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.

Different doesn’t mean wrong. Sometimes different is what we need.

From Will Richardson’s post Zen and the Art of School Change:

And the idea that schools (meaning the people in them) do this for “the perpetuation of their own functions” is absolutely true. If we truly were to move agency over learning to the learner and hew to the truths about learning, our functions would radically, fundamentally change. Teacher wouldn’t be teacher. The architectures of schooling would be seen as barriers to learning, not as paths to efficiency. The narrative would have to be completely rewritten. But the reality is we’d rather be “better” than “different” because the former doesn’t require huge change.

It’s that last line that resonates with me.  In my job, it’s all about better scores, better instruction, better strategies, better curriculum.

But when I suggest things in classrooms need to be different for them to be better, I am often met with resistance.  That’s because there’s a huge mindset shift with different.  There’s the realization that things need to be totally redone with different.  There’s the idea that different means a lot more work.

But that different work is in the direction of what’s better for kids.  And that’s why we’re in education, isn’t it?

Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Sometimes it’s just the idea we need to stop doing the same things and expecting different results.

light-bulbs-1125016_1280

Teaching right answers is not the purpose of school.

A quick thought that was spoken to me today by an educator whom I respect highly:

“If you’re just teaching students how to get the right answer, you’re not teaching them to be good at whatever subject area it is.  You’re just teaching them to be good at school.”

This reminded me of the long-term purpose of school set forth by Wiggins and McTighe :

Learning for understanding requires that curriculum and instruction address three different but interrelated academic goals: helping students (1) acquire important information and skills, (2) make meaning of that content, and (3) effectively transfer their learning to new situations both within school and beyond it.

Our students are stuffed with out-of-context stuff.  Help them learn how to use that stuff.

Help students make connections. 


A chemistry teacher at our high school allowed me into her classroom to model how to use concept mapping with students. Today was the first day of the second semester, so we chose to work on some concepts that students weren’t getting as shown by their final exams. After showing them an example of a concept map, students were asked to make a concept map out of the chosen words in poster paper, give feedback on other students’ maps, and then provide evidence that they knew the connections between them. 


Here’s why concept maps are so awesome:

1. They help students practice making connections. Connections are how the brain remembers things. Too often we give notes and expect students to magically make connections when they’ve never actually had practice in doing so. Concept maps give students time to work on the “making connections” skill, especially when students must label he lines between words with why they are connecting those words. 

2. They allow for students to make meaning in their own way. There’s never one right answer to a concept map-only better connections than others. Getting students to recognize and discuss the difference between shallow and deep connections after making and looking at other students’ maps is a powerful thing. A word of caution – if you always hand out black line masters of concept maps for students to fill in, they’re not making meaning; they’re just filling in another worksheet. 

3. They give students a visual of their own understanding. Making the map itself can be a visual hook for remembering and connecting during later learning. 

4. They are an excellent assessment tool-both formative and summative. Walk around while students are making their maps, and it’s a great way to get a read on what students really understand. You can see if they are making surface or deep connections, or if they’re stuck making connections at all. I used to make students make concept maps for final exams to see if they really saw how everything we had studied was related. They are also useful pre-assessments, where you can ask students to connect critical vocabulary before instruction to see what they already know. 

Concept maps are a fantastic tool to put in students’ meaning-making toolbox. We need to use strategies like this to help students practice the skills they really need to be life-long learners.