K.O. by Paradigm Shift

I have a confession.  Up until recently, for the last 12 years of my teaching career, I was one of those people sitting in the lounge chugging medium-grade coffee and decrying school reform.  I mocked the many attempts that have been made to “shift my paradigm” and “write across my curriculum.”  I did it for two reasons: one legitimate and one not.

First, when I arrived in education I took my cues in the classroom from the energetic, innovative teachers whose faces beamed positivity.  I took my teachers’ lounge posture from the jaded, frustrated teachers who constantly roll their eyes at the next school reform topic to come across the bend.  I followed the crowd at chow time, so to speak.

The legitimate reason is this.  We have drastically over-complicated our mission, in part because of the “experts'” tendency to tie jingles, metaphors, and brands to their particular elixir for school change.  Another reason is that in order to put their imprimatur on school reform, they devise complicated process to the very simple process of teaching and learning.

I alluded to the following in a previous post, but I’d like to elaborate this week.  In their book Professional Learning Communities at Work, DuFour and Eaker boil the process of teaching and learning down to the following essential questions:

1. What should all students learn?
2. How do we know they are learning?
3. What will we do if they don’t learn?
4. What will we do if they already know it?

Give a group of teachers these four questions, enough time and enough coffee, and they’ll build a relevant, results-oriented curriculum that addresses individual learner needs and paves a successful path to the next step in the learning process.  I submit a process that was undertaken by some math teachers in our class.

In their PLC, math teachers decided upon essential learnings for the chapter and wrote a summative assessment designed to demonstrate student learning in those areas.  I will call them Essential Learnings (EL) A, B, C, and D, for our purposes (but imagine EL A is factoring binomials, B is graphing equations, etc.)  The PLC members made sure that they could ascribe one of the essential learnings to each question.  In other words, there wasn’t any “filler.” They also built an assessment instrument with fidelity to Question 1 above.

Based on the assessment that they wrote, they wrote a series of lessons with several formative assessments along the way to determine whether or not they learned the material.  Teachers discussed and modified the lessons, then set about executing them in their classes.  After the summative assessment, they asked all students to identify which questions they got wrong. The teachers entered the student feedback into a shared Excel spreadsheet.  Since each question was carefully crafted to demonstrate EL A, B, C, or D, the math teachers had a clear answer to Question 2. Here comes the brilliant part.

The spreadsheet demonstrated that Susie did well with EL A, B, and D, but she struggled with EL C.  While Darren bombed EL B, he scored superb marks on the other ELs.  In Office Hours during the following week, each teacher was assigned one of the Essential Learnings, and students demonstrating difficulty in that EL attended Office Hours with that particular teacher.  As a result, several students from several different math teachers received instruction in the one area in which they struggled on the assessment.  The teacher, rather than catering to 15 different needs during Office Hours, was able to explore one EL with a group of students in need of the same type of instruction.  Question 3, asked and answered.

Although this scenario did not address Question 4, I’m still amazed at what this PLC accomplished.  They implemented a co-created curriculum in which each step was scrutinized in its fidelity to the Essential Learnings. Teachers got a sense of what their students are and are not learning, and they worked together on a targeted approach to ensure that students who didn’t learn it the first time, did.

Now, let’s contrast this with how I do things.

I usually plan my classes a week in advance (projects usually have a wider birth, as front-loading is sometimes required) and write the lesson plans the weekend before I teach them.  I try to vary the learning styles, sprinkling in healthy doses of the four traditional FL competencies (read, write, speak, listen). I incorporate home-grown activities as well as those from the textbook materials. Several days later I write quizzes, a few weeks later I write the test.  When I write the quizzes/tests, I never look at my lesson plans from throughout the unit.  After all, I’m the one who taught it.  And although I am careful to only test on what I cover, I have never asked myself “What Essential Learning does this question address?”  I grade tests and quizzes, and when students perform poorly I go over the test with them, and if they demonstrate substantial need, I give them alternative activities for reinforcement.

After I grade tests, my grasp of what remediation my students need is vague at best and clueless at worst.  My findings would typically come in two forms:

  • Johnny is having trouble with verb conjugation/agreement/morphology/syntax/vocabulary. (circle one)
  • Johnny’s errors are all over the place.

The first statement is fair, and could lead to productive discussions between me and my students.  However, it could be better.  A lot better.  The second statement is unacceptable and needs to change.  Rather than saying “his errors are all over the place,” I suspect that the truth is that my test questions are all over the place.

If I were in a PLC, I would have already had this conversation with my cohorts.  If I’m lucky, they would prescribe alternative testing methods, help me on lesson study and backward design implementation.  They would help me interpret the results from my future tests and help me craft a plan for addressing gaps in understanding.

I’m a good teacher.  I can say that with confidence.  My talent, however, lies more in my intentions than in my methods.  While some may fear that PLCs are for looking over the shoulder of “bad” teachers, I believe that PLCs are all about making good teachers great—giving them time to reflect, with an informed audience and sufficient time to create meaningful, RESULTS-ORIENTED (not intention-oriented) educational experiences for our kids.

I believe all this because it is a truth to which there are scarcely few (if any) contradicting realities.  You can’t say that constructive, clearly defined collaboration impedes good teaching.  You can’t say that tying assessment questions to specific learning objectives leads to obfuscated testing.  And you can’t say that building lessons that prepare students to demonstrate mastery of specific skills results in chaotic, ineffective learning.

More importantly, the message isn’t overshadowed by a sales pitch, metaphor, or glossy but bankrupt philosophy.  So, after being obstinately skeptical about reform initiatives in the past, whether because they offend my sensibilities or because I was simply riding the wave of prevailing opinion, I have finally encountered a paradigm worth shifting to!  Although if I ever call it that again, you have my permission to deliver a rabbit punch to my abdomen.

One thought on “K.O. by Paradigm Shift

  1. Another beauty of PLC’s is that they don’t have to dissolve as soon as the next reform movement comes along. They can coexist with whatever reform model is being implemented at a school. The eighth grade math teachers at my school are doing something very similar today to what you described. Each of five teachers will be teaching a lesson on a certain essential learning. We are dividing up our students and sending them to the lesson they most need based on assessment data. The system works very nicely if each student mastered all but one essential learning. What happens when they fail to master several or all of the essential learnings? Then you need to start looking at what parts of each essential learning they actually have mastered, which becomes much more complicated. There’s another advantage to a student going to a new teacher to make a second attempt to master an essential learning. We’ll have to assume that students actually do have different learning styles. It seems only natural that a teacher is going to present a concept in accordance with his/her own learning style. By sending students to a second teacher, you increase the chances they will be presented the material in a new way which may line up with their preferred learning style. As teachers, we need to do a better job at sharing strategies for presenting specific concepts. Otherwise, it is going to be very difficult to avoid reteaching a skill the same way we presented it the first time, which obviously did not click with the student.

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