Category Archives: Classroom Instruction that Works

Supporting students’ growth mindset and effort

“What makes a student successful?” If you ask students in your classroom this question, how would they respond? Would they say that a student is successful because she is smart, or because the teacher likes him, or because she is lucky? Would students suggest that taking good notes, studying for tests, or doing homework can lead to success?

Often, students attribute success to things that they consider beyond their control, like luck or intelligence. But student effort is often overlooked or minimized as a factor in future success. The more immersed students are in a school and classroom culture where effort is a focus, the more the messages and examples of effort will resonate and bring about positive change for them.

How, then, can we establish an effort-focused classroom culture? First, when teaching students about the relationship between effort and achievement, be explicit. Share stories about people who worked hard to be successful and help students identify the specific actions that contributed to their success. Then, talk with students about what they want to succeed at; help them identify their steps toward success, providing explicit guidance about what it means to expend effort. Be clear about what is necessary for success in your classroom and help students practice those skills. Finally, ask students to keep track of their effort and achievement. Rubrics or graphs depicting effort and achievement can help students to see the correlation between the two.

It’s also just as important to remember that effort is not the only factor that influences student achievement. Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck. They need a repertoire of approaches – not just sheer effort – to learn and improve.  It’s VERY IMPORTANT to keep in mind that students need to be learning! If we’re praising students for working hard, especially when they’re not learning what they are supposed to learn, then something needs to change.

That’s the crux of the issue. When you help students make the connection between effort and achievement, they begin to see that intelligence is not a fixed attribute that some people have and some people don’t. They’ll also begin to recognize that expending effort with perseverance and resiliency will not only help them achieve their goals, but will also expand their intelligence through the processes of decision making and adaptation. Teachers who understand and demonstrate the connections between effort, a growth mindset, and achievement will help students unlock their own learning, leading to higher achievement and better success.

 

Bissonette_Terri_2015_Terri Bissonette, Ed.D., is a consultant at McREL International and a former classroom teacher and teacher leader specializing in effective instructional practices and instructional coaching. At McREL, Terri primarily works with State Departments of Education and schools to improve student learning and close achievement gaps for underserved minority student populations.

Higher-order questioning inspires higher-level thinking

It’s a typical morning in your American History classroom. Today’s learning centers around the Revolutionary War and you want to help students engage by connecting with their senses and emotions. How can you do this successfully? Try asking your students to imagine, explain, debate, and interpret—from their perspective—the experience of crossing the Delaware with George Washington.

 

Teacher: You are floating down the Delaware River and you are seated behind George Washington. What do you hear, feel, smell, and see?

Students: I hear the waves crashing against the boat. I feel anxious and scared. I smell body odor. I see George’s white hair.

The next day, begin with a reminder of their imagined journey on the boat; then review and check for understanding. The students could have simply read a passage and answered questions about George Washington’s river crossing, but this simple immersive exercise promotes deeper relevance, engagement, understanding, problem-solving, comprehension, and retention.

Why does this exercise work so well?

Asking higher-order questions requires more time for students to think and articulate their answers, and can greatly extend classroom conversations and learning. When students are challenged with higher-order questions, they draw from their own experience to formulate their answers. In other words, their understanding becomes personalized. Thought-provoking questions not only encourage deeper discussions in the classroom, but also help students develop skills they can use in real-life decision making. Asking a variety of questions helps students actively and broadly engage with and deepen their understanding of the content. The questions invite students to respond based on their thoughts about the content, relying not just on basic recall but actual experience, helping students learn how to think rather than what to think.

McREL_Blooms_infographic

CLICK IMAGE TO ENLARGE

It’s a powerful instructional strategy, but classroom observation data collected with our Power Walkthrough system shows that teachers aren’t using higher-order questioning very often. In fact, we found that teachers are asking questions at the lower three levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy a whopping 71% of the time. Why might that be?

In the interest of time, teachers often perform a quick check for understanding, asking specific questions that require a simple right or wrong answer. Sometimes, teachers don’t know how to ask higher-order questions, or feel that they don’t have adequate time to generate more provocative questions during a lesson. Advance organizers can help students understand the expectations for each lesson and facilitate a higher level of classroom questioning. In Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd ed. (2012), our McREL colleagues recommend asking inferential questions and using explicit cues to activate your students’ prior knowledge and develop deeper understanding of the content. You can also prepare sentence stems that help you craft higher order questions on the fly during classroom discussions.

Another way to focus classroom effort on higher-order questions that make learning memorable is to teach your students about the levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, emphasizing how higher-order questioning promotes deeper learning. Once they have an understanding, they can then articulate at what level their questions are occurring. Try creating a poster of Bloom’s Taxonomy with your students for your classroom. Then, during classroom discussions, place a sticky note at the level of Bloom’s in which the students are working. This will help guide discussions, and serve as reminder for you and your students to stretch learning by reaching for the highest level of discussion. In our experience, most students would rather imagine themselves in a different time and place than sit and read a passage and complete a worksheet.

As a teacher or administrator, how have you inspired classroom curiosity through higher-order-thinking questions? Please share your great ideas.

6a010536aec25c970b01b7c7c12852970bCheryl Abla is a managing consultant at McREL International. After 26 years in the classroom, she now works with teachers and schools on what matters most in classrooms using knowledge gleaned from The 12 Touchstones of Good TeachingClassroom Instruction that Works with English Language LearnersUsing Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works, and Classroom Instruction that Works. You can reach her at cabla@mcrel.org.

 

6a010536aec25c970b01a5116524ea970cLisa Maxfield, program manager, manages McREL’s EmpowerED Suite, which includes the Power Walkthrough® informal walkthrough software. She has been working with the Power Walkthrough software since its inception in 2007, and she works closely with the developers on enhancements and improvements. You can reach her at lmaxfield@mcrel.org.

Teachable Life Lessons: Hula hoops® and fishy handshakes

student handshakeHow do you know when you’ve made a positive impact on a former student? As a teacher, there isn’t anything much more rewarding than receiving an “out-of-the-blue” message via phone call, e-mail, social media, or a personal visit from a former student. While I’ve yet to be contacted about how wonderfully I taught a specific subject or lesson, I have had former students tell me about the life lessons they learned in my classroom that made a difference or had an impact on their successes.

Educators do so much more than teach content and prepare students for assessments. Yes, we teach A LOT of content in the short time we have students, but when we take a step back and objectively look at who, what, and where we want our students to be as adults, it becomes easier to slip quick life lessons into the classroom throughout the year. Life lessons can have an impact on students as they mature into adulthood or as they apply for that first job. Research tells us that lessons that tap into our emotions have a much greater chance of being retained, so creating funny or engaging scenarios—such as a fishy handshake or sharing stories from real-life—can help students recall specific social awareness skills they learned in the classroom.

Former students who have contacted me have affirmed their positive memories of classroom life lessons, saying:

“I knew how to look my future employer in the eyes as I shook her hand. I stood up straight and tall and presented myself confidently, even though I was scared to death.”

“I am very skilled at paraphrasing and listening to colleagues as they share.”

“I realize that every small task in college is just one step closer to finishing my degree; the finished project.”

Here are a few powerful, quick exercises I used in my classroom over the years to help students become responsible, respectful, caring adults:

Hula Hoop

Life Lesson: Respecting personal space

Using a small hula hoop, I demonstrated the boundaries forming the invisible personal space around each person, explaining that most people aren’t comfortable when others get inside their hula hoop, unless they invite them. Throughout the year, we practiced this exercise in pairs (don’t forget to laugh!), while reminding each other about respecting personal space.

Fishy Handshake

Life Lesson: Greeting others with respect

In this exercise, I paired students up and sat them together, one as Person A and the other as Person B. I asked them to stand and shake hands, then sit down and watch me. A volunteer would come up and we’d address one another with a hand shake. I’d offer my right hand with the limpness of a cold, floppy fish. I would then ask the volunteer to tell the class what it felt like to shake my hand. In the risk-taking, honest, put-it-out-there, classroom environment we’d already firmly established, students never had any trouble describing my handshake as limp and very unimpressive.

Then, I’d greet the student with an overly zealous, extra firm handshake and get their take on that. Usually, the student would take a step back and freely express that the over-confident version was equally unimpressive. Finally, I would demonstrate a firm, look-you-in-the-eye, welcoming handshake and have the student describe the difference, explaining why the third one felt the most comfortable. As a class, the Person B students then practiced walking up to the seated Person A students. As the Person A students were approached, they stood and practiced the “just-right” hand shake. Throughout the school year we would occasionally take a brain-break from our studies to practice our handshakes.

Body Language

Life Lesson: Being an engaged listener

I’d begin this exercise while seated in a chair at the front of the classroom. I would invite a student to approach me and share a story about their night; for example, their experience in a sporting event. As the student spoke, I would look everywhere but in their eyes, crossing my arms and legs, and acting completely disengaged from their story. As the class snickered and I continued my act, the storytelling student kept trying to get my attention, regaling me with tales of his superior athletic moves.

In our debriefing, I asked the storyteller to talk about how my behavior made him feel. The class chimed in, providing their personal observations. As a group, we would then brainstorm what engaged listening looks like and feels like, and, in pairs, we learned to paraphrase each other, appear approachable, and act engaged even when we didn’t feel it.

Perseverance

Life Lesson: Persevering through effort

This simple exercise offered several opportunities throughout the lesson for students to learn about grit, effort, and stamina, some of the most important skills they’ll need in life. I’d show online video snippets of people demonstrating effort in their daily lives. Students would then share effort stories about their own families, movies they’d seen, and times when they, themselves, persevered through a trying period. It was enlightening when students from other countries shared stories of their families’ struggles and perseverance in America. This not only illustrated effort, but celebrated the many cultures present in our classroom, creating a circle of care.

Educators: I’m sure you can add to my list! Please comment and share some of your most powerful classroom activities for teaching life lessons.

6a010536aec25c970b01bb083ab04d970dCheryl Abla is a managing consultant at McREL International. After 26 years in the classroom, she now works with teachers and schools on what matters most in classrooms using knowledge gleaned from The 12 Touchstones of Good TeachingClassroom Instruction that Works with English Language LearnersUsing Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works, and Classroom Instruction that Works. You can reach her at cabla@mcrel.org.

From cornfields to classrooms: Why am I doing this?

Learning Objectives Infographic

Learning Objectives Infographic CLICK TO ENLARGE

For five summers as a teenager growing up in Iowa, I worked as a corn detasseler, walking up and down rows and rows of corn, finding each tassel, grabbing it, pulling it off, and throwing it to the ground. When I applied for the job, I didn’t know why the corn needed to be detasseled, I only knew that I would earn $3.35 per hour. After I was hired and given good direction, I learned that it was extremely important for me to do my job correctly or the plants would not cross-pollinate and the crop would fail. While this might seem like a simple objective, it made my job more meaningful and provided me with both the information and motivation I needed to help the crops flourish.

Similarly, our students need to have clear objectives in the classroom so that they understand what they should be learning and why it is important.

It’s crucial that teachers communicate clearly with students about learning objectives. In the Framework for Instructional Planning found in the second edition of Classroom Instruction that Works (CITW) (2012), Setting Objectives is one of the non-negotiables within the first component, Creating the Environment for Learning. CITW offers four recommendations for setting objectives:

  • Set learning objectives that are specific but not restrictive.
  • Communicate the learning objectives to students and parents.
  • Connect the learning objectives to previous and future learning.
  • Engage students in setting personal learning objectives.

To gauge how well this strategy is being used in classrooms, many schools use our Power Walkthrough classroom observation system, which has templates for the nine CITW strategies and other instructional goals. Let’s look at a real-life example from a school that tracks learning objectives during their informal observations.

Figure 1

Figure 1 – CLICK TO ENLARGE

In Figure 1, you can clearly see that this school’s teachers are posting objectives 70.1% of the time, and, 60.5% of the time, those objectives are based on standards. As an instructional coach or principal at this school, while looking at this data, you would presumably be pleased with how the teachers are committed to the Setting Objectives category. In providing feedback to your teachers, you might mention that they should take the time to reference the objective throughout the lesson so that students clearly understand what they should be learning. And you might advise them to help students become invested in personalizing the objectives to understand why they’re learning the content, and then teach them how to monitor their learning.

But, what Figure 1 doesn’t reveal is how well students actually understand and relate to the learning objectives.

To determine this, McREL recommends interviewing students during classroom walkthroughs, asking them (in student-friendly language) to state the what and why of the assigned task.

Figure 2

Figure 2 – CLICK TO ENLARGE

Again using Power Walkthrough, when the school did this, they found that too many of their students struggled to articulate the learning objective (see Figure 2). This was extremely valuable data that sparked collaborative conversations to determine the cause of the disconnect and what could be done to improve.

When students connect with and personalize the learning objective, they can better understand the relevance of the learning objective.

Just as it benefited me all those years ago to see the connection between detasseling the corn and the success of the crop, so too will students benefit when they understand the connections between what they are doing in class, what they are learning, and why they need to know it.

How are you going to motivate your students to make learning relevant to their lives and become invested in the why?

6a010536aec25c970b01a3fcb5866e970bLisa Maxfield, Program Manager, serves as the manager of McREL’s EmpowerED Suite which includes the Power Walkthrough® informal walkthrough software. She has been working with the Power Walkthrough software since its inception in 2007, and she works closely with the developers on enhancements and improvements.

Model lesson plans offer a lifeline to new teachers

Portrait of a happy young teacher with her students in the backgroundThe learning curve for first-year teachers is notoriously steep: Not only are they having to keep up with the content they’re teaching, but they’re also figuring out how to deliver it well, assess it right, manage the classroom and their students’ behavior, and design effective lesson plans. Striking just one of these things from their list, research shows, can go a long way toward supporting and retaining novice teachers.

In the latest Research Matters column in Educational Leadership, McREL’s president and CEO Bryan Goodwin shows how providing well-designed lesson plans is a simple yet powerful way to improve teacher performance—among both new and struggling teachers.

A 2016 study of middle school math teachers, for example, found that when one group was given model lesson plans along with webinars and opportunities to network with other teachers and the plans’ developers, their students showed higher achievement—a 0.08 effect size, or the equivalent of moving students from a classroom with an average teacher to one at the 80th percentile of quality. Moreover, these effects were doubly beneficial for weaker teachers.

Goodwin notes that, while teachers shouldn’t be spoon-fed lesson plans, providing them during crucial times in teachers’ development can allow them to get their footing and feel more successful, and perhaps keep more of them in the classroom instead of fleeing the profession.

You can read the entire column here.

Posted by McREL International.

Four tips for using nonlinguistic representations

nonlinguistic learningToday’s learners are continually fed linguistically presented information, such as lectures, videos, directions, math chants, and reading assignments. Most opportunities for students to interact with peers happen primarily with words.

It’s all too easy, while employing various aspects of instructional design and delivery, to overlook ways that students might also engage in learning through nonlinguistics.

When used intentionally and consistently, nonlinguistic representations are powerful instructional tools that can have a positive effect on student achievement. They provide varied ways for students to process new information without solely relying on language.

McREL’s analysis of research for the second edition of Classroom Instruction that Works (CITW) provides these research-based classroom recommendations for use of nonlinguistic representations:

  1. Use graphic organizers.
  2. Use physical models or manipulatives.
  3. Generate mental pictures.
  4. Use pictures, illustrations, and pictographs.
  5. Engage in kinesthetic activities.

Tips for engaging in nonlinguistic learning

  1. Consistently use each type of nonlinguistic representation.
    It’s important that students learn several ways to represent information nonlinguistically. This means providing students at every grade level with multiple opportunities to use kinesthetic movement, draw pictures and pictographs, use their senses and emotions to form solid mental images, be fluid in the use of several graphic organizers, and create or use physical models to denote their learning. Consistent use is key; if you use these strategies only occasionally, it will limit students’ ability to grasp the possibilities associated with learning both linguistically and nonlinguistically, preventing them from developing automaticity in their use of all the representations.
  2. Help students engage in conversations with peers to explain their choice and use of a nonlinguistic representation.
    When students engage in peer discourse to explain why they chose a certain nonlinguistic representation for the content being studied, they deepen their understanding of the content and are better able to make connections between types of information. Peer conversations help students elaborate on their learning; they describe their thinking and listen to others do the same, helping them extend and apply their learning. When students engage in peer and classroom conversations, it becomes easier to expose and correct any confusion about or misinterpretations of the content. Using sentence stems and guiding questions may also help students become more proficient in speaking with, listening to, and understanding one another.
  3. Students can use multiple nonlinguistic representations to learn or represent a concept.
    It would be a mistake to believe that students should select only one nonlinguistic strategy to represent a piece of content. Nothing could be further from the truth. When students are encouraged to combine and use multiple nonlinguistics to represent their learning, the probability of deeper understanding and longer retention increases. For example, students learning the vocabulary word defenestrate, which means to throw something out the window, might kinesthetically demonstrate the word, followed by sketching what it looks like to defenestrate. Ultimately, students should be given time to create a mental picture of how they look defenestrating an object.
  4. Students should be encouraged to use nonlinguistic representations on their own.
    Nonlinguistic representations can be used to learn new vocabulary words, take notes, capture information along a timeline, symbolize information that is difficult to see—such as parts of an atom or solar systems—depict historical events, connect new learning to previously learning information, and demonstrate understanding beyond linguistics. When students consistently represent their learning using a nonlinguistic approach, they internalize useful methods and multiple ways to process and make sense of new information. Ultimately, the goal is to create a desire in students to use these learning tools without teacher insistence.

Applying the tips to instruction

As with the implementation of any instructional strategy, teachers who wish to improve student learning need to intentionally plan for and consistently use nonlinguistic representations in their lesson design and delivery. Setting a purpose for using these important instructional strategies, along with a willingness to stay the course in their application, will go a long way to establishing routine use for teachers and the students they have the privilege of serving.

Bj StoneConsulting director Dr. Bj Stone is a co-author of the second editions of McREL’s Classroom Instruction that Works (2012) and A Handbook for Classroom Instruction that Works (2012). A former middle and high school science teacher and central office administrator, she now trains, coaches, and consults with K–12 educators and district leaders on research-based instructional strategies, vocabulary instruction, curriculum development, and assessment design.

 

Additional resources

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford Press.

Dean, C. B., Hubbell, E. R., Pitler, H., & Stone, B. (2012). Classroom instruction that works: Research-based strategies for increasing student achievement, 2nd ed. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

 

Looking at student work: Are you snorkeling or scuba diving?

Teachers looking together at student work seems like a surefire way to improve teaching and learning, as teachers look at real artifacts and reflect on expectations, practices, and results. However, as with most things in education, success depends not on what teachers do but how they do it, write Bryan Goodwin and Heather Hein in this month’s Research Says column in Educational Leadership.

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ALL for all: Reviving academic language in classroom conversation

“I times’ed 12 and 140 and I got 1680.” Sound familiar? While visiting a middle school math class recently, I heard more than a few students use language like this when explaining their work to their peers and to their teacher. While their answers showed they understood the academic concepts they were learning, the way they expressed their ideas revealed a need for academic language development.

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