Why education is basically wrong.


To understand the point of the title, we look at 1) what we want from education, and 2) whether the means we use are aligned to achieve it.  These two features combine: we want proactive knowledge but use reactive means.  In more detail:

Proactive knowledge.  This is knowledge one can think about by one’s own intent. When one chooses to think about it, a variety of handholds come to mind, and one can proceed from one end of a subject to another.  This may comprise established knowledge, creative angles, ways of analyzing and evaluating, funds of sheer factual data, causality expressed in reasons why effects occur, and the possibility of questioning one’s own learning.

A universal example of this is a teacher who has taught the same subject for fifteen years, knows it inside and out, can answer any question about it, and can present it in an interesting way to students.  At the college level, we see students achieve this level in seminar courses, and demonstrated in “orals.” Teachers arrange for students to express their learning to each other in projects and papers and discussions—online or face to face.  The primary subjective indicator of this kind of knowledge is that when one looks inside at it, it comprises an integrated field that one can independently and actively approach from multiple angles.  The aim of a course is to form a permanent mental field about a subject.

Are there any aspects of such proactive knowledge that we can do without in K-12 education?  Our course design and testing mania suggest that we do not aim for proactive knowledge. What should we expect if we don’t lead them to form a mental field, don’t enable them to think comprehensively, and don’t arrange for them to express their learning to each other?

Reactive means.  We can expect that since no mental field forms in their mind, they get little pleasure from thinking about the subject and little motive to claim it as their own.  Everywhere they look inwardly at the fragments of a subject in their mind, they find disconnected pieces they find difficulty in thinking about. Their main goal is not to embarrass themselves in front of their peers, so they may try to “answer the question” correctly.  But it still may not cohere intelligibly into a field and so provide them little reason to invest personally it.

They depend on an outer stimulus to draw their pieces of knowledge into the light. An answer provided to someone else’s question leaves the internal field reactive instead of proactive. The means of testing (a goad on both teachers and students) tells everyone “Produce this piece when someone else requires it.”

While such piece-work production could conceivably produce positive results, numerous factors designed into our system actually prevent the formation of a comprehensive mental field:  1) Courses begin and end by plan. 2) No expressed intent to learn a body of knowledge. The mental field is not expected nor aimed for. 3) No complete hard copy kept permanently. 4) Teaching of small pieces not integrated. 5) Recognition-based tests. 6) Personal interest usually irrelevant. 7) Pretest reviews designed to  improve scores. 8) Scheduled tests encourage cramming. 9) “Final” exam declares an end-point to effort. 10) Both learning and non-learning equally dismissed.  The unifying intent of these ten Learn and Lose factors is: “Learn this, discard it, and go on.”

Proactive means. The critical point that should have been established long ago by learning theorists and researchers is that the formation of a mental field occurs in a simple and inevitable manner, summarized as “Learn-Save.”

Learn one point.

Keep it.

Learn another.

Add the two together.

Save both.

Learn a third.

Understand the relationship between them.

Save all three.

Master the chunk.

Start another chunk.

Learn a point, save it, add more.

Learn the set.

It boils down to learn-save.  If students simply do not forget quickly what they learn, they will inevitably accumulate a vast body of knowledge by the time they leave school, but their forgetting is guaranteed by present instructional methods

The learn-save model applies to all learning.  If you learn something but don’t save it, you lose it. Is this not clear? Okay, then. Saving it is a result of intentional activity that does not occur by accident, but once begun, it becomes easier and easier. By saving each piece, you quickly begin to grasp inherent relationships that form the skeleton and sinew of a mental field.              Recognizing this principle, my bet is that most college teachers ask themselves at some point, “How much do students have to express their learning in order to develop a mental field with it?’  To state the point differently: If they expect students to develop a mental field, they turn their attention to how students express it.  They may do papers, they may have class discussions or debates, they may do orals—but they are clear that the level of retention of knowledge will be in direct relationship to the degree to which they have expressed it.

So for yourself: What do you ask students to do in order to master something so that it stays permanently (and does not evaporate forever after the “final”exam)?  Count your options.  If there is any teacher in the country reading this who tells their students “Please sit quietly and think about the subject,” would you contact me?  Your results are probably very satisfying, and I would like to learn how you arrange the experience. But other than sitting and thinking, what else?  Students can read—obtaining more input—but for what you want them to retain from it in a couple months, at some point they stop reading and must express what they read, writing or speaking in quantity with increasing periodicity, extending back to the beginning of the course and even incorporating prior course work.

Ultimately you can claim to know what you can demonstrate, what you can explain beginning to end.

The key instructional arrangement for achieving this is that you must spend a little time showing students how to assemble a hard copy of their learning, and then express it to each other in partner-pairs.  These things are simple to do and easily incorporated into any classroom K-12 if one chooses.


Using Numbers That Help

Given the near universal use of numbers, it would be helpful to apply them to the substance of learning instead of its appearance.  So much is presented, learned vaguely, and then “we move on,” insuring that major forgetting occurs.  A different model begins on the first day of kindergarten when the teacher presents five rules for the classroom.  Children demonstrate knowledge of the rules by being able to carry them out, and tell them back. Children don’t then  forget the five rules but just add more the next day and the next.

This simple model of learning and keeping suggests a definition of mastery: the ability to explain something without help and maintain it.  Anything a child learns that meets that standard is legitimately claimed as known and hence can be counted up.  Just as teachers divide a subject into points of knowledge (and a test question for each), students can practice, assimilate, and claim permanently the number of points of knowledge they master. A student daily adding just five points of knowledge per hour for five hours learns 4,500 points of knowledge in a year simply by maintaining what he/she labored to learn.

This is where numbers become highly motivating to students. Because a single digit represents one point of knowledge maintained, a student can count up everything he/she has learned in an objective fashion that aligns with the substance of learning.  And if educators insist on testing, they can do it just for maintained learning. Administer all tests unannounced, draw from all learning for the last two years, and allow students to claim their last score for the record.  To make numbers useful, apply them objectively to the substance of learning desired.

Critical Thinking from the Ground Up

            Images of critical thinking in full bloom abound—teams in furious concentration to send rockets to Mars, the ferment of ideas in businesses like Apple and Google, and the patient concentration of a Nobel Prize-winning scientist.  Education’s work, however, is with the early seedlings of these fruits that present fewer pictures. If a child needs a 2-degree course correction to find his way to intellectual greatness, making the change early is easiest and cheapest if we can understand how to guide him.

            My work has enabled me to observe many children with similar school experiences that seldom include a foundation for critical thinking.  Seven points I view as systemically underserved could, if better addressed, enhance children’s thinking as they mature:

1.  Am I safe?  Threat presents a visceral challenge to well-being, commanding attention and soaking up brainpower.  We are driven to scope out how to meet it. Just as our body automatically catches itself when we lose balance, our psychological system reacts similarly. Particularly when one is helpless to avert threat as children are, stress may show up as preoccupation with imaginary fears, physical awkwardness, acting out, catastrophizing, and emotions that adults label as childish.

And worse, experiences of danger and hurt are not dismissed  simply when the child smiles again.  The mind instead sustains a field of assumptions about lurking danger that demands constant monitoring.  This makes children less intelligent because mental and emotional energy is lost that otherwise would turn to interest in the world and the drive to master it.  The more threat they feel, the fewer resources they have for anything else.

Schools then face a question. Do they pass students through on the same trajectory—often hurt-laden–that they arrived with, or supply influences children obtain nowhere else?  Do we enable children to step up their game, or let them play out the game they brought to our door?  Their internal safety is a deep river compelling much of their later experience, yet easy to dismiss.  Children appear to comply and learn even if we ignore their deeper emotions, but to rise to their capability, they must reclaim what they otherwise lose to their distresses.

Physical threat is a legitimate concern, but the chance of a terrorist attack or a deranged gunman may occupy more school attention than the actual bully children perceive as ruining their life.  Their direct, in-the-moment emotional safety may escape teachers’ awareness. Preoccupied with issues certified as more important–getting on with the next lesson and following the rules—teachers  steadily admonish, correct, and redirect external behavior and many cede children’s inner safety as beyond their ability to deal with.  They want children to “get over” their feelings and perhaps refer a child to the school counselor if feelings cross the critical threshold of intruding on schoolwork. Then as children do to each other what teachers do to them, emotional safety never gains a foothold.

Solving this problem is not difficult. It only needs to be important. We look at their face, notice what goes on with them, and it matters to us. Extensive program materials for social-emotional learning can help, but mainly we love them, each one, one at a time. We cherish them and make our personal bond with them a safe harbor into which they can sail their storm-tossed boat at any time.  As we make their  experience safe and happy, we gift them with added intellectual power to devote to learning. If we don’t, they must spend their resources handling today’s threat laid upon the residue from all previous threats.

The issue is important even for society’s survival.  Negative emotion is readily directed to warped ends. An appalling example was Germany before World War II. Populated with the world’s leading thinkers in many fields and with one of the world’s best education systems, it developed the most powerful army the world had ever seen. Good education did not help with their greatest test, however. Despite their intelligence and learning, the issue for which Hitler supplied a voice was the insult and hardship Germans endured from the settlement of the First World War.  Damage, the threat of damage, anger, and resentment united them to support war. Comparably, if we want to elicit the worst in children, we need only allow them to remain angry and afraid.  To elicit their best, we first make them emotionally safe. For more on this, read Paul Tough’s important book, How Children Succeed.

2.  Is my world subjective or objective?  Grasping this single factor could clean up adult thinking like no other. It is as relevant in kindergarten as in geopolitics and can be understood in more refined terms with every year of growth. The belief that their feeling describes the real world is perhaps the most pervasive mistake children make: “Because I feel hurt, Michael hurt my feelings. Because I feel angry, Jennifer made me angry. Because I feel self-conscious, Ariel put me down. Because I feel embarrassed, the teacher embarrassed me.”  Rather than reflect real-world causality, subjectivity invents a self-protective spin.

Most children (possibly even the majority of adults) do not understand how subjective processes skew their judgment.  This mistake is not eradicated just by growing up but usually requires active instruction to correct.  Someone must listen to the child, understand the experience propelling his thinking, recognize its flaw, and then gently explain how subjective feelings, moods, and impressions can distort his picture of the world. Only those making this shift become competent to deal with society’s organs of power. A tragic default of this led to the attacks of 9-11 and eight years of war in Iraq. An insider to Al Qaeda wrote a summary of a conversation he witnessed:

Zawahiri impressed upon bin Laden the importance of understanding the American mentality. The American mentality is a cowboy mentality—if you confront them with their identity theoretically and practically they will react in an extreme manner. In other words, America with all its resources and establishments will shrink into a cowboy when irritated successfully. They will then elevate you and this will satisfy the Muslim

longing for a leader who can successfully challenge the West (Interview with Saad Al-Faqih, Jamestown Foundation, Spotlight on Terror, www.Jamestown.org, Feb 5, 2004).

In short, the US was hurled into the Iraq War because our leaders thought like cowboys.  Attitudes root us in an ideology when both distort the real world. The more powerful we become, the more dangerous is our subjectivity.  The alternative is to make it a social presumption from kindergarten onward that facts win over opinions–which children learn easiest as they observe adults apply it. All of us of any age need to agree to welcome facts that correct our assumptions.

3.  Is my world narrow or broad?  In comparing high quality thinking versus low, the distinction between narrow and broad recurs.  Though all of us prioritize our time, if we wish to think well even in a single niche, we must range beyond what is given to us.  Having mastered a subject, if we think only from the deposit passed on to us, we remain stuck in limitations. For any subject we hope to master, we improve on what we knew before.

People avoid this effort for many reasons.  Personal laziness or complacency count, but more often standard instruction communicates to children that intellectual competence is unimportant, that passing designated checkpoints enables them to get by, and getting by is enough.

Fear may narrow them. From toddler onward, children are constantly ready to exceed their prior effort.  They innately want to grab, taste, handle, throw, bend, and break—exercising their next increment of capability.  As the adult world defines their actions as mistakes and comes down on them, for their emotional survival they eventually comply with what is required, but also may acquire a network of hurts burdening their mind behind a self-protective defense. As they are encouraged to release their past mistakes to try again, try differently, try even more, they reassert their eventual quality of thinking.

This bids us understand children carefully one at a time and grasp the contours of their thinking; be alert to what dampens their interest in the external world and ideas about it, and what makes them afraid or anxious or hurt.  As such feelings are resolved, their resources of mind become available for better uses.

4.  Is my first impression accurate? A moment when we can catch children’s thinking on the fly is in their spontaneous reaction to events.  A social conflict unfolding before them, another’s irritated word directed at them, their own error at a task—their first response to it often reveals their intellectual bent.  Do they think defensively?  Are they sympathetic to others’ views and needs?  Are they curious about causes and conditions?  Are they confident enough to try again?  As the situation unfolded, did a feeling come up?  Can they name it?  Is it an accurate response to the situation?

To draw on their tendency to have a first idea and grapple with their thinking right then, a teacher can employ a Consult. In a school year, events typically occur that impact everyone, leaving each with a personal reaction important to him/her. In the Consult, a teacher asks one question everyone can answer, and then invites a brief response—a word, phrase, or sentence–from each in turn.  To the question “What was your feeling (or first thought) when X occurred?”, their answers taken together reveal their common thinking. The teacher can select any angle to discuss further.

A fourth grade teacher typically started off the morning asking, “What are you feeling today?”, hearing from each of his 26 pupils. One morning, one replied “Sad.”  After everyone’s first answer, the teacher went around a second time asking, “What gave you the feeling you named?”  The boy replying “Sad” added with a downcast face, “My aunt died last night.”

Gasps ensued.  Many knew his aunt and were shocked.  Some started crying.  After a sympathetic response to the boy, the teacher opened a class discussion on “Losses I have experienced.” It continued forty-five minutes with a profound impact on the emotional atmosphere in this previously dysfunctional class. Exploring how children react to common circumstances can open to their basic thinking.

5. Do others have something to teach me? In the adult world, we typically see high quality critical thinking emerge in groups that possess similar knowledge but are open to challenge from peers.  When the U.S. set out to build an atom bomb in World War II, J. Robert Oppenheimer was assigned to lead it, a brilliant man yet not one who required others to agree with him.  He assembled a large number of famous scientists, many of whom were known for rigid opinions. Knowing the kind of exchange that would be needed from them, even under the urgency of the war Oppenheimer’s  priority, ahead of any scientific work, was for this unusual group to spend two weeks just learning to communicate with each other.

Examples are plentiful about the need for openness to feedback. Investment clubs, for instance, enable people to share their ideas about where to invest their money, what stocks to buy. Comparing their results affords an objective measure of the quality of their thinking. It’s been found that the best results emerge in the clubs that allow members to challenge each other, where no one is right all the time and argument is welcome that still sustains the bonds of the group. Clubs that are “chummy” and agreeable show poorer results.  Too many relatives seated together may not want to contradict each other.

Schools can generate such habits readily by organizing the classroom into groups of four.  Any given section to learn is broken into four parts. Each member of the group masters a part, everyone teaches their part to the others, and all share the written notes they gather.  We want not just a single experience in which a student puts up with challenge, but rather the ongoing activity of listening to, valuing, drawing out, and drawing on the considered fruit of another’s thinking.

6. Do I know anything?  One cannot think creatively, critically, or any other way about something one does not know. We exercise our thought processes upon what we know. Processes do not precede content for them to work on, and only the gradual accumulation of knowledge enables this to occur. .

I have long been dismayed at the widespread hunt for a shortcut to intellectual excellence: Learn a few techniques for manipulating ideas, and you skip to the head of the line. This assumption ignores how vast is the universe of knowledge, how little of it any of us can accommodate even in a lifetime, and how fundamental is the steady habit of adding objective learning.

Science magazine (April 17, 1939) carried a letter from Ivan Pavlov written shortly before his death, addressed to the young scientists of Russia. Among his many heartfelt thoughts about tendencies he observed that could undermine good science, he noted:

School yourselves to demureness and patience. Learn to inure yourselves to drudgery in science. Learn, compare, collect the facts!  Perfect as is the wing of a bird, it never could raise the bird up without resting on air.  Facts are the air of a scientist. Without them you can never fly.  Without them your ‘theories’ are vain efforts.  But learning, experimenting, observing, try not to stay on the surface of the facts. Do not become the archivists of facts.  Try to penetrate to the secret of their occurrence, persistently search for the laws which govern them.

That American K-12 schools cannot apply such thinking is due to the standard design of instruction that deliberately drives students to study something briefly and then lay it aside.  There is no intent, expressed or implied, that students should develop a competent, permanent body of knowledge about anything. The destructive presumption instead is that a credit or test score satisfying a checkpoint leaves behind sufficient residue of learning to allow society to classify a student as intellectually competent.

Years of international studies comparing US students with others reveal the hollowness of this assumption.  No one builds a permanent body of knowledge without intending it and exerting steady effort to obtain it. The explicit school intent in contrast is, “We get you through your high-stakes test, award you your credit, and we’ve done our job.  Feel free to discard your learning after that if you wish.”

To prepare students for an adult life of the mind, first have them master a body of knowledge. When they have done at least that, they might see what they can do with processes labeled as creative and critical.  The easiest way to exceed the reach of the giants is to stand on their shoulders.  A couple of adjustments could make a huge difference: 1) Stop telling students when they will be tested. Administer all tests large and small without warning.  2)  Draw test material from any subject taught in the last two years.  3) Students score-of-record for any section of any course is the last score they received on it.

7.  Do I think and talk about what I know? We obtain a clue about students’  knowledge by how they can talk about what they study. Because they want to be competent in what they undertake, and because the standard that matters most to them is peer admiration, we need to design their learning experience so that they constantly explain what they know to their peers.

We kick off higher motivation for such talk by daily, impromptu, stand-up performances.  About anything they have studied to learn and claim to know, put all such questions in a bin.  Draw a student’s name and a question. The student pops to his feet, answers the question for a minute or two, and sits down to peer applause.

If they never talk about their learning on their own and we wonder why, the answer is simple.  We insert material into their conversational stream only by inserting it into their learning experience.  While  project learning adds to such conversation, much material adapts to a simpler vehicle: Carve down the entire curriculum to daily pieces they explain to each other in partner pairs until they can explain the whole course beginning to end. A peer receiving their explanation respectfully dignifies their learning as worthy and respectable.

Conclusion:  In sum, the first context of critical thinking is the condition of the thinker. We first love and cherish children, make them emotionally safe, and do not add to their stress. We help them balance their feelings and manage them constructively.  Then we reasonably add, “Cast your net broadly.  Learn a lot and have confidence in what you know.  Be able to express it, learn from others, and think about it.”  With these minimums, they at least have their hand on the doorway into an adult life of the mind.




The Break Point for School Turnaround

           In Beverly Hills Cop, Axel Foley, played by Eddie Murphy, stuffs a banana into the tailpipe of the car of the two policemen assigned to make sure he leaves town.  He drives off and their car stops.  A banana halts a multi-thousand dollar system designed to move people efficiently.

            A system is an intricate array of details working in harmony with a larger structure that sustains them.  We think of systems as resilient because they cope successfully with  challenging conditions. But when parts depend on other parts, a single one failing can stop the whole thing.  When a two-dollar rubber belt under the hood breaks, the whole engine quits. We constantly look for the breakdowns in our systems, and fix the details that caused them.

Education comprises a hierarchical system extending from the micro (one child thinking one thought) up to the formal structure of U.S. society with its Congressional appropriations and Department of Education.  Somewhere along it should be points where interventions can enhance its operation. Where do we aim?

Top-down approaches are popular these days  for structural  rather than educational reasons. “The top” is where money is controlled and employees’ actions can be redirected even though a channeling effect occurs by starting here. People may do their job in ways drifting far from their ostensible educational purpose. We’ve watched billions spent and armies of people marshaled into changes that have produced mediocre fruits.

We might be more likely to find the game-changer at the micro end of the system where a key detail could make a disproportionate difference.  For example, with firearms, a quantum leap up from muzzle-loaders came with development of the cartridge and of rifling instead of a smooth barrel. Improvement of the auto (top speed now challenging the sound barrier) has been by incremental changes in details: gasoline for fuel, ball bearings, gaskets, cylinders, and so on. In education we would like to identify the detail that ramps up performance, the banana removed from the tailpipe that enables the whole system to take off.

So where at the simple level is a glitch we might change cheaply and easily? One is sandwiched right next to students’ very thought processes. We give them a thought today and tomorrow it’s gone!

The problem is not peripheral, accidental, nor occasional. We can hardly get more basic than a pattern replicated daily coast to coast undermining the very essence of education. We exerted effort yesterday to plant a thought and today it has already disappeared. Imagine the progress possible if we could alter that, if we could reliably teach them something today and tomorrow they still have it. Such a change could be transforming. If we could learn how to lengthen for just a day the otherwise self-extinguishing knowledge that flows through their attention,  we might be able to  extrapolate how to extend it for two days, and from two days to a week, a week to a month, and a month to a year.  Students able to assimilate learning would make quantum gains rapidly. The more they retained about what they already knew, the more readily they could integrate new ideas.

Granted that some may not regard this as a problem. We see what we want.  Henry Ford, asked why he didn’t have more car colors, replied, “People can have any color they want, as long as it’s black.”  We could similarly define top auto speed of 20 m.p.h. as no problem—unless we say it is.  And children forgetting most of what crosses their mind (and teachers constantly re-teaching it) is no problem–unless we say it is.  What’s the rush, after all?   If you want to teach children at 20 m.p.h. and your district agrees, case closed.

Our freedom even to deny that a problem exists is the reason why we desperately need imagination.  We must at least conceive the problem and a direction for a solution.  Consider that in the Middle Ages, people could have built a hang glider with materials available then, so why wasn’t it done?  It wasn’t done because someone had to recognize the possibility and have a clue about how to build one. And why aren’t people interested today in stretching how deeply and quickly children can master substantial knowledge?  Why isn’t it important to push that boundary?

To be honest, I don’t know. Maybe the reason is inability to picture it as possible.  Maybe it’s  having no clue for how to go about it.  Maybe it’s decades of attention channeled in the standard track, like a horse with blinders.  But regardless of why the issue is ignored, the embarrassment is that we already know how to do it.  It has been understood for decades but not utilized.

Any conscious adult uses the standard means to carry knowledge one day to another—for work, for learning, to get a driver’s license. We rehearse what we want to call up. Later we demonstrate that we have learned it by calling it up again. We demonstrate it later by doing it earlier.  We do the same thing beforehand but in a rough, primitive, and clunky form; then smooth it out by doing it more.

The way you learn to explain the Civil War is by explaining it.  You learn to ski by skiing. You learn to play a musical instrument by playing it.  You learn to do mathematics by doing mathematics. You begin with basics grasped approximately and do them at the level you understand. Then you repeat them while adding more variables and nuances, a fundamental  pattern applying to all learning, K-12.  Do it first simply.  Hold onto that much and add to it.  Do it again. Hold onto that much. Do it again.  Add to it.  Save. Add. Save. Add.

If I have overlooked some confounding variable contradicting my point above, anyone is welcome to bring a ball peen hammer to my skull.  I am ready for someone to convert me. But so far, I just don’t get where the mystery lies. Is there anything else that will produce the eventual skill than actually doing it?

If you agree that there is not, let me suggest a shorthand way of describing it. It’s called practice.  “Practice makes perfect,” remember?  Skill development is in proportion to the quantity and quality of practice. And we practice knowledge by expressing it.  Later we will be called on to demonstrate what we know, so in practice, we demonstrate at first haltingly what we know piece by incremental piece. We add all our pieces of apprehended learning into a comprehensive field that hangs together in our mind.

If we don’t do this, we don’t achieve the field. No practice = no skill development.  Nearly all students receive grossly inadequate practice for the learning expected of them, and many get none at all—even while adults wonder, “Why aren’t these kids learning?”  The reason they don’t is that the instructional design engulfing them does not proportion class time use for the assimilation of knowledge.

Teachers interested in change would want to know how to redesign class time.  For this, it’s important to understand the necessity of a match between goal and method.  You may want to get across thirty points of knowledge today, but the goal works only if your methods match it: “Yes, I can get thirty points started into everyone’s permanent learning today, and with proper followup can guarantee that they reach that level with it. And I can do the same tomorrow and the next day.”  Method and goal coincide.

But your self-talk may go like this: “I want to get thirty points of knowledge across, so I’ll present them, and the children will do the best they can. But I know in my heart that some will understand few points, some will grasp most, but only a small number will actually retain them permanently. I need to count on other teachers later to reinforce  these ideas.”  The match between goal and method?  Poor.

A third scenario. “I want to get thirty points across, but realistically twenty is the best they can do day by day and still make them permanent, so I’m cutting back my presentations to twenty.” How is the match?  Excellent.  Goal and method align. The teacher proportions the bite of knowledge to what followup can reasonably handle.  But only twenty points a day? Why be so stingy? The governing criteria are first the resolve to achieve permanent learning, and second, accepting its discipline of method.

To really have a goal (and not just smoke-and-mirrors window-dressing), you use the goal as a criterion for what you choose to do. Here, by designing permanent learning, we determine the optimum pace.  The faster ideas reach the “permanent” end of the pipeline, the faster we can insert fresh ones into its beginning. The pipeline itself remains valid as long as we use outcomes as our standard. When our emphasis instead is on certain pace of required input, the more we present that students cannot master, the more we reduce instruction merely to familiarization, and the less that marginal students actually learn.

Instruction time is no longer apportioned so students assimilate what they receive, both students and teachers fall under pressure they have no means of meeting, and “covering” materials determines pacing. It’s like obliging students to eat their lunch in five minutes but because they can’t, concluding that we must stuff food into their mouths. They either throw up or rebel, because eating doesn’t work that way.

Comparably, people don’t assimilate ideas by facing an unending stream of them. Teachers sabotage such required pacing anyway by the use of “review questions for the test” that years back would have been regarded as teacher-complicit cheating.  Review questions acknowledge that learning to that point has been tenuous, for familiarity instead of mastery, and now faced with an impending test, teachers must settle on a few important things.

So first we choose to teach anything at all for permanent learning.  Once applying this purpose to all our students, and grasping the methods that accomplish it, we can expand the quantity we raise to that standard. Next we choose to teach that way from Day One rather than just in the last two weeks of the term.  Currently the system does not oblige teachers to teach for permanent learning, and it fails to distinguish the methods that bring it about. Teachers present, re-present, involve, circle back, assign homework, and so on, in a manner that structurally produces long-term learning only for some students and some ideas, not all for all.

To appreciate how easy permanent learning can be, we examine teachers’ personal experience: “You learn a subject by teaching it.” We can recast this slightly as “To the extent that teachers make knowledge understandable to someone else, they enhance their own understanding.”  Stated as talking time, we find that  for students to learn as well as teachers do, they must explain their learning as much as teachers do. If the teacher talks for fifteen minutes explaining a lesson, students need to take turns in pairs for thirty minutes, each spending fifteen minutes expressing what the teacher explained.  Once they can explain the material correctly, their route to permanent mastery is clear: Do the same with chunks of increasing size until they can explain the whole course beginning to end.  To breed the next generation of great teachers, saturate their school years with joy communicating to peers their mastery of one subject after another.

Some might object that this won’t work because students are not disciplined enough to work together. To the contrary, this is easy to arrange, and students cooperate because they enjoy the activity. I explain how to go about it in my books (noted below), proofs of which I can send to anyone interested.

This is our banana-level detail: students explaining their learning to each other.  The social aspect reinforces its significance, the explanatory aspect broadens their understanding, and the repetitive aspect deepens their assimilation.  Cause and effect. Ease of design. No cost. No mystery. No excuse.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the three-volume Practice Makes Permanent series being published by Rowman and Littlefield.  He will email the proofs of the series to anyone upon request. Contact: [email protected]

The Simplicity of Classroom Turnaround

            Recent articles have discussed the dim prospects of school turnaround (“Turning Around Turnaround – Elephants and the Role of Districts,” Heather Zavadsky, Education Week online, October 1, 2012, and others). Its premise, in one sentence, aligned with mainstream discussion of the issue: “Can schools really be improved, meaning, outside of closing them and starting fresh? Good question; we’ve been trying to fix schools for decades, with no clear answer.”

            No clear answer?  Pardon me a moment while I scream. I’ve been explaining this to school people for twenty years, and they look at me like I was talking Swahili.

A basic, determinative condition has always been readily under teacher/school control but the condition does not seize anyone by the ankle unwillingly.  One must look at it squarely and think about it and then do a few actions implied by it. Is this too much to ask?  Not doing so amounts to gross misdirection of resources and effort, like a man getting a nail in his tire and concluding that he needs to buy a new car. No, he can just remove the nail, fix the tire, and he’s good to go.  Pay attention to basic cause and effect and see if that cures 80% of the problem before wandering off after arcane solutions.

Stated briefly, the problem is that hour by hour teachers spend their time exposing children to learning and involving them in it but not going the extra step to assimilate it.  Exposing and involving, carried on long enough, enable most students to learn most ideas superficially.  Most obtain a tenuous grasp of ideas barely enough for passing a test.  Yesterday, for instance, I watched a second grade teacher present points of  grammar.  She is experienced, warm-hearted, and diligent. A few minutes in and I notice kids’ body position telling me they are losing interest even though they continue to face her.  No one writes anything down. Several children unconsciously pick up things to fiddle with, which she admonishes.  As she asks questions of the group, a few raise hands to answer. Because they like her and appreciate her enthusiasm, the period appears successful.

But which students got what?  We can guess here at a nationwide standard: Most-Most.  Most of the students understand most of the presentation. They grasped the meaning of what she was saying.  Chances are likely, however, that possibly a quarter missed some of it and a few missed nearly everything, leaving Most-Most as her average delivery of information.  If we scoot ahead, applying the Most-Most principle for another ten years, is it any surprise that a quarter of this class will not graduate?  Those who got only most but not all of second grade grammar will find it a tad harder to get third and fourth grade grammar even if they get most of it.  Year by year the increment between “all” and “most” widens and the marginal ones fall further and further behind in actual mastered knowledge until to defend their self-esteem they must ditch school as not for them.

Let’s at least see if we can solve this one second grade class period delivering a few points of grammar. If we can, maybe we can scale it up to more class periods, more grades, and more ideas.  What would have needed to happen differently?  The crux of it is really this simple: the laws of assimilating knowledge differ from the laws of grasping it.  We have to do something different once students have crossed the threshold of understanding, but we have to do it for each and every student. Their learning is not in a collective brain. The knowledge of the smarter does not supply for the others. The rest have to master it themselves, each creating their own mastered chunk of knowledge. If they fall outside the Most-Most group, we either write them off or else change our methods. What the teacher needed to do was this:

1.  Boil down the points she wanted to convey into specific questions and answers second graders understand.  She explains what she needs to, converts it into efficient notes, and everyone copies them down.  Time taken: 12-15 minutes.

Why do this?  Three reasons.  First, the marginal kids need a more specific tool for checking, correcting, and refreshing what they know than their rapidly extinguishing memory of what the teacher just said.  If we do not write it down when we first explain it, we guarantee  having to reteach the same material later, wasting time. Second, they need clearly defined questions and answers in order to practice the learning.  Third, questions and answers are how the entire system validates children’s learning anyway, so why not employ the structure to help children learn?

2.  In pairs students practice asking and answering the questions, taking the remaining time in the period.  Certainly enough paper-and-pencil sheets eventually add up to the required practice, but this is based on the assumption that they aren’t pressed for time.  The direct route to making this single class period more valuable is for students each to explain fully the ideas they have just grasped approximately.  By explaining, they literally form it within.  Whenever we present ideas to another person, we expect to make sense to them, and consequently integrate fragments of thought more effectively than when we just think to ourselves. Practice in answering a question also deepens a child’s memory of it, and speaking to a peer cements its social significance.  Practice does “make perfect” because in explaining more of what they know, students construct brain pathways that are more complex and complete for later use.

By the end of the period, the teacher can actually score everyone on a chart for the number of points of knowledge they were able to explain to their partner. Time not needed for the current lesson could be devoted to doing the same for all the lessons back to the beginning of the term.  By the end of the year, all students in the class have all the learning, not “most-most.”

Once we grasp why these changes result in conscious knowledge in a single hour, we can scale them up to a day, a week, or a year, and to every subject and age.  The same requirements exist for each and all: understand it, put it in tangible question-and-answer form, and practice explaining everything back to the beginning of the course. No mystery is involved.  Every step is under teacher control.  Every step works. Cause and effect apply.

If teachers change a few details of their instructional method, they carve off most of the turnaround problem.  With the automobile analogy again, no matter what you do to the engine, if you don’t take the nail out of the tire, the tire will continue to run flat. No matter how many indirect influences with which you surround the classroom, if you do not change how children assimilate knowledge hour by hour, the period will continue to run flat.


Change Education: Why It’s So Hard

1.  People are entrained by current activities.  Our mind has a limited field of focus at any given time.  We really think well about one thing at a time and organize our lives around just a few priorities.  Mastering a familiar set of behaviors that enable us to cope with the world, we automatically prune away thinking diverging from this pattern. It requires a significant impact, usually from outside us, to cause us to change substantially.  When we see others (and look in the mirror to include ourselves) not doing a sensible thing and wonder why, the answer is just “We are all entrained and it takes a jolt for us to change.”  We’re all alike in this, though around different priorities.

2.  If you can’t ask individuals to do specific actions, you won’t change systems.  Human systems boil down to specific actions by people.  If you want to change a system, you need to be able to ask George, somewhere in your organization, to do B instead of A.  If you can’t define your change in terms of his action, no one will do anything differently.  During World War II, the following note appeared on a wall in a manufacturing plant: “Any impossible task can be divided into 39 steps, each of which is possible.”  Reforming education is our current impossible task, but the plan dividing it into doable steps has not been forthcoming.  Too much examination of education remains stuck in a field of indirect, vague, non-specific thinking. Change becomes visible only after actions are direct, concrete, and specific.

3.  The key action ultimately must occur in students’ minds.  Education happens as children one at a time gain possession of a new thought and assimilate it into their field of knowledge.  Too much poking at reform comprises activity leagues distant from this venue.  Adults take action for and against other adults about adult concerns while the issue of students accessing knowledge disappears entirely, taken for granted. The assumption is like trickle-down economics: satisfy the top people and somehow change will reach children.  This approach doesn’t work. It lacks the 39 steps moving the trickle-down all the way to children’s minds.

4.  The open access to students’ minds is what teachers ask students to do.  Whatever theories, curricula, or priorities may exist at the organizational level of a school or classroom, ultimately teachers must ask students to do something: listen, read, think, remember, speak, explain, write, and so on.  Since the array of actions we can ask for is limited, it should be easy to determine which work best, and the conditions that enhance them.  If our attempt at change ends only at asking something different of teachers, if we leave vague what they in turn ask of students, our effort stops short of success. Teachers must ask a different action of students, and understand why it results in students learning better.

5.  All other systems need to converge on what teachers ask students to do. Because all learning must pass through this checkpoint, we can use it to improve education quickly. In the educational issue I think about now, a teacher muses, what do I ask students to do? If the answer is “Nothing,” if there is no implication for students’ activity, could we perhaps assign the issue a lower priority?  Could we solve first the issues that relate directly to students’ actions, and consider the others later when we have leisure to tweak nuances?  Check the output of daily output of articles about education nationally.  Do you find 90-95% aimed at adult concerns instead of what students do?

6.  Find the easiest student actions that have the most universal impact. In “The War of the Worlds,” the protagonist played by Tom Cruise endures various struggles to try to save his family.  The solution, working invisibly on humanity’s behalf, however, is the presence of germs that eventually kill off the invaders. Who would have thought?  Can something simple and already pervasive solve a major problem that appears to our entrained minds to beg for more steel and explosives? Is there any simple, unobtrusive process working on students’ behalf that could turn the tide?

Coast to coast, instruction is ineffective because students spend far too much time passing their minds over knowledge they expect to forget and discard anyway, and far too little time practicing and expressing knowledge they will retain permanently. Simply altering time-use proportions in classrooms can have a dramatic and immediate effect.  The amount of time students spend receiving knowledge needs to go down, and the amount of time expressing and practicing it needs to go up. If the goal is permanent knowledge (which one cannot assume, given the standard design of instruction),  it will be achieved in direct proportion to the effectiveness of their practice of knowledge. Practice makes permanent, and only practice makes permanent.

7.  Simple solutions are ignored because we are entrained.  If we are like the government of the world expecting to bring down the alien invaders with explosives, we find it hard to weigh the simple things we are not doing.  We can’t ask teachers to do a simple thing differently.  Anything actually happening in the classroom, we assume, is managed by someone else over whom we have no control.  They have their alligators and we have ours. Because we are entrained and they are entrained, we all await a jolt from the outside.  What can turn the tide is anyone’s guess. As Winston Churchill said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”


Administrators: A Metric That Can Change Your District Rapidly

             Making numbers useful.. Before we examine a number, we need to understand what makes it useful.   There is no limit to accurate numbers offering zero benefit.

            The key quality evident in common experience is its social significance. The number occurs in a context regarded by people as having worth. Circumstances align to inform everyone, “This is important!”—a perception directly affecting their interest in the number and their cooperation in generating it.

People commonly assume that economic numbers such as pay grade weigh heaviest, but students are not in that game yet. People assume also that obtaining later opportunity influences current effort, but students possess notoriously poor imagination for how their current actions affect future advantages.
What matters most to students instead is immediate recognition of and celebration for effort. A hindrance to obtaining this is official preoccupation with results instead of effort.  The distinction is subtle. Results are indeed important but the focus for class today is effort.  Results are affected by many factors beyond a student’s control. Today’s possible learning largely depends on the jumpoff  from yesterday’s.  Where do we start from?  The student can no longer influence yesterday’s achievement, yet it conditions today’s. The stimulation and support of other people are outside his control, and habits that brought his results to this point came only cumulatively.  The teacher’s instructional approach lies far beyond his management.

The net effect of these conditions is that on any given day, he has but a small margin within which to reach for better results.  Think then about yourself: How do you feel when others judge you based mainly on conditions over which you have no control?  Doesn’t feel good, does it?

There is an alternative. What if we engage the student in a process of effort that steadily generates deep learning, and we reinforce the process?  If we are clear that he knows how to study in a manner guaranteeing deep learning,  our concern shifts.  We know results arrive as fast as they can if we only maintain the process that brings them. With our eye fixed on his process, we monitor the time he spends at it. As he continues in it, we know he will succeed.

The principle applies to students of every ability. Their current stage of learning doesn’t matter.  With a process that works at all stages, they advance as rapidly as they can from whatever their starting point. We just clock their use of the optimal means. Assuming then that we had a metric enabling us to monitor such a process, how do we make that number come alive? How do we make it interesting and motivating?

Administrators, here is your moment.  We need you personally for something. Because your role is systemically significant, your presence and interest carry automatic weight. Your observations and opinions affect others. You need only exhibit presence as a person  to literally deliver significance to a given classroom activity.

To grasp the point, imagine that someone important to you shows up at your office, observes your activity, and exclaims, “Wow! That’s great.”  Compare that to you quietly, unnoticed, invisibly accomplishing a task verified only by a number that finds its way into a category somewhere in the bowels of your organization.  What’s the difference to you?  By showing up and face to face surrounding the number with personal significance, the visitor “delivers” significance to you, and you do the same to teachers and students.

A rationale. The metric I nominate as decisive concerns talking about learning.  To appreciate the point at a simple level, we begin just with talking itself. Say you are a teacher with a student so non-verbal that you can literally count on the fingers of one hand the words she speaks in a day. This worries you for a host of reasons, not least that it inhibits her ability to learn, so you decide to help her by measuring something she manages: you count words.

You tell her, “Let’s keep track of how many words you say out loud every day.”  You make a chart with zero on the bottom and a hundred at the top, and columns for each day. The first day, she has already spoken six words and so has success going.  You make a dot at six.  The next day you ask her to count up every word she speaks. You start off a line chart, and celebrate with her every upward movement of the line.

Your interest is the motivating factor. Face to face you make her number of words significant, and hour by hour you add up numbers.  Within a couple weeks she maxes out the initial goal of a hundred words and sails onward. You used three steps: make an issue socially significant, measure it objectively, and acknowledge progress.

Your problem may be broader.  You may realize that in your class you do most of the talking while your students speak mostly to distract each other. While it’s commonly understood that student talk deepens learning better than does teacher talk, the amount of actual talk in classrooms skews heavily toward the latter.  About learning, teachers do most of it, which may describe you.

The downside of this arises from children’s need to construct knowledge word by word. It’s axiomatic that teachers “learn a subject by teaching it,” but the corollary doesn’t sink in: “Students learn a subject by expressing it.”  Since it’s fun to develop your knowledge by explaining it to others, teachers may not realize that they indulge their own pleasure by talking far beyond the amount needed for students’ optimum learning.  Students cannot assimilate knowledge through verbalizing it if no one listens to them. “Talking it out” enables them to absorb and give better order to random perceptions and thoughts.

Student talk is needed also because curriculum constantly drives novel information past their minds (from the Latin “currere,” meaning “to run.”  Think of chariots or racers). The burden of what they need to say perpetually lags the oncoming flood of new information. Every day they get more long before they have the prior well embedded.

Expressing their learning is the only way they can deepen it, either by writing or speaking. And while the writing process is critical, the quantity of information is too great for writing alone to accommodate all the assimilative activity needed.  Speaking it is the crucial activity through which they assimilate what they retain.

Their talk also aids academics indirectly because it’s social. If knowledge is being spoken, particularly one to one, it becomes a legitimate focus of reciprocity between students.  If it is not spoken, it remains less integrated, more piecemeal (even if sufficient to pass tests), and a higher proportion of students remain socially isolated.  Connecting them to their friends through expressing learning, we harness a fundamental need in service of our goal.

Determining a useful metric. A metric can assist that shift for an entire class.  Here’s the play to do that as you visit classrooms:

Buy two stopwatches to carry with you. Bring also a small notepad, calculator, and masking tape.  You obtain the metric by comparing two numbers obtained from the stopwatches. Plan to spend as much randomly-aimed time in classrooms as you can until you have communicated to the district the values the metric embodies. To be compelling, the metric needs to be applied long enough to show a change due to teachers’ intentional activity, but it need not be burdensome to generate.

1.  Choose the day’s school and classroom randomly.  Randomness helps. It lets everyone know that they are not being picked on, that no one “has it in for them,” and that everyone in the district has an equal chance of receiving your attention.  You might find a simpler way, but one is to tack on a corkboard a list of all the schools in the district.  Step back a few paces and throw a dart at the list.  Whichever school is closest is nominated. Then post the floor plan of that school, throw the dart again, and the room closest to your dart is nominated. The game-like quality of the selection process should enhance interest.

2.  Sometime that day, visit the selected classroom.  As you step into it, begin timing with stopwatch #1.  This is just to determine your total elapsed time in the room, a baseline figure against which to plot a percentage.  What you compare to this number is the key to the metric.

3.  Once in the room, begin just by watching. Wait until you observe a student talk about the subject matter and click on stopwatch #2.  Click it off when he or she ceases talking.  Don’t count the time teachers spend asking questions or explaining.  Count only the time of one or more students talking, which is the quantity we want to increase. When a second student begins, restart stopwatch #2  and continue to add to the prior total.

4.  When classroom activity is structured so that more than one student talks about subject matter at the same time, open the notepad you brought with you and jot down two numbers.  One is the minute-reading on stopwatch #2 (e.g. “5” for the fifth minute) and to the left of it the number of students talking at once. If the class is seated in four discussion groups with one student at a time speaking in each, you write “4” left of the 5.  When the segment of student talk ceases, note the ending minute to the right of the 5 (e.g. “12”).

5. Later when you leave the class, click off stopwatch #1 and do some calculating. First  multiply the number of students talking times the amount of time they spend at it as in 4. above. The product of those two numbers is “person-minutes talking” (e.g. 4 students x 7 minutes = 28 person-minutes).  If a class of eighteen students is arranged in nine pairs, in which students ask each other the questions from prior lessons and all participate by either speaking or listening, the 4 becomes a 9 to multiply by the time spent.

6. Your second calculation determines what percent the prior number is compared to the total time you spent in the class.  The formula is (total person-minutes obtained from stopwatch #2) divided by (total time spent in the classroom from stopwatch #1) equals (percent of total time that is student talking time).  The higher that figure (which can exceed 100% as multiple students talk at once), the richer is the use of class time for students expressing their learning.

7.  Post visibly the percentage you calculated for the room.  Out in the hallway, rip a page from your notepad, write on it the percent you obtained, and tape it to the wall outside the room. This gives the teacher and students something to aim at. Next time you come, they want to know, how they can “beat their record”?  As desired, you can utilize the percentages in other ways as well.

Answering an objection. If you’re concerned that teachers may do the organizational equivalent of teaching to the test, this is no problem.  It’s what you want.  Let’s say that the moment a teacher sees you step into the room, he/she says, “Okay kids, Green Light.” Everyone instantly finds a partner and they begin asking and answering the questions comprising the entire semester’s learning to that point. What you have before you is the maximum possible number of students expressing their learning. In order to accomplish this, they had to:

  • organize and write down their learning to make such a practice design easy.
  • carry out the practice often enough previously to gain facility with the format.
  • buy into cooperating with the teacher’s direction to do it.
  • take pleasure demonstrating their ability to a visitor.
  • judge it significant to meet and exceed your expectations.

It’s entirely unlikely that students will spend too much time talking about their learning with each other just to meet your standards. If each one managed to spend half the total class time expressing their learning, results would vault upward, but the optimum amount (expression compared to receiving input) is likely to be even more weighted toward the former. On some occasions, closer to four times the amount of self-expression compared to input from teacher or book is the most productive.

Likely results.  By explaining to your district why you are doing this, you convey a value about producing learning. At the very least, it will help teachers be more conscious of how their own talk enhances or inhibits learning.  Applying the metric over time, you are likely to discover that students 1) improve their relationships, 2) assimilate new ideas better, 3) retain them more deeply, 4) claim them as their own, and 5) become more interested in learning. 6) Test scores rise, 7) teachers’ stress diminishes, and 8) students spontaneously talk more about their learning with each other and their parents.

The Myth of “Practice Makes Perfect”: A Clarification

             “The Myth of ‘Practice Makes Perfect’” is a misleading title of a Time/Opinion article by Annie Murphy Paul, January 25, 2012.

            I bring it up even several months later because the issue it addresses is important. Practice is the only means of developing skill in either physical actions or knowledge, so discarding it is not a good idea. The title implies that the very notion of “practice makes perfect” is a myth, is false, though the article does not imply this nor refer to any “myth.” We might guess that a copy editor in the bowels of Time Magazine chose it to broaden the article’s appeal beyond psychologists. Practice not only “makes perfect,” but also “permanent,” “perseverant,” “persistent,” and  “productive” (as several comments on the article noted).  Aspects of practice provide a context.

1.  Practice is the means to skill development.  Skill—facility with a physical action or knowledge—depends on a field of perception, knowledge, and response one can call up at will and apply with increasingly varied and effective behavior.  Practice is defined as “repeating a skill in order to develop it.”  Three notes are present: repetition, skill, and development.

When development is absent, we don’t refer to the activity as practice. People often engage in patterned behavior with no expectation of improvement.  They prefer not to work harder at their sport or other skill to get better at it. They are pleased just to engage in it even though repeating errors without correction makes them permanent.

In contrast, Paul explains how deliberateness advances skill.  The 1993 research of Anders Ericcson and of others found a difference in this between top performers and also-rans. Top performers identified errors and corrected them more thoughtfully, quickly, and accurately than did the latter, a difference that distinguished between levels of accomplishment.  We might credit top performers with practice “on steroids.”  They were better at spotting the nuances that gained them  a step of improvement.

On the other hand, we should not assume that deliberate insight replaces repetition.  Just noticing mistakes and correcting them doesn’t bring desired results because of the next idea.

2.  Skill depends on practicing a field.  Paul neglected to add a further finding by Ericcson.  Although their intelligence  only matched that of the average college student, top performers spent thousands of hours more practice than average performers in their field.  This comprises a valuable message to pass on to students: “What matters is not being extra bright but rather your effort. You improve as long as you keep practicing and try not to repeat your mistakes.”

Skill development implies correcting details within a context, a field of understanding—the rules of a sport or skill, a rough mental model of the activity, the stage of skill one has reached that the corrections advance, and a beginning capacity to perform essential actions.  Parts make sense due to the whole. The thoughtful practice of a part presumes a field giving it meaning. The musician constantly rehearses and maintains the parts he already knows perfectly in order even to make his way to those he needs to correct.

In education, this implies that students master the overview, the field of knowledge holding the details together. Unfortunately, mainstream instruction does not consistently develop a meaning-field in students.  The very idea of it is strange to most teachers. Instruction instead constantly changes the randomized, sectioned, piecemeal bits of knowledge it drives past their minds–to be quickly forgotten. Students rarely (and typically only under a teacher who really gets this point) experience the pleasure of creating a body of knowledge they know so well that it satisfies them.  Their curriculum bids them “cover this and move on.”  They seldom practice the field (like the “whole piece of music”) and they practice inadequately the sections that comprise it.

3.  We first get a chunk of learning at least correct and then master it in that form. At the start, skill is absent: no knowledge of it, zero familiarity, no deliberateness, no insight. Finding competent skill much later, what happened in between?  What did the black box contain?

Skill doesn’t pop into existence ex nihilo. Children instead observe and imitate an elementary model of an activity–input then output. An idea is grasped, a behavior attempted, another idea roughed in, another new behavior tried. Input comes first as the mind apprehends words and images enabling it to assemble the basics of the skill. The mind then repeats what is pictured in that form in order to improve at it.

Consider third graders responding to their teacher’s request, “Please explain the five steps of solving a problem you have with someone else.” Someone already figured out a sequence that worked for third graders so they don’t need insight just yet. First, they get it “right.”  They master the five steps with practice–input and output–until all five are maintained in their right order. From then on, development occurs through repeating the mental model outwardly in words and deeds. New input expands understanding and new output saves and organizes it in the context of the whole.

4. Initial practice occurs with minimal insight. An entire natural and civilized world is already described accurately and extensively. An ocean of knowledge makes it work. We reasonably expect schools to convey an objective model of the world as it is now.

Granted that all children would like to be the first to discover the world afresh.  We want their personal encounter with the world to feel that way, but we also acknowledge that we know how a wheel, a wedge, and a lever work. They do not need re-invention—a principle applying throughout civilization.  “Known” knowledge lies all about us. We practice and learn it in every subject just to catch up with what’s happened already. For scientific and mathematical knowledge, the social sciences, history, etc., we look to K-12 education to fill out in students’ minds an accurate model of reality as currently apprehended even while expanding the scope of what is to be newly experienced, discovered, created, and invented.

5.  With the major pieces correct, we can improve qualities. The school paradigm works everywhere. We practice useful knowledge that possesses a previously-defined boundary. When something is known objectively but I don’t know it personally, I get the basic steps in the right place, have a correct answer, and practice it so it is embedded permanently in my understanding.  Given time, I may improve on my current grasp of it, but first I must possess it. We advance most rapidly beyond the giants by standing on their shoulders.  Third graders learning steps of problem-solving gain confidence in handling life situations by using their five-step skill. Later on, deliberation and insight contribute more as a senior high psychology class explores nuances of the five steps. Skill might take form later as an international conflict resolution expert with a doctorate in social psychology.

6. People select different aspects of a skill to practice. A tool helpful for understanding how people focus their effort is called the ability periphery.  Imagine standing with your toes on the edge of a field of tasks of varying difficulty. The easy ones are right in front of you. Farther out are those you achieve sometimes, and with tasks on the opposite edge of the field, you fail every time.

Any task you undertake is somewhere in this field depending on its degree of difficulty—some always easy, some challenging, and some impossible . With the first kind you multitask around them–driving, chewing gum, and holding a conversation—but interest in them is often low. The tasks on the far side of the field don’t interest you either because you fail every time, but those in the middle hold you. With these you identify quickly what makes a difference, how your effort matters. You focus slightly one way, notice your skill advance, and choose to use that manner from then on. The price of doing this is expending effort in a zone where mistakes often occur, inviting your courage as well as self-mobilization.

A  third grader learning basketball shoots the ball easiest from right under the basket but would get bored with that.  From center court, he would never make a basket, so he doesn’t do that either.  He prefers to try from a midpoint of part success and part failure where his effort makes a difference;  how he pays attention to and thinks about his action, and the feedback it gives: “I did this” (i.e. it didn’t happen by accident but was due to my intention), and “the way I focused myself may succeed better.”

An ability periphery expands steadily with skill development.  Easy for one is impossible for another. Top performers’ mastery of the basic and intermediate stages enable them to practice at the highest levels of ability. Others lacking their context, their prior field of mastery, do not even have available to them where the top performer works constantly.  Once I asked an accomplished pianist how she went about practicing.  She commented, “Well, once you get the notes down, all the rest is just solving problems.”  For her, problems began after the notes were learned and fine points could be addressed.

7.  The main practice of academic knowledge is explaining it.  Paul’s article focused on skills expressed in outer action—music and sports. Most of what passes through classrooms, however, relies more heavily on the knowledge component. Teachers may not immediately view the practice of knowledge the way practice occurs in the gymnasium, but still may say “Practice answering these questions for the test,” or “Practice giving your report,” or “Practice solving these problems.”  With knowledge, the model of the knowledge itself  is expressed rather than a behavior following from it.  The practice design is the same, however; expressing outwardly what was understood, explaining the knowledge with understanding. The main driving force behind acquiring a body of knowledge is just practice expressing it.

8.  Practice to deepen knowledge differs from making it correct.  Mainstream U.S. instruction generally ignores the difference between these two qualities.

“Correct” means getting all the pieces in the right place.  “Deep” means knowing the whole thing in six months without thinking about it in between. With instruction designed only for correct knowledge, students constantly forget what they labor to learn, and remain measurably ignorant even of what they once knew.  For permanent learning, students need deepening practice.  Re-expressing the learning at expanding intervals is the easily-arranged, direct route to stable, confident, permanent knowledge.

9. Hearing another person practice does not substitute for one’s own practice. Teachers too often assume that explaining a point and having a couple bright students answer questions about it assures that everyone gets it.

For developing knowledge correct, deep, and extensive there appears to be no shortcut.  Each student must do his/her own expressing.  Teachers one at a time “learn a subject by teaching it.” Their colleague doing so in the next room does not replace their own effort.  Each student has the same need: Explain it yourself.  Explain the whole thing.  Explain it repeatedly as you expand and develop it.  Instructional method must arrange for every student to carry out sufficient practice to make learning both correct and deep; and later on, more insightful.  Students need to receive and express ideas over and over; explain in pieces small and large, explain in reference to alternate associations and implications, explain whole subjects from beginning to end, and explain (and demonstrate) the practical with the theoretical. Corrections keep skill development on track.

10.  Top performers claim and commit to their own expertise.  Top ability—even just competence—is not produced by others’ pressure on us.  The expectations of good teachers take us just so far. The key is what happens when their influence is removed.  Then, one’s own will to master a subject just because we choose to do so is the turning point. Advancing a skill that is significant to us personally, we constantly consult ourselves at a deep, inward level, calling up our personal resources of perception and response. To do this well, we first claim it: “I am doing this.”  Top performers characterize themselves around their skill: “I am a person who does this kind of thing and I expect to enjoy doing it forever.”

Here we find perhaps the greatest disparity between the example of focused effort by top performers and what school design offers to students.  Under “cover-this-and-go-on” instruction, students fail to discover the pleasure of mastering anything.  The checkpoints they pass through certify that they are malleable to adult guidance, but not much more. The model of instruction should enable them to master knowledge about the world, and claim it as their permanent possession.


Certification in the Practice Makes Permanent Design

The three-volume Practice Makes Permanent series (in publication with Rowman and Littlefield) offers a strategy for turning classrooms around quickly and accelerating learning.  Training and certification in it, however, encounter a problem common to professional development.

Certifying results.  When you read a book about classroom techniques, what represents change in your actual ability? Ask the same question of your students.  After they have read, listened, and watched something, what represents change in their actual ability?

We rely on two clues. You and your students can 1) explain the material,  and 2) perform the actions that apply it. Other indicators may suggest your ability, but only producing it in words and deeds assures it.  Can you do these two things or not? Embedded in a certifying process, we need to find explaining and doing.

Given the vagueness of so much learning among teachers as well as students, a single change makes these two signals a reasonable expectation. We cease crediting checkpoint knowledge, and instead aim for maintained knowledge. Checkpoint knowledge is what you know on the occasion of a test, or upon handing in an assignment.  Minimizing it even further for a teacher is sitting through a course for which you then receive a continuing education credit. Maintained knowledge is what you can continue to explain. You studied it and returned to it often enough that you can produce it any time. Where practical actions are involved, we want to observe them.

Test instruments at checkpoints are insufficient because they are designedly an attempt to shortcut the process.  If we elicit ten points of knowledge on a test, this theoretically assures us that we know the other ninety points implied—except that 1) we needed help even to produce the ten points, and we 2) studied just the ten points instead of the other ninety, and 3) we plan to discard the results anyway.  The checkpoint clues were enough to document that the points of knowledge passed through our attention at least once.

Because the learning was not intended to be maintained, any attempt to validate and certify it amounts to a wild guess. Since we have no assurance that the student knows the ninety points, we do need to evidence to assure their validity: explain the material and perform the processes.  Remember “orals”—the expectation of facing people knowledgeable about your subject and being able to answer competently what they ask.

For professional development in general, we need a shift toward maintained knowledge a trainee can demonstrate at any time.  Learning through checkpoints (sitting through the lectures, turning in assignments, answering questions) will never be worth much because based on a faulty structural design: after the course, people are free to discard the knowledge.

The Practice Makes Permanent approach is likely to have not only an impact on students but also on professional development for teachers by demonstrating the fundamental nature of maintained knowledge. Professional development may incorporate  a swath of ideas about human nature and pedagogy, but its bottom line remains, “What do I do on Monday?”  Teachers need to act in certain ways for which they draw on reasons why: “These teacher activities produce these results, and here’s why.”

  • Teaching Students to Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Permanent
  • Changing Attitudes and Behavior: Practice Makes Permanent
  • Effective Classroom Turnaround: Practice Makes Permanent.

The first was published in February 2012, the second is due in August, and the third in the fall. Participants are welcome to purchase print copies if they prefer.

Training outcomes. The training is appropriate for teachers wishing to improve their classroom results, mentors or master teachers who pass on ideas to others, district trainers, independent consultants, and curriculum designers.  While teaching experience (or at least concurrent training in it) is presumed, there are no specific prerequisites nor time frame.  The outcome is competence with the approach and a certificate from me affirming it.

While many of its steps can be undertaken before beginning the training formally, applicants are encouraged to relay their intent early, since I may be able to help accelerate their progress. Email me at [email protected].  The training itself is in five overlapping threads:

Thread 1. Defining your purpose

Think through what you want.  At the start, your goals are likely to reflect how limited you regard your resources. We tend not even to entertain what seems beyond our scope. In your history with students, for instance, they work just so hard and learn just so much.  To see yourself galvanizing them  (or other teachers) past prior limits,  you need awareness of how to do this.

The Practice Makes Permanent approach enters here as a novel resource.  As you explore it, your picture of the possible should expand, enabling you to project an outcome that energizes you, calls up your ability and effort, and moves you to expand your resources.  The resulting picture then becomes a criterion guiding your actions.

To complete this thread, write out a description of how you hope to apply what you learn in the training–where and with whom you will do what. Imagining that the universe were ready to fulfill perfectly the scene you set forth, what would you want it to activate? Rewrite your description until every word reflects exactly what you want and spurs your enthusiasm.  Because you will consult this picture as you draw on your effort later, you want a clear picture that fits you.

Once you have a written form for your vision of the future, spend regular time ruminating upon it.  One way is to take a daily exercise walk while directing your attention specifically to this interior activity. Imagine yourself in the setting you choose and talk out exactly what you will say. Picture what you will do. This activity is important because you are making something possible that your deeper mind does not yet believe is possible.  Today you create the history your mind will act on tomorrow. You need to convince your deeper self that you are perfectly comfortable doing what you envision doing.  This “perfect comfort” with efficient action in fact will mark your superior competence later, so you want to enter that state of mind about it as soon as possible and stay there while your actual skills catch up. Send me a draft of your goals so we can discuss how best to achieve them given your personal circumstances.

Thread 2.  Knowing the material

The second thread is absorbing the ideas of the approach. A straightforward way to do this is to go to the table of contents of each of the three books. Make a question out of each chapter heading, and be able to answer it comprehensively without opening the book or referring to your notes. Explain the content of each chapter.

For a way to mark your progress to yourself, give it a quantitative boundary.  “Can explain Chapter five for seven minutes.”  At that point you know what you know, and later I can ask you, “Give me your seven minute pitch on Chapter five.”  You can describe individual methods: ‘Can explain Appreciation Time in three minutes.”  When separate points delineate a technique better, state your ability accordingly:  “Can explain the five steps of problem-solving.”

Use the methods on yourself as you would apply them with students: input-output.  Read ideas to absorb them, and then explain them in your own words in bigger and bigger chunks.  Personal experiences and prior learning are likely to come to mind to help you illustrate an idea (or its default). Completing this thread gives you a rich and detailed model of salient ideas and how to apply them.

As you proceed through the material,  I would ask you to keep at least a rough record of one particular aspect of your time use since this single factor will affect most directly how you restructure your teaching.  It is the time you spend in input compared to output,  gathering knowledge compared to expressing it outwardly, study time with book open compared to study time  with book closed.  Aim for two-thirds of your time spent book closed. A minimum is half and half, but the optimum may be closer to four to one—explaining compared to reading.  If you read for ten minutes, take a half hour walk and explain to yourself what you just read while integrating it with everything else you know.

The expression phase is not done all at once on a single point.  You return to each piece of new learning at later intervals so that it becomes smoothly assimilated into everything else you know. First just plant the ideas in your mind by reading thoughtfully and then for an equal time relating out loud (or to someone else) what you read. For ultimate competence with the ideas, you need to return to them repeatedly later; in different situations, with different colleagues, expressing yourself both spoken and written.

The time you devote to expressing your learning may vary with your purpose. If your intent is just to apply the methods in your own classroom, articulating them for others’ benefit is less important.  If you expect to help others understand the methods, answer questions, and provide background and context, then expressing the ideas to others matters more.

Thread 3.  Communicating with peers

Explaining ideas to someone else makes our mind work differently.  We realize we are “on the spot” to make sense, stimulating us to get to the point, give order to random pieces, and think more purposefully.  Ways to practice at this are:

1.  Preferable is finding a study-buddy who also wants to do the training.  Compare ideas, explain them back and forth, and help each other understand the approach.

2.  Alternatively, find someone who will listen to you talk about what you learn.  A spouse may serve,  or a nearby colleague. As the two of you prefer, the other may take the role of skeptic, of one finding it “hard to understand,” or of one wanting to increase his/her own knowledge.  Others may fill this role even if they know nothing about teaching. Your narrative presents the approach from a common-sense perspective.

3.  If you can’t find a partner to whom to express your learning, you can pursue more public means. Offer the ideas you can speak about to your school PTA, church groups, business organizations, neighborhood groups, and at staff meetings. Public experiences, while fewer in number, move you to deeper preparation, balancing out the shorter time spent.

4.  If no other avenues are open to you, record yourself repeatedly as though giving a talk to a group. Doing so provides you a tangible account for later review and development.

Thread 4.  Classroom applications

The proof of this approach emerges only from its application.  You need to be able to put to work all the methods described in the three books.  Several appear in more than one book, so explanations for main ideas overlap.

Your own classroom may need only a few of the methods to obtain the results you want, but if you plan to present the ideas to others, you will need competence with all of them. For methods designed to remedy problems you don’t face, at least be able to explain each clearly. In your log of learning activity, eventually list each method, and the date and setting when you explained it to someone else or applied it in a classroom.

Thread 5.  Theoretical overview  

The aim of this thread is to be able to communicate how and why to others—students and teachers.  The central why is that only practice leads to skill, and the how is that we practice knowledge by explaining it.

Some  may wish to label the approach according to a theory familiar to them. People may characterize themselves as someone “who believes X,” and miss entirely what new angles might offer them. While you can respond on their ground if you wish, you are likely to do better moving directly to application: what to do with students and why it works.  Theories ultimately must boil down to practical steps–how children learn, how they are motivated, and how results reveal the efficacy of methods.

The final piece of the training is a talk of forty-five minutes or more. Find an audience (e.g. teachers, administrators, legislators, a civic group, or parents) and explain to them how the ideas and methods of the Practice Makes Permanent approach come together in a model of learning. You can log in a brief description of an actual experience of doing this, or can record a practice talk to send to me.

Documenting your effort

Since we want your competence to be genuine, report actual gains in learning. This provides me a reference point for supporting your process and certifying your accomplishment.  Means are:

1.  Log book. Maintain a log of time spent when at what: “9/10/12: Read & explained Bk 1, Ch 3, 20 min.,” “Traded ideas about approach with study-buddy, 30 min.”  Send me your log when you complete the steps above.

2.  Oral examination. This can occur all at once or in pieces. After a study phase, you may be able to explain an entire  book or several chapters in one. Inform me when you are ready for a call (phone or Skype).  I will ask you basic questions. You show what you know, and we discuss issues that arise.  I should emphasize that this is a human process.  There is no pressure to achieve perfection at once.

3.  Academic Mastery Report. Upon completing your program, write an Academic Mastery Report for yourself according to the model shown in the third book of the series, and send it to me. It comprises a transcript of your learning during the training.  Myself or someone we agree on takes you through it, inviting you to express a sampling of the points you claim to know; checks you and signs off on your actual percentage of mastery compared to what you claimed.

The document outlining your claimed knowledge remains in your professional portfolio and is significant because 1) it represents maintained knowledge, and 2) its accuracy can easily be checked. Because you say you know these things continually, a prospective employer or institution can invite you to explain any of them. Training and certification in the Practice Makes Permanent approach assures you and others that you know what you say you know.

4.  Certificate. Upon completing the prior steps satisfactorily, you receive a certificate of completion of the training.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the Practice Makes Permanent series (Rowman and Littlefield).  Contact him at [email protected] with questions about the approach or the training and certification program.



$100 Cash Grants

Twenty classroom grants of $100 are available as cash prizes for learning. Teachers use them by arranging for students’ mastered learning to earn them chances in a raffle. 

Cash Grants

1..  Intent.  The purpose of the grants is to demonstrate how altering a few classroom methods can help students learn more enthusiastically and deeply. The prizes are an incentive for teachers to try varying certain features of instruction.

2.  Grants. Twenty grants of $100 each are available. More may be offered in the future.

3.  Eligibility. The minimum size for a class applying for a grant is twenty students, grades three to twelve. Rooms with larger numbers receive preference.  Two teachers in the same school teaching the same subject or grade and whose combined numbers total more than twenty can collaborate for a grant.

4.  Content. All academic learning is eligible that can be stated as question and answer.

5.  Time.  The time period preceding the raffle should be at least a month.  Teachers may prefer to aim student effort toward a raffle at Thanksgiving or Christmas.

6.  Background. Applying teachers will receive by email the three texts of my Practice Makes Permanent series in publication (cf. below).  While they provide more details on the methods behind the raffle design, they are not needed to participate. Should teachers wish to purchase their own print copy, Teaching Students to Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Permanent is available.  Changing Attitudes and Behavior: Practice Makes Permanent is scheduled for August, and Effective Classroom Turnaround: Practice Makes Permanent is due in the fall.

7.  Apply. To apply, email your intent to [email protected] to secure your place on the list. Then discuss the idea with your principal (or district if necessary). Mail to me a brief letter signed by you and your principal stating 1) the name of your district and school, 2) that you apply for a $100 raffle grant, 3) and will carry out the raffle basically by the design explained below. 4) When the raffle is completed, you agree to write up a brief summary of its outcomes as you view them, and send it to me.  Indicate also the name and address of the person to whom you prefer the $100 to go to (presumably yourself unless you have a reason for choosing otherwise).

8.  Awards. A check will be mailed to you when your application is accepted.

  Raffle Design

            Two years ago, the National Math and Science Initiative proposed a program of cash incentives for students who could pass a benchmark on the Advanced Placement exam. The program provided help with equipment, student tutoring, teacher training, cash for successful teachers, and extra sessions (“Incentives for advanced work let pupils and teachers cash in,” Sam Dillon, New York Times, October 2, 2011).

            The money was substantial–$100 to the student and nearly $200 to the teacher for each qualifier.  Roland Fryer, economist then at Harvard, noted from prior research into incentives that ”cash alone did not consistently raise achievement, but that combining payments with tutoring, teacher training, and other tactics could be promising.”

The potential benefits invite a closer examination of conditions. Could an incentive less than $300 per student have a similar effect?  Need we confine it only to those undertaking A.P. courses?  Could a mix of help for students, redirection of teacher focus, and cash incentives work from elementary grades through high school?

Once while working with 60 middle school students, I gave them a questionnaire asking if the design explained here would spur them to study harder. 80% of them responded that it would. Several points help us understand why.

1.  Find a valid and reliable signal of effort.  A difficulty hindering many attempts to motivate students is a lack of equivalence between effort, outcome, and reward.  A teacher may juggle many factors to determine a “fair” grade: time spent, test scores, assignments, attendance, comparison with peers, and an occasional need to “send a message.”  Is the resulting outcome objective or is it an opinion? Can it be manipulated?  And what is the meaning of a grade when the teacher wants to give a high grade, coaches students with review questions, presumes cramming, and the test design hints at many answers?

A high-stakes test is widely regarded as a valid indicator: We ask a question.  If the student can answer, he knows it today. With the test completed, does it matter that the student is not motivated to retain the material further? How do we actually link a learning result to a reward that motivates continued effort?

We want the deed triggering the reward first to be reliable, meaning that it is stable and consistent whether right or wrong. At least random errors do not render it meaningless. But we need more than consistency. It should accurately represent the reality in question, should be valid, reveal fairly the learning it was meant to represent. Thus a test crammed for on the weekend and taken Monday morning shows Monday’s knowledge but in a few days the score could change drastically.  A week later test results might be so different we would guess them from a different student. Monday’s results are not reliable and do not validly show what a child continues to know.

To use tests so that answers are both valid and reliable, we add one quality. We tell the student “We want you to learn this and maintain it.”  The key change is “…and maintain it.” We want you able to tell back the answer anytime—Monday, Thursday, or whenever we ask you.

2.  Apply that signal of effort to all learning. To use maintained learning as our standard, we ask something different of students. When first teaching anything, we initiate the repeated practice that brings it to permanence. We teach it once, they grasp it accurately at the start, and their followup practice saves and deepens it from then on.  Doing this makes effort more efficient because we know when to leave one thing to go to the next. We ask only “Is this maintained?”  If so, we are free to add new material. If not, we arrange for them to retrieve and practice it at once, and can track efficiently all genuine knowledge.

With newly presented material, the easiest way to move it to permanence is by partner practice. Students nail down what comprises a complete answer by writing it out (or obtaining other hard copy they can keep). Then they daily face another student, and ask each other the questions all the way back to the beginning of the term as time allows, identifying exactly what they have mastered and what needs more practice.

3.  Students claim and score the learning they master. Applying the standard of “answering perfectly at any time,” we can separate with some precision what they know from what they don’t. They have it in writing, and can check off what they know already without “looking.”  Their recurring effort to maintain it gives their answer the necessary reliability.

Then by dividing learning into points-of-knowledge, we can count up quantitatively all they have mastered. And what we can count up, we can post as a cumulative score on a chart on the classroom wall (“Questions 24 through 28 together have 18 points of knowledge in their answers. Master them all and add 18 to your cumulative score”). The model can apply to a single subject or to all subjects; for a brief period like a month or to a whole semester.

This becomes possible, again, only if 1) we accurately identify the material to be learned and have it in written form, and 2) students practice it face to face with each other enough to maintain it.  Then 3) the number of points of knowledge contained in their notes (or handout or text) can be counted up and posted on the wall chart–displayed publicly to teachers and peers and welcoming any challenge: “Can you answer the questions you claim?” “Yes.  Here goes….”.

Everyone counts up knowledge the same way to obtain the elusive equivalence between effort, outcome, and assessment of it. The exacting nature of the criterion, its precise yes-no,  makes it both valid and reliable.

4.  Performance is a social reward.  Students enjoy few things more than displaying to peers a competence that elicits admiration. Because you take them through the discipline of actually understanding, writing down, and practicing a specific chunk of knowledge to the point of mastery, they can legitimately take pride in it.

A direct social reward is performing it in a game-like manner.  Daily write out all the questions students master on separate slips of paper and deposit them in a bag which in time contains everything they learn in the semester. For a few minutes every day or two, draw a slip and a student’s name. The student springs to his/her feet and answers the question, and everyone applauds.

5.  Count mastered knowledge as an objective quantity.  Once you distinguish  accurately between what is mastered and what is not you can create the “count” that earns chances in the raffle. You assign chances proportionate to their points of knowledge.

A point of knowledge is largely the same as a correct answer on a comprehensive test, but with a few differences:

When an answer contains multiple steps, parts, factors, or aspects, we regard each step as a point of knowledge if it took additional effort to learn it.  A five-step math problem earns five points instead of just one for the final answer. The teacher needs only a consistent definition of what, for his/her purposes, constitutes a point of knowledge in a particular subject so that everyone in the room uses the same criteria for counting up their knowledge.

The point of knowledge is maintained. Every point that would be marked off as a mistake if missed constitutes a positive point if learned. We just add up the number of ideas that are learned, mastered, and retained instead of waiting for a test to label them as mistakes. One student may have accumulated 438 points of knowledge,  another 219, another 524.

In order to be able to return later to each point and re-practice it or check whether or not it is maintained, students need to have points of knowledge in hard copy. Students may write them out, or you provide them a concise handout. They should be able to point to a binder with their name on it, and say “I know everything in it.”  For suggestions on counting up points in different subjects, see the author’s book series or contact the author (cf. below).

6. Convert points of knowledge into raffle chances.  Points of knowledge are converted into raffle chances at the rate of ten for one.  For every ten points of their knowledge, allow them one chance for a prize in the cash drawing.  Stack up colored paper of your choice, cut it into slips about 1”x 3”, and give each student the number of slips he/she has earned chances for. Students write their name on each slip, and return it to you for deposit in a drawing bin.  A student learning 200 points would receive 20 blank slips, write his/her name on each, and return them to you.

Students accumulate chances throughout the preparation period for the raffle and turn them in anytime as long as they mark off in their written notes the questions for which slips have been turned in. Maintaining exact equivalence between points of knowledge they claim to know, on the one hand, and on the other hand the slips turned in for the raffle is the crucial link generating incentive to learn. In order to maintain the answers they claim to know, they continue to practice explaining them to partners without help.

Anyone can win a prize, even those in the middle or bottom of the class. Though they may enter fewer slips in the drawing bin, each slip has an equal chance of being drawn–a spur for students just finding their motivation.  Students can win more than one prize.

7.  Set a schedule of prizes.  You and your students are welcome to design the schedule of prizes as you wish.  I suggest, however, that you propose to them (and let them debate) having 100 prizes of a dollar each. Benefits are that it nearly guarantees every student at least one prize, reflects best the differences in how hard they work, minimizes envy, and enhances the excitement of the drawing.  Community vendors are often glad to add to the prize pool with in-kind rewards such as tickets to amusement parks, theaters, and game rooms, and certificates for fast foods and the like.

Maintain quality control by noting that you may withhold a prize if they cannot answer a question they claim to know. With declared winners, if you prefer, you can conduct a Stand and Deliver session in front of the class. The list of questions they claimed to know that earned them chances in the raffle is made available to the class.  Hearing them answer randomly selected questions, the class (with you monitoring for fairness) confirms that they deserve their prizes.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the Practice Makes Permanent series in publication (Rowman and Littlefield).  For other articles, see johnjensen.edublogs.org.  Contact him at [email protected] with questions about the raffle design.