Monthly Archives: June 2017

Math Problems?

In a new series aimed at closing the gap between research and practice, Usable Knowledge is partnering with Digital Promise on a project that collects real questions from educators across the country and poses them to faculty members at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The series, called Ask a Researcher, offers evidence-based guidance to classroom dilemmas in the areas of literacy, mathematics, and English language learning, giving teachers credible strategies to enhance student learning. (Questions are gathered from educators in Ditigal Promise’s League of Innovative Schools; plans are developing to solicit questions more broadly.)

Here, we share an excerpt of questions and answers in mathematics, with links to the full series.

Q: For struggling math learners, how can teachers fill in the gaps and teach on grade level, all in one year?

Keep these two goals separate, advises Jon Star. Devote instructional time daily to filling gaps by giving students opportunities to revisit past content. Then consider ways to modify the complexity of new content, by using “easier” numbers, fewer fractions, and more straightforward problems. “This way, struggling students can begin to grasp the important ideas of the new material without being handicapped by their fragile understanding of the ‘old,'” Star says. Read Star’s full answer.

Q: How do you build students’ math confidence? 

Recognize, and work to counteract, the prevailing binary narrative about math, says Noah Heller: Either you’re good at it or you’re not good at it. “If students have received negative feedback on assessments, if they’ve been placed in lower math tracks, or if they misunderstand the content, then oftentimes, they think they’re bad at math,” Heller says. “One way to change this assumption is to create a classroom culture where errors become learning opportunities.” Also: try to de-emphasize answers and spend more time on reasoning, making math class more discursive, less about coming to a single answer. Read Heller’s complete answer.

Q: What assessment strategies are most effective for improving math learning? 

Based on the paucity of rigorous evidence showing the impact of formative assessment, “I’m not optimistic about teachers studying formal student data, and, if I were a principal, I’d put my eggs in another basket,” says Heather Hill. “For instance, I’d probably think about coaching teachers to be more aware of students’ in-classroom work product and cues.” The answer to improved learning probably lies in a package of pedagogical techniques, one that includes formative assessment strategies but also new tasks and student-centered teaching methods, including time spent on open-ended, cognitively complex problems. Read Hill’s full answer.

When Reading with Harder

For years, we’ve thought that the answer to boosting adolescent reading comprehension lay in building students’ vocabulary. Teens often struggle with the jargon and advanced terminology they encounter as they move into middle and high school, so educators have designed curricula and interventions that explicitly teach these complex words.

But these strategies aren’t always fully effective, according to literacy researcher Paola Uccelli. As she writes, many of these interventions have yielded “significant growth in vocabulary knowledge yet only modest gains in reading comprehension.” Too many teens still struggle to understand assigned texts.


Uccelli’s research explores a new approach. By focusing on how words connect in academic texts — and by recognizing that this connecting language is a possible source of difficulty for adolescent readers — teachers may be better able to equip middle and high school students with the tools to comprehend the texts they’re reading for higher-order learning.

Her work identifies a set of language features that are common in academic text but rare in informal spoken language. She’s found that many of the most common language features of middle school texts are unknown to large proportions of students, even by eighth grade. This is relevant for pedagogy, she says, because many of these language challenges are invisible to educators, curriculum designers, and researchers.


Too often, says Uccelli, students learn about language in isolation, memorizing vocabulary in one lesson and studying grammar and sentence structure in another. Of course, students need to understand technical terms — “isotope” in a chemistry textbook, “colonize” in a history article — but this knowledge is insufficient if students don’t understand how pieces of language relate to each other to create meaning.

In another article, Uccelli showcases the difficulties that academic texts can pose for students:

The scientific agreement today is that the Earth’s surface temperatures have increased in recent decades. Moreover, most scientists agree that it is extremely likely that humans are causing this problem through activities that increase concentrations of greenhouse gases.

To understand the text, students have to know the definitions of “greenhouse gases” and “concentrations.” But those clarifications won’t elucidate the whole passage: Students also need to understand that “this problem” refers to increasing surface temperatures, and that “moreover” signifies that the second sentence builds on the first.

Knowing how to unlock these connecting concepts is particularly important when reading academic texts, which use language far differently than we use it as speakers. When we talk through complicated subjects, we can use simple sentence structures, aided by tools such as hand movements, intonation, and enactment. But when there are only words on a page to explain these ideas precisely and concisely, the language structures often get complex, and students can grow confused when faced with these dense constructions. Paradoxically, the academic language features meant to supportprecise communication can obstruct comprehension if readers are unfamiliar with them.

How Bullying Looks to Teens

We asked teenagers from around the country to share their thoughts on why bullying happens, what it takes to be an ally, and how schools can promote kindness. Drawing on their daily experiences at middle and high school, teenagers Sophie Bernstein from Missouri, Lily Horton from California, Nadya Khan from New Jersey, Katie Wong from California, and Ricky Yoo from Georgia provided firsthand insight for the adults working to end bullying and create welcoming schools. The teens are part of the Youth Advisory Board (YAB) at Making Caring Common, an initiative of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

We all know that bullying, teasing, and exclusion are wrong. So why do you think young people still bully, tease, and exclude their peers? And why do you think it’s so hard for students to stand up to cruelty?

Nadya: High school does a very good job of making teens feel as though their school is the entire world. Bullying is so prevalent, in my opinion, because teens want to feel superior in that bubble of their school. So it is common that they bring other people down in order to rise in superiority and popularity. On the other hand, students may find it hard to stand up for themselves or their peers when they are experiencing harassment because they are afraid of the popularity of the bully hurting them.

Katie: In my opinion, young people continue to bully, tease, and exclude their peers because they feel insecure with themselves, or they feel intimidated by their target. It is difficult for them to stand up for each other because they are afraid of being ostracized. While standing up for each other is deemed a good thing, it takes courage to stray from the norm because the social aspects of middle and high school stress the importance of fitting in.

Sophie: We’ve seen from preschool children to President Trump that if bullying behavior is condoned, it continues. Students need to be taught how to stand up for each other and given the skill set to stop bullying.

Lily: People who put others down can often come across as “cool” or “superior,” which prevents others from standing up for the people being bullied. People might not want to stand up to a bully because they want to be accepted and don’t want to be bullied themselves.

What does it take to be an ally, and to speak up against bullying when you see it?

Ricky: I think it takes courage and a sense of what is morally just. You have to be brave enough to take a stand for what is right, no matter the consequences.

Katie: Choosing to stand up for somebody is something that many teens have struggled with. Some feel afraid of making the “wrong” decision, socially. If a student chooses to become an ally, they must be ready to face repercussions, but also should feel proud of their decision to make positive change.

Nadya: It may be hard, but your actions to help someone in need can overpower anything and everything negative. If you are a good person and know that what you are doing is helping someone, then all the negative tension from the situation cannot hurt you.

Lily: I think that being an ally is simply standing up for something you believe is right. If you see someone being bullied, you should understand that it isn’t okay and that you need to stand up for that person. All it takes is letting someone know that what she is saying is mean and not okay. You can often stop the bullying by simply acknowledging how wrong it is.

What do you wish your school were doing differently to create an environment without bullying, teasing, and exclusion — a place where students could express themselves for who they are without fear?

Nadya: Whether it be through posters or morning announcements, I would like to see/hear my school administration stressing the importance of kindness and inclusion in school.

Lily: I think my school should do a better job of encouraging people to embrace who they are, rather than who they think others want them to be. I think my school should support people to express themselves without being scared of what people might think.

Ricky: I feel like more adult-youth engagement could facilitate an environment where victims of bullying are able to reach for help when needed. Adult faculty can serve both as teachers and as mentors. Having an adult figure in one’s life is important. It makes sense. They usually have experienced more and know more than teenagers. Having insight from an adult could help teenagers handle the pressure of school life.

Sophie: I think every school receiving federal funds should be mandated to have a mission statement that includes antibullying clauses, and every student should have to sign a form to stop bullying when they see it or know of it happening.

Katie: I wish we could have a designated spot or club on campus that offered a discreet but fun place to make new friends and express yourself openly, among other people who feel the same way as you. I think it is important to offer other activities, such as lunchtime art or card making for veterans, which are different from traditional spirit events. This would help everyone feel represented at school and know that there is a safe community waiting for them with open arms.

Responses have been edited for clarity and length.


  • A strategy guide [PDF] for schools looking to build a student-led School Climate Committee
  • Meet this year’s Youth Advisory Board
  • Reflections from the YAB on the 2016 presidential election
  • Connect with the YAB by following Making Caring Common on Facebook and Twitter and searching the hashtag #MCCYoungLeaders

Raising Kind Children

Families foster kindness and respect at home by setting expectations for manners, sharing, and helping with chores. And families hope, often with a tinge of worry, that children will continue those behaviors when parents and caregivers aren’t nearby: in the school cafeteria, at a friend’s house, or on Instagram and Snapchat.

But guiding children to be empathetic and ethical in their independent lives — even when no one is looking — can be more intentional than that. Here, a set of parenting strategies for teaching children to think ethically, care about the people around them, and create positive change in the world. These resources were developed by Making Caring Common (MCC), a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

To guide ethical thinking:

  • Discuss ethical dilemmas you have encountered at work, with friends, or running errands. Ask your children what they would have done in that situation.
  • Talk about ethical dilemmas your children might face in the classroom, at lunch, or during recess. Brainstorm (and role-play) possible solutions.
  • Encourage your children to see conflicts from another person’s perspective. Discuss ways they can compromise between their needs and those of others.

To foster concern for others:

  • Encourage your children to really listen to siblings or peers when they are upset, especially if they don’t initially understand that person’s views.
  • Ask children to consider the perspectives of people they don’t usually talk to: a new student at school, a student who is often teased, a student experiencing family trouble, or a student of a different race or religion.
  • Discuss hardships you see on the news, and talk about the experiences, challenges, and feelings of people who live in different places around the world.
  • Complete this circle of concern activity.

To teach children to be change-makers:

  • Inspire children to take action around issues that affect them and their peers, such as school uniform policies, transgender students’ rights, or the healthfulness of school lunches.
  • Distinguish the importance of “doing with” others from “doing for” others. Encourage children to respond to community problems by working with and listening to a diverse group, rather than spearheading new initiatives without any guidance. This is particularly relevant for high school students seeking “community service” opportunities as part of their college-application process; parents can guide children to take a richer, more meaningful approach to volunteer work.
  • Model that communal approach — and the importance of service. Volunteer together at a food drive, or set aside a day as a family to donate unwanted clothes and toys.