Friday, October 23, 2015

Making thinking visible

How do we, as teachers, make our student's thoughts visible? How do we get them to share what they are thinking and why they are thinking it?

These might be two of the most essential questions for learning going back to the time of Socrates ( who continuously asked his students, "What are you thinking and how do you know what you're thinking is true?" Not only is it necessary for us to know what our student know, it also vital for us, as teachers, to think about what we know and how do we know it.

I'm taking a very good course on teaching through Coursera and the Common Wealth Education Trust, and the course instructor, Professor John MacBeath has asked us to think about our own thinking as well as our students. As teachers, he has asked us to do the following exercise, which really opened my eyes to my own thinking and assumptions about teaching and learning:
  1. What do I know about learning?
  2. What do I know about teaching?
  3. What do I know about the context for learning?
  4. What do I not know about learning?
  5. What do I not know about teaching?
  6. What do I not know about the context for learning?
  7. What would I like to know about learning?
  8. What would I like to know about teaching?
  9. What would I like to know about the context for learning?
You may want to rewrite these questions into a table with empty cells in the middle and answer these questions for yourself. If you're like me, and haven't thought about your teaching critically in a while, you might find this exercise very useful. By asking ourselves these questions, we are returning to the very fundamental nature of learning and teaching, or, perhaps, teaching for learning.

One of the things that I found out about what I didn't know about teaching for learning was how to make my students' thinking visible. When I was considering this lack of knowledge about my own teaching, it became a top priority for me. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources about making your students' thinking visible. One given to us in the course is the website "Visible Thinking" ( Although the idea of visible thinking seems like an obvious one to tackle, it might prove useful to "have a think" ourselves, as John MacBeath puts it, to consider the problem of making our students' thinking visible. MacBeath asks us while showing the graphic of the different cats, "How do you know what your students are thinking?" And the answer is, we don't know...unless we ask them.

Imagine that we have asked students what we think will be a simple problem, but suddenly we find ourselves with a perplexing one like the teaching in this video (

I found the teacher doing an excellent job at asking her students to evaluate the problem of dividing 1 by 2, and she seems to be aware of her students grappling with a concept that may change the course of their learning. While watching this video, I thought, "Wow, what an amazing learning moment!" The teacher almost has her students to the answer, and they are responding to her question and displaying some thinking, but then she allows the students to change the problem, thereby retreating back to firmer ground. If only she had broken the stick in two and asked them to think, is this one stick, two sticks, or two halves of a whole stick? Or even better, had one of the students break the stick and then ask the class how many sticks they had.

We should top and take a moment to think about the questions the teacher is asking. How many of the questions asked by the teacher are what appear to be display questions. In other words, questions that the teacher already knows the answer to, such as "Is this number right?" Then think about how many reference questions the teacher is asking, in other words, questions that ask the students may respond openingly to about their thinking.

Watch how the teacher gives the students choices, which leads them to the amazing moment of learning when the student chooses to divide 1 by 2. As I watched, I thought, "Oh, no. How will they get this difficult concept?" I was even more amazed when the student gave 1 as the answer to the question. She writes one on the board and ask the students, "Is this correct?" The students intuitively say "No." The teacher replies, "Why, what's wrong?" This question elicits multiple answers. Later she asks, "Look at this sign, in between here, is this correct?" At this point, we can supposition that the teacher wants to change the numerator. But she also asks, "[students' name] thinks the answer is 2. How many think this is correct." And by polling the students, she begins to understand what her students are thinking and then asks the students who think 2 is not correct to explain to the other students why. Some students say the answer is 1 and other say the answer is 2. Unfortunately, we can't hear the reasons the students give, and the teacher returns to asking if the numbers in the boxes are correct. Then she shows the student the stick and asks them, "How can I divide this stick by 2?" and the students answer, "I can't." Then the teacher goes on to change the numerator. Do we have the right reasoning here? Yes, if you want to stick and the lesson to deal with whole numbers. But what an amazing feat if the teacher would have introduced to the students the idea of halves of wholes or fractions.

 Today, teachers are asking students "What is the evidence?" or "Why do you think that?" While, I think these two questions are linked, they are not necessarily the same thing. Think of what the evidence would have been from the lesson from above. We have a stick and the stick can't be divided in two. Really? That only gives us evidence of limited reasoning (not incorrect). Could we have extended the reasoning for this lesson and said, "Ok, here is something new to think about. We can divide this stick by two and get two halves. The are not two sticks, but two halves of one stick. Think about that for a moment." Then we would have an opening for new ways of thinking and stronger evidence for our reasoning.

I'm not a math teacher, and I don't expect to be able to teach a lesson better than the teacher in the video, nor should I second guess the lesson that she taught and the reasons for teaching the way she did. But as an English teacher to speakers of other languages, the lesson of making thinking visible is a powerful lesson. Often we ask students, to communicate and by communicating students must make choices in meaning. If I ask a student, "How are you today?" and the student responds, "not good," should we correct the student and say, "No, you mean 'not well.'" Then how are we misdirecting their thinking and meaning making choice? Don't people say "not good" all the time? Wouldn't it be better if we recast and said, "Oh, not good or not well. I'm sorry to hear that." This way, we don't make assumptions about what the students wants to say, rather we present another meaning making choice.

 In addition, what if we insist on our students saying whole sentences, such as "I am not well." But in reality, we co-construct language and almost never hear the subject and verb repeated in conversation openings because such information has already been given. Do our students realize the difference between given and new information and how that is structured in sentences? How then do we make our knowledge of the language system visible to our students?

I believe the answer is making sure as teachers that we are thinking about language and showing how we think think about language. Instead of asking for specific language forms, we showing how to use language to communicate and providing moments where we think about the "form, meaning, and use" of the language. For example, if we ask ask our students, "What did you do today?" and our student replies, "I woke up. Then I ran about two miles. Then I went to school." Could we then the student, "Why didn't you say, "I wake up?" or "I run about two miles?" and "What's the difference?" Then we can see if the students can explain the difference in using the simple past events that occur in the near past versus using the present simple to describe actions that are habitual. By asking students about the language they use for reasons they use it, we are opening opportunities for students to think about their awareness of language and to demonstrate their knowledge of collocations and patterns in addition to how language is constructed through meaning making choices. This approach, it seems, would work well with the action based language lessons in which students use language to do something, thereby providing an opportunity for us to ask students "what did you say and why?"

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Future of the Teaching Profession

In James MacBeath's chapter on the Future of the Teaching Profession, he outlines some critically important professional criteria that should always resonate with those in the teaching profession.

These criteria are summarized as:

1. Theoretical knowledge and skills related to the practice of teaching.

2. Preparation through pre-sevice and academic or professional activities that demonstrates professional competence.

3. Recognition and passing of professional and legal requirements to join the professional body.

4. Induction into the profession as a teacher in training or as a beginning professional with feedback and opportunities for continuous professional development.

5. Participation and joining professional bodies, organizations, and passing entrance requirements for membership.

6. Ability to work autonomously while utilizing professional and theoretical knowledge.

7. Adhering to professional code of conduct and ethics.

8. Ability to self-regulate profession separate from the government.

9. Dedication to the betterment of the public and altruism.

10. Joining to organization with legal authority over profession

11. Body of knowledge and skills is inaccessible to the uninitiated.

12. Skills and knowledge are mobile and belong to an individual and not the organization for which they work.

Teaching is a profession that demands high level of knowledge, skill, and moral/ethical behavior. However, it is often seen by the public as being part of a "trade" with minimal education and professional entry requirements, with low or unqualified practitioners,  and with low pay and benefits.

While the low pay and low benefits may be true, the perception of teachers being unqualified and untrained is not. Granted that there will be exception -- as there are in all professions -- most teachers in the U.S. must have either a Bachelor's of Science in education or a Masters in Education, which could mean 6 years of formal education in a specialized area of education (primary, secondary, special education, language, mathematics, science, etc). Teachers must also pass a "highly qualified" test such as the Praxis (, have at least one year of professional induction as a teacher in training, satisfy state requirements for professional competence, pass a state run criminal background check, and satisfy not only job entry requirements the work place but maintain high teaching and learning outcomes. In addition, teachers must pass regular observation and evaluations by their principals or managers. That's not even counting what happens inside the classroom with the students or outside the classroom with the parents.

MacBeath points out a definition taken from the Australian Council of Professions that define teaching as "A profession is a disciplined group of individuals who adhere to ethical standards and who hold themselves out as, and are accepted by the public as, possessing special knowledge and skills in a widely recognised body of learning derived from research, education and training at a high level, and who are prepared to apply this knowledge and exercise these skills in the interest of others" (ACP, 2004, p.1).

I agree that teaching is different than other professions because it demands a commitment to the students and to altruism, but I don't agree that teachers should be under paid with low benefits because of their dedication to others. In fact, we as a society should honor those who devote their lives to helping, saving, and protecting others and they should be fairly compensated.

While teachers work in the interest of others, it seems that others don't always have the interest of teachers in mind as shown through ignorance of professional requirements, unrealistic performance expectations, and minimal recognition or work autonomy. The current state of the teaching profession, which has been marred by incidents of cheating on standardized assessments or gross ineptitude, is a symptom of unrealistic, uninformed, and uneven education reforms, focusing mostly on students' performance on irrelevant standardized assessments. MacBeath does note that teachers face "excessive expectations from society at large" which has resulted in teachers feeling caught between the the excessive expectations and low professional esteem. In other words, teachers must rise to meet the professional standards listed above and the high performance expectations from government and society while also dealing with the perception that they lack professional competence.

The nature of teaching is one of continuous evaluation and self-improvement, and good teachers often fall into exhaustion, frustration, or are simply pushed out of the profession. While of course there are teachers who don't or can't perform to the standards, few from the outside realize that at any given day, even the best teachers fall short, and its through continuous support and development, just like what we expect for our students, that teachers become better teachers.

Teaching to solve problems that don't exist

We know the wold is smaller than it was two decades ago because of work done by economists and journalists, such as Thomas Friedman who wrote "The World is Flat" and "Hot, Flat, and Crowded." I don't mean smaller in size, but smaller in proximity. And you really don't need to read Friedman's books to realize that world is getting smaller. Think about our main modes of communication: WhatsApps, Snapchats, Facebook, and Face Time. We don't need to travel great distances to communicate any longer. All we have to do is send a text, jump on a Skype call, or send an email. In short,we've all become neighbors whether we like it or not, and being close neighbors isn't exactly a good thing sometimes. It can have unintended consequences. For example, the war in Syria has created a massive migration of refuges and impacted the economy in Europe. Events in Africa such as the Ebola outbreak have changed the health policies in countries like the U.S. and China. And, the strengthening of the American dollar has influenced growth in South and Central America. While in our daily lives, we aren't always aware of the impact of events that may seem far away from us, but they do impact us. The industrial and information ages have brought us together, and now here we are hours away by plane and milliseconds away through the Internet.

In the video below, Hans Rollings discusses the movement of poor and sick countries during the eighteen hundreds through the Industrial and Information ages to now, the Knowledge age. On average, countries are become more wealthy and our lives are becoming longer, but we must also deal with problems of communication, war, intolerance, over population, hunger, extreme-poverty, pollution, species extinction, epidemics, and unemployment. And these are the problems that we know about. What about the problems that we don't know about?

Hans Rollings shows how humanity has progressed from sick and poor to more healthy and wealthy.

As teachers, we are on the front lines of the battleground to solve these world's problems because it is our job to prepare the physicists, engineers, doctors, nurses, ecologists, economists, entrepreneur, designers, artists, writers who must confront these issues. Just think that one of our students will one day have to work side by side with someone from the Middle East, or Asia, or Europe. They will have to understand the cultural and business customs of coworkers (and they are radically different), find common ground, and solve problems together. Also, just think that this student will not be an outlier with some unusual job that requires a lot of traveling. This student will be an average, every day employee somewhere, doing web training and working on conference calls with team members or customers from all over the world. Today, almost every sector of business must communicate and work with foreign companies and personnel. And our personal, community, and national success will depend on how well we master new skills and solve unexpected problems. The Fukushima tsunami and nuclear melt down is perfect example of how international assistance and expertise is vitally important to not only one country but to all counties. Without the help of international experience in nuclear disasters, search and rescue, and eventual environmental clean up, Japan would have been severely pressed to reign in the Fukushima melt down ( and prevent wider environmental and economic damage. Another example is the Ebola epidemic in West Africa where it took a large concerted effort my multiple nations to contain the deadly Ebola outbreak (

Consider the following local/global issues:
  • Mining for rare minerals for computer manufacturing
  • Supplying clean and cost-effective energy
  • Growing/producing enough food for growing populations
  • Assisting aging populations and providing affordable health care
  • Creating new and sustaining jobs to lower unemployment
What skills, knowledge, and qualities will we have to instill into students to take on and solve these problems in the future? What smaller problems do each of these larger problems include?

Recently Olivia Hallisey, a 17-year-old student from Connecticut ( developed a portable, inexpensive, and more importantly easy to use Ebola diagnostic test that can be adapted to use for other medical tests. Watch as she explains how she identified a problem and then found an elegant solution.

Olivia Hallisey explains how she developed a portable, inexpensive, and easy to use diagnostic test for Ebola.

What skills and knowledge did Hallisey need in order to create the diagnostics test? How did she seek out a solution? What obstacles did she have to overcome? How did she test and prove the validity of the test? How did she communicate her findings? By using Hallisey as an example, can we re-create or re-produce the drive, ingenuity, and determination that Hallisey demonstrated? Not all students are going to be as successful as Hallisey, but we should/must prepare them to contribute to the problems of the future both large and small.