“I told my faculty members when they’re applying for summer grants for PD: only research-based practices will get priority funding for grants; the rest of the applications go to the bottom of the pile.”

“When speaking to one group of the faculty, be sure to provide research-based evidence for Project-Based learning; some of these teachers are very particular about that.”

“As a caveat I would not accept any data found from a nonacademic non-peer reviewed resource as reason for change or implementing new strategies.”

I’ve encountered each of these messages separately in the past few weeks, and I value them all as good reminders for me to try harder to ground my educational positions and advocacy with evidence from quality research, especially from academic peer-reviewed journal published research.

So what about Project-Based Learning?   PBL is a practice I advocate for frequently here at 21k12, and I do based largely on my own  2008 research, in which I spent five days shadowing students at PBL immersive schools, including High Tech High in San Diego and New Technology High School in Sacramento, and spent about 15 days doing the same at more traditional high schools, and concluded that the PBL schools were far superior in the way they engaged, challenged, and enriched the students and their learning.  It was a bit of an overwhelming recognition, the degree of difference and the degree of superiority I observed. I’ve written about this at length here.

But, in all fairness, this “research” hasn’t been published anywhere other than on the blog, and it hasn’t been peer-reviewed in  by academic researchers.

But there is very good peer-reviewed journal published research available on PBL; let’s review.

Over at Buck Institute for Education they highlight the meta-analysis studies published in the 2008 Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 3(1), 4-11.

In the journal’s introductory article which I’ve embedded below, by Jason Ravitz, Ph.D. until recently the Research Director for Buck Institute for Education, the research is summarized. (Note: I assisted Jason with editing this piece, for which I’m recognized in the acknowledgements).

The available evidence is promising. Compared to alternative teaching methods, PBL holds its own on standardized tests of concept knowledge and excels on other kinds of outcomes. Walker and Leary’s meta-analysis combined 201 outcomes reported across 82 different studies. They focused on the average effect size of differences in studies comparing students who received a PBL-based curriculum to those who did not. (more…)

In “conversation” yesterday at educon about the CWRA and the data it generates, Pam Moran and I spoke about how important it is we all develop our skills in interpreting data– and even more than that, and I have to say, this has previously been a bridge just beyond my full focus– using data to conduct our own research as teachers and administrators.

Pam emphasized this is a critical project: we need to support teachers, offering education, resources, and time, to undertake their own action research projects and generate their own findings.

I began, belatedly, this conversation as a Head of School last year, and it is a big project, to be sure, to help busy, often over-loaded, teachers to get to this place.

And so it is with great respect and admiration I share with readers here this very interesting report, generated by teachers and administrators, on their research and findings.    The folks at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School (MD), particularly Glenn Whitman, were kind enough to send me their recent publication, Think Deeply and Differently:  The Transformational Classroom:How Research in Educational Neuroscience Enhances Teaching and Learning at St. Andrew’s.

Too often, I fear, and certainly I’ve been very much guilty of this, professional learning in schools lacks focus, coherence, continuity and a sense of accomplishment and completion, and part of the reason it lacks focus is because it doesn’t have a finish line and any type of finished product around which its efforts can be centered.

But, it would see here in this example from St. Andrew’s, they’ve tackled exactly this problem by organizing themselves, their professional learning, and their action research toward the end of a publication that speaks from and to their organizational mission and their pedagogical initiatives and next steps.   That is great.

To quote the preface,

St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and its Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning is a sterling example of how educators are informing the teaching and learning process through research-based practices.

These practices encompass every aspect of the educational experience including how we approach the learning environment, how we plan instruction to promote mastery of skills and concepts, how we assure that students are engaged in higher-order thinking and creative problem-solving, and how we use the arts and technol-ogy to maximize each child’s learning potential.

St. Andrew’s is on the forefront of not only practicing but also advancing this knowledge by engaging in research and discovery that has the potential to inform their own teaching practice as well as the entire field of education.  (more…)

At our school, we have made in the past few years a significant investment to install high quality digital smart-boards in every St. Gregory classroom, middle and upper school.  (We are deeply appreciative of donors who made this possible!)   These are great tools, but we cannot help but be curious about the research on their effectiveness– and in this month’s Educational Leadership, the stellar Robert Marzano again informs us.   The verdict: “in general, using interactive whiteboards was associated with a 16 percentile point gain in student achievement.”

Three teaching features, he reports, enhances smartboards’ effectiveness.   One is the use of graphics and visuals: “pictures and video clips from the Internet, sites such as Google Earth, and graphs and charts.”   This is consistent with one of Marzano’s biggest emphases in his research (see Classroom Instruction that really works) that ““probably the most underutilized instructional category of all those reviewed in this book– creating nonlinguistic representations– helps students understand content in a whole new way.”  (more…)

In recent posts I have argued, vigorously, that 21st century learning does, indeed, teach content and is serious about it– and indeed, we believe our contemporary teaching techniques teach content better.    And in my recent post on the 21k12 model, what we are serious about, I listed as number 12, that we are serious about research (or evidence) based teaching methodology, and I listed Robert Marzano as the leading national figure in this evidence based approach.  (I have appreciated Marzano previously on this blog.) Ed. Leadership,  in its recent excellent issue, is initiating Marzano as a new regular columnist, and this is an excellent thing.

Marzano’s piece is on teaching vocabulary effectively, and vocabulary, most certainly, is content, is knowledge, and I here loudly endorse the importance of this!   Marzano offers six, research tested and research demonstrated, steps for effective vocabulary teaching:

  1. Provide a description, explanation, or example of the new term.
  2. Ask students to restate the description, explanation, or example in their own words.
  3. Ask students to construct a picture, pictograph, or symbolic representation of the term. (more…)

Classroom Instruction that Works, the book is called, and it is a very valuable primer, it could be a terrific school-wide bible and centerpiece for referencing what is research based teaching excellence. It consists of very good, solid, meta-analysis of hundreds of research reports. Comparing and Contrasting, Quality Note-taking, Recognizing Student Achievement, Promoting Student Effort, Homework, Quality Feedback: they really do make a real difference.

Now, three caveats:

1. Marzano’s ‘scientific’ agenda is explicit, and induces in me a conflicted response. He is determined to shift the field of teaching “from an ‘art’ to a ‘science.'” For me, whose ten year teaching career began right out of college, and for which I never had a teaching credential or ‘scientific’ teaching preparation, I was always proud of the ‘art’ of my teaching: inspired, inspiring, engaging, vigorous, intellectual, problematizing, richly relational– but never, I thought, never ‘scientific.’ And yet, here I am, ready to embrace the significance of research supported instructional strategies– and I am, ready to, but still seeking to reconcile or synthesize them with the value of teaching ‘artistry.’ What does this mean in practice? In hiring, it means I will still value, still eagerly hire an artistic teacher (uncredentialed, unschooled in the research, but passionate about subject, energetic and engaging interpersonally), but I will ask, insist, that these folks be serious about studying Marzano, and utilizing this kind of research in lesson planning, and I won’t consider someone who in some way indicates a lack of interest or readiness to employ research-based strategies.

2. Achievement here in Marzano is a pretty narrow concept– it is about standardized test scores. Everything recommended in the book, every research-based strategy, is established upon the evidence it raises test scores, but we can worry that there is more to learning and school than that. What about motivation, what about curiosity, what about compassion, what about creativity, what about mental health, what about participation, what about the many things we want instruction to accomplish that are not measured by test scores?

3. As Marzano himself acknowledges, even calls attention to, there is no differentiation here for grade levels or aptitude. A struggling LD student in first grade and an IB honors student in 12th grade might, we could guess, benefit from dramatically different instructional strategies, yet this book offers no such differentiation. Marzano writes that “teachers should rely on their knowledge of their students, their subject matter, and their situation to indentify the most appropriate instructional strategies [from amongst the ones in this work].”

Marzano appears very much to this writer to lay a good claim to being the Jim Collins of educational research. I realize they are different in their approach to research: Collins and his team do original, long-term, rich research, whereas Marzano uses the tool of meta-analysis of exisiting research. But they parallel each other in the seriousness of their following the data: there is no agenda, no bias, no pre-condition– they want to wallow in as deep a data pool as they can, and from the deep data only generate the significant strategies. (They are both based in Colorado, too.).

Marzano organizes his book into 9 suggested strategies (some of which are awkwardly combined pairs of strategies), each with its own chapter, and then five more “specific type of knowledge.” What he calls “The Nine” I think could be considered as 18 or 19 in total. I am choosing to focus my discussion on about dozen of them, organized in the order he offers, which roughly corresponds to the significance of each, i.e. the size of impact they make on student achievement, from most to least.

1. Identifying Similarities & Differences, (or Comparing & Contrasting)
This teaching “strategy” tops Marzano’s list, with by far the greatest impact on student learning, which comes as a bit of a relief to me, a former English and History teacher who has assigned many, many compare and contrast essays in my time. The found impact is enormous– an average effect size of 1.61, or a percentile increase of 45 points! Admittedly it is a pretty large category– so large that you can start to wonder whether it a bit tautological to say that it is a recommended instrutional strategy, it being so central to all teaching. Contained within the category are Venn Diagrams, C&C essays, and learning of metaphor and analogues. To whit: “Researchers have found these mental operations to be basic to human thought. Indeed, they might be considered the ‘core’ of all learning.” Yes. Certainly, making metaphors and finding analogues are intellectual projects that define us as humans, and we do need to teach this, explicitly and emphatically. A tad self-evident, but essential to be sure.

2. Notetaking
Students who know how to, and have been taught effectively to, take notes, will be significantly more successful. This is true too of the closely related and intertwined work of summarizing. Some points: Verbatim notetaking is the least effective way to take notes; notes should be considered works in progress; notes should be used as study guides for tests; the more notes that are taken, the better. (I have a vivid memory of being a freshman in college, preparing for my first final exams, and being a bit overwhelmed by the vast quantity of information in my Comp. Gov course. I spent about 8 hours rewriting all my lecture notes into my computer, and was subsequently stunned by the mastery I felt during the exam.) “Although we sometimes refer to summarizing and note-taking as mere ‘study skills,’ they are two of the most powerful skills students can cultivate. They provide students with the tools for identifying and understanding the most important aspects of what they are learning.”

3. Reinforcing Effort
Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, is quite in vogue this year, and it should be. Her research very powerfully demonstrates the significance of how we think about our abilities, and if we just can persuade ourself to believe that if we try hard enough to do something, our performance dramatically improves. It is the same here: A student’s “belief in effort is the most useful attribution” for success. “Not all students realize the importance in believing in effort,” but “students can learn to change their beliefs to an emphasis on effort.” “Reinforcing effort can help teach students one of the most valuable lessons they can learn– the harder you try, the more successful you are.”

4. Recognition of Student Accomplishment

Marzano really dives into this complicated subject, and jumps into the fray regarding praise, rewards and intrinsic v. extrinsic motivation. Many of are steeped in Alfie Kohn’s fierce advocacy for exclusively intrinsic motivation, and so it greatly appreciated that Marzano explicitly speaks to Alfie. Marzano does accept Kohn in that there is evidence of rewards creating a small decrease in intrinsic motivation when measured by students’ “free time activity” but not when measuring students attitudes or ability/achievement. To summarize: “rewards do not necessarily have a negative effect on intrinsic motivation; reward is most effective when it is contigent on the attainment of some standard of performance; and, abstract symbolic recognition , especially praise, is more effective than tangible rewards.” “Providing recognition for attainment of specific goals not only enhances achievement, but it stimulates motivation.” This really resonates here: I don’t like prizes or rewards, and don’t want gimmicky motivators, but praise matters– it impacts– especially when it is specific, contigent, spontaneous, and attributes success to effort.

5. Homework
Homework adds value, the research establishes. We are all enaged in the 21st c. “homework wars,” thanks in part again to Alfie Kohn, but the research of Marzano, with much reference to Duke’s homework guru Harris Cooper. Points to consider, all of with which I concur: it should ratchet upwards with advancing grades, but should start as early as second grade; parental involvement should be minimized; homework purpose should be clearly articulated; if homework is assigned it should be commented upon; and schools should establish and communicate a homework policy. Homework is a good thing, and the 10xgradelevel rule is a really useful rule of thumb.

6. Nonlinguistic Representation
Learning via multiple modalities is common currency these days: let’s provide, insist, students engage with and master concepts via approaches other than verbal/linguistic. Draw a picture, create a diagram, act out a performance: create visual/symbolic and bodily/kinesthetic learning opportunities for everything complex. And, it is not just a good idea: the research supports it strongly. “Probably the most underutilized instructional category of all those reviewed in this book– creating nonlinguistic representations– helps students understand content in a whole new way.”

7. Cooperative Learning
Do it thoughfully, avoid ability grouping, do it sparingly, keep groups small, and student learning does improve. “Of all classroom grouping strategies, cooperative learning may be the most flexible learning and powerful.” I would add that today’s digital tools can really enhance this approach; student chat rooms, peer review, classroom bulletin boards, asynchronous classroom discussion all can make for high quality cooperative learning. The student work demonstrated by English teacher Jonathan Howland at Urban School for instance, where his students posed to each other textual interpretations and got engaged in so-what and problematizing naysaying (see Graff) discourse really helped them sharpen their writing and argumentation, and it is all done, or mostly done, digitally.

8. Providing Feedback
Powerful it can be. Marzano refers to another meta-analysis, of nearly 8000 studies (!): “the most powerful single modification that enhances achievement is feedback. The simples prescription for improving education must be ‘dollops of feedback.'” Marzano makes these points: “Feedback should be corrective; timely, specific and criterion referenced; and students can effectively provide some of their own feedback.” Rubrics, Marzano goes on to point out, can be a valuable tool for feedback.

9. Questioning
Like Wiggins and Graff, two others I have been reading lately, the point made here is that research supports instructional strategies by which students really organize their learning around key, critical, higher level, analytical questions. Wait, pause, before accepting students answers– and use questions throughout as a framing technique and followup. Ask students to critique in order to sharper their questioning and analysis.

10. Vocabulary
Delving into what Marzano calls teaching specific types of knowledge, I want to call attention to two of his five key points. First, he presents a strong research backed case for teaching vocabulary “in a systematic way at virtually every grade level.” He engages with, and counters, the argument which I have been a fan of at times that reading alone– sustained silent reading it is sometimes called– will do enough to, or even will better achieve the goal of bolstering vocabulary. Instead, he says “students must encounter words in context many times to learn them, instruction in new words enhances learning those words in context, one of the best ways to learn a new word is to associate an image with it, direct vocabulary instruction works, and finally, direct instruction on words that are critical to new content produces the most powerful learning.” Sign me up for support of more frequent, more concentrated vocabulary instruction.

11. Organizing Ideas
Finally– and forgive my long-windedness– I like Marzano’s discussion of what he calls “organizing ideas,” and I think he gives it short shrift. Details are important, and another section of this chapter deals with how to teach details, but I am more drawn to the case for having students use “generalizations” to organize their ideas, and to understand why we bother with details in the first place: to support general ideas or propositions with supporting facts. I also like the connection here to Graff, whom I wrote about yesterday, and who is a great advocate for the theory we must teach to think via argument. To quote Marzano: “The biggest conceptual change comes when students must provide a sound defense or argument for their position.”