Tag Archives: guided instruction

Where did that teacher go? Helping students to make their own decisions

I was looking at some of the EQAO (Ontario’s standardized test in grades 3, 6, 9 and 10) questions in an attempt to understand why many of our students are not doing well.  The problems were hard!  They were tricky!  I actually had to read one of the grade 6 math questions a few times to figure out what to do!  And I think of myself as fairly competent in math, and quite literate.  When looking at some of the other questions in math I noticed that quite a few of the questions required me to perform multiple steps, think beyond one strand in mathematics.  In reading, the questions often required me to pull multiple sources of information together.  In writing, I had to determine the form based on the prompt; I wasn’t necessarily told what to do.

In a conversation with one of our elementary consultants, she expressed surprise that our students, in writing did not score very well in organization.  She said, “But our teachers teach writing forms to death!”  What was happening?

We, as educators, train our students to learn in particular ways. It could be that the way we organize curriculum delivery actually trains students NOT to think.  So when they go to write the EQAO assessment, or end of term exams, and have to think, have to pull multiple sources of information together, make decisions, our students don’t do so well.  Not because they are incapable, and not because we didn’t teach them the stuff, but because they have not been given opportunities to practice making their own decisions.  Let’s look at two examples:

When students learn writing through units that have students write one form of writing (letters, reports, procedural writing, etc.) over and over for many weeks, teachers end up making all the decisions, not the student.  The student isn’t faced with the challenge of determining the form best suited to the audience and the purpose.  Instead, the teacher has taken control of the most important aspect of the writing process and the student only needs to comply by writing in that form on a particular topic, not think.  It shouldn’t be surprising then that when faced with organizing his or her thoughts on a topic during an assessment (or even in real life) the student may be at loose ends.  Where did that teacher who tells me what to do go?

Problem-solving in mathematics classrooms is current practice but there are many misconceptions.  It is not problem-solving if the teacher guides the student through the problem.  It is not problem-solving if the student isn’t challenged.  It is not problem-solving if the student only works in groups and never independently. Students are assessed individually.  And, if every problem for the last 3 weeks has been about the same concept, it really isn’t problem solving.  It shouldn’t be surprising then that when faced with a year-end assessment or exam, many students are at loose ends.  Where did that teacher who tells me what to do go?

We may give lip service to critical thinking and open-ended tasks.  But I urge us all to think about whether our classroom practice is really training our students to be independent thinkers, or whether we actually train them to rely on our guidance.  It’s hard to be a teacher and watch your students struggle.  It’s hard to find that ”just right” amount of struggle.  But, standardized tests, like EQAO, end of semester exams, and real life, all depend on students being able to make their own decisions about what needs to be done.  Let’s help them to do that by providing them with many, many opportunities to do so throughout the course of the year.

1 Comment

Filed under assessment, growth mindset, pedagogy, Uncategorized

Failure is NOT an Option-whose responsibility?

Failure is NOT an option.  I think that our collective vision would be a school in which that was true.  We all aspire to have classrooms full of students who are motivated and committed and do well.  We all aspire to be that teacher-the one that doesn’t have any behavioural problems, who the kids quote when they become famous, who reaches every student (I think I saw a made-for-TV movie about that teacher).

But it is hard.  Sometimes the kids didn’t see the movie.  Some fight us at every turn.  Home life might not be conducive to school attendance.  There may be mental health issues or behaviours that disrupt the learning processes.  Our classes have students with learning disabilities and giftedness; shy students and overt students; calm students and students with ADHD.  By middle school some of our students are discouraged and apathetic about school.

But we still desire to be that teacher, that school where failure is not an option.

Here are some school practices that may lead towards a “Failure is not an option” environment:

  • Recursive/spiralling teaching practice allows us to return to key concepts many times over the course of the year. We don’t expect students to “get” it the first time around but give them many opportunities to master key concepts.
  • Multiple entry points into learning invite students into the learning. Students are more successful when they start the learning at a comfortable place instead of one that is too hard or too easy.
  • Student choice in activities and learning allows for greater engagement. Students can choose their novel, choose the writing topic, choose the geography inquiry, choose their tech build, choose how to express themselves in art, choose chrome books or pencils, etc. Students are more likely to demonstrate grit and determination to succeed when they are engaged in the task.
  • On-going formative assessment helps students to get it right, as they are learning. Teaching is not about completing the task; it is about learning the stuff. Formative assessment ensures that students are learning the stuff.  There’s nothing worse that working hard on something only to find it wasn’t right after all.  Because we give feedback during the learning, our students don’t end up in a situation where they didn’t even know they weren’t doing it right.
  • Scaffolding learning through models, exemplars, anchor charts and checklists allows students to know the expectations before they start. Learning is not a mystery. Systematic use of guided learning with the whole class and in small groups ensures that students move in the right direction and know the learning goals and success criteria (it isn’t about posting them on the board).
  • A responsive special education model ensures that our most vulnerable students are tracked and supported. It is not the responsibility of one person but of all the teachers involved with the student. A collective understanding of the unique needs of some of our students allows for modifications and accommodations to happen seamlessly.   A responsive and proactive use of EAs and the CYW means that we avoid the crisis – most of the time.
  • Grading practices that are fair and about learning not judging.  If it is important enough for us to teach it then it is important enough for them to learn it.  Learning the stuff doesn’t mean that a failing or low grade is ok.  We have to allow  and insist upon retakes and do overs.  We have to give students more opportunities to learn.  We have to provide many chances to try it out before we give the grade.

When we think about a “failure is NOT an option” school environment, we have to think about how do we design our practice for student success.  It would be nice  to think that our belief in “failure is NOT an option” would be enough–maybe a poster or two.  It is easy as teachers to blame kids for being unmotivated and disinterested.   But, it is really about how we design our instructional practices so that students are motivated and successful.


Leave a comment

Filed under classroom environment, pedagogy, school improvement plannig

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.

1 Comment

Filed under classroom environment, Differentiation, learning golas, pedagogy, technology

Feedback, motivation and grades-some wonderings

Some teachers and I had an interesting discussion last week about how despite our best efforts at giving feedback, students weren’t so good at using it.  From that we evolved into a discussion about how kids cared about the mark, not the feedback, and how could we move towards kids seeing the intrinsic value of their work instead of the extrinsic reward of marks.

I really don’t know but I think it bears thinking about, so I did some and here are some of my wonderings, in no particular order.

When I think about the times when I receive feedback, it almost always feels evaluative  when it happens after the fact, even when it is not meant to be.  Although I listen and I make efforts to apply the feedback to the next time, it still makes me feel kind of lousy.  It doesn’t help me feel better about the incident upon which I am getting feedback.  So, although I know it is necessary and “good for me”, I will admit that I don’t like it.

When I get feedback as I am doing something, I don’t feel so bad.  I think about making pots on the wheel.  If my instructor tells me after the pot is glazed that the shape doesn’t quite work for the vase, I get it and try to remember for next time, but usually I end up disliking that vase.  But if he comes by my wheel as I am throwing the pot and tells me that a slight change will improve the form, and helps me do it, then not only am I more likely to appreciate the feedback but I can apply it right then and love the pot.

I hate starting over completely, even when I know I should.  Even when feedback is telling me I should.  I remember a time when I painted the entire basement the wrong shade of yellow.  The basement looked awful.  I went to the paint store, feeling disheartened, and the paint guru was able to help me figure out how to soften the paint colour with a glaze instead of starting all over with primer.  Her expertise helped me to make a big problem a littler problem.

John Hattie, an educational researcher, has looked at the effect size of common school practices.  The one thing that is found to be true the most often is that students are consistently very good at predicting how well they will do on a test or assignment—they don’t really need the grade to tell them.  So, I am thinking that somehow we need to get kids to change how they will do on an assignment before it is finsihed.  I think that we thought that the communication of learning goals and success criteria would help (and maybe it does to some extent), but if the student isn’t sure how to apply the success criteria to his or her work, it isn’t useful.  Again, we need to have the change occur immediately in the doing stage.

And I was thinking about the teachers I currently work with .   They have all made changes to their teaching practices in the two years I have been their principal.  They all appear to be making the changes willingly and with great enthusiasm.  They work together and talk about what is going on in their classrooms.  They support each other.  While my role has been that of coach, cheerleader and guide, I have never stated that such and such a change MUST happen by a certain date (I am not a principal who insists on particular practices such as posting learning goals).  They were not offered salary increases or rewards or even a gold star for changing your practice.  So why did they?  Why do we puzzle over things, try new ways of doing things, reflective on our practice and continually try to improve?

And finally, I was talking with a teacher today about collaboration.  She is in a board project that is focussed on getting kids to collaborate and was telling us the story of one boy, Billy, who is always distracted and off task but she liked her collaboration checklist because she could redirect him more specifically.  Good, I thought.  But then as the conversation moved on she began to tell us how thrilled she was with the Genius Projects she was trying.  Billy never needed redirecting due to off task behaviour then, because he was totally engaged and interested in what he was doing.  How important is engagement to the process of accepting feedback and the role of intrinsic motivation?

Perhaps as I muddle through this a bit more I will come up with some answers.  I’d love to hear what you think.

1 Comment

Filed under assessment, Effective Feedback, growth mindset, pedagogy

Traditional teaching methods may not be supported by research

Teaching, it may surprise you, is very traditional.  We hold onto ideas for a long time.  Many teachers tend to teach the way they remember, or think they remember, being taught.  We tend to like our units of study.  We like to organize the material into blocks of study so that it is easy to organize it.  It certainly makes it easy for us to teach, and we think, intuitively, that by blocking concepts into chunks of study, with lots of repeated practice time built in, we will be helping our students to learn and retain information.  Unfortunately the research does not support these practices.  Below I have summarized some of the psychological research behind learning.  I’ve added a few links to some of the scientific work for those skeptics (I am one so I know).  If you want more of the research send me a message.

Massed Versus Distributed Practice

Intuitively we would think that if students needed to learn something new then they should practice it over and over again in a short period of time so that they “really know it”.  For centuries we have organized schooling this way:  we teach all about multiplication for 4 weeks; we have students write poetry for 4 weeks; we have students identify the main idea for 4 weeks; we have students memorize vocabulary words for 3 weeks; we have students play volleyball for 4 weeks and so on.  However, psychologists have known through controlled experiments that this just isn’t true.  In fact, for over the last 100 years, psychologists have replicated the following:  people retain new information better if they allow time between the practice of new concepts or skills.  The retention of information is greater if there is elapsed time between practice sessions.

Let’s take a simple example:  you need to learn 20 new vocabulary words.  You would think that practicing the definitions of these new words every day for 10 days would make sense.  Then if you were tested on day 11 you’d do quite well.  That tends to be true.  But, if you are tested on day 30, you will remember very few of them.  However, if you practice your 20 new words for 5 days and then rest for a few days and practice for 5 days and then rest for a few days, then when you are tested on day 30 your score will be significantly better.

Research:  Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: A review and quantitative synthesis. Cepeda, Nicholas J.; Pashler, Harold; Vul, Edward; Wixted, John T.; Rohrer, DougPsychological Bulletin, Vol 132(3), May 2006, 354-380.http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.132.3.354;

How We Learn. Ask the Cognitive Scientist: Allocating Student Study Time. “Massed versus “Distributed” Practice.
Willingham, Daniel T. American Educator, v26 n2 p37-39,47 Sum 2002

Interleaving versus Blocked Learning

Intuitively we would think that if students need to learn 3 new concepts (A, B and C) it would make sense to teach them A, then B and then C.  And this is typically how we have taught.  Take a look at any textbook and it is organized into discrete chapters.  Particularly in mathematics you will note that the chapter on addition is distinct from the chapter on subtraction which is distinct form the chapter on multiplication.  In recent years in reading instruction we looked at all the strategies readers used (visualization, making connections, inferencing etc) and thought that we should teach one per month.  However, psychologists have found, over and over again, that the reverse is true.  If you really want to understand a concept deeply you should learn it “interleaved” with other, preferably similar concepts.  So we should teach ABCABCABC not AAABBBCCC.

Not only does retention improve immensely, but an analysis of errors shows that students make “better errors” when taught in an interleaved fashion.  Students are less likely to simply memorize procedures as they must, as they are learning, choose between multiple options.  Students, as they are learning, develop the skills to see the similarities and differences between concepts.

Let’s look at a mathematics example.  Students need to learn to find the area of a parallelogram, a triangle and a trapezoid.  Instead of teaching them separately, if they are taught together then students are less likely to memorize a formula and more likely to see how the formulas are related to each other.  They are more likely to make sense of the mathematics.

Research:  http://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/pubs/Birnbaum_Kornell_EBjork_RBjork_inpress.pdf;  https://www.gwern.net/docs/spacedrepetition/2014-rohrer-1.pdf


Intuitively we think that “practice makes perfect”.  If students want to master something they should repeat it many, many times in a row to make it stick.  If you want to play middle C, do it 20 times.   If you want to know how to do long division, do 100 problems.  If you want to be able to spell a difficult word, write it out 25 times.  However, psychologists, from their research, will tell you that just isn’t true.  While overlearning does increase retention in the short term (like for the spelling test tomorrow) it does not appear to have long lasting benefits.  Practice is only helpful to mastery.  Once you have mastery, any extra practice is irrelevant.  So, we need our students to practice new skills, but once individual students have demonstrated mastery, any further practice is a waste of time.  It does not increase retention; it may lead to disengagement.

Research:  http://www.yorku.ca/ncepeda/publications/RTPWC2005.pdf

What does all this mean for teaching?  If you consider the three concepts together I think that it can change how we approach planning and teaching.  It would appear that there is something to be gained from teaching lightly and often.  We can come back to concepts many times over the course of the year so that students have time in between learning sessions to “percolate”.  We can teach related concepts together to help students identify similarities and differences.  We can honour that different students may need different amounts of practice time.

As you begin to plan for next year, you may wish to think about how these concepts relate to your subject.  Could you create long range plans that allow for a more recursive approach?  Where you spiralled key ideas though out the year?  In fact, spring being a good time to try new things, so is there something left to teach that you could play with in this way?  See what happens; no one will die.

Leave a comment

Filed under pedagogy

Is it feedback or assistance?

As we move into writing June report cards and are beginning to think about assigning grades, it is helpful to differentiate between when are you giving feedback and when is the student receiving so much assistance that the grade may be effected as the student is not able to independently demonstrate achievement.

Providing effective feedback is not the same as “with assistance”.  You do not need to worry that because a student was able to use your feedback to improve upon his or her work, the final mark should be lower because you provided assistance.  Let’s look at some instances:

Math:  A student is having troubles with fractions and has handed in work with a number of errors.  Providing the correct answers will be useless.  Telling the student that within the first 10 questions, 2 are incorrect and he needs to double check and find the errors by doing each problem using a different strategy is effective feedback and allows the student to learn.  If during the instruction period you sit with the student individually or in a small group and guide him through understanding fractions, you are providing feedback.  However, if the student, at the end of the instructional period, still requires your help to get the right answers, that is with assistance.

Project/Writing:  Students are working on a project.  They have a checklist/rubric/deconstruct available to them.  Midway through you ask them to use the checklist to determine how well they think they are doing and hand it in.  You look to see if you agree and indicate areas of agreement and disagreement.  You make suggestions such as:  your introduction is weak and needs a stronger lead; you haven’t supported your main argument well enough.  The student is able to go back and fix these things independently—that is effective feedback.  You may even work with the student in a small group to help the student develop the skill required.  That is feedback and good teaching.  If, however, the student requires you to sit with her to complete each stage of the project and to suggest how to write it, that is with assistance.

You get a driver’s license if you pass the driving test.  No one asks if you practiced parallel parking one time or 55.  However, if the driving instructor has to guide you through the parallel parking task, you probably won’t get your license.  If the essay you write is brilliant, no one asks how many rewrites you did, or how many opinions you sought.  The fastest skier gets the gold medal.  No one judges how many practice runs she took or how many falls she made learning how to ski that fast.

Effective feedback will lead students towards greater independence in their abilities.  The final grade should not be based on how much feedback or good teaching/support a student required during the instructional time.  A student may sit with you in small group instruction every day for 2 weeks, but if at the end, he is able to demonstrate an understanding of the skill or concept independently, it does not matter how much help he got to get there.  In fact, if your teaching can do that, you have achieved your goal of helping all students to reach their potential.

Leave a comment

Filed under assessment, Effective Feedback, pedagogy

Proactive Teaching vs Reactive Teaching

You plan the lesson. You have the ideas. You can see how it is going to go in your head. And then it doesn’t. Somehow the students don’t respond the way you have anticipated and you have to react, quickly. The more experienced you are, the easier this gets. You make small adjustments as you go along. You quick think of a better strategy. You have the kids get out their silent reading or do jumping jacks while you regroup. The reactive nature of teaching is part of the teaching profession.

However, there are some areas of our teaching practice which are sometimes reactive which could actually be proactive. You learned early in your career that you could react to students not having a pencil, needing to go to the washroom 6 times a class, or not having their homework done OR you could have proactive procedures and routines in place.

Small group instruction is another place where you can be proactive instead of reactive. Often during work time students require help, reassurance or feedback. Often a long line of students develops at the teacher’s desk. Kids are self-identifying that they need help and you, the teacher, are reacting to their plea. While those kids who ask for the help usually get it, this reactive process has several drawbacks:

– While students are in line, they are not working
– You might not get to the end of the line
– Some students who need help, do not self-identify
– The student who wants to ask if he can sharpen his pencil gets in the line when it is really long.

A better, but still reactive method for helping students and providing feedback, is to invite students who are struggling to the guided learning table. As spots become available you can add more students. In this way, you are working with more students at a time, have avoided the line-up problem and can still pay attention to the rest of the class. However….

– Some students who need help, do not self-identify
– The problems facing you at the guided learning table can be diverse
– Students who are waiting may spend most of their time watching for a spot to open up instead of continuing to work

A proactive response to providing students with help and feedback is to actively plan for your guided instruction/feedback during the work period. Based on your observations of students the previous day or a glance at their work, you have already decided that group X needs some support on concept Y and group A needs support with concept B. Once the class is settled in, you pull your groups in anticipation of their needs. Like with any method, there are problems you will face:

1. I think I will be seeing the same groups of kids all the time and not everyone. Remember that fair is not equal and some kids don’t need your help as often. Be ok with seeing your neediest students more often.

2. What about the kids I am not working with who are having a problem? Create structures in your class so kids know what to do when they are stuck. Who are the student “experts” in your class? Do they have permission to put it aside and go onto to something else? Plus, even though you are working with the small group, your sightline will be towards the class and if someone is really struggling, you could probably deal with it quickly. If you are seeing two groups, set a few minutes in between groups to check in. Don’t start your group for the first 5 minutes of work time to make sure everyone is on track. If your group is working, get up and check in with the class and then come back to the table.

3. Won’t the kids I see a lot feel centred-out? Maybe, especially in the later years. So, mix up your groups so that they are homogeneous by skill (all need to work on punctuation) but not by ability (some need help with periods; someone else is learning the semi-colon). Or, start the work period by seeing a higher level group and then call over a group you see more frequently. It won’t be as noticeable then.

4. Even though I am working with a small group, other kids interrupt me at the guided learning table. You make the rules in your class. It is ok to say that you don’t get interrupted at that table unless it is an emergency. But, make sure that all your routines and procedures for dealing with problems are taken care of.

You won’t be able to be proactive all of the time. The nature of teaching is that it is reactive. However, do think about those places in your practice where you can be proactive. A proactive plan for conferencing, providing descriptive feedback and small group instruction will enhance your ability to close achievement gaps and reach all of your students.

Leave a comment

Filed under Differentiation, small group instruction