Schools’ role: enable teachers to teach curriculum expertly

America's oldest wooden schoolhouse,
America’s oldest wooden schoolhouse, St. Augustine, Florida

Every so often I run across something that makes me think there may be hope for American education yet.

Robert Podisco’s piece  “Time to Connect Professional Development and Teacher Training to Curriculum” at EducationNext earlier this month was one such encounter.

Podisco writes:

Slowly, slowly, a small but persuasive body of work is emerging which raises curriculum to an object of pressing concern for educators, and expresses long overdue appreciation for the idea that the instructional materials we put in front of children actually matter to student outcomes. A welcome addition to this emerging corpus is a new Aspen Institute paper by Ross Wiener and Susan Pimentel, which makes a compelling case—equally overdue—that professional development and teacher training ought to be connected to curriculum. A primary role of school systems, states, districts, and charter-management organizations, the pair write, “is to create the conditions in schools through which teachers can become experts at teaching the curriculum they are using and adapting instruction to the needs of their particular students.”

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I think making sure teachers are experts at teaching curriculum is long overdue.

And I’m sure the English teachers with 15 or more years experience who tell me they’ve never had any instruction in how to teach writing will agree it’s time to shake up teacher preparation and professional development.

It’s time to move to a new schoolhouse model.

Read the rest of Podisco’s piece at EducationNext.

 

 

 

Technology and skills: Today’s best BOGO deal

In the lead up to Black Friday, my inbox was full of messages from technology companies that don’t want me to miss out on the greatest deal ever—usually theirs.

Photo of classroom computers overlaid with "Is this technology a good deal?"

To get a really good deal on technology, buy one product that gets you two benefits:

  1. It’s technology you can use now.
  2. It’s technology that will allow you to develop a skill you can use later.

Technology you can use now but which doesn’t help you develop new skills isn’t worth what you’ll pay for it.

And you’ll probably never get around to learning to use new technology for which you have no immediate use, so that’s not worth having at any price.

The buy-two-benefits principle holds whether you’re buying technology for yourself or selecting technology for your classroom.

 

Reading, readiness, and unreadiness

I sat down to write a bit about three nonfiction books I’m reading.

That led me to wonder if there is a word that means the state of having started, but not yet finished, reading a book.  Unreadiness gets things wrong end round; nonreadiness is no better.

Probably the Germans or Japanese have a word for it that an alert reader will share.

But I digress.

3 books: Why Rural Schools Matter, The Physics of Business Growth, Max Teaching with Reading and Writing

Books I’m reading

The nonfiction books I’m reading are

  • The Physics of Business Growth: Mindsets, System, and Processes by Edward D. Hess and Jeanne Liedtka,
  • Why Rural Schools Matter by Mara Casey Tieken
  • Max Teaching with Reading and Writing: Classroom Activities for Helping Students Learn New Subject Matter While Acquiring Literacy Skills by Mark A. Forget.

Despite their quite different subject matter, they have a few common elements. Each is

  • written by people who write well
  • written by people who have lived the subjects they write about
  • written with the expectation that readers will do something based on their reading.

That last point is what’s keeping me from finishing them.

Why I’ve not finished

When I get to the end I’ll need to do something with what I’ve learned, something that’s likely to be uncomfortable, possibly difficult.

I’m ready to learn about.

I’m not ready to go try.

This is the central problem of professional development for educators: Moving from readiness to learn to readiness to apply.

My students explain

While looking for some papers I needed, I ran across a folder of items I’ve culled from student writing over the years. Here are a few  of their observations to remind you why your work is so important.
Pencil with slogan "student expectations"Students know what they expect:

I expect my instructor to follow the KISS formula: Keep It Simply Stupid.

Can you do that?
Pencil with slogan "good writing"They may not be good writers, but students know what good writing is.

In a place of business, writing effectively means coming to a clear and concise point in as few words as possible in order to prevent wordiness.

Writing can also produce an emotional response.

I feel that one main characteristic of writing is the ability to convey ones message in a way that capsizes the audience.

Pencil with slogan "thesis statements"

Students have had the importance of a good thesis statement drilled into them for years:

A thesis sentence or statement is one or two sentences giving the reader information, a brief interdiction of what you are about to read. A thesis sentence is essential for the following reasons: so the reader will know what the paper is about, let’s a reader know what your poison is on the paper and when this is provided a reader will have some idea as to whether or not to contuse reading that paper.

Pencil with slogan "student weaknesses"Getting started writing is hard for many students:

It is hard for me to begin writing my assigned papers even after I have an idea. I guess you might call me a procreator.

Finishing on time is hard, too.

Due to some insinuating circumstances this weekend, I will not have my first paper ready.

Pencil with slogan "students learn"It can be hard to believe, but students are learning.

I see now that the brain is a mussel, the more you use it the stronger it gets.

Pencil with slogan "teachers matter"Your work is valued by your students.

Teachers are put on a much higher pedistool than other professionals because they are taking care of our children and, they should be.

Have a great year, good students, lots of chuckles—and don’t fall off your pedistool.

Summer teacher improvement programs

For teachers, summer is not just the season for vacations. It’s also the season for workshops and conferences, for reading and reflecting.

Many summer teacher activities show up in my Twitter feed.

I’ve been struck in the last couple weeks by what kinds of things teachers are learning about in their organized professional development activities.

Most of the teacher training sessions seem to fall into one of two categories. Either they focus on

  • tools (typically technology tools), or
  • on what might be termed “soft pedagogy skills.”

Soft pedagogy skills are such things as flipping a classroom, teaching mindfulness, or helping students develop grit.

I don’t see many teacher summer activities directed toward developing better

  • teaching objectives
  • teaching skills
  • teaching materials
  • teaching strategies

for specific subjects.

I find that troublesome.

From an economic standpoint, I understand it’s more sensible to offer programs that draw 150 people than programs that will draw only five when you’re hiring presenters who charge $3,000 a presentation.

From an education perspective, however, I wonder whether teachers might not have a greater impact on student learning if a few people who teach the same subjects at the same grade level were encouraged to work together on shared problems.

The small group could draw on local people as resources for such things as workplace uses of content from the teachers’ subject area.

The group could also invite teachers in training to participate, which could be good for the trainees and might also help the local school attract new teachers.

Anyone have a program such as I envision in their school or region? Please share your experience in the comments.

A response to "How-we-make-teaching too hard for mere mortals"

Robert Pondiscio’s article "How We Make Teaching Too Hard for Mere Mortals" caught my eye this week. In it, Pondiscio summarizes the Rand Corporation research showing most American elementary and secondary teachers use “materials I developed and/or selected myself.” photo of teacher and students on cover of Rand report

Teaching is tough

I agree with Pondiscio the quality instructional materials teachers are given to work with stinks. (Pondiscio phrases that more delicately than I.) In my teaching emphasis (secondary and post-secondary writing),  free materials available for selection are presentations for lessons or units on various topics, not aids for year-long distributed practice. I agree, too, with Pondiscio that expecting all teachers to be expert at both instructional design and classroom teaching is expecting far too much. I also agree with Pondiscio that American education is "making a serious mistake by not paying more attention to curriculum, classroom materials, and instructional design." What I do question is Pondiscio’s

  • equation of teacher-designed materials with pulling materials from the Internet
  • divorce of instructional design from instructional delivery

Developing beats downloading

Downloading worksheets and lessons from Teachers Pay Teachers is far different from teachers developing materials for their students. The first just looks for something on a topic to fill the class time and justify accepting a paycheck. The second recognizes the inadequacy of the existing materials to move students toward meeting standards. Although both may be equally good/bad at enabling learning, I’d far rather have the teacher who develops his/her own materials: That person is committed to teaching.

Teachers aren’t waiters

Pondiscio says expecting a teacher to design instructional materials and teach is " like expecting the waiter at your favorite restaurant to serve your meal attentively while simultaneously cooking for twenty-five other people—and doing all the shopping and prepping the night before." That analogy has one problem: The public doesn’t regard waiters as professionals. The public does expect the restaurant professional—the chef—to produce meals for 25 people at a time and to do all the planning, shopping, prepping, and kitchen management. The public also expects the chef to be fully prepared to do all that from day one: That’s how the public defines a professional. (That the public may be wrong is a topic for another day.)

Mere mortals do instructional design

Instructional design is not difficult conceptually: It is difficult operationally. It requires enough understanding of subject matter so that the instructor can reverse engineer instruction from the goals/outcomes, such as those specified in the Common Core State Standards. Instructional design requires enough knowledge of the subject and enough observation of learners to determine:

  • what’s hard to understand
  • what’s hard to learn to use appropriately
  • how to help individual learners relate something in their experience to the subject matter material to be learned

Instructional design often comes down to figuring out what can be omitted from instruction so that more time can be devoted to learning. I learned instructional design conceptually as an undergraduate psychology major; I did more study in instructional design as part of a master’s program designed to prepare school public relations staff. I learned instructional design operationally by designing materials for teaching writing, observing how well they worked, and tweaking them to work a bit better the next time.

Is off-the-shelf  best?

I see the attraction of having curricular materials ready-made for teachers. (And I’d love to get in on the money that’s going to be made doing that.) I do not, however, see how developing materials that meet standards will produce better results faster than teaching teachers how to design their own materials so they don’t need to select lessons from Pinterest. If it were necessary to be a polymath to do instructional design, I would not have been able to do instructional design in fields ranging from education to engineering. Simply being competent is good enough because, as  Pondiscio’s instructional design expert Marcy Stein says, instructional design is iterative: Teachers get more than one chance to improve their curricular products.  

A response to “How-we-make-teaching too hard for mere mortals”

Robert Pondiscio’s article “How We Make Teaching Too Hard for Mere Mortals” caught my eye this week. In it, Pondiscio summarizes the Rand Corporation research showing most American elementary and secondary teachers use “materials I developed and/or selected myself.”

photo of teacher and students on cover of Rand report

Teaching is tough

I agree with Pondiscio the quality instructional materials teachers are given to work with stinks. (Pondiscio phrases that more delicately than I.)

In my teaching emphasis (secondary and post-secondary writing),  free materials available for selection are presentations for lessons or units on various topics, not aids for year-long distributed practice.

I agree, too, with Pondiscio that expecting all teachers to be expert at both instructional design and classroom teaching is expecting far too much.

I also agree with Pondiscio that American education is “making a serious mistake by not paying more attention to curriculum, classroom materials, and instructional design.”

What I do question is Pondiscio’s

  • equation of teacher-designed materials with pulling materials from the Internet
  • divorce of instructional design from instructional delivery

Developing beats downloading

Downloading worksheets and lessons from Teachers Pay Teachers is far different from teachers developing materials for their students.

The first just looks for something on a topic to fill the class time and justify accepting a paycheck.

The second recognizes the inadequacy of the existing materials to move students toward meeting standards.

Although both may be equally good/bad at enabling learning, I’d far rather have the teacher who develops his/her own materials: That person is committed to teaching.

Teachers aren’t waiters

Pondiscio says expecting a teacher to design instructional materials and teach is ” like expecting the waiter at your favorite restaurant to serve your meal attentively while simultaneously cooking for twenty-five other people—and doing all the shopping and prepping the night before.”

That analogy has one problem: The public doesn’t regard waiters as professionals.

The public does expect the restaurant professional—the chef—to produce meals for 25 people at a time and to do all the planning, shopping, prepping, and kitchen management.

The public also expects the chef to be fully prepared to do all that from day one: That’s how the public defines a professional.

(That the public may be wrong is a topic for another day.)

Mere mortals do instructional design

Instructional design is not difficult conceptually: It is difficult operationally.

It requires enough understanding of subject matter so that the instructor can reverse engineer instruction from the goals/outcomes, such as those specified in the Common Core State Standards.

Instructional design requires enough knowledge of the subject and enough observation of learners to determine:

  • what’s hard to understand
  • what’s hard to learn to use appropriately
  • how to help individual learners relate something in their experience to the subject matter material to be learned

Instructional design often comes down to figuring out what can be omitted from instruction so that more time can be devoted to learning.

I learned instructional design conceptually as an undergraduate psychology major; I did more study in instructional design as part of a master’s program designed to prepare school public relations staff.

I learned instructional design operationally by designing materials for teaching writing, observing how well they worked, and tweaking them to work a bit better the next time.

Is off-the-shelf  best?

I see the attraction of having curricular materials ready-made for teachers. (And I’d love to get in on the money that’s going to be made doing that.)

I do not, however, see how developing materials that meet standards will produce better results faster than teaching teachers how to design their own materials so they don’t need to select lessons from Pinterest.

If it were necessary to be a polymath to do instructional design, I would not have been able to do instructional design in fields ranging from education to engineering.

Simply being competent is good enough because, as  Pondiscio’s instructional design expert Marcy Stein says, instructional design is iterative: Teachers get more than one chance to improve their curricular products.

 

Who’s responsible for teachers’ professional development?

I’ve participated in a few conversations lately about professional development for teachers.

Most folks, including me, say that the professional development opportunities provided teachers by school districts and/or educational institutions are, putting it politely, less than optimal.

(Such opportunities are usually what they want you to have, when they want to provide it, at a level that lets them cross “Teacher PD” off their to-do list.)

Kimo Kippen, Chief Learning Officer of Hilton Worldwide, speaking at a  webinar sponsored by College for America in March, had advice for “upskilling” employees that struck me as being as relevant to education as to the business world.

First, “establish a culture and expectation that individuals take ownership” of their own development.

Second, convince each employee that she or he is the heart of the organization.

Third, make resources available to help employees with their career path.

The third step would be relatively easy within schools.

The first and second take work.

Those steps might require a new mindset among the leadership because, if the teaching staff is to be responsible for their professional development, the leadership has to demonstrate what taking charge of one’s own development looks like.

Moreover, if the leadership is going to convince each teacher to believe and behave as if the school’s success depends on her/his work, the leadership has to make each teacher believe their work is valued.

At the same time, the leadership also has to make sure administrators don’t slack off on training just because they’ve shifted professional development from do-it-to-me to help-me-do it.

Is your school using a framework like Kippen’s?

Would it be useful in your school?

Is it doable?

What are your thoughts on this?