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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

4 Phrases All Teachers Say and No Students Understand

By Lisa Westman — January 22, 2017 6 min read
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Today’s guest post is written by frequent Finding Common Ground blogger Lisa Westman. Lisa is an instructional coach specializing in differentiation for Skokie School District 73.5 in suburban Chicago. She taught middle school gifted humanities, ELA, and SS for twelve years before becoming a coach.

Before I had children, I had no idea just how crucial explicit directions are for their understanding. Case in point, the time my son took his first independent shower. It seemed simple enough. I told him to “take and shower,” and then asked him, “do you know what to do?”

He responded with a resounding, “yes!”

Ok, then! I turned on the the water, set it to the right temperature, and proudly waited outside the bathroom door for him. So, imagine my surprise when he came out of the bathroom dripping wet, with shampoo in his hair, and soap on his face, trying to wrap a towel around himself.

I was reminded of this incident while attending an inspirational and thought-provoking workshop led by George Couros, author of The Innovator’s Mindset last week. At one point, George showed us a video clip of a dad telling his young son to “keep his eye on the ball,” and the little boy literally put his eye on the ball.

I started to think about all of the ambiguous things educators say to students with the assumption our students share an understanding with us:

“Study.”

“Work in your groups.”

“Finish your work.”

“Behave.”

More importantly, I started to think about how often we believe we have given students clear directives and put the onus on them meet these vague expectations. Then, if our students do not meet these expectations, we allow ourselves to make convenient excuses, “I told them to study. They didn’t. I can’t do that for them.”

“Is what we teach as important as how we teach?”
Couros asked us to think about this question during his workshop. As an instructional coach, my focus is on instruction. I strongly believe that regardless of the content, good instruction is good instruction. So, my inclination was to answer, “how.”

But, as I pondered this question more deeply, I believe the answer is actually, “both.” Part of high-quality instruction is offering the right content for individual learners. And, part of high-quality instruction requires us to be explicit in our communication and flexible in our implementation.

To avoid using vague phrases like those stated above we need to shift our focus from the action (study) to the desired outcome (learn). We can accomplish this shift by implementing the research of John Hattie (Visible Learning For Teachers). Hattie has found certain criteria to have a greater impact on student growth than others. Strategies with an effect size of .4 for or above are proven to result in a year’s growth for a year’s (appropriate) use. For example, take a look at these four shifts.

Instead of asking students to study, focus on how they learn. (metacognition .69)

Unfortunately for me, I didn’t understand how I learn best until I became an adult learner, and was given the autonomy to “study” as I saw fit. As it turns out, making flashcards and writing outlines were not the most effective strategies for me. But, creating mind maps and visual depictions are highly effective for me.

With the availability of research about learning, our students have the opportunity to ascertain how they learn best now, as children. The key is for educators to recognize and embrace the fact that all students do not react the same way to all learning strategies. Therefore, we should avoid requiring students use a certain strategy (take notes), and instead, expose our students to a variety of learning strategies and help them determine what strategies were helpful or not. Then, we can tap into this knowledge to choose/differentiate learning strategies for subsequent learning activities.

Instead of asking students to work in groups, offer them structure. (Cooperative Learning .59)

Contrary to popular belief, group work is not synonymous with cooperative learning. To ensure all students in a group benefit from learning activities, all group members must have equal and active participation and opportunities to learn. This goes beyond setting roles for students in groups (sorry, the timekeeper does not have the same learning opportunity as the discussion leader).

There are multiple ways you can encourage true cooperative learning. Hattie recommends jigsawing content amongst groups to be later shared. This suggestion, however, assumes the learning intentions and success criteria are clear (see below).

Another way to ensure true cooperative learning is to provide structured ways for groups to run, like Kagan Structures. As an instructional coach, I have collaborated with teachers to implement such structures and seen remarkable student growth from tweaking just this one piece.

Instead of asking students to finish their work, provide explicit learning intentions and success criteria (Teacher Clarity .75)

Hattie coins the terms “learning intentions” and “success criteria” in Visible Learning. He uses what has become one of my favorite analogies to describe the need for clear learning intentions and success criteria:

“Imagine if I were simply to ask to get in your car and drive; at some unspecified time, I will let you know when you have successfully arrived (if you arrive at all). For too many students, this is what learning feels like.”

When we tell students to finish their work without providing them with the specific learning intentions and a concrete example of success criteria, while it may feel like we have set clear expectations, students, more often than not, do not know what they need to do to finish their work. Therefore, it is crucial for teachers and students have a shared understanding of the learning intentions and success criteria.

Instead of asking students to behave, focus on building rapport (Teacher Student Relationships .72)

It is easy to believe we have strong relationships with students just by having their best interest at heart. And, perhaps there is some truth to that. But the question is, what type of relationship is it?

Because of the inherent age and status differences between teachers and students, many teacher-student relationships revolve around compliance and one-way respect (student respects the teacher). But, genuine relationships require both parties to equally commit to building trust which ultimately leads to respect. The teacher and the student must also show vulnerability, be transparent, and approachable. Again, because of the inherent age difference between teachers and students, it is the obligation of the teacher to model these qualities.

“Behave” is a non-specific directive often used in response to a variety of actions: disruptions, fidgeting, yelling out, fighting, etc. The root of these actions is what really needs to be addressed, rather than demanding students, “behave” which is unlikely to result in any sustainable change. Contrarily, when authentic teacher-student relationships are established, teachers and students are more likely to discuss the issues and create effective action plans.

In the end, these are just four phrases of what is probably a long list of things we say that don’t clearly communicate intentions to students. What other ambiguous statements have you said in the past and how have you adapted your practice? Please share; I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Questions or comments about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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