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Lead from the Start: September 2008

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Gladwell vs. Willingham - Cage Match!

Its time for a Cage Match!
Good teaching is good teaching, but what does that mean?
Dear Dan,
You had me. I was on the road with you. Learning styles don't really exist, there are only learning preferences. But, in an amazing feat of under cutting of all your scientific jazzmatazz you said this:
"Good teaching is good teaching and teachers don't need to adjust their teaching to individual students learning styles."
I heard it. It planted itself like a seed. It began to grow. By Friday it was repeating itself, good teaching is good teaching, good teaching is good teaching, good teaching is good teaching, good teaching is good teaching, good teaching is good teaching, good teaching is good teaching, good teaching is good teaching.

What was it that bothered me about that statement. I couldn't remember. Then I saw this video of Malcolm Gladwell discussing the man who invented chunky spaghetti sauce, Howard Mouskewitz, one of his idols. It is a long video, so set aside almost twenty minutes in case you get engrossed.

What clicked for me was that when Mouskewitz conducted taste tests of 10 different tomato sauces approximately 1/3 of the participants preferred traditional, 1/3 zesty, and 1/3 chunky.

At the time that the testing was done, there were no chunky tomato sauces on the shelves. The people preferred something that was not even being offered at the time. The sauce companies all thought that good sauce was good sauce and that they didn't need to adjust their sauce to meet the preferences of their customers. When they did adjust and offer more variety, it took off, lots of people discovered chunky sauce and loved it.

So Dr. Willingham, here is my final answer, good teaching IS adjusting to individual students learning styles. When kids don't get something, you change your approach, you try a visual strategy, a kinesthetic strategy, a verbal strategy. It may not be that conscious, it may be a look in a kids eye, a shared experience, a connection between teacher and student that causes that teacher to try that strategy with that kid. It is a pragmatically scientific approach, not a positivist one and that is the reason it works. Because, in the classroom it is the learning that matters most, and figuring out why second.

Photo of Daniel Willingham by Dan Addison, University of Virginia Public Affairs.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Learning Styles - True or False

I am reading another "business model" educational reform book. Its title, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns, suggests that education needs to be shaken up. It is a very dense book that we will use this semester in one of my doctoral classes. It is a more interesting read than some of the texts we have had but it is a pop science book so I have a hard time putting a great deal of faith in it's propositions. What it suggests seems to make "common sense" but this is my first clue that it may not make a real difference in how schools work or be scientifically sound. Some of its endnotes are particularly educational though. In it are references like, a paper about children in Africa who are extremely adept at knowing how to operate in their environment but are not able to do basic "school" type tasks.

Christensen's basic theory is that because all students learn differently we should create a new type of schooling, using 21st century tools, to customize learning for every student. This new way of teaching should use a "modular" logic that provides different learning style options for the same content. It all sounds good from the point of view of a teacher who sees learning styles operating in my classroom every day. I have at least three learning style groups in my preschool class. The groups are the verbal learners, the kinesthetic learners and the visual learners or to put it comically, the can't be quiet group, the can't sit still group, and the don't say anything but can draw well group. The theory of learning styles is a useful tool for teachers who are trying to help every student become proficient in the various disciplines.

However, it is easy poke holes in theories.

Here is someone who would completely disagree with the foundation of Christensen's theory about modular teaching to learning styles. Dan Willingham is a cognitive psychologist from University of Virginia. I learned about him from my good friend Nancy Flanagan who wrote a rebuttal post on her blog in response to the video below only to have him comment and refute her assertions.

Where do I stand? I think that there may not be learning styles as we traditionally relate them to content areas but there are most definitely learning preferences. I would not necessarily organize learning styles the same way that Gardner does although I was an early recruit to Gardner's tribe back in the 90's. His Unschooled Mind was the first education book I ever read for fun. Since then my perceptions about learning and learning styles has changed. A couple years ago I completed a survey and participated in training around a personality theory called Emergenetics that basically grouped learners into social, analytical, conceptual, and structural tendencies for thinking combined with behavioral attributes of expressiveness, assertiveness, and flexibility. The theory emphasized that everyone had some capacity in all the areas but preferred one over another. I was a strongly conceptual processor which helped me to understand why I have always preferred to understand the big picture first and then break it down when I encounter new information. It was a way of thinking about learning styles that did not use Gardner's suggestions that have strong links to content areas.

Chistensen proposes that the reason kids don't take "hard" classes like math and science in prosperous societies is because there is not enough external motivation to make them want to.
I propose that prosperous societies allow students to move towards disciplines that more closely match their learning preferences in how they are taught.

If science were taught the way my art classes were taught, in that you were shown some basic materials, given some basic skills, and told to create/make something, I might have been a scientist. Instead they were taught with the goal of mastering certain scientific truths as the goal and discovery and creativity was not a part of it at all.

What Dan says about learning styles makes sense but I am not sure it gets at the reason why they are useful. I try to teach my pre-k kids in all of the major "learning styles" so that I am sure to meet their needs. Besides, at 4 years old who doesn't like to sing the alphabet, dance the alphabet, and watch the alphabet on the computer?
What do you think? Are learning styles real? Does it matter if they are or are they just a way to talk about something it is difficult to understand, how our students learn what we teach?

image from:
video from:

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Test em' Young and You Might Get It Wrong

Jennifer at Inside Pre-K has written a great diescription of why pre-k people have a hard time with standardized tests as quality indicators.

I believe firmly that assessments of any kind should be used to guide instruction at all grade levels. When teachers feel comfortable with their assessments and they are an accurate measure of students' abilities, they can be an invaluable tool in the classroom. However, when assessment is structured inappropriately or administered in an unfamiliar manner, it can yield inaccurate results.

Often policymakers like to describe teachers who reject tests as running from accountability. Trust me, most teachers hold themselves more responsible than anyone could ever hold them accountable.

She makes a great case for using multiple assessments in early-childhood. Give it a read and comment!

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What does the NAEP mean to pre-k?

Who reads the Wall Street Journal? Pretty
much anyone with any amount of political power reads it. So when the WSJ
publishes an Op-Ed you know that it is going to be read by the people who
will decide the future of public education in our country. A
recent piece, titled Protect Our Kids from Preschool, threw the pre-k world for a loop. It made a big enough splash that two of the biggest advocates and researchers of pre-k, David Kirp and Steven Barnett
responded in an Op-Ed in the San Francisco Chronicle. Other interested
parties in the pre-k community also sent replies to the WSJ.
Sadly, as pre-k folks like to practice what we teach in pre-k, they
were polite. The responses
included some pretty heavy hitters, including: Lawrence J. Schweinhart
of High/Scope and James Heckman of University of Chicago (who were
misquoted in the article), as well as Susan Urahn of Pew Charitable Trust, and
Libby Doggett of Pre-K Now who pointed out the misrepresentation of the

Then Dalmia and Snell fired back. "What!?" you say. Yes, they kept
arguing that they were right because what they wrote, that the National
Assessment of Educational Progress test scores had not increased very much
in Georgia and Oklahoma was true, that their main point is valid.

I feel like I am telling a class of preschoolers it's raining but, your point is not valid.


One concept I would like to point out in the provocative debate that
Dalmia and Snell have engaged the pre-k community in, is the relevance
of the NAEP. The two researchers suggest, by basing their argument on
the NAEP test results , that the NAEP is a valid indicator of preschool
effectiveness. Although a 2000 RAND corporation study found that pre-k
positively affected NAEP scores, this would not be the reason I would
recommend pre-k to a parent or policymaker. They suggest that one year
in a high quality pre-k should positively impact a test score 5 years
down the road. A test based on everything a student has learned up to
4th grade. I am a believer in the value of pre-k for many reasons but,
passing the NAEP is not one of them.

The NAEP is an important tool for policymakers and leaders to refer to
when making decisions about policy. Especially policy that relates to
the rigor of a states' standards. However, it is a poor indicator of
which "grade level" is not keeping up their part of the proficiency

Having taught in a public school setting my entire career I am keenly
aware of the importance of standards and accountability. We are told
every year, "The scores in 3rd grade and 5th grade are not the scores
of the 3rd and 5th grade teachers, they are the scores of the entire
school." Even though I teach beginning algebra, statistics, and reading
in my class, I am not the only one responsible if one of my former
students doesn't get the answers right on a test 5 years from now.

A study published by the Hoover Institute,
found that Georgia, Oklahoma, and Tennessee had the lowest correlation
between the number of students achieving proficiency on state tests and
the number achieving proficiency on the NAEP. The study "graded" states
on whether their proficiency scores matched up to the NAEP. Here is an
explanation of the results:

We gauge the differences among states by comparing how students do on state assessments with how they perform on NAEP tests. By comparing the percentage of students deemed proficient on each, it is possible to determine whether states are setting expectations higher, lower, or equal to the NAEP standard. If the percentages are identical (or roughly so), then state proficiency standards can be fairly labeled as “world-class.” If state assessments identify many more students as proficient than the NAEP, then state proficiency figures should be regarded as inflated.

Not surprisingly, when states set low expectations for student proficiency, they did not score well on the NAEP.

Three states—Georgia, Oklahoma, and Tennessee—expected so little of students that they received the grade of F. The state of Georgia, for instance, declared 88 percent of 8th graders proficient in reading, even though just 26 percent scored at or above the proficiency level on the NAEP.

What does this have to do with universal pre-k in these states? It
means that even if pre-k is effective at preparing kids for the NAEP in
these states we could never tell because the standards in K -12 are not
high enough to pass the NAEP anyway.

What has improved as a result of pre-k in Georgia? One indicator is
that exceptional education enrollment has decreased each year since
2006. This improvement not only improves lives but saves the state money.

For more on the long lasting effects of pre-k check out the most recent report from the National Institute for Early Education Research titled: Preschool Education and Its Lasting Effects: Research and Policy Implications.(PDF)

photo credit: courtesy of fragmented and

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Kiddie Carnival of Education

Welcome to the Kiddie-Carnival. This week the Carnival is hosted in a pre-k class. We will spend a day Inside Pre-K. The Pre-K bloggers at my new gig will start us off here at Circle Time.

First with morning opening is Jennifer who answers the question, "What do we do all day in pre-k?" Someone who didn't know any better might say, "Oh, so they just play..."

Karissa says from the shape carpet,"No, we don't! We do Reader's Workshop, even in the summer!"

A major area of study in pre-k is the subject of rules. In today's pre-k classroom we like to give kids the opportunity to create the class rules themselves.

Tweenteacher offers the rule: Don’t listen to the gossip in the teacher’s lounge in Oh, the Wells Fargo Wagon is a comin' posted at

Joel says, New Classroom Rule: Don’t Talk To Me posted at So You Want To Teach?.

The hall monitor tries to hand out a detention slip when D.C. says,"I'll behave if you pay me.."
but Travis argues, "They say there is research."

Melissa B., a little off the topic, (but pretty close for a preschooler) offers the rule: Be careful how you unpack your stuff in Taking One for the Team? posted at the scholastic scribe.

Bill has forgotten the "you should never throw rocks" rule but, remembers: You have to share, even in college, and questions whether university professors are properly prepared to drive change in a share-and-share-alike world where collaboration is the norm and isolation is to be avoided. In Throwing Rocks at the Ivory Tower. . . posted at The Tempered Radical.

But, oldandrew, in Rewriting the Dictionary posted at Scenes From The Battleground. Asks, what is a teacher? His answer is hilarious.
Bellringers, in Fitness, 5-Alarm Educational Challenge & Emergency Chocolate posted at Bellringers firmly believes we should not call people Big Fat Stupid Head, for as long as we can.

We are worried about the first day of school even in pre-k. Mathew Needleman presents Activities for the First Day of School posted at Creating Lifelong Learners. To give us a Head Start. Scott Walker at Epistles of an Educator posted at The English Teacher writes,
"While worrying about my worksheets and syllabi and dreading the next day when this circus would start up once more..." But he is interrupted by Deb at the Dangling Conversation who calls out, (as preschoolers are wont to do sometimes) "If I Ran the Zoo..."

All this sitting on the carpet is making us a little fidgety.

Brendan Murphy presents A Perfect Example of Why Education Can’t Be Sitting Around Waiting to Be Taught posted at SchoolFinder Blog.

It must be music and movement time.

"Because teaching is like dancing", says Pat in New Teachers and Dancing posted at Successful Teaching.

After movement time comes center time.

John Norton of TLN fame chooses to go to the block area because he writes about Middle School which has a lot to do with team work.

Mrs. Bluebird muses over this particular group of 7th graders and wonders what was in the water about 12 years ago.... possibly wishing more of her kids had gone to pre-k to get some social skills. Mrs. Bluebird presents Not feeling the love posted at Bluebird's Classroom.

Larry Ferlazzo presents The Best Sites To Help Teach About 9/11 | Larry Ferlazzo's Websites of the Day... posted at Larry Ferlazzo's Websites Of The Day For Teaching ELL, ESL, & EFL.

Woodlass is very upset that she can't go to the music area because it is full and do what she loves in ATR links — Part III: update posted at Under Assault: Teaching in NYC.

Thomas J. West argues in incredible detail for a preschooler, why Woodlass should be able to go to the music area. Neurology Applied: How Science is Bringing Music Instruction Back to Expressive Development posted at Thomas J. West Music.

Lightly Seasoned believes teachers should always have tried to do what they ask their kids to do. If it is pre-k we have to dance like a monkey, in high school English it would be to write an I Believe essay posted at Lightly Seasoned.

The Science Goddess goes to the math area to learn how to compare groups of students in a graph. Maybe They Made It posted at What It's Like on the Inside.

Jose is in the writing center scribbling about the profession trying to be Whatever they need me to be posted at Jose Vilson-The Blog.

Jane Goodwin is in the book area and knows teaching is more than just following a textbook in, Hope Is More Than Just The Thing With Feathers. . . . posted at Scheiss Weekly.

After clean-up time every pre-k class likes to review what they have learned.

Mathematically speaking half of all children are above average, and half are below. Just like doctor’s graduating from medical school, we can’t all be above average.Todd presents Your Kids (probably) Aren’t Above Average posted at HarvestingDollars. Which may have bearing on college completion. Corey Bunje Bower examines trends in college completion, an issue affected by preschool attendance in Trends in College Completion posted at Thoughts on Education Policy.

Joanne Jacobs talks about next president's educational history in The education of our next president posted at Joanne Jacobs. They went to school back when, as EdWonk reminds us, Labor Day marked the last day of summer. Labor Day 2008: What Was Old May Be New Again posted at The Education Wonks.

Laureen presents The Lesson of Failure posted at The Life Without School Blog. She suggests that we should take risks and learn from our failures.

Dana presents Homeschooling amateurs outdoing professionals posted at Principled Discovery. She says, "What a teacher needs to be successful in the classroom is the freedom to make these decisions for the children in the classroom as well as the support of the children’s families. In all too many instances, the teacher has neither.

It is hardly fair to compare the results to a homeschooling family which has both."

Elementaryhistoryteacher reminds us that she assesses kids like we do in pre-k, with anecdotes, work samples, and research based assessments compiled into Classroom Notebooks Revisited posted at History Is Elementary.

Finally, Nancy Flanagan writes about why teachers mean so much to the world, even if none of your students ever become famous, in Almost Famous, posted at Teacher in a Strange Land.

Thanks for coming to our class and remember our theme song...

photo credit:

photo credit two: DAILY Photo by Dan Henry of The Decatur Daily

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Monday, September 01, 2008

Men and the Call to Teach

ABC news ran a story on the "Mistrusted Male Teacher" August 28th. It points out the inherent difficulties of being a male teacher in the early grades. As one of the fewest of the few, a male teacher in early childhood, I read the story with my own biases. Bryan Nelson, a 30 year veteran teacher summed up the lack of men in teaching this way,
"People don't think of men as caretaking or nurturing, which many of the young grades require," Nelson said. "And if you're a single man and you're going out to date somebody, when they ask you 'what do you do?' it just doesn't have the same cache as saying I'm an engineer or a scientist."
I haven't had a lot of problems with parents and issues of trust, but I have had my share. I once had a parent who told me to my face, "I wish my daughter had any other teacher than you." Some folks might have asked that the child be taken out of their room. I invited the parent to come in and watch what we do. ... every day. She came in for almost the entire year. I basically took her child from zero reading skills to reading in a year. We got along better and better over the course of the year. When it was all said and done, by the end of the year, she still didn't trust me. There was nothing I could do to change her opinion except continue to be open and honest with her. I have sometimes thought that maybe I was doing my boy students a disservice by being capable of teaching them as active boys only to send them to kindergarten to fail because they "couldn't sit still," or didn't seem to "pay attention." But, I also know that for some I have been their first introduction to what a caring man can be. I have even been able to help some kids with fathers because the fathers are more comfortable volunteering in my classroom. They see how they can care without being weak and nurture without giving up their masculinity.

Another recent article, Herland by L. J. WIlliamson, talks about this same issue. The author took a different point of view, sighting the lack of men in child care and teaching as contributing to keeping women, "in their place." She writes,
Of course, it won't be long before these kids get old enough to start noticing things like the fact that our country has never had a female president, or that male teachers typically don't come into their schooling until the academics get more serious. By that point, many will come away with the impression that caring for small children is women's work, and for the most part, they'll be right.

Also quoted in the article was this quote from William Marsiglio, Professor of Sociology at the University of Florida and author of Men On A Mission: Valuing Youth Work In Our Communities. He says,
"We pay our mechanics more to work on our cars than we pay people to watch our kids, which tells you something about our values. As long as we as society continue to perpetuate the narrative that being nurturing to children is inherently a gendered process, we'll never have gender equity. It will continue to be a society in which women are disadvantaged, and males are given an excuse not to be involved. "

I think the thing that bothered me about that ABC article is that it treated the chance of your child getting a "bad" male teacher or "good" male teacher as 50/50. Its just not like that. Most of the men who teach, especially in the younger grades, are teachers because they felt a call to teach. They aren't closet perverts or weak human beings. My greatest mentor was a male instructional assistant who also happened to be a minister. He felt a calling to teaching as he felt a calling to serve God. Perhaps if people thought of teaching the way that most teachers do there would be less fear. To most teachers, teaching is a calling, it is my calling, and it could be the calling of other young men, if they aren't pushed away from the field by the lack of social standing, pay, and support for being there.

Photo courtesy of:

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