Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The procrastination equation: Putting research into practice at the Depot

They were discussing different forms of government, and the conversation had degenerated into a frustrating chorus of "There is no right answer. It's all just a matter of opinion."

"That's not true," I said, trying to keep the frustration out of my voice. "There are benchmarks. Some forms of government work better than others."

I'm not sure they got my point, but that kind of relativism is one of my pet peeves. Unfortunately, it infects many parts of society, including education. People in education often think that there are no real answers--no reference points by which to judge between the myriad of models and practices that promise to improve student success. But that's not true. Research has shown what works. The same science that brought us modern medicine and discovered global warming can help us educate our kids, and if we're not using it, we're fighting this battle blindfolded. Here's the story of how we're putting research into practice at the Depot, and how it's impacting our kids.

Last year was my first year at this little non-traditional school, and it soon became obvious that motivation was a serious problem. Motivation was low, engagement was low, attendance was low, task completion was low, and procrastination was high. Then I came across this article on procrastination from psychologist, Piers Steel. It was a thorough review of research related to motivation, and his "procrastination equation" became my guide. I took the liberty here to make it a bit more user friendly:

Utility is "how desirable a task or choice is for an individual." Expectancy is whether we think we will be able to complete the task, value is how much we value the outcome, the more impulsive among us will have a greater tendency to procrastinate, and the further away the deadline (the greater the delay), the more we'll put off the work.

Using the equation is simple. If utility is low, we procrastinate. To decrease procrastination, we need to increase expectancy and value and decrease impulsivity and delay. At the Depot this year, we're attacking all four factors of the equation.

Expectancy: According to Stanford psychologist Albert Bandura, "efficacy expectancy is somewhat susceptible to verbal persuasion and emotional arousal but is especially influenced by modelling and actual performance accomplishments." With this in mind, we are increasing our use of explicit instruction at the Depot, and our new Project Block is designed to provide students with a string of small successes to build upon. As of last week, about 60% of our students had completed 8 science projects, including hands-on projects, lab reports and a research paper, and had begun their first independent project.

Focused work during Project Block
The ALEKS online math system, which we also started using this year, is another way we're building self-efficacy. It offers a mastery-based approach the kids love, and our students' average progress on their courses is 54%.

And finally, we've really ramped up the 1:1 support this year. With a combination of interns and an instructional assistant, we are able to assign struggling students one-on-one help during ALEKS, Project Block, and any other time they need it.

Value: Dr. Steel points to classical conditioning as one way to increase the value factor. During our summer program, we were having trouble getting kids to do their online math work, so I was tossing around the idea of a token-based incentive system with Ellen. I had planned to make the tokens worth credits. "But what if they don't care about credits?," she asked. 

She was right. Many of our students don't seem to be motivated by threats of credit loss or offers of credit. So what did we do? We still offered credit, but we also tied the tokens to a field trip reward, and it worked. They really valued that reward!

We carried that same approach over into this year: Students earn poker chips for on-task behavior, and if they earn enough, they qualify for special field trips. Many students use our new progress tracking system to keep track of their chips and they value them so much that their anxiety about the chips has actually become a bit of a problem. My hope is that this system will build the habits of work that we adults call intrinsic motivation. According to Steel, this is exactly what happens--students associate reward with the work, and the work becomes intrinsically rewarding.

(Of course, they don't always succeed. The other day, I told a student he would not have enough chips to qualify for the field trip the next day. He pushed his few chips away on the table as if to disavow them and said, "I don't want any more chips!" His protest reminded me of my son when he was young. He wouldn't eat his Thanksgiving dinner, and the consequence was not getting any pie. "I don't like pie!," he repeated, as he marched around the table. The fact that chips can tap into their emotion is testimony that we've tapped into the value factor.)

Impulsivity:  Impulsivity is considered a personality trait, and Steel questions whether we can influence it much, but he does suggest two possibilities: stimulus control and automaticity. "Stimulus control," says Steel, "helps to direct behavior by indicating what is appropriate (i.e., rewarding) under any given circumstance," and I think the chips serve this purpose also. If students stay off their phones and on-task for 10, 15, or 20 minutes (we gradually increase the blocks of time), they receive reward chips. Most students earn the full amount of chips available during ALEKS Block and Project Block, and it's surprising to see how easily most of them can focus for 20 solid minutes under these conditions.

To increase automaticity, Steel recommends schedules and routines. This year we've implemented a new blocked schedule at the Depot, but there's more we could do with routines within the blocks themselves. Interestingly, Steel also mentions reducing choice as a means of helping those with high impulsivity. I think the blocked schedule has also helped here, especially the replacement of "self-directed learning time" with Project Block, but I'm still chewing on this one.

We've also added another research-based strategy to the mix to try to address the impulsivity factor--one that Steel didn't mention. Stephen, one of our teachers, has been teaching mindfulness during morning pick-me-up since the beginning of the year. They've gone over several techniques, from focusing on the breath to mindful eating, and they had a great time identifying thoughts and feeling invoked by popular songs the other day. Several students have said they have started to practice meditation on their own. Our hope is that this will help them not only manage stress but also increase focus.

Delay: Our new progress tracking system is designed to give students continuous, rapid feedback about their progress, and the timed chip blocks have provided small chunked goals for the students, but I think we can help students a lot more with handling delays. My goal for the second semester is to explicitly teach the students two methods of time/project management, and then reward them for each box checked off their to-do lists. (Hat tip to Elizabeth Brott Beese, a Ph.D. student from Purdue who spent some time studying our program, for pointing me in this direction.)

That is how we're using science to help our students. That's our goal, anyway, and so far it seems to be working. Engagement is up, attendance is up, and even task completion seems to be up. I was so excited to find Steel's article last year. It has provided a framework--a science-based guide for improving our program. So often in education, we bounce from one model to another, often without much confidence that any of it will work. But there's no need for that. There is a research base in psychology and education that we can use and build on. We're not blind, we don't stumble in the dark, and we don't have to reinvent the wheel. We can't afford to. Time is precious for every one of our students.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The puzzle: Turning passions into careers

It made for a cool picture--Gabe pitching his hammock near a kettle hole on Mansfield Hollow Lake, while his classmates watched and learned. He had taken us all to his favorite camping spot to teach us how to set up a campsite and build a fire. He offered some really insightful tips. He talked about how peaceful it was, and how he practiced mindfulness out there, as he'd been learning to do during our "pick-me-up" lessons on Fridays.

The students tried out the hammock, we made pine needle tea, and on the way back, I'm pretty sure I heard another student ask if he could come along on one of his camping trips sometime. Gabe not only shared his passion and expertise, he inspired his classmates. He engaged them.

This kind of interest-based, student-driven learning is a big part of what we do at E. O. Smith High School's Depot Campus--it's what our internship program is all about, but it's not all.

We expend a lot of effort building relationships, not only through outings like Gabe's hike, but also through tough conversations, restorative practices, and simply working hard together.

The research is clear about the key role of teacher-student relationships, but it's just as clear about the need for explicit instruction. That's why we've recently ramped up the math here, and why our new "Project Block" is aimed at explicitly building independent learning skills.

So far, our average student is half-way through their math course, and most of our students have completed six out of the nine projects they need to move up to the next level and design their own learning projects.

Some of our students, like Kim, who is working on a fantasy novel, already have projects underway. Others, just plans. But our goal is that every one of them will graduate with some seriously cool projects under their belts--projects that will help them stand out in the college and career market.
The Depot has always focused on reading and reflective writing, and this year we are ramping that up as well by adding more explicit instruction in writing structured essays. So as Kim works through her novel, she will be able to apply new found skills in organization and structure, skills that will transfer to all of her communications in the future.

None of this is easy. It's a lot of change and a lot of work. But each piece of this puzzle is necessary. The finished picture will not just include young adults doing creative and engaging things they enjoy, but doing them well, and from a firm foundation of skills that will launch them into a future that no one can predict. It will be a picture of passions turned into careers.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Tracking student progress in a mastery-based system

"She won't be happy until her progress report is 100% green." That's what one of our teachers told me about one particularly driven student. She was talking about our new Google Drive-based progress report system.

One of the challenges of mastery-based learning is tracking and reporting student progress. Our new system allows students, parents, and teachers to see it all at a glance, so students can get the support they need, see their growth over time, and get quick feedback.

At The Depot, we measure student progress toward mastery of six competencies: Communication, Information, Media, and Technology, Career Skills, Life Skills, Critical Thinking, and Creativity and Innovation.

They work on these skills in various blocks during the school day: Pick-me-up, Advisory, Math Block, Book Teams, Project Block, and Fitness, and at their internships.

Teachers rate student performance on the six competencies using our Competency Rubric, and then enter the data in a spreadsheet like this:

A separate "progress report" spreadsheet for each student reports the data out to students, teachers, and parents, like this:

They see a graph of their progress toward each competency, plus a color-coded matrix that indicates their progress by subject area and block. It also reports attendance, credit issues and their accumulated "chips" (a new incentive system we are using this year). Red and orange squares indicate areas of concern. Yellow shows emerging growth, and green indicates competency.

The system also shows progress on a standard sequence of required tasks (the "non-negotiables"), their current credit status, and a worksheet that shows where their subject area credit is coming from this year. 

The system allows us to better identify students who need specific supports, and we are seeing increased use of the progress reports by parents and students. Our hope is that they will find it not only useful, but also motivating, as they see their growth over time. Our end goal, after all, is not only competency, but self-confidence.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Mastering (and loving) math at the Depot

We've made lots of big changes this year at the Depot, but this may be the most important one:

More math.

There's been a lot of talk lately about the importance of social skills for jobs, but jobs requiring a combination of math AND social skills have shown even more growth.

That's why we've ramped up the math.

But how do you ramp up math at a tiny school where the students are out of the building two days a week, and none of the teachers are certified in math?

It's called ALEKS, and I'm not the only one who likes it. I've had multiple students actually say to me, "I love ALEKS."

How can this happen? They used to say they hated math.

Well, maybe that's changing.

ALEKS is an online math learning system. We enroll students in courses, like Algebra and Geometry, they read tutorials, and then they practice the skills online two hours a week.

What's so cool about ALEKS is that it is a mastery based program. Students start by taking an initial assessment of their skills in each course. It tells them how many topics they have already mastered, and starts them THERE. They may start 20% or 30% of the way through the course, if they already know that much of the material!

ALEKS shows them their progress in a way that is rewarding and motivating, and they only move forward after they've mastered a topic. It gives them periodic "knowledge checks" along the way, and will send them back to relearn topics if necessary, even on their final assessment. There are no grades, because they don't finish until they have mastered 100% of the topics in the course.

If students are not progressing fast enough, we move them to an easier course. For example, a student who is hitting the wall in Algebra is moved to High School Preparation for Algebra, so she can get the skills she needs to go back and tackle Algebra 1 later in the year. If a student is moving quickly, they may get through more than one course in a single year--more credit, and more progress toward college and career!

Right now, our average progress on Geometry and Algebra 2 is 36%. Not bad for independent, online study!

All of this just confirms what I've been thinking lately: Kids don't hate school because it doesn't match their learning style, they hate it because they feel they're not good at it. 

Imagine if we could change that! Just imagine if every student left this place with a new confidence in their math skills?

Imagine the doors that would open for them, not only to college and careers, but to new ways of understanding the world?