Monday, March 21, 2011

Can Your Intervention Practices Be Improved?

High-stakes testing time is quickly approaching here in New York State. No doubt that time is coming soon to your state too. The marathon for preparation is in its final stretch. This would be a good time to look back, reflect, and take stock of the interventions you count on to improve your students abilities. Here are 2 questions you and your colleagues may want to ask yourselves:

1) What interventions are we using to improve reading, writing, and problem solving behaviors?
2) Are our interventions improving students’ performances on assessments and if so, are those interventions carrying over and actually changing our students’ inefficient and non-productive behaviors outside the testing arena?
If the interventions you are using are meeting your criteria for success, read no further. If that is not the case, you may want to consider the possibility that you are using deeply entrenched intervention practices that could be improved. Here are 3 myths about successful interventions:
  • If we tell them, they will learn. 
  • If we don’t tell them, they will learn.
  • If they practice, they will learn.
If we tell them, they will learn.
When students aren’t getting better at the skills and concepts we are teaching and we reteach the lesson or reassign worksheets, we are plugging into the tenacious belief that what we provide by way of lessons, explanations and assignments will be learned as long as the student is listening and paying attention.
However, we now know that the sensory information a learner receives is sorted, selected, interpreted, altered, matched, connected, used, not used, remembered, or forgotten. The construction of knowledge, cognitive psychologists tell us, is highly idiosyncratic. Real learning (as opposed to short-term memory) arises from a complex interplay of meaning-making transactions between teacher and student such as feedback, reflective questions, and cognitive coaching. These kinds of transactions afford teacher and learner the opportunity to check-in and assess where they are at and where they need to go.

If we don’t tell them, they will learn.
There is the assumption that learning is a by-product of the completion of a task and that teaching is implicit in the assignments we give; challenges can be overcome if students just do more assignments that require the behaviors they need to learn.
Education researchers have pointed out that learning cognitive behaviors is not an automatic by-product of studying certain subjects, repeating what someone else thinks, or simply being asked to think about a subject or topic.
The key to changing our students’ ineffective reading, writing, and thinking behaviors is developing awareness of what to do when they don’t know. This requires explicit teaching -- unpacking a critical strategy as if you were taking a clock apart; talking about when and how to use it, and providing extended opportunities to practice initiating the strategy in the context of solving problems that arise while doing meaningful work.

If they practice, they will learn.
This is true and this is not true. Practice is like cholesterol, some kinds are good for our students and some kinds are bad. You have to read the labels.
  • When we want students to retain factual knowledge like times tables, measurements and months of the year, rote practice can facilitate memory and retrieval. 
  • When we want students to acquire knowledge that has a strong performance component like punctuation usage or study skills, students must first learn to recognize when the strategy is appropriate and then know how to put it into action. Decontextualized rote practice with workbooks or simulated test booklets does not translate into the kind of behavior students can apply and transfer. 
So when reflecting on your intervention practices be on the lookout for myths in your midst and replace them with knowledge building teacher/student transactions, explicit strategy instruction and authentic practice.