Cooperative Learning and Achievement

Once upon a time, two teachers went together to an evening workshop on effective teaching strategies. The speaker was dynamic, her ideas were interesting, and everyone in the large audience enjoyed the speech. Afterwards, the two teachers drove back to the town where they lived. The driver talked excitedly with her friend about all the wonderful ideas they’d heard, raised questions about how to put them into practice, and related them to things she’d read, heard, and experienced before.

After an hour’s drive, however, the driver realized that her friend had been asleep for the whole return trip.

Now here’s my question: who learned the most from the speech? Both the driver and her friend were equally excited by the speech and paid equal attention to it. Yet no one would doubt that the driver learned much more, because after the lecture, she talked all about it, thinking her friend was awake.

Every teacher knows how much they learn about any topic by teaching it, or discussing it with others. Imagine how much more the driver and her friend would have learned from the lecture if they had both been participating fully, sharing ideas, perceptions, agreements, disagreements, and new ideas.

So far, this is all obvious, right? Everyone knows that people learn when they are engaged, when they have opportunities to discuss with others, explain to others, ask questions of others, and receive explanations.

Yet in traditionally organized classes, learning does not often happen like this. Teachers teach, students listen, and if genuine discussion takes place at all, it is between the teacher and a small minority of students who always raise their hands and ask good questions. Even in the most exciting and interactive of classes, many students, often a majority, say little or nothing. They may give an answer if called upon, but “giving an answer” is not at all the same as engagement. Even in classes that are organized in groups and encourage group interaction, some students do most of the participating, while others just watch, at best. Evidence from research, especially studies by Noreen Webb (2008), find that the students who learn the most in group settings are those who give full explanations to others. These are the drivers, returning to my opening story. Those who receive a lot of explanations also learn. Who learns least? Those who neither explain nor receive explanations.

For achievement outcomes, it is not enough to put students into groups and let them talk. Research finds that cooperative learning works best when there are group goals and individual accountability. That is, groups can earn recognition or small privileges (e.g., lining up first for recess) if the average of each team member’s score meets a high standard. The purpose of group goals and individual accountability is to incentivize team members to help and encourage each other to excel, and to avoid having, for example, one student do all the work while the others watch (Chapman, 2001). Students can be silent in groups, as they can be in class, but this is less likely if they are working with others toward a common goal that they can achieve only if all team members succeed.

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The effectiveness of cooperative learning for enhancing achievement has been known for a long time (see Rohrbeck et al., 2003; Roseth et al., 2008; Slavin, 1995, 2014). Forms of cooperative learning are frequently seen in elementary and secondary schools, but they are far from standard practice. Forms of cooperative learning that use group goals and individual accountability are even more rare.

There are many examples of programs that incorporate cooperative learning and meet the ESSA Strong or Moderate standards in reading, math, SEL, and attendance. You can see descriptions of the programs by visiting www.evidenceforessa.org and clicking on the cooperative learning filter. As you can see, it is remarkable how many of the programs identified as effective for improving student achievement by the What Works Clearinghouse or Evidence for ESSA make use of well-structured cooperative learning, usually with students working in teams or groups of 4-5 students, mixed in past performance. In fact, in reading and mathematics, only one-to-one or small-group tutoring are more effective than approaches that make extensive use of cooperative learning.

There are many successful approaches to cooperative learning adapted for different subjects, specific objectives, and age levels (see Slavin, 1995). There is no magic to cooperative learning; outcomes depend on use of proven strategies and high-quality implementation. The successful forms of cooperative learning provide at least a good start for educators seeking ways to make school engaging, exciting, social, and effective for learning. Students not only learn from cooperation in small groups, but they love to do so. They are typically eager to work with their classmates. Why shouldn’t we routinely give them this opportunity?

References

Chapman, E. (2001, April). More on moderations in cooperative learning outcomes. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, Canada.

Rohrbeck, C. A., Ginsburg-Block, M. D., Fantuzzo, J. W., & Miller, T. R. (2003). Peer-assisted learning interventions with elementary school students: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94(2), 240–257.

Roseth, C., Johnson, D., & Johnson, R. (2008). Promoting early adolescents’ achievement and peer relationships: The effects of cooperative, competitive, and individualistic goal structures. Psychological Bulletin, 134(2), 223–246.

Slavin, R. E. (1995). Cooperative learning: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Slavin, R. E. (2014). Make cooperative learning powerful: Five essential strategies to make cooperative learning effective. Educational Leadership, 72 (2), 22-26.

Webb, N. M. (2008). Learning in small groups. In T. L. Good (Ed.), 21st century learning (Vol. 1, pp. 203–211). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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Evidence Affects School Change and Teacher-by-Teacher Change Differently

Nell Duke, now a distinguished professor at the University of Michigan, likes to tell a story about using cooperative learning as a young teacher. She had read a lot about cooperative learning and was excited to try it in her elementary class. However, not long after she started, her principal came to her class and asked her to step into the hall. “Miss Duke,” he said, “what in blazes are you doing in there?”

Nell told her principal all about cooperative learning, and how strongly the research supported it, and how her students were so excited to work in groups and help each other learn.

“Cooperative learning?” said her principal. “Well, I suppose that’s all right. But from now on could you do it quietly?”

Nell Duke’s story exemplifies one of the most important problems in research-based reform in education. Should research-based reform focus on teachers or on schools? Nell was following the evidence, and her students were enjoying the new method and seemed to be learning better because of it. Yet in her school, she was the only teacher using cooperative learning. As a result, she did not have the support or understanding of her principal, or even of her fellow teachers. Her principal had rules about keeping noise levels down, and he was not about to make an exception for one teacher.

However, the problem of evidence-based reform for teachers as opposed to schools goes far beyond the problems of one noisy classroom. The problem is that it is difficult to do reform one teacher at a time. In fact, it is very difficult to even do high-quality program evaluations at the teacher level, and as a result, most programs listed as effective in the What Works Clearinghouse or Evidence for ESSA are designed for use at least in whole grade levels, and often in whole schools. One reason for this is that it is more cost-effective to provide coaching to whole schools or grade levels. Most successful programs provide initial professional development to many teachers and then follow up with coaching visits to teachers using new methods, to give them feedback and encouragement. It is too expensive for most schools to provide extensive coaching to just one or a small number of teachers. Further, multiple teachers working together can support each other, ask each other questions, and visit each other’s classes. Principals and other administrative staff can support the whole school in using proven programs, but a principal responsible for many teachers is not likely to spend a lot of time learning about a method used by just one or two teachers.

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When we were disseminating cooperative learning programs in the 1980s, we started off providing large workshops for anyone who wanted to attend. These were very popular and teachers loved them, but when we checked in a year later, many teachers were not using the methods they’d learned. Why? The answer was most often that teachers had difficulty sustaining a new program without much support from their leadership or colleagues. We’d found that on-site coaching was essential for quality implementation, but we could not provide coaching to widely dispersed schools. Instead, we began to focus on school-wide implementations of cooperative learning. This soon led to our development and successful evaluations of Success for All, as we learned that working with whole schools made it possible not only to ensure high-quality implementations of cooperative learning, but also to add in grouping strategies, tutoring for struggling readers, parent involvement approaches, and other elements that would have been impossible to do in a teacher-by teacher approach to change.

In comparison with our experience with cooperative learning focused on individual teachers, Success for All has both been more effective and longer-lasting. The median Success for All school has used the program for 11 years, for example.

Of course, it is still important to have research-based strategies that teachers can use on their own. Cooperative learning itself can be used this way, as can proven strategies for classroom management, instruction, assessment, feedback, and much more. Yet it is often the case that practices suggested to individual teachers were in fact evaluated in whole school or grade levels. It is probably better for teachers to use programs proven effective in school-level research than to use unevaluated approaches, but teachers using such programs on their own should be aware that teachers in school-level evaluations probably received a lot of professional development and in-class coaching. To get the same results, individual teachers might visit others using the programs successfully, or at a minimum participate in social media conversations with other teachers using the same approaches.

Individual teachers interested in using proven programs and practices might do best to make common cause with colleagues and approach the principal about trying the new method in their grade level or in the school as a whole. This way, it is possible to obtain the benefits of school-wide implementation while playing an active role in the process of innovation.

There are never guarantees in any form of innovation, but teachers who are eager to improve their teaching and their students’ learning can work with receptive principals to systematically try out and informally evaluate promising approaches. Perhaps nothing would have changed the mind of Nell Duke’s principal, but most principals value initiative on the part of their teachers to try out likely solutions to improve students’ learning.

The numbers of children who need proven programs to reach their full potential is vast. Whenever possible, shouldn’t we try to reach larger numbers of students with well-conceived and well-supported implementations of proven teaching methods?

 This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

What Works in Professional Development

I recently read an IES-funded study, called “The Effects of a Principal Professional Development Program Focused on Instructional Leadership.” The study, reported by a research team at Mathematica (Hermann et al., 2019), was a two-year evaluation of a Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) program in which elementary principals received 188 hours of PD, including a 28-hour summer institute at the beginning of the program, quarterly virtual professional learning community sessions in which principals met other principals and CEL coaches, and 50 hours per year of individual coaching in which principals worked with their CEL coaches to set goals, implement strategies, and analyze effects of strategies. Principals helped teachers improve instruction by observing teachers, giving feedback, and selecting curricula; sought to improve their recruitment, management, and retention strategies, held PD sessions for teachers; and focused on setting a school mission, improving school climate, and deploying resources effectively.

A total of 100 low-achieving schools were recruited. Half received the CEL program, and half served as controls. After one, two, and three years, there were no differences between experimental and control schools on standardized measures of student reading or mathematics achievement, no differences on school climate, and no differences on principal or teacher retention.

So what happened? First, it is important to note that previous studies of principal professional development have also found zero (e.g., Jacob et al., 2014) or very small and inconsistent effects (e.g., Nunnery et al., 2011, 2016). Second, numerous studies of certain types of professional development for teachers have also found very small or zero impacts. For example, a review of research on elementary mathematics programs by Pellegrini et al. (2019) identified 12 qualifying studies of professional development for mathematics content and pedagogy. The average effect size was essentially zero (ES=+0.04).

What does work in professional development?

In sharp contrast to these dismal findings, there are many forms of professional development that work very well. For example, in the Pellegrini et al. (2019) mathematics review, professional development designed to teach teachers to use specific instructional processes were very effective, averaging ES=+0.25. These included studies of cooperative learning, classroom management strategies, and individualized instruction. In fact, other than one-to-one and one-to-small group tutoring, no other type of approach was as effective. In a review of research on programs for elementary struggling readers by Inns et al. (2019), programs incorporating cooperative learning had an effect size of +0.29, more effective than any other programs except tutoring. A review of research on secondary reading programs by Baye et al. (2018) found that cooperative learning programs and whole-school models incorporating cooperative learning, along with writing-focused models also incorporating cooperative learning, had larger impacts than anything other than tutoring.

How can it be that professional development on cooperative learning and classroom management are so much more effective than professional development on content, pedagogy, and general teaching strategies?

One reason, I would submit, is that it is very difficult to teach someone to improve practices that they already know how to do. For example, if as an adult you took a course in tennis or golf or sailing or bridge, you probably noticed that you learned very rapidly, retained what you learned, and quickly improved your performance in that new skill. Contrast this with a course on dieting or parenting. The problem with improving your eating or parenting is that you already know very well how to eat, and if you already have kids, you know how to parent. You could probably stand some improvement in these areas, which is why you took the course, but no matter how motivated you are to improve, over time you are likely to fall back on well-established routines, or even bad habits. The same is true of teaching. Early in their careers teachers develop routine ways of performing each of the tasks of teaching: lecturing, planning, praising, dealing with misbehavior, and so on. Teachers know their content and settle into patterns of communicating that content to students. Then one day a professional developer shows up, who watches teachers teaching and gives them advice. The advice might take, but quite often teachers give it a try, run into difficulties, and then settle back into comfortable routines.

Now consider a more specific, concrete set of strategies that are distinctly different from what teachers typically do: cooperative learning. Teachers can readily learn the key components. They put their students in mixed groups of four or five. After an initial lesson, they give students opportunities to work together to make sure that everyone can succeed at the task. Teachers observe and assist students during team practice. They assess student learning, and celebrate student success. Every one of these components is a well-defined, easily learned, and easily observed step. Teachers need training and coaching to succeed at first, but after a while, cooperative learning itself becomes second nature. It helps that almost all kids love to be noisy and engaged, and love to work with each other, so they are rooting for the teacher to succeed. But for most teachers, structured cooperative learning is distinctly different from ordinary teaching, so it is easy to learn and maintain.

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As another example, consider classroom management strategies used in many programs. Trainers show teachers how to use Popsicle sticks with kids’ names on them to call on students, so all kids have to pay attention in case they are called. To get students’ immediate attention, teachers may learn to raise their hands and have students raise theirs, or to ring a bell, or to say a phrase like “one, two, three, look at me.” Teachers may learn to give points to groups or individuals who are meeting class expectations. They may learn to give students or groups privileges, such as lining up first to go outside or having the privilege of selecting and leading their favorite team or class cheer. These and many other teacher behaviors are clear, distinct, easily learned, and immediately solve persistent problems of low-level disturbances.

The point is not that these cooperative learning or classroom management strategies are more important than content knowledge or pedagogy. However, they are easily learned, retained, and institutionalized ways of solving critical daily problems of teaching, and they are so well-defined and clear that when they have started working, teachers are likely to hold on to them indefinitely and are unlikely to fall back on other strategies that may be less effective but are already deeply ingrained.

I am not suggesting that only observable, structural classroom reforms such as cooperative learning or classroom management strategies are good uses of professional development resources. All aspects of teaching need successive improvement, of course. But I am using these examples to illustrate why certain types of professional development are very difficult to make effective. It may be that improving the content and pedagogy teachers use day in and day out may require more concrete, specific strategies. I hope developers and researchers will create and successfully evaluate such new approaches, so that teachers can continually improve their effectiveness in all areas. But there are whole categories of professional development that research repeatedly finds are just not working. Researchers and educators need to focus on why this is true, and then design new PD strategies that are less subtle, more observable, and deal more with actual teacher and student behavior.

References

Hermann, M., Clark, M., James-Burdumy, S., Tuttle, C., Kautz, T., Knechtel, V., Dotter, D., Wulsin, C.S., & Deke, J. (2019). The effects of a principal professional development program focused on instructional leadership (NCEE 2020-0002). Washington, DC: Naitonal Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Inns, A., Lake, C., Pellegrini, M., & Slavin, R. (2019). A synthesis of quantitative research on programs for struggling readers in elementary schools. Available at www.bestevidence.org. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Jacob, R., Goddard, K., Miller, R., & Goddard, Y. (2014). Exploring the causal impact of the McREL Balanced Leadership Program on leadership, principal efficacy, instructional climate, educator turnover, and student achievement. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 52 187-220.

Nunnery, J., Ross, S., Chappel, S., Pribesh, S., & Hoag-Carhart, E. (2011). The impact of the National Institute for School Leadership’s Executive Development Program on school performance trends in Massachusetts: Cohort 2 Results. Norfolk, VA: Center for Educational Partnerships, Old Dominion University.

Nunnery, J., Ross, S., & Reilly, J. (2016). An evaluation of the National Institute for School Leadership: Executive Development Program in Milwaukee Public Schools. Norfolk, VA: Center for Educational Partnerships, Old Dominion University.

Pellegrini, M., Inns, A., Lake, C., & Slavin, R. (2019). Effective programs in elementary mathematics: A best-evidence synthesis. Available at www.bestevidence.com. Manuscript submitted for publication.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

On Progress

My grandfather (pictured below with my son Ben around 1985) was born in 1900, and grew up in Argentina. The world he lived in as a child had no cars, no airplanes, few cures for common diseases, and inefficient agriculture that bound the great majority of the world to farming. By the time he died, in 1996, think of all the astonishing progress he’d seen in technology, medicine, agriculture, and much else.

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Pictured are Bob Slavin’s grandfather and son, both of whom became American citizens: one born before the invention of airplanes, the other born before the exploration of Mars.

I was born in 1950. The progress in technology, medicine, and agriculture, and many other fields, continues to be extraordinary.

In most of our society and economy, we confidently expect progress. When my father needed a heart valve, his doctor suggested that he wait as long as possible because new, much better heart valves were coming out soon. He could, and did, bet his life on progress, and it paid off.

But now consider education. My grandfather attended school in Argentina, where he was taught in rows by teachers who did most of the talking. My father went to school in New York City, where he was taught in rows by teachers who did most of the talking. I went to school in Washington, DC, where I was taught in rows by teachers who did most of the talking. My children went to school in Baltimore, where they mostly sat at tables, and did use some technology, but still, the teachers did most of the talking.

 

My grandchildren are now headed toward school (the oldest is four). They will use a lot of technology, and will sit at tables more than my own children did. But the basic structure of the classroom is not so different from Argentina, 1906. All who eagerly await the technology revolution are certainly seeing many devices in classroom use. But are these devices improving outcomes on, for example, reading and math? Our reviews of research on all types of approaches used in elementary and secondary schools are not finding strong benefits of technology. Across all subjects and grade levels, the average effect size is similar, ranging from +0.07 (elementary math) to +0.09 (elementary reading). If you like “additional months of learning,” these effects equate to one month in a year. Ok, better than zero, but not the revolution we’ve been waiting for.

There are other approaches much more effective than technology, such as tutoring, forms of cooperative learning, and classroom management strategies. At www.evidenceforessa.org, you can see descriptions and outcomes of more than 100 proven programs. But these are not widely used. Your children or grandchildren, or other children you care about, may go 13 years from kindergarten to 12th grade without ever experiencing a proven program. In our field, progress is slow, and dissemination of proven programs is slower.

Education is the linchpin for our economy and society. Everything else depends on it. In all of the developed world, education is richly funded, yet very, very little of this largesse is invested in innovation, evaluations of innovative methods, or dissemination of proven programs. Other fields have shown how innovation, evaluation, and dissemination of proven strategies can become the engine of progress. There is absolutely nothing inevitable about the slow pace of progress in education. That slow pace is a choice we have made, and keep making, year after year, generation after generation. I hope we will make a different choice in time to benefit my grandchildren, and the children of every family in the world. It could happen, and there are many improvements in educational research and development to celebrate. But how long must it take before the best of educational innovation becomes standard practice?

 This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

What Works in Teaching Writing?

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.”   -Maya Angelou

It’s not hard to make an argument that creative writing is the noblest of all school subjects. To test this, try replacing the word “write” in this beautiful quotation from Maya Angelou with “read” or “compute.” Students must be proficient in reading and mathematics and other subjects, of course, but in what other subject must learners study how to reach the emotions of their readers?

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Good writing is the mark of an educated person. Perhaps especially in the age of electronic communications, we know most of the people we know largely through their writing. Job applications depend on the ability of the applicant to make themselves interesting to someone they’ve never seen. Every subject–science, history, reading, and many more–requires its own exacting types of writing.

Given the obvious importance of writing in people’s lives, you’d naturally expect that writing would occupy a central place in instruction. But you’d be wrong. Before secondary school, writing plays third fiddle to the other two of the 3Rs, reading and ‘rithmetic, and in secondary school, writing is just one among many components of English. College professors, employers, and ordinary people complain incessantly about the poor writing skills of today’s youth. The fact is that writing is not attended to as much as it should be, and the results are apparent to all.

Not surprisingly, the inadequate focus on writing in U.S. schools extends to an inadequate focus on research on this topic as well. My colleagues and I recently carried out a review of research on secondary reading programs. We found 69 studies that met rigorous inclusion criteria (Baye, Lake, Inns, & Slavin, in press). Recently, our group completed a review of secondary writing using similar inclusion standards, under funding from the Education Endowment Foundation in England (Slavin, Lake, Inns, Baye, Dachet, & Haslam, 2019). Yet we found only 14 qualifying studies, of which 11 were in secondary schools (we searched down to third grade).

To be fair, our inclusion standards were pretty tough. We required that studies compare experimental groups to randomized or matched control groups on measures independent of the experimental treatment. Tests could not have been made up by teachers or researchers, and they could not be scored by the teachers who taught the classes. Experimental and control groups had to be well-matched at pretest and have nearly equal attrition (loss of subjects over time). Studies had to have a duration of at least 12 weeks. Studies could include students with IEPs, but they could not be in self-contained, special education settings.

We divided the studies into three categories. One was studies of writing process models, in which students worked together to plan, draft, revise, and edit compositions in many genres. A very similar category was cooperative learning models, most of which also used a plan-draft-revise-edit cycle, but placed a strong emphasis on use of cooperative learning teams. A third category was programs that balanced writing with reading instruction.

Remarkably, the average effect sizes of each of the three categories were virtually identical, with a mean effect size of +0.18. There was significant variation within categories, however. In the writing process category, the interesting story concerned a widely used U.S. program, Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD), evaluated in two qualifying studies in England. In one, the program was implemented in rural West Yorkshire and had huge impacts on struggling writers, the students for whom SRSD was designed. The effect size was +0.74. However, in a much larger study in urban Leeds and Lancashire, outcomes were not so positive (ES= +0.01), although effects were largest for struggling writers. There were many studies of SRSD in the U.S, but none of them qualified, due to a lack of control group, brief experiments, measures made up by researchers, and located in all-special education classrooms.

Three programs that emphasize cooperative learning had notably positive impacts. These were Writing Wings (ES = +0.13), Student Team Writing (ES = +0.38), and Expert 21 (ES = +0.58).

Among programs emphasizing reading and writing, two had a strong focus on English learners: Pathway (ES = +0.32) and ALIAS (ES = +0.18). Another two approaches had an explicit focus on preparing students for freshman English: College Ready Writers Program (ES = +0.18) and Expository Reading and Writing Course (ES = =0.13).

Looking across all categories, there were several factors common to successful programs that stood out:

  • Cooperative Learning. Cooperative learning usually aids learning in all subjects, but it makes particular sense in writing, as a writing team gives students opportunities to give and receive feedback on their compositions, facilitating their efforts to gain insight into how their peers think about writing, and giving them a sympathetic and ready audience for their writing.
  • Writing Process. Teaching students step-by-step procedures to work with others to plan, draft, revise, and edit compositions in various genres appears to be very beneficial. The first steps focus on helping students get their ideas down on paper without worrying about mechanics, while the later stages help students progressively improve the structure, organization, grammar, and punctuation of their compositions. These steps help students reluctant to write at all to take risks at the outset, confident that they will have help from peers and teachers to progressively improve their writing.
  • Motivation and Joy in Self-Expression. In the above quote, Maya Angelou talks about the importance in writing of “sliding through the brain to get to the heart.” But to the writer, this process must work the other way, too. Good writing starts in the heart, with an urge to say something of importance. The brain shapes writing to make it readable, but writing must start with a message that the writer cares about. This principle is demonstrated most obviously in writing process and cooperative learning models, where every effort is made to motivate students to find exciting and interesting topics to share with their peers. In programs balancing reading and writing, reading is used to help students have something important to write.
  • Extensive Professional Development. Learning to teach writing well is not easy. Teachers need opportunities to learn new strategies and to apply them in their own writing. All of the successful writing programs we identified in our review provided extensive, motivating, and cooperative professional development, often designed as much to help teachers catch the spirit of writing as to follow a set of procedures.

Our review of writing research found that there is considerable consensus in how to teach writing. There were more commonalities than differences across the categories. Effects were generally positive, however, because control teachers were not using these consensus strategies, or were not doing so with the skills imparted by the professional development characteristic of all of the successful approaches.

We cannot expect writing instruction to routinely produce Maya Angelous or Mark Twains. Great writers add genius to technique. However, we can create legions of good writers, and our students will surely benefit.

References

Baye, A., Lake, C., Inns, A., & Slavin, R. (in press). Effective reading programs for secondary students. Reading Research Quarterly.

Slavin, R. E., Lake, C. Inns, A., Baye, A., Dachet, D., & Haslam, J. (2019). A quantitative synthesis of research on writing approaches in Key Stage 2 and secondary schools. London: Education Endowment Foundation.

Photo credit: Kyle Tsui from Washington, DC, USA [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

A Mathematical Mystery

My colleagues and I wrote a review of research on elementary mathematics (Pellegrini, Lake, Inns, & Slavin, 2018). I’ve written about it before, but I wanted to hone in on one extraordinary set of findings.

In the review, there were 12 studies that evaluated programs that focused on providing professional development for elementary teachers of mathematics content and mathematics –-specific pedagogy. I was sure that this category would find positive effects on student achievement, but it did not. The most remarkable (and depressing) finding involved the huge year-long Intel study in which 80 teachers received 90 hours of very high-quality in-service during the summer, followed by an additional 13 hours of group discussions of videos of the participants’ class lessons. Teachers using this program were compared to 85 control teachers. After all this, students in the Intel classes scored slightly worse than controls on standardized measures (Garet et al., 2016).

If the Intel study were the only disappointment, one might look for flaws in their approach or their evaluation design or other things specific to that study. But as I noted earlier, all 12 of the studies of this kind failed to find positive effects, and the mean effect size was only +0.04 (n.s.).

Lest anyone jump to the conclusion that nothing works in elementary mathematics, I would point out that this is not the case. The most impactful category was tutoring programs, so that’s a special case. But the second most impactful category had many features in common with professional development focused on mathematics content and pedagogy, but had an average effect size of +0.25. This category consisted of programs focused on classroom management and motivation: Cooperative learning, classroom management strategies using group contingencies, and programs focusing on social emotional learning.

So there are successful strategies in elementary mathematics, and they all provided a lot of professional development. Yet programs for mathematics content and pedagogy, all of which also provided a lot of professional development, did not show positive effects in high-quality evaluations.

I have some ideas about what may be going on here, but I advance them cautiously, as I am not certain about them.

The theory of action behind professional development focused on mathematics content and pedagogy assumes that elementary teachers have gaps in their understanding of mathematics content and mathematics-specific pedagogy. But perhaps whatever gaps they have are not so important. Here is one example. Leading mathematics educators today take a very strong view that fractions should never be taught using pizza slices, but only using number lines. The idea is that pizza slices are limited to certain fractional concepts, while number lines are more inclusive of all uses of fractions. I can understand and, in concept, support this distinction. But how much difference does it make? Students who are learning fractions can probably be divided into three pizza slices. One slice represents students who understand fractions very well, however they are presented, and another slice consists of students who have no earthly idea about fractions. The third slice consists of students who could have learned fractions if it were taught with number lines but not pizzas. The relative sizes of these slices vary, but I’d guess the third slice is the smallest. Whatever it is, the number of students whose success depends on fractions vs. number lines is unlikely to be large enough to shift the whole group mean very much, and that is what is reported in evaluations of mathematics approaches. For example, if the “already got it” slice is one third of all students, and the “probably won’t get it” slice is also one third, the slice consisting of students who might get the concept one way but not the other is also one third. If the effect size for the middle slice were as high as an improbable +0.20, the average for all students would be less than +0.07, averaging across the whole pizza.

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A related possibility relates to teachers’ knowledge. Assume that one slice of teachers already knows a lot of the content before the training. Another slice is not going to learn or use it. The third slice, those who did not know the content before but will use it effectively after training, is the only slice likely to show a benefit, but this benefit will be swamped by the zero effects for the teachers who already knew the content and those who will not learn or use it.

If teachers are standing at the front of the class explaining mathematical concepts, such as proportions, a certain proportion of students are learning the content very well and a certain proportion are bored, terrified, or just not getting it. It’s hard to imagine that the successful students are gaining much from a change of content or pedagogy, and only a small proportion of the unsuccessful students will all of a sudden understand what they did not understand before, just because it is explained better. But imagine that instead of only changing content, the teacher adopts cooperative learning. Now the students are having a lot of fun working with peers. Struggling students have an opportunity to ask for explanations and help in a less threatening environment, and they get a chance to see and ultimately absorb how their more capable teammates approach and solve difficult problems. The already high-achieving students may become even higher achieving, because as every teacher knows, explanation helps the explainer as much as the student receiving the explanation.

The point I am making is that the findings of our mathematics review may reinforce a general lesson we take away from all of our reviews: Subtle treatments produce subtle (i.e., small) impacts. Students quickly establish themselves as high or average or low achievers, after which time it is difficult to fundamentally change their motivations and approaches to learning. Making modest changes in content or pedagogy may not be enough to make much difference for most students. Instead, dramatically changing motivation, providing peer assistance, and making mathematics more fun and rewarding, seems more likely to make a significant change in learning than making subtle changes in content or pedagogy. That is certainly what we have found in systematic reviews of elementary mathematics and elementary and secondary reading.

Whatever the student outcomes are compared to controls, there may be good reason to improve mathematics content and pedagogy. But if we are trying to improve achievement for all students, the whole pizza, we need to use methods that make a more profound impact on all students. And that is true any way you slice it.

References

Garet, M. S., Heppen, J. B., Walters, K., Parkinson, J., Smith, T. M., Song, M., & Borman, G. D. (2016). Focusing on mathematical knowledge: The impact of content-intensive teacher professional development (NCEE 2016-4010). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Pellegrini, M., Inns, A., Lake, C., & Slavin, R. E. (2018). Effective programs in elementary mathematics: A best-evidence synthesis. Paper presented at the Society for Research on Effective Education, Washington, DC.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

 

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.