the idea that "might makes right," and still others argue and offer up more descriptions of Justice. (There's a nice summary of the conversation here, if you're so inclined.) As a teen and novice of philosophy, I struggled to answer the basic question posed by the professor in discussing this chapter: Whose argument is right? You see, as far as I was concerned, they all were on one level or another. As I read, I nodded in agreement each time a new definition was posed.

I have felt the same as I explore the realm of Motivation. To some, the most important factor is a student's self-concept of ability. To others, how intelligence is defined by the student weighs heaviest. For my research, I'm exploring how student goals serve as motivation. And my doctoral study chair has introduced me to yet another concept of it. I find myself drawn back into that same state as reading The Republic: everyone is right. Is that possible, however?

Certainly, I have decided that one is a best fit for me (Achievement Goal Theory), mainly because of its predominance in the research literature. At this point in my academic career, I would do well to follow the crowd and build my own understanding over time. But as I grow as an educational researcher, I will be looking for some version of the Grand Unification Theory for motivation.

All of these competing ideas remind of a quote from James Hilton's Lost Horizon. If you haven't read the story, a bunch of people are in a plane crash in the Himalayas and are rescued by people from Shangri-La: a timeless place. The western and Christian philosophies held by the survivors are at odds with the eastern traditions of their hosts, although the hosts don't seem to mind. One of the monks at the monastery eventually explains that "There are many facets to the same jewel." In other words, it is possible that each of them didn't really have different ideas; instead, they were all looking at the same idea through different perspectives. Maybe broader concepts---such as Justice and Motivation---are like that. We each have a lens to describe the idea, all the while thinking that it is the right one, but needing to acknowledge that we all have a bit of the same picture.

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Fear and Grading

11 January 2008

I'm in a state of transition at the moment. I have asked for---and been approved to take---a part-time leave of absence during the spring semester to focus on other pursuits (most importantly my doctoral study). I am greatly relieved to know that time and headspace will be available in a few weeks.

I told my afternoon classes that very soon they will have a new teacher. While I'm sure that some kids will either welcome or be indifferent to the change, the most interesting part of the discussion was simply that their biggest concern (and the first one voiced) was "Will s/he grade like you do?" And they weren't asking in a please-for-the-love-of-Mike-say-"No." kind of way. I explained that they should not count on that. It will not be a big adjustment for them in the sense that they already have 5 teachers every day who have traditional approaches to evaluation. I'm not saying it's the right thing to do or that they will be well served by the difference, but they will understand the rules.

Secretly, I had to smile about two things. The first was simply that the new teachers had expressed the same concern to me. "I can't grade like you do." Hey, it will be your class and they are going to be your kids, you do what you have to. I don't have any more say about what happens. The biggest reason to be glad, however, was realizing that the outcomes to my doctoral work could have some very important implications. My interest is in how teacher grading practices impact student motivation---and anecdotally speaking, my kids are positively motivated by what I have tried to implement this year with them (especially the kids who struggle the most with learning). How intriguing that traditional grading practices caused anxiety for students...and standards-based practices made the teachers break out in a cold sweat.

My dissertation advisor and I have turned in our paperwork to the school district asking permission to do research...he is downright enthusiastic about what I've written so far, as well as the project I have in mind...and while I am sure that there will be some fears and tears on the road ahead, I am looking forward to a spring full of learning opportunities and other chances to conquer my own fears and dreams.

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Six Down, One to Go

23 December 2007

I recently wrapped up Year Two of my doctoral work. There are seven semesters of coursework and two set aside for dissertation, so I'm entering the home stretch. My last semester of regular reading and assignments begins next week. This last class is all about qualitative research. I'm not planning to use qualitative methods for my own project, but it is unlikely that my doctoral study will be the last work I do in the field of education. The deeper I go with my research, the more questions I have that I would like to try to answer at some point. Qualitative methods may serve me well in the future.

I have four new tomes for this final semester:

I'm looking forward to this final semester of coursework for a variety of reasons. While I doubt that this will be the last class I ever take, I am looking forward to having my Sundays back for pursuits other than scholarly reading and writing papers. Reaching this point makes finishing the whole degree program feel like a reality---by the end of April, there will be one less hoop to manage. I "just" have to refine the pieces of my dissertation and defend my work. I can smell the letters "EdD" after my name. It's a good smell.

But first, there is one more semester of assignments, discussion posts, and Sundays to calendar. One more semester of papers and research to juggle along with the household business and day-to-day efforts at work. I've made it through six. I can do one more.

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A Mastery Girl in a Performance World

18 November 2007

The major theory behind my dissertation work is Achievement Goal Theory. Without boring you to tears, the basic idea here is that students will pursue one of two goals within the classroom: mastery which values learning for the sake of learning or performance which values learning for the sake of external indicators. These students associate success with how their performance appears to outsiders, doing better than other kids, and achieving success with as little effort as possible. Performance goals lead to a greater amount of cheating, less cooperative learning, and students who pick the easiest tasks available (or are the first to give up when faced with difficult tasks). On the other hand, mastery goals have been linked with the development of new skills, an increased confidence in abilities, the preference for challenging work (and greater persistence in the face of difficulty), and a stronger sense of school belonging. Teachers have an enormous influence on the goal structure of a classroom. Even if kids walk in the door with a performance orientation, teachers can cause them to become focused on mastery goals.

I've recently been thinking about this in a bit broader terms. Do schools as entities also put forward a particular goal structure---and what might be the impact to kids? The educational research is replete with studies showing that the greater the performance focus, the greater the student dissatisfaction with school.

Here's a hallway bulletin board from my school:



What does this communicate to you?

Personally, I feel very uncomfortable with the message. "Simple" or "easy" tasks are to be valued. "Good grades" should apparently inspire gratitude---but why? Does this idea reinforce that grades are given via some mystical process, not earned by learning? Are teachers who do these things to be considered "nice"?

I guess I'm just a mastery girl working in a performance school world. It makes me sad to think that messages like the one above are all over the building---and yet the faculty is clueless as to why student dissatisfaction with their experiences at the school increases over time (as indicated by survey data from all three grade levels).

Although my research will be looking at grading practices through the lens of mastery and performance goals, it is certainly not the only area where we as teachers communicate our values and goals to students. What does your classroom and school say about what you value?

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It's Tedious, Thanks

04 November 2007

My dissertation goes in fits and starts. I'm not sure if it has prostate issues...or if it's a symptom of juggling all of the various things I need to do. I look at the calendar and know I'll be over the hump by Christmas---three out of five chapters done (and the ones which take the most time and paper, at that). It's all of the pre-planning for the project...building my case for why my question is worthy of investigation.

It's an incredibly tedious process. I went to the dermatologist earlier this week and when asked for my hobbies, all I said was "Writing my dissertation." Seriously, I'm not sure what I will do with my "free time" when this beast is done. It's not the "Who cares?" part of constructing the paper which takes so much time and headspace, it's the "Who says?" issue of tracking down all of the various pieces of published research that have come before mine. After all, I'm just a lowly grad student. Nobody really cares what I have to say on the topic...at least not until my degree is finished.

The funny part is seeing the intersection of the theory with what occurs in my classroom. A lot of my research is about student motivation. The prevailing idea is that kids will adopt one of two orientations: mastery (learning for the sake of learning) or performance (learning for a reward). Within those, kids may either adopt positive behaviors (approach) or negative ones (avoidance). As I talked with students last week about their progress at the quarter, I could almost peg each kid's motivational orientation just by talking to them. Procrastinator? Classic avoidance. Trying to get into Running Start next year? Hey, you're into performance goals. And so on. The classroom environment I've worked to create is one of mastery. How kids are adopting that as time goes on is interesting to watch. Certainly my own students won't be involved in my research---but it is an interesting anecdotal phenomenon for me.

For now, it is back to my paper. The supporting research for chapter two is all organized and ready to write about. I'm about one-quarter of the way done with the writing, but certainly starting the downhill slide. All of the hard work hitting the books is done. I just have to make some sense out of it for other people. In a year, the finishing touches will go on after my committee has ripped it to shreds and asked for a rebuild. And in two years? Who knows. At the moment, I'm more about the little details than the big picture.

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What Are You Going to Do With Your Life?

14 October 2007

When people hear that I'm working on...and nearing completion of...my EdD, there is the inevitable question of "What are you planning to do when you finish?" I manage to refrain from the quick and easy answer of "Grab a bottle of champagne and a very big straw." I assume that they are being politely curious about the larger picture. They really want to know what I'm going to be when I grow up. I'm not ready to answer that question quite yet.

There are lots of opportunities out there: regional labs, university positions, consultant work, and so forth. And there's no reason why I would have to do anything different from what I'm doing now.

I am a firm believer in listening for the hard-knuckled rap of Opportunity at the door. The goal is to earn the EdD---not land a job at a particular place for a particular reason. The big picture includes doing what I can to help teachers and kids---not a certain role which fosters that. If and when I'm ready to look around (and listen for a knock), then I can evaluate things at that time. What am I going to do with my life? Make the most of it.

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Similes

06 October 2007

The main goal of my current grad class is to get the first two sections of the dissertation written. Mind you, this goal is thread through some other hoops for the class, but I can't complain much. I work better with a deadline---December 24 is it.

I did a lot of work during July, so that was a great help. Instead of spending all my time this fall doing a lit review, I just need to put the pieces together. "Just."

I seem to be going back and forth between digital and printed information. I wrote all of my notes first, then typed them. I marked them with some key terms---and then from the 30+ pages of quotes, I was able to pull ones that I thought might fit the first chapter (problem statement, theoretical basis, etc.). I printed these and then numbered them according to which area of the chapter they seemed to fit. This also helped me cull the information a bit---no sense in using all the best stuff before Chapter 2 (lit review). :) Then, I copied and pasted the usable quotes underneath the various subheadings for Chapter One. I printed things again, this time to renumber quotes in terms of the order they should be used. Once I did the cut and paste thing to move them around, I had an instant outline.

Writing a dissertation is like painting a room. There's a metric buttload of prep work to do. And, yes, you can quote me on that.

One thing I have learned about myself as a writer these past two years is to not force myself to be linear. In other words, I don't have to write the introduction first and follow the outline from there. If the middle of the paper is making more sense, I start there and then work in either direction. I'm a rather concrete-sequential person, so this way to approach a paper is out of character for me. This has helped prevent many cases of writer's block as I crank out 50+ pages each semester, so I'm willing not to fight this particular battle in my mind.

On Tuesday, I'm headed over to visit with the district research person to talk through how best to gather the data I need. Surveying kids means getting hundreds of parent permission forms out and back. What a nightmare; however, the one thing that comes up over and over in the literature is that it is student perception of the school environment that matters most in terms of impact on achievement. (Sorry, teachers and parents.) Meanwhile, there is absolutely nothing in the literature which describes the effects of standards-based grading on kids. Zip. So while I and others think this is the right thing to do in terms of classroom evaluation---does it really make a difference in terms of student motivation? It should. The kinds of environmental conditions for a classroom to be considered motivating (from the kids' perspective) is documented in the literature. We just don't have much of anything on how grading fits into that. This makes for quite an exciting project for a nerd like me.

For now, I'm off to grab onto a piece of dissertation like a dog with a chew toy.

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Teacher Leadership

23 September 2007

There are some admins in my district who I think are doing an excellent job. What I like about these professionals is that they have a need to know what is happening inside of classrooms and how best to support the good stuff. They haven't forgotten that sense of wonder and intellectual curiosity that can be nurtured within a classroom---forsaking it for the comforts to be found behind their office doors. These teachers saw a role as administrators as a position to be in to help more children than those in their classrooms.

I know that admins make for easy targets. The fact is, the role has far outgrown what one person should be expected to take on. It is not simply "administrative" any longer: it includes a hefty dose of instructional leadership. Many of the admins who have been in the position since before the shift occurred are either not prepared to play this role in the school...or have no interest in it. Meanwhile, as more teachers see the increasing demands of the admin's job, fewer may see it as an appealing career choice---even if they do wish to increase their influence in supporting students.

Although the concept of teacher leadership is not new, perhaps it is one whose time has come. If it is unrealistic to expect a single administrator to fulfill all of the needs for a school, then why not use the collective staff resources? This month's edition of Educational Leadership is devoted to teacher leaders. It's a great collection of articles about the struggles and rewards of tapping human resources within the school in order to effect change.

Teacher leadership is, of course, also the area of my EdD. It's something I've officially been thinking about and working with for nearly two years. The most common question I am asked is "What are you going to do with your degree?" I don't have a pat answer in mind. The fact is, there appear to be new opportunities all of the time...and I'm trying to be open to them. Should I work at a college or university to better prepare teachers for the rigors of the classroom? Should I work within the context of one of the educational research labs to fine tune what we know (or think we know) about best practices? Work as an instructional/curriculum specialist for a district or school? Do I hit the road as a consultant? Or teach in a public school classroom and work with teachers in my school? What other opportunities might be available to me in a year or five years? For me, the bottom line is the same as it is for many admins, I'll be looking for where I will be able to do the most good for kids.

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Bibliophilia

31 August 2007

When I was two, I taught myself how to read. I've been a book lover ever since that time. I've carried this passion with me into the classroom---not just in terms of books to share with students, but books that engage and challenge my professional thinking. As each semester of my EdD arrives, it brings a box of new reading. Not all of it has been great, but the latest batch has some potential.

  • Teaching in the Knowledge Society: Education in the Age of Insecurity by Andy Hargreaves (2003). For those of us who are looking ahead (with trepidation) to "Classroom 2.0," I think this book might provide some interesting ideas. How will we teach kids to prosper in the information age?
  • The Culturally Proficient School: An Implementation Guide for School Leaders by Lindsey, Roberts, and Campbell-Jones (2004). I find this subject very relevant and intriguing. It is certainly a focus within our district and I am looking forward to learning more.
  • Strengthening the Heartbeat: Leading and Learning Together in Schools by Sergiovanni (2004). I'm not so sure about this one. It looks a little too woo-woo for me. I'll give it a chance.
  • Teaching as Inquiry: Asking Hard Questions to Improve Practice and Student Achievement by Weinbaum, Allen, Blythe, Simon, Seidel, and Rubin (2004). This one definitely piques my interest. Maybe it's because I like to get down and dirty with hard questions. I also think that we as teachers have lots of questions about student achievement, but not very many of them are significant. For example, I recently listened to a teacher rattle off all sorts of questions that could be asked about WASL data (e.g. How does the number of Level 4 kids in Science compare to math?) that were reasonable questions---but I kept thinking "So what?" when they were asked. How will knowing the answer change what happens in the classroom for your kids?
I also have two new books I'm eyeballing. Since tomorrow is payday, perhaps I'll splurge.
  • Differentiation: From Planning to Practice by Rick Wormeli (2007). I like this guy's writing style. I have a couple of his books and they have been very helpful. This one looks like it could be a very handy resource.
  • Inside Words: Tools for Teaching Academic Vocabulary, Grades 6 - 12 by Janet Allen (2007). This author's "Words, Words, Words" book really helped me in the classroom, even though it was targeted for elementary students. Vocabulary acquisition is a challenge for students at all grade and ability levels. Science always has a large amount of vocab for kids to manage. Maybe this book will give me a few more tricks to add to my bag.
If you have a great new find to suggest, leave it in the comments. I'm always looking for something to help me continue to improve.

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Tuesday Randomness

07 August 2007

I'm waiting for the paint to dry on my front door---it's a nice rich red. Perhaps people will mistake me for kin to Elizabeth Arden. Or maybe they'll just think I'm superstitious and painted my door for that colour for good luck. The fact is, the red makes a great contrast with the green the house was painted and makes the entry stand out. (I'll leave the symbolism to others.)

In the meantime, I was thinking that I might share a few thoughts on using FTP to publish a blog. I switched over a couple of months ago. Having a site outside of blogger was something I had thought about for some time, mainly because I wanted the capability to share files, not just links. I have not done much of that yet, but once the school year kicks off, I hope to make the tools I use in my work available here for others. The biggest lesson I've learned is that FTP publishing is not for the faint of heart. I can't tell you the number of times I've felt a bit panicky because blogger and my FTP server weren't playing well together---I couldn't get a post to publish. There are all manner of terrible thoughts that run through one's head at those times, most importantly "What if I can't ever publish to my blog again?!" Even now, every time I hit the "publish post" button I feel like it's a crapshoot. Blogger tech support is notoriously poor. If you can't figure things out on your own, well, it sucks to be you.

My particular style of blogging is just to do my posts as "quick writes." I have my idea, I try to capture it in a post, and I publish. There is not much in the way of the revision process involved; however, I do occasionally find typos, grammar errors, or poor wording that I want to go in and tweak afterwards. FTP isn't as friendly for this because of the reasons above.

I have also learned that up until the "new" blogger platform was in place, once you started publishing via FTP, you could never go back to just having your blog show up at a blogspot address. You can now, but it's still fussy. "whatitslikeontheinside.blogspot.com" was automatically redirected by Google to my new URL home...but "www.whatitslikeontheinside.blogspot.com" was not. According to Blogger, the "www" shouldn't matter, but the fact is that it does. If I ever decide not to publish via FTP, the second blogspot URL will still be hosting my posts. In the meantime, I have installed some javascript code (another learning curve) to take care of all redirects. This has the unfortunate side effect of endlessly redirecting (and reloading the page) if I don't temporarily remove the code every time I publish a comment or post. It's a bit of a pain.

I don't regret my choice to change my publishing format, in spite of the problems I've encountered over the summer. There's a certain freedom and security in having planted my own flag on an unclaimed spot in cyberspace. It feels like the next logical step in my blogging. Not only can I continue to reflect and write about the things I see in my professional life, but I can also have a way to share more of the documentation and expand the conversation. I also like being able to have my own "favicon," which is the little red book you see (depending upon your browser version) beside my URL.

Yesterday, I mentioned some nostalgia about high school and my upcoming reunion. I picked up another piece of nostalgia today: the Flash Gordon Saviour of the Universe DVD. I remember going to see this movie on a Friday night with my parents...the teen girls in the audience howling and whistling every time Sam Jones made an appearance on the screen.

My current grad class is winding down. I finish it a week from Sunday and pick up with the next one Labour Day weekend. I revised my paper for the class today. I feel like it's the best paper I've ever done for my degree program, although it remains to be seen what the prof thinks about it. I need to get back to writing up my dissertation proposal and things organized for my study this year. I picked up the information from the district about conducting research, so at least I know and understand the hoops that lay ahead. I hope to jump them early.

It's back to the paint can for now. Who knows? After another coat, perhaps I'll come back and add on to this bit of randomness. If FTP publishing allows me, that is.

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It's a Mystery to Me

29 July 2007

I don't watch a lot of network television. I have a few shows that I peek in on...most of them mystery related. I think it's because it takes me back to my childhood. I was always such a fan of Scooby Doo and those meddling kids. Of course, when I watch that cartoon now, I wonder why I was always surprised at the denouement. Come on---there was usually only two or three possible suspects offered in each episode. When one was shown not to have committed the crime, then...duh. To a four-year old, however, it was pretty magical. I have to admit that I was a big fan of playing Clue until I figured out how to beat the system and win every time. Sigh.

These days, I'm satisfying my craving for puzzles by watching Monk, Psych, and the Miss Marple episodes of Mystery!. The first two are a bit of eye candy. I'm just now realizing how Scooby-Doo'ish they are. I suppose one can't expect much more in the way of character development with a one-hour format vs. a half-hour format, but it still took me a couple of seasons to see it. There's only room for a couple of suspects per week---just like Scooby-Doo. So, the "whodunit" is usually more obvious than the "whydunit." As for Marple, I have to make a girly statement here and just say that the new hairdo that Geraldine McEwan is sporting just doesn't suit the character. Marple has always been a bit of a busybody character, but never shrewish until this season. I don't know what's happened to the writing. Anyway, the thing about the Marple series is that they really are chock full of possibilities: suspects and motives. This part I like.

Perhaps this is also the part I like about teaching...but also the challenge with research about the classroom. There are so many pieces that have to work in concert in order to effect a particular outcome. I can't catch that suspect known as Student Achievement until I know something about the players, the rules of the game, and the right tools for the investigation. Great teachers find ways to solve this puzzle. My problem with educational research---including my own---is that we often examine only one or a few suspects...and hope to end up with the right identification. In other words, I might be able to look at student motivation in light of grading practices, but there are so many other elements that are part of the classroom dynamic.

I suppose that just like I don't figure out all the pieces of every mystery shown on tv, I may not find the answer to all of the mysteries within the classroom. If I'm lucky, however, I'll learn one solid piece of the puzzle.

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Ready to Write and Roll...I Think

26 July 2007

I have no doubt that I will continue to expand my literature search as my dissertation develops over the next year. For now, however, I'm ready to start writing my Doctoral Study Proposal. This will eventually form the first three chapters of my dissertation (introduction, literature review, methodology). I have until the middle of April to accomplish this, but I am going to see if I can't finish this by December 1. My concern about "waiting" to finish is that I can't do any data collection until the Proposal is approved. If that doesn't happen until sometime in May or early June, my project is going to be screwed: I can't survey students during the summer about their motivation for school and the classroom environment that they're in. Considering I'm supposed to finish drafting the whole shebang by September 2008, I'm in trouble. It's true, I could lay out a semester between now and then and then finish my degree a semester later than originally anticipated, but I'd just rather not. I'd like to keep moving forward.

The line of thought I'm following goes something like this...
  • Powerful Learning Environments are those which are student-centered and facilitate the acquisition of knowledge and skills in all students. They represent a response to recent changes in society which expect that every student will achieve a high level of literacy, thinking skills, and the ability to regulate and communicate learning. These characteristics of these environments are also related to new learning about how the brain learns. Student motivation and learning are connected to and affected by these environments.
  • Motivation toward achievement can take one of two basic pathways: performance or mastery. A person or environment geared toward performance is one of normative comparisons. Performance goals are not associated with deep learning or metacognition. Mastery goals are criterion-referenced and are associated with patterns of learning that are adaptive. Although most people have a dominant type of personal achievement goal, these can be influenced by the situation/context a person is experiencing---such as how a teacher structures his/her classroom practices.
  • One practice teachers impose on the classroom environment is grading. These practices can foster either a mastery or performance goal approach, but little is known about the impact this has on students, especially adolescents. Adolescence is a time when many people begin to differentiate between "ability" and "effort" and this can alter their personal approach to school. Most elementary school aged children have a mastery goal orientation, but the performance environment which has a greater presence starting in middle school may be part of the reason that students begin to disconnect from school at this time. It's possible that those teachers which continue to foster a mastery-oriented environment through their grading practices help students stay connected with learning and have higher-achieving students.
Voila! We'll see what I find out. I have some really great research to form the basis of my study and have gathered some useful tools for investigating student perceptions of their classroom environment and motivational levels/orientation.

Right now, everything still feels a bit unwieldy. It makes sense in my head, but pulling everything into one neat little package is not so simple. I hope to make a good run at it in the next few weeks and then just take the fall to revise and add details. It would be nice to get this project off the ground.

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Is That Your Final Answer?

13 July 2007

There are about four more weeks left in my stats class. I have to say that for all the hype, this class really wasn't that frightening. I was originally a bit worried about surviving the course in good stead, but all has gone wonderfully well. The main thing that has stood in my way was the one item I had anticipated: learning to use the statistical software.

The weekly assignments weren't particularly difficult---we were provided with enough "point and click" guidance to make things work. The only problem with that, of course, is that it doesn't foster a lot of learning. We have only one paper for this class and it is definitely a "rubber meets the road" sort of deal. We choose a particular research problem, create a survey, generate some fake data...and then analyze it. It's the analysis portion that has been eating my lunch the last few days. Because I created my own data set, I already knew how the analysis should skew, but I had to prove it. After several permutations of analysis (and a lot of swear words), I finally have the kind of output I need. I've managed to slay the dragon.

All of this has raised a more generic question for me about how people learn about the "reasonableness" of answers. When I taught chemistry, I was quite often amazed at some of the answers students calculated. How could they not have noticed that there was some sort of problem? Didn't it look off by a few orders of magnitude? With the statistical software I've been using, I have seen how easy it can be to just accept whatever output is spit out---it generates whatever you tell it to...so that must be correct, right? My guess is that most of my current classmates may be of that mindset---there is already talk of hiring "personal statisticians" (at $80/hr) to complete that part of their doctoral studies.

At first, my hunch was that people learn to evaluate the reasonableness of an answer through conceptual understanding...a deeper level of knowing the math. Now, I'm not so sure. I can't claim to have a very deep knowledge of the statistical concepts I'm wading through; but, something is still giving me a clue that all is or is not right with the world when I look at my data. Maybe learning to decide if you're at your final answer is just a reflective process---something that allows you to evaluate things in light of the original question and probe things that way. Has anyone seen any information on how we get students...how we learn...to look for and listen to that sort of cognitive dissonance? It would be great to find out how to foster and develop that.

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Like a Wheel Within a Wheel

08 July 2007

I'm still working my way through a massive stack of research. It's my plan for the summer---getting my dissertation charted out. I know, it doesn't sound like as much fun as sitting on the beach somewhere drinking Mai Tais, but I can see the water from my windows while I sip iced tea. It's almost as good.

My doctoral study is starting to take more shape. In doing so, I'm seeing more and more how some of the larger theories can be honed down to one aspect for me to investigate. At this point, it looks like most of my work will be based on current motivational theory or "Achievement Goal Theory." The idea here is that students have one of two goal orientations: one toward mastery or one toward performance. Mastery goals are associated with more intrinsic forms of motivation. A kid with a mastery goal will value the learning happening in the classroom. A student with a performance goal will be more interested in comparing his/her grades or standing with others in the class. You might think of these as more normative goals vs. those which would be criterion-referenced (mastery). There are more positive outcomes associated with mastery goals, including developing a lifelong love of learning. (Please note that I'm greatly oversimplifying things here...it's likely going to take me 15 pages of writing to do the same thing for my dissertation.)

All of this Goal Theory is a small chunk of another---and grander idea, in my opinion---of "Powerful Learning Environments." This theory has emerged around constructivism, but is much more biologically based. (One could even go deeper here into "Cognitive Load Theory.") Here, we're looking at the qualities of classrooms which allow for the greatest amount of learning...everything from how many "chunks" of information are presented along with opportunities for rehearsal to how assignments and small groups are structured. Motivational goals for students are certainly part of this.

These things are leading to my main interest for investigation: the impact of standards-based grading practices on students. I have found several articles by this point which mention the need to specifically look at grading practices in order to inform each of the theories described above. Meanwhile, we in the schools tend to talk about changing communication tools in order to help parents and other teachers (a goal I definitely endorse), but we're not looking at the impact to our kids. I really think that grading is a place where motivation, achievement, classroom structure, and constructivism meet. So, this is where my doctoral study will sit. A circle in a spiral, indeed.

What all of this will look like in terms of my study is still a bit fuzzy in my mind at the moment. Initially, I had thought about looking at the grades 6 to 7 transition as students emerge from "mastery" oriented classrooms and move to "performance" ones. But now, I'm thinking that I might just focus on sixth grade students. This district is ripe for a stratified sample, as we will have elementary schools at years 0, 1, 2, and 3 in implementing standards-based grading/reporting. It's a perfect opportunity to look at motivation in adolescents in a somewhat "longitudinal" fashion.

So, it's back to the stack of folders for me. Time to dive back into the piles of research and build my case for doing a dissertation. Maybe the windmills of my mind will create perfect summer breeze to make me feel fine. :)

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Clash of Old and New

07 July 2007

Part of my undergraduate degree was a full-year survey course of Philosophy...one designed just for people in my degree program. I ended up enjoying it far more than I thought I would. The reading was intense and the ideas were fun to ponder. The graduate students who led our small discussion groups were a kick. They didn't talk about their work very often, but there were always interesting stories to share. I remember one about reading Hegel, who has some pretty difficult ideas to try to digest, but I hadn't thought that would be literal. Apparently, one poor student was so intent that she actually threw up all over the book. My favourite story, however, was the one about a grad student who was consumed with his analysis of Plato's The Republic. His dog, who eventually tired of being ignored, got up on the table where the book and notes were...and took a big dump right in the middle of them.

At the time, I did not picture myself as a doctoral candidate. I had a hard enough time picturing myself as an undergrad...but nearly 20 years on, here I am, gearing up for the biggest project and paper I have ever attempted. I totally understand the feeling of nausea that is generated by reading one. more. paper.

Some things have changed in the intervening decades (oh, it makes me cry to realize how much time has passed...). Instead of a brick and mortar institution, I'm working with an on-line one. I don't sit down with all the green "Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature" books at the library. (Remember those? Good times....) Instead, I use the EBSCO database to instantly search through hundreds of peer-reviewed journals and can download articles. If there is something I need that can't be had there, I fill out an electronic request for the university library to find it and send it to me.

Even with all of the new possibilities for learning in today's world, one thing I haven't been able to figure out is how to manage all of this information in a digital format. I'm not talking about making folders on my computer's hard drive for storage---I'm talking about the actual work that goes into reading the information, taking notes, and being able to note the connections and "A-ha!"'s generated. I have to print the articles. I have to think about pulling out ye olde index card file. For me, there still has to be the tactile piece to the research. I need to be able to physically move things around...to highlight at will and pencil notes in margins. It seems to be at odds with all this new-fangled way of learning on-line, but I just can't seem to find a way around it. My best friends right now are the Smead No. 10344 folders. They have printed lines on the interior which are perfect for notetaking. Each of the articles I have (and I'm up to about 75 at the moment) has its own folder. The APA citation is on the label. I note the keywords on the outside of the jacket along with any connections to other things I've read. On the inside, I capture the main points highlighted in the paper so that I have a quick glance reference. Beyond this, each folder is organized in a hanging file with like ideas...and then those are ordered by how I want to (eventually) write about them.

I'm sure that I'll have a lot more to learn as my older and newer ways of learning attempt to mesh into something roughly approximating a dissertation. Maybe everything can peacefully co-exist...maybe we can all just get along.

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The Median

29 April 2007

My "Quantitative Research Methods" (a/k/a "stats") class is underway, marking my halfway point in getting my EdD. At this time next year, I will be considered "ABD"---All But Dissertation. The whole process is really moving along quickly.

I have had some trepidation about taking this class, not because I'm mathphobic, but rather that I've never used much in the way of technology for math. Now, I have a fancy-schmancy statistical software package to use, an on-line resource to "see" statistics, and on-line tutorials and quizzes. I used just a plain old scientific calculator when I first took a stats class---and have never learned to use the graphing calculators all the high school kiddos seem to have these days. I am definitely at the far left end of the normal curve on this one.

All that being said, I'm ready for the change in my program. After cranking out 50+ pages of writing each semester, it will be a nice change of pace to have some weekly math problems to do. Meanwhile, I have to have my prospectus ready by August. This class will be a good way to test out my problem statement and figure out how I want to do my sampling as I start my research project next year.

Right now, though, it is almost the median point of the Spring season. My blueberry bushes and strawberry plants are in full bloom...and grass has started to take over my lavender bed. All stats and no play makes for a very dull Goddess---so I'm headed outside to enjoy the day.

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Blogging Redux

25 March 2007

The new version of Blogger allows authors to label their posts. I know many bloggers have been doing this for some time via Technorati or other sources, but I didn't decide to buy in until now. I've been going back through my archives, tagging all 700+ posts. This is more for me than others, I think. I like looking at different themes I've followed or reflecting on my arc in terms of thinking about grading or other things. My district role has undergone such an evolution in the last two years. It was good for me to go back and read what I've written and revisit some favorite posts: an odd sort of reunion. I've already had a few visitors who have searched my blog using the labels. It makes me glad that I took the time to add to the information in the archives.

I've also been making minor changes to my blogroll. There have been a couple new blogs that I've wanted to add...and a couple that I was ready to retire. I usually just remove blogs that are "dead," but I am finding that at my current place in life, I'm not interested in blogs that are just used to rant. It's not that I don't understand the need to have an outlet for the frustrations of one's world, but there's only so much negativity I can let into mine. I'm much more interested in those blogs that not only air dirty laundry, but reflect on what they can do to solve the issues on their minds. Meanwhile, the edusphere just isn't a static entity. New blogs come on-line each day and I enjoy finding them. It's even better to share them on my blogroll.

The rest of my day appears to be devoted to time on the computer, but for different reasons. I have a short paper to revise and turn in for my grad class by 11 p.m. tonight. I also have a 20 page paper due for the same class in two weeks, but I don't really want to spend all of my Spring Break working on it. So, I'll keep my nose to the grindstone today and try to finish the draft. I have been inching along on it for a few weeks...trying to stay ahead of the game. I won't be sorry to have this particular class behind me. It hasn't been as interesting or useful as previous courses. I will be moving on to a stats class for the summer along with turning in a prospectus for my dissertation. It's hard for me to believe that I just have three more classes and the dissertation to go. I'll have my EdD very soon!

If you're looking for some distractions of your own today, here are a couple of tools to try:
  • The Classroom Architect is a freeware program where you put in the dimensions of your classroom and the types of items (desks, tables, chairs...) you have---and it will generate different floor plans for you. Where the heck was this when I needed it?
  • Head over to Image Chef and create some fun graphics to use in your classroom, on your blog, or perhaps those delightful PowerPoint presentations described in yesterday's post. :)

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The Shape of Things to Come

27 January 2007

As I continue to move through my grad degree program, I keep trying to nail down what it is that I'd like to have as a focus. There are endless ideas, it seems, but plucking one from the wealth of topics isn't simple.

I have written several posts here this year about standards based grading, and for now, this seems to be an area that I can mine for my doctoral study. In particular, I am interested in what's going to happen to the tykes in my district as they transition from that system at elementary into the "traditional" system at junior high. Will kiddos/families in a standards based system---one without the "reward/punishment" aspect---have better attitudes about school?

Things are still a bit fuzzy at this point and I'm continuing to work through what the research design might include. This program doesn't really allow for longitudinal studies, so I'll have to look at some way to stratify my samples, but there's plenty of time for me to get the details in place. For now, I'm just glad to have something come to the forefront of the pack.

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Prospecting

26 December 2006

My most recent grad class ended on Sunday with a draft prospectus being the final piece due for assessment and evaluation. I have been reluctant to commit to a particular focus because there are too many variables in my professional life at the moment. It's hard to use the elementary math and science cadre as a vehicle for study when I don't know if I'll have a job next year (at least in Curriculum), let alone whether or not there will be funding and/or interest in having the cadre continue to meet. I told my prof that anything I put in the prospectus for my dissertation could very well be bunk---not because it was my intention to mislead anyone, but rather that it will be a few more months before I'll know about my situation for next year.

In the meantime, I'm pleased with what I was able to put together and hope to adapt some of it into the real area of research later this spring. I would like to look at the application of transformational leadership to job-embedded staff development. I hope to use the Concerns-Based Adoption Model as a way to gauge the impact of all of this on student achievement. Yes, I know it sounds sort of nebulous at the moment and not terribly practical, but I think it has some potential to get there. Right now, I just need the vehicle---which could be the math/science cadre. What I really want to know is how to support teachers in a friendly way that makes the best use of resources and has the greatest impact on student achievement. In time, I can give this a bit more definition and focus.

My next class starts in a week. I'm amazed that I have already finished one year of my EdD work and am gearing up for the second go-round. At this time next year, I'll just have one more class and then write my dissertation. Right now, I am enjoying my time off from school in all of its forms. There's plenty of time to go prospecting for a dissertation in the new year.

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The Research Ahead

03 September 2006

Tuesday is not only the first day of the school year in this district, it is also the start date for the next course in my EdD sequence: Research Approaches for the Teacher Leader. This is actually the first of three courses involving research design (courses that focus specifically on qualitative and quantitative aspects are up next). I am really looking forward to these as they're areas where I already have a basis of knowledge. It also means that I can hone in on a question and begin to think about my own research.

What will be my focus? Originally, I wanted to use the (re)building of our elementary science program, but now I'm not so sure. I'm thinking of poking around the intersection of gender research and brain-based approaches to learning. I might also want to see if I can apply a systems approach to district initiatives---can you make communications "viral" within a district? I hope to be purposeful about combining my district duties with my doctoral studies. It seems like there should be several points where there can be natural overlap, and it would certainly simplify my life if I could make that happen.

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Two Down...Five to Go

06 August 2006

I finished up the work for my second class toward my EdD today. :)

I liked this course a lot more than the first one. The reading was more thought provoking and the prompts for discussion interesting. The expectations for the writing assignments were much clearer and therefore easier to tackle.

I now have a short break before the third course begins. My WASL duties end on Wednesday and I will be leaving town for awhile that afternoon. (Hey, Hedgetoad...I'm headed your direction.) I am looking forward to having a week or so to just enjoy the summer and recharge a bit before my regular duties resume on the 18th. The next big thing is just around the corner.

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Walking the Talk

25 July 2006

The final segment of my current grad course is focused around developing a more personal sense of leadership: figure out where you are so that you know where to head next. One of the tasks involved a Philosophy of Education Inventory (You can take it, too! Just like a quiz in Cosmo!). Developed by Lorraine Zinn, it's a way of examining where you stand in relation to five major viewpoints of the purpose of education. They are
  • Behavioral Philosophy - “to teach children to comply with certain standards or expectations set by societal leaders or professional experts.
  • Comprehensive Philosophy - “liberal arts…to provide a broad-based, general education rather than a specialized or vocational education.
  • Progressive Philosophy - “educating people to live responsibly and resolve problems cooperatively within a democratic society.
  • Humanistic Philosophy - “education for self-actualization, or self-initiated development of a person’s skills and potential to lead to a fulfilling life of challenge and growth.”
  • Social Change Philosophy - “education as a primary force for achieving social change, or transforming society.
Really, without completing the inventory, you can probably see one or two areas that appeal to you. When I originally did the inventory last year, it was within a larger context: how do you work with other teachers who have a different philosophy than you? I think this is a much better way to view the inventory. My beliefs are one thing---but I don't work in a vacuum.

The other thing about the inventory that is interesting is to look at these philosophies in terms of generations. When you think about your school and the "humanistic" teachers...how old are they? What about the younger set---are all they "behaviorists"? One's philosophy develops and changes depending on what the educational schools value at a particular time and also the stage of life you find yourself in. I bet we all start off a "Social Change" types and then reality smacks us in the face.

Me? I'm equal between "Behavioral" and "Comprehensive," with a good dose of "Progressive" thrown in. I didn't score high enough on any of them to consider it my dominant vision. I think that reflects my change in job and the different hats I have to wear. How I view my role in the classroom (Comprehensive/Progressive) is very different from the role I serve with the district (Behavioral). The important thing here is not necessarily to label people, but rather to use this as a starting point in working with others.

I'm going to have to dig through my files at work. The workshop I attended last year had some great things to share about bringing together these various philosophies when trying to work toward a goal. It will make more sense now that I've done more reading---and perhaps others in my class would appreciate seeing how our current "module" can be applied. It's one thing to talk about these philosophies, but quite another when it comes time to walk with them.

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The Next Step

25 April 2006

My EdD program sends out the course materials for each class. So, even though I just finished up the first course on Sunday, the next set of stuff was waiting for me yesterday. I have nine interesting looking books:

I'm looking forward to delving into this stack and thinking about how to apply it to elementary science in my district. I'm glad that I'll have time this summer to read and think about things and am hopeful that this next course will provide a lot of good background knowledge.

Time to get crackin' the books...

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18 April 2006

I have a lot of "this and that" saved up...

Coach Brown wrote a thoughtful post on how we're killing kids with low expectations. I really like the post, but his comment system isn't being friendly to me. So, I decided to just point you in his direction for a great read. I've had all of the same frustrations he vents about---and no answers, either. Someone who does could make lots of money.

I woke up in the wee hours on Sunday morning with a frightening thought about our elementary science program. Our plan has a giant hole...just when we thought we were being smart about things. You see, we budgeted for two kits per grade level for next year and will buy the third in 2007. What we didn't think about is that two kits isn't enough to serve all of the schools at the same time...so we're going to have to be ready to go full throttle in September. How we will accomplish this is a mystery at this point.

I got to hear today about how one teacher in my building is leaving next year because the new math curriculum will be "too much work." This is because it isn't delivered in the traditional math sense: teacher lectures, kids do lots of practice problems. The teacher would actually have to engage students with various activities with the new program. Heavens! A person at central office told me today about a run-in with another staff member from the school where I teach. This teacher reeked of alcohol and admitted being on the way back to work. I don't know that anything will come of that information, but it does make you wonder.

Curriculum is its own conundrum. With each passing day, I realize how blissfully ignorant I am about things. So many others there are unhappy with the direction things are taking...and in the next breath are glad to have had the increasing support in recent years. I think I'm just going to keep my head down and work on what I think would be best. I have my evaluation meeting with the Boss Lady on Friday. We'll see if she has the same opinion.

I've completed the requirements for my first class toward earning my EdD. I'm looking forward to having next week "off," especially considering the volume of meetings that are on the calendar. For now, I'm just enjoying the sense of accomplishment that comes with completing the course.

It's Spring. Get out and enjoy it while you can!

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That's One Way of Looking at It

06 March 2006

I'm doing a bit of research for an upcoming assignment in my grad class. I'm specifically looking for information on doing curriculum alignment as it applies to elementary science, but in the meantime, I ran across this general book on Deep Curriculum Alignment by Fenwick English and Betty Steffy. Reading the blurb about it made me think that it could have some applications to my situation and I was able to round up a copy from someone in the office this morning.

Here is the opening sentence: Across the landscape of America, high-stakes testing continues to leave in its cyclonic path defeated hopes and broken lives.

This was obviously not going to be the regular dry how-to book. This was going to be a book with voice.

Indeed, farther down on the page was...This temptation to engage in drill and kill exercises is nearly overwhelming and drowns out even common sense. (so far, so good) When that impulse becomes dominant, we have the lobotomization of instruction. (the authors liked the lobotomy idea...they used it again later in the book)

Things calmed down until the end of the following page. And then...Although we recognize that school systems have been and continue to exercise forms of domination that are culturally oppressive, alignment demonstrates that all children can learn and be successful. Alignment plants doubts in the minds of those who have believed the racist and sexist explanations for poor test scores. It does it right inside the system itself so that it can't be explained away as some utopian scheme advanced by fuzzy-headed liberals working in the ivory towers of academe.

Oh, my.

I will say that the book certainly had my rapt attention. I entertained the other specialists in the office with these and other items from the book. After this beginning, the authors did settle down into a more traditional "voice" for their writing. I did find some useful information for my research...that is, after I got over the imagery of cyclones, lobotomies, and fuzzy-headed liberals.

I can hardly wait to see what other resources have to offer.

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