Thursday, March 6, 2014

Teachers' Messages and Student Engagement

I spent an hour recently visiting classrooms.  First day after a break, with an anticipated snow day to follow, it could have been easy to lose the student engagement fight.  Indeed, a few kids seemed to be moving a bit slowly, going through the motions.  Yet I saw students ready to go--hands waving in the air to give an answer and exclamations of excitement when arriving at correct responses during a  math review, for example.

By far, though, the greatest levels of engagement with the work was happening when students were arranged in peer groups and given the opportunity to construct their learning together.  In an Algebra class, students were working in groups of their choosing to reviewing a test and making corrections.  By designing this activity, the teacher was sending very clear messages to his students:

1) Learning is not static.
2) Mistakes are not failures, they are opportunities.
3) Learning is a social construct--use your peers, engage with one another.
4) I believe in your ability to own your learning.
5) I have high expectations for you.

In an ELA class, the teacher arranged her students into literature circle groups for a focused conversation on the book they just began, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.  Groups of students were given envelopes containing four roles: the Quizzical Questioner, Character Creeper, Fancy Facilitator and Word Wizard. She further provided each student with a bookmark containing the tasks aligned to the objective.

Her messages to them:

1) I trust you to learn.
2) I trust you to cooperate with your peers in order to learn.
3) Learning is fun.
4) I believe in your ability to own your learning.
5) I have high expectations for you.

In contrast, I have visited classrooms that were not as vibrant, where the sound of the teacher's voice dominated and in which some students raised hands, many did not and a sense of boredom was palpable. In others, I witnessed a lack of direction, no clear objective and students off task (even telling me they didn't know what they were supposed to be doing) To be fair, I've witnessed more inspired teaching in those same classrooms, but on this day very different messages were being sent to students about teaching and learning.

What would it have taken for every classroom to be one where students own their learning every day?


Gorillas and Teacher Evaluation

Let me just say this at the start--I'm in favor of systematized teacher evaluation systems.  Here in Rhode Island, we have taken elements of the Danielson framework and built a rubric for professonal practice from it. In our network, we've spent considerable time focusing on the various sub-domains via Instructional Rounds and other forms of professional development and have conducted numerous partnered observations to norm our process.

The system itself has a number of imperfections.  First, a teacher's effectiveness level in any domain is calculated using a simple average.  That means that a teacher who becomes more and more effective in one sub-domain over time is not rewarded for growth. (maybe reward is the wrong term--it's better to note that the final rating may simply be inaccuarate.  As a fan of standards-based grading using complete or weighted replacement in which a student's mastery in one area is determined by his most recent grade, the practice of averaging these teacher ratings perturbs me.

Second, while the process has forced some of us to observe and give feedback more frequently, it has also become another bureacratic exercise--so much so that where I work we've actually separated the observation/evaluation process and our coaching and peer feedback process.  I'd love a world where the elements of coaching, support, real feedback and self reflection were companionable elements of a constructive and meaningful evaluation system.

However, what really concerns me is the possibility that focusing on the elements of the rubric could cause us to miss --or misunderstand--other events in the classroom.  If  radiologists--highly trained viewers--can miss a picture of a gorilla superimposed on slides they look at when searching for cancer, then it's certainly not a stretch to think that educators might miss important classroom events, teaching practices or student actions when framing the observation in terms of a (very good) rubric only. What's the solution? Observe with an open mind.  Use partners who can observe with little or no preconceived notion of what to look for.  Leave the rubric behind from time to time. Try video which allows the teacher --alone or with colleagues--to view and debrief by starting with what they noticed, staying low on the ladder of inference.  Let's just look, rather than looking for something.