Today’s guest post is written by 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.
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya Angelou
For five years I took the same route to work. I was comforted by the familiar surroundings. I could listen to music, drink my coffee, and be alone with my thoughts. I never considered whether or not this route was the most efficient way for me to get to work. Then, one day there was an accident on the highway. I needed to find an alternate route. I entered my destination into Waze (I love this app!) and immediately learned there was a much quicker way, one that would save me time regardless of a back-up on the highway.
As I usually do, I connected this personal experience to my professional life. When I was in the classroom, how many practices had I utilized out of habit without evaluating their effectiveness? The answer was simple- too many. I required my students to keep reading logs even though the logs did not provide insight into my students’ reading development or interests. I gave all students summative vocabulary tests every ten days regardless of their readiness. I assigned final products with mandatory components without student input. This reflection led me to make the larger realization that many of the tasks I required students to complete were exercises in compliance rather than learning.
This summer, for the third time, I read Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning by John Hattie. In his book, Hattie shares the results of a meta-analysis of 15+ years of research involving thousands of students to provide evidence as to what really works to improve learning. Hattie writes:
The aim is to get the students actively involved in seeking this evidence: their role is not simply to do tasks as decided by teachers, but to actively manage and understand their learning gains. This includes evaluating their own progress, being more responsible for their learning, and being involved with peers in learning together about gains in learning....fostering active learning seems a very challenging and demanding task for teachers, requiring knowledge of students' learning processes, skills in providing guidance and feedback and classroom management. The need is to engage students in this same challenging and demanding task....start lessons with helping students to understand the intention of the lesson and showing them what success might look like at the end."
Hattie stresses that teachers and students must have a clear and shared understanding of both the learning intentions and success criteria. Students need to know what to do to be successful, and they need to see examples of what success looks like. In Visible Learning, Hattie uses a driving analogy to illustrate the importance of 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."
With this perspective, let’s re-evaluate having students complete reading logs. I asked my students to keep reading logs to “ensure” they were reading independently. My learning intention was to foster my students’ love of reading while simultaneously strengthening their reading skills. I didn’t ask myself what success would look like for this task and therefore required students to complete an assignment that was misaligned to the learning intentions. With reading logs, students succeeded by reading an arbitrary number of pages each quarter. This task certainly did not foster a love of reading for my students, and moreover, the logs didn’t provide any insight into the progression of their reading skills.
Now, with the availability of research like Hattie’s, we can better determine the effectiveness of the practices we employ in our schools and classrooms. We need to dig deep and ask ourselves the right questions. We need to be prepared for the realizations we make when we look critically at ourselves. Inevitably, we will recognize some of our practices promote learning and others do not. What we may find is we can group practices into two overarching categories: those that cultivate learning and those that promote compliance. Items rooted in compliance hold students accountable regardless of learning. Those created using research-based high impact methods encourage academic and social-emotional learning, growth, and success.
In addition to applying educational research, we must also leverage the power of personal reflection and collaboration to determine the effectiveness of our teaching practices.
I find self-reflection followed by collaboration with a colleague to be the most powerful way to make sustainable changes to the way I teach. To guide my reflection I ask myself the following questions:
- Why am I asking students to complete this task?
- How does this task provide information about students’ progress toward the success criteria?
- Does this task promote collaboration (student-student and student-teacher)?
- Does this task promote student ownership?
- Does this task take student readiness into consideration?
- Does this task promote a positive rather than punitive learning community?
- How will I know this task is effective?
- What will happen if I stop having students perform this task?
After I answer these questions honestly, I take a deep breath and consider the changes I need to make. I remind myself that change is a difficult but necessary part of life. I also tell myself that making a change does not mean that what I did in the past was “bad.” Rather, making a change means I have received new information that is too valuable for me to ignore.
When I am ready, I share my reflections with a trusted colleague. I collaborate with this person to determine a plan to guide the change I seek to make. I attempt to adhere to my plan even when there are bumps in the road. I try to look at setbacks as opportunities to improve further rather than reasons to stop. Most importantly, I strive to keep my eyes on my success criteria: the growth and success of students.
Questions about this post? Connect with Lisa on Twitter @lisa_westman
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.