It’s Time For The Field Of Education To Step Up To The Plate

westman leadup now image

This post was originally published on LeadUpNow.


One of the best parts about being an instructional coach is learning from other teachers. Like today, when one of our math and STEM teachers, Fil Dudic, stopped by to talk about two of our favorite topics: education and The Chicago Cubs.

Ok, I admit, I’m not a die-hard Cubs fan like the rest of my family, but I certainly like all that goes along with the Cubs: hot dogs, getting sunburnt in the bleachers, singing Go, Cubs, Go. But, until this conversation with Fil piqued my interest, I knew very little about the team or the game of baseball in general.

As Fil and I discussed the Cubs, Fil quoted Cubs Coach Joe Madden’s statement about themes for the Cubs 2017 season, “It’s really important to be uncomfortable. If you become a comfortable person, I think that subtracts growth from the equation” Fil was struck by this comment as it also applies to much of the work we are currently doing in the field of education.

As Fil and I dove down the rabbit hole of educational topics we have grown so fond of visiting, we landed again on one of our favorite topics: the application of research and use of data in education.

I told Fil about a compelling Ted Talk I watched recently Our failing schools. Enough is Enough!  by Geoffrey Canada. In his Ted Talk, Canada gives a compelling call-to-action, urging us to look critically at our system and practices:

Look, you go into a place that’s failed kids for 50 years, and you say, “So what’s the plan?” And they say, “We’ll, we’re going to do what we did last year this year.” What kind of business model is that? Banks used to open and operate between 10 and 3. They operated 10 to 3. They were closed for lunch hour. Now, who can bank between 10 and 3?  The unemployed. They don’t need banks. They got no money in the banks. Who created that business model? Right? And it went on for decades. You know why? Because they didn’t care. It wasn’t about the customers. It was about bankers. They created something that worked for them. How could you go to the bank when you were at work? It didn’t matter. And they don’t care, —one day, some crazy banker had an idea. Maybe we should keep the bank open when people come home from work.

Why don’t we [do this in education]? Because our business has refused to use science.As a profession, we have to stop this. The science is clear.”

Canada made it seem so simple, the evidence is clear, we need to change.

So, why then, does the business of education, in large part, turn a blind eye to science?

This was the question I asked Fil and proposed a simple answer. That being, there are some deep-rooted reasons for resistance, the most prominent one being nostalgia.

Using science to inform educational practice would undoubtedly tell us we desperately need to do something different. But, that is uncomfortable and intimidating. But, when we start contemplating what change entails, inevitably our heads start to hurt thinking about all of the systemic shifts, bureaucratic hurdles, and fear of doing something wrong.

We start telling ourselves, “things are fine the way they are. Students have gone through systems like this for years and they are fine.” And, to truly convince ourselves of this sentiment, our minds start producing examples of fond memories of our own school days, and before we know it, we are lost in a sea of nostalgia…”those were the days….” and we stop thinking a change is needed, we may even convince ourselves the science is flawed, not the system.

At this point, Fil brought the conversation back to baseball. He pointed that baseball could possibly the most nostalgia-inducing pastime in America.

I agreed, at this point, not quite seeing the connection until Fil told me about the book Ahead The Curve: Inside The Baseball Revolution where author Brian Kenny illustrates how some of baseball’s common practices (fielding errors, MVP election, pitching win-loss record, and more) are exercises in tradition rather than effectiveness.  And, moreover, Kenny articulates how baseball hasn’t changed, but our thinking about the game has evolved. For example, 150 years ago, walks were tabulated as an error for the pitcher, and today, pitching a “walk”  is considered a highly-cultivated skill.

Ok, and what does this have to do with education?

As the understanding of the game of baseball evolved, there was quite a bit of resistance from baseball fans. In the 19th and early 20th century, batters could request pitcher throw a certain type of pitch. Therefore, if a pitcher threw a “walk” it was an error as that was not the request.  But, then in 1900, some savvy pitchers realized throwing walks could be advantageous and strategically threw them. The MLB and fans were outraged. “Throwing walks is unfair!” people shouted. These pitchers’ tactics were not well-received and were considered an example of “gaming the system.”

Over time, as most things do, emotions died down and walks became an acceptable strategy. And, the most interesting thing about this? The number of walks thrown when throwing was considered an error is higher than when it became considered a strategic play (Kenny, 113).

“But, it’s not fair” is commonly and frequently cited by some educators, parents, and students in regard to standards-based grading, differentiation, no counting homework, and more. But, fair, as baseball teaches us is a state of mind, just as our understanding of the game of baseball has evolved, so is our changing perception of the game of education. And, with that, we must remember to be patient. Change does not happen overnight, but over years.

As another baseball great, Hall-Of-Famer, Branch Ricky said, “Baseball people, and that includes myself, are slow to change and accept ideas. I remember that it took years to persuade them to put numbers on uniforms.

The Three Biggest Time Killers We Do Little to Avoid

time-488112_1920

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Teachers overwhelming cite time (76% of those surveyed) as the thing they wish they had more of each day (Primary Sources). Teachers want additional time to assess student work, plan lessons, and meet with colleagues. On the flipside, staff meetings, professional development, and logistical tasks are listed as inefficient uses of time.

And, while I agree these responsibilities could be streamlined, I also believe there are additional contributors, which collectively kill as much or more time than staff meetings or paperwork, are under our (teachers) direct control, and yet little is done to address or change these practices. What I am referring to are our conversations: in the hallway, in the lounge, in meetings.

Conversations and Better Conversations
Last week marked the end of a year-long, intensive instructional coaching workshop led by Jim Knight which I attended (you can read my previous reflections here or here).

While the workshop focused on instructional coaching, much of the content applies to life in general; my learning from the workshop has positively impacted both my professional and personal life.

Case in point, the lessons I learned on how to communicate more effectively with others. In Knight’s session on better conversations (based off the book by the same name) Knight outlines the steps we should take to improve as conversation partners. These criteria ultimately lead to increased productivity and camaraderie. Knight includes an entire chapter on the importance of finding common ground with those whom we converse.

Knight suggests using the acronym ICARE (interests, convictions, activities, roles, experiences) to help us identify safe categories we can explore with our conversation partners to find similarities.

What if we find common ground, but the bonds are destructive?
Since the workshop on Better Conversations, I have keenly observed others engaged in conversation to see how they find common ground with their colleagues.

I have seen many positive examples of people connecting through ICARE conversations about favorite sports teams, graduate school classes, and weekend plans.

Conversely, I have also seen people finding common ground in non-ICARE ways (including me). Whether conversation partners are aware of this or not, many people find common ground rooted in judgment, gossip, or negativity. These likenesses certainly do not garner positive outcomes, and frankly, they are an unwise use of our most coveted commodity- time.

Judgment
“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of structure at home.”

“I know. Johnny came to school without his homework log signed for the third week in a row.”

Judgment is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. People often engage in this type of talk and feel as if they have found solid common ground. After all, this is a discussion between two people who share a common belief (it is important for students to comply with teacher orders) which appears to be rooted in the best interest of children.

However, there is an underlying judgment of the students’ parents here (they aren’t doing what they need to do). Additionally, there is a judgment of the student (he should still comply even though he may not have the same opportunities to do so). And, frankly, this type of conversation is not productive. Yet, week after week, year after year, some teachers will continue to engage in conversations which are founded in judgment without consideration of what can be done to alleviate the problem.

Gossip
“Did you hear that teacher is being reassigned?”

“Yes, I heard that. But, I am not surprised. She really struggled this year, and I heard there were a lot of parent complaints about her.”

As Jane Austen once said, “Every man is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies.”  These “spies” are quick to share their observations in an effort to preserve their own status. Gossip does not help the subject (what could have been done to help this struggling teacher earlier in the year) and gossiping immediately extinguishes trust. If you gossip about one person, everyone knows there is a chance you will one day gossip about them, too. Without trust, productivity is compromised, and again time is wasted.

Negativity
“Students have no accountability anymore. They are in for a rude awakening in the real world when there are no retakes.”

“I know. Every year we keep lowering our standards for students.”

Negativity may be the most pervasive conversation killer and it is also highly contagious. Negativity places blame and focus on problems rather than promoting ownership and a focus on solutions.  Simply, negativity brings everyone down, including our students.

In the end
Judgment, gossip, and negativity are a part of life. From time to time we all engage in conversations which allow us to vent. And, this is ok. The key is, recognizing when these practices are habitual and destructive. At this point, a change must occur. And, that change starts with us.

Few people volunteer to step up and redirect toxic conversations. Many of us try to avoid conflict and fear repercussions. Plus, it can be uncomfortable to be the voice of dissent, even though the dissenting voice is positive.

Yet, my question is, how do you feel when you mitigate your feelings and allow toxic conversations to continue? For me, I wind up feeling safe in the moment, but terrible after the fact. To find a happy medium, I employ the three suggestions below to safely redirect judgment, gossip, and negativity.

  • Be Proactive: Bring up your concerns, but make them about yourself (even if it is really about someone else). “I was wondering if you could help me. I noticed that I pass judgment on the families and students who don’t complete homework and I don’t like this feeling. I can imagine you feel the same way. How can we work together to better address our students’ needs?”
  • Excuse yourself: When gossip rears its ugly head; our tendencies are to either join in or to listen, but not participate. However, silence can indicate consent and give gossipers an unspoken thumbs up. To stop gossip, we need to remove outlets. Therefore, create a mental bank of excuses which you can use to remove yourself from gossipy conversations, “Oh, I left something in the teacher workroom…Sorry to cut you off, I need to use the washroom before my students get back from specials….I am about to go meet with so-so, can we talk later?”
  • Kindly state an alternate point of view: I recognize this can be hard to do. As stated, negativity is contagious. If someone sneezed, you would offer them a kleenex or move away from them to protect yourself. We need to treat negativity the same way.  Acknowledge your colleague’s point of view and kindly share another perspective, “I understand what you are saying. It can be frustrating when students take longer to learn, and we need to reteach. But, since our job is to ensure all students succeed, what is the alternative? If all else fails, go back to suggestion number two and excuse yourself.

How else do you seek to find common ground with your colleagues? What successful strategies have you used and what other obstacles have you encountered and how have you worked to overcome these barriers?
Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Teachers: Do We Appreciate One Another?

teacher appreciation graphic

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Recently, my school district completed our second annual, year-long professional development program we call “mini-con.” Our theme this year was assessment, and I facilitated a course which was attended by 26 enthusiastic and dedicated professionals.

Over the year, our group spent time discussing and studying a variety of facets related to assessment. Teachers then applied their learning (individually or in teams) to create an assessment for their students. These assessments had a number of desired criteria. In short, we aimed to create assessments that:

  • authentically assessed a prioritized standard
  • had clearly defined learning intentions and success criteria which were mutually understood by the students and teacher
  • promoted student ownership

Needless to say, we were not talking about creating multiple choice tests. This was hard work.

At our last session, learning was facilitated by the participants themselves. Teachers shared a bit about their experience creating and using their new assessments. The goal was not for teachers to showcase their “best” work. Rather, this was an opportunity for teachers to ask their colleagues for feedback and answer each other’s questions.

The mini-con session was 90 minutes, and I spent the entire time sitting back and basking in the glory of what the teachers shared. There were a variety of highlights, namely the risks teachers took as they tried new ways of assessing students, how teachers collaborated with each other to analyze student work,  and how technology was integrated to formatively assess students in relevant ways. Teachers were transparent about their processes, emphasizing both celebrations and struggles.

I felt very proud of this tenacious group, and I was extraordinarily appreciative of their effort and strong will to grow as professionals.

On my ride home from work that day, I thought to myself, “How perfect that teacher appreciation week is soon. I can show these teachers how grateful I am for them.”  But, my train of thought was interrupted as I had an epiphany of sorts centered around these questions:

  1. How had I shown appreciation for teachers throughout the year?
  2. Do other teachers show appreciation for their colleagues regularly?
  3. Are our methods of showing appreciation for one another effective?

When it comes to appreciation, do we all speak the same language?
Several years ago, I read The 5 Languages of Love by Gary Chapman, and while this book primarily speaks to personal relationships, I have found the basic premise to hold true for a variety of interpersonal circumstances.

Basically, Chapman asserts there are five ways humans show affection for each other:

  • By giving gifts
  • By sharing words of affirmation
  • By spending quality time
  • Through acts of service
  • Through physical connection

Chapman goes on to explain that people have a primary and secondary love language which they use to express affection. These languages are also their preferred ways to receive affection.

Chapman cautions that just like with all languages, if two people speak different languages they may not understand each other. For example, if an individual feels affection through words of affirmation and someone gives them a gift to show their love, the recipient may not feel loved just by the receiving the gift alone.

Therefore, if we want to make sure our feelings for each other are properly communicated, we need to speak the same language. I can give a gift if that is my love language, but if the recipient of my gift speaks the language of words of affirmation, I need to also include a thoughtful note or explanation. Chapman suggests watching how others show affection toward others to figure out how they prefer to receive love.

OK, but how do love languages relate to teacher appreciation?
Results of a new study, Teacher Job Satisfaction and Student Achievement: The Roles of Teacher Professional Community and Teacher Collaboration in Schools published in The American Journal of Education conclude that a positive school culture and teacher collaboration are essential for student achievement. Additionally, a recent article in Forbes Magazine cites evidence from multiple studies all which indicate employees who feel appreciated are more productive and have more positive feelings about their work/workplace than those who feel unappreciated.

And, it is here where teacher appreciation and the 5 Languages of Love intersect. As stated, studies show employees who feel appreciated have stronger performance than those who do not feel appreciated.

When surveyed, teachers consistently report feeling underappreciated (OECD).  This leaves me wondering something: how many attempts at showing appreciation go unfelt because the wrong “love” language was unknowingly used to express gratitude?

Probably many. But, there is more to this than just using the right language.
Teachers most frequently say they feel unappreciated by society and administration.  And, it is easy to look outward at factors we cannot control, we can’t make society appreciate us. But, when we look inward, we must ask, what part do we, teachers, play in creating a culture of appreciation?

Sometimes we get so caught up in how busy we are and how physically and mentally demanding teaching is that we forget to show appreciation for others who do the same strenuous job.

Then, we have weeks like this one (Teacher Appreciation Week) where teachers across the country are showered with sweet treats in the teacher’s lounge, and are given tokens of appreciation from students, parents, and administrators. But, how many of us take the time to show genuine appreciation for each other on a regular basis?

When we consider ways to improve school culture and create positive, collaborative environments which ultimately benefit students, we often look to our district’s administration or the government to foster conducive conditions. Yet, we overlook the vital role we (teachers) play, individually and collectively, in contributing to a positive school climate.

So, in the spirit of teacher appreciation week and along the lines of the 5 Languages of Love, this week, take a step back and observe your colleagues. How are they expressing their gratitude toward others? Are they sharing words of affirmation, giving gifts, offering service?  Once you determine your co-worker’s language of love, consider these 5 ways to show appreciation for your teaching colleague(s) every day of the year:

  • By giving gifts- surprise your colleague with breakfast.
  • By sharing words of affirmation- Acknowledge what you appreciate about your colleague and share the specifics in an email, note, or in person. “I appreciate how you always keep our team student focused…”
  • By spending quality time: Look at your PLC meetings as quality time. During a meeting, share an example of something you have successfully implemented with your students which you learned from one of your PLC members.
  • Through acts of service: cover your colleague’s extra duty or make copies for them, because you value them, not because they asked.
  • Through physical connection- smile at your colleagues when you see them, everyday.

How else will you show appreciation for your colleagues? Share your ideas and more importantly, share the results. How has showing appreciation for each other impacted your school’s culture?

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Why Differentiation Misses the Mark for Gifted Students

orchestra

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Last week I wrote Differentiation: Attainable or Somewhere Over The Rainbow which addresses some common objections related to differentiated instruction. One of these arguments being that many educators and gifted education advocates believe the needs of gifted students are not being met in the ‘regular’ classroom through differentiation.

Dr. Jim Delisle, author and gifted education expert, brought this topic to the forefront in his 2015 EdWeek Commentary Piece, Differentiation Doesn’t Work. I was first alerted to Delisle’s article via a Facebook update posted by a teacher I attended graduate school with thirteen years earlier. I remember initially feeling quite defensive when I saw her post:

Differentiation Westman.png

Delisle claims (and my former classmate concurs) that differentiation is nothing more than a great proposition which is impossible to achieve: “It seems to me that the only educators who assert that differentiation is doable are those who have never tried to implement it themselves: university professors, curriculum coordinators, and school principals.”

Delisle goes on to warn readers that it is our high-achieving students who stand to lose the most from the unfulfilled promise of differentiation and suggests there is only one possible solution to meet the needs of these students: “Differentiation might have a chance to work if we are willing, as a nation, to return to the days when students of similar abilities were placed in classes with other students whose learning needs paralleled their own.”

Delisle is not entirely wrong.
If a teacher wants to differentiate effectively in a traditional classroom setting, I agree with Delisle when he says, “Although fine in theory, differentiation in practice is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back.”

Effectively differentiating instruction in a customary classroom setting (teacher imparts knowledge and students show they retain the information) is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Of course, one teacher cannot conduct three different lectures simultaneously. And, it is quite likely that we have experienced assigning group-work where the high kids do all of the work.  And, ultimately, when a teacher in a traditional classroom is presented with a class made up of all types of learners they are forced to teach to the middle which will undoubtedly build frustration for gifted and struggling students alike.

Therefore, I can understand when Delisle suggests reverting back to tracked classes, with students sorted neatly into groups with similar learners. All students deserve the opportunity to learn at a pace that is appropriate for them and tracking students certainly does make pacing easier.

Except, we are solving the wrong problem
Now, before the gifted folks jump on me again, let me preface, as a former gifted teacher and a differentiation instructional coach, I am an ardent proponent of identifying gifted students just as we identify special education students. The needs of gifted students, without question, require special consideration, action plans, follow-through, and monitoring.

With that being said, I also strongly believe that these students’ needs can be met through differentiated instruction in a “regular” classroom. Because, differentiation in it of itself, is not the problem. Rather, our nation’s lack of ubiquitous implementation of differentiated instruction is a symptom of a much larger problem.

The actual issue is the lingering remnants of the factory model/mindset of education still largely ingrained in our educational system today. Case in point, tracking students is a direct result of schools which prepared students for predetermined career paths.

During the industrialization era students were placed on tracks with finite destinations: factory worker, tradesman, professional with a higher-level degree. Future tradesman sat next to other future tradesman, future professionals learned alongside other future professionals.

But, putting students on these same tracks today poses a significant problem because these tracks no longer lead to known destinations. As first indicated in a report from  U.S. Department of Labor called  Future Work Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century and later analyzed for potential implications and solutions for schools by ISTE Connects, 65% of jobs to become available in the future have yet to be created.

Job trends since 1999 support this statistic as new jobs and categories in the services provided industry continue to experience exponential growth, while other industries like manufacturing, continue to trend downward (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).

With this information in mind, our focus must shift from preparing students to interact with similar learners to finding ways to ensure our students can productively collaborate with all types of learners. Doing so is critical for our students’ long-term success.

Therefore, teachers must conduct orchestras, not trains.
If our ever-evolving world is not a compelling enough reason to focus on the real problem, let’s also consider this, even in a gifted or tracked class, teachers still need to differentiate for their students.

Programming alone will not meet students’ needs. In Beyond Gifted Education, Designing and Implementing Advanced Academic Programs, authors Scott Peters, Michael Matthews, Matthew McBee, and D. Betsy McCoach state, “Not all students who are labeled gifted require the same things in order to receive an appropriate educational experience. Just as not all gifted students require the same services, a given individual (gifted or not) does not automatically need the same services year after year.”

And, this is the bottom line. Learners’ needs, gifted or not, are fluid. Learning is fluid. However, our current educational system is largely static. We hear a lot talk about student and teacher innovation. Many times we look to the silver bullet (as Peter Dewitt points out in Can We Destroy the Silver Bullet Mentality Before It Destroys Us?) which takes on the form of implementing a tech tool or making something fit in our current practice without changing what we have “always done”.

But, what is really innovative is doing what needs to be done to help shape the next education model- one where the academic and social-emotional success of all students is the only priority. Differentiating instruction for our students needs is one of the ways to do this, and as indicated above, differentiated instruction is more effective when we consider the environment in which we try to implement it and adjust accordingly.

But, How?
I wish I had a linear plan for how to systemically change our educational model. But, I don’t.  I also recognize there are people who consider school reformers to be idealistic. And, I don’t know, maybe we are.

But, I also know there are steps educators can take to collectively propel us forward or there are things we can do (or not do) to ensure we stay stagnant. It is up to us to decide which route we want to take. As country music singer Jimmy Dean said, “I can’t change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.”

I can’t help but think that, maybe, if we all adjust our sails, we may actually have a shot at changing the direction of the wind.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Photo Credit: Education Radio @BAMRadioNetwork 

 

Differentiation: Attainable Or Somewhere Over The Rainbow?

differentiation cleaning things up

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

“If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.” Jim Barksdale

If you want to get an educator’s attention, just say the word differentiation. Call me naive, but until last summer, I had no idea that this word provoked such a wide range of reactions from all education stakeholders.

Then, last August, I wrote my first guest blog post for Finding Common Ground, Yes Differentiation Is Hard. So, Let’s get It Right, and the floodgates opened. It turns out, people have strong feelings about differentiation, and I have been listening and gathering specifics on these views.

Since the post was published, I have written and presented about differentiation quite a few times. Most recently, I presented alongside Carol Ann Tomlinson at ASCD Empower17 and co-moderated #ohedchat on the topic. Every time I write or present on differentiation, I note the questions and comments readers or participants make, and I have found some common themes in response to the topic of differentiation, such as:

  • Teachers often feel unequipped to differentiate effectively.
  • Administrators don’t always recognize differentiation when they see it, or they think they see “differentiation” when what they really see is “different”.
  • Many gifted education advocates believe the needs of gifted students cannot be met in the ‘regular’ classroom through differentiation.
  • There is a pervasive generalization and misunderstanding of the words: assessment and data.

Over time, I plan to address the first three bullet points in detail, but for the purposes of this post, I want to explore the fourth item- the words assessment and data. The misleading associations with these words (assessment=test, data=numbers) have become a giant barrier for teachers who strive to differentiate instruction yet struggle to do so effectively.

The Wicked Witch of The West Assess
I was never the best geometry student, but the one thing that stuck with me was “all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares.” The same can be said about assessments, “all tests are assessments, but all not all assessments are tests.”

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines assess as, “to make an approximate or tentative judgment” and tests can certainly do this. However, often times tests are the least effective way to ascertain where students are and what they need. Test results amass a certain type of information and to differentiate successfully, other evaluations (observations, writing samples, conversations) and facets (social-emotional, aptitude, growth) of student performance must be considered.

The way we assess and the assessments we use give us the data we need to inform how to appropriately differentiate instruction for students. Therefore, if we are not using a variety of reliable assessments, our attempts to differentiate instruction often fall flat because the data we try to use doesn’t give us the information we need.

Follow The Yellow Brick Road Data
The word data does not have a warm connotation. Saying “data” in conjunction with student learning often feels sterile and uncaring. I often hear sentiments like, “students are more than a number.” And, when I presented with Carol Ann Tomlinson she responded to a question about using data with, “data sounds like something spit out by a machine.

And, I agree, students are more than a data point. They are more than a number spit out by a machine. And, so is data. Data is more than just numbers, and it can indeed be gathered and appraised in compassionate ways.

Let’s look at an analogous situation: a child’s visit to his pediatrician. When a child visits his doctor, he is more than a number there, too. Therefore, in order to form a diagnosis,  pediatricians look at a variety of evidence, some which comes from a lab or machine (weight, temperature, blood count) and some which comes from other assessments (conversations, questionnaires, observing the patient perform a task). Yet, there is little complaint about using multiple types of data in a medical setting. In fact, I surmise that if a doctor made a diagnosis without various types of data, there would be quite a bit of protesting.

So, what is the difference?

In education, we seem to think that the only usable data we have are numbers: test scores, IQ scores, attendance rates, etc.  This is like saying the only data a doctor can use is the patient’s height, weight, blood pressure, etc.

If this were the case, think of how many misdiagnoses would be made from only using these pieces of evidence? The doctor would not have some of the vital information (data) he needs to diagnosis the patient and prescribe a course of action.

Instead, doctors are also highly dependent on information that comes directly from the patient via conversations and observations. This is data which is collected with sensitivity and not calculated by an algorithm. A doctor uses information from all of these sources to differentiate his approach for his patients, so they thrive.

The same holds true for using data to differentiate for our students in the classroom. When we say the word data in education, we are simply referring to the different types of evidence we gather and consider to differentiate instruction for our students, so they thrive.

There’s No Place Like Home A Data Dashboard
In summary, differentiation is a natural byproduct of collecting and using the right information and the traditional methods of teacher data collection are quickly (if not already) obsolete.

Luckily, help is here. In Data Dashboards a High Priority in National Ed-Tech Plan, Education Week contributor Malia Herman states:

“The push for wider and better use of data (dashboards)–which allow educators to examine and connect relevant student data from multiple sources–is growing stronger…learning dashboards integrate information from assessments, learning tools, educator observations, and other sources to provide compelling, comprehensive visual representations of student progress in real time.”

To keep the analogy going, a data dashboard is like a patient’s chart at his doctor’s office. This is the place where all of the information is housed on individual students and their growth over time can be contemplated. And like a patient’s chart, only certain people are privy to individual student’s information. This comprehensive view of a student makes differentiating for their needs more accessible, attainable, and sustainable.

What are your thoughts? What is your experience using data to differentiate instruction? What successes and struggles have you encountered? Please comment below or tweet your response so we can learn from each other.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

 

Differentiation is The Key to Assessment For Learning

teaching does not equal learning

“Too often, educational tests, grades, and report cards are treated by teachers as autopsies when they should be viewed as physicals.” Douglas Reeves

One of my favorite stories is about the man who taught his dog to whistle. The man was so proud of his teaching. He walked his dog around town and proudly proclaimed, “I taught my dog to whistle!”

Then, one day, a neighbor stops the man and says, “I don’t hear your dog whistling.”

To which the man responds, “I said I taught him to whistle, I didn’t say he learned.”

TEACHING IS NOT SYNONYMOUS WITH LEARNING

Think about your students past and present on a “test” day. Can you recall a student who was nervous? Maybe a student who even cried? This is a common reaction to assessment of learning rather than assessment for learning.

For many years assessment was used as a measure to inform teachers and students how students performed in comparison to each other at arbitrary points in time. Thankfully, with years of research and a shift in the way teaching and learning is approached, the recommended method of determining student success is by using assessment to measure growth. The focus has shifted to ensuring students learn rather than that teachers taught. Assessment results are no longer final verdicts for students, but rather information for them and their teachers on where to go next, otherwise known as assessment for learning.

Assessment for learning is the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there, otherwise known as formative (Assessment Reform Group, 2002).

The key to effectively implementing assessment for learning is using the evidence gathered to inform instruction rather than just collecting data. Pre-assessments (or the first of a series of formative assessments) give teachers a starting point and formative assessment helps teachers set the pace and choose content and strategies for students as they progress in their learning. Too often, educators believe they are practicing assessment for learning, but they are not. Below are some common mistakes made which are contradictory to assessment for learning:

  • Collecting data (evidence) and not using it (watch this commercial for a funny visualization of this practice)
  • Simply not counting “formative” assessments toward a final grade, but not adapting pacing or differentiating for students who need modifications or extensions
  • Assessing the wrong criteria (i.e. assessing content recall when the learning target is a skill)
  • Focus on arbitrary dates to finish learning, like “end of quarter”

Quick check to see if you are using assessment for learning correctly

A quick test to see if you are using formative assessment properly is to ask yourself, “Am I differentiating for my students?” It is nearly impossible to practice assessment for learning without differentiating. When looking at evidence of learning, teachers will inevitably find that some students will move more quickly than others and need extensions while others will require scaffolding to achieve. Additionally, some students will need to approach the material in an entirely different way.

This is where differentiation is vital, teachers will need to determine which differentiation category or combination of categories: the content (what students learn), the process (how students learn), the product (how student demonstrate their understanding), and the learning environment (where and with whom students) they need to adapt  to meet the needs of their students:

Differentiating instruction is frequently the piece of assessment for learning that teachers find the most intimidating, but it doesn’t need to be this way. Below is a list of common concerns teachers have with differentiating instruction and some considerations that may help for ease these apprehensions.

03.17.17-Westman_-Differentiation-is-Key

In summary: in order for something to be taught, it must be learned. In order for all students to learn, appropriate evidence (assessment results) must be gathered and used to inform future instruction. As educators, the onus is on us to ensure students learn. When we confirm learning, we confirm we have taught.

————————————————————————–

This post was originally published on Corwin Connect.corwin_connect_featured_button1

Standards Based Grading Made My Kid Average

STANDARDSBUMPER

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Recently a friend called me in a panic. She was beside herself because she had just received her seventh-grade daughter’s new standards-based report card.  My friend relayed that her daughter (who was formerly an “A” student) was now “just average” according to the new report card.

I asked my friend if the report card had the word “average” on it and my friend said, “no.” She elaborated that her daughter had received all “meets” and no “exceeds” on her report card, and, therefore, her daughter was now, “just average.”

I calmly responded that “meets standards” does not equate to average. I clarified that a standards-based grading system does not neatly align to the traditional grading system we experienced in our schooling. I explained that standards-based grading is a much more pragmatic and informative way of reporting student progress than the traditional A-F approach.

I expected my friend to accept this explanation and settle down, but instead, her emotions escalated, and she replied, “well, my daughter’s teacher thinks standards-based grading is stupid, too.”

We are the stories we tell ourselves.” Joan Didion

Many school districts that have made the switch to standards-based reporting have been met with reactions like the one illustrated above. And, although I was surprised by my friend’s response, I shouldn’t have been. Reactions like hers are to be expected when identities are threatened, and eliminating traditional grading practices poses a threat to many people’s identities.

How so?

The A-F/100-point traditional grading system has been in place since the early twentieth century. This means all parents and grandparents of students currently in kindergarten through 12th grade, plus the vast majority of today’s teachers experienced school with a traditional grading system.

Based on the grades we received as students, we told ourselves we were “good” or “bad” students. We used our grades to tell ourselves which subjects we were “smart” in and which ones we weren’t. We used our grades to compare ourselves to our peers. Our parents used our grades to compare us to their peers and their peers’ children. We used our grades to determine if we were cut-out for certain careers. We allowed grades to tell us many stories about who we were. For better or for worse, these stories have played a part in shaping our identities as adults. Therefore, when we remove a critical piece of our identity formation (traditional grades) we may, consciously or not, feel threatened.

So, now what?
We will be uncomfortable for a little while.  Ultimately, just like us, our children’s identities will be shaped, in part, by the educational experience they have. However, if implemented correctly (as extensively researched and reported about by Thomas Gusky and Rick Wormeli) standards-based reporting should allow students to identify as individual learners, rather than comparably “good” or “bad” students.

The concept of standards-based grading is not easily enacted by teachers, nor is it easily understood by parents. Rather, this change is a work in progress which requires both educators and parents to work together to relearn what we have been taught in the past about grades.

While this shift is difficult for both educators and parents, it is the educators who must lead the charge, and be the first relearn (watch this video for some inspiration on relearning). The way in which educators share information about standards-based grading with parents is crucial for successful implementation. If educators are positive, admit that change is hard, and stick with the change because it is in the best interest of students, parents will follow suit. However, if educators protest, criticize, or are ambivalent about the benefits of standards-based grading, parents will react similarly. Educators must model the reaction they hope to elicit from parents and students.

To effectively communicate with parents, educators must put to rest some of the widely-held fallacies about grading like the three listed below:

Fallacy #1: Parents need letter grades to understand their child’s performance.
Reality: Traditional grades give the facade of understanding because they use familiar words and measures. Consider a report card that lists: Math: A, Reading: B+. Parents understand the words math and reading. They understand that an A is the highest grade and a B is close to an A. But, the reality is, this communication does not actually tell parents anything about what was learned. Math and reading are too broad of categories to offer any insight and the letter grades could mean a variety of things, many of which have nothing to do with reading or math.

Now what? Standards-based grading is an opportunity to create a common understanding of exactly what is being assessed. When teachers take care to ensure assessments are appropriately aligned to the standards they are assessing, the assessments become a vehicle for dialogue between students, parents, and teachers to adequately discuss where students are in their learning progression and where they are going.

Fallacy #2: Letter grades are more objective.
Reality: Once again, an A-F system creates a facade of objectivity.  Using a percentage attached to a letter  (93% = A) feels objective. But, what isn’t necessarily objective are the tools used to garner those scores. When I taught English, I often struggled to determine the critical difference between an 89% and a 90% on a student’s narrative writing assignment. When I taught social studies, I assumed the multiple choice tests I created were completely objective due to the right/wrong nature of the questions. I didn’t consider, however, the inherent bias of the questions since I had written them.

Now what? There is a reason teachers are part of a PLC/team and there are reasons why these teams are encouraged to meet frequently. This is a time for teachers to discuss topics like objectivity. It is no longer frowned upon for educators to admit that learning is not an entirely empirical process. Learning is complex and, therefore, grading is complex, too. When we look at student work as a team, engage in dialogue about assessments, and come to a consensus as to what “meeting standards” is, we are making the reporting process as objective as possible.

Fallacy #3: By the time we shift to standards-based grading, there will be a new fad, and we will have to start all over again.
Reality: It will take time for individual school systems and the educational system as a whole to fully embrace this change. It is likely that once we become comfortable with this change, there will be additional amendments to the way we grade. But, such is life. This is part of what all successful industries do to stay relevant. They make changes to improve processes, gather new information, and make more changes to improve processes again.

Next Steps: Don’t lament about the process. Don’t worry about what the future holds. We are doing what is best for students with the information we have right now. Celebrate the progressive and long overdue steps we are taking to use grading as an indicator of learning rather than a symbol of finality.

Mom, Can You Pleeeease Record Me?

7-ways-to-use-video-infographic-final

This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Making slime from scratch (a combination of Elmer’s glue, Borax, water, and food coloring) is the latest craze amongst school-aged children. This trend is so popular that many stores have completely sold out of Elmer’s glue.

My 8-year old daughter has jumped on the slime bandwagon, and I must admit, this fad is not my favorite (the slime is messy, smelly, and I am constantly searching for more glue).  Additionally, my daughter has “hired” me as her personal videographer, and contracted me to film her slime-making process. But, sassiness aside, there is a silver lining in all of this slimy mess, which is the insight I have gained about kids today:

  1. Children will record anything and everything. Then, they will watch their recordings over and over again.

  2. Children today are accustomed to seeking (and applying) honest, actionable feedback. (Watch the end of my daughter’s video to see what I mean).

  3. Educators are grossly underutilizing the potential of video recordings.

The Power Of Video
I am currently participating in a year-long intensive instructional coaching institute led by Jim Knight of the Instructional Coaching Group.

At our last session, we concentrated on the content of Knight’s book, Focus on Teaching which discusses the many advantageous applications of video as a professional learning tool.

As an instructional coach, I have been quite impressed with the significant impact video has on learning. In Focus on Teaching, Knight explains one reason why video is so powerful:

“– professionals often do not have a clear picture of what it looks like when they do their work….they (many teachers) do not know what it looks like when they teach until they saw the video. And because they are unaware of what it looks like when they teach, they often do not feel the need to change. They might be open to trying new practices, but they don’t feel compelled to change.”

Every time a teacher chooses to use video in a coaching cycle, Knight’s observation rings true. Without exception, after watching videos of themselves, teachers are surprised by what they see. They either recognize tendencies they were completely unaware of and are propelled to take action, or they are pleasantly surprised with the footage as their impression of themselves was too harsh (I call this teaching dysmorphia).  Either way, in my experience, coaching cycles that utilize video are more successful than those that do not (as evidenced by data pertaining to the cycle’s goal).

Could Video Have The Same Effect With Our Students?
Knight’s workshop got me thinking about our students and their perceptions. If adults don’t have an accurate view of their teaching, how can we conclude our students have a clear sense of their learning? If video has such a powerful effect on the likelihood of teacher goal achievement, couldn’t the same process work with students?

According to the National Education Technology Plan Update released by The US Department of Education in January 2017, assessing and documenting the growth of students’ non-cognitive competencies (also referred to as social and emotional learning which includes a wide-range of skills) is as important as assessing and documenting students’ academic progress.

The plan reports some small advances in data collection and curricula addressing social- emotional learning, but stresses there is still a profound need for more reliable and relevant tools (both the learning and data collection pieces).

But, How?
Video learning is one way to address this deficit. As stated, just as a teacher may have a blindspot in their practice, chances are students do not have an accurate picture of their performance either. Video can help illustrate this.

Keeping in mind our students organically record much of what they do, and video is a proven effective learning tool (for adults), educators can capitalize on this set of circumstances to better meet our students’ social-emotional learning needs.

At first, it may seem a bit overwhelming to add something “new” to our repertoire, but as with most things, over time the process becomes less intimidating as the kinks are worked out, and success is experienced.  Also, it helps to keep in mind that while new tools (in this case using video) may be new to us, they are not new to our students. There is no shame in tapping into our students’ knowledge of video to help us with the logistics as outlined below:

Video Logistics

  1. Use any device with video recording capabilities. You can use multiple devices simultaneously.
  2. Set the devices up in the location(s) you wish to record (whole class, small group, individual student desks).
  3. Store videos in an accessible, but not public location (Google Drive, Flash Drive, YouTube listed as a private).

Learning Logistics

  1. Student(s) record themselves for a predetermined portion of a lesson which is likely to garner the best evidence.
  2. Teacher and student(s) confer to identify the skill they want focus on (i.e. appropriate communication with peers).
  3. Teacher and student(s) co-create a list of look-fors for the skill to be observed (i.e. ineffective vs. effective communication of ideas) and cite examples of each criterion:”you are wrong” vs. “I see things a different way. Let me explain.”
  4. Teacher and student(s) co-create a data collection tool or rubric which specifies look-fors. The simpler, the better, tally systems work very nicely.
  5. Student(s) and teacher watch the videos and collect data (separately).
  6. Teacher and student review their findings and set a reasonable, quantifiable goal (i.e. ratio of effective to ineffective comments is 3-1).
  7. Any differences in understanding could be discussed further by reviewing parts of the video together and comparing examples to the rubric.
  8. The teacher and student(s) determine an action plan which includes a learning piece.
  9. After a predetermined interval of learning, the teacher and student(s) repeat the process and determine next steps (adjust action plan to continue to work toward goal or determine the goal is met and set a new goal).

An additional bonus of having students use video to self-assess their non-cognitive competencies is they have additional opportunities to interact with the content of lesson when they watch their recordings.

This model does not have to be used with all students at the same time, nor do all students need to have the same look-fors/data collection tools. This method can be differentiated to meet the social-emotional learning needs of individual students just as we differentiate for students’ academic needs.

Non-cognitive competencies are only one example how video can be used in our classrooms. Check out this post’s accompanying infographic for other suggestions, and please share ways you have used video with your students so we can learn from each other.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

Check Your “Selfie” Advice From a 58-Year Veteran Teacher

tom-obrien-post-image-finalThis post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

 Take a minute and think about where you were when:
1)  JFK was shot

2)  The Challenger Space Shuttle exploded

3)  The Twin Towers were destroyed on 9/11

My answers are:
1) 14 years before I was born

2) A student in third grade

3) One month into my first year of teaching

However, my colleague and friend, Tom O’Brien’s answers are all the same; he was in his classroom, teaching. And, Tom is still teaching. In fact, this school year marks Tom’s 58th year as a middle school teacher.

With close to 60 years of experience, Mr. O’Brien is quite familiar with teaching during times of uncertainty. He understands the intricacy of meeting students’ needs and strives to strike the delicate balance of giving students enough objective information, so they feel safe, but not too much information to cause them fear.

In the days since President Trump’s election and inauguration, Mr. O’Brien has had the opportunity to put his skills to the test as he determines the best way to field questions and concerns from students about the current state of our nation.

A Serendipitous Encounter
Last year, I had the privilege of joining Mr. O’Brien on the last day of school when he met his incoming 8th graders and explained the foundation of his class:

“History is not about memorizing facts. This class is not about me telling you what you need to know. History is about learning from our past. This class is about empowerment. Remember, dates change. People don’t. Make connections, own your learning.”

Lately, this quote has weighed heavily on my mind as I have been struggling to focus on anything other than historical connections. And, the links I am making are frightening.

It has been easy for me to place blame on certain individuals and groups of people whose views, in my opinion, threaten to “ruin” our country.  It has also been very easy for me to confirm my biases. Contrarily, it has not been easy for me to see anyone else’s point of view.

But, I have come to I realize that my feelings are counterproductive. I am perpetuating a divide that is tearing our country in half.  And, while I want to look at the bright side, I am struggling to find one.

In an effort to feel better about our country’s future, I had lunch with Tom with the hope of tapping into his wealth of historical knowledge. During lunch, I rattled off the list of terrifying historical parallels that keep coming to mind (i.e. Japanese Internment Camps, The Holocaust, McCarthyism) and I asked (ok, begged) Tom to share a historical similarity that was promising. What has happened in history that tells us everything will be ok?

What did I learn?
As cliche as it may be, history does repeat itself. But, if we aren’t looking carefully we may not see the reasons why.

I learned there are similarities between society today and civilizations as far back as Ancient Greece. And, more important than the likenesses are the lessons. Specifically, Tom reflected on the difference between The Persian Wars (The Greeks vs. Persia 492-449 BC) and The Peloponnesian War (Athens vs. Sparta 431-404 BC).

During the Persian Wars, Greece was successful in defeating Persia in large part because Athens and Sparta put their differences aside and joined forces. However, shortly after their victory, Athens and Sparta engaged in a series of brutal civil wars known as the Peloponnesian Wars, which stemmed from conflicting political views and contrasting value systems. These internecine battles ultimately led to the implosion of the Greek civilization.

The most notable difference between The Persian Wars and The Peloponnesian Wars was the focus. During The Persian Wars, Greeks’ priority was freedom for Greek citizens regardless of where they were from, and during the Peloponnesian Wars, the focus shifted to what was best for individual city-states with blatant disregard for the common good.

Tom presented me with these two “stories,” and left me to form my own connections. After a few minutes of thinking, I asked Tom if he was trying to tell me that people today are more concerned with self-interests than the interests of others.  Tom answered my question with another question:

Is “The Selfie” A Metaphor For Today’s Culture?
This question gave me the chills. I immediately thought of a disturbing viral video which recently appeared in my Facebook feed called Holocaust + Selfie Culture = ‘Yolocaust’  and, I started to wonder if as a society we are so hyperfocused on ourselves that we are missing the mark on the most formidable threat to our country. Perhaps, our most pressing issue isn’t what our government is doing wrong, but what as a society have we done to allow it to take place?

We Must Come Together and We Can Start In The Classroom
During our lunch, Tom reminded me that an educator’s job is to help students process their thoughts, not to tell them how to think.

He remarked that over the past 58 years students have not changed much. Middle school students still experience the same trials and tribulations of entering adulthood. They still feel the pressures of the world around them. But, with that being said, his students’ reaction to the election has been the strongest he has ever seen.

Students’ heightened responses are likely due to the increased availability and accessibility of information. However, another observation Tom shared forced me to think more deeply about our students’ reactions.

Tom explained that when JFK was assassinated, students were justifiably distraught. They had many questions, with the most common question being, “what is going to happen to JFK’s children?”  Since the election and inauguration of President Trump, the question most frequently asked is, “what is going to happen to me?”

Students, especially students who attend a school with over 70 nationalities represented, have legitimate cause for concern for themselves. Teachers have legitimate concerns for themselves, as well. But, the key is to have that same concern for everyone, including the people on the “other side.”

As educators, we are obligated to present our students with unbiased evidence. Therefore, we have the unique opportunity to help our students find answers to questions about themselves while encouraging them to ask questions about others. By fulfilling this obligation, we promote perspective taking and induce dialogue about shared responsibility for creating a system of values that best describes our society as a whole.

Mr. O’Brien believes educators can accomplish this task by focusing on 4 Cs. And, he is not referring to the 4 Cs of 21st century learning. He is referencing the 4 Cs  of humanity: civility, citizenship, connection, and compassion.

Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

4 Phrases All Teachers Say and No Students Understand

shift-focus-graphic-finalThis post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Before I had children, I had no idea just how crucial explicit directions are for their understanding. Case in point, the time my son took his first independent shower. It seemed simple enough. I told him to “take and shower,” and then asked him, “do you know what to do?”

He responded with a resounding, “yes!”

Ok, then! I turned on the water, set it to the right temperature, and proudly waited outside the bathroom door for him. So, imagine my surprise when he came out of the bathroom dripping wet, with shampoo in his hair, and soap on his face, trying to wrap a towel around himself.

I was reminded of this incident while attending an inspirational and thought-provoking workshop led by George Couros, author of The Innovator’s Mindset last week. At one point, George showed us a video clip of a dad telling his young son to “keep his eye on the ball,” and the little boy literally put his eye on the ball.

I started to think about all of the ambiguous things educators say to students with the assumption our students share an understanding with us:

“Study.”

“Work in your groups.”

“Finish your work.”

“Behave.”

More importantly, I started to think about how often we believe we have given students clear directives and put the onus on them meet these vague expectations. Then, if our students do not meet these expectations, we allow ourselves to make convenient excuses, “I told them to study. They didn’t.  I can’t do that for them.”

“Is what we teach as important as how we teach?”
Couros asked us to think about this question during his workshop. As an instructional coach, my focus is on instruction. I strongly believe that regardless of the content, good instruction is good instruction. So, my inclination was to answer, “how.”

But, as I pondered this question more deeply, I believe the answer is actually, “both.” Part of high-quality instruction is offering the right content for individual learners. And,  part of high-quality instruction requires us to be explicit in our communication and flexible in our implementation.

To avoid using vague phrases like those stated above we need to shift our focus from the action (study) to the desired outcome (learn). We can accomplish this shift by implementing the research of John Hattie (Visible Learning For Teachers).  Hattie has found certain criteria to have a greater impact on student growth than others. Strategies with an effect size of .4 for or above are proven to result in a year’s growth for a year’s (appropriate) use. For example, take a look at these four shifts.

Instead of asking students to study, focus on how they learn. (Metacognition .69)

Unfortunately for me, I didn’t understand how I learn best until I became an adult learner, and was given the autonomy to “study” as I saw fit. As it turns out, making flashcards and writing outlines were not the most effective strategies for me. But, creating mind maps and visual depictions are highly effective for me.

With the availability of research about learning, our students have the opportunity to ascertain how they learn best now, as children. The key is for educators to recognize and embrace the fact that all students do not react the same way to all learning strategies. Therefore, we should avoid requiring students use a certain strategy (take notes), and instead, expose our students to a variety of learning strategies and help them determine what strategies were helpful or not.  Then, we can tap into this knowledge to choose/differentiate learning strategies for subsequent learning activities.

Instead of asking students to work in groups, offer them structure. (Cooperative Learning .59)

Contrary to popular belief, group work is not synonymous with cooperative learning. To ensure all students in a group benefit from learning activities, all group members must have equal and active participation and opportunities to learn. This goes beyond setting roles for students in groups (sorry, the timekeeper does not have the same learning opportunity as the discussion leader).

There are multiple ways you can encourage true cooperative learning. Hattie recommends jigsawing content amongst groups to be later shared. This suggestion, however, assumes the learning intentions and success criteria are clear (see below).

Another way to ensure true cooperative learning is to provide structured ways for groups to run, like Kagan Structures. As an instructional coach, I have collaborated with teachers to implement such structures and seen remarkable student growth from tweaking just this one piece.

Instead of asking students to finish their work, provide explicit learning intentions and success criteria (Teacher Clarity .75)

Hattie coins the terms “learning intentions” and “success criteria” in Visible Learning. He uses what has become one of my favorite analogies to describe the need for clear learning intentions and success criteria:

“Imagine if I were simply to ask to get in your car and drive; at some unspecified time, I will let you know when you have successfully arrived (if you arrive at all). For too many students, this is what learning feels like.”

When we tell students to finish their work without providing them with the specific learning intentions and a concrete example of success criteria, while it may feel like we have set clear expectations, students, more often than not, do not know what they need to do to finish their work. Therefore, it is crucial for teachers and students have a shared understanding of the learning intentions and success criteria.

Instead of asking students to behave, focus on building rapport (Teacher-Student Relationships .72)

It is easy to believe we have strong relationships with students just by having their best interest at heart. And, perhaps there is some truth to that. But the question is, what type of relationship is it?

Because of the inherent age and status differences between teachers and students, many teacher-student relationships revolve around compliance and one-way respect (student respects the teacher).  But, genuine relationships require both parties to equally commit to building trust which ultimately leads to respect.  The teacher and the student must also show vulnerability, be transparent, and approachable.  Again, because of the inherent age difference between teachers and students, it is the obligation of the teacher to model these qualities.

“Behave” is a non-specific directive often used in response to a variety of actions: disruptions, fidgeting, yelling out, fighting, etc. The root of these actions is what really needs to be addressed, rather than demanding students “behave” which is unlikely to result in any sustainable change. Contrarily, when authentic teacher-student relationships are established, teachers and students are more likely to discuss the issues and create effective action plans.

In the end, these are just four phrases of what is probably a long list of things we say that don’t clearly communicate intentions to students. What other ambiguous statements have you said in the past and how have you adapted your practice? Please share; I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Questions or comments about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.