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):

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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.

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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.

The formula for failure.

This year we’ve been pushing a bit in new directions for staff while really trying to support them as we go along.  Just a little reminder as I begin planning for the week ahead, thinking about specific professional development opportunities taking place that will continue to challenge the status quo.

While everyone may not agree or be happy, I don’t think we can forget that if we’re moving in a direction that’s good for kids and they’re learning, we’re going the right way.

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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.