Why Real-World Science Is a Must For School

1st October 2015 
Space and science education
This is an edited version of a feature in the 2 October issue of TES. For the full feature, see details at the bottom of this article

The students of Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys are working for Nasa. And if their teacher Becky Parker has her way, your students soon will be, too.

This is because Parker is trying to transform science education in the UK. Writing in the 2 October issue of TES, she explains that one of the major issues stopping young people choosing to study science is the lack of real-world experiments they are trusted to carry out in schools.

“Science education in the UK is missing a crucial element: the excitement and relevance of working on real projects that could change the world,” she writes.

“Of course, students do experiments all the time in schools. However, these rarely replicate real-world projects or tackle ongoing real-world problems. Students don’t get a true taste of modern science.

“And for teachers who love science, it can be demoralising to have to do the same old experiments over and over again – we crave something original. To truly ­enthuse about our subject, our own interest needs to be piqued and our skills challenged.”

Parker has spent 10 years trying to find a solution and in the newly established Institute for Research In Schools she believes she has found it.

“Under its umbrella, dozens of university-based researchers are collaborating with students and teachers on school-based projects,” she explains. “For example, at the school where I work, space and atmospheric physicist Dr Jonathan Eastwood from Imperial College London is working with students to examine cosmic rays, as part of a project called the Langton Ultimate Cosmic ray Intensity Detector (Lucid).”

By expanding these projects – for which the research institutions often provide the kit needed to the schools involved – Parker believes we can enthuse more and more students to take up science subjects.

“Giving students the opportunity to experience the thrill of discovery, along with the excitement and challenge of not knowing what the answers are, brings their subject to life,” she says. “It also allows young people to contribute their many skills and insights to the scientific community. That instils a high level of confidence – one that’s difficult to achieve by other teaching means.”

When Schools Overlook Introverts

The Atlantic
As the focus on group work and collaboration increases, classrooms are neglecting the needs of students who work better in quiet settings.

When Susan Cain published Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking nearly four years ago, it was immediately met with acclaim. The book criticizes schools and other key institutions for primarily accommodating extroverts and such individuals’ “need for lots of stimulation.” Much to introverts’ relief, it also seeks to raise awareness about the personality type, particularly among those who’ve struggled to understand it.

It seems that such efforts have, for the most part, struggled to effect much change in the educational world. The way in which certain instructional trends—education buzzwords like “collaborative learning” and “project-based learning” and “flipped classrooms”—are applied often neglect the needs of introverts. In fact, these trends could mean that classroom environments that embrace extroverted behavior—through dynamic and social learning activities—are being promoted now more than ever. These can be appealing qualities in the classroom, of course, but overemphasizing them can undermine the learning of students who are inward-thinking and easily drained by constant interactions with others.
Just last week the University of Chicago library announced that in response to “increased demand,” librarians are working with architects to transform a presumably quiet reading room into a “vibrant laboratory of interactive learning.” One writer on Top Hat, a popular online resource for educators, argued in a post last month that “cooperative learning strategies harness the greatest part of human evolutionary behavior: sociality.” And earlier this month, Cal State University, Dominguez Hills, promoted their installation of “active learning classrooms” with “multiple desk formations” in which “professors must change their mindsets” because “the lectures should be designed to learn by doing.” Hamoud Salhi, a professor and acting associate dean, explains, “This project is not just about changing the classroom environment; it is also about changing how instructors approach teaching.”

Meanwhile, some advocates for “active learning classrooms” write about “breaking students and faculty out of their comfort zones” like it’s a good thing, and other teachers continue to conflate introversion and an inability to self-advocate. Dartmouth’s Institute for Writing and Rhetoric advertises a pedagogy that “seeks to overhaul the model of education” and challenges students to “forego passivity in favor of contribution and participation…students must overcome isolation in order to learn to write.” And Liz Sproat, head of Google for Education—an organization that doesn’t see a profit when students simply read quietly and think introspectively—situates “the increase in collaborative working” as an agreed-upon premise in an article on ComputerWeek.com, one that Google can make more “cost-effective.”

Introverts “feel at their most alive and their most switched-on when they’re in quieter, low-key environments.”
This growing emphasis in classrooms on group projects and other interactive arrangements can be challenging for introverted students who tend to perform better when they’re working independently and in more subdued environments. Comprising anywhere from one third to about half of the population, introverts sometimes appear shy, depressed, or antisocial, when that’s not always the case. As Susan Cain put it in her famous TED Talk, introverts simply “feel at their most alive and their most switched-on and their most capable when they’re in quieter, more low-key environments.”
I started reflecting on this recently after observing classes at a public high school in California. (I teach English at a different public high school and visited the school as a professional-development activity.) All but four of the 26 teachers I witnessed had their students arranged in groups or with partners. Such formations aren’t necessarily irreconcilable with the needs of introverts, but these arrangements can inherently enable noisy, distracting conditions that make learning particularly difficult for certain students.

Recommended Reading The Influx of Latino Students at Historically Black Colleges
Many of my own high-school students regularly request extended sessions of silent reading. Some prefer learning with the fluorescent classroom lights off, instead relying on the softer sunlight coming in through the window. Some admit to enjoying the opportunity to work in a quiet room and are eager to write about certain prompts for as long as I let them. I used to think their ubiquitous earbuds were feeding their need for stimulation; now I wonder if they’re sometimes blocking out the noise.

These are, of course, generalized observations, but I recently met with two high-school students who spoke directly and frankly about their need for quiet, solitary learning environments. Both of proudly spoke of their success at Grizzly Youth Academy, a 22-week charter-school program in San Luis Obispo, California, targeted at teens who’ve had a “history of school failure” at a previous school. Asked what she thought facilitated her success, one student responded: “The structure—I can concentrate here.” Acknowledging her tendency to get distracted, the student noted that there was “absolutely no quiet time” at her former public school, and she now appreciates the disciplined classes and quiet study hall sessions. “I’m like a completely different person now.”

I used to think their ubiquitous earbuds were feeding their need for stimulation; now I wonder if they’re sometimes blocking out the noise.
The other student, whom I interviewed separately, offered similar reflections: “It’s more focused here [at the charter school], and noisier there [at the public school]. I have ADD so I’m usually distracted.” Beaming, he added, “but now I’m getting the best grades ever. I’m able to concentrate here more.”

It’s striking to me that a premise on Grizzly’s website is that there are “students who struggle in school [because they] often lack social and emotional skills to succeed in the classroom,” and the students themselves are quick to diagnose themselves with an inability to concentrate at their former school. The improvement they’re describing at Grizzly, however, isn’t based on a cure for a dysfunction or a breakthrough in social skills—it’s just a significant change in environment. And in the five Grizzly classrooms I observed, the students sat in rows that Cain nostalgically praised in her talk—the traditional classroom setup in which, Cain said, “we did most of our work autonomously.”
Certainly, group activities can serve a purpose in the teaching of introverts. In part because of the Common Core standards and the Internet increasingly serving as a proxy for classroom teachers, “cooperative learning” has grown in popularity among teachers in recent decades. As the English teacher Abigail Walthausen noted in The Atlantic two years ago, “Common Core standards place far greater value on small-group discussion and student-led work than on any teacher-led instruction.” And overall, this trend is a good thing. Several recent studies offer the latest evidence that students who engage in cooperative learning tend to outperform those immersed in traditional learning approaches—namely lectures. But cooperative learning doesn’t have to entail excessively social or overstimulating mandates; it can easily involve quiet components that facilitate internal contemplation.

Near the end of my observations last week, I told two teachers on separate occasions that I’d feel incredibly exhausted at the end of every day if I were a student at that school. To my surprise, both of them responded by immediately laughing and then agreeing. One recalled learning best when arranged in rows, while the other concurred, “I know, right? How exhausting it must be to have another student in your business all day long.”

The ideal, of course, would be to establish arrangements that facilitate differentiated instruction for varying personality types, but this might be difficult in large classes with students of diverse levels of proficiency and motivation. I’ve noticed that, like Grizzly, the private schools I’ve visited also seem to create space for the introverted students, ultimately resembling the university classes to which they hope to send their students. And at the aforementioned public school I observed, three of the four classes where students were in fact seated individually in rows were AP or honors courses.

But I’m reminded of Sartre’s famous line, “Hell is other people,” when I see that Georgia College’s webpage dedicated to collaborative learning, which includes the topic sentence: “Together is how we do everything here at Georgia College. Learn. Work. Play. Live. Together.” Everything, that is, except quiet introspection, free of cost and distraction.

Young people’s expectations for feedback

The Brilliant Blog

Annie Murphy Paul

In general, I’m skeptical of generational arguments in education: that common line of reasoning that goes, “Millennials [or Generation Y or digital natives or . . . ] have grown up doing X, so we in education need to do X, too, to maintain their attention and engagement.”

If X isn’t supported by research on how people actually learn, then doing more of it isn’t a good idea, no matter how comfortable it makes young people feel. (See, for example, the negative consequences of multitasking while learning.)

But sometimes the young people are onto something. That’s the argument of Scott Warnock, English professor and director of the Writing Center at Drexel University, and I think he’s right. In a post on the blog Faculty Focus, Warnock describes the lived reality of our students:

“After going out for tacos, our students can review the restaurant on a website. They watch audiences reach a verdict on talent each season on American Idol. When they play video games—and they play them a lot—their screens are filled with status and reward metrics. And after (and sometimes while) taking our classes, they can go online to www.ratemyprofessors.com.

It may surprise us to think of it like this, but today’s students grew up in a culture of routine assessment and feedback. Yet when they click (or walk) into our courses, the experience is often quite different: there are few high-stakes grades, big exams, or one-shot term papers.”

Yes, our students have grown up in a culture of continual feedback—and more important, they’re right to feel that such continual feedback is essential to improvement and progress. Too often, our current testing regime offers little or no feedback all semester long, then inflicts a high-stakes assessment at the end of the year—and even then doesn’t offer much feedback beyond a rather uninformative numerical score, delivered weeks or months later. From a science of learning perspective, this makes no sense.

Scott Warnock advises instructors to implement what he calls frequent, low-stakes (FLS) grading—”simple course evaluation methods that allow you to provide students with many grades so that an individual grade doesn’t mean much.” I like his account of the benefits of such an approach:

It creates dialogue. Frequent grades can establish a productive student-teacher conversation, and students have an ongoing answer to the question, ‘How am I doing?’

It builds confidence. Students have many opportunities to succeed, and there is a consistent, predictable, open evaluation structure.

It increases motivation. FLS grading fits into students’ conceptions—and, perhaps, expectations—of assessment and evaluation: This is the culture they grew up in!”

The affirmative testing approach recommends frequent low- or no-stakes testing as a support for student recall and retention, as well as a source of feedback that allows students to spot gaps in their knowledge, correct misconceptions, and track their progress toward their goals.

This practice of continual feedback is, as Scott Warnock notes, what young people want and expect. And in this case, they’re absolutely right.

In the e-course I launched earlier this week, Turn Testing Into Learning, I provide step-by-step instructions on how to use feedback to create dialogue, build confidence, and increase motivation.

You can try out a sample lesson by clicking here.

You can read about the course as a whole by clicking here.

Making sure feedback is heard and used

The Brilliant Report

Annie Murphy Paul

The research by Stanford professor Carol Dweck on “fixed” and “growth” mindsets has become familiar to many teachers and parents—familiar enough that you’ll often hear an adult say to a child, “You’re so smart! Er—I mean—you worked so hard on that!” (Dweck’s message that we should praise effort and not inherent ability has been widely accepted, it seems, but for many of us has not yet become automatic.)

A passing acquaintance with the notion of mindset—though an excellent start—doesn’t fully convey the richness of Dweck’s idea, however. The influence of mindset shows up in students’ thinking and behavior in so many ways, one of which I want to focus on today. That is the effect of mindset on how students handle feedback.

Understanding and acting on feedback is absolutely critical to the process of mastering academic knowledge and skills. Unfortunately, although parents and teachers maygive feedback to students, that doesn’t necessarily mean that students get it—that is, get it in the sense of really listening to it, striving to understand it, and applying it to their subsequent efforts.

One of the big determinants of what students do with feedback, it turns out, is mindset. Students with a growth mindset (that is, they believe that ability can grow through effort) attend to feedback and put it to work. Students with a fixed mindset (that is, they believe ability is fixed and unchangeable) avoid or ignore feedback. One of my favorite demonstrations of this phenomenon is a neuroscience study conducted in the lab of Jennifer Mangels, a research scientist at Columbia University.

The authors of the study (who include Carol Dweck) used a technology called event-related potentials to monitor students’ brain activity while they answered factual questions and then received feedback on their answers; following the feedback session, the students were given a a surprise retest that included all of the questions they answered incorrectly the first time.

Students who held a growth mindset got more answers right on the surprise retest—suggesting they’d made better use of the feedback. Evidence from the brain-activation monitors showed something even more interesting, as related by cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman in his book Ungifted:

“In terms of brain waves, participants with a fixed mindset showed an enhanced response in the frontal pole region to negative feedback about their ability. Because this area of the brain is associated with increased attention, it appears that the fixed theorists were more focused on what they got wrong than what they could do to improve. Those with a fixed mindset also appeared to engage in less sustained and deep encoding of the information as reflected in the duration of activation of the inferior frontal-temporal region, a region known to play a role in the activation of preexisting knowledge in memory.

“In contrast, the brain activity of those with a growth mindset suggested that they paid attention to the feedback and were more deeply engaged in processing that feedback.”

So students with growth mindsets and fixed mindsets actually process feedback information differently. To me, this is an argument for building a growth mindset intervention right into our testing routine (see an earlier post of mine on this idea,here). Of course, we need also to give students timely and detailed feedback on tests—something that happens all too rarely, especially with standardized tests.

An affirmative testing approach would offer students such feedback, and ensure that they make the most of it by promoting a growth mindset. To that end, here are two resources you may find helpful:

• The new, free Mindset Kit resources made available by PERTS, a research group at Stanford.

• The e-course I’ve developed, called Turn Testing Into Learning, which includes a lesson on incorporating growth-mindset practices into assessment. You can try out a sample lesson by clicking here; you can enroll in the course by clicking here.

Please send questions and comments to me at annie@anniemurphypaul.com—I look forward to hearing from you!

All my best,


Homework: A New User’s Guide


SEPTEMBER 19, 2015 7:03 AM ET
It's Homework Time!

LA Johnson/NPR

If you made it past the headline, you’re likely a student, concerned parent, teacher or, like me, a nerd nostalgist who enjoys basking in the distant glow of Homework Triumphs Past (second-grade report on Custer’s Last Stand, nailed it!).

Whoever you are, you’re surely hoping for some clarity in the loud, perennial debate over whether U.S. students are justifiably exhausted and nervous from too much homework — even though some international comparisons suggest they’re sitting comfortably at the average.

Well, here goes. I’ve mapped out six, research-based polestars that should help guide you to some reasonable conclusions about homework.

How much homework do U.S. students get?

The best answer comes from something called the National Assessment of Educational Progress or NAEP. In 2012, students in three different age groups — 9, 13 and 17 — were asked, “How much time did you spend on homework yesterday?” The vast majority of 9-year-olds (79 percent) and 13-year-olds (65 percent) and still a majority of 17-year-olds (53 percent) all reported doing an hour or less of homework the day before.

Another study from the National Center for Education Statistics found that high school students who reported doing homework outside of school did, on average, about seven hours a week.

If you’re hungry for more data on this — and some perspective — check out this exhaustive report put together last year by researcher Tom Loveless at the Brookings Institution.

An hour or less a day? But we hear so many horror stories! Why?

The fact is, some students do have a ton of homework. In high school we see a kind of student divergence — between those who choose or find themselves tracked into less-rigorous coursework and those who enroll in honors classes or multiple Advanced Placement courses. And the latter students are getting a lot of homework. In that 2012 NAEP survey, 13 percent of 17-year-olds reported doing more than two hours of homework the previous night. That’s not a lot of students, but they’re clearly doing a lot of work.

That also tracks with a famous survey from 2007 — from MetLife — that asked parents what they think of their kids’ homework load. Sixty percent said it was just right. Twenty-five percent said their kids are getting too little. Just 15 percent of parents said their kids have too much homework.

Research also suggests that the students doing the most work have something else in common: income. “I think that the debate over homework in some ways is a social class issue,” says Janine Bempechat, professor of human development at Wheelock College. “There’s no question that in affluent communities, children are really over-taxed, over-burdened with homework.”

But the vast majority of students do not seem to have inordinate workloads. And the ones who do are generally volunteering for the tough stuff. That doesn’t make it easier, but it does make it a choice.

Do we know how much homework students in other countries are doing?

Sort of. Caveats abound here. Education systems and perceptions of what is and isn’t homework can vary remarkably overseas. So any comparison is, to a degree, apples-to-oranges (or, at least, apples-to-pears). A 2012 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development pegged the U.S. homework load for 15-year-olds at around six hours per week. That’s just above the study’s average. It found that students in Hong Kong are also doing about six hours a week. Much of Europe checks in between four and five hours a week. In Japan, it’s four hours. And Korea’s near the bottom, at three hours.

How much homework is too much?

Better yet, how much is just right? Harris Cooper at Duke University has done some of thebest work on homework. He and his team reviewed dozens of studies, from 1987 to 2003, looking for consensus on what works and what doesn’t. A common rule of thumb, he says, is what’s called the 10-minute rule. Take the child’s grade and multiply by 10. So first-graders should have roughly 10 minutes of homework a night, 40 minutes for fourth-graders, on up to two hours for seniors in high school. A lot of of schools use this. Even theNational PTA officially endorses it.

Homework clearly improves student performance, right?

Not necessarily. It depends on the age of the child. Looking over the research, there’s little to no evidence that homework improves student achievement in elementary school. Then again, the many experts I spoke with all said the same thing: The point of homework in those primary grades isn’t entirely academic. It’s about teaching things like time-management and self-direction.

But, by high school the evidence shifts. Harris Cooper’s massive review found, in middle and high school, a positive correlation between homework and student achievement on unit tests. It seems to help. But more is not always better. Cooper points out that, depending on the subject and the age of the student, there is a law of diminishing returns. Again, he recommends the 10-minute rule.

What kinds of homework seem to be most effective?

This is where things get really interesting. Because homework should be about learning, right? To understand what kinds of homework best help kids learn, we really need to talk about memory and the brain.

Let’s start with something called the spacing effect. Say a child has to do a vocabulary worksheet. The next week, it’s a new worksheet with different words and so on. Well, research shows that the brain is better at remembering when we repeat with consistency, not when we study in long, isolated chunks of time. Do a little bit of vocabulary each night, repeating the same words night after night.

Similarly, a professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, Henry “Roddy” Roediger III, recommends that teachers give students plenty of little quizzes, which he says strengthen the brain’s ability to remember. Don’t fret. They can be low-stakes or no-stakes, says Roediger: It’s the steady recall and repetition that matter. He also recommends, as homework, that students try testing themselves instead of simply re-reading the text or class notes.

There’s also something known as interleaving. This is big in the debate over math homework. Many of us — myself included — learned math by focusing on one concept at a time, doing a worksheet to practice that concept, then moving on.

Well, there’s evidence that students learn more when homework requires them to choose among multiple strategies — new and old — when solving problems. In other words, kids learn when they have to draw not just from what they learned in class that day but that week, that month, that year.

One last note: Experts agree that homework should generally be about reinforcing what students learned in class (this is especially true in math). Sometimes it can — and should — be used to introduce new material, but here’s where so many horror stories begin.

Tom Loveless, a former teacher, offers this advice: “I don’t think teachers should ever send brand-new material that puts the parent in the position of a teacher. That’s a disaster. My own personal philosophy was: Homework is best if it’s material that requires more practice but they’ve already received initial instruction.”

Or, in the words of the National PTA: “Homework that cannot be done without help is not good homework.”

Teachers Nurture Growth Mindsets in Math


A blend of family attitudes, cultural ideas, and frustration often lead students to believe that math ability is a fixed trait like eye color, teachers say. They believe they are either born with the skills necessary to succeed in math class or they’re not.

Those pervasive ideas and the way math has traditionally been taught can make it exceptionally difficult for math teachers to nurture growth mindsets in their students, they say.

“There’s a cultural mystique in mathematics and sort of salient, counterproductive conceptions about what it is, that it’s somehow harder than art, which of course is crazy,” said Philip Uri Treisman, a mathematics professor and director of the University of Texas’ Charles A. Dana Center, which focuses on math and science education.

“It has sort of cultural baggage with it that is not helpful to the field,” he said.

The concept of growth mindsets has gained a foothold in many schools, where teachers emphasize that the brain can grow and change and that students don’t enter school with a set of unchangeable strengths and weaknesses. In general, that means praising effort over personal traits and encouraging students to learn from mistakes by developing new strategies to approach problems.

As more schools buy into the research that shows that student mindsets and persistence are linked to academic success, researchers are working to develop more specific strategies for nurturing positive learning attitudes in areas like mathematics.

The key, they say, is changing both the student’s ideas about learning and the way teachers approach math content.

Open Math Problems

Traditional math problems often encourage students to quickly work toward one solution, but “open tasks” can teach the same content while giving students more opportunities to struggle and interact with math concepts on a deeper level. This encourages students to develop a growth mindset, or a recognition that math can be a learned skill, rather than a fixed trait, researchers say.

The Dana Center’s Academic Youth Development program, for example, blends mindsets research with math concepts through both professional development for teachers and summer programs for students as they prepare to enter 9th grade, which is often the year students take Algebra 1. Researchers are studying the effects of the program, which is being used in 1,250 middle and high schools around the country.

‘My Favorite No’

Some teachers are also making efforts on their own to learn about the mindset concept. Stanford University’s Project for Education Research That Scales, or PERTS, released a series of online courses about mindsets for parents and teachers last month. It included just one subject-specific course: a series of videos, exercises, and sample lesson plans tailored for math teachers.

That course includes guidance on how to “normalize failure” by encouraging students to ask questions that they may be afraid to ask and to share incorrect answers with their peers.

“Sometimes it’s important to simply tell students that you love mistakes because that’s how students learn,” one sample discussion plan says. “Start the class with a lesson on why you like mistakes and what students can learn from them.”

Classroom teachers say many of their students approach math with the expectation that they have failed if they can’t quickly solve a problem using a prescribed algorithm.

With a mindset approach, teachers help students focus on learning from that failure and trying the problem from a different angle so that students can understand the underlying concepts.

The Stanford course includes a video of a teacher doing a daily exercise called “my favorite no.” At the beginning of class, she has every student solve a problem on an index card, sorting the resulting answers into a pile of correct and incorrect answers. She then copies an incorrect answer onto the board and asks students to identify all of the correct elements before honing in on what part of their classmate’s solution led them to an incorrect answer.

These sorts of exercises allow even the students who initially solved the problem correctly to learn from their peer’s errors, said Mari Montoy-Wilson, who teachers 3rd grade at a charter school in East Palo Alto, Calif., a small city that is mostly Latino and much less affluent than neighboring communities in the surrounding Silicon Valley.

“People aren’t equipped with this idea that if something feels hard, that’s your sweet spot and you need to persevere and unpack that,” she said.

Merely challenging students to change their mindsets without also changing the way math is taught can be “dangerous,” Treisman said. Without a grasp on math skills and opportunities to apply those skills and develop strategies, students will receive the message that even effort can’t help them improve, he said.

That’s why math teachers who emphasize mindsets advocate for teaching through “open problems,” which challenge students to explain a concept rather than quickly identify one solution. This gives them a chance to explore strategies for solving a problem and recognize there is often more than one way to make sense of it rather than judging their own math skills by whether or not they get the initial answer correct.

Stanford University math education professor Jo Boaler explains the concept in a video included in the course: In a traditional problem, a teacher may give students the dimensions of a rectangle and ask them to find its perimeter. In an open problem, a teacher may ask students to draw three rectangles with a certain perimeter and explain their work.

Exploring Concepts

Mariel Triggs, who teaches math at a private high school in San Francisco, said her students unpack open math problems step-by-step to explore a concept.

For example, she will ask them how many baseballs it would take to fill a room, and then allow them to determine all of the information they need to solve the problem. After they arrive at the answer, she will ask them how the problem would change if they expanded the dimensions of the imaginary room.

“I get these students and they will say, ‘I am not good at math,’ and I began to realize that what they were really saying was, ‘I don’t know how to do the problem in front of me,’ ” she said. “I frame it like a fun puzzle.”

Teachers said those strategies dovetail nicely with the Common Core State Standards’ emphasis on sense-making, abstract reasoning, developing strategies to use math concepts, and critiquing the reasoning of others.

And open problems allow students to understand how math concepts relate to each other, rather than merely understanding how to use an algorithm the teacher prescribes, they said. It’s not that getting the correct answer doesn’t matter, Montoy-Wilson said. But open problems emphasize that the process of arriving at the answer matters too, she said.

“It’s pretty scary in terms of what we want for our future to think of kids who only know the algorithm and not why it works,” Montoy-Wilson said. “When you just focus on getting to the answer, you really rob kids of grappling and working on that sweet spot. You don’t want to scaffold or carry the load too heavily for your kids.”

Across subjects, researchers have found that a teacher’s own orientation to learning can affect whether their students have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset about their own abilities.

Views on Math

But a teacher’s views on math also matter, said Kathy Liu Sun, an assistant professor at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif., and a former public high school math teacher.

Sun used surveys to gauge the mindsets of about 3,400 students and 40 teachers. She also assessed teachers’ approaches to math, whether they valued speed and memorization or “multi-dimensional” problems that allow for multiple strategies and sense making.

Through post surveys and classroom observations, Sun determined that teachers with a “multi-dimensional” view of math were more likely to have students with a growth mindset at the end of a course.

“I think that teaching is really really important,” she said. “It’s not just about changing kids’ beliefs, it’s about giving them opportunities to experience it.”

Sun also identified strategies that can help boost students’ confidence in the math classroom.

Teachers should encourage multiple attempts at problem solving, they shouldn’t offer unsolicited help to students, and they should provide opportunities for students to resubmit their work, she said.

Some mathematicians have said professional development for math teachers should prioritize content knowledge over pedagogy. Treisman said many math teachers have the math knowledge to teach in a more open format that encourages growth mindsets, and they just need to strengthen the skills necessary to do so.

Many of today’s math teachers were taught in very traditional classrooms, and many have not explored the subject in this way on their own, he said.

That’s why teachers need to practice their own sense-making and model it for their students, Treisman said. If math were music, mastering the basic concepts would be like learning scales and leading students through discussions of open problems would be like playing songs, he said.

“Teachers love the idea of mindsets as almost a panacea,” Treisman said, “but they themselves have very fixed ideas of their own learning.

Vol. 35, Issue 03, Pages 1,10-11

Four Tips for a New and Improved Back-To-School Night

Teaching Channel

Now that most schools are back in session, you’re probably getting ready for Back-to-School Night (or you recently survived it). It’s a great time for connecting with families, sharing what they should expect from the year, and putting families at ease by showing them you are a lovable human who is here to guide their child through an amazing year of learning.

Back-to-School Night is exciting, but it can also be nerve-racking. As a first year teacher, I had no idea what I was supposed to do! Most teachers never get a chance to observe another teacher’s Back-to-School Night. It wasn’t until I was a parent that I got to experience the many different ways teachers approach the event. In light of this, I thought it might be helpful to share my own story, as well as some of the ways others in our Tch community approach Back-to-School Night.

Be Yourself

In my second year of teaching, after a sweaty and jittery lecture-like Back-to-School Night, an experienced colleague gave me great advice. She said, “Parents just want to know what it’s like to be in your classroom, so show them rather than tell them.”

This advice was brilliant, because I was much more comfortable as a teacher than as a presenter. So I decided to flip my Back-to-School Night. I provided families with my materials on curriculum and standards beforehand and asked them to submit questions. Then, on the night itself, I was free to show families who I was as a teacher, by having them experience part of a lesson that their children had done earlier that week. Families enjoyed being a middle schooler again, I had fun teaching, and the experience was a great launching point for discussing key curriculum details for the year, including the questions they had submitted. The conversations always felt deeper, and I was much less sweaty!

Similarly, as a math teacher, Teaching Channel Laureate Kristin Gray feels it’s important to engage families in a mathematical experience. At her Back-to-School Night, she asks families to do math together. They engage in Estimation 180, an investigations math activity, and reflect on grade level standards and Standards for Mathematical Practice. She hopes to instill math curiosity and excitement among the families, while creating an open, collaborative relationship that will grow during the year.

Give Them Something to Talk About

Families want to hear from you, but it’s also great for you to hear from them. Sometimes you may need a conversation starter to get families talking — parents and guardians can be nervous too. Lindsay Young, a high school teacher in Los Angeles, California, shows families her classroom’s “Exemplary Work” board, where students select one item weekly that they think exemplifies their best work. She uses this board to start a discussion about what it means to do your best work.

Sarah Brown Wessling gives families a copy of Carol Dweck’s article, “Even Geniuses Work Hard,” and invites them to consider what their work and learning will be like this year. It helps her to frame not only what she values, but how she and families can work together to support their students.

Make it “Hope Night”

Teaching Channel Laureate Joshua Parker thinks about the families who come to Back-to-School Night with many hopes for the year, and he takes their aspirations to heart. Through a presentation that includes information about both his personal life and professional experience, he helps families understand just how committed he is to education and their children. He follows this by leading a conversation focused on how he can meet the needs of both students and their families.

Kate Barber and Chana Stewart, elementary teachers in East Palo Alto, California, say they use Back-to-School Night to build trust and a sense of community. They ask students to share ideas about what their teachers and families could do to support them in first grade. When families come to Back-to-School Night, the teachers share this list and ask families to talk about it in groups, as well as share their own hopes and dreams for their children. The teachers want families to leave Back-to-School Night feeling like they’re part of a supportive community, where their voices and perspectives are valued, and with at least one new idea for how to support their children. Hearing families share hopes such as, “Our dream is for our children to go to college and then come back to improve their community,” is a wonderful way to start the year.

Incorporate Technology

When I did my first Back-to-School Night, my only piece of technology was an overhead projector, whereas now there are many ways to use technology to present and gather information. Here are a few ideas from our Teaching Channel Laureate team:

  • Use the night to make sure everyone connects digitally with you, whether you plan on using email, a texting program, a website, a newsletter, or a learning platform.
  • Gather important information from your families using Google forms.
  • Share your presentation after the event via email or your website, so families don’t feel compelled to take notes — or in case they miss the night.
  • Try engaging families in a pre- or post-night twitter chat.

Whether you’re planning your first or your twentieth Back-to-School Night, I hope this peek at what others are doing inspires you to try something new. You can also check out Lily Jones’ Back-to-School Night tips.

What are you focusing on this year at Back-to-School Night? Are you trying, or have you tried, something new? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

Gretchen Vierstra taught middle school for ten years in the San Francisco Bay Area. During her 15+ years in education, she’s also been a department chair, new teacher coach, curriculum developer, and policy analyst. She is an Education Content Manager at Teaching Channel. Follow Gretchen on Twitter: @gretchenvee.