Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning
By Mike Schmoker
ASCD, 2011, 218 pp.
Teacher Book Club Date: July 19-21, 2011
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In his new book, Mike Schmoker—a former administrator, English teacher, and football coach—makes a bracing case for a back-to-basics approach to education. He calls on teachers and schools, in no uncertain terms, to abandon ever-changing “fads, programs, and innovations,” and zero in on what he calls the “three essential elements” of high-quality schooling: coherent curriculum, effective whole-class instruction, and purposeful reading and writing.
“In a great majority of our schools,” Schmoker says with characteristic boldness, these three elements “will do more than any combination of efforts to ensure that record numbers of students learn and are prepared for college, careers, and citizenship.”
But while he emphasizes the importance of simplicity and consistency in teaching, Schmoker makes it clear that he’s by no means advocating drill-and-kill regimes or canned lessons. In defining what he means by “coherent curriculum,” for example, Schmoker describes a pared down but rich body of academic content knowledge that would allow teachers to delve deeply into essential subject-area topics and draw on a variety of source materials. Such deep exposure to subject matter, he argues, is the necessary basis for developing students’ critical-thinking skills.
In outlining his approach to effective instruction, meanwhile, Schmoker repeatedly makes use of the term “interactive lecture.” As he describes it, this is a form of whole-class lecture “where the focus is on the teacher’s words and directions,” but where ample opportunities are created—indeed, at least every five minutes—for discussion, peer-to-peer collaboration, and “quick-writing.” At the heart of interactive lecturing, Schmoker adds, “we find guided practice, formative assessment, and ongoing adjustment to instruction.” In Schmoker’s ideal classroom, the teacher is constantly circulating and checking for student understanding.
Reading and Writing
Finally, forming the spine of Schmoker’s approach—and infusing both curriculum and instruction—is an intensive emphasis on what he calls “authentic literacy.” Simply put, Schmoker believes that students should be doing a great deal more close reading and analytical writing than they commonly do. “Literacy” he writes, “is still the unrivalled, but grossly under-implemented, key to learning both content and thinking skills.” For all but the earliest grades, and for all core subject areas, he prescribes a near-constant stream of critical-reading assignments (always to be modeled by the teacher), as well as frequent writing prompts and regular end-of-unit research papers. Quoting author Grant Wiggins, Schmoker stresses the use of student writing as a form of “truly educative assessment"—or assessment that “is itself an educational experience.” In the latter part of the book, he provides detailed chapters on how this literacy-intensive approach would work not only in language arts, but also in social studies, science, and math.
Written in a straightforward and honest style, Focus is bound to provoke strong reactions from educators of assorted stripes. Schmoker holds little back, for example, in his criticism of “bloated” and “overwrought” official standards documents that ultimately dilute substantive content. But he is similarly harsh on activities-based pedagogies that, in the name of developing critical-thinking skills, have students spending much of their time working on skits, posters, videos, or PowerPoint presentations. “We must reclaim the hundreds of hours each year that are now spent on nonacademic tasks,” he proclaims. The whole issue of classroom technology, from Schmoker’s perspective, appears to be largely a distraction.
Schmoker is arguably old-school, in other words. But his pointed approach to deep learning has much to offer other schools as well.