July 17, 2008

Chris Lehmann Responds

Chris Lehmann, Principal of Science Leadership Academy (SLA), responded to my criticism of one of SLA's projects in a recent post. Here is Chris's response with my comments.

One, let's start with the premise that you and I have fundamentally different views on educational philosophy, so I'd argue that you're predisposed to
disapprove of our school.

I'm not so sure about that. I assumed that our goals are similar: to maximize student learning. To the extent that I favor certain pedagogies over others, it is only because those pedagogies have evidence of superior results when we look at what the student has actually learned. But I am not beholden to any particular pedagogy for the sake of any particular educational philosophy.

Let's also state that, as you point out, we are completely transparent about our philosophy at SLA. Between my blog, the Family Night Book, the web site, etc, you can get a sense of what we believe pretty easily. Also, we encourage all
prospective students and parents to come spend a day at the school... not a special "everyone-visits" day, but any day. We want families to understand our educational philosophy because we want kids to make an informed decision about where they want to go to high school. So we're not trying to trick anyone into coming to SLA. Given that transparency, we've had a great interest in our school. We're also pleased with the academic results we've seen. So far, we are currently on track to have over a 90% four-year graduation rate from SLA, and by qualitative and quantitative metrics (attendance, course passing rates, PSAT scores, as well as early research by two PhD students), kids are doing very well.

I haven't seen any reported PSSA results for SLA yet. Will this year's results be reported?

So to the specific points you raise:

A) You show an interesting unwillingness to accept the scope of the piece or that the scope of the piece has merit. To do this work, the students had to examine primary source materials, learn about abolitionist societies, learn about the Dred Scott case through multiple lenses -- including the political one you favor. And then they had to create a piece of writing that a) showed historical understanding and b) made a decision to argue a point of view of one of the groups active at that time. All of that maps to the standards of the state for history.

Admittedly, the scope of the project is unclear based on what is provided in the handbook. I assumed, and I think fairly so, that the scope of a project for a high school history class would be a demonstration of historical understanding. Now, if the student expectations are diminished from this level, I'm curious to know in what way they are diminished and what is the expected pathway to this higher level since the curricular design is claimed to be backwards?

The handbook states that the project "can only be completed by showing both the skills and knowledge that are deemed to be critical to master the subject and demonstrate that deep level of understanding." What specific skills and specific knowledge were the students expected to have mastered? What was the level of specific understanding that was expected?

I do think that a high school student can be expected to perform the kind of analysis I provided if they are taught how to do it and taught the underlying content. In fact, I think middle-school student can be taught to this level. I'll provide an example in a future post.

My concern, and I think it is a valid concern, is that student learning is taking a backseat to the pedagogical fidelity. My opinion is that the student's understanding is banal and typical of what you see when the student lacks domain knowledge. (My third grade son comes home with stuff like this from school all the time even though he is capable of better.) My understanding is the theory is that it is better for the student to generate this knowledge on his own, rather than be told it. Fair enough. But the student's work product indicates that the required knowledge has not been generated, as the theory predicts, with the result being a superficial analysis. I just don't see how the student understanding can in anyway be considered to be deep at this point.

Moreover, during the course of the unit, students were engaged in a variety of instructional techniques. The assumptions you make about the kind of teaching that happens at SLA are wrong.

My assumptions were based on what was provided in the handbook and by what learning the student demonstrated. If I'm wrong, I'd like to understand how.

Moreover, even in my presentation that you cite, I talk about how traditional forms of assessment -- quizzes and tests -- have their place in our classrooms, they just are now lower on our hierarchy of assessment. Tests and quizzes are great ways to see if kids have learned how to handle skills and content in a narrowly defined context. What the student projects do is see if they can transfer those skills and content to a larger context.

The handbook states that "the primary assessment of student learning is through their projects" so I think it's fair to use the project, by itself, as the criterion of whether the learning meets the educational goals. I assumed that some teaching took place regarding the historic era in question and some background knowledge was taught, but I don't see how very much of this transfer took place.

B) I'd argue that [your] analysis of what was missing suggests your own bias toward what [you feel] is important to learn about that material. That's fine, the single greatest limiting factor in school is time. If you want to cover a great deal of material -- and even in "progressive" schools, history courses have a lot to cover, you are never going to get to every lens. And, by the way, while this assessment may not have asked kids to deal with the larger political lens, other work did. And yes, we do often question our balance with depth and breadth -- that's the question all good progressive schools should ask themselves, just as all good traditional schools should ask themselves about their balance of skills and content, information transferal and knowledge acquisition.

Again, the handbook indicates the goal was deep understanding and mastery of skills. I don't see either having taken place here at a ninth grade level. Which lens were expected if not the historic/political one considering this was a history class? I don't see depth nor breadth here, but then again I am not sure of the expectation which appears to be much less than what I consider to be high school level.

C) The level of analysis you suggest is warranted is collegiate -- or at least 11th or 12th grade -- in its complexity when this was a 9th grade piece of work. (We only had ninth graders when we published the book.) I think it holds up as a sophisticated, smart piece of work that shows an emergent sense of what it means to have a historical sense of the world.

Another way of saying this is that the student has not yet acquired an historic sense.

I'm going to post a middle school level text related to the same issue so we can judge the level of analysis we might expect. I get to hopefully by the weekend.

D) You and I have a fundamental disagreement over the value of skills v. content in student understanding. You believe that until the student has enough facts at their disposal, there is little benefit to asking them to "think like a historian." We believe that those skills develop with practice and that students' ability to develop the ability to apply an historical lens on the world requires frequent, guided, scaffolded practice. That's fine. We'll have to agree to disagree.

Again, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I don't see how a series of superficial analyses is going to lead to expertise, nor I have I ever seen a deep analysis of an issue by one who was not in possession of a deep understanding of the underlying domain knowledge. Cog Sci tells us you don't acquire the latter until you've acquired the former. Nor is the student getting practice gaining expertise in this domain. The student isn't learning the underlying content. How is he going to learn how to analyze what he doesn't know?

Inquiry-driven learning doesn't mean you just set the kids off on Google. Guided inquiry means giving kids skills to access resources and make decisions on their own.

Has that been demonstrated here? I think just the opposite has been demonstrated. The resources weren't accessed and the right decisions were not made. Hallmarks of a novice.

I don't think you're going to read this comment and suddenly think, "Aha! I get it, SLA is wonderful!" But I also would hope that we could move beyond strawman arguments -- I'll promise not to argue that KIPP creates a bunch of automatons who merely can regurgitate what they have been told if you promise not to argue that SLA is some unstructured school where kids just are indoctrinated toward an ideological bias or kids merely learn some surface knowledge by surfing the web.

I do not assume that SLA is unstructured. I assume there is plenty of structure because no structure would be a disaster. I think that the problem is that the students' inquiry isn't leading to content knowledge and that the students' analysis suffers for it.

Regurgitation is not the goal, though inflexible knowledge is the typical starting point. However, not being able to even regurgitate is telling as well.

As always, I offer you the opportunity to come visit SLA. I don't think you'll like what you see there -- again, my goal is not to convince you that we're the one right school, but rather so you could see that there is more than one approach to schooling. I have no doubt that a thoughtful application of DI schoolwide can create an effective school where kids learn well. Can you entertain the same notion that an inquiry-driven approach that has been executed thoughtfully can do the same?

There is always the possibility, but I've yet to see the results with a population like that of SLA. I'm always looking to be convinced. Perhaps, there is a better example project for inclusion in next year's handbook.


Anonymous said...

"Perhaps, there is a better example project for inclusion in next year's handbook."

Of course there is. Chris Lehmann is writing it right now.

TurbineGuy said...

The great thing about project/authentic blah, blah, blah, is that the school administrators can take the very best and hold them up to illustrate what they have achieved. Never mind that the rest of the projects are a big pile of crap.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it is best to try combine both approaches.

I think DI is great for developing skills.

I think projects are good for developing the ability to ask questions and follow through based on a students interests.

I want both for my kid. A strong solid base of skills and the ability to follow their own interests.

Anonymous said...

If the students knew that all their projects would be up on the web for everyone to see, perhaps that would motivate them to work harder.


Anonymous said...

Could you clarify what you mean, "There is always the possibility, but I've yet to see the results with a population like that of SLA."

Are you saying that only certain children can learn through an inquiry-driven approach? Which type of children would these be?

KDeRosa said...

The ones with more background knowledge.

Anonymous said...

"To the extent that I favor certain pedagogies over others, it is only because those pedagogies have evidence of superior results when we look at what the student has actually learned."

Sorry, new here. Which pedagogies are you referring to? Within these pedagogies, how does "look[ing]" occur and what is it one would be trying to see?

KDeRosa said...

The ones with evidence of success, like DI (not to be confused with di).

Looking means examining the student's work to see if he has learned what you wanted him to learn.

Unknown said...

Let me start by saying this isn't a criticism, I really am wondering your thoughts.
With the ever changing society and the students in that society, how do past "proven" means of teaching keep up with today's new technology and parent/student attitudes? No, you can't just make up your own stuff, I realize. Feel free to put a link to a post I haven't found yet.

Parentalcation: Yep, lets make a handbook that has every single project from every single student. And I'm sure no one else (test scores included) alters numbers to make their case. Especially with AYP.

KDeRosa said...

I'm not so sure what I'm advocating is a past proven method. At the K-12 level history was typically taught as a parade of facts to be learned.

The goal of education should be for students to learn with undestanding and I don't have a problem with incorporating technology into the classroom.

It's the progressive pedagogy I have a problem with because it doesn't work for many kids--the ones with limited background knowledge mostly.
Dressing it up in technology doesn't make it any more palatable.

Tracy W said...

With the ever changing society and the students in that society, how do past "proven" means of teaching keep up with today's new technology and parent/student attitudes?

The guys who worked out Direct Instruction have also worked out a series of axioms for writing new curriculum (though they advise that any curriculum be field-tested).
See http://zigsite.com/PDFs/rubric.pdf

Solution - if you want to keep up with new technologies and parents/student attitudes, write a new curriculum according to the rubric and field-test it, revising based on the results of the field tests.

The rubrics include items like "The wording must be clear and concise." and "The presentation introduces all discriminations that are
necessary for a reasonable test of what is taught and none
that are not necessary." These rubrics strike me as applying as equally to curriculum that use computers or the Internet as ones that use pen and paper, and equally good regardless of parent/student attitudes.