At 3-week warning to researchED DC, some things I love about rED

After months of planning, y’all, researchED DC is three short weeks away. We got Tom Bennett, we got Ben Riley, we got Sarah Thomas, we got Ruth Neild, we got Dylan Wiliam, we got Lisa Hansel, we got Seth Andrew, we got Pedro de Bruyckere, we got David Didau, we got the Learning Scientists (Megan Smith & Yana Weinstein), we got, we got, we GOT!

(And these names are only the start, I’m telling you. Click the link event link above and see for yourself. Go ahead, I’ll wait.)


In other words: if you haven’t registered and have been planning to, you’d better hurry. Some of the biggest names in all of education are going to be in one place — in a school, no less (as opposed to some gaudy hotel conference space with a dedicated hall of desperate vendors) — to share their wisdom and their sparkling personalities. It’s really not something you should let pass by if you’re passionate about improving ed practice. [Plus, if you don’t do so soon, you won’t be included in the lunch count. Seriously: Chop. Freakin’. Chop. What are you waiting for?!]

We’ve still got quite a lot to do behind the conference’s scenes, but seeing this video about researchED yesterday really got me thinking about all the reasons I’m so crazy about the teacher-driven learning & improvement movement Tom Bennett’s led over the past few years. I’ve written about it before (see here and here and here for a few examples), but just feeling like I’ve got to give it another shout.

Here goes: in no particular order, some things I love about researchED are…

  1. It was started by pissed-off teachers, all who believed they could find better PD on their own than the dreck dished out by their schools/districts.
  2. It cares about improving practice first, way before all the ed structures & policies so many are so convinced are the true keys to ed enterprise-improvement (but which keep yielding up only meager returns).
  3. It doesn’t follow marching orders of anyone, really: neither scale-hungry, ed-clueless vendors nor reform organizations nor teachers unions run the decision-making of researchED; if you know something about what works for kids and teachers, and if you have strong evidence to back your position, chances are good that researchED will give you a spot in its program. When ideas clash, they figure it’s actually good for the conversation. Imagine.
  4. It deeply values the idea that improvement choices should be based on sound evidence–not intuition, ideals, or sentimentality alone (as so much ed-improvement conversation tends to be).
  5. Everyone I’ve met from the worldwide researchED community is brilliant, genuine, passionate, funny (!), and generous. At each conference I’ve been to/spoken at, I felt immediately welcome and accepted — even, sometimes, by internationally renowned ed thinkers I’d admired for years. After starting off as such with them, I have since felt very little hesitation when needing to reach out for a tip or additional insight or whatever. In an age when so many choose to stay within their bubbles or preach to their own choirs about what needs fixing in education, this kind of collaborative and continually idea-pushing connection to thousands of practitioners was exactly what I needed. (And, frankly, before that I had begun to lose some hope.)

Thanks for letting me share all that. In case you can’t tell, I’m pretty excited about researchED coming back to the US in a few weeks. If you want to find out more about all this up close, I urge you to take a look at the event site or the video link in this post — or, better yet, the conference in DC. If my experience is any guide, you’ll never be the same afterward — and it’s something we desperately need more of here in US education.

Have great weekends, everyone!

4-Step Starter Kit: Beginning in Ed Research (cross post from TES)

This is another piece from the series I’m doing for TES US on the value of ed research in advance of the big researchED US conference (only a month away! Get tix now! Have you SEEN this program?!!).

Also: Education Post ran an adapted version of one of the series’s earlier pieces this past week, find it here — and, of course, feel free to retweet, share, etc. We really want to get word out about researchED DC! (Which you can follow at Twitter now, by the way…)

Have a great week, y’all.

I’m an evangelist for teachers taking control of their own development by using education research.

But I know there’s a great distance between saying, ‘Reclaim your profession, educators!’ and actually doing it.

If becoming a better user of educational research were not so difficult or time-intensive, countless more practitioners would already have made it a habit by now. And, in turn, the myriad bad professional development courses, wasteful consultants, and misguided improvement initiatives would long ago have been sent into retreat.

So, as someone who has invested time in education research and seen first-hand how it can pay off, here is my quick starter kit of ideas for people who want to give it a try. My Starter Kit won’t make research work magically quick, but it should help you along your way.

1.        To Begin, Ask ONE Question

A simple point, but a very important one as you set out. For once you start looking around, your main issue will quickly escalate from ‘how do I find what I need?’ to ‘what in this overwhelming pile of information is most reliable and most useful?’

Beginning with a single focus for inquiry (‘What is the effect of Balanced Literacy programs on students’ reading outcomes in my state?’, for example, or ‘Is there evidence that 1-to-1 iPad initiatives have improved students’ learning in the metro districts that have implemented them?’) can provide an effective cordon around a much more workable space and keep distracting or erroneous information under control.

2.  Run, Don’t Walk, to the Cognitive Science

Many of the least-effective yet furthest-reaching approaches in education are based on ideals about how people learn best, not on the science of how people learn best.

The good news is that the past 3 to 4 decades of advances in cognitive science can give us much more reliable information about human learning, based on scientific trials.

To anyone starting out as a researcher, then, regardless of discipline or grade level, I’d heavily suggest getting up to speed with these concepts as quickly as possible.

As far as matters to prioritize, I’d recommend starting with these three and learning all you can: (1) Long-accepted truths of instruction and learning (like learning styles, for example) that science have proven to be mythical, (2) The importance of background knowledge to all kinds of what we consider ‘higher-order’ thought, and (3) How learning improves through various forms of practice/repetition.

These three will provide a lot of insight, I’m pretty sure, that your training programs and continuing professional development never would. I would recommend the following pieces of reading as starting points:

3. Plug In to Other Practitioner-Researchers

Back when I first jumped into the ed research stream 13-14 years ago, I basically had a couple books’ reference sections to guide me. The internet was humming, of course, but blogs weren’t much of a factor and Twitter hadn’t even been invented.

Today, one can get daily doses of fellow educator-researchers’ work from huge numbers of bloggers. There are links to lots of good ones on my blog A Total Ed Case if that is a helpful starting point.

Plus, a worldwide community of like-minded professionals can be found on Twitter, which is great at rapidly spreading useful research and resources. If you’ve put off opening an account, at least do it for this. You won’t regret it.

Seek conferences like researchED, too, to connect with fellow educators. My shameless plug, as I’m one of the organizers, is to encourage you to attend our next one on 29 October 2016 in Washington, DC. But if you can’t, follow us on Twitter or seek out other conferences near you to build your professional network.

4. Know How We Got Here

Though you may not feel education’s history applies very well to the day-to-day of your classroom, I’ve found immensely useful over my time in education—maybe because we’re so inclined to repeat our mistakes.

Plus, histories are rich with ‘gateways’ via their usually deep references and indices. From a purely strategic standpoint, taking some time as a researcher to know how we got here will pay off in big ways the further you go.

A couple of recommendations I’d make are Diane Ravitch’s Left Back and The Troubled CrusadeEven The Death and Life of the Great American School System, the book that bridged her move from reform champion to reform enemy, does a lot well to explain American Education in its post-NCLB Accountability Era.

Other titles I’d suggest include The Struggle for the American Curriculum, 1893-1958, by Herbert Kliebard; Why Knowledge Matters, by E.D. Hirsch;Getting It Wrong from the Beginning, by Kieran Egan; and Ouroborosan ebook by Greg Ashman.

ResearchED is holding a conference at CHEC in Washington, DC, on 29 October, tickets for the conference are on sale now. Click here for more info on the conference program and tickets—and be in touch if you have any questions. 

DIY Instructional Leadership (cross-post from TES)

Here’s another piece I did for TES USA, part of a series urging ed practitioners to take more control of their own professional learning — to dodge the bad stuff they’re so often fed, for one, but to lead their own way out of flawed, over-idealized practices. If we wait for those above us to bring it, after all, we may be waiting forever. Near the end, you’ll also see a plug for the upcoming researchED conference in Washington, DC. If you’re interested in the DIY pathway to instructional leadership herein, I recommend that conference as a great starting place.

When I was a classroom teacher struggling to get the best outcomes for my students, education research introduced me to the innovative new practices I needed but had never encountered in my regular continuing professional development.

As I wrote for TES a couple of weeks ago, sharing what I had learned led to leadership opportunities. Ultimately it also led to me to researching and writing a book that has allowed me to work with educators and schools in and beyond the US.

Though my DIY path had a few right-place-wrong-time fits and starts and often required long hours, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Put simply: the leadership I’m now able to do in education is informed by ideas I’ve intensely studied and personally applied.

I can now stand confidently on these ideas, but that hasn’t always been the case. I have worked, after all, as an instructional leader within larger education organizations, where many times my function was to pass on the organizations’ preferred practices, even though I knew them to be flawed.

It is with some concern, then, that I look around the education enterprise and see all the formalized teacher-leadership going on – in the form of instructional coaches, content leads, program facilitators, etc – that didn’t really exist even a decade or so ago. I know from experience that lots of well-meaning people won’t be passing on effective instruction techniques so much as carrying out what their supervisors tell them to, and I know a lot of that is just plain bad.

My experience also tells me that these aspiring teacher-leaders will be put in many highly confusing and stressful work situations due to their ‘tweener’ (read: not teaching staff and not administration) status and their addition to a system that hasn’t worked out how they should best contribute.

Viewing all this in the light of still-limited research literature on the impact of teacher leadership (which certainly hasn’t shown resoundingly positive effects on student performance, by the way), it’s actually a bit of a mystery how the idea of growing teacher leaders, content coaches, and all the rest has acquired its current high premium. It’s not from past proven successes, that’s for sure.

If you disagree, I urge you to check the available evidence and think about all the money, time, and angst being spent on these approaches. If you find any districts/schools where training teacher-leaders is strong, implementation is efficient, and kids are suddenly growing out of control as a result, do reach me through my blog and let me know. I’d love to hear about successes if they’re happening.

But while I wait on that, let’s return to the idea of DIY teacher leadership, powered by practitioners’ independent research. For I also have experiences with this leadership pathway, and these experiences have shown me definitively this: one need never ‘go into instructional leadership’ to be an instructional leader.

The information that can positively transform teachers’ classroom practices is out there, and existing collaborative structures (like scheduled teacher-teaming sessions— even just hallway conversations, to start) can be leveraged to share what’s working among willing colleagues. All it really takes is the decision to seek something new, making time to look for it, and planning thoughtfully about how the ‘something new’ can be applied.

I’ll admit the independent research was very time-consuming, difficult, and lonely. The ideas I stumbled on back then weren’t (and still aren’t) exactly ones much of the education establishment provides a lot of resources around.

I really could have used some better starting points and a better network of fellow practitioner-researchers to trade ideas with—all items available today, thankfully, through an organization like researchED, the UK-based nonprofit dedicated to building teachers’ research literacy.

I plugged in to researchED and its community after appearing at a few of their conferences to talk about my book, and the connections I made there—to say nothing of the accompanying stream of thought-partnership, new research developments, and good teacher humor now flowing through my social media feeds—make me thankful for the organization every day.

As I’ve nearly no faith left in centralized, top-down approaches to instructional improvement, the type of impact researchED has generated in the UK gives me hope that good educational practices can still be found, processed, and broadcast widely, and that we can do this ourselves, from the classroom up.

*ResearchED is holding a conference at CHEC in Washington, DC, on 29 October, tickets for the conference are on sale now. Click here for more info on the conference program and tickets—and be in touch if you have any questions. 

A Hiatus Disrupter (kinda): Cross-post from TES on researchED DC

Yes, A Total Ed Case does still exist. It’s been a busy summer, is all, with new work opportunities (that I’ll share more about at a later time), researchED DC conference planning, and, well, shamelessly spending more time with family, friends, books, and my bike. I plan to jump back in on new writing very soon, but here’s a (slightly edited) piece I did for TES US last week to get a little more word out about researchED. More than anything, it’s put here as a hiatus disrupter. Wonder if it’ll earn me the ‘Disrupted Something’ credential so sought-after in education right now. (Actually, I don’t really care.) Enjoy — and be in touch if you have questions or anything else. I hope your summer months are going well.

When I took my first solo jump into educational research literature thirteen years ago or so, it was out of sheer—near-frantic, really—desperation.

My problem was this: I was teaching high school English, and I wasn’t getting enough of my kids to actually read the class material. As students’ reading of assigned texts was key to so much of the other stuff we’d get up to in English class, I knew that continuing to fall short simply would not cut it. I had to get better at motivating students toward completing assigned readings, period.

And though I’d been using the directions given to me by my pre-professional training, my teaching colleagues and my professional development, I still wasn’t getting my students to the intended destination.

I had to start looking at entirely different directions and, as the sources I’d counted on to date were only offering more of the same ineffective things, I was going to have to find these different directions on my own.

Delving into the world of educational research soon gave me some different options to effectively motivate my students.

  • One of the first stops in my research convinced me I should be very wary of motivating my students in any way that compromised the academic intensity of the assignment. In other words, making up for students’ preferences by assigning high-engagement/low-resistance titles or skipping reading altogether to watch film adaptations were both out if I was to do this right.
  • When I turned my research attention to ways I could make rigorous texts and tasks more engaging to my students, I recognized (primarily through the work of E.D. Hirsch) that the disengagement I was observing might originate from background knowledge students simply don’t have. Accordingly, I designed background knowledge ‘scaffolds’ and placed them strategically through every work we studied.
  • Research of cognitive science introduced me to framing effects and their impacts on humans’ motivation and decision-making. I accordingly put more thought into how to frame content and lesson tasks—classroom policies, even—toward increasing students’ motivation. (For more on those efforts, see a post I did for the Learning Scientists blog earlier this year.)
  • Moved and justified by Cunningham and Stanovich’s work I created a flexible ‘choice’ space for students’ independent reading.

…And on and on. You get the idea. Really, the point here is that educational research, found independently, introduced me to more good ideas about what to use in my classroom than pretty much everything before it combined.

The kinds of things I learned in this initial foray rippled way beyond my classroom, too: pieces of my independent reading structures were, for instance, later adapted for full-school implementation. Also, my continued research ultimately led me to write a book on ed practice and reform, and that book has allowed me to work with teachers and administrators around the US and beyond. In a future post, I’ll elaborate a bit on role research can play in creating educational leaders.

In light of how positively ed research has impacted my own practices and career, it’s always disappointing to learn of findings like these, by the UK’s Education Endowment Fund, about lack of teacher engagement. The research that can change educators’ practice for the better—and override the useless junk educators so often get fed—is out there. Though I haven’t seen a similar study in the US, my field experience leads me to believe we’d see very similar results here.

The good news, though, is that researchED, a nonprofit organization based in the UK, exists expressly to reverse this reality among the world’s teachers. They carry out their six-pronged mission (explained more fully at researchED’s site) mainly through their one-day conferences, which bring teachers together to learn from and network with some of education research’s best thinkers.

Having been to a few of them (I’ve spoken at a couple, in fact), I can honestly say I’ve waited my whole professional life for a community like researchED. The grassroots, ‘classroom-up’ excitement they’ve created in Britain—and that has spread to Scandinavia, Australia, and elsewhere—is precisely what we need more of in American education.

This is why I’m thrilled they have an event scheduled in Washington, DC, for October 29, 2016. I’ve been able to assist with its organization, and with speakers like Dylan Wiliam, Tom Bennett, Annie Murphy Paul, Robert Pondiscio, IES Director Ruth Neild, Lisa Hansel, David Didau, and many, many others, it promises to be an amazing day of learning.

I’ll be writing more for TES between now and the conference to let you know more about it and to see if I can convince you to join us there. Whether you are desperately seeking new, sound answers or are a seasoned student of ed research, I’m sure you’ll find something to like there.

Thanks, Lucy Laney, for dealing hope

This post from Lucy Laney Community School, a K-5 on Minneapolis’s north side, appeared on my Facebook feed early last Friday afternoon:

It’s great, I know. A perfect communication to families regarding the preceding few days’ horrific, potentially youth-confusing news items and all that. Actively turning adversity into opportunities for learning and dialogue and processing, etc., etc.

Based on what I’ve come to expect from Laney, though, the Facebook communication above was hardly surprising.

Indeed, having admired the drive, vision, intellect, sincerity, and creativity (believe me, the list of admirable qualities could continue here) of Laney’s principal, Mauri Melander, for a number of years and having spent time at the school to observe operations and to pick Mauri’s and her staff’s brains, I’ve pretty much come to expect this type of message from them. They know exactly how they want their kids to grow and why, and they work constantly and deliberately — with, I should add, truly remarkable togetherness — toward those goals.

I’ll put it this way: Though I follow many, many schools across the US in various ways and for various reasons, Laney’s the only school I ‘like’ on Facebook. I simply don’t want to miss anything they put out there, as I know I can learn from it.

All that said, it was discouraging — crushing, more like — to see Principal Melander’s personal FB account not even three hours after the typically great communication embedded above. In response to news that two very young children had been shot, one fatally, just down the street from her school, she offered this:

Don’t fear, however. From the overwhelming emotions of the later post, Principal Melander and Laney Community School emerged with this by Sunday evening:

From the moment I read it, I was in. Not because I thought they’d need support (again: I’ve seen Principal Melander and her staff do their thing) or because I needed a place to vent my anger and shout at a system, but just because of what the posts said: the children are watching. And as they are, they need to see as many adults as possible not, as Principal Melander put it in this interview with the local NBC affiliate, ‘starting to act like it’s normal’. As many adults as possible, in other words, walking alongside them with hurt and confused expressions to mirror their own.

Laney’s walk Monday morning consisted of a silent walk from school, individual students’ tributes (handmade cards were deposited at a memorial site), a silent circle of all gathered, and a silent walk back to school. Though no program of speakers worked to jam any desired takeaways into students/other attendants, I can say for sure that the brief event is among the most memorable times I’ve ever had in a school. And as such, I have no doubt that similarly permanent impressions were made on Laney’s dear students.

Thanks, Principal Melander and Laney staff, for creating such an inspiring learning environment for your kids — and, of course, for ed professionals like me. Your vision, passion, adaptability, and unity — especially your unity — continually provide a way forward for me, thus giving me great hope.

researchED DC: Tickets Available Now!

No surprise if you’ve read this space, I’ve believed for quite a while that a practice-focused, classroom-up approach to reform is our enterprise’s best hope for meaningful and lasting improvement. (Chapters 7-9 of my Education Is Upside-Down, in factdiscuss the limitations I see in the beliefs/methods of the structural reformers currently dominating the US reform conversation.)

That said, it’s actually very hard to find US organizations that are practitioner-driven and tightly focused on improving instructional practices. For example: several practitioner-based orgs exist, but they more likely exist to influence policy or to ‘elevate teacher voice’; education orgs that are practice-focused, conversely, are more likely to come from outside the classroom, lacking the perspective necessary to properly effect change; etc., etc.

With all such in mind, I’ve waited my whole career in education for an organization and practitioner community like researchED, the British nonprofit dedicated to improving educators’ research literacy. Having attended and spoken at multiple researchED conferences and, as a result, plugged into a social-media-powered network of educators who continually push my thinking and guide me toward notable ed research/ideas, I’ve seen its power and potential up close. (Incidentally, quite a few others around the world are as taken by researchED as I am: in addition to the variety of conferences offered in the UK, the organization has recently hosted conferences in Sweden, Australia, and Amsterdam.) And, subsequently, I’ve done a lot of thinking (wishing?) about how a similar grassroots effort can take off in the US.

And thanks to researchED founder Tom Bennett’s openness, we’ll be seeing another of their conferences over here in the fall — 29 October, that is, in Washington, DC. I’ve been lucky to have a hand in organizing it, and I don’t mind telling you that the initial lineup is quite amazing (and growing — write me if interested in speaking). Confirmed speakers so far include the likes of Dylan Wiliam, Benjamin Riley, Annie Murphy Paul, David Didau, the Learning Scientists, Robert Pondiscio, and many more. (I managed to sneak myself in there, too.)

If interested in tickets or learning more about the speakers & session emphases, check out the event site. Please, too, be in touch if you have questions about the organization or the event. I’d sure love if you’d consider coming to experience it for yourself.

Has Paul Tough found noncog skills’ marathon & swimming pool?

I usually don’t comment much on works I haven’t read fully, mainly because I don’t think it’s fair to authors’ larger arguments and efforts. However: after reading the excerpt from Paul Tough’s new book, Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why, on Mind/Shift a couple days ago, I just couldn’t resist.

I’ve had a lot to say, after all, about Tough’s precursor work, 2012’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Chapter six of my Education Is Upside-Down, in fact, riffs on the title of Tough’s 2012 book (it’s called ‘How [Schools Should Help] Children Succeed’), explains some significant effects Tough’s book has had on the education enterprise, and suggests what I consider a crucial both-and approach to the binary his book sets up. I’ve also given talks related to these ideas to US and UK audiences (download presentation deck here).

All that said, I was happy (and a little annoyed, frankly) to see that, after having done more research, Tough’s finding basically the same things. See these two passages from the Mind/Shift excerpt:

But in my reporting for How Children Succeed, I noticed a strange paradox: Many of the educators I encountered who seemed best able to engender noncognitive abilities in their students never said a word about these skills in the classroom.


among the skills [Elizabeth Spiegel, an exemplary character-building chess instructor spotlighted in How Children Succeed‘s] students were mastering were many that looked exactly like what other educators called character: the students persisted at difficult tasks, overcoming great obstacles; they handled frustration and loss and failure with aplomb and resilience; they devoted themselves to long-term goals that often seemed impossibly distant.

And yet, in all the time I spent watching her teach, I never once heard Elizabeth Spiegel use words like grit or character or self-control. She talked to her students only about chess. She didn’t even really give them pep talks or motivational speeches. Instead, her main pedagogical technique was to intensely analyze their games with them, talking frankly and in detail about the mistakes they had made, helping them see what they could have done differently. Something in her careful and close attention to her students’ work changed not only their chess ability but also their approach to life.

So, pretty much, good teachers like Elizabeth Spiegel ready kids for a marathon using only a swimming pool. (Again, see my book or my talk slides for a more elaborated version of the marathon-swimming pool thing. Or, you know, reach out and ask me. Whatever works.) Glad, you know, it occurred to Tough before schools/districts started getting soaked by vendors hawking grit curricula and building students’ noncognitive skill (sic) growth into their instructional planning and assessment.

In fairness, Tough should not be held anywhere near 100% responsible for our enterprise-wide idiocy around his book’s ideas. Indeed, we tend to get pretty stupid once ideas like his get our blood pumping. Seeing Tough speak shortly after How Children Succeed came out, as a matter of fact, all the Q&A-ers’ reactions (e.g., ‘THIS is what we must be working on in our schools, not all this reading and math and testing!’, ‘What programs would you recommend to start teaching these things to kids?’, and on and on) made me nervous bordering on queasy. I could just see, I guess, where we were all going to run with these kinds of messages, and I hated the idea of yet another enterprise-wide misunderstanding, misapplication, and over-correction. And, well…here we are. At least Tough (like Carol Dweck on growth mindset and Angela Duckworth on grit before him) has the courage and decency to qualify his initial takes in light of his continued study.

A big lesson in all this, Ed Cases: If you’d rather not have your professional development, evaluation, and operations constantly disrupted-corrected-dictated by cycles like Tough’s (and Duckworth’s and Dweck’s and and…) proclamation-clarification, make a point to examine the evidence you see — no matter how compelling — more critically on the front end. Tough, remember, is a reporter, not an educator or a learning scientist of any kind. I’m not saying that his line of work means we should discount him fully. Much to the contrary, we should listen hard to him and other education writers because we need all the help we can get. (And in all honesty, I think How Children Succeed contains a lot we should be paying attention to.) These writers’ jobs, though, are to bring fascinating items about education into the light, not necessarily to consider all the items’ angles and/or potential clashes with various teaching/learning principles, system priorities, etc. However many great ideas Tough and writers like him bring to the ed-improvement conversation, they’re ideas we must consider carefully before integrating, not just prioritize highly and make operational without understanding where/how/even if they can fit.

In sum, it’s on us — not education writers — to be better researchers, decision-makers, and gatekeepers. As frustrated as I might be in Tough for his arc and progression of understanding, we should fully own that our swallowing-whole is more our enterprise’s problem, not his.

(And I’ll read the new book, I promise. With the interim years’ additional research, I’m hoping it’ll build some much-needed nuance and sense onto the messages of How Children Succeed. Two days into summer, though, I’m too deep in a bunch of good fiction to get around to it.)