Teaching is incredibly challenging and tiresome, and that’s often the result of many additional responsibilities which are not directly related to actual lesson planning and instruction. Teachers work hard, and there is not enough class time in a school year to adequately teach all of the expected standards. I don’t like to say “cover” the standards. Truthfully, it’s not about “teaching” the standards either. The ultimate goal of a teacher is to facilitate student learning - not to teach or cover standards.
So how can we maximize the time we do have to achieve the greatest impact?
I’ve been a firm believer for years that enhancing classroom instruction doesn’t have to take a major overhaul of what’s already occurring. It is possible to only make a few minor tweaks that will have great impacts on learning and achievement.
Leaders often tell teachers to increase the amount and quality of student writing, become better questioners, or teach in a way that makes learning stick beyond the test. In some cases, there may be little to no support in helping educators grow in these areas.
The three books below provide great blueprints for maximizing the time teachers have with students.
Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning (2nd Edition) by Mike Schmoker
Focus is one of my personal favorites, and even John Hattie has said Schmoker “lit a fire” with this book. In the first part of Focus, Schmoker shares what he has learned from his extensive research of schools that have made incredible gains in student achievement. He discovered three different areas of focus that schools have had throughout amazing turnarounds: guaranteed, viable curriculum, formative assessment, and increased literacy. The most impactful part of the book, in my opinion, is the 2nd half where Schmoker had dedicated chapters by content area. These chapters explain how teachers can increase the quantity and quality of reading, writing, and discussion/debating in reading, math, social studies, and science. His strategies are simple, applicable, and impactful. They can deepen learning, reduce grading, and increase student engagement.
At the end of last year, I purchased each of our teachers a copy of this book. Knowing it was unlikely every teacher would read Focus in its entirety, I encouraged them to read the chapter pertaining to their content area at some point prior to returning to school in August. Elementary teachers were to (at minimum) read the reading/ELA chapter. During one of our back to school meetings, we had a good discussion about literacy in our school. Specifically, we began to develop a plan to increase expectations for ourselves and our students in regards to the quality and quantity of writing students would produce. This was the starting point to addressing a gap we knew existed in our curriculum.
Hacking Questions: 11 Answers That Create a Culture of Inquiry in Your Classroom by Connie Hamilton
Questioning is truly an art form, and it’s critical to increasing our students’ cognitive engagement. Unfortunately, it’s often a forgotten component in teacher prep programs and professional learning opportunities. For years we have been told as educators to increase the Depth of Knowledge (DOK) in our content standards while receiving very little, if any, quality training in how to effectively do so. Improving the quality of our questioning, and being purposeful with the type and timing of our questions, will move student thinking and learning deeper than we might have imagined was possible.
Hacking Questions helps us learn how to:
- Become more aware of the unintended messages we send to students through our current practices
- Cognitively engage each and every student through our questioning
- More effectively and efficiently gauge student learning and understanding
- Avoid a culture of disengagement
- Match our questions with our purpose
- Engage our shy students
- Respond to students who do not know an answer (or simply say “I don’t know”)
- Become more intentional with closing a lesson and maximizing learning when students return the next day
- Increase student reflection
- Model how to use questioning to seek understanding
- Help our students become better questioners
- Help students break through struggle
- Transfer ownership of questioning and learning to the students
Connie Hamilton does a terrific job of sharing her experiences while providing many applicable, effective strategies that can be implemented to improve questioning in the classroom. It’s a book every teacher should read before their first day of teaching, and it’s also one we should revisit regularly to finetune our questioning and move student understanding to deeper levels. More importantly, it’s a book that can help us teach our students how to become better questioners and learners themselves.
Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning by Pooja Agarwal and Patrice Bain
How often do we encourage our students to study for a test? How many of us have scolded students when they didn’t study?
Do we teach students how to study or simply instruct or encourage them to do so? And, if we do teach them study techniques, what are those techniques based upon? How we studied when we were in school? Strategies we learned from our own parents or previous teachers? Research?
Yes, there is research about what works best to make learning stick. While some of the strategies proven to be effective by research may be unconventional, many traditional methods of studying simply do not work.
Well, they may work for a test. But, as the authors of Make it Stick have said, “cramming leads to faster forgetting.”
The authors of Powerful Teaching do a wonderful job of blending the science of learning with applicable, proven classroom strategies. In addition to providing teachers research-based methods to use in the classroom to make learning stick, the authors share effective studying techniques to teach our students to use in and out of the classroom.
The biggest premise of the science of learning has to do with the purpose of the strategies. Many teachers have long thought the purpose of teaching was to impart knowledge to students. Learning science, and Powerful Teaching, stress that we need to focus more on pulling information out of our heads. We typically spend too much time trying to put information into students’ heads rather than have them practice pulling information out. We often view retrieval as a way to assess students, but Agarwal and Bain suggest that retrieval is a learning strategy - not an assessment strategy.
Powerful Learning details four main techniques based on research: retrieval, spacing, interleaving, and feedback-driven metacognition. The authors provide a myriad of classroom strategies that will help us maximize learning and take advantage of what research has shown to be more effective. Not only will students retain more, but their anxiety levels will decrease as well.
Doug Dunn is superintendent and principal of a small K-8 school in rural, south central Missouri. He can be found on Twitter at DougDunnEdS.