An Interview with Steve Peha: Newsletter Par Excellence!

Aug 17, 2013 by

Steve Peha

Steve Peha

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1) Why am I receiving a newsletter from you?

People ask me a lot of questions about education and I enjoy answering them. If one person asks a question, it’s likely others have it, too. The newsletter is a way for me to help more people get the information they need. It’s the first one I’ve ever done and I’m thrilled and delighted to have received so much positive response.

I wanted to create something short, free of advertising and overt self-promotion, and focused on small bites of tightly written content that address specific issues that help people solve common problems. I also wanted a way to share things that I’ve learned recently and that have become part of my work so that these things might be helpful to others in their work.

2) I understand that you have unearthed a research study that should be examined. Who ran the study and what did the authors find?

The study was conducted by a group of cognitive psychologists who have devoted significant time and effort to understanding human learning. Within the education community, the best known of the group would probably be Dan Willingham from The University of Virginia. The study is a valuable and very accessible read at only 60 pages. But I also wrote a short article about it for Psychology Today.

Briefly, the major findings were these: (1) Of ten common learning techniques studied, five were judged to be moderately or highly effective while five were judged to be relatively ineffective; and (2) Students spend a lot more time on the ineffective strategies than they do on the effective ones.

It’s this second finding that is most important to me: We know what works; the study covers decades worth of research on this. We just don’t use it. And what we do use, isn’t very effective.

For example, I spent most of my academic career highlighting, re-reading, and summarizing the things I read. But these turn out to be highly ineffective ways to learn. By contrast, things like distributed practice (short study sessions spaced out over time); elaborative interrogation (determining the truth or falsehood of a given statement); and self-explanation (understanding the relationship between information we already know and information we need to learn) are much more effective.

Another very important finding here is that testing improves learning—specifically, low- and no-stakes testing. For me, as an educator, student self-testing is the big win here. I recommend that kids study by creating their own simple tests because I found it very helpful to me when I was in school. The study explains why this is such a good practice.

3) Why is this study important?

I think it’s important for a number of reasons.

First, a significant group of scientists weighed in on decades worth of studies on learning. This isn’t one person’s opinion about one clinical study that might be applicable in some narrow way. The findings here seem to me valid, reliable and broadly applicable. They’re also well explained and easily applied.

I read the study first in an airplane en route to a training session I was giving. I read it once again in my hotel room the night before the training. On the very next day, I was able to easily re-organize my workshop to present it through the lens of the study’s findings. This is the first study I’ve ever been able to do this with.

Second, the study not only identifies effective learning techniques in reasonably conclusive ways, it also points out that what we’re teaching kids in school may be exactly the opposite of what we should be teaching them.

To me, this is surprising, but not disheartening. I’ve found, as have many people with whom I’ve worked recently, that swapping out the ineffective techniques and replacing them with the effective techniques is not difficult. So while the problem we’ve created over the decades is significant, the solution is relatively straightforward.

Third, at a time when testing has become so controversial and so disdained, this study clears up the confusion about the value of testing and the kinds of testing that provide the most value. As I interpret this part of the study, frequent low- and no-stakes testing is helpful. Frequent high-stakes testing is less so, but occasional high-stakes testing is in no way detrimental.

This confirms for me a feeling I’ve had for 15 years about testing: the way we react to it impacts its value. If we focus relentlessly on teaching to tests instead of to students; if we consistently recreate high-stakes testing conditions in our classrooms; and if we con ourselves and our kids into thinking that only high-stakes tests matter; we’re making a huge set of mistakes.

On the other hand, if we apply the findings of the study and focus the majority of our testing efforts on frequent low- and no-stakes testing, and particularly student self-testing, with only occasional use of high-stakes testing, we will probably reap good benefits from the practice.

4) For years, I have been studying, “background knowledge”, general information, global knowledge , cultural literacy- whatever you want to call it. Do you also think it important, and how can a lack of “background knowledge“ be rectified or addressed?

Background knowledge is vital because memory is associative and content-addressable: all knowledge is linked to other knowledge and can only be retrieved through the retrieval of associated knowledge.

Think about it this way: there’s no better way to understand something than to already know it. If we don’t already know it, the second best way to understand something is to know everything we need to know to understand it. That would be the background knowledge necessary to enable quick understanding.

For example, I’ve spent 35 years studying technology and following the technology industry. So when I read an article in a magazine about tech, it’s relatively easy for me to understand. Much of the information I know already and what I don’t know is so closely related to my expertise that understanding it is often effortless.

Simply put: the more we know, the more we are likely to learn.

So think of think of the kindergartener who has probably had her parents and other adults read stories with her, help her write notes, and engage her in many purposeful speaking and listening interactions every day of her life. Even with just ten such interactions a day (far fewer than often occur), the child enters kindergarten with almost 20,000 such experiences. By contrast, kids whose home language is not English or who come from less advantaged homes might have only 2000 such interactions, or in the most unfortunate circumstances, only 200.

Kids learn extremely rapidly from the time they are born to the day they enter kindergarten. If some kids have 10 to 100 times more exposure to knowledge, and especially to literacy (the key means of gaining new knowledge and expressing that knowledge in school), those very fortunate kids, who already start out ahead of their peers, are also likely to learn much faster as well.

This, I think, is the best explanation of what we often call the achievement gap because it takes into account both school and non-school factors. It’s also the best argument I know for Universal Pre-School. Why not just start school a couple of years earlier? Too expensive you say? As the old saying goes, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

As I mentioned in the newsletter, it has been difficult for many of us to help kids who lack the background knowledge to understand something they are reading gain the very knowledge they need while reading. But recently, I’ve come up three techniques that seem to address at least part of that problem. Not surprisingly, they are based on findings in the study I mentioned above. One is a close reading strategy that I call “The Why Game”. You can download a brief description of it here in PDF, PowerPoint, or Keynote format.

Of course, there are many ways we can teach kids more knowledge. But it’s heartening to know that we can also teach them how to gain new knowledge for themselves while they are reading. This is what thoughtful adult readers do. What I’ve tried to accomplish in developing these techniques is bring to young readers essential tools that help them establish the habits of mind that mature readers have developed.

There’s no question in my mind that this is the most important issue with regard to increasing student achievement in the context of formal schooling. Certainly, non-school factors are important, probably more important, but in terms of what we can do at school during the school day, I see nothing more powerful than helping kids obtain more knowledge in less time by using the best learning techniques we have.

5) What is this Haiku Deck that I am reading so much about?

Haiku Deck is the single best iPad app I’ve ever used. It’s also the best slide deck creation tool I’ve ever used on any computing platform. I’ve used PowerPoint but it has never helped me make more powerful points. I’ve used Keynote but I’ve never been asked to give a keynote. Haiku Deck doesn’t help me write haiku poems but it does help me create the best presentations I’ve ever given because it supports me in expressing my ideas more effectively.

True to it’s name, it has the 17-syllable simplicity of the Japanese poetic form from which it takes its name. I can put a beautiful presentation together laying in bed in my hotel room. And I actually enjoy it. In fact, I enjoy using Haiku Deck so much that I use it as a new kind of composition tool.

It obviously works well for creating presentations. My wife has used it in her corporate training. I’ve used it for professional development training in schools and for a recent talk at an international technology conference. And many people who have seen our presentations have asked, “How did you make those wonderful slides?” I even use it recreationally, “composing” decks at night, relaxing before I go to sleep, out of short poems, favorite selections from political speeches, even the Preamble to the Constitution.

I’m excited about it both personally and professionally for my own use. But I think it has real potential for kids because its carefully limited feature set imposes upon its users the discipline to communicate big ideas with little more than a sentence and a picture. Yes, you can find some basic bullets and charts. But it really shines as a “sentence and picture” communication tool.

The picture part is the real hook here. Anyone who makes a lot of decks knows that finding good art is the hardest part. But the folks at Haiku Deck know that, too, so they serve up Creative Commons images automatically based on the text of the slide you’re working on—complete with the correct copyright license links automatically stamped discretely at the bottom of each graphic.

It has been a long, long time since I’ve seen a new product in a well-established category that truly offers a better experience. But Haiku Deck does. And it does it by leveraging the same idea that makes haiku poems so amazing: it helps me say more with less. That’s a win for me and an even bigger win for my audiences.

6) Steve, cutting to the chase – what do you see as some of the main problems in education, and can they be addressed and rectified?

I prefer to talk about solutions instead of problems, so if you don’t mind, I’ll approach the answer that way. There’s a single idea that I believe would dramatically improve education without the drama that so often accompanies educational change: teach kids to read.

I’m serious. Just teach kids to read. Early. Earlier and easier than we do now.

How do we do this? By teaching literacy in ways that match the structure of the English language and the best research we have available on the ways little human beings process oral and written language.

For decades, we’ve limped along with a tradition of sorts that says, “Kids don’t really learn to read until the end of 1st grade. Many don’t really get it until 2nd grade. And some don’t even read by 3rd grade.” That’s been our timetable and our attitude.

But research, common sense, and the practice of thousands of educators suggests that this is way off.

Virtually all kids, regardless of background, can be fluent readers—and pretty darn good little writers, too—by the end of kindergarten. That would leave us all of first grade to help the kids who needed extra help. A scant few might need one more year in 2nd grade—at worst.

If we just used simple, sensible, proven methods, we could solve the literacy problem in America. And because literacy is the foundation of academic success, I think this would give us some pretty good leverage on most of the other challenges in education.

This is not the forum to go into the research or the practices of early literacy so I’ll just mention one thing: sounding out words. This is probably the biggest hurdle kids have to jump at the very beginning. And they have to jump it every time they read or write.

Currently, for many kids, it takes 1, 2, even 3 years to learn to sound out words. Some never pick it up at all. But sounding out words, and all the literacy that comes with it, can be learned in the first few months of kindergarten.

7) Why doesn’t this happen now?

One simple reason: We never show kids how.

That’s true. We talk about sounding out words. We tell kids to sound out words. We have them practice sounding out words. But we never show them a reliable, repeatable process they can use on their own.

Essentially, we tell kids what to do when they have to deal with an unknown word (“Sound it out!”) but we never show them how to do it.

Again, this isn’t the forum for detailed discussions of practice, but I just wrote an article about how to sound out words with Dr. J. Richard Gentry over at Psychology Today. Give it a quick read. It’ll take maybe ten minutes. Or just scan it and see what you think.

If you look at the article, I think you’ll see that we only have to change a few things about the way we teach early literacy to get a huge gain in performance. Those things are:

  1. Introduce letters by sound, not by name. Use names after kids demonstrate knowledge of the most common sounds of all 26 letters.
  2. Introduce all 26 letters in the first few days of school. Don’t hold back letters for days or weeks at a time. What can a reader or writer do if they don’t have access to most of the letters most of the time?
  3. Focus on the lowercase letters. That’s over 95% of the letters kids see. Teach uppercase letters after lowercase letters have been learned. Yes, uppercase letters are easier for kids to recognize and reproduce. But that’s precisely why we should start with the lowercase letters: kids need more time to master them.
  4. Begin training in sounding out words with writing, not reading. English is a sound-symbol system. Words are made of sounds that are written with letters. Sounds come first. Therefore, it makes more sense to find symbols that match the sounds kids hear as they attempt to write than it does for them to attach sounds to the symbols they see as they attempt to read.
  5. Write the alphabet at least once a day. Have kids make the sounds as they write the letters.
  6. Teach kids an explicit process for sounding out any word. There’s a four-line poem that gets kids doing this independently in writing; reading is just reversing the process.
  7. Teach kids an explicit process for correcting misspelled words. There’s a simple teacher-initiated process that makes this fun and easy, and that ensures that kids don’t memorize the incorrect spellings of words.

We need to do some explicit phonics work anyway. Why not exchange a small set of practices that are highly likely to produce success for the myriad practices we use now—many of which are not very effective at all.

And while we’re at it, let’s write this on a sheet of paper and make a little YouTube video so parents who are so inclined can start to do this with their 3- and 4-year olds!

Relating this to the study I mentioned above, can you see the same trend I see? The trend is this: We tend to use ineffective practices more than we use effective practices.

I don’t know exactly why we do this. But I suspect it has a lot do with why we do most things in school: because someone tells us too, we believe them, and we just do what we’re told. When we carry around decades-old beliefs about child development, our children rise (or don’t rise, I should say) to the level of our long-held expectations.

As a result, little changes.

But if we worked together to change this one thing—getting kids reading and writing fluently and independently by the end of kindergarten—education in America would be revolutionized.

And we can do it, too. Any time we want. It costs nothing. In fact, it’s actually much cheaper to succeed in the way I’ve explained than it is to fail using current methods. Why? Because the seven steps I’ve listed above don’t require the purchase of any publisher-supplied program materials, any computers or tablets, or any licenses to use any web-based software.

Perhaps, then, tradition isn’t the reason we teach reading so ineffectively. Perhaps there’s an economic component at work here. Perhaps what we think of as “tradition” in reading is really just “marketing”.

Regardless of what anyone believes, it would be in the best interest of our nation and our nation’s children to have this exact discussion at the forefront of the dialog on education reform. This discussion, and this one discussion, is more important than every other discussion we are having about school combined.

8) So why aren’t we having it?

I’m not talking about anything that would be harder for teachers or kids. Nor am I talking about anything that would take more time or money. So perhaps the real question here is “Cui bono?” Who benefits from teaching kids to read and write so ineffectively? It’s not kids or parents, and it’s certainly not teachers or principals.

9) So who’s left?

Answering that question will answer many more about why our education system is the way it is and what we can do to make it better.

10) Theoretical question: What is a “manageable class size“ and does it depend on the number of mainstreamed students?

By definition, a “manageable class size” is the number of students a given teacher can manage effectively such that learning for all students is optimal.

The exact number tends to vary not with the mix of kids in the room but with the talent of the teacher at the front.

Some teachers are very good at classroom management. I have seen effectively managed classrooms of 35 mixed-ability 6th graders in small deteriorating portables and I have seen ineffectively managed classrooms of 18 gifted first graders in big beautiful classrooms.

We need to get away from number as a meaningful measure of what is manageable and look directly at the kids a given teacher can manage well.

To me, this indicates that one of our best investments would be in training teachers in classroom management techniques. This is one area of education that is extremely well understood. It’s also the area in which teachers receive the smallest amount of explicit instruction relative to its importance.

Again, we’re seeing the same theme crop up here that we found first in our study. Many of the things that would improve education are well known. We simply choose not to use them.

11) How can people get a copy of your newsletter?

I’m so glad you asked!

All of the newsletters are archived at unique URLs. The first issue is here. In the top left corner of the browser window, you’ll see a button that will allow you to subscribe if you like so you can get the next newsletters as they come out.

What have I neglected to ask?

You haven’t asked me a darn thing about the work I’m most excited about this year! But that’s OK. I’ll just tell you.

I’m extremely excited to be focusing on student engagement and school culture. Right now, I have four new workshops:

  1. Engage! Skyrocketing Students to New Levels of Achievement by Removing the Common Impediments to Self-Motivation, Self-Direction, and Self-Discipline.
  2. The Culture Engine: Sustainable Human-Centered Practice That Improves School Climate For Everyone.
  3. Collaborative Schooling: How Families and Educators Work Together to Help Children Reach Their Full Potential.
  4. Principles For Principals: Common Sense Laws of School Leadership.

Most of our work for the last 18 years has focused on education practice and strategy. But as the famous saying goes, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” So I figured it was high time we start feeding the beast a healthier diet to make schools healthier places in which to learn and work.

I’ve never been more excited about working in education than I am right now. Combining good practice with strong culture is the one-two punch that knocks out school failure. After all this time in education, I have come to believe that working on culture and practice simultaneously, and in complementary ways, is the key to creating better experiences for students and parents, more satisfaction for teachers and principals, and sustainable progress for schools and districts.

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