High Performance Education Systems: Expert Thinking and Complex Communication

2013-02-04_14-50-00_457 Gift from Sr. Wan, Iqra Academy near SLC

A casualty of America’s reliance on high stakes testing has been the cutting of courses other than Math, Science, and Language Arts by budget minded bureaucrats. Yet, while the value of the tested material is recognized, to marginalize the wide array of other subjects somehow diminishes the level of civilization.

Historically, we have seen a pattern from ancient times that in peace there flourished art, literature, and architecture, while in war and times of anarchy it simply was impossible to cultivate. People merely struggled to survive. Are we slipping?

Education expert E. D. Hirsch wrote, “[education] attained by studying a rich curriculum in math, literature, science, history, geography, music and art and higher level skills in context…there is a scientific consensus that academic skill is highly dependent on specific relevant knowledge.”

Incorporating a wide variety of learning opens doors to deeper understanding, creativity, and problem solving capacity. This is exactly what the world needs in the future, and education professionals must provide it now. For while many menial jobs are exported to countries with cheaper labor—thereby raising a larger, global, middle class—and robots increasingly tackle  jobs previously performed by humans, we need to prepare our students using high performance education systems that feature a wide spectrum of valuable cognitive content. These can be summarized as the liberal and fine arts. We are about to take education of humans where computers cannot go. That is, we teach the “gray areas,” those that incorporate values, ethics, and judgment that necessitate heuristics.

For example, take the student whose friend asks for last night’s homework. Being a loyal friend, one would be inclined to share and help a buddy. Yet, would our students judge that acquiescence as ethical or not? Would they pursue a logical analysis to question if their compliance could be construed as sharing guilt? This is the specialized domain of a parochial education, as the public school system is struggling to maintain basic skills and rudimentary performance of the masses. I challenge argument!

Let’s recognize that we cannot afford for our Islamic schools to slide down and ignore the manners, values, and critical analysis of choices and responsibilities of individuals. We must not narrow and dumb down the scope of our curriculum offerings in exchange for elevated standardized test scores removed from relevant application. Insight toward the complexities of thought and excellence in articulation across a variety of modes is the ticket to a true high performing education system.

Elements that keep us employed and economically viable are our abilities to utilize Expert Thinking and Complex Communication. There are two categories of Executive Skills which are recognized as valuable components to success and brain development.

Promoting Expert Thinking incorporates pattern recognition, perceiving relationship, and problem solving. These are cognitive skills.

Complex Communication is performance based. Students can demonstrate ability to confer understanding beyond declarative learning. They incorporate listening, analyzing, evaluating, and conveying information via a multitude of modes. While it is still evident that many of our students need more development in their writing, it is also relevant that they must learn oral articulation skills, graphic representation, technology based skills, and artistic means to effectively broadcast the products of their analysis.

This is where Active Learning, as designed by the instructor answers:

  • Why and how the lesson fits previous learning?
  • How is this relevant and interesting to motivate students?
  • Is movement incorporated for the students during the lesson?
  • Do students verify competence in the learning goals?

As you see, the intelligent design of lessons is imperative to an optimal outcome, but I question if Islamic school teachers will rise to the call? I wonder if many instructors are still in “survival mode” struggling with class climate and management issues. Certainly, involving students in deeper levels of learning can keep misbehavior at bay, but it can only be done when there is a window of order, clarity, and trust in a collaborative classroom. The journey to higher levels of learning must be preceded by focus of minds and cooperation among the class community, and especially weekend schools would benefit from this realization. Much can be done to improve the school environment, but willingness from administration to diligently strategize a campaign with all stakeholders to prioritize school climate is necessary. This is also where seeking professional guidance is worthwhile so that your school can aspire to developing a high performance education system.

Last night, my eldest son gave me some critical analysis of my blog structure and website. When time permits, I want to redesign and make it more functional as a resource for Islamic school professionals and people who work with Muslims in their communities.

Please give content suggestions so I can incorporate them in a new design. Not that I am so tech savvy or have the means to pay a web developer, but I guess it’s finally time to learn more about the backside of web design. It may take awhile…

Last weekend was my first visit to Salt Lake City, as I flew in to do professional development at the Utah Islamic Center where full-time and weekend school teachers from Iqra Academy met along with members of the local Bosnian organization. Iqra Academy is the only accredited Islamic school listed in Utah, and they presently serve up till 5th grade. I truly enjoyed meeting everyone and found the mountains calling me beyond. Such an inspiring setting; I wish to have stayed longer for skiing. Thanks for your hospitality!

The only downside was that I caught glimpses of Superbowl at the first touchdowns by Baltimore, and San Francisco’s after the blackout when changing planes in Phoenix. It was however, an opportunity to read Forbes and ASCD’s Educational Leadership. Now, as freezing rain and bits of snow pelt us, it’s back to preparing for the Common Core presentation. Hope you have a chance to register for the ASCD preconference at the ISNA-CISNA Education Forum in Chicago!

Lesson Design for Deeper Learning

2013-01-21_12-47-47_90 Mosque in Chico, CA

The striking difference between Lesson Plan versus Lesson Design is illustrated: As an undergraduate, my professor handily grasped his black binder of lecture notes (lesson plans) for each class, drearily reciting from it each day. After abysmally performing on his first test, I learned that he expected students to write notes of what he said verbatim, and then write back those exact words to him for answers on his exam. The absolute irony was that the course was titled “Learning Psychology,” and I don’t remember a thing!

Another professor from graduate studies tortured us the same way for a course in Learning Disabilities and Educational Law. Somewhat fortunately, I remembered from the previously described course to utilize 4×6 index cards for memorization, but what I recall most is that all the teachers in my cohort really hated the course (and him) because he relied on tricky multiple choice testing. Again, we probably chose to remember only the most relevant aspects, and would never want to pursue his content of our own initiative.

These instructors had lesson plans, but they did not reflect an inkling of understanding about their students’ needs, motivation, learning methods, or memory building tactics. In contrast, lesson design incorporates an understanding of all of these.

Educators should consider research-based aspects in their lesson design. Do be sure that students “know Why;” that is, do they understand the relevance and connect the learning to their previous knowledge? What can you do to design the lesson with their interests in mind? Can you incorporate some physical movement, rather than just sitting like stones in your class? Finally, ideally, can students actually DO something with the lesson content that demonstrates deeper understanding and acquisition of necessary skills to an acceptable degree of competency?

The “art” of instruction requires teachers to have mastery of their content, a repertoire of instructional methods that cultivate thinking and skills for students, and a degree of technology savvy in order to teach and track performance. As we quantify our students’ performances, so should teachers check on their own efficacy in matching teaching and lesson design to assessment results, with increasingly higher expectations cycled through modification and feedback.

Lesson Design
Simple Lesson Designs should feature
• Clear Learning Objectives
• Provides a Background Knowledge Base
• Teaches or Models
• Allows Guided Practice
• Checks for Understanding
• Independent Practice/ Assessment

Hopefully, the message is clear to recognize that any old patchwork of a lesson plan is grossly inferior to a well thought out lesson design. The preparation time is worth the investment because targeting procedures aligned with assessments yield vastly improved results in long term learning for our students.

As an update, ISNA has made the “Keeping Our Children Safe in School” webinar available. If you scroll back to my previous blog, you will see additional hyperlinks to it as well as a “motherlist” of crisis management resources.

This past Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend featured the ISNA Education Forum in Anaheim, CA, and it was a solid success! It was also very kind of Medina Academy of Anaheim to invite us, along with the other ISNA planning team members, to dinner after the conference. Thank you!

After that, Riad and I flew to San Francisco and drove north of Sacramento to Chico where we surveyed the area for a possible relocation. We really liked what we saw. It is home to Cal State-Chico, and seems very pleasant…even in January! Now we are seriously trying to find the way to make the logistics of hauling ourselves, our businesses, and four kids (some aren’t “kids” anymore) with us. InshaAllah, it is meant to be.

The Chicago based ISNA-CISNA Education Forum is slated, as always, for Easter weekend, March 29-31. ASCD will present a preconference on Common Core State Standards. See this link for program details. Several other projects (Ed Forum, creating customized PD presentations, drafting accreditation standards, accreditation visit, book collaboration, and cleaning my basement so I can move to Chico!) have me busy these days, but, the next post, we will delve into what it means to be “Educated” and High Performing Education Systems, inshaAllah!