Category Archives: pedagogy

What’s the hardest thing a teacher does?

I have always said that assessment is one of the hardest things a teacher does, and I still think that.  But a conversation with one of my teachers this week made me wonder if maybe something else teachers do is even harder.

Maybe the hardest thing a teacher does is self-assessment.  Their own self-assessment and self-reflection on their practice.  Maybe the hardest thing a teacher does is to be willing to look at their practice, decide it needs changing , and do the hard and messy work of changing how they teach.

I know this is a hard thing for teachers to do, because lots of times teachers don’t.  But I don’t think teachers don’t change because they are lazy or uninterested.  In fact, I almost never meet teachers who don’t truly care about their practice.  Most do.  However, change is scary.  For teachers, a change in practice is also intertwined with a fear of losing classroom control (who doesn’t have the scary teacher nightmare in August?).  Probably the way that the school system implements change doesn’t help either.  One shot workshops don’t work because when a teacher goes back and tries out the new idea, it probably doesn’t work very well at first.  But, there is no support.  The workshop is over.  Or, there is an implication, delivered by the principal or board staff, that this new idea is it, we will all do it, we will all get it right, and that’s that.  Again, there is little support, little deep understanding of the change, and, therefore,  little buy in.

Teachers change their practice when certain conditions are in place, at the school level, that give teachers the support to make changes.  Here are a few things that have worked in my schools to help create cultural changes that last:

  • “Try something new; no one will die”.  I say this often to my teachers.  They made me a sign that hangs on the wall.  We have to support teachers with new ideas by allowing them ample time to muck about and try things.  They need to know that it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work.  They need to know that as they are trying out new ideas they will be learning, too, not just their students.  They will be reflecting and changing and assessing as they go.  Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to have it all figured out before you start.  Just start trying it and see.  You may have to change your rubric.  You may end up changing what your learning goal was.  You may not get to all your lessons.  You may change direction half way through.  That’s ok so long as you are reflecting about your new idea in light of what are students learning and able to do.  Your students won’t die and everyone will learn something.  Next time you will teach it better.
  • Teachers need to believe that teaching is the coolest thing they do.  Most teachers went into teaching believing this.  When a culture in the school is established that reinforces this “coolness” factor, there is renewed energy in the building.  The easiest way for that to happen is for everyone to think that I, the principal, thinks that, too.  I have conversations all the time with my teachers about teaching.  I talk about what they are doing; I talk about what one teacher is doing to another; I talk about things I’ve seen; I talk about ideas I’ve heard about; I talk about books I’ve read; when I go into classrooms, I talk with kids about their work or I teach.  No one in the building doubts that I think teaching is really a very cool thing to do.
  • Teachers work in teams.  We always work together–in subjects, in grades, in cross subject teams.  Teachers who teach similar things are in classrooms that are next to each other.  Budget decisions are made in teams.  The work of learning about teaching is done in teams.  But, the work is rarely about planning the same thing together.  Teachers do plan together but it is not mandated.  Learning together is mandated but how you teach your class is left up to individual teacher style and professional judgement.  Almost all my teachers teach similarly but I have never told them they have to.  What has been the same is the deep conversations and learning we have done about pedagogy, assessment, teaching practice and student work.  We never have PD by compliance.
  • You need to have and build capacity in the building, and I have to be part of that.  We are all learning to be better together.  We read books, watch video clips, work with consultants and Learning Support Teachers.  We learn from each other.  We consult.  While I have lots of expertise in curriculum, I don’t have it all.  And when I don’t, it isn’t a big deal.  In front of the teachers, I pull out a book where I think we might get some better information.  There are definitely better ways of teaching, and not so good ways of teaching.  There is a lot of research out there to point you in the right direction.  Everyone at my school, me included, knows that we are heading towards the research-based ideas.  We aren’t taking “baby steps”–we are diving in (me, too).  But, if we don’t get it right, well, no one will die and we will figure it out next time.
  • Start with little things you know will work.  When you can offer teachers little ideas that you know will work, and the freedom to try them without fear or evaluation, then it is easy.  Teachers change their practice because it works for the students in their classroom not because the principal is coming to visit or check.  For example, the prescribed posting of learning goals and success criteria in classrooms across the world has not changed practice as we might have hoped.  Why?  The posting alone doesn’t automatically change what happens with kids so it isn’t exciting or fun or cool.  A teacher can post learning goals and success criteria and students can stay the same.  What does make a difference is that the posting means that students are more confident in the learning, and that in order to post, the teacher has done the deep work of being planned and purposeful.  But the posting alone doesn’t ensure those things. But, when teachers find something that does engage their students or helps them to learn better, well, that’s exciting.  So, then teacher practice changes.

We need to recognize that changing one’s own practice is really, really hard.  Teaching is a personal profession.  Teachers want to do a good job and feel successful.  A class of 30 disengaged or unruly students can make you feel pretty unsuccessful pretty quickly.  So, without the right conditions in place, teachers are reluctant to change.  But, when teachers have ownership, the freedom to experiment, someone interested in what they are doing, and the support of colleagues and administration, then it is much easier to give it a try–no one will die.

 

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John Hattie’s Visible Learning….what might it mean in the classroom?

At our last staff meeting we were looking at some of John Hattie’s work from Visible Learning. Of course some of the rankings surprised us–how could it be that class size isn’t that big a deal?  Or technology?  I have been doing some further reflection to try and capture why his meta-analysis might be important for us as teachers.  It is not that programs or ideas we do are not good for kids—he shows that almost everything works to some degree.  What is interesting is when you start to look at those things that have the greatest effect and compare them to those that have a lesser effect.  It would make sense that we would concentrate our efforts on the factors with the greatest effect size.  Here are my thoughts, in a somewhat random order as it is the end of an extra-long weekend…

  • Creating a challenging and trusting environment matters. Students do best when they know what the expectations are and when those expectations are high. And this makes sense.  We all thrive when we are doing something challenging that we believe we can be successful at.
  • Relationships matter. This makes sense, too. We are going to do our best in environments where we feel a sense of connectedness.  When you can build a sense of community and team in your classroom you create an energy for learning.
  • Knowing what and why you are doing something is important. Then getting feedback on it as you go increases learning and makes you want to learn more. This works for students and teachers.
  • When students have a good sense that they have learned something that matters. We want kids to get it, and know they have got it. That makes for confident learners.  We want to be teachers who get it, and know we’ve got it.  It makes for confident teachers.
  • Knowledgeable teachers provide opportunities for students to summarize, question, clarify and synthesize their learning in reciprocal ways—not all lecture and not all student discovery. Planned and purposeful mastery of the material. And when kids are struggling, teachers can pinpoint the problems immediately, and remediate that problem.

But these high yield strategies are hard.  None of them are just about opening the textbook or the binder of worksheets.  All of them are about teachers who intentionally determine the learning environment of the classroom.  All of them are about teachers who truly believe that the actions they take impact the learning …and when they don’t see learning happening the way they want it to, they try something new.  After all, they know that no one will die.

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Why Spring is the best time to try something new (and no one will die)

One of the nicest things about teaching is that you get a “do-over” every year.  And most us, come the spring, start identifying things we will do better or differently next year.  We have great intentions for September.  The problem is, September is actually a terrible time to try new things in your classroom.  You don’t know your students, they don’t know you, you are trying to establish routines, you need to do diagnostic assessments, IEPs are due (and you don’t know your students), long range plans are due, and the progress report is looming over your head.  Often all of our best intentions go by the wayside in the business of September because we are just trying to stay afloat.  So when is the best time to try something new?  Spring!

April, May and June are the best times to try something new in your classroom because:

  • You have classroom management for this group more or less figured out.
  • You know your students and can predict what some of the challenges of your new idea might be.
  • You students trust you and will forgive any disasters.
  • You have built relationships with them already.
  • You know them well enough that if your new idea doesn’t work and it interferes with some data collection, it isn’t a big deal. You will still be able to write the June report card.
  • You’re thinking about new ideas right now—so go for it.

What might you do differently in the spring?

  • Maybe you want to try using google classroom or an ipad app more regularly.
  • Maybe you’d like to be more intentional with your small group instruction—do you intentionally plan who you will see and the teaching point that you are going to cover with them? Do you track this and write it down?
  • Maybe you are going to structure your period in a more intentional way to allow for regular fluency work or some vocabulary development or a daily read aloud or some review of previously learned concepts.
  • Maybe you’d like to learn more about readers’ and writers’ workshop and see how that might work for you.
  • Maybe you are going to commit to 15-20 minutes of math consolidation every time you do a problem solving lesson, on the day you do the lesson.
  • Maybe you are going to revamp how you give specific and direct feedback to students- regular conferences, as they work in google drive, in small group instruction.
  • Maybe you are going to work on recording more observations and conversations and see how this changes your ability to write the June report card or form intentional small groups for specific skill instruction.
  • Maybe you are going to be more intentional at teaching the specific expectations on the IEP and recording your observations of how students are meeting those expectations.
  • Maybe you are going to increase the number of parent contacts you have both to get parent input on challenges but also to make good news calls.

There are always a gillion things to do.  Pick one thing that you think would make a difference to your practice and try it out this spring on the classes you already know.  You will be able to muck about with it and not have everything come crashing down.  By June, you will have ironed out the kinks and made it part of your practice and then, in September, it won’t be a new thing but just how you teach.

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We LOVE Google Classroom…but is there anything to be wary about?

In the school I work, the teachers have embraced Google Classroom.  We see lots and lots of benefits:  student engagement, integrated technology, paperless environment and a huge cut in the photocopying budget, and many others.  But my job is to provoke critical thinking (my teachers love it when I do that) and so today I am reflecting upon all the positives I see but also ask some questions that may guide us as we move forward with integrated technology.

Here is a somewhat related example.  A number of years ago the smartboard was the tool to have.  And, smartboards can be very cool, interactive learning tools.  But, some of the research that arose from looking at classrooms with smartboards was that teachers  were moving away from small group instruction and collaboration and back to “sage on the stage” type learning because the smartboard lent itself to that style of teaching.

Here’s what I see happening in our classrooms that I love about google classroom:

  • Organization-yours and theirs. In the classrooms that are moving towards “paperless” kids don’t lose their notes and can access their work from any device. Teachers are able to see who has done what, in real time, and keep track of complete and incomplete work.
  • There is no doubt that our students are tech-savvy. They enjoy using the chromebooks to find assignments, interact with the internet, complete online dissections, access texts and materials.  It makes sense to them to use the technology.
  • Timely and immediate feedback. We are learning the value of being able to peek in on a student as they are working, or in the evenings and find out where they are. We can conference the next day, plan a minilesson or even chat back to the student online.
  • Differentiated Instruction. Within the google classroom teachers can upload a number of resources that may meet a variety of student needs. Those students who need the read and write feature can do so seamlessly.
  • Shy students may feel more comfortable. Students who may not enjoy speaking in groups often feel more comfortable participating in an online discussion. They may feel more comfortable submitting work to you for feedback online.

Here are some cautions that might be causes for concern… or not:

  • Would there be a temptation to return to the worksheet or booklet type of teaching because it is so easy to upload the instructions and the task?
  • Might we move away from the real time collaboration because our students are so engaged on line? Is there a need for both?  Do we get different results from different kinds of collaboration?
  • Are we creating too much work for ourselves in trying to give timely feedback to every student, every day? How do we organize it so that we are checking in but it is manageable?
  • Does google classroom lend itself to more individual work? How do we create that balance between collaboration and individual work?
  • While it is great to provide online feedback, is there still a need for face-to-face feedback and/or small group instruction? How do we decide when to do each?

If I invited you to our senior elementary school you would see students using technology in a seamless manner in every class.  We experiment with  iPads, chrome books and personal devices.  Technology is not an “event” but a part of how we do school.   Google classroom is successful in our school and we continue to find new ways every day for it to enhance student learning.  But embracing new ideas is about reflecting critically as well—as we go forward on this journey, are there other cautions?  Are my cautions needless worrying by a 20th century educator?  How will we refine our use of Google Classroom to provide the best educational experience for our 21st century learners?

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100% of the kids, 100% of the time

This week I participated in a webinar hosted by a principal from Toronto, Emma Nichols (http://goo.gl/VtF6ET).  A number of times throughout the webinar she mentioned that their guiding principle was “100% of the kids, 100% of the time”.  Her school is a diverse, inner-city school in Riverside.  I like her motto:  it is inspirational.  It is also over-whelming.  I began to wonder if that could also be my motto and what would that mean if you really tried to reach 100% of the kids, 100% of the time.

The rationale behind the motto is valid.  If you don’t have this mindset then, by default your motto has to be something like 75% of the kids, 100% of the time or 100% of the kids, 75 % of the time, or 75% of the kids, 75 % of the time.  Would you really want to be the parent of the child who fell into the 25%?  Would you want to be that kid? When you start to think about it like that, of course it is true.  But is it doable?  How would a school go about living the motto of 100% of the kids, 100% of the time.

Upon reflection I think it is a lot about mindset- if we approach each day, each task, each period, each kid believing that we can reach 100% of the kids, 100% of the time, then we might have a better chance of achieving that goal than if we begin the day believing that we can’t.  But as with all great educational ideals, what might it look like in our practice?

  • Understanding and believing in differentiation. Do we always differentiate or do we sometimes say “I’ll just see if they can do this before I change it”.  When designing a learning opportunity do we look at it through the eyes of each of our students?  Does your school’s special education model help or hinder in the support of 100%of the kids?  Is anyone getting left behind?  Do you believe in multiple entry points into learning?  Differentiation is not just giving the kid a B because of an IEP–it is reaching 100% of the kids, 100% of the time.
  • Relationships.  Sometimes it is hard to like 100% of the kids, 100% of the time.  I usually can sense when someone doesn’t like me.  I bet kids can, too.  I think that sometimes my frustration may be interpreted by kids that I don’t think they can be successful.  We know that kids who are successful at school feel that there are adults who care about them.  Wednesday wasn’t my best day for that. I keep working on trying different approaches for different kids.  Figuring out how to be firm and consistent and kind and caring to 100% of the kids, 100% of the time!
  • Engagement.  When you look out on the sea of faces are they rapt? Attentive?  Are kids eager to get going on the activities you set out?  Do they feel confident to begin or are willing to give it a go?  School is not a birthday party.  You do not need to “entertain” your students.  However, if you look out, day upon day onto a sea of sleepy faces, I’m not sure your students are engaged.  Do you like workshops or meetings where you are not engaged?  Do you learn in those situations?  Best guess if your students are not engaged is that either you are talking too much or the task is not challenging.  Just because you might remember that school was boring doesn’t mean that it has to be.  And sometimes, I think that we fall into the trap of thinking that it is the kids who have to do the engaging.  But, if they are not engaged that is pretty clear feedback for you about your lesson.  I know that if I am leading a meeting and no one is paying attention that it is not an engaging topic for my staff.
  • Small group instruction. Kids are complex and learning stuff is hard.  The easiest way to meet the needs of 100% of the kids is to teach them in smaller homogeneous groups within a flexible model.  You will never reach all of your students through whole group instruction alone. As you begin to value small group instruction more, you will begin to be purposeful in how you plan for them, intentionally, instead of accidentally, reaching 100% of the kids.

It is a lofty goal:  100% of the kids, 100% of the time.  But most goals worth striving for are lofty.   I know that I will keep it in mind when I am thinking about our more challenging students and reflect upon whether I believe it for that kid, too.

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Student choice vs. “you are still the teacher”

Sometimes when we adopt new ideas in education, it takes a while during the implementation stage to figure out where the balance is.  Some of you may remember “whole language”.  While the actual research into whole language pedagogy never suggested that phonics was not an important part of reading, the early implementation of the pedagogy got a little messed up.  Once we took the ideas of whole language and developed a more balanced approach to learning, things got better.

As the educational community has moved more towards “student-centered learning”, “learning by doing” and “student voice and choice”, we do need to remember that teachers can still tell kids that there are “must dos”.  It is choosing when and where to implement the “must dos” that is tricky and requires extensive teacher knowledge and professionalism.

Recently my math teachers and I went to a session with Marian Small ( a well-known mathematics guru).  A teacher in the audience lamented that her grade 9 students couldn’t cope with proportional reasoning because they didn’t know their multiplication facts.  Small’s response was:  Teach them.  As a more problem-based math environment is being implemented in Ontario there is confusion about math facts.  And, students who are perfectly capable of knowing them with greater automaticity arrive in grade 7 without that skill.  It makes fraction work very difficult.

In primary language classes across the western world, primary students are encouraged to write long before they know how to spell or use proper capitalization and punctuation.  This is a good thing.  The problem is that at some point there needs to be an expectation that they apply correct spelling, punctuation and capitalization as they are writing.  We get students arriving grade 7 believing that it ok to write without any capital letters, periods or paragraphs until the revision stage.  It is an efficient practice and no writer I know would ever make so much work for themselves.

So we have decided two things:  we will insist that most students learn their number facts and students will write using periods, capitals and paragraphs as they go in the first draft.  It is not a choice.  Students need to know how to do this.  We will see what happens.

It makes me think, however, about when and where student voice and choice should come into being and how we interpret this as teachers.  It reminds me of parenting.  I always gave my children a choice about the pajamas they wore.  I never gave them a choice about going to bed.  In classrooms we want to make sure that we are providing multiple entry points into learning and opportunities for students to express their voice through choice.  But, we also need to remember that we, as teachers, get the big picture.  There are times when we need to have “must dos”; when we need to ensure that students are having the specific opportunities that we know will ensure success.

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Letting go of teacher control is not chaos

Today I had to really think about why we integrate technology so well into our program at our school as  I had a visitor who came to observe and ask questions.  He was impressed by the fluidity of the technology use in all the classrooms.  He was impressed with the level of engagement of the students.  We talked about how using chrome books or ipads was not an event at our school but just part of how we do school.  How did that happen he wondered?    I think there aremany of reasons but the main one is pedagogy.  In all things about teaching, all the pieces have to complement each other:  teaching style, resources, assessment, classroom management and technology.  One of the questions that our visitor asked was how did the teachers feel about giving up the computer lab two and half years ago?  My response was that by the time we started to think about doing so, the way we taught had changed so that a computer lab really didn’t mesh with how we were teaching.

In a traditional classroom environment, the teacher had all the control:  all the students did the same assignment at the same time with the same due date; all the students created the same art project; all the students read the same book finishing at the same time.  And, all the students used the computer lab for the same purpose at the same time.  This gave the teacher a sense of control, and comfort.

As we move toward more student voice and choice, toward a more workshop environment, we find that kids are working on different assignments, at different times.  They are reading different books at different speeds.  They are writing different genres and on different topics.  They may be working on an Ipad, on a chrome book or laptop, on their own phone or in a workbook.  Some students may be using voice to text software.  Some students may have the google document translated to a different language or different reading level.  Students may be working individually or in groups.  A traditional teacher, thinking about this might think it sounds like chaos.  But it is not.

The trick to teaching is not in control but in intentionality.  When you, as the teacher, know exactly what you want your students to be able to know and do then it is easier to allow them to arrive at that learning goal in a multitude of ways.  Your intentionality will lead the way.  It is important to realize, though, that student voice and choice is not the same as “anything goes”.  If you intentionally want students to be able to write a well-crafted and organized paper they may be able to choose the length, the topic and the format.  But, a diorama will not meet your learning goal.

Our fluid use of technology in our classrooms is not because we are tech-savvy (although many of us have become so).  It is because our pedagogy allows for fluidity.  We are intentional in what we want students to be able to know and do and we create an environment in which technology supports those goals.  Had we tried to implement this degree of technology into a traditional teaching practice it would not have worked.  It is not about the technology.  Technology is not a thing.  It is all about the intentional learning and teaching in the classroom.

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Grouping students for maximum success and comfort

Sometimes I go to a workshop and the presenter hands out a piece of paper and then tells you to find a partner (or a group of 3) to discuss it with.  Even as a grown-up, there is often that moment of dread.  Who will I talk to?  What if no one wants to be my partner?  I don’t know these people! Oh, it looks like everyone has a partner now; what should I do?  Maybe I will go to the washroom!

Another presenter will do the same activity but randomly number or colour code the papers.  The instruction will be to find the partner with the same colour or number and talk about the paper.  I don’t mind these nearly as much.  I know I will have a partner.  There is no looking, no trying to catch someone’s eye, no having to approach someone.  I enjoy these kinds of interactions.

As a teacher I often wanted my students to work in partners or in groups.  But, I will admit, I didn’t often think about how I would achieve the groupings.  And if I hadn’t planned that part then I resorted to “find a partner or a group of 3”.  It was easy for me, as the teacher, to give that instruction.  Invariably there would be a few kids leftover at the end and I would put them together.  I didn’t think much about it at the time.  I have been thinking about it more recently.

A new student came to my office this week.  She is struggling to fit in.  She told me she had no friends.  She said she hated it when the teacher asked everyone to find a partner and no one chose her.  I remembered how I felt at meetings, even meetings where I know people.

These days I observe classes more than I teach them and I see things I never saw when I was teaching.  When I am in classes where students are told to find a partner, inevitably students start to make eye contact.  Some students keep their heads down.  One or two students are always swarmed by a number of students and have the luxury of choosing their partner.  There are always one or two students that quickly bop around to numerous students trying to find someone who will say yes.  Some students grab onto another student’s arm and won’t let go, staking out their partner early.  And then, there are always some students left at the end.  Frequently when these students are paired up there is eye rolling or faces.

Now when I teach, even adults, I never say “choose a partner” unless I am totally disorganized.  And then, invariably, I regret it.  Here are some things to think about when grouping students in order to create maximum learning and maximum comfort for your students:

  1. Do you want students in homogeneous or heterogeneous groups?  If it matters, and sometimes it does, you need to make the groups ahead of time.  I suggest a variety of groupings so that the same students aren’t always paired together.
  2. Is there value in having students work with the same partner or group over time? I think so.  I think that trust builds over time and students are more likely to feel comfortable and take risks.
  3. Peter Liljedahl has done research on Visible Random Groupings where students are randomly assigned different working partners as they enter the room (http://www.peterliljedahl.com/wp-content/uploads/Visibly-Random-Groups-June-20-2013.pdf). He finds that this type of grouping works better than any other type of grouping and that teachers who try it also stick with it and do not go back to letting students pick their own partners.  You can assign numbers, group kids by colour, birthday, height, favourite songs etc.  It doesn’t appear to matter just that students see that all groupings are random and the expectation is that they will learn to work with their group.

Do consider the power we give to some students and the angst we cause other students simply by saying “choose your partner”.  Try random groupings.  Try working partners for the month.  See what works best for you.

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8 Ways for kids to get effective feedback – it’s not all on you!

A teacher said, “I just keep thinking that feedback is always me talking to the students about their work.”  As teachers, when we hear the word “feedback” that’s what we think of automatically.  And then we despair that we don’t have enough time to give that kind of feedback to every one of our students about every one of their assignments or tasks.  It is a daunting task.  Certainly that is one form of feedback to students and research shows that when students receive regular and timely feedback as they are learning, they do much better.

Grant Wiggins gives this definition of feedback:

Basically, feedback is information about how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal. I hit a tennis ball with the goal of keeping it in the court, and I see where it lands—in or out. I tell a joke with the goal of making people laugh, and I observe the audience’s reaction—they laugh loudly or barely snicker. I teach a lesson with the goal of engaging students, and I see that some students have their eyes riveted on me while others are nodding off. (http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept12/vol70/num01/Seven-Keys-to-Effective-Feedback.aspx)

He goes on to state that feedback is never evaluative nor is it advice.  It is simply information conveyed about the effects of an action as related to a goal. 

 Dictionary.com says that the origin of the word comes from 1915-20 where the verb phrase “feed back”  became a noun.  Again, it is this idea that information is fed back to you in response to an action.

When I go to the gym and work on the elliptical machine I get lots of feedback during my work out:

  • I can see if I am keeping my pace up and compare it to other days
  • I can compare my pace to how my body is feeling this day.
  • I can tell how far I am going and how long it is taking.
  • I can feel how my legs are feeling and my breathing and if I am doing ok.
  • If my back hurts then I know my posture is off.

All of that information affects my workout.  I make choices to work harder, back off, change something or give up for the day.

In your classroom there are many ways that students can receive feedback about their learning:

  • You can conference with students offering non-evaluative comments about what you understand and what might be unclear in their work. You can ask thought-provoking questions.
  • When students are working on little whiteboards and holding up their answers, you get feedback on whether they understand, but you also offer immediate feedback when you stop to reteach a concept because you notice a lot of misconceptions. This happens, too, when you are using Kahoots, if you stop and explain when the majority are incorrect.
  • When your students are working in groups or pairs they are getting constant feedback from their peers. For example, Jack and Sue are solving a math problem.  Jack says something and Sue looks at him quizzically.  Jack now knows that either his idea is off or he has explained it unclearly.  Both are good pieces of information.  He tries to explain his point again using a different tactic and one of two things happens.  Either, Sue now understands and Jack knows that his original explanation was unclear, or Sue still doesn’t understand and Jack begins to suspect his thinking may not be clear.  They go on in this fashion until both understand.
  • In French class when the teacher asks students to repeat words or phrases multiple times, paying attention to their pronunciation they are getting feedback. They try it out, the teacher says it again, they try it again trying to mimic the pronunciation closer.
  • In PE class when two partners are volleying the ball and the one partner is not able to return it, both students are receiving feedback. The one volleying the ball may not have good enough control to get the ball to the right spot.  The one receiving the ball may need to move or change position in order to return the ball.  When both partners have a goal of keeping the volleying going as long as possible, both are using feedback from the process to achieve their goal.
  • When students can compare their work against an anchor chart, rubric, checklist or exemplar before submitting, they are receiving feedback. They can see if their work contains all the components required and if not, are able to fix the work.
  • When the teacher says, highlight all the places in your writing where you used descriptive words (or periods, or dialogue, or complex sentences etc.) the student gets immediate feedback by seeing to what extent he or she has done so.
  • When a student is involved in an inquiry project in science and has multiple opportunities to test a hypothesis, he or she is getting feedback. If the task is to build a bridge that will hold a certain weight, and the bridge breaks, that is feedback.  When a student is encouraged to use that feedback to figure out what didn’t work and attempt a different design, the student has used that feedback to learn.

Teachers can, in a planned and purposeful way, design their instruction so that students have many meaningful opportunities to receive feedback as they are working:

  • Provide students with multiple opportunities to try something out
  • Provide students opportunities to talk with their peers about complex and challenging problems
  • Provide students with support as they are working not only after they are working
  • Ensure that students know what goals they are working towards, and are able to see that their efforts make a difference in achieving those goals

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Sometimes the best teaching is to STOP teaching

Believe it or not, grade one teachers do teach students when to use periods and capitals.  So do grade two teachers, grade three teachers, grade four teachers …and grade 12 teachers.  But we are talking about kids, and it takes a long time for many of them to apply the skill on a regular basis.

I take pottery classes.  This same concept happens in the pottery workshop.  There is a new potter sitting next to me and she is struggling to center and throw a small bowl (it is not as easy as Demi Moore made it look in the movie Ghost).  The other day our instructor was reminding her of all the things she needed to do to throw this pot- and then jokingly said…” and the following 77 things, too”.  We talked about how when you are learning a new skill and there are so many things to integrate at once that it is hard to concentrate on all of them at the same time.  Something that the instructor can do without even thinking is so hard for someone just beginning.

The Ontario curriculum is probably too big (if you aren’t from Ontario maybe yours is, too).  The specific expectations are those skills that will lead students to the overall expectations.  They are not goals in and of themselves.  Students do not need to “master” every specific expectation in order to meet the overall expectation.

My new pottery friend does not need to “master” every individual task in order to make her bowl.  Next week’s bowl won’t be perfect but it will be a little bit better.  And every week after that, her bowls will improve little by little.  Some weeks she will stall out.  Some weeks she will focus too much on one skill to the detriment of another skill.  Eventually she will begin to integrate all of the pieces and move onto mugs.  The instructor will say exactly the same things to her every week.  At some point something he says will make more sense than it does now.

So how do these stories relate to the title of this blog?  As teachers we are like the pottery instructor; we know the stuff and have integrated the pieces.  Also, we have thousands of great ideas on how to get kids to know the stuff.  We get caught in the trap of thinking that if I only do this one more activity, this one lesson more, then everyone will get it.  But maybe that isn’t true.  Maybe we need to stop giving more instruction and just let kids try it out.  Maybe we need to be ok with giving a minilesson and some kids not getting it—this time.  Because if we take a mindset that teaching is messy and circular (and recursive) then we know that we will be coming back to key ideas many times over the course of the year.

We want to plan our teaching time so that students have ample time to practice the skills without getting caught in the trap of trying to do it perfectly right now.  We want to design classes that have less teaching and more doing.  We want to be comfortable with letting kids struggle as they integrate the pieces.  We need to remember that we have all year to reach the overall expectations and that when we provide multiple opportunities for students to practice over time, we are giving them the support to integrate everything we’ve told them.

You may be thinking:  But what about assessment?  What about accountability?  What about learning goals and success criteria?  What about getting through the curriculum?  All those things are still in place but we need to think about them all as helping students learn not things to get done.  Stop thinking of your formative assessment as assessment and more like intentionally noticing where your students are at during the learning journey.  You are still accountable but you are remembering that you have the whole year to reach those overall expectations.  You still have a plan.  You are still purposeful in your decisions.  You still have learning goals and success criteria but they are bigger and encompass more learning than just today’s lesson.  And, you will teach the curriculum this way but in a more authentic way because you will be concentrating on your students’ learning of the big and important ideas and not checking off specific expectations.

A consultant friend of mine says “Teach lightly”. I like that image.  Remember that no matter what my pottery instructor says, it is still going to take a long time for my new friend to master the craft.  She needs scaffolding, support, repetition and practice time.  So, when you are feeling overwhelmed and flustered that your students are not learning, just stop teaching so much and let them practice.

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