Joy is a Basic Skill in Secondary Reading

I have a policy of not talking about studies I’m engaged in before they are done and available, but I have an observation to make that just won’t wait.

I’m working on a review of research on secondary reading programs with colleagues Ariane Baye (University of Liege in Belgium) and Cynthia Lake (Johns Hopkins University). We have found a large number of very high-quality studies evaluating a broad range of programs. Most are large, randomized experiments.

Mostly, our review is really depressing. The great majority of studies have found no effects on learning. In particular, programs that focus on teaching middle and high school students struggling in reading in classes of 12 to 20, emphasizing meta-cognitive strategies, phonics, fluency, and/or training for teachers in what they were already doing, show few impacts on learning. Most of the studies provided daily, extra reading classes to help struggling readers build their skills, while the control group got band or art. They should have stayed in band or art.

Yet all is not dismal. Two approaches did have markedly positive effects. One was tutoring students in groups of one to four, not every day but perhaps twice a week. The other was cooperative learning, where students worked in four-member teams to help each other learn and practice reading skills. How could these approaches be so much more effective than the others?

My answer begins with a consideration of the nature of struggling adolescent readers. They are bored out of their brains. They are likely to see school as demeaning, isolating, and unrewarding. All adolescents live for their friends. They crave mastery and respect. Remedial approaches have to be fantastic to overcome the negative aspects of having to be remediated in the first place.

Tutoring can make a big difference, because groups are small enough for students to make meaningful relationships with adults and with other kids, and instruction can be personalized to meet their unique needs, to give them a real shot at mastery.

Cooperative learning, however, had a larger average effect size than tutoring. Even though cooperative learning did not require smaller class sizes and extra daily instructional periods, it was much more effective than remedial instruction. Cooperative learning gives struggling adolescent readers opportunities to work with their peers, to teach each other, to tease each other, to laugh, to be active rather than passive. To them, it means joy. And joy is a basic skill.

Of course, joy is not enough. Kids must be learning joyfully, not just joyful. Yet in our national education system, so focused on testing and accountability, we have to keep remembering who we are teaching and what they need. More of the same, a little slower and a little louder, won’t do it. Adolescents need a reason to believe that things can be better, and that school need not cut them off from their peers. They need opportunities to teach and learn from each other. School must be joyful, or it is nothing at all, for so many adolescents.


Brown v. Board of Education at 62

On Tuesday, Brown v. Board of Education turned 62. In 1979, when the Brown decision was celebrating its 25th anniversary, I wrote an article about the Social Scientists’ Statement submitted as part of Brown v. Board of Education. Brown v. Board of Education, of course, ordered the desegregation of America’s schools “with all deliberate speed.” Deliberate indeed. As reported in a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) study, segregation of African-American and Hispanic students has increased, not decreased, over the past 15 years. Worse, schools with concentrations of minority students suffer from low funding and few other resources, and they have difficulty attracting and maintaining qualified staff.

The problem is not new, but it has gone underground. After the wars over bussing in the 1970s and ‘80s, concern for school desegregation has been replaced with vague commitments to improve the schools attended by minority students.

The Social Scientists’ Statement was evidence submitted to the Supreme Court noting that desegregation was going to work a lot better at building positive intergroup relations and respect if schools adopted teaching strategies that emphasized cooperative learning, which would give students opportunities to get to know each other as individuals. I wrote my article on this topic in the Minneapolis Public Library, where I happened to have time on my hands. I wrote at a table near a window. Outside the window was a playground in which little African-American and White children were gleefully playing. It was impossible to imagine that 37 years in the future, when those little children would have children of their own, the problems I was writing about would still exist, and would be getting worse.

To be fair, race relations are far better now than they were in 1979, and by many measures minority groups have advanced economically, educationally, and socially. Yet segregation continues to rise, and inequalities continue to grow.

The solution is straightforward, and attainable: Dramatically improve schools and expand economic opportunity to the point where there is no stigma to minority status. We have a lot of evidence about how to improve the school performance of all students. If we invested in these strategies, and in equally proven policies for expanding job opportunities, poverty and inequality would diminish, and segregation would soon follow. It would take a generation or two but there is no question that it could be done.

Could someone explain to me why we don’t get started now? What problem for the social stability and basic fairness of our nation could be more important?

Permanent Innovations

My wife Nancy and I were recently in Barcelona, a beautiful and fascinating city famous for its innovations in architecture, art, and design. We were speaking to various groups about evidence-based reform in education and about cooperative learning.

The people we spoke to on that topic in Barcelona were mostly innovators, risk takers, moving away from traditional teaching to give students more autonomy, engagement, and opportunity to collaborate. It was exciting to hear their ideas and their questions.

However, what was ironic in this experience was that here we were again talking about cooperative learning as an innovation, at about the same point on the cutting edge as it was in the 1980s. Nancy and I reflected afterwards, and not for the first time, that cooperative learning has truly become a permanent innovation.

A permanent innovation is my term for a popular, widely supported practice in education that never really prevails but never disappears. Almost everyone in the field supports it, and some actually implement it, but in reality the practice is honored more in the breach of observance than in the actuality.

I think permanent innovations are rare in the hard sciences, where sooner or later, an innovation either works and becomes commonplace, or it doesn’t and it dies.

In the case of cooperative learning, surveys over the years have routinely found that extraordinary proportions of teachers claim to use cooperative learning frequently. Yet observational studies find it to be a lot less common in practice, and many of the teachers who do use it merely allow students to work or discuss content in groups without any particular structure, a practice that has not been found to have positive impacts on learning. The proven forms of cooperative learning, which include group goals and individual accountability, have been known and popular for decades. They neither become standard practice nor disappear, but remain forever as permanent innovations.

Permanent innovations exist in many areas of curriculum. In science, it is inquiry teaching. In math, it is problem solving-based instruction. In writing, it is writing process models. All are extremely popular, and educators at conferences will rarely admit they do not use them (or if they do, they have good stories about external blockers, such as accountability schemes, resource limitations, and conservative school boards).

In principle, I favor these permanent innovations, but I’d feel a lot better if there were many programs that provided specific guidance in how to make effective use of them.

Each of the permanent innovations in education takes a positive view of children and aims to make classrooms joyful, engaged, and creative environments for students. There is no reason that specific programs consistent with these goals cannot be developed, evaluated, found to be effective, and disseminated broadly, and this has in fact happened with several forms of cooperative learning. Proven programs can and do embrace Dewey and Vygotsky. However, it always matters exactly how Deweyan and Vygotskyan principles are put into practice. Some day, I hope there will be many approaches that are both proven to be effective in rigorous experiments and consistent with constructivist, engaging, and prosocial principles. Then perhaps permanent innovations will no longer be called innovations. They’ll be called state-of-the-art.

Preservice Education and School Reform


Recently, I heard a great story. A friend was recalling her first year as a teacher, many years ago. She’d learned all about cooperative learning in her preservice program, and she was eager to try it out in her inner-city elementary school. She assigned her students to teams and got off to a great start.

Very soon, however, my friend got a visit from her principal. He wanted to know what all that noise was coming from her class. He had a clear opinion that a quiet school was a good school, so he was very concerned.

My friend was well prepared. She explained about all the research on cooperative learning, pointed out that she was using cooperative learning with group goals and individual accountability, in accord with the latest research, and showed the principal how happy and productive the students were.

“It’s fine if you want to use cooperative learning in your class,” the principal said, “but you’re going to have to get your students to stop talking to each other when they do it!”

My friend’s story illustrates some of the difficulties inherent in expecting preservice programs to reform America’s schools by turning out teachers trained in the very latest research-proven methods. The problem is that a new 22-year-old teacher is the least powerful person in the school. If he or she has any sense at all, the new teacher will do what the school is doing.

This does not mean that preservice programs need not expose aspiring teachers to proven methods. They should definitely do so, because as teachers grow and develop as professionals, they need a language and background in proven programs. My friend might not have been able to use cooperative learning in that school that year, but she did so later on. Knowing about it gave her a tool to improve her classroom that no principal could ever take away from her. But we need to be realistic about how much preservice can do to reform schools.

Change happens best in education when it takes place at the school level, so that many teachers can work together with a supportive administrator to implement ambitious reforms. Principals working in collaboration with whole staffs or departments can make major changes, bring in professional development and materials, and implement proven approaches. A supportive district and networks of liked-minded schools can also provide crucial strength to schools adopting, implementing, and progressively improving proven methods. When the school has adopted a given method with strong evidence of effectiveness, new teachers can learn to use it, and all children benefit. If the new teacher learned about the method or others like it during his or her preservice program, all the better, but counting on that experience to lead to change on a scale that matters is unlikely.

Preservice programs need to do their best to turn out capable, intentional, reflective teachers who have knowledge and skills that will be useful in any setting. Aspiring teachers need to learn about various approaches to teaching and to understand why they work and how they can be effectively applied. They should have opportunities to try out various methods in real classrooms, with feedback from mentors and peers. But don’t count on this experience to gradually lead to reformed schools. For that, we need to reform the schools directly, as whole organizations, and then staff them with the best teachers we can find. As more schools use proven models, preservice programs will hopefully prepare their students to teach in schools using them.

The Future of Instruction II: Technology and the Engaged Classroom

Last week, I wrote about how the future of instruction needs to rely on both non-technology and technology-based innovations. It may sound like a hedge, but trust me that I am excited about the promise technology has to offer! In work we’re doing in England and the U.S., we’re using interactive whiteboards to help teachers manage complex instruction using many teaching resources. Whiteboards are not particularly interesting technology in themselves; they merely make it possible for all students in a class to see anything that can be put on a computer screen.

However, if set up to do so, interactive whiteboards can help teachers orchestrate lessons. Prepared lesson resources for teachers can, for example, provide brief video segments at a point in the lesson where visualization is needed. They can present problems or exercises for students to do on their own or in cooperative groups. With currently available electronic learner response devices, they can help teachers obtain immediate, timely, formative feedback on students’ understandings of the lesson, so that they can respond right away. Whiteboards or separate student-level devices can assess student understanding of summative lesson objectives, and provide instant summaries and diagnostic information. Rich, exciting, and research-proven lessons can be provided for each lesson, and teachers can be given access to additional electronic resources and tools to adapt or extend the prepared lessons to meet their particular needs.

Interactive whiteboards and other whole-class technologies can give teachers and students cues and modeling to use particular non-technology strategies. For example, a prepared lesson can note that it’s now time for students to get into their teams to help one another solve a difficult problem or carry out a laboratory exercise. It can show videos to model to students what they’re expected to do, or to tease or inspire them to want to learn the content. The prepared lesson on the whiteboard can provide outlines, concept diagrams, still pictures, graphs, charts, and other content to help teachers teach effective lessons.

Each element of the lesson can be carefully designed, evaluated, and improved over time. Imagine appealing, humorous puppets or actors modeling effective behaviors for cooperative learning, problem solving, laboratory work, or creative writing. Imagine state-of-the-art computer-adaptive assessments embedded in day-to-day lessons. Then imagine all of this getting progressively better and better over time, as technology innovations invariably develop. Teachers could be encouraged to submit improvements or alternatives they design to enhance given lessons. Could complex, technology-enriched cooperative lessons of this kind make kids go rabid for reading? Gaga for grammar? Ape for algebra? Coo-coo for chemistry? Passionate for poetry? Fou for francais? Of course they could.

It’s daunting to imagine all the development needed to cover all subjects and all grade levels. But ask yourself whether America’s best developers of educational, technology, and entertainment content, working closely with outstanding teachers, could combine available or incipient technologies to create the world’s best approach to teaching fractions, or correct use of commas, or science inquiry. If they could, and who could doubt it, then the rest is just a long but entirely possible process of invention, testing, and progressive improvement.

The nation that won the space race can win the education race, too, using exactly the same R&D processes. All we have to do is set the goal, engage the right creative people, and set a process in motion that would utterly transform school where it counts-in the classroom.

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The Future of Instruction I: Teachers and Technology

Think about the best teacher, the best class, the best learning experience you ever had. In that class, you were engaged. You were challenged. You were excited. You had new insights, and left the class a different person, confident in your new knowledge and skill, but even more, confident in yourself as a learner.

In educational innovation, all we have to do is to make every hour of every educational day as good as that best learning day of your life. How hard could that be?

The path to creating outstanding lessons every hour in every subject is being made a lot easier by new technologies, but it’s not the technologies you’re probably thinking about. Research on computer-assisted instruction (CAI), where students are assessed, placed at the appropriate level, given on-line lessons, and assessed on key outcomes, is not showing much of an impact on learning in math or reading.

While CAI will surely continue to play a role, I believe that real breakthroughs in teaching methods will come from classroom (as opposed to individualized) technologies that help teachers orchestrate diverse technological as well as non-technological resources.

The problem in designing effective and replicable teaching methods is that different approaches are likely to be effective for different objectives and for different parts of the lesson itself. For example, well-designed video may be ideal for presenting new content where visual input is essential, but not for practice, mastery, or assessment. Cooperative learning (non-technology) may be ideal for practice and mastery, but not for introducing new concepts to students. Teachers may be optimal at explaining ideas to students and adapting to the learning needs of a particular class, and they can be good at motivating and personally engaging students, but technology can help them give students a visual image of concepts, and can help with assessment and individualization. Computers may be ideal for assessment and for differentiation (e.g., allowing high achievers to go on to “challenge” content), and they can offer exciting games and simulations, but are not yet very good at teaching new material.

In theory, every lesson might contain some appropriate mix of all of these technology and non-technology resources, but an unaided teacher would have difficulty organizing all of this and adapting it in light of children’s responses on the fly. The future of instruction may be in exciting new technologies, but those technologies alone will not transform the classroom–we will always need an equal focus on new tools AND effective human methods paired with effective professional development.

Next week, tune in for more thoughts on the promise of technology and teachers working together.

Once Upon a Math Problem: Stories and Learning

Once upon a time, there was a red-headed fourth grader named Ned. Ned was bored in school, and he didn’t get good grades. His mom was mad at him, his teacher pleaded with him, and Ned wanted to please them, but he just couldn’t get interested enough in school to put in enough effort to really succeed.

I’ll come back to red-headed Ned in a moment, but stop for a moment and ask yourself: Aren’t you interested in Ned? Isn’t focusing on a particular student, even if he’s fictional, a lot more interesting than my usual blogs that begin with dilemma of policy and practice?

Kids (like adults) love stories. They live in a social world, where talking about each other, other friends and family, teachers, rock stars, and movie stars is a full-time activity. Every creator of TV or movie content knows this, of course, because effective storytelling is their stock in trade.

How can schools take advantage of children’s interest in stories? Cooperative learning has been proven to help, because it engages students’ own social worlds with their learning.

With the support of Old Dominion University’s federal Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) scale up award, Success for All is now experimenting with adding stories to teachers’ instruction and cooperative learning activities. We’ve created brief videos with puppets, appealing characters, and animations to supplement teaching. We have evidence that this improves learning in reading and are studying a similar strategy in math in England. Brief video vignettes are shown on interactive whiteboards at designated points in teachers’ lessons.

Watching students and teachers using these embedded videos is exciting. Kids resonate to the videos and teachers use them as a point of reference in their lessons. We believe that this particular approach in math is making a difference, but we are continuing to study the method to be sure. In the meantime, it is clear that it certainly is engaging the kids, modeling cooperative learning and problem solving, and adding the magic of storytelling to math instruction.

So aren’t you wondering what happened to Ned? Luckily, Ned’s teacher adopted a program that uses embedded videos and research proven cooperative learning, and Ned is now excited about school, engaged with his peers, and feeling successful. If you’re like most kids, you’ll now remember the story of red-headed Ned a lot longer than you’ll remember the rest of this blog. There has to be a way to use stories in just this way to help all the Neds out there who are more likely to learn if we embed learning in stories.

Editor’s Note: Robert Slavin is Chairman of the Board of the Success for All Foundation

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