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.

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.

If it doesn’t look radically different, you’re not really doing it.

I attended a workshop earlier in the year regarding NGSS instruction, and something that was flashed on the presenter’s screen has stuck with me every since:

If instruction doesn’t look radically different, you’re not really doing it.

I think this is true regarding a lot of what’s seen in education today. We think we’re innovating, doing things differently, but we’re really doing the same old things in the same old context using the same thinking we’ve been using for the last 100+ years in education.

“Well, we do that…but we do it this way.”

“We started doing that, but we can’t do a lot of it because of all the content we have to cover.”

“We can only do it this way because our test scores may suffer.”

Test scores will be fine.  Students will learn what they are supposed to learn (and a lot of what’s in content standards they will never need for their lives, anyway).  If we really want to students to do real learning, we have to get beyond the obstacles we think are in our way under the traditional system and starting doing things the way they need to be done for real learning to happen.

And that means doing things radically differently.

 

Confusion for deeper learning

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From John Spencer’s recent post “Should school be more confusing?”, where he quotes Ann Murphy Paul regarding confusion in learning:

“We short-circuit this process of subconscious learning, however, when we rush in too soon with an answer. It’s better to allow that confused, confounded feeling to last a little longer—for two reasons. First, not knowing the single correct way to resolve a problem allows us to explore a wide variety of potential explanations, thereby giving us a deeper and broader sense of the issues involved. Second, the feeling of being confused, of not knowing what’s up, creates a powerful drive to figure it out. We’re motivated to look more deeply, search more vigorously for a solution, and in so doing we see and understand things we would not have, had we simply been handed the answer at the outset.”

As I discussed in a previous post, this is a new mental model for some teachers.  They will have to unlearn the “my job is to make learning easy” model and adopt the “it’s OK if students are confused” model.  The main issue I see with this is that sense of loss that teachers will feel – a loss of feeling needed, a loss of feeling like they are “teaching” if they’re not the ones in the front of the room leading every single minute of class time and marching students through a series of steps and activities that make logical sense to us but where the students are going through the motions, not making connections because all of the thinking has been done for them.

What we have to remember is that learning doesn’t happen when we’re the ones talking at students; students can only learn when they’re doing the work of learning.  And that work involves setting up those confusing mysteries, student dialogue, mistake-making experiences that students have to do and explore.

That work happens outside of the classroom.  Inside the classroom, students are doing the work rather than watching teachers do their jobs, encountering confusion and learning deeper in the process.

It’s a lot of work for both students and teachers – but, again, it’s not supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be worth it.

G+ Communities for Professional Growth

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Our district recently set up Google+ Communities for our staff.  Currently we have two communities set up, one for our PreK through 5th grade staff, and another for our 6th grade through high school staff.

Why did we do this?  Well, for a lot of reasons:

  1. Creating a district culture. There are four buildings in our district – one for PreK-2, one for 3-5, one for 6-8, and one for 9-12.  Even though the buildings are all geographically close (two of them are even connected), ideologically, culturally, and pedagogically, they are sometimes worlds apart.  Creating online communities that combine buildings is an attempt to bring those worlds a little closer together, with staff interacting in an asynchronously so there is no need to carve out time during the school day for that interaction to happen.
  2. Magnifying the positive.  One of my goals is to take the positive that is already there and magnify it, letting it run rampant and causing good wherever it goes.  What better way to do that than creating a space where teachers can share all the good stuff they do in their own classrooms?
  3. Making professional growth the norm.  Along with all that sharing of goodness, Google+ communities within an educational G Suite domain are a private space where teachers can have conversations about what they do in their classrooms and why they do it, providing and/or sparking ideas among all staff.  While developing a PLN of educators around the world is always a fantastic idea, sometimes the best ideas for helping a teacher grow in their practice are locate right next door to their own classroom.
  4. Building relationships in an online space. These G+ Communities allow teachers, principals, and district administrators to engage in dialogue that normally might not happen.  I know I always have every intention of getting out and about into classrooms, but then end up getting pulled back into my office because of some situation that arises.  However, if I’m in front of my computer, I can interact with teachers and other administrators that are posting at any time.  I’m not saying this is a replacement for face-to-face interaction, but I feel it can offer another avenue to build relationships when time is always in short supply.
  5. Modeling technology expectations. Everyone is responsible for growing, and I believe it’s a responsibility of administration to model how to do that.  That means participating in these G+ Communities is a chance for administrators to model what growth in this day and age looks like, posting and discussing and growing out in the digital open.

While the expectation is that all teachers join one of our two communities, there is no expectation to post.  If some feel comfortable posting, fantastic.  If others just want to lurk and get good ideas from their colleagues, that’s great too.  Whatever use they get out of it will be a good one, as long as everyone is growing together.

Because that’s how good district become great – they never ever settle, and never stop growing.

Help students be good at life.

Below is a quote from this KQED MindShift article titled “Why Academic Teaching Doesn’t Help Kids Excel in Life:”

Today, I think most kids graduate only knowing if they’re good at school or not. Often our students have many talents; they just don’t fit in our current curriculum because their talents are likely not considered “real knowledge.” And what is that? In the Biology curriculum that I’ve taught for the past several years, one of the objectives that my students need to know is earthworm reproduction. Really? Out of all the things we could be teaching a 17-year-old about biology, someone (a whole panel of someones, we can guess) decided earthworm reproduction was essential?

I am one of 5 siblings, and I am the only one who entered public education as a long-term career.  My brother works in construction, my twin sister works for a major IT company, another sister own her own karate studio, and yet another sister is a police officer.

Not one of them needs or has ever needed to know or use 95% of what I taught my 9th graders when I was teaching high school science.  And I’m pretty sure most of my students didn’t need most of what I taught them either.

So why do we teach what we teach? (Back to those pesky “why” questions…)

Most of what we teach is mandated to us in the form of standards that are mostly what academics need to know.  How we teach that academic stuff most of the time, unfortunately, only teaches students how to be good at school.

We can do better.

At the end of the article, the author (a teacher) suggests a more constructivist approach, with students answering these three questions in her classroom:

  • What are you going to learn?
  • How are you going to learn it?
  • How are you going to show me you’re learning?

Imagine what powerful learning can happen if classrooms were focused around those three questions using mandated standards as a vehicle for this learning.  Imagine the ownership, not only of ideas and concepts, but over the process of learning that can happen in classrooms set up around those three questions.  Imagine how many students will find their passions in life answering these questions (and think about how many of your students found their passions filling out a worksheet or taking a multiple-choice test).

Imagine. Then make it a reality.

Yes, we have to teach certain stuff that students will never ever need or use. But no one says we have to teach it like we’ve been teaching for the past 100+ years or so.  Let’s start teaching so students will be good at life.