Five Levers of Learning: Strategy

As an admin team we are reading Tony Frontier’s and James Rickabaugh’s Five Levers of Learning.  The book describes five “levers” schools usually pull when trying to enact change, noting that some are better than others at enacting transformational change – the change that really makes a difference in student learning.  The five levers are: structure, sample, standards, strategy, and self.

We are currently reading the chapter on strategy, which is kind of where I live as a curriculum director – just because you have a well-aligned curriculum written down doesn’t mean a thing unless the right strategies for implementation are being used in the classroom.  Below are some ideas that resonated with me regarding strategy as a lever for transformational change:

  • “We find too many teachers paying attention to the instructional procedures they use, rather than what happens to their students as a result of their procedures.”  This is a quote from James Popham used in the chapter to encourage teachers to link the strategies they’re using to student learning.  Just because a good strategy is used in a classroom doesn’t mean it’s going to cause a noticeable increase in student learning; teachers need to be aware of the impact their strategies have on moving students toward mastery.
  • “Simply identifying, communicating, and then expecting the use of more effective instructional strategies is not enough to influence teacher expertise or improve student learning.”  One main point Frontier and Rickabaugh make in the chapter is that for students to really incorporate strategies into their everyday practice, just telling teachers to use strategies deemed “effective” and expect them to use them is just not enough.  Teachers are learners too, and they need the time (a lot of it!) and the space to develop expertise in using the strategies.  And “expertise” means figuring out when and with what students the strategies are most effective for learning.
  • “To what extent do we find teachers waiting for students to change rather than improving or adding to their repertoire of instructional strategies?”  This is a question posed at the end of the chapter to “ask on Monday morning.”  As teachers, we can only control the things within our control.  The inescapable fact of teaching is that our students will always come to us with different levels of understanding, different background knowledge, different experiences, different home lives, different socioeconomic levels.  When they are all sitting in front us in our classrooms we can’t control anything that happened before they got there…so why has it been tradition to point to those factors as the reason students aren’t learning?  We can’t change those things.  We have to focus on what we can control, which is our choice of instructional strategies that maximize student learning.

The “what” vs. the “how” of teaching

One part of my job is to lead discussions about the implementation of new learning standards adopted by the state.  Recently, our state approved new social studies standards, and with the way they are arranged (read = lumped together in a 6-8 group) at the middle-school level, it can be a bit of a hurdle to decide what to teach and what grade level.

And that’s the question that first comes to teacher’s minds, isn’t it, when looking at new standards or courses or programs – What will we teach the students?

I think we should examine a different question first:

How will we teach so all students can be successful learners?

 

To me, the “what” usually takes care of itself.  The “how” is the essential question that really needs to be answered.  To clarify that during curriculum discussions around new standards, I usually start with the questions below:

  1. What do we need to start doing?
  2. What do we need to stop doing?
  3. What do we value more – content acquisition or skill acquisition?

It’s that last question that serves as a lead-in to discussing the instructional shifts that need to take place in order to really implement the standards, to let teachers see that they will need to teach in a way that allows students to be successful rather than just memorize a bunch of content they will quickly forget.

In the end, the “what” of teaching isn’t the goal.  The “how” of teaching is.

Some timely essential questions

This week we were lucky enough to visit another nearby school district’s extended services program for students that need more academic challenge.  In one classroom I saw these essential questions posted on the wall, always referenced during various lessons no matter what the subject area (when we were watching, they were being referenced during an opening unit on slavery):

essential-questions

Right now in the United States, I think these are essential questions we all need to stop and take a few minutes to ponder.