Skip to content

Posts from the ‘homework’ Category

Flipped Classrooms and Social Studies

Parker Palmer of Courage to Teach fame once said that

good teaching cannot be reduced to one technique . . .

I like that.

We’re all different and connect with our kids and content in different ways. But I would add to Parker’s comment and suggest that

good teaching is always more than one technique.

and its corollary;

bad teaching is always the same technique.

We shouldn’t be happy with what’s worked in the past, with what we’ve always done. We need to constantly be looking for ways to improve what we do. New research, new ideas, and new strategies can help us do our jobs better.

Which brings me to the idea of the flipped classroom.

The basic idea of a flipped classroom is that a teacher uses technology to provide student access to foundational knowledge outside of class. This allows more time for inquiry, discussion, debate, collaboration, problem-solving, product development, or guided practice during class time. So rather than kids listening to you during class and doing work outside of class, you “flip” that idea – time outside of class is spent on gathering foundational knowledge and time in class is spent working with that content.

I think good teachers have been doing this sort of thing, well . . . forever. The difference now is that there are more tools that make the idea easier to implement. One recent idea is to provide online or mobile videos of lectures or content delivery that students view on a schedule that best suits them.

It’s an interesting concept that has been creating a lot of buzz in the math and science areas but which has been slow to develop in the humanities such as history and social studies.

As you begin rolling the idea around in your head, check out the infographic below as well as a few online resources. Then ask yourself:

What would this look like in my class? What piece of this can I break off and try?

I would be curious to hear from those of you finding success with a social studies flipped classroom. What’s working? What should we be aware of?


The Flipped Class is Here to Stay
Three or four reasons the idea has legs

15 Schools Using the Flipped Classrooms
Some good examples

Flipping a History Classroom
Video clip, discussion and comments

Flipping the US History Class
A MSU discussion board on the topic

A new infographic from Knewton. Be sure to check out the research at the bottom.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

Paper Rater

I just ran across Paper Rater. According to their About page: is used by schools and universities in over 46 countries to help students improve their writing. combines the power of natural language processing (NLP), artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, information retrieval (IR), computational linguistics, data mining, and advanced pattern matching (APM). We offer the most powerful writing tool available on the internet today.

As part of the development process, we put together a team of computational linguists and subject matter experts to develop a core Natural Language Processing (NLP) engine using statistical and rules-based NLP to extract language features from essays and robustly translate that into statistical models.

Okay . . . I’m not a computational linguist but I think that means that Paper Rater can be used by kids to check their writing. I’m pretty sure that’s what it means.

Give it a try. Hand over to Paper Rater, hit the Use Now Free button, paste in some text you’ve written, answer a few questions (including grade level of author and type of paper you’re submitting) and select Get Report. Be sure to include the Originality Detection option to check for plagiarism.

You’ll get a handy report with suggestions for improvement. And it’s not just spelling and grammar. Just about any word processor does that. Paper Rater makes style and word choice suggestions as well.

I like this. Again, I’m not a computational linguist, but it seems to me that kids would find this useful. Write a rough draft, run it through Paper Rater, gets some ideas for improvement, write the final draft, check it again, tweak a few things and your paper goes from semi-incredibly awful to not too bad.

I’m a big believer in all sorts of feedback and self-evaluation so this sort of tool makes all sorts of sense to me. I would require students to not only use the tool but to print out screenshots of their Paper Rater reports when they turn in their rough drafts. Or if you’re going paperless, I would want a PDF along with their digital rough draft.

I also like that it seems to work pretty well on mobile devices such as iPhones and tablets.

I’m not entirely convinced about their plagiarism checker. I’ve tried it a few times and it did catch stuff from Wikipedia and free essay sites.

But it struggled a bit with more recent web pages such as news sources and blogs. But the fact that there is a plagiarism tool included is great for reminding students about the importance of intellectual property. It also gives you a soapbox to stand on as you preach about plagiarism and cheating.

Oh . . . did I mention that it’s free?

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

How NOT to teach World History in the 21st century


You’re kidding, right? This is the way we want to teach high school World History?

A recent article in the Washington Post describes the current thinking of history teachers at Westfield High School in Fairfax, Virginia. Titled “Curiosity is banned at Westfield High,” the article highlights one of the documents given to students called “Expectations of Integrity.” The document instructs students:

Students are only allowed to use your OWN knowledge, your OWN class notes, class handouts, your OWN class homework, or The Earth and Its Peoples textbook to complete assignments and assessments UNLESS specifically informed otherwise by your instructor.

That’s not all. Students can not use anything they find on the Internet. They are not permitted to discuss their assignments with friends, classmates, neighbors, parents, relatives or siblings.

Well . . . what about people you’ve never met? The instructors have that covered:

You may not discuss/mention/chat/hand signal/smoke signal/Facebook/IM/text/email to a complete stranger ANY answers/ideas/questions/thoughts/opinions/hints/instructions.

Violations of the “Expectations” will result in the proverbial death penalty – a zero on the assignment.


Yeah . . . I get it. Kids can plagiarize and text answers and go to Shmoop and do all sorts of “devious” things by taking advantage of current technology. And, yes, some sort of updated AUP and plagiarism policy is appropriate in any high school class. But there is so much wrong with this particular kind of thinking and teaching that I’m not really sure where to begin.

How about we start with just one?

Collaborative learning improves divergent thinking, encourages innovative thought and generates new questions / solutions. I’m no rocket scientist but I’m going to suggest that the opposite of collaborative learning – the atmosphere that apparently exists in World History classes in Fairfax – ruins divergent thinking, discourages innovative thought and generates no new questions / solutions.

In his recent book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, author Steven Johnson discusses the seven “patterns” that can be used to develop great ideas. Almost all of the patterns involve some sort of collaboration and sharing of resources. Johnson gave a brief overview during a recent TED talk as well as in a much shorter tease that’s making the internet rounds:

Robert Marzano’s research on what works in schools documents the effectiveness of cooperation and collaboration on learning.

cooperative learning has an effect size of .78 when compared with instructional strategies in which students work on tasks individually without competing with one another (individual student tasks).

That’s the equivalent of a percentile gain of 28. Not .28. Not 2.8. That’s 28 as in 14 times two.

Sir Ken Robinson has spent quite a bit of time researching and discussing the ways that education in general and teachers in particular can improve. Much of it has to do with allowing students to be creative and learn from each another and from outsiders. In a recent short talk, Robinson describes what’s really going on at Westfield:

Our children are living in the most intensively stimulating period in the history of the earth . . . and we’re penalizing them now for getting distracted. From what? Boring stuff at school, for the most part.

And I’m half a continent away from Virginia (both physically and apparently pedagogically as well), so I don’t have the complete story. Maybe the teachers have a very good reason for locking down how kids interact with content and others. Maybe there’s a purpose behind working so hard to control access to information, control thinking, control behavior.

But I just have to ask – do we really want to teach like this?

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

We’re #11! We’re #11!

A recent issue of Newsweek focused on answering the following question:

If you were born today, which country would provide you the very best opportunity to live a healthy, safe, reasonably prosperous and upwardly mobile life?

Newsweek editors and writers chose to focus on five areas – education, health, quality of life, economic competitiveness and political environment – and then applied data from each of those areas across 100 countries.

The overall results?

The US finished 11th behind such countries as Switzerland, Denmark, Norway and Australia (sigh) but ended up way ahead of Uganda, Yeman and Cameroon (yea!). Newsweek did break stuff out a bit – they created smaller lists comparing similar sized countries by category. We did better on some of those lists.

The article noted some interesting trends. Some obvious, some not. Most obvious? Being small and rich (Switzerland) is much better than large and poor (South Africa).

Perhaps not so obvious was their observation that your educational system can make a huge difference in where you ended up on the list. And while this is a very wide-angle view of 100 countries, the authors of the article were also able to notice a few educational trends in those countries at the top of the list.

One of the first things that they noted was that family circumstances impact success more than any other factor. By age three, the authors suggest, children with professional parents are a full year ahead of their peers. Kids know twice as many words and score 40 points higher on IQ tests.

By age 10?

The gap is now three years.

And if nothing changes, many of those already behind will not master basic skills. As in . . . never.

So what successful international educational trends can we steal?

Get kids into school early

“High-quality preschooling does more for a child’s chances in school and life than any other educational intervention.” Pre-schooled kids earn more, had better jobs, are less likely to be in prison and more likely to remain in stable, long-term relationships.

And don’t forget the parents in that equation. Kids aren’t the only people who need an education at that point. We also need to train parents how to parent.

Keep kids in school longer

Current US educational policy is currently focused on creating longer school days and a longer school year. But the economy is making this difficult – schools are cutting back on student contact time to save money.

But I gotta tell ya. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Unless the instruction is of high-quality, more time spent in school doesn’t seem to make much sense. Longer days with poor teachers, poor resources and out-dated methods will do more harm than good.

Pour lots of effort into improving teacher quality

“Studies have shown that kids with the most effective teachers learn three times as much as those with the least effective.”

Now this I can get behind. Great teachers make a huge difference. I would gladly send me kid to school longer if I knew they would spend that time with quality people. We need to spend more time and effort recruiting teachers, invest in more and better staff development, provide constant feedback and provide bonuses for top performers.

Of course, that’s the real challenge, isn’t it? How do you document the top performers? Of course, we all know who’s good and who’s not. It was the same when we were in school or sports . . . we all knew who was number one. It’s the documenting that we need to work on. And I don’t know what that looks like. But we, the system, needs to spend time fixing that.

Recognize the value of individualized instruction

This is one of the benefits of programs like MTSS or RTI. We are taking a much clearer look at individual kids and what their needs are.


And while these ideas all make sense, they are systemic and institutional. What can I as an individual do?

Not much I can do in my classroom about the preschool stuff. But I can

  • Provide high-quality homework that will extend learning outside of class. This is not an easy thing but what we ask kids to do should involve more problem solving activities, more video games and group activities that incorporate online collaborative tools like Google Docs, Edmodo, Skype and Delicious.
  • Become a better teacher. Get involved in creating and participating in a Personal Learning Network. Join Ning networks like Classroom 2.0, get on Plurk or Twitter, join a book study, subscribe to more blogs, travel more, read more books in your content area.
  • Purposefully plan to differentiate your instruction. Don’t hope that kids learn. Figure out what they need and deliver your stuff in ways that guarantee that they learn. Plan for individualized learning.

Martin Luther King once said

Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better.

Be the minority.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend

No grades = an A plus

There’s a ton of stuff messing with my head today and I’m not quite sure how it’s all going to come together yet. So bear with me.

I just got through reading Daniel Pink’s latest called Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us and am working my way through the Dan and Chip Heath book titled Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.

I ran across an article several weeks ago about a Duke University professor who stopped grading student work. Instead she let students grade themselves using a system based on contracts and “crowdsourcing.”

I’ve had two conversations since yesterday with principals and curriculum directors about helping to create quality assessment tools in their buildings. And reading Steve Wyckoff’s thoughts on grades and assessments reminded me of Alfie Kohn’s work on grades and assessments in education.

So . . . all of this stuff, together with over-the-counter cold medication I’m taking, is making my head a little fuzzy. My goal was some sort of unified theory of grading, some nugget of wisdom. But this is all I’ve come up with so far.

The current grading system stinks. And it needs to change if we want true learning to happen.

It seems to me that most research is telling us that the stick and carrot methods that we’re using in schools to drive learning don’t work.

Kohn describes the problem with the current system:

The research suggests three consistent effects of giving students grades – or leading them to focus on what grade they’ll get. First, their interest in the learning itself is diminished. Second, they come to prefer easier tasks – not because they’re lazy, but because they’re rational. After all, if the point is to get an A, your odds are better if you avoid taking intellectual risks. Third, students tend to think in a more superficial fashion – and to forget what they learned more quickly – when grades are involved.

Pink has similar thoughts based on his research:

The secret to high performance and satisfaction—at work, at school, and at home—is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.

The carrot and stick approach can actually significantly reduce the ability of workers to produce creative solutions to problems.

Kohn suggests that:

. . . the only real solution is to eliminate grades altogether, or to come as close to that as is practical in a given school. Of course, this presumes that our goal is for students to become more enthusiastic and proficient learners. If our goal instead was to sort kids (deciding who’s beating whom), or to induce them to do things they have no interest in doing by bribing or threatening them into compliance, then we might be more reluctant to question the use of grades.

Cathy Davidson, the Duke University professor in the USA Today article, noticed a big difference between earlier “teacher-graded” classes and students in the student-assessed class:

I think students were going out on a limb more and being creative and not just thinking about ‘What does the teacher want?’

I’m not sure what the best solution is but I like the idea that Davidson built into her class – collaborative student assessment and detailed feedback rather than just letter or number grades. Kohn agrees that when teachers modify their grading systems to include student feedback and an emphasis on specific feedback rather than letter grades, true learning increases.

Perhaps that’s part of the answer.

  • Focus on ways to minimize grades until the end of the grading period by providing narrative feedback only to specific assignments.
  • Provide ways for kids to assess their own learning.
  • Use rubrics more often, created with student input.
  • Like Davidson, design ways for students to collaborate on feedback.

But I think the most important thing we can do is to be more aware of what the research tells us about how grades and assessment have both positive and negative impact.

The next rant? Homework.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend