Self-Initiated Cognitive Activity


A nice blog on play by Nicholas

Originally posted on Nicholas Meier:

The education world is full of acronyms for educational practices. I have one that I would like to promote. SICA: Self Initiated Cognitive Activity.

We know that self-initiation is an important quality for everyone to have to be successful in life. We should design activities in school that promote such behavior. Every day we hear about how entrepreneurship is the wave of the future—or is it the present? Every “self-made” millionaire required self-initiation.

And cognitive means thinking. If education is not meant to help students think better, then I don’t know what it is for!

Cognitive learning theory and even recent brain research has demonstrated how learning is enhanced when the learner is actively engaged in their own learning process, rather than being a passive recipient of knowledge from someone else.

This leads us to the obvious conclusion that school activities that are designed with student initiation and that engaging…

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The Teaching Profession

Dear readers,

I am off to Chicago for the tail end of AERA, for a Save our Schools meeting and for the second annual Network for Public Education gathering and, most importantly, to visit friends from “the old days.” My three children were born in Chicago, I started to teach there, and only left… let me see… fifty years ago! Can that be??

As I was packing I ran across an unusual piece in the April 15th Education Week, by Jack Schneider, at the College of Holy Cross in Massacheusetts.  I am going to read him more often.


He is the first writer on education reform who mentions the issue of “downtime.” He has five concerns about the profession (?) of teaching which even the unions don’t seem to really get: (1) Lack of downtime; (2) workload—for high school teachers up to 150 students, with frequent turnover; 3) Lack of the kind of autonomy that often defines professionalism; 4)  Structural isolation; 5) Not much feedback; none from colleagues.

But what astounded me most was what he put Number One: time to plan, prepare, and reflect. Time to collaborate. When I would hear folks demand MORE homework I would wonder—what kind of teacher time does that require. In elementary schools, with only (?) 30 kids, each assignment takes some planning (and don’t forget “differentiation”–the same assignment, without help, makes no sense for the all), some explaining, and then–oops–if they get returned they should be looked at and reflected on and given feedback. If we try to do each of these in 1 minute, that’s 3 minutes times 30=90 minutes.  Ad that’s just time for the homework! What about the other 5 plus hours of class time?

Enough. Maybe these professional gathering I am attending this week will solve this one.


p.s.  Just think, probably more than 200,000 families opted their kids out of April’s English language common-core tests in the State of New York.  Wow.

More Books: Bloodletting, Citizen, Wow, and More than a Score

Books by teachers keep pouring in. Here are a few.


Bloodletting, by David Ellison compared the latest “cures” to the cure-all for all medical problems of the 19th century (bloodletting). He goes through all the regular cures, diagnoses what is behind them and then offers his “2% solution”—which he argues requires a revolution. I fear he may get his wish for the latter, but not for what he is wishing for. A good read.


The WOW Factor by Julie Roberts is a chronicle of her first 8 years in the field of education . I would give it to my granddaughter who is in year one except that…it might discourage her. But Roberts ends on a high note.


What Kind of Citizen? Educating Our Children for the Common Good, by Joel Westheimer. He’s on my side—well, 90%. Myths can have a powerful positive influence, he argues, but we are facing seven that now impede progress. Joel’s critique of one such myths, schools must be sites of democracy is what accounts for it not being 100%. A must read.


More Than a Score, The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing, is edited by Jesse Hagopian. I have not read all the essays, but they include Karen Lewis, Nancy Carlson-Paige, Monty Neil and many more good thinkers including interviews with Carol Burris and Phyllis Tashlik. It is an antidote to my pessimism! Hurrah.

Reading these books reminds me how quickly we forget our own roots. It is time for the thousands of teachers, principals and citizens who were influenced by Ted Sizer and his fictional teacher Horace to mention his work—which took so many different forms. He was that very special combination of scholar, teacher, teacher educator, innovator, organizer, gatherer of ideas and people, and more. Let’s all go back and read Horace’s Compromise and remind ourselves of why it set off a firestorm of imitators—and some detractors—and produced an organization (The Coalition of Essential Schools) that at its peak had more than a thousand mostly public school members—reminder, schools not individuals. The ten principles he set forth cover the ground and the way he brings them to life in his books, speeches and conversations uncover the heart of his message. I wish he were here to help us today, but we can still listen to his words with care and imagine what he would say to our triumphs and our defeats. P.sS Join the Coalition—our prices have come down. (

My Prognosis

My prognosis—IF we don’t pull off something big fast.

We will soon have a wave of states joining some form of the voucher business—pure market capitalism in place of public education “as we know it”– funded by we the people.

Amazingly we have witnessed a catastrophic example of the dangers of the free ”market place (2008) and come out of it with more and more PR on behalf of it! And it is selling. And with it a revival of an old definition of democracy itself: “free choice”—untrammeled by political interference. Free choice—two noble words—are a dangerous definition of democracy but it has its individualized appeal in a society where communal and workplace organization has been enormously weakened.

Tell me I’m wrong! Please.



A good read on reading by my son Nick:

Originally posted on Nicholas Meier:

I was recently covering a Language and Literacy class for a colleague of mine. The students were teacher credential candidates. For part of the session the students divided into “centers.” In one of the centers one student was presenting to the others about “Concepts of Print.” In her talk, I overheard her say how reading “is not natural.” Her statement struck me. What I gathered she meant by it is that many aspects of reading are arbitrary, and therefore should be taught explicitly, e.g., that we read form right to left, which side is the front and which side is that back of a book.

FC Reading

I do not know where she came up with the phrase of reading “not being natural,” and did not get an opportunity to ask her about it. However, I think it plays into a larger debate about reading. To what extent is learning to read…

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Ivy League

Dear readers,

A few weeks ago (3/18/15, A24) the New York Times had a lot of letters responding to Frank Bruni’s excellent piece (3/15 column) on admissions to prestigious colleges. Most were on “my side” and Bruni’s—skeptics about value-added.

I was intrigued by his claim that the children of Fortune 500 company heads were not largely graduates of Ivy league schools. I am glad to hear that is still true. It was 30 years ago I know. That is a good sign that we might pull out of what appears to be a dreary future if we only focused on the right things—not on getting in to Harvard.

But that is mostly because there are not enough Ivies for all the high-earners. Some make it going elsewhere. Does it hurt their futures? Bruni thinks not. Probably some of these rich losers end up at Ivy-league grad schools. In any case they will not be unemployed. And, probably, it is true that for poor kids, and kids of color, the Harvard/Yale/Princeton badge get many more interviews and probably jobs. But the number are small.

So, imagine again. Suppose Harvard started taking in mostly kids of color and those from poor families. Would that soon even up the future earnings and job status of Black and white, rich and poor kids? Especially if all the most prestigious schools—even the top non-Ivies—did the same? Or would it merely create a different pecking order of what constituted a top-notch school?

Or suppose 100% of all students got BAs, does that mean that the statistically significant economic advantage that comes with having a BA would rise, fall, or stay the same? Or if all got MAs? And supposing that it could be demonstrated that they hadn’t lowered “standards” to achieve these results?   Would every additional BA or MA create an additional well paying job? Is that just the way the market place works?


Testing thought experiment

Dear Readers,

Let’s do a “what if” experiment. Supposing that all the poor and Black and Hispanic children surprised us all and got scores more or less equal to (or even better!) than their richer and whiter peers on the spring tests.

If you imagine there would be celebrations galore, think again about why this could not happen. Not just why poverty is a handicap, but why no test could ever prove it is not.

Because every test-maker in the world would know there was something wrong with that test’s pool of items long before scores were reported—during its field testing period—and do whatever’s necessary to make the test “harder”—or, more “accurate.” It doesn’t require even changing the items, but just a few tweaks in the choices of answers will usually do. This is not a guess on my part, it is what some folks who’ve explored the ETS pool of SAT questions have long ago discovered. If an item is “favored” by Black students (or other group that does not normally do well on the test) it is removed as an unreliable.

We are simply more sophisticated at doing what the original IQ designers did a century ago when they tested how “rigorous” an item was by seeing who got it right and wrong based on their occupational status.

I hate to tell you—but us Jews didn’t do too well at first. We weren’t doctors, lawyers and business makers in the early 1900s. And, I suspect, they may never have later selected items on the basis of whether or not the testee was Jewish (as Jewish was probably not one of the boxes to check)—or we would still be scoring in the bottom half.

We are getting crasser at this—with less cover-up. I note that the latest improved model does not promise a normal curve or any particular pre-designed percentiles. It just waits until the results are in and then figures out how to score it so that it sends the right message. Literally.

We even did this with the National Board’s professional teaching test. It seemed appropriate. We decided ahead of time that it had to pass enough people to not seem impossible and yet not so many that it could be accused of being too easy. And it ought to correspond—more or less—with what those who knew them would say if asked. Sampling did the trick and the test did what it wanted to do, although it needed some revising because it passed too few teachers of color, just as the SAT had done years earlier to see that females were getting scores comparable to males—at least on Language Arts tests. Problem identified. Problem fixed.

Hmmm. So, imagine the scenario I started with. Why not? Imagine how it would mess up real estate ads that like to tell prospective buyers what the average SAT or regent’s scores are for the school in their zone. They know—because it matters to them—what they are really measuring: social and economic status, which includes race.

No matter how fast the kids line-up after recess exactly the same number will be first, second, third… and last. And most of us who’ve watched these kids at recess a lot soon know who will be where in the line. It doesn’t usually correlate with SATs however. And, if it did, would we focus on giving running lessons to the slow pokes?