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Teaching Matters (a PsychSessions Podcast)- Questions and (Some) Answers about the AP Psych and IB Psych Exams

In this first episode of season 2 – “Standardized Testing: Questions and (Some) Answers AP Psych and IB Psych Exams” – Eric and I talk about the AP Psychology and IB psychology exams and how they were impacted by Covid (the podcast episode was posted in September, 2021). Our conversation moves from specifics about how Covid impacted the Spring 2021 AP and IB (International Baccalaureate) exams and how College Board responded differently to the pandemic. We end up talking about what getting college credit for introductory psychology means in terms of a test score (AP or IB). (Note: if you’d like to know more about the IB Psychology program, listen to this episode with our special guest, fantastic high school psychology teacher Casey Swanson: “International Baccalaureate Psychology with Special Guest Casey Swanson.”) 

I didn’t think of this connection during our conversation, but the discussion about test scores and credit connect with another topic we frequently discuss: grades. Eric and I end up talking about grades often (e.g. this episode). Both the AP Psychology and IB psychology tests face a big challenge: their goal is to assess knowledge and skills students learn during college introductory psychology courses. The amount of knowledge and number of skills addressed in college psychology courses is way too broad to be adequately assessed on one test, so test developers have to sample the knowledge/skills, choosing some ideas that get represented on the test, and many others that do not. This sampling creates one of the challenges: can colleges be confident that the knowledge and skills sampled on an AP or IB exam align with what they want students to learn in their introductory psychology courses? 

But there’s another level of challenge that we didn’t talk about on the podcast: the test score. Both the AP and IB psychology tests include different parts: multiple choice, short/long answer essays, data/source analysis, etc. But the results from each of those different parts get smooshed into one overall composite score, and that composite score is what colleges use to determine if a student should be granted credit for the introductory course. This smoosh doesn’t have to happen! Since there are different parts of the test, those different parts could get scored separately – students could get multiple scores from a test, each score representing their achievement on a different element of the test. This scoring change would enable colleges to look at multiple scores when making decisions about what credit to grant, and these decisions could be better informed by more specific information about what students know and can do. This issue is related to the discussion about traditional grading practices (one A-F grade for a whole class) vs. “standards based” grading practices (multiple grades based on different skills or bodies of knowledge). 


Here’s an overly simplistic diagram of the current “smoosh it all into one score” system. (I’m most familiar with the AP Psychology test, so this diagram probably matches that test best). 

Here’s one possible “non-smoosh” system: 

There would be dozens (hundreds?) of decisions and complications with implementing this kind of a change, but it might be a useful thought experiment. Why reduce the complexity in an AP or IB test into a single score? Why ask colleges to make a complex decision, like whether to grant credit for an introductory class, based on a single composite grade? Psychologists know that it is important to measure variables carefully (to create accurate operational definitions). Measuring something as complex as the knowledge and skills involved in an introductory college class deserves something more than a single composite score.

Teaching Matters: A PsychSession Podcast

I’m doing a podcast! And I’ve been doing it for a while! My buddy Eric Landrum and I have a podcast: Teaching Matters (a PsychSessions podcast). In May of 2021, Eric and I started recording some of our conversations as a podcast we call Teaching Matters. This is nothing but a win/win for me: I get to talk with my friend Eric about ideas we’re passionate about. Eric does all the hard work: setting up the recording, adding introductions, editing breaks between episodes – all of it! All I have to do is talk with a friend about fun teaching/psychology stuff, and I probably would have been doing that anyway!

Here’s some background/context on the podcast:  If you read this blog and teach psychology, I hope you already know about the various PsychSessions podcast series started by Eric and Garth Neufeld. Our podcast, Teaching Matters, is part of this overall “PsychSessions” podcast series. Since 2017, Garth and Eric have been talking to psychology teachers and researchers about everything under the sun: their research, their teaching, their lives, and many, many other topics. Just take a look at the entire archive and keep scrolling down! I predict their work will be an important archive for future historians of psychology. For right now, it’s just a fascinating, valuable series of podcasts we can all listen to for free! 

I’m going to write here on my blog about some of the ideas Eric and I explore in our podcast series. I’m re-listening to some of them in order to identify some themes or “underlying” ideas in the conversations. Eric and I skip around (a lot!), but hopefully in a useful way for listeners. I will try to use some blog posts to focus on a few of the ideas we talk about often. If you listen to any of our podcast conversations, please comment here and let me know what you think!

The frog jumps back in the boiling water: what I’ve learned by going back to a classroom

During a conversation with a teacher friend last year, I learned that his high school lost the teacher who was supposed to teach the AP Research class. This high school just started an AP Capstone program and this was the first time AP Research was going to be offered in our district. I’ve been looking for a way to teach a high school class again, so I decided to see if I could teach this one section while continuing to do my “day job” as a district office administrator. 

Here’s some context: I taught high school psychology and philosophy for 13 years, then got a grad degree and took an administrative job at our district office. I’ve worked as an Assessment/Evaluation specialist for the past 16 years, and I’ve learned a lot. Being an administrator helped me learn things and develop skills that I don’t think I would have been able to learn as a high school teacher. But I’ve always missed teaching in a high school classroom and for the past few years I’ve been looking for a way to teach high school again. 

So this AP Research class opportunity emerged at just the right time. I got permission from the director of my department, the director of curriculum and instruction, the high school principal, and finally the director of the human resources department (whew!) It’s a bit unprecedented for a district office administrator to “go back” to the classroom, but my hidden agenda (which isn’t very hidden at all) is to try to convince other administrators to figure out how to teach a class. I think our school district would be stronger if we could figure out ways for more administrators to spend more time teaching. I think our communication would be better and we’d make better decisions if we were also teaching.

Here’s a short and not very organized list of some observations about teaching that being back in a classroom helped remind me about: 

  • High school students are great. That’s what I missed: getting to know high school students and working with them over a long period of time. While I’ve been a district office administrator and gone from a classroom, I organized a psychology club that met monthly, and I enjoyed that, but it’s not the same as working with high school students every day. I’ve taught grad classes for a couple local universities, and I enjoyed that. But it’s not the same kind of satisfaction as teaching a high school class. 
  • I like the rhythm that teaching provides. I like the ritual of going to the high school every morning and then going to the district office. Mondays are Mondays because you’re starting a new week of teaching. You get to think about what you didn’t get done the day before, and how to possibly get it done the next day while trying to keep to the schedule you planned out earlier. Teaching provides an overall “arc” for a year. I know that this week is the 14th week of the semester, and that there are a couple more weeks until there’s a big break, and I need to work to get students to a good stopping point before we pick up on big projects after the Thanksgiving break. And I know I get to repeat this rhythm again, with starts and middles and breaks and “endings” that aren’t really endings. My district administrator job doesn’t feel like it has the same rhythm. In that part of my work life, I get assigned projects (or I try to create projects that I think are useful), and there’s a satisfaction in getting those projects done, but it’s not the same “long arc” satisfaction that the rhythm of teaching a high school class provides. 
  • It’s a pain when students have to be gone, and when students can’t get assigned work done on time. Absences happen, and not everything can get done on schedule. But it’s tricky to time work and feedback and new work and transitions when not all students have been present for or been able to do the kinds of thinking and work that you planned. Do you back up? Press on? Figure out how to help them get that thinking done in a different way? It’s tricky. 
  • Having my own classroom is a great creative outlet. Now my “teacher imagination” always has something to do: I often think about what I want to try in the AP Research class. I get to think about ways to share ideas and what experiences I can set up that might help my students think about these ideas. I bump into cool articles and other resources and get excited about sharing them with my students. I get to think about goofy things we could try that also relate to the big ideas in our content. 
  • It’s hard work, and it makes me anxious. I get nervous sometimes before class, and (so far) I like that anxiety. I’m often not sure whether something will work, or whether it helped anyone learn anything, and I get to think about how to try to figure out what we learned. 
  • The feeling of something “clicking” in a high school class is different than any other kind of teaching I’ve experienced. I enjoy presenting for teachers and administrators, and I want to keep doing that, but those experiences can’t compete with these peak moments in high school classes. I don’t know why. There have been moments when I’ve heard my AP Research students analyzing an article or giving each other feedback on their work that cause me to be SO happy and proud of them. 

I’m glad that I jumped back in the boiling water. The drive to the high school every morning is long, and I’m often anxious when I think about what we’ll do in class, and I feel rusty and out of practice, and it all feels good and right. I hope I get to keep teaching. 

Encoding and retrieving or offloading and forgetting?

This thoughtful blog post from Blake Harvard (“How ‘Google It’ Impacts Learners”) got me thinking about the relationships between long-term recall and technology. 

In the blog post, Blake discusses a study (“Google Effects on Memory…”) that indicates there may be a negative relationship between the easy availability of information online and our ability (willingness?) to put in the cognitive work needed to recall that information on our own, and use that information long term. If we know we can “just google” that information, we may be less likely to encode it into long term memory (we may encode how to FIND the information rather than the information itself.)

Often, “just googling” information makes sense, and in some ways this is a useful cognitive strategy: cognitive psychologists talk about “cognitive offloading” – doing something physical to reduce cognitive load demands. I often use google keep notes for this purpose: I make “crib notes” with details I often have to include in emails about research requests, Zoom room numbers for colleagues, and other details. Instead of memorizing the phone number for the car repair shop in my neighborhood, I just have to remember that I can google it quickly. Could I encode and memorize these details? Sure. But just “offloading” them to technology lowers my cognitive load when I have to use these details for repetitive tasks. 

But as teachers, we need to be wary of our students over-using cognitive offloading. There is some information that is so useful for students that we want to encourage them to semantically encode that information into their long-term memory so that they can use it later, and students may not be great at differentiating between information they can safely offload and information they should spend time encoding. 

Some information provides important context as students tackle more difficult questions later, and if students can’t retrieve that contextual information from their long term memories, they may have trouble transferring the information into a new context. When I taught introductory psychology, I eventually figured out that my students needed to understand psychological perspectives REALLY well so that they can use them in later chapters to identify appropriate theories for different research questions. Some colleagues shared clever mnemonic devices with me that might help students memorize the names of the perspectives, but these mnemonics didn’t help students UNDERSTAND the perspectives, so instead of using the mnemonics in class, we spent extra time semantically encoding the meanings of the perspectives so that students could use them later. Students need guidance about what they can safely “offload” and what they need to deeply process. 

This difference may relate to how we assess student learning: there’s a reason why we sometimes ask students to retrieve information without “cues” (e.g. closed book tests) and sometimes we decide it’s fine if students use their notes (or google) instead of retrieving the information from long term memory (e.g. open note tests). Sometimes we deliberately set up assessments that require students to retrieve important information from memory, and this practice can encourage students to encode important information in ways that encourage long term memory, and (potentially) far transfer. We can make assessment decisions in order to communicate to students what information is so important that they need to be able to retrieve it whenever they need to, and what information doesn’t need to be memorized (it can be safely “off loaded” to notes or other resources they use during an assessment). 

The Black Box and Learning


One of my most vivid memories of a lesson in high school involves a class demonstration in my high school chemistry class (hooray for Mr. Emry!). Mr. Emry had a black box on the lab bench at the front of the room. The enclosed plywood box was painted black. There were holes in the front and back large enough for a marble to fit through, but there was no way to look inside the black box to see what was inside. Mr. Emry gathered us around the lab bench to watch what he did: he took a marble, shot it inside one of the holes in the front of the box, and the marble came out one of the holes in the back moving at a completely different angle. Mr. Emry told us to take notes about our observations while he shot the marble several more times at different angles while we took notes about where the marble entered and exited the black box. Eventually, he told us to go back to our benches and try to use our observations to make inferences about the shape of what is inside the box. Some students were able to make correct inferences and draw shapes that were very close to the actual shape inside the box because they did careful observations and note taking. 

I think I remember this demonstration because I’ve used it as a metaphor as a teacher. When I taught high school psychology, I talked about how the brain is like a “black box” in some ways because we have data about what goes “in” (stimuli, experiences, etc.) and what comes “out” (thinking and behavior), but a lot of what actually happens in the brain is still a mystery. We used that idea as a jumping off point to talk about how brain researchers try to look inside the black box of the brain (electrical stimulation, EEG, CAT, fMRI, etc.) But even with all this amazing technology, one of the central mysteries of brain research remains: how do patterns of chains of neurons firing in specific patterns add up to thinking, feeling, and behavior? We know a lot more than we used to about the black box of the brain, but there’s still a lot we can’t see. 

At the beginning of my teaching career, I thought of learning as a “black box problem.” I knew what I did as a teacher, and I could see what kinds of learning occurred as I asked students questions and saw/heard/read what they could do later. But I thought the mechanisms of learning were hidden inside a black box and impossible to observe or discover (side note: if you haven’t read Black and Wiliam’s “Inside the Black Box” article, please stop reading my blog post and just read that instead!) 

In some ways, I still think the black box idea is a useful metaphor for learning. There’s a LOT we can’t know about what is going on inside a student’s mind as they learn. But in other ways, I was wrong: cognitive psychologists know a lot about what’s going on inside the black box of learning, and these insights can be useful for teachers. I think we now have a useful model of what is inside the black box of learning: the basic memory structure of sensory memory, selective attention, working memory, encoding, long term memory, and retrieval (I wrote about that model here). 

Other related references:

I hope every teacher gets access to these kinds of “inside the black box” research findings much faster than I discovered them. I would have been a better teacher if I would have known about and had access to these ideas. 

Retrieval Strength, Storage Strength, and Teaching/Learning

I’ve been thinking about what some researchers call “storage strength” and “retrieval strength,” and I think there may be important implications for how we teach.

Quick Research Summary

“Our memories do not exist on a single spectrum, ranging from completely forgotten to very well remembered. Rather, how memorable something is can be indexed in two ways, as retrieval strength and as storage strength…

Retrieval strength (RS) is a measure of how easily recalled something is currently, given what is relevant to the present situation (does it come to mind now?).

  • The retrieval strength of a given piece of information can be high or low, and can fluctuate back and forth between these values.
  • Retrieval strength is measured by current performance (e.g., answering questions in class, on a test).

Storage strength (SS) is a measure of whether information is deeply embedded or well learned (is it likely to be recalled later?).

  • Barring organic brain damage, storage strength cannot decrease; rather, it is presumed to only accumulate
  • Storage strength cannot be directly measured, but must be inferred: Is that information easily recalled in the future? Or, if you forget that information, does it become faster to relearn it the next time?”

Source: The Learning Scientists blog

“… there are two indices of memory strength: storage strength (SS) and retrieval strength (RS). Storage strength is how well learned something is; retrieval strength is how accessible (or retrievable) something is. To illustrate, imagine four possible situations. If something is well learned (e.g., the address where you have lived for several years), it has both high SS and high RS: You know it well and can retrieve it readily.”

Source: UCLA Bjork Learning and Forgetting Lab

Why this might matter in our classrooms

Our goal is to help students process important ideas and skills so that they can use them in the future (to solve problems, etc.) Since that’s our goal, we want to encourage both Storage and Retrieval Strength for the important knowledge and skills in our curriculum. We should set up learning experiences for students that increase storage strength and retrieval strength for the important stuff. 

Low Storage StrengthHigh Storage Strength
Low Retrieval StrengthForgot instantly! Buried and lost forever (?) 
High Retrieval StrengthCrammed!Mastered!

What can we do to encourage storage strength? 

  • Experiences that encourage students to deeply process material/skills are likely to increase storage strength. We want students to do cognitive work in their working memories that increase the chances that the information will be encoded into long term memory. 
  • The more “connections” students can make between the “new stuff” and “old stuff” already in their long term memory, the more deeply and strongly the new information/skills will be encoded. 
  • Anything you can do that helps students connect the new information to what is already in their long term memories may increase the storage strength (e.g. students generating their own examples based on their experiences, connecting material/skills with their own lives, etc.) 

What can we do to encourage retrieval strength? 

  • The more often students have to recall information and use skills, the stronger the “retrieval strength” will be. These opportunities are called “retrieval practice.”
  • If we want students to “transfer” knowledge and skills (be able to use the knowledge/skills in other contexts), retrieval strength is key!
  • Offering students multiple, low-stakes opportunities to recall information and use skills will help increase retrieval strength, as long as the opportunity actually “forces” students to get that information or skill out of long term memory. These opportunities must be authentic in the sense that each student actually has to recall the information or skill. 
  • Asking a whole class a question and then calling on a student volunteer may be retrieval practice for that volunteer, but probably isn’t for the rest of the class. Asking everyone in class to write down the answer to a question, then asking for a volunteer, or calling on a random student, or doing a think/pair/share is more likely to be retrieval practice for each student. 
  • Retrieval strength is one reason to do a summative assessment (unit tests, etc.). If our goal is that students will be able to retrieve valuable knowledge/skills long after then encoded that information and use it to solve problems, summative assessments can support and reinforce that goal. 
  • Here’s a good 2 minute summary of retrieval practice from a cognitive psychology researcher: Three reasons why retrieval practice boosts learning

NEPC Talks Education: An Interview with Lorrie Shepard About Standardized Testing Policy

A friend (thanks B. Brunsman!) sent me this 30 minute interview with Dr. Lorrie Shepard is an amazing, concise, and clear summary of the current state of large-scale achievement and accountability in the United States. Listen to this whole interview if you’d like a well-researched perspective on:

  • the historical origins of current statewide testing and accountability (Dr. Shepard tells the story clearly and fairly, I think)
  • impacts of the emphasis on testing and “incentives” on schools (restrictions of curriculum and impact on achievement)
  • the fallacy of using statewide testing data to measure “learning loss” because of the pandemic (and clever alternatives to measuring the learning impact of school pandemic closures)
  • alternatives to statewide testing policies (her ideas about sampling make a LOT of sense to me)

I am grateful researchers like Dr. Shepard continue to work towards more humane and useful assessment policies. I hope we can get policy-makers to listen.

Grades: the Rodney Dangerfield of Education

Source: Creative Commons license 

I started teaching in 1992, and I have been working as a district office administrator since 2006. So I’ve been talking and reading and thinking about grades for about 29 years. This quote from Feldman (Grading for Equity) summarizes my experience well: 

“Examining our grading practices can challenge our deepest beliefs about what we know (or think we know) about our teaching, our students, and ourselves.”

Grading feels PERSONAL in a way that not many other education discussions do. Teachers, administrators, students, and parents can talk about all sorts of complicated education issues comfortably, but everyone knows that grades are a “third rail” topic: it’s likely to get intense very quickly. 

In my school district, principals and curriculum specialists have been talking about grading for years and there is a “consensus” document administrators are using to talk with teachers about grading issues. The goal of these conversations is to figure out what grading “rules” should be consistent between classes, what the justifiable differences are between different curriculum and other contexts, and generally what practices we can all agree on to help communicate student learning to parents and students. This might be the most complex conversation we can have in our district, and I’m glad it’s happening mostly with (instead of to) teachers, since teachers are the folks who have to figure out how to actually grade in real classrooms. We have some great references to use for these discussions (like Guskey, Brookhart, Dueck, and many others), but I think the most productive conversations happen when teachers share their gradebooks with other teachers and try to figure out what grading practices should be similar and what should be different. 

One thing that almost all grading scholars agree on is that the traditional percentage and letter based grading system most of us are familiar with – the A-F system of grades based on a percentage scale – is flawed and may get in the way of reporting student knowledge/skills accurately. The A-F grading system has never been based on good research and grading practices in traditional percentage grading systems vary widely (and, sometimes, wildly!) between schools, teachers and districts (this review of the research is pretty comprehensive). 

Traditional, percentage grading systems get very little respect in the research literature, so I was surprised to see this study: 

“High School GPAs and ACT Scores as Predictors of College Completion: Examining Assumptions About Consistency Across High Schools” 

The journal article is behind a paywall and it’s pretty long/technical, but here’s the punchline: by examining a big data set of high school students’ GPAs, ACT scores, and college grades, they found that high school GPAs predicted (were correlated with) college grades as well or better than ACT predicted those same grades. 

This is surprising (at least to me), given what we know about how differently different teachers grade. How can this “wild wild west” of grading practices produce a statistic – GPA – that predicts college success better than the ACT? The ACT company spends millions developing that test, students take the ACT under very controlled decisions, and in general it’s amazing that high school grades have as much predictive “power” as this standardized achievement test. 

So should traditional, percentage based A-F grades get more respect than they do? Maybe. I agree with researchers about the limitations of percentage grading systems, but this study reminds me to think carefully about existing grading practices, and with more respect. Millions of teachers for decades have been trying to figure out how to assign grades, and many of these practices are easy to criticize. But dismissing all the work teachers and schools have done in the past to make percentage based grading systems work might be a mistake. Correlation does not equal causation: a high school GPA doesn’t cause success in college, just like a high ACT score doesn’t cause college achievement. But maybe it’s worth thinking about what the existing “flawed” high school GPA might measure and how that relates to college success? 

Project Based Learning: Let’s Say What we Mean and Mean What We Say

File:Project Based Activities in the Classroom of the Future.jpg (Creative Commons license)

Our education world is filled with terms that mean different things to different people. I’ve written before about the ambiguity of the terms formative assessment,  learning transfer, and brain-based learning/teaching. Any teacher with at least a few years experience can list education terms that are so ambiguous or are used in so many different ways that we have to be careful to define what we mean when we use those terms, especially when someone is advocating for a change in our classrooms. 

I’m currently working with people in my district on a “project based learning” (PBL) discussion, and I want to carefully define what we mean by this term before we start. This overall summary of PBL research by Jill Barshy highlights the importance of careful definitions in PBL. The post quotes a researcher trying to do a comprehensive review of PBL research, who concludes “… it has been difficult to assess whether there is good evidence for project-based learning because there’s so much confusion over what project-based learning is.” 

I suspect every teacher at every level uses something they may call a “project” to help students learn. They are one of the main tools we use to “hook” students and help them experience what it’s like to apply their knowledge and skills to answer a question or produce work that shows application of knowledge and skills to a “real world” issue. Here’s how one source (PBLWorks) defines Project based learning: 

“Project Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge.(see also the “Gold Standard” PBL list from the same source) 

The “extended period of time” part of that definition is kind of vague, but the part of the definition that interests me most is the “gain knowledge and skills” part. Is it better if students get some direct instruction in the knowledge and skills they need BEFORE they try to complete a project? Or is it better if students dive right into a project and learn the knowledge and skills they need “on the fly” WHILE doing the project? 

I suspect the answer (like everything else in education) is “it depends on the context.” This blog post from the Learning Scientists tries to dig into the context of PBL projects and tackle our “should we teach the knowledge/skills before students start the project?” question head on:The Impact of Guided Discovery vs. Didactic Instruction on Learning (The Learning Scientists) In the post, Elham Arabi describes research investigating whether, “withholding the explicit instruction and allowing learners to discover by themselves enhance deep learning and increase transfer.” One important part of the conclusion from that blog post is the distinction between two terms: 

  • Discovery Learning: during a project, students are “left on their own to explore and discover ideas,” without direct instruction in knowledge or skills. Students have to discover the knowledge and skills they need on their own while doing the project. 
  • Guided Discovery: during a project, students “have access to prompts and domain knowledge from experts” (i.e. the teacher). Explicit instruction happens during the project to help students understand the knowledge and skills they need for the project. 

The experiments described in this blog post indicate that Guided Discovery is more effective than Discovery Learning, and that Guided Discovery may have advantages over explicit instruction because it may lead to students being able to transfer what they learn in the project to other applications because they understand the “deep structure” of a topic. 

These studies may help us think through the “knowledge/skills first, or knowledge skills during?” PBL question in my district. We will talk about the difference between Discovery Learning and Guided Discovery and what elements of Guided Discovery might be useful in our specific classroom contexts. 

A Gift For Teachers: Education As A Ratchet

Image source: , Creative Commons, Free for commercial use. No attribution required.

I’m writing this as a gift to teachers. I hope teachers get better gifts than this blog post: thank you notes from students and families, gift certificates to coffee shops, and maybe even a free adult beverage would be way better gifts than a blog post. But this is what I can do right now, and I hope this attempt at a thank you gift (with a special THANKS to my son’s teachers and all the other teachers in Lincoln Public Schools) makes someone smile and feel appreciated.

About 3 years ago I was invited to write a short speech in honor of the third anniversary of our new district office building. I’m still not sure why they asked me to do this, but I ended up writing something I’m proud of. Here’s the full text, and this is the part that stands out to me right now: 

“…we live in a time where the folks in our community give money to support a system that gives every single student access to an amazing variety of important learning experiences. In each of those classrooms, caring adults are working hard to help students discover the wisdom of human civilizations.”

I was trying to make a point that is discussed in a much more detailed way in this amazing Psychology Today blog: “How Culture Makes Us Smarter” . It’s long, but I highly recommend it. In the post, Steve Stewart-Williams walks the reader through “The Ratchet Effect” argument. Brief version of the argument: since humans evolved the ability to communicate orally and in writing, we can stockpile knowledge, skills, etc. over time. It’s like a ratchet: over time we humans can make a knowledge/skill gain – one click forward on the ratchet – and then we can communicate and preserve that knowledge for future humans, so the ratchet can’t click “backwards” and we don’t have to lose progress. Here’s a relevant (and inspirational!) quote from the post: 

“We don’t each need to have our own Eureka moments to understand fluid dynamics; we don’t each need to have an apple fall on our head to understand gravity; and we don’t each need to dream of a snake eating its own tail to understand the structure of the benzene molecule. All we need is to go to school, or to own a library card, or to have an Internet connection. We can then download into our brains some of the achieved knowledge of the species.”

I love this idea and the ratchet analogy. Teachers, here’s the “gift”: it may often feel like all your efforts aren’t helping anyone. You answer thousands of questions every day (really! Thousands!) , provide feedback to hundreds of students, and deal with a huge level of cognitive load while teaching. This year, on top of all that, many (most, I think) teachers got to very quickly learn how to teach online, revise materials for online learning, and many of you got to teach in person students and online students at the same time. I got to experience this “hyflex” teaching model the few times I covered classrooms for teachers, and… wow. I had to write myself notes, keep my “zoomer” students on the same screen as my slides, and all sorts of other cognitive load lessening tricks just to make it through the period. 

So does all this effort add up to anything? You are knocking yourself out mentally and physically – does it do any good? Even if some days it feels like the answer is “No” (or, on the worst days, “Hell no”) , please know that YES, IT DOES! You are part of one of the most amazing systems in the history of humans: the cultural ratchet. You, your work, your brain, your caring, your relationships with students, and all the work you do help nudge that “learning ratchet” one notch forward for students every day. You often can’t see it or measure that impact, but you are doing it. So, THANKS. 

Last thing: I like thinking about the purposes of teaching and education, and this cultural ratchet idea is sticking with me for right now. But there are many other great perspectives on this same topic, and they are super fun to think about too: 

  • Bill Ayers wrote a book called “To Teach” and he writes eloquently about what a teacher’s mission might be. 
  • Nel Noddings argues that the reason teachers teach and we set up schools for students is because we CARE. The “ethic of care” might operate underneath everything we do, and drive our decisions as teachers.