As the summer winds down and thoughts of the new school year begin to surface, what changes are you considering to improve your school’s climate? One component of your school’s overall climate that should not be overlooked, literally, is the visual appearance of your facility, inside and out. The physical appearance of your school sends implicit and explicit messages to your parents, students, staff, and visitors about the quality of the learning environment and care to be found inside.
For too long, though, education has been marked not so much by a pattern of incremental improvement, but rather by a swinging pendulum. We’ve lurched from one untested idea to the next—explicit instruction, inquiry-based instruction, whole language, phonics only—the list goes on and on. The point of research is to sift through various approaches to identify what has worked and what hasn’t, so we can lock in what we know works most of the time. Only then should we explore those edges where further improvements in professional practice are necessary.
Data walls are a natural extension of the data-driven instruction process. While we don’t advocate sharing individual student data publicly, we believe there is value in sharing school or classroom data. Educators must be willing to look at, share, and talk about the data, in order to “take collective action” and build a unified focus on improvement across the school community.
In my recent column in Educational Leadership, I drew upon some studies synthesized in a new book from Newsweek and New York Times journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, which provides a slew of fascinating insights, including the importance of framing problems as challenges versus threats.
In sports, for example, professional soccer players are more apt to kick a tie-breaking goal when they are kicking to win—that is, to give their team the lead in a shootout rather than when kicking from behind in a shootout to avoid a loss. In addition, Bronson and Merryman point to a study conducted at Princeton University, which invited two groups of students from high schools under-represented on the prestigious campus to answer questions about their backgrounds (to remind them of their outsider status) and then take a short math test.
The tests the two groups took were nearly identical, with just one subtle, yet important difference. For one group, the exam was a framed as an “Intellectual Ability Questionnaire;” for the other, it was called an “Intellectual Challenge Questionnaire.” The differences in performance were striking; the students taking the “challenge” test answered, on average, 90 percent of questions correctly; the students taking the very same test labelled as an “ability” exam answered, on average, just 72 percent of the questions correctly. In effect, framing the test as a threat rather than a challenge resulted in a two-letter-grade drop in performance.
Consider yet another study included in Top Dog. It found that the size of the venue in which students take the SAT test has a tremendous effect on performance—the smaller the venue, the higher the score. Certainly, many explanations might be offered for this finding. One likely culprit, though, is that being surrounded by a large group of fellow exam takers can be threatening. As Bronson and Merryman observe, “These kids know darn well that the entire country is taking the test that day; however, having so many at the same place, often in the same room, is intimidating. It’s a stark reminder of just how many other students are competing with you for college spots.”
Bronson and Merryman connect these findings with yet another dot: business research that shows that companies whose CEOs create a “promotion focus” (i.e., set ambitious goals and encourage innovation) are more likely to outperform competitors than those led by CEOs who create a “prevention focus” (i.e., cautiously fixate on preventing errors).
In my column, I related these insights from Top Dog to the current environment in many schools, which for nearly half of all educators, according to a recent MetLife survey of educators, is characterized by high levels of stress, due in no small part to ongoing pressure to raise student performance while enduring budget cuts. In short, what many educators appear to be facing are tantamount to threat conditions that are likely not conducive to kind of the creative and collaborative thinking that is required to develop better learning environments for students.
That’s not to say pressure and competition are always bad. On the contrary, Top Dog identifies conditions under which competition spurs higher performance and even, surprisingly, creativity (for example the rivalry between Renaissance painters Michelangelo and Rafael). Along these lines, the pressure created by the last two decades of reforms hasn’t been all bad; it has focused attention to helping all students succeed, relying upon data to make decisions, and looking for bright spots and best practices.
That said, we need extrapolate only a little to question the current direction, and underlying theory of action, beneath the continued press to tighten the screws on the package of high-stakes testing, school accountability, and educator performance evaluations tied to student achievement scores (which, as I noted in a previous Educational Leadership column, researchers caution is fraught with concerns of its own).
For starters, if simple tweaks to tests, such as reframing them as challenges, reducing the number of fellow test takers in the room, or, as I noted in an earlier blog, offering students small rewards, can dramatically alter how students perform on them, one wonders if we’re really assessing what we think we are. Moreover, one might wonder whether the threat conditions we’ve created for many schools with high-stakes accountability are serving us well, or if it may be time to begin to reframe accountability in terms of a challenge condition that encourages educators to harness their collective ingenuity to create better learning environments for all students.
I’ll write more about what these efforts might resemble in future blogs and columns. For now, though, I’d encourage readers to absorb the many surprising insights from Top Dog (of which I’ve barely scratched the surface) and consider how this science of competition, adeptly captured in the book, might point us toward a more enlightened approach to school improvement.
Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s chief operating officer. A former teacher and journalist, he is the co-author of The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day and the author of Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success.
There’s been chatter in the educational blogosphere lately about the effectiveness of classroom walkthroughs. Some question the impact that instructional leaders have on student achievement. Some have even questioned whether principals should visit classrooms at all.
However, research shows a clear link between the coaching of teachers and student achievement. There is also a clear indication that walkthroughs are valuable if teachers see them as part of professional development. So what’s the best model for walkthroughs?
McREL’s research on school-level leadership found 21 principal responsibilities, activities, and behaviors that are most strongly connected to staff and student success—15 of which can be addressed by conducting classroom walkthroughs. An informal classroom walkthrough of 3‒5 minutes allows school-level leaders to gather information about teaching styles, instructional strategies, technology use, and other valuable information that can help drive professional development. It also allows leaders to increase their visibility among students and staff and to gauge the temperature of the school climate. Walkthroughs conducted with a purpose and linked to instructional practice do create value for teachers, leaders, and students.
Bringing coaches into the picture
We’ve seen an interesting shift in the typical users of McREL’s Power Walkthrough software and training. When it was developed in 2007, our clients were almost solely principals and assistant principals. But lately, we’ve seen the software being used more and more by teacher leaders, mentors, and instructional coaches. Perhaps this is reflective of principals realizing that allowing staff to observe and learn from one another is an effective way of providing ongoing professional development.
In response to this shift, this summer we’ll launch Power Walkthrough Coach, designed to help principals, teacher leaders, and instructional coaches give teachers the valuable feedback and input they need to improve their practice.
If done in the context of research-based leadership practices and instructional development, classroom walkthroughs are a valuable way for principals and school leaders to see instruction happening in their schools, provide personalized professional development and feedback to teachers, and to involve staff in their own professional learning.
Elizabeth Ross Hubbell is a consultant in McREL’s Center for Educator Effectiveness, and co-author of Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching.
Andrew Kerr is a consultant for McREL’s Center for Educator Effectiveness, working with schools, districts, and state and national education agencies on curriculum and instruction, technology planning, staff development, and distance learning programs.
This is the first in a series of posts by Bryan Goodwin and Elizabeth Ross Hubbell, authors of the new book, The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching. Their posts will look at individual touchstones, providing insights, making connections, prompting reflection, and sharing ideas for using the touchstones in the classroom. Elizabeth Ross Hubbell starts things off with a look at the first touchstone.
Touchstone #1: I use standards to guide every learning opportunity.
If you have never seen Brian Crosby’s “Back to the Future” TED Talk, stop now and go watch it. It’s one of my favorite videos for showing how a dedicated teacher with few resources and a class of “at risk” students expertly uses technology, real-world experiences, and outside connections to tap into student excitement. I’m always struck by the emotion and dedication that is evident throughout his high-tech classroom.
Another, perhaps more subtle, message that Brian sends is that he addresses curriculum standards through innovative and creative means. This echoes our first touchstone, using standards to guide every learning opportunity. Embedded in this first chapter is the idea that teachers should use standards as a platform for creativity.
This may at first seem dichotomous. We sometimes hear groans among educators (and parents) who say that following a set of standards in the classroom restricts spontaneity and imagination, and reduces motivation for impromptu student learning. Crosby’s TED Talk video, however, demonstrates how we can follow curricular guidelines while still allowing for creativity and love of learning for students and teachers.
As we state in The 12 Touchstones book, “When everyone gets on the same page about what’s important for students to learn (i.e. standards), teachers can devote their time and energies not to figuring out what material to teach but, instead, to determining how to teach that material in a way that engages and enlightens students and—when possible—accelerates their learning” (p. 14).
As you look through your lesson plans over the next week or month, ask yourself, “What’s a more creative way I could engage students in this content? How can I make them want to learn this material?” We’d love to hear your ideas below.
Elizabeth Ross Hubbell is a principal consultant in the Center for Educator Effectiveness, and co-author of Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and The 12 Touchstones of Great Teaching.
Although we know a great deal about the factors that contribute to student achievement, we also know that student success isn’t purely reductive: students who have every advantage can still fail, and conversely, students with the odds stacked firmly against them are often capable of prodigious success.
But what is it about some students that leads them to succeed in the face of overwhelming challenges? As we note in our latest Educational Leadership column, it may be as simple as grit. Grit, or resilience, is made up of a combination of factors, including goal-directedness, motivation, self-control, and positive mindset, that come together to create persistence in the face of challenges. Though grit may seem difficult to define (and is less easily influenced than curriculum, instruction, and the school environment), there’s an increasing recognition of its importance. Thankfully, there are things that we can do in the classroom to support the development of grit. Read about them here.
Bryan Goodwin is chief operating officer at McREL. In addition to co-authoring The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day, he wrote Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success.
Kirsten Miller is a lead consultant at McREL and a coauthor of the upcoming Classroom Instruction That Works With English Language Learners, 2nd edition, due out in November.
Often, schools mired in low performance feel as if they could just hit upon
some new insight, strategy, or approach that has been eluding them, they could
be more successful. Yet when my McREL colleagues and I visit schools, we often
find ourselves telling them something quite different: “The answers are in the room.”
Most schools don’t need someone to parachute in with a bold new idea or
insight; the things that research says works are usually already being done by
someone, somewhere in the building. What schools really need to do is simply
find their own bright spots, share them, and encourage others to do what great
educators know works well.
I was reminded of that when earlier this month when I had the privilege of speaking to teachers from Madison City Schools in Alabama. My talk was preceded (and admittedly, upstaged) by presentations from the district’s teachers of the year, Cindy Rhodes and Amy Thaxton.
Ms. Rhodes, a 25-year veteran teacher, offered a top 10 list of tips for new teachers, which included such sage advice as “Always have a plan – and just in case that plan doesn’t work, have a backup,” “Greet your kids every day at the door,” and “Tell [your students] you have faith in them and they will learn to have faith in themselves.”
Ms. Thaxton was introduced by a former student who praised her ability to connect with students. She showed a short excerpt from a TED talk given recently by teacher Rita Pierson, who told her audience, “One of the things we never discuss, or we rarely discuss, is the value and importance of human connections” in learning. In some teachers’ eyes, she said, worrying about student-teacher relationships is just a “bunch of
As she recounts, “A colleague said to me one time, ‘They don’t pay me to like the kids. They pay me to teach a lesson, the kids should learn it. I should teach it. They should learn it. Case closed.’” Ms. Pierson responded, “Kids
don’t learn from people they don’t like.’”
These teachers are spot on in sizing up what educators can do to help kids learn. Decades of research point to the importance of setting a high bar for them (having faith in them), connecting with kids (as Ms. Thaxton clearly
does), and being intentional about what we do in the classroom (as Ms.Rhodes does with her plans and back-up plans).
In our new book, 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching, my co-author Elizabeth Ross Hubbell and I call out a dozen big ideas that, when employed every day, hold the promise of helping teachers and their students succeed. While we found these ideas in research journals, we know their true source: passionate, insightful, and dedicated teachers who found better ways to teach. At some point, a researcher came along and studied them to prove what teachers already knew: that these things really work.
What really works in your classrooms? What big ideas or bright spots should researchers be paying attention to now?
Bryan Goodwin is chief operating officer at McREL. In addition to co-authoring The 12
Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day, he
wrote Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success.
If you walk into a typical teachers’ workroom and ask the question, “What’s the purpose of homework?” you’ll likely find that most teachers have a definite opinion. But ask them what research says about homework, and you’ll get less definitive answers. What does research really say about homework as a strategy to improve student achievement?
The effects of homework on student achievement are not entirely clear; a number of factors, such as degree of parental involvement and support, homework quality, students’ learning preferences, and structure and monitoring of assignments can affect the influence of homework on achievement (Hong, Milgram, & Rowell, 2004; Minotti, 2005).
One synthesis of research on the relationship between homework time and achievement showed some gains at the middle and high school levels, but less so at the elementary school level (Cooper, Robinson, & Patall, 2006). Others have found that homework can help students strengthen their self-regulation skills such as managing time, setting goals, self-reflecting on their performance, and delaying gratification (Ramdass & Zimmerman, 2011).
On the flip side, there’s some research highlighting negative aspects of homework, including disruption of family time, stress, conflicts between student and parent, and restricted access to community and leisure time (e.g., Coutts, 2004; Warton, 2001).
So what’s the best approach to take? In Cathy Vatterott’s 2009 book, Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs, she outlines practices she refers to as her “New Paradigm for Homework”:
- design quality homework tasks;
- differentiate homework tasks;
- move from grading to checking;
- decriminalize the grading of homework;
- use completion strategies; and
- establish homework support programs.
If you take Vatterott’s recommended practices along with our research-based recommendations (found in Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd ed.), you can begin to view homework differently, as an extension of practice and a chance to deepen understanding of a topic. Consider these tips:
- Always ask, “What learning will result from this homework assignment?” The goal of your instruction should be to design homework that results in meaningful learning.
- Assign homework to help students deepen their understanding of content, practice skills in order to become faster or more proficient, or learn new content on a surface level.
- Check that students are able to perform required skills and tasks independently before asking them to complete homework assignments.
- Consider parents and guardians to be your allies when it comes to homework. Understand their constraints, and, when home circumstances present challenges, consider alternative approaches to support students as they complete homework assignments (e.g., before-or after-school programs, additional parent outreach).
Because the research on homework is mixed, teachers should think carefully about what tasks they assign for homework, and what the purpose of that homework truly is. Remember that it’s essential for students to receive feedback on their homework so they know what they did correctly, what they did incorrectly, and what they need to do next to improve.
Howard Pitler, Ed.D., is chief program officer at McREL, co-author of Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and lead author of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works.
Cooper, H., Robinson, J. C, Sc Patall, E. A. (2006). Does homework improve academic achievement? A synthesis of research, 19872003. Review of Educational Research, 76, 1-62.
Coutts, P. (2004). Meanings of homework and implications for practice. Theory into Practice 43(3),182–188.
Hong, E., Milgram, R. M., & Rowell, L. L. (2004). Homework motivation and preference: A learner-centered homework approach. Theory into Practice, 43, 197–204.
Minotti, J. L. (2005). Effects of learning-style-based homework prescriptions on the achievement and attitudes of middle school students. NASSP Bulletin, 89, 67–89.
Ramdass, D., & Zimmerman, B. (2011) Developing Self-Regulation Skills: The Important Role of Homework. Journal of Advanced Academics, 22(2), 194-218,354-355.
Vatterott, C. (2009). Rethinking homework: Best practices that support diverse needs. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Warton, P. M. (2001). The forgotten voices in homework: Views of the students. Educational Psychologist, 36(3), 155–165.