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Coffee Break With the Ed Authors at ASCD

Live from the ASCD Annual Conference in Philadelphia

This morning I had a nice sit down with several of ASCD's featured authors.
Allison Zmuda, who wrote Breaking Free From Myths About Teaching and Learning, told an administrator and me that the inspiration for the nine myths addressed in her book came from her son, who returned home from early elementary school one day declaring, "I'm a bad reader." He said the other kids read faster than he did—one girl would finish five books from the "just right" box in the time he could read one. Zmuda started to research the other kinds of misconceptions students have that hold them back from reaching their potential. For instance, she found, students internalize the notion that "what the teacher wants me to say is more important than what I want to say."

Zmuda also talked about the need to identify and teach 21st-century skills that will help students problem-solve in their lives outside of school. There are two kinds of problems a teacher can present in class, she said. "One kind is a single-path, single-solution—it's an exercise, not a problem." The other kind of problem, she said, requires students to do some research, determine what's relevant, and perhaps find the red herring in the information presented. "It's a more robust kind of problem solving," she contended.

I then sat down with Robyn Jackson, the author of Never Work Harder Than Your Students and Other Principles of Great Teaching, and about a half dozen other educators. Jackson, who is soft-spoken but clearly not afraid to ruffle feathers, described the current approach to school reform as "unrigorous." "We're grabbing at solutions, not thinking it through. ... When you hand a teacher a curriculum three days before they are supposed to teach it, how do you expect them to deliver that in a rigorous way?" she asked. Teachers no longer spend time thinking deeply about why they are teaching what they're teaching—the justification is that it will be on the test. "In the process of teacher-proofing the curriculum," she said, "we've removed rigor from it."

And in a moment that speaks to the power of such an assembly of educators, a female, African American first-year principal from the Bronx, N.Y., who later described the need for triage at her school, said to Jackson, "I'm grateful to see you, a woman of color, in this position. Just like we talk about how kids don't see themselves in teachers, teachers don't see themselves in professional development providers."

I also chatted with Art Costa, co-author of Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind: 16 Essential Characteristics for Success, about the kinds of executive characteristics students need to eventually be successful. According to Costa, the list includes behaviors and problem-solving strategies such as persisting, communicating with clarity, managing impulsivity, and applying past knowledge to new situations. Costa, a sweet, grandfatherly type, said teachers can both explicitly teach these and just call attention to them in class. For example, a math teacher might say, "this problem is tough, you'll have to persist and think interdependently to solve it." One of the most effective ways to address these habits of mind is through project-based learning, he said.

Carol Ann Tomlinson, Doug Reeves, Rick Wormeli, and about 10 other authors were there as well, but unfortunately I couldn't make it to every table. Feel free to chime in through the comments if you were there and heard an enlightening tidbit from an author.

I'm on my way out of Philly now, so that's it for the live blogging. But there will be more conference takeaways to come ... specifically from Atul Gawande's keynote (let's just say, he did not disappoint!).

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