The same set of questions

I’d like to unpack this statement a bit.

Those who know me will not at all be surprised to find out that my thoughts need more than 140 characters to explain. Particularly when it is me explaining them.

When we think of teacher accountability, explicit instruction, “non-negotiables” and the like, it can tricky to express how we are expecting all teachers to “do the same things” without making it sound like all teachers literally need to be doing the exact same teacher moves in their classrooms.

Cookie-cutter, robotic, prescribed teachers isn’t the goal. However, there are some things that all teachers need to do. I’ve found that this seems to make the most sense as a list of questions. As my colleague Matt often says about the Positive Behavior Intervention Support framework: “It isn’t a program to be followed, but rather a list of questions that need answers.”

The implication in that statement is that each teacher has the freedom and flexibility to answer the questions however they see fit. That’s where the individuality comes in. They only thing a teacher wouldn’t have the freedom to do is NOT have an answer.

So, for example, in general for any given activity, you might envision something that looks like the picture on the left (credit: Wesley Friar) or the picture on the right (credit:Writing by Design) .

TwoClassrooms

both photos used via Creative Commons licensing 

Neither cooperative learning or guided individual practice are an absolute good or bad. So, the quality of the choice to use one or the other comes in the pairing with the desired outcomes. It’s the answer to the questions.

What are you expecting the students to learn by the end of the experience?

How does your strategy best support that?

Where does that learning target fit in the bigger picture of your course?

All teachers should be able to answer those questions for every lesson.

This doesn’t mean that every lesson has to have a hard content target. It could be that the catapult activity on the right has a learning target of team-building, problem-solving, and effective collaborative creativity (as opposed to being able to model the path of the ball with a quadratic and solve math problems using the model). But then those are your learning targets and they need to be explicitly understood as such because of the next set of questions.

How are you going to verify whether or not each student reached the learning target?

What are you going to do for the students that haven’t reached the learning target by the time of the assessment?

Anything worth making a formal learning target is valuable enough to ensure success for ALL students. This generally easier yet for content goals that are easily memorizable (Depth-of-Knowledge 1, if you’re familiar with Webb’s DOK Framework.) Name all fifty capitals is pretty easy to assess.

As learning goals get more complex or individualized, they also get trickier to assess. As a result, it seems that fewer teachers are asking their students to do complex things. Or at least that is the perception. “Boss says that I need to be able to verify my student growth using data, then I better choose learning targets that are easy to track data on.” This is one of the reasons that “data-based decisions” has taken on some negative connotations particularly among teachers who have powerful non-content goals for their students.

But this sets up a false set of adversaries in the struggle for school improvement. There’s no need to examine this as “things you can take data on” vs. “things you can’t take data on.” Instead, we need to be asking ourselves HOW do we assess our activity’s effectiveness in achieving the goals we have for it?

How do you assess whether a student is growing in his/her creativity? How do you assess student’s ability to collaborate effectively? These are powerful questions. And, quite frankly, it seems like the design challenge involved in answering these questions might appeal quite nicely to the minds of the educators that are advocating for these types of learning targets.

And in all this, we need to remember who we are fighting for. We take data because we need to know if our programs are helping our students grow the way they need to. Our students are too important to allow them to learn amidst ineffective programming. As a teacher, in many cases, I could decide to increase direct instruction an additional 15-minutes per day or add a weekly stop to the school makerspace or have the students start blogging. But, the reality of those changes and updates is that they need to be done FOR something.

And while I support teachers’ abilities to make decisions about what bits best in their instructional plan, all teachers should know what the different pieces are for and should be expected to evaluate whether or not those different pieces are doing what they were designed to do for the students.

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