Aha! in Action: Ms. Marks (#3)

Aha! in Action!

Ms. Marks has seven years professional teaching experience in private and charter schools, in New York City, and in Houston, Texas. Ms. Marks wrote about her Aha! experience with a sophomore writer. Marks states, “I observed an Aha! moment that changed the way I view introverts and challenged my beliefs about the speed with which students can progress academically and behaviorally.” The student she refers to transferred into this high school after the beginning of the school year, and the student came with a reputation for being, “a stereotypical jock and a weak, ‘lazy’ student.” The student performed quite poorly in class and was improperly developing his writing style, “dump[ing] quotations into his paragraphs without any context, his analysis was superficial, and his syntax simple and repetitive.” Ms. Marks offered much written feedback, but despite her efforts, nothing appeared to be working. Like many teachers, Ms. Marks admitted that, “it didn't seem like I could reach him.”

When working with this student a bit later into the term, Ms. Marks witnessed something remarkable. She writes,

I focused on one morsel of analysis and praised him for his unique insight into the text; then, I pressed him to go a little deeper. His face lit up – he “took the bait” and was now willing to partake in the Socratic process. His responses to my questioning absolutely blew me away. This kid was sharp and capable! He paused for a second, and said-- this thesis is not very good. And then he paused for a few more seconds and had his second light bulb moment-- he knew what his new thesis should be.

This Aha! moment was the beginning of a series of improvements this student made, each taking fundamental principals a bit further. Ms. Marks was eager to share that, “by the end of the year, he was performing at an A level and was one of my strongest writers!” The experiences of both student and teacher speak to important preconditions in this transformative experience. It is likely that as a new student to a school, beginning later in the year and not at an entry grade level, many insecurities prohibited this student from fully expressing their need and desire for assistance. Ms. Marks mentions stereotypes which suggest other teachers may have been dismissive of this student’s potential. What is interesting here is that Ms. Marks refused to see the situation in this manner, not allowing stereotypes or a student’s limited belief of themselves, to create the final outcome.

Ms. Marks continued to search for leverage, looking to find the special bait that might convert this student’s thinking and beliefs into something more. A morsel of success was met with praise, which allowed for inquiry to go deeper, an Aha! moment to be experienced, and the foundation for heartier Socratic questioning to develop into new patterns of behavior and success to emerge. Note here the teacher’s belief throughout that this student was fully capable to meet the challenge of the class, and yet something more was necessary to truly spark the inner genius of this student.

What’s your Aha!?! Share below and maybe your remarkable story will be featured in a future post.

Historical Instances of Measurement and Intervention in U.S. Schools (Part II)

Historical Instances of Measurement and Intervention in U.S. Schools (Part II)

this article is a continuation of a research entry from the July 30, 2019 edition:

The last two decades of the twentieth century brought greater influence from the federal government, along with greater potential for teachers to become more involved in decisions that might positively affect student outcomes. The Coleman Report, A Nation at Risk, as well as subsequent federal interventions in schools have led to further reform and legislation, but not until Public Law 107 – 110, commonly referred to as No Child Left Behind, did the federal government establish such a dominant presence and focused concern with measurable outcomes. In 2001, the law was introduced to Congress as, “an act to close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so that no child is left behind” (NCLB, 2002, p. 1). The legislation was in effect until a bipartisan congress stripped away the federal requirements in 2015. This law focused on standards- based reforms in education, based on the belief that by setting high standards, making outcomes for students ambitious and clear, creating and monitoring measurable goals, schools and the students within them would experience greater, more consistent achievement (NCLB, 2002). All of these improvements are based on an understanding that the role of teachers would be a primary driver for positive change. In fact, the bill requires schools to attract, retain, and develop, “highly qualified” teachers. This phrase is used more than 60 times throughout the document (NCLB, 2002).

What was most promising about this legislation was the intent to open pathways for creative, innovative, and inspired teacher practices to promote learning outcomes. Thoughtful critics of the law such as Darling-Hammond (2007) acknowledge the potential in NCLB:

While recent studies have found that teacher quality is a critical influence on student achievement, teachers are the most inequitably distributed school resource. This first-time-ever recognition of students’ right to qualified teachers is historically significant. (p. 2)

Highly qualified teachers were the intended change-agents of the hoped-for successes in NCLB, with districts being charged with,

teacher mentoring from exemplary teachers, [...] induction and support for teachers, [...] incentives, including financial incentives, [...] innovative professional development programs, [...] tenure reform, merit-based pay programs, and testing of elementary school and secondary school teachers in the academic subjects that the teachers teach. (p. 1632)

However, where federal measures aimed to reverse negative trends and improve student outcomes, the emphasis on quality teachers and teaching quality still did not receive the attention necessary to dramatically increase student achievement and narrow the achievement gap in American schools. Generally speaking, critics have pointed out that the implementation of the law was in many respects counterproductive because it (a) did not adequately account for accumulated effects of mismanaged or underfunded schools, (b) narrowed the curriculum, precisely the opposite of what sensitive and nimble teaching practices ought to do when adjusting to students in their particular situations, and (c) brought too much focus upon testing and other measurement mechanisms. The most explicit feature of the law were the unpopular standardized tests, along with tactics like “drill and kill” for test preparation, which displaced creative attempts to nurture student learning and cognitive potential (Darling-Hammond, 2007; Dee & Jacob, 201; Hanushek & Raymond, 2005; Ladd & Lauen, 2010; Rustique-Forrester, 2005; Sunderman, Tracey, Kim & Orfield 2004).

Instead of placing teachers at the center of processes for better informing learning outcomes, and placing greater emphasis on surface, deep, and transfer-appropriate thinking strategies, schools and the teachers within them succumbed to the symptoms of surface processing, short-term memorization prioritization, and the hostile environment of overtaxing students with tests (Darling-Hammond, 2007). Rather than removing barriers that continue to obstruct learning potential in schools and open more opportunities for creative thinking, more frequent Aha! experiences, as well as more holistic means of supporting the development of a child’s full potential, the American education system remained unchanged from its former industrial model of generalized goals accompanied by generalized processes.

Aha! in Action: Ms. Holmes (#2)

Ms. Holmes has 25 years of professional teaching experience, working as an adjunct professor in a university, a private and public elementary, middle, and high school teacher in southern Maine, rural northern Maine, New Hampshire, Boston, Massachusetts, and now in Houston, Texas. Ms. Holmes was emphatic in her narrative about a particular story during her first year of teaching in Houston, Texas, which occurred 9 years ago. Ms. Holmes had a beginning photography class, “full of senior boys who were taking their last arts credit in order to graduate.” Holmes recalls her transformative Aha! with her students:

The “moment” came when a student, who was considered to be problematic and barely passing his academic classes, looked at the first roll of film he had just processed. The film was perfectly exposed, rolled and processed, he the only kid in class who had not made one mistake. He was so amazed that he had earned the title “Best in Class,” something he hadn't experienced in [high school], it changed everything. He took film home every night to take photos just for fun, not for an assignment, and would come to tutorials (after school support) once a week to work in the darkroom. None of his other teachers believed me when I told them he was my favorite student and the hardest working kid in all of my classes. It changed the way I looked at each kid!

Ms. Holmes was clearly impacted by this moment, and the positive effect has transformed her current practice. She writes,

I now take each kid at face value and ignore any negative feedback from other teachers (even though the teachers mean well and are giving me “insider information” so that I'm [supposedly] prepared). I take every chance I can to celebrate the small successes along the way for each student, and to help them realize that practice makes you better when they are disappointed in a failure.

Ms. Holmes’ innocent faith in her student provided the necessary preconditions for the project to develop, for without this grace, the student clearly would have followed similar habits formed with other teachers. Further, her continued insistence with colleagues provided a metaphorical wall and created a secure environment for exploration and development of the student’s work. More than informing their different independent approaches, in this case the student and the teacher became codependent authors of their mutual successes. One needed the other, and neither would have experienced an Aha! moment without the belief that arose from the other. Way to go, Ms. Holmes. Your inspired story is another amazing Aha! in Action! changed the way I looked at each kid!
— Ms. Holmes

Now You See Me, Now You Don't: The Hidden Truth In Our Faces!

Facial Expression and Emotion (and the hidden truth of our faces)

Paul Ekman (1993) examines cross-cultural research on facial expression, seeking to elucidate further understanding about four key questions: (1) “What information does an expression typically convey? (2) Can there be emotion without facial expression? (3) Can there be a facial expression of emotion without emotion? (4) How do individuals differ in their facial expressions of emotion?” (p. 384) Ekman reaffirms the cross-cultural agreement on six primary areas of universal categorization of facial expression: fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and enjoyment. Ekman also makes clear that further research is necessary to explain, “the question of what the face can signal, not what information it typically does signal” (p. 387). Important to this dissertation is Ekman’s assertion that, “facial expressions are more likely to occur when someone sees or hears a dynamic (moving) event and the beginning of the event is marked rather than very slow and gradual” (p. 388). Ekman claims that sometimes the only expression of emotion a person may exhibit might come from an area of the body other than the face, such as, “the voice, posture, or other bodily action” (p. 388). Ekman goes further by claiming that there is a possibility for an emotion to transpire without a facial or observable change in expression (p. 389). It may be that in situations where someone shows little or no observable change in expression that the emotional connection is weak, not present at all, or not entirely transferable to the person being observed. It is important to note that change may indeed be occurring, but these changes may be sub-visible, taking place at the micro-muscular level, indicating autonomic nervous system activity that is only detectable through sophisticated measurements with electromyography (EMG) sensors. Tomkins (1963) reports that facial activity is always part of an emotion, even when its appearance is inhibited. This could be based on cultural differences or any variety of other factors. The intensity of the emotional reception is somewhat correlated with the fidelity of the expression.


Ekman (1985/2009, 1992, 1993) reports that individuals can experience emotion without observable changes in facial expression. Sometimes a person will respond to a stimulus with a head nod, a clenched fist, change in posture, or by walking toward or away from a situation. Even more intriguing is the change in expression that can be communicated through spoken words and audible vocalizations (i.e., moans, screams, or sighs), without necessarily expressing a visible change in the face. Ekman (1993) shows that it is equally true that a person can fabricate an expression of emotion without actually feeling an emotion (p. 390). Ekman states that, “although false expressions are intended to mislead another person into thinking an emotion is felt when it is not, referential expressions are not intended to deceive” (p. 390). It is most common to use referential expressions when referring to previous emotional experiences, specifically not experiences being felt currently. Examples of false emotional expressions aside from referential expressions are generally understood to be examples of deception. Efforts to deceive can be harmful or beneficial. A lie can conceal an important truth that harms a person in some manner. However, a lie can also allow a comedian to deliver a punchline at the appropriate time to maximize the intended comical effect, or give someone the courage to push past their fears when facing the insurmountable task of asking someone else to be their Valentine. The key is to fabricate expressions without specific emotional impetus.

Facial Action Coding System

Ekman and Friesen (1978/2002) published the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) manual, with a robust revision in 2002. This publication is a comprehensive guide for measuring facial expressions and behaviors. The manual includes the complete 527-page guide to various facial expressions, a 197-page investigator’s guide, a score checker protocol (included for the FACS test, published and sold separately), and a variety of example photos and videos are also included. The manual is a comprehensive system for describing all observable facial movements; it breaks down facial expressions into individual components of muscle movements that represent changes in behavior and emotional response to a given stimulus. Subsequent publications have featured subtle and microexpressions. Whether you can see them or not, there are a great many truths hidden in the expressions of our faces. Are you looking closely enough to find them?!

FACS 2.jpg

Structure of the Observed Learning Outcomes (SOLO): A Taxonomical Bridge

Structure of the Observed Learning Outcomes: A Taxonomical Bridge

Teaching practice is better informed with the knowledge of surface and deep processing, its role in learning, and the transfer-appropriate potential for student achievement in schools. However, these subsurface processes represent styles of thinking and learning – not necessarily physical behavior. In order for teachers to more fully utilize this information and synthesize strategies that support developing these processes, a correlated taxonomy will be useful. The Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome (SOLO) taxonomy is a widely recognized and accepted tool for showing changes in complexity of understanding. McMahon and Garrett (2016) report that,

SOLO is a useful contemporary tool that incorporates ... aspects of former taxonomies (Bloom, Engelhart, Furst, Hill, & Krathwohl, 1956; Merrill, 1971; Gagne, 1977/1984) in that it studies the cognitive complexities of a learner’s response to a given learning stimulus... [SOLO] emphasizing the observation of student learning cycles to describe the structural complexity of a particular response to a learning situation through five different levels: prestructural, unistructural, multistructural, relational, and extended abstract. (p. 422)

This approach more thoroughly examines changes in thinking by addressing changes in observed behavior. Just as Aha! moments represent sudden and unexpected cognitive illumination when a solution is found, along with their observable correlates, SOLO taxonomy represents a classification tool for the physiological behavior in learners as it changes over the complete cognitive continuum. This rubric for progression is a practical framework for teachers to evaluate achievement, “in a language that is generally applicable across the curriculum” (Biggs & Collis, 1989, p. 151). SOLO taxonomy is a form of measuring students’ understanding of subjects, from the introduction of a concept to a student’s expertise with it.

According to Biggs and Collis (1982/2014), who first introduced this taxonomy, SOLO is, “based on the observation that, over a large variety of tasks and particularly school based tasks, learners display a consistent sequence, or ‘learning cycle,’ in the way they go about learning them” (p. 152). In essence, as a learner moves from a superficial understanding of the components of a concept towards a deeper processing of the concept’s features, the taxonomy accurately shows these progressions in a manner that makes learning more easily observed by teachers. The final mode in the SOLO taxonomy suggests learners’ ability to extend comprehension into a final transfer-application understanding. The SOLO spectrum from prestructural to extended abstract is also analogous to the cognitive change represented when introducing a stimulus to a learner through to the development of an Aha! moment. Biggs and Collis (1989) discuss congruency among similar theories that support neo-Piagetian models (Case, Hayward, Lewis, & Hurst, 1988; Fischer, 1980; Fischer & Pipp, 1984; Halford, 1982), distinguishing, “between learning and development in a way similar to that suggested here [SOLO] with their terms ‘optimal level’ (the last mode reached) and ‘skill acquisition’” (p. 157).

Hunt, Walton, Martin, Haigh, and Irving (2015) studied the implications of school-wide adoption and application of the SOLO taxonomy to inform teaching and learning in a secondary environment. Hattie and Purdie (1994) were among the first to show that SOLO taxonomy is useful and effective for training teachers on how to structure questions, design activities, and to matriculate through modes of learning along the SOLO hierarchy in multiple curricular areas. Hattie and Purdie also showed that teachers indicated using SOLO taxonomy for accomplishing learning objectives, surface and deep processing, and found it much easier and more effective to use. Hattie, Clinton, Thompson, and Schmidt-Davis (1997) indicate in their research that,

expert teachers are more likely to lead students to deep rather than surface learning. These teachers will structure lessons to allow the opportunity for deep processing, set tasks that encourage the development of deep processing, and provide feedback and challenge for students to attain deep processing. (p. 54)

SOLO seems to promote stronger deep processing effects for teachers and with students, likely due to a reliable and understandable hierarchy for witnessing change in a learner’s thinking and cognition. In all of these studies, it is clear that surface and deep processing strategies are embedded into practices that are reflected through SOLO, and opportunities to inform and improve teaching practice are present.