I recently had the opportunity to listen to Dr. John Brown, keynote at the SAILs conference in Saskatoon, speak at length on the research Robert Marzano has done about the role instruction plays in improving academic achievement. One of the most essential findings, which really is not a suprise, is that teachers have a huge impact on promoting the academic success of all learners.

As part of the presentation, video footage about International testing was shared with us. While the report was almost 10 years old, I found it to be particularly interesting in light of conversations I’ve been having with a colleague (aka my sister) recently. While often international testing compares general knowledge of students, the testing being discussed in the footage was unique in that it was the same curriculum being taught from one country to another. So while that has often been a factor in comparison, it was no longer a consideration in this situation.

The results of this international assessment indicated the U.S. was lagging, considerably, behind it’s foreign counterparts in the areas of math and science. I was particularly intrigued by the commentary that even honors students in the U.S. were outperformed by foreign students in tech. and vocational programs. The purpose of the report was to examine the differences between foreign and U.S. classrooms with regard to teacher instructional approaches.

These were my personal observations:

U.S. Educators

Foreign Educators
·        Teacher directed – teachers provide students with a formula or procedure, and students follow the steps to complete the problem ·        Teachers start by giving students a PROBLEM – not the steps/procedure.
·        First sign of frustration – teacher steps in to help ·        Students help each other to solve problems
·        Too much curriculum ·        Less curriculum

While the last point references the differences in the amount of curriculum U.S. students are forced to grapple with compared to foreign students, and I think is a critical piece of how successful we are in improving the academic success of our students, it is the first two points that I find most intriguing -especially the issue of frustration.

Why are we so quick to step in and help our students? Why is it we think we will damage their self-esteem if they are left to struggle? Obviously there is a balance to be maintained, but if fostered in the right environment, isn’t a little frustration a healthy thing? 

I’ve recently witnessed how an educator (who also happens to be my sister) came to grips with this very issue. In working to meet school goals, she has begun using The Problem Solver in her classroom as a resource to support her students problem solving abilities. If you are not familiar with this resource, suffice it to say that the problems are very challenging. Knowing this, my sister chose to use the resource a grade level below to find 3 questions as a preassessment for her class. To prove to me how difficult these problems were, and reiterate that the kids would, “never be able to do them”, she suggested that I try them. The two of us sat down one evening and attempted to tackle the problems. A couple of hours later I still didn’t have the right answer to two of them, and wasn’t sure how I got the right answer to the third. I think what she was hoping I’d say is, “You’re right – these are way too hard – don’t give them to the kids.” But instead, I said, “Well, see what the kids can do with them.”

Despite being very skeptical and worried that she would frustrate her students, she did infact give them the problems. And to her surprise, they did better than she expected. What was most interesting, however, was her response in the staff room of her school when two other teachers were throwing their hands up in the air saying, “They can’t do these problems. They are just too hard.” My sister simply said, “Let them try. You’d be surprised.”, and another teacher in the room spoke of her own students tackling the problems saying, “They had to try. They couldn’t hand in an empty page.” Bravo.

Another key finding of Marzano’s is that we must set high expectations for ALL of our students. I think too often we dismiss the capabilities of our students, and we fear damaging their self-esteem if we have to offer criticism or critical advice. I know I’ve often suggested to colleagues that they should use their students’ work as exemplars for the rest of the class, and I’m disheartened by the number of times I’ve heard, “But what about those kids who will never have exemplary work?” Wait a second…if one already has the mindset that a child will never have exemplary work, Houston, we have a problem. If our students aren’t presenting us with exemplary work, isn’t it our responsiblity to find an avenue in which they can?? I think so. And I think a little struggling along the way is perfectly acceptable too.

As our guest speaker last week, Darren Kuropatwa made the comment that “mistakes are precious”. Again, not a new concept – the mantra that you can learn as much or more from your mistakes has been around a long time. And yet we seem to destroy the curiosity in our kids…so that all they want to do is find the right answer to please us, or get the answer right, and move on. They become very disengaged with their own learning…if indeed they ever were engaged in the first place. Yet another key finding that Marzano discusses – the importance of engagement. If you can’t hook them, you might as well be Charlie Brown’s teacher at the front of the room…wha, wha, wha, wha, wha…

I realize that I’ve blathered on quite excessively here, and am not sure that it truly makes any sense…ironic considering the title of my blog! I guess that maybe is the very beauty of this blogging…writing forces one to think…oh man, who wants to do that??