Squeeze Fewer Lemons

 

I have, on a few occasions, enjoyed a delicious glass of fresh squeezed lemonade. I would say it’s superior to the kind of lemonade I usually drink, which comes from this:

But that could just be priming at work; tell me it’s fresh squeezed and I’m inclined to believe it’s going to be better before even bringing the glass to my lips.

For the sake of this article, though, let’s say that fresh squeezed lemonade is, in fact, a better product than the stuff that comes from mixing flavored powder with water.

In spite of its superiority, how often do you drink it?

How often do you buy lemons and squeeze them yourself?

My guess is not very often, and for good reason. Fresh squeezed lemonade is a hassle to make, and while it might be better, it’s not that much better. The payoff is rarely worth the extra effort, especially when you have an alternative that takes seconds to make and tastes enough like real lemonade that you can overlook its inferiority.

We make choices like this all the time. We don’t need top-of-the-line running shoes because we just don’t log that many miles. The Kraft cheese is fine for our purposes; we don’t need the expensive artisan stuff for a cheeseburger. Sure, the $4500 saxophone produces a better sound, but the $270 one on Amazon will do.

Most people have no problem admitting they sometimes settle for an inferior product because it’s not worth their time, money, or effort to have something better.

But not teachers. We rarely make such an admission.

Teachers, many of them, are spending too much time and effort squeezing far too many lemons, and people who aren’t in the classroom are encouraging them to do so. Too often, we aim for “best” practices when “good enough” practices would be the better choice.

There is no better example of this than how administrators shove John Hattie’s work down teachers’ throats, the unmistakable message being that good educators employ those practices with the highest effect sizes, without giving any thought to what those teachers sacrifice to do so. They want their teachers to make fresh squeezed lemonade because fresh squeezed lemonade is better, but they don’t ask how much better it is and if making it is worth the effort.

It’s not just Hattie’s effect sizes that get misused by hard-charging administrators. There are many practices teachers are made to feel they ought to be using that are the educational equivalent of fresh squeezed lemonade. Sure, teachers could do them. Yes, they might work better than what those teachers would otherwise do. But teachers should always consider the tradeoffs. Before deciding on something you’ve been told is wonderful, you should ask:

Is this going to lead to significantly more learning, or just marginally more? If just marginally more, then is it worth my time and effort or might those limited resources be better deployed elsewhere?

Here are five of those times:

Having Students Track Their Own Progress

I love this practice. It’s motivating. It’s visual. It can help reinforce a growth mindset when students see their own progress recorded in hard numbers or pretty bar graphs. When I’ve used it, I’ve seen students excited to improve their performance.

But…

it’s a hassle. At least in the grade I teach (third), it’s time-consuming and I simply have too many other more important things to do (like, you know, teach). Have students record their progress on paper and at least three of them will regularly lose all of the data they’ve collected. Have them use a device and it takes even longer to get the thing out and enter their numbers.

Instead of squeezing this particular lemon, just keep track of the students’ progress for them and share it periodically. Even better, take advantage of digital solutions that score and keep a record of student performance automatically.  Many curricular programs do this for you, and websites like Quizizz, Kahoot, and Prodigy produce reports that can be downloaded, printed, and shared with students.

Class Discussions

I’ve been told time and again how important class discussions are. Hattie found that they have an effect size of .82, so they have the potential to make a real difference in student understanding. But, to his credit, Hattie also cautioned that it’s hard work to establish a climate of trust and respect where classroom discussions flourish. And that’s not even half of it. They’re difficult to manage. You’ve got students who want to dominate and others who won’t talk at all. To address those issues, you have to design systems that limit the speech of some while encouraging the thoughts of others. Then there’s the issue with what you do when someone says something certifiably wrong or universally offensive.

And they take forever.

You’re also never quite sure if those who aren’t talking are getting anything out of the discussion and you might have the sneaking suspicion that some of what students are saying is not what they actually believe but what they think someone else (possibly you) wants to hear.

Having sat through countless discussions at staff meetings, I’m left to conclude that discussions aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, or, if they are, then they’re so difficult to do well it might be better to avoid them altogether, which is largely what I do. I prefer digital alternatives that allow students to submit their thoughts anonymously. Padlet, the Google Question feature in Google Classroom (with student comments enabled), Jamboard, or even a shared Google Doc all work well, and they’re far easier to manage. You might also save discussion for smaller groups.

Inquiry-based learning

The idea here is that kids learn by doing and that knowledge uncovered in the pursuit of a (preferably student-generated) question sticks better than knowledge that is dispensed from the front of the room or absorbed from a textbook. Probably true.

But as anyone who has led an inquiry-based unit knows, it’s fraught with peril. An experiment doesn’t go the way it’s supposed to and students’ misconceptions are reinforced instead of challenged. Some kids do a lot of inquiring, while others freeload. Experiments are inefficient; they’re time-consuming and usually include a number of false starts. There’s also an incentive problem: students aren’t tested this way, so a teacher who’s concerned about standardized test scores might decide that reading about a topic makes more sense than designing and executing experiments that will be a management challenge and might not lead to the kind of learning the standards demand students attain.

Students might learn better this way, but there’s a real risk they won’t learn anything at all. And, of course, this all assumes your district is willing to spend the money to purchase the materials you need for whatever students are inquiring about. Experiments are fun. Students will like science class more if you do them, so do them you should, but it’s worth asking if this method of teaching and learning is worth the costs.

Feedback

Feedback is great. Research shows that timely feedback works; kids learn more when they receive it. But providing timely, individual feedback is labor-intensive and many teachers give more than is useful. I’m thinking specifically of writing. Whenever I write about not taking student work home, I inevitably hear from writing teachers who tell me such a practice is impossible because when would they ever read and respond to 25, or 75, or 160 student papers?

And the answer to that is they should not be reading and responding to all of those papers. I wrote about this in detail in my book Leave School At School, but to save you the purchase, here are some ways to stop squeezing the feedback lemon:

  • Have students give each other feedback. Yes, feedback from you will probably be better (it’s fresh-squeezed), but student feedback isn’t worthless (it’s Country Time). If you’re using paper, do a gallery walk where students have sticky notes that they can leave their classmates after reading their work. Require they leave two positives and one area to improve (and for the love of all that is holy please don’t call these “glows and grows.” Ick). If students are typing, have them share documents with one another and require a certain amount and type of feedback.

 

  • Provide feedback while students are writing. I have my students write their papers in Google Docs inside of Google Classroom, which allows me to jump into their work at any time and leave comments right on the screen. This saves me tons of time at the end of the process and gives them assistance when they need it and are still willing to use it. If you want it more personal, you could try Catlin Tucker’s station rotation model.

 

  • Limit your feedback to just one or two areas. Don’t overwhelm yourself or your students by trying to “fix” everything; you’re not the only writing teacher they will ever have. Focus on some high-leverage areas that will translate into other writing genres and provide feedback on those. If students can’t write a complete sentence, then it doesn’t make a lot of sense to tell them they need richer imagery.  Feedback to student writers is like salt: a little has the potential to make the final product better, but too much makes kids want to gag.
Feedback to student writers is like salt: a little has the potential to make the final product better, but too much makes kids want to gag. Click To Tweet

Rubrics

I used to be guilty of squeezing this particular lemon. Before any writing unit, I’d design my own rubric or I worked with colleagues to design them for our grade level. The process was messy and not worth the results. To start, designing a rubric is a painstaking process. You have to figure out which writing traits to include and how much weight to give each of them. Then you’ve got to come up with language for each level. Those levels have to be distinguishable from one another and you’ve got to make sure you imagine every possible contingency. What happens if a student writes beautifully but off-topic? What exactly constitutes a detail? What if the spelling and grammar are on point but the kid forgot to paragraph? And finally, on top of all that, you have to make sure the rubric is student-friendly and not verbose so there’s actually a chance it will get used.

And what usually happens after you pour in all that work? You go over the rubric in class and start explaining your criteria and students nod off after about three minutes. Then, when they turn in a draft, it’s obvious they haven’t used the rubric. Finally, when it comes time to score student papers, you wish you hadn’t created the thing in the first place and you’re chagrined to find that most papers need little consideration and you only need to refer to the rubric for the handful that fall somewhere in the middle.

These days, my first stop for a rubric is the Internet. If it’s already made (and with the Common Core standards, why wouldn’t it be?), then there’s no sense recreating the wheel. I look for single-point rubrics because they’re easy to use for both teachers and students. If I can’t find one, I’ll make one, but because they’re single-point rubrics, they take much less time to create and are quicker to use.

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If you read this article then you’re probably interested is optimizing your practices as a teacher so you can focus on the stuff that matters the most. The master class for this mindset is Angela Watson’s 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club, of which Teacher Habits is an affiliate partner. If you’re looking to cut back on the hours you work without sacrificing your effectiveness, then give the club a look. Here are some links that may help you decide if it’s right for you:

12-question quiz to see if the club is right for you

Reviews from club members

Summer Secrets Video Series

 

 

 

3 Replies to “Squeeze Fewer Lemons”

  1. Real and tell it like it is writing!! You say out loud what all teacher are thinking! So many new and best practices are thrown at us every year. Really gets overwhelming!! Thank you. I really look forward to reading your articles.

  2. The director of my master’s program had a slogan that always unsettled me: “Every student, every day.” This article perfectly illustrates why. The cost of having her mindset in a real classroom is I lose myself for squeezing each of the 120 – 150 lemons that I have. This mindset makes teaching an utterly unsustainable job.

  3. Great metaphor! Some of the power of those best practices you mentioned comes from knowing where and when to spend the extra time squeezing the lemon.

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