Thursday, January 17, 2013

Josh's Big Three

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with a friend who found herself suddenly thrust into a teaching position. She has lots of education and an abundance of intelligence, compassion, and drive, but no teacher training.

I told her that would be fine.

Very little of what I received in my Education courses prepared me for the realities of classroom teaching anyway, and the things that really matter can be boiled down to a handful of philosophies and practices. So, the poor thing found herself subject to a crash course of my design, focused on what I consider the bare essentials for classroom teaching.

Needless to say, as a teacher, I appreciated the chance to reflect on these questions for my own selfish reasons. And as long as I was thinking and talking about it, I figured I may as well write about it.

So, I present to you my three essential understandings for classroom teachers. I warn you, they will not be esoteric, political, or inspirational, but will instead be terribly, perhaps dully, practical.

1. The PLC Model's Essential Questions

This is a bit of a trojan horse, carrying multiple ideas in with it, and I'm going to bastardize it here as I divorce it from it's collaborative context, but they're important enough questions that I'm doing it anyway.
  1. What do students need to know and/or understand? (Standards/Benchmarks)
  2. How will I know when they've got it? (Assessment)
  3. What will I do to aid students who don't get it? (Interventions)
  4. What will I do to enhance the learning of students who do get it? (Enrichments)
This boils down almost the entire educational practice into four questions, but it's remarkable to consider how many of these questions are never really considered in planning. Teachers, egged on by a lot of shallow education classes, tend to focus on developing exciting instruction. "Everyone come up with a new and kinesthetic way to teach the parts of speech!" Therefore, the most important question for novice teachers is usually, "What's a cool way to teach that?"

While this is obviously an integral part of teaching, many teachers suffer from a cart-before-the-horse misunderstanding of its place in planning. The worst thing we can do is to spend valuable class time on something because we have a really cool way to teach it.

At its heart this is the Understanding by Design (UbD) model, otherwise known as Backward Planning. It's the model that turns the whole "Teaching to the Test" from a pejorative into a powerful teaching tool. "Teaching to the Test" is only bad when your test is bad. As many teachers find themselves teaching to sub-standard state or national standardized tests, it's easy to see this as an evil.

But when we think about it, what else should we be teaching to? If we start with what they need to know, and we design assessments that accurately measure if they know it, what else would we possibly want to teach to if not that assessment?

Once we've got that out of the way, then we can bring the full force of our creativity and content knowledge to the task of building engaging instruction that will get them there.

The last two questions (and especially the very last) are the ones that get the least attention. Too often, the philosophy comes down to, "I taught it and they did or didn't get it, and my job as a teacher is to record that fact in the form of a letter grade." The PLC model, however, is built on a philosophy that says that the teacher's job is to ensure learning for all students, and when they don't get it, my job is to have a plan for how to deal with that. Designing interventions to help struggling students and enrichments to further the learning of students who are already there, is one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of classroom teaching, and it is unquestionably the place where you are most likely to experience that greatest moment in the profession: When a student looks up and says, "Oh, I get it."

2. Gradual Release of Responsibility

What the PLC model leaves out (quite purposefully) is the question of classroom instruction. Once again, my teacher training tended to put a premium on flash and style, and not so much on effectiveness. Moreover, teachers tend to take a lot of things for granted. Often, an assignment asks students to write about the idea or concept under discussion, ignoring the fact that the writing itself is something that aught to be taught if the teacher does not want to be endlessly disappointed and annoyed.

Gradual Release of Responsibility is a system of instruction that can be summarized in three steps:
  1. I do
  2. We do.
  3. You do.
The first step is always teacher modeling. If I want my students to write a written response, I have to demonstrate for them how to do that. I give them models of responses which we analyze for ideas and organization. I model (with my invaluable document camera) the actual thinking and writing of a response. Obviously, I chunk this activity up as necessary.

Then students get a chance to practice the thinking and skills in pairs or table groups. They know it's practice, and they know they have lots of resources to help them along. They work, and the teacher circulates, answering questions and giving feedback.

And then we debrief, listening to examples of the groups' work, talking about trouble spots and difficulties.

Then we get to the stage where a lot of classroom instruction begins: the students complete the activity individually.

Once this methodology is internalized, you realize that a lot more of your time is spent teaching, rather than simply assessing students' inability to perform learning activities.

3. Ongoing Formative Assessment

In a field so overwhelmingly dominated by assessment--most of it pretty inauthentic--it seems strange to speak of assessment as an important instructional tool, but that's exactly what it is.

First: terminology. Most of what we think of when we think of assessment is "Summative" in nature. That means that it's simply record keeping. It allows students to demonstrate their understanding (or lack thereof), and while this data may be used for many purposes (some of them quite nefarious), it will not be used to drive further instruction. Why not? Because we're moving on. The summative assessment simply tells us who got it and who didn't.

"Formative" assessment, on the other hand, measures student understanding for the purpose of informing further instruction.

More importantly, "assessment" is not synonymous with "testing." Almost anything can become a formative assessment if it is used in that way. A homework assignment shows that a majority of students are still struggling with a particular skill. Therefore, I alter the next day's lesson plan to reteach and re-assess. When the work shows that a small percentage of students don't understand, I develop a plan to target those students.

Formative assessment is about getting the students where they need to be.

I find that the "better" I am as a classroom teacher is in direct proportion to the degree to which I embed formative assessments, large and small, into everything I do. The largest part of my job becomes taking the class's temperature and prescribing the necessary medicine.

One effect of this way of thinking is that a lesson plan is never really a lesson plan. It's a suggestion. It's a list of learning activities. I begin with every week planned (or, preferably, over-planned), but rare is the week in which that plan proceeds as written, because I am constantly tweaking, reteaching, re-assessing, and re-inventing. It's this dynamic response to assessment data that is the definition of quality classroom instruction.

Now, obviously this is in no way a comprehensive list of skills and strategies for classroom instruction, but these ARE, in my opinion, the most important, and they were also all suspiciously missing from my teacher education training.

So, teachers, what did I miss? What would YOU name as your big three?


For further reading:

On PLC work: Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement by Richard DuFour, Robert E. Eaker.

On Understanding By Design: Understanding by Design by Wiggins and McTighe.

On Gradual Release of Responsibility: That Workshop Book: New Systems and Structures for Classrooms That Read, Write, and Think by Samantha Bennett.

On Formative Assessment: Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam.


  1. It's not a book for middle-schoolers, obviously, but I have recently been introduced to the first book on writing meant for the classroom that I have actually found useful, and it strikes me that it follows something much like your approach:

    I've just started the semester with it, but I have high hopes.

  2. I'm glad you mentioned that book. It reminds me that I bastardized a bunch of stuff from it which is sitting in some file-folder somewhere...

  3. " built on a philosophy that says that the teacher's job is to ensure learning for all students, and when they don't get it, my job is to have a plan for how to deal with that."

    I feel this so deeply I want to vomit.

    I cannot tell you how much your instruction, crash course as it was, has helped me. It has led to "Oh, I get it" moments almost every day. They are beautiful. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.