Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Compelling Case for Explicit Strategy Instruction

Case #1 -What experience has to teach us

 Like many of you I am a teacher who wants to know what good research has to say. I regard statistically significant results the same way I regard the word “Sunkist” on my oranges or the word “prime” on my meat. But be that as it may, I also want to hear the ring of truth in the theories supported by research  and the practices those studies lead to. It is those two criteria, sound research and inner knowing, that has steered my teaching and made explicit strategy instruction, which I found to be essential for developing self-directed learners, the anchor of my work. Experiences like the one I relate in Learning for Keeps: Teaching the Strategies Essential for Independent Learners taught me the value of explicit instruction.

Taking my first word-processing course was my Waterloo. It was of no small consequence that I lacked confidence in my ability to tame the computer beast, I was devoid of essential prior knowledge and was unable to comprehend a large percentage of computer terminology – a scenario not at all dissimilar to what inexperienced learners may encounter in our classrooms.
Then there was the manner in which I was being taught. Keys were hit, a mouse was clicked, words were spoken and in the end I was no more able to perform the operations I was trying to learn than before I began. What was wrong with that picture? What did I need from my teacher? What would have served me better? My instructor was modeling the process for me, which was a good thing but the pace was too fast. I could not differentiate the parts of the new procedure; no sooner had one step been taken than the next one was under way.
No attempt was made to check in with me to see how I was processing the demonstration while it was in progress. It was assumed my brief exposure to the way things were done would suffice. I was not given an opportunity to practice what was taught; the instructor stayed in the driver's seat. When the demonstration was over, I had no more clarity or ability than when it began.

As for research, we have decades of research affirming that teaching strategies improves achievement and self-direction, I would like to think that the information in A. Wade Boykin’s and Pedro Noguera’s recently published ASCD book Creating the Opportunity to Learn: Moving From Research to Practice to Close the Achievement Gap will invigorate conversation regarding direct or explicit instruction and self-regulated learning.  My next post will talk about the case that research makes for using direct strategy instruction in any classroom where the teacher is dedicated to the proposition that all children can and should be able to initiate and use the strategies necessary for a high level of reading, writing, and problem solving.

For readers who know of direct or explicit instruction and think it sounds like a good idea but need to know more about its value, conceptual basis and practical application, these blogs are for you. However, the label “direct” as it pertains to teaching means different things to different people. There are degrees of explicitness just as there are degrees of strength. A teacher could, for example:

       (Name the strategy) Teacher to students: “Answer these inference questions.”
       (Talk about the strategy) Teacher to students: “When you can’t find an answer in the text, you may have to infer the answer from what you have read.”
       (Model the strategy) Teacher to students reading and thinking aloud: “I infer the boy is angry at his friend because I read that he refused to speak to him. Our experience teaches us that not speaking to someone you know is evidence of anger. ”

The degree of explicitness that is transformative begins with naming, talking about and modeling strategies but does not end there. The explicit teaching we are talking about is articulated, long-term, planned instruction that ultimately empowers students to respond to obstacles with confidence and self-direction. It is teaching that provides enough practice for important cognitive behaviors to be internalized. It is conceiving of teaching strategies as a long-term developmental process. Here is an abridged, edited and excerpted portion of my book that provides an overview of this kind of explicit instruction. 

To teach strategic behaviors explicitly, the teacher begins by building students’ awareness of a needed strategy. Working with conscious intent, which she shares with her students, the teacher introduces and models the strategy as follows:
  1. Name the strategy.
  2. Explain the importance of the strategy to the students.
  3. Relate the new strategy and concept to the students’ prior knowledge  and experience.
  4. Model the use of the strategy.
  5. Verbalize her thought processes not just the thoughts.
  6. Engage students in reflection and processing of new learning. 
If, however, instruction ends with the teacher-directed strategy lesson it would, most likely, not produce the behaviors that are necessary for developing expertise. Proficient readers and writers do not use strategies one at a time, nor do they use them simply when under strong instructional control.
Teaching continues with a transactional approach once the strategy is named, introduced, and modeled. The teacher moves on to the problem-solving, interactive phase of mediation in which she coaches her students as they put the strategy to work. The selection and use of strategies becomes part of the dialogue surrounding any engaging activity. The curriculum takes on a duel agenda of teaching for process and product. In effect the teacher invites the strategies to the table and makes them part of the content of learning. 

The kind of approach outlined here is not widely practiced. Eminent educational researchers like Michael Pressley, Barak Rosenshine and indeed Boykin and Noguera have noted this and urge that this be rectified. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Blocks, Chunks and Breakthroughs

In my last blog, I compared the importance of the key strategies within the complex processes of reading, writing, and problem solving to the microchips within a computer -- faulty microchip, malfunctioning computer. See if the key strategy lesson below could be a useful addition to the repertoire of intervention tools you bring to your class this year. The following blog post is an edited excerpt from my book Learning for Keeps: Teaching the Strategies Essential for Creating Independent Learners.

The reading workshop is underway in Ann Daley‘s 4th grade classroom. This morning Ann is launching the study of an important reading strategy. The entries in the students‘ reading response journals and the observations she has made during literature discussions demonstrate that many of her students have difficulty remembering what they read. They need to reread in order to respond to the text, and their recall is sketchy and lacks cohesiveness. Disorganized ideas and the absence of indented paragraphs in the students‘ writing confirms her supposition that many of them have not developed an awareness of the organization of text. Several strategies can address her students‘ poor recall, such as visualizing, questioning, and predicting. However, Ann has decided to begin mediation by teaching her students to summarize or chunk information while they are reading. 

Organizing ideas is central to understanding and remembering. She decides to make this core strategy the focus for the explicit strategy lesson of her next reading workshop. Her lesson is based on the analysis she did of the steps we take when we organize text. (See Learning for Keeps, Chapter 4 for a tutorial in unpacking the steps in a strategy.)

Explicit Strategy Lesson with Concrete Materials


When everyone is gathered, Ann begins by telling her class that sometimes when she is reading, she gets to the bottom of the page and realizes she doesn’t really remember what she read. She asks the students if that ever happens to them, and there is a silent chorus of nods. She adds that this is particularly true when she is reading something she isn‘t really that interested in. This last statement generates enthusiastic agreement and knowing smiles. She tells her students she is going to show them one way she helps herself understand and remember what she reads.

Ann explains that understanding and remembering is always easier when we put things together and organize them in some way. She reaches into a plastic bin beside her chair and takes out a box of assorted blocks, which she dumps out on the table in front of her. She asks the students if they would be able to describe what is in the pile. “Can you tell how many colors there are? Is it clear if there are more red ones or green ones? How many blocks are there all together?” She asks them what they would do to make the pile clear and easy to understand. Ann tells the students, all of whom have already raised their hands, eager to reply, to turn to a neighbor and share their answers with each other.

After the class has shared their ideas and agreed how they would organize the blocks, Ann invites her students to put their hypotheses to the test. Students take turns separating and organizing the blocks by their shared characteristics. Ann smiles to herself over the wonder of kids in the computer age clamoring to get their hands on a few blocks. When the matched blocks are arrayed in columns, Ann emphasizes the difference organization makes by asking some questions that require gathering information and making comparisons the students could not have made when the blocks were in one big pile. She relates these observations to other places where objects are organized, such as rooms, drawers, libraries, and supermarkets. (She would extend the experiences with manipulative materials if the students‘ ages or cognitive ability warranted it).

Ann then tells her students that we can also group or chunk information in the text we are reading to help us understand and remember. She instructs her class to watch and listen as she chunks the familiar story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. She tells them that because they know the story, she is going to tell it very quickly, and when she is finished, she will ask them to tell her what they observed. Ann picks up a marker and places a stack of 6 x 8 index cards in front of her. Speaking quickly, Ann tells the story; however, when the tale transitions from one scene to the next, she stops and exclaims, “Wait a minute. That sounds like a new episode is starting. It‘s a new scene. It‘s different from what was happening before. Let me stop there and think about what I found out.” She reviews the details and asks, “What are all those details talking about” Ann thinks aloud as she makes the connection. Then she writes a summarizing sentence on an index card, such as “Goldilocks helps herself to the bears’porridge.”

When Ann has finished modeling the chunking of the story and has placed the index cards on display, she asks the students to retell what they observed. She records the steps of the strategy so they are on view. Then she asks her students to think, pair, and share the answers to these questions: What are we doing? Why are we doing it? While the students are responding, she circulates and listens for their ability to articulate what they are learning and makes notes regarding which students need more time, coaching, and practice to process the concept of chunking information

Following the group share, Ann prepares her students for the transition into two groups--one will receive guided practice in summarizing text and the other high-ability group will resume work in their literature response circles.

Differentiated Group Practice


Ann’s teaching is grounded in her commitment to enable her students to be self-guided learners. The structure of her program, the nature of her interactions with her students, and her responses to their challenges are always geared to build their awareness of the behaviors they need to succeed and to release control of those behaviors to her students.

The guided reading portion of the reading workshop puts her students in the driver’s seat as soon as they are aware of what they need to do and have an understanding of the processes needed to do it. Therefore, instead of preparing students for their reading by guiding their predictions, clarifying new vocabulary they will encounter, and anticipating the literary devices the author uses, Ann asks the students to apply the strategies she has modeled and select the behaviors that will serve their purposes before, during, and after reading. She provides support by coaching her students through the challenges that arise.

The students who have demonstrated a need to improve their recall remain in the gathering place with Ann. She tells them that they are going to work together to get practice in organizing or chunking a story. She has picked a piece of material that is well within their independent reading level. After briefly reviewing the strategy, the students in the group take turns reading aloud and stopping when they think a new episode or chunk has started. When there is a difference of opinion, Ann encourages a dialogue over the decision process, knowing that the separation of the episodes is not as important as the students‘ conscious attention to organizing information.

Before the students draw a picture representing the thrust of each episode along with a main-idea statement, Ann takes them through a rehearsal. She wants to mediate their processing of the text and encourage visualization. She asks, “What will be in your picture? Where will you place the characters?” She notes the students’ ability to generalize ideas from the details. While her students are busy selecting markers and drawing, Ann checks in with each child by asking, “So could you teach me about what you are doing?”

When Ann and the students have finished collaborating on the chunking of the story, she has them reflect on the use of the strategy and ask any questions they may have. Ann tells her students they will have an opportunity to recall and discuss the story the next time they meet. At that time they will evaluate the use of the chunking strategy and she will give them feedback on the difference in their ability to remember what they read.

During the weeks to come, the guided reading blocks will move from teacher-directed activities to cooperative group activities and then independent work. Ann will model how to use the chunking strategy to mark episodes with highlighting tape, map a story, take notes, and summarize. She will ask the students to evaluate their recall and understanding and compare what they are doing now with what they used to do.

Differentiated Cooperative Group Practice


The literature study block of the reading workshop enables students to work in small groups and share their reactions to thought-provoking children‘s literature or informational text. Ann is confident that she can balance both the aesthetic enjoyment of reading good literature and the investigations in expository material with instruction that builds expertise. She uses the extended text as a stage for the students to select and apply the strategies they have been learning. The global and interpretive questions she poses focus her class‘ attention on higher-level thinking, deep processing of information, and the search for meaning.

Ann joins the students who have been working in small collaborative circles on the books they have selected for literature study. After conferencing briefly with each group about their work and coaching students who need support, she gathers the small groups and poses the question, “What devices does the author use to hold your interest?” She asks these more able students to apply the summarizing strategy to an analysis of their book‘s plot structure. They will need to identify the main episodes as they read and record them on 8 x 10 index cards. By attaching the sides of the cards with yarn, each group will construct a story line that reflects the rise and fall of tension in the plot. They will have to locate the literary devices the author uses to move the story along such as a surprise, suspense, or disaster. The groups can use their completed story lines for a book sharing with the whole class. (See Learning for Keeps,Chapter 5 for examples of independent practice, application, and transfer of strategies.)

I hope this lesson will spark conversation and ideas about explicit strategy instruction. I would love to hear from you.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Turning the Tide

My daughter got her first pair of eye glasses when she was in the first grade. (Taking after my father’s side of the family, she was already quite myopic.) It was a day we both remember. Moments after we walked out of the optometrist's office, on a balmy spring afternoon, my 6 year-old daughter stopped short. She was staring at a nearby maple tree and when she spoke her face and her voice were meshed in wonder. “Mommy!”, she exclaimed, “I see the leaves! They look like they’re dancing!” The green blur she was accustomed to seeing was gone and in its place were clearly defined leaves swaying in the breeze. 

When teachers unpack cognitive processes for their students like summarizing, inferring, comparing, synthesizing, categorizing, elaborating, or monitoring for understanding, the result is as clarifying as putting on a pair of corrective lenses and the effect is just as awesome. Lack of clarity about these essential behaviors can and does dismantle the way kids read, write, and seek answers yet we seldom take our instruction to the source of the confusion.

I prefer to do my strategy unpacking in the company of colleagues. We verbalize what we are thinking as we read to reveal how we arrive at an inference; we think aloud as we draft our writing and make decisions about which ideas belong together and why; we tackle a puzzle with full disclosure so our partners can record what we do when we’re working with persistence, or accuracy, or flexibility. Our work yields a list of the steps in a process, which we turn into a demonstration for our students. For example, reading and thinking aloud reveals that when we make inferences we: 
  • Want to know something not stated
  • Gather information that provides clues for making thoughtful guesses
  • Use information from our prior experience
  • Look for connections between the pieces of information
  • Make a guess about what we want to know that is supported by all the information we gathered and eliminate guesses that are not supported by all the information
  • Understand that inferences are our guesses based on information; they identify what is reasonably true
Shining a light on the workings of a process which is usually hidden from view is the first step in helping kids know what to do when they don’t know. After starting with an engaging concept-building strategy demonstration, an instructional continuum that consists of scaffolded practice in selecting and using helpful strategies, coaching from peers and teachers, and purposefully transferring those strategies where ever they prove useful, finishes the job.

The elephant-sized question in the room is: Where and when does this teaching take place? The macro answer is, regardless of the framework for your instruction, as long as (1) your teaching and assessment practices are learner- centered (2) teacher/student communication is transactional and (3) your focus is on the deep processing of information and long-term learning, the explicit teaching of strategies can be embedded in your curriculum. 

Just like the functioning of the latest and greatest computer is contingent on the performance of the microchips within it, our best intentions and efforts to provide differentiated instruction in a curriculum aligned with standards that avail students with 21st century tools still requires that we pay attention to those smallest units of understanding. Unless the teaching and understanding of essential strategies and indispensable habits of mind are included in our curriculum, we will not turn the tide on a sea of graduates that are neither high-functioning nor independent learners.
Your thoughts, experiences, questions?

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.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Face-lift for 21st Century Basic Skills Teaching

“Preparing Our Kids for 1982: Time Traveling Through Testing”, Heidi Hayes Jacobs’ February 18, 2011 blog, certainly activated my schema around the challenges of upgrading the way we assess and teach our students.  

The words "multiple choice" and 'fill-in''might as well be printed in blue ink. I link these kinds of assessments to transmission education (aka “a mind is an empty vessel to be filled”). This is teaching that is focused on the retention and regurgitation of information. As Heidi points out, that century-old behaviorist orientation (my words, not hers) is very much alive today. This does not bode well for our future. 

A transmission education mind-set is a barometer of sorts. It is a pretty good indicator that the teacher’s focus is on checking for retention (more accurately, short-term memory) as opposed to gathering data about her students’ learning via their demonstrations of understanding or thought-demanding performances. (It's using a ditto on the correct use of quotation marks instead of a narrative written with dialogue.) So how does teaching for transmission impact our students' preparation for a highly competitive and complex world? Is it sufficient to lift traditional skills teaching into 2011 or do we want to give traditional skills teaching a face-lift? Let’s take a closer look.
How are we teaching the behaviors that are essential for a high level of reading, writing, and problem solving? If we are relying on teacher- directed lessons and decontextualized practice exercises and drills, we are not engaging our students in the use of mental self-management - the ability to recognize when and how to apply  procedural knowledge to new and authentically challenging tasks. Predictable practice exercises produce inert or static knowledge. We should not be baffled when our students are unable to synthesize an author’s message after finding and circling the main idea for dozens of passages.

So what would a skills face-lift look like when we are teaching students a comprehension skill like understanding similes?

Teacher 1 gives students examples of similes or points them out in their text and then provides follow-up practice in matching similes to their meanings.

Teacher 2 models how he identifies similes as he is reading by first noting comparisons signified by the words “like” or “as” and then noting incongruity (e.g., juxtaposing friends with peas in a pod). The teacher models how he gets the meaning of the simile by using the characteristics of the things being compared and the context of the passage. The students reflect on the teacher’s demonstration and articulate the strategies. Then, using text that contains similes, students work with the teacher’s support to apply the strategies they were shown. Subsequently, the teacher mediates learning by providing feedback and coaching as students work cooperatively and then independently to practice and apply the new strategies.  

Our teaching of essential skills will need a face-lift if our instruction is not explicit, our students are not engaged in mental self-management, and our assessments are not based on authentic application.* 
In order for our 21st century students to be thoughtful, proficient, confident, independent  learners and problem solvers who can navigate and communicate in the global community, let’s be sure that: 

Students understand the value of building a repertoire of strategies that very successful people use and they are given the opportunity to initiate those strategies when they need to help themselves understand what they read, clarify what they write, and resolve authentic problems. 

Parents know that strategic knowledge is the key to ownership and independence. Taking the time to teach strategies will pay off in higher achievement scores for their children.

Teachers make room at the table for teaching the learner and the processes of learning along with the content of the curriculum. They get the opportunity to work collaboratively to develop the skills and knowledge they need to respond flexibly and opportunistically to their students’ mental processing needs whether they are on or off the computer.
What are your thoughts, questions, and experiences? 

*We have known how to teach strategies explicitly for self-regulated learning for over 30 years. A.S. Palincsar & A.L. Brown, B. Beyer, A. Costa, and M. Pressley are among the outstanding educators who have written about and researched the direct teaching of cognitive behaviors. See “The Case for Explicit, Teacher-led, Cognitive Strategy Instruction” by B. Rosenshine (1997) and “The Road Not Yet Taken: A transactional strategies approach to comprehension instruction” by R. Brown (2008).

To read about recent research results and learn more about explicit mediation of essential strategies see Learning for Keeps: Teaching the Strategies Essential for Creating Independent Learners

Monday, January 17, 2011

Do You Need to Adjust the Thermostat in Your Room to Create a Climate for Growing Self-Directed Students

My last post focused on explicit strategy instruction, a research-based approach to building the procedural knowledge that is essential for owning and initiating the complex behaviors required for a high level of reading, writing, and problem solving. It outlined the teacher/student transactions that first, illuminate those behaviors for students and then, engage them in scaffolded opportunities to practice and apply the strategies in varied problem-solving situations that arise in the context of their studies and explorations. 
As I started today’s post, I was all set to “drill down” and share with you how I actually implement explicit strategy instruction. However, I realized that would be as short-sighted and ill-advised as plunging a souffle into an oven that had not been preheated. The results would likely be just as unimpressive. So let’s back up a bit.

What do we need to do to create a climate in our classrooms that supports and nurtures self-directed, independent learners, learners who signal their comfort and confidence in monitoring, regulating, and evaluating their own learning with statements such as these:
            “I always have a hard time understanding my social studies book. I better take notes when I read this. I’ll do a bubble map while I’m reading.”
            “Wait a minute, I’m doing it again. I’m starting every sentence with the same word. Maybe I can combine some sentences.”
            “Why don’t we make a bar graph, like we did in our science experiment. We can keep track of the websites we use and how many times we use them so for our next project we’ll know the best places to look for information.” 
Which paradigm, what teacher-student transactions and instructional settings create the climate that supports self-direction?

1.  Teaching the learner as well as the learning is at the heart of improving our students’ performances in a self-sustaining way. We align our teaching with a constructivist paradigm and we take our teaching cues from our students' demonstrations of understanding not just our syllabi. We expect learning to be idiosyncratic so we research our students’ needs and abilities with formative assessments and then differentiate their instruction. Because cognitive psychologists have ascertained that memory is not formed at the moment information is acquired, we ask students to process information (e.g., organize, summarize, compare) to develop and strengthen their cognitive structures.

2.  Creating a duel agenda of teaching process and product gives our students access to the procedural knowledge that can put them in the drivers seat as they navigate the challenges of learning and problem solving. By ”talking process” and thinking aloud students expand their repertoire of problem-solving strategies, engage in metacognition, become more reflective and less impulsive, and acquire life-long skills that transcend the answers being sought. We even make high-stakes testing useful to students by extracting the long-term learning embedded in the tasks instead of focusing on scores.

3.  Fostering mental self-management enables students to select and initiate the strategies they have been taught in new and authentic contexts. Decontextualized practice exercises are replaced with dynamic practice in identifying obstacles and deciding what strategies would be helpful (e.g., multiple choice exercises in getting the main idea are replaced with organizing ideas while reading to facilitate memory).

4.  Coaching students to discovery. The teacher uses open questions (e.g., “What options are you considering?” What do you think is interfering with the clarity of this paragraph?”) to allow kids to identify and remedy glitches in their work. Instead of rushing to get at the answers, fix the writing, identify the words, we give priority to our students’ expanding knowledge of the criteria for excellence and the behaviors that  are essential for expertise.

5.  Scaffolding strategy instruction creates a safety net for students as they internalize new behaviors and advance from neophytes receiving collaborative support to independent practitioners. Students are given guided practice in problem solving with non-directive coaching, constructive feedback from teacher and peers, and opportunities to exercise control over the processes and products of their learning. The teacher knows when to step out of the spotlight and become an active observer. 

6.  Allowing for different outcomes for all students so that lower-achieving children are not on “overload” and have the opportunity to extend the dialogue around their work and engage in planning and monitoring activities. These children, who rely on teacher and peer support and are expert at getting assistance, have the opportunity to develop their own self-regulatory behaviors. 
While each of these “climate adjustments” may need to be honed with collegial feedback and reflective practices, like any well-functioning heating and cooling system when they are in operation they create a zone of comfort in which the work of posing questions, seeking answers, making connections, perceiving patterns, building knowledge, and visualizing possibilities, can take place. 

An expanded discussion of the topics discussed here can be found in Learning for Keeps: Teaching the Strategies Essential for Creating Independent Learners  

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Which Teacher-Student Transactions Produce Drivers Instead of Passengers

What do you do if students’ core reading, writing, and problem solving behaviors aren’t improving? What do you do if your students are relying on you to help them process what they read, clarify what they have written, and nudge them to the finish line when solving a problem? What do you do to get between the learner and the learning so that you can mediate and coach as you would if your were skating along side a novice? What kinds of transactions (i.e., demonstrations, questions, conversations, prompts) build skill and empower kids to become self-directed, higher-level readers, writers, thinkers, and problem solvers prepared for the work of the 21st century?

Recent comprehensive research (Hattie, Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement; Pressley & Harris, Cognitive Strategies Instruction: From basic research to classroom instruction) is remarkably unambiguous about the teacher-student transactions that make a difference. The case is clear that the following practices improve achievement for diverse student populations: The explicit teaching of key strategies; fostering metacognitive and self-regulated learning; problem-solving in meaningful contexts; and teachers responding flexibly and opportunistically to students' needs for instructive feedback.

These are practices that I gradually folded into my teaching over a period of many years with attention grabbing strategy lessons and collaborative problem solving activities. Explicit instruction is where I go when my students don’t know -- when the experiences they have had and the lessons I have taught have not resulted in demonstrable understanding. I use my on-going informal assessments to determine where things are breaking down (e.g., making inferences, organizing ideas, flexibility in problem solving) and based on my deconstruction of the needed strategy, I begin instruction by providing a model for that behavior. Future posts will talk about the implementation of these practices, however, first let's be explicit about explicit strategy instruction. Instruction begins with the teacher’s “show and tell” during which the teacher

  • Identifies the strategy and relates it to the students’ prior knowledge 
  • Explains why the strategy is important and helpful 
  • Demonstrates the steps in the strategy while thinking aloud 
  • Coaches students as they reflect and describe the process they observed
This direct instruction is followed by an extended period of scaffolded, curriculum- embedded, problem- solving practice and application of the strategy. The teacher

  •  Coaches students as they practice and apply the strategy while problem solving in the context of the curriculum
  •  Prompts independent initiation and transfer of strategies to diverse problem solving situations 
My initial uncertainty and hesitation to begin teaching strategies explicitly dissolved and my confidence in what I was doing grew in direct proportion to the growth in my students’ engagement, confidence, independence, and reading, writing, and problem solving proficiency.

Why is explicit strategy instruction so empowering and transformative? Just think about the dynamics of improving a complex behavior -- like playing tennis -- with the help of a good coach. First, your coach models the behavior you want to learn so that you can visualize what you want to re-create. Next, your coach watches your performance and gives you feedback. That feedback raises your awareness of what you are doing well and what you need to change. Then your coach views your actions with knowledge and specificity that you, as a learner, do not have. He or she breaks down and clarifies the process you are trying to learn; you are no longer just swinging at the ball. Finally, your coach gives you ample opportunity to practice while monitoring your actions, providing reminders, and answering your questions until your new behaviors become comfortable, natural, and automatic. 

So while the coach is the catalyst for transformation, AWARENESS is the change agent.
Once we shine a light on the behaviors that drive the complex processes of reading, writing, and problem solving and illuminate what had been hidden from view, our teaching can move naturally back and forth between the processes and the products of learning. We can equip our students to make the all-important transition from the passenger’s seat to the driver’s seat. (For a guide to explicit strategy instruction, including sample lessons, see my book from ASCD: Learning for Keeps: Teaching the Strategies Essential for Creating Independent Learners)