Keeping the Focus on What Matters Most – The Learning
What should matter most in our schools and classrooms is student learning. Whether we are teaching 5 year-olds or 15 year-olds, music or mathematics, physical education (PE) or physics, all stakeholders in education strive to provide an environment that nurtures and supports the greatest learning gains possible during an academic year. Yes, I recognize that there is sometimes disagreement about what students should learn in our schools and classrooms. For a moment, let us set that debate aside as it is beyond the scope of this blog. Let us agree that the desired outcome is that students learn. How do we spend our time in working towards this desired outcome?
Take a moment and reflect on how you spend your time during the school day or school week? Were bus duty, cafeteria duty, attendance, faculty meetings, committee meetings, and/or paperwork on your list? How about the additional time commitments of tying shoes, opening milk cartons, responding to issues in the hallway during class change, and/or, again, paperwork? Each of the previously listed items are a part of the job. Engaging with learners outside of the academic classroom, talking to them about their day during bus duty or during lunch is a must-do if we are to build strong student-teacher relationships and positive culture in our schools and classrooms. Tying the shoes of a kindergarten student before he or she goes to PE and hearing that little voice say thank you is a part of the job that warms the heart. However, we have not talked about the time we spend planning and implementing instruction that nurtures and supports the greatest learning gains.
With so much going on in our schools and classrooms, we often have difficulty finding enough time to do what we set out to do when we entered the profession. We often have difficulty setting aside the time needed to plan, prepare, and implement learning experiences that accomplish what is expected of us by students, parents, administrators, and other stakeholders. When we finally do sit down by ourselves or with our colleagues, being focused on what matters most is a struggle. How often have you and your colleagues, even if inadvertently, used your planning time to take care of the logistics related to the items listed earlier in this blog? This is the point of the blog – how do we keep the focus on what matters most within the context of everything else that goes on in our schools and classrooms? The answer: get out your compass.
A compass is a tool or instrument that is used for navigation and orientation that shows direction relative to cardinal directions.
When we finally sit down to map out the teaching and learning in our classrooms, we have to orient ourselves to the true task at hand so that we can navigate that time efficiently and effectively because it will come quickly to an end. Just as a compass shows us direction relative to cardinal directions, effective planning that leads to effective teaching and learning has four cardinal directions in the form of calibrating questions.
These four calibrating questions are:
- What do I want my students to learn?
- What evidence will show me that my students have mastered the learning?
- How will I check my students’ learning?
- What tasks will get my students to mastery?
If we have answers to these four questions at the conclusion of our time set aside to plan, prepare, and implement learning, we have navigated that time in a way that focuses on what matters. Furthermore, research indicates that by focusing on these elements of teaching and learning, student learning will go up.
What do I want my students to learn?
Once we sit down to plan for teaching and learning, the first question we should address looks at the learning outcome. As we open up our pacing guides or curriculum, we must begin by clearly articulating what we want our students to learn during the block, class period, or specific instructional time. This is not what we want them to do, but what we want them to be learning. Let us look at some examples, noting the difference between the learning and doing.
|What I want my students to learn||What I want my students to do|
|We are learning about the relationship between the mass of a substance and the volume that mass occupies.||A science laboratory that asks learners to find the density of three mystery substances|
|We are learning about the role characters’ thoughts, words, and actions play in making inferences about the plot in fiction.||Reading A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.|
|We are learning the essential characteristics of three-dimensional solids.||Sort three-dimensional solids based on various characteristics (e.g., faces, edges, vertices, etc…)|
|We are learning about the relationship between a horizon line and perspective in various pieces of art.||Identifying the horizon line in various pieces of art.|
|We are learning about the balance of powers between the branches of government in Canada.||Creating a concept map or graphic organizer representing the three branches of the Canadian Government.|
Being clear on what we want students to learn provides greater purpose and relevance to the learning experiences in our classrooms. When we focus on what students are “doing” our students, and we alike, lose the why behind the task.
What evidence will show me that my students have mastered the learning?
The answer to this question sets the expectation and target for all of us. Rather than by chance, devoting time to answering this question during planning provides guidance to us about what we are looking for at the end of the instructional time.
|What I want my students to learn||What evidence will show me that my students have mastered the learning?|
|We are learning the about the relationship between the mass of a substance and the volume that mass occupies.||Learners can use data to mathematically represent the relationship between the mass of a substance and the volume that mass occupies (i.e., the density of the substance is the slope of the mass versus volume graph).|
|We are learning about the role characters’ thoughts, words, and actions play in making inferences about the plot in fiction.||Learners can make inferences about the plot of the story and support those inferences with specific examples from the text.|
|We are learning the essential characteristics of three-dimensional solids.||Learners can identify the essential characteristics of three-dimensional solids (e.g., faces, edges, vertices,…). Learners can compare and contrast three-dimensional solids based on these characteristics.|
|We are learning about the relationship between a horizon line and perspective in various pieces of art.||Learners can give examples of horizon lines using specific pieces of art. Learners can identify the horizon line in various pieces of art.|
|We are learning about the balance of powers between the branches of government in Canada.||Learners can compare and contrast the branches of government citing powers shared and unique to each branch.|
Knowing what evidence of learning we are looking for informs how we check for understanding and the tasks we design to promote the learning.
How will I check my students’ learning?
This question is all about formative assessments. Once we know what it is we want students to learn and what the learning looks like, we must now design checks for understanding that monitor the progress students are making towards learning mastery. Checks for understanding or the formative assessments of learning come in many different forms.
|Type of opportunity to respond||Description||Example|
|Individual||Each individual student has an opportunity to respond.||An individual student answering a question; completing an exit ticket; one-on-one conversation, listening to a student explain his or her thinking|
|A small group of students generates a response; 3, 4, or 5 students contribute to a single response.||A group of students complete mathematics problems, answer questions in social studies, meld individual summaries into one that represents the thinking of the group, or complete a science laboratory|
|Whole Group||All students in the class respond to the same question or prompt.||Choral response; using Clickers or Plickers, where responses are representative of the class as a whole, Kahoot or Poll Everywhere questions; responses on dry erase board.|
|Silent||The response does not involve social interaction.||Exit ticket, short constructed response, writing a summary, or journal reflection|
|Outloud||The response involves social interaction or dialogue between learners and teacher.||Think-pair-share, turn and talk, read aloud, cooperative learning task, or discussion circles|
|Formal||The response is formally recorded.||Summaries in an interactive notebook, exit slip, data from Plickers, solving a mathematics problem on paper or the computer, running record, or students rate their progress against the success criteria paired with evidence of their work|
|Informal||The response is not formally recorded.||Conversations with/between peers or the teacher, response to impromptu questions, quick verbal checks|
As students make progress in their learning, we have to keep a close watch on their progression so that we can make necessary adjustments.
Finally, what tasks will get my students to mastery?
Now we can look for strategies, activities, and approaches to the teaching and learning. We might decide on deliberate instruction or inquiry-based teaching. To support our learners in their journey to mastery, we could engage them in a project or problem-solving task. Let’s be honest, this is the time when we might look for online ideas or resources. At this point in the calibrating questions, we have so much clarity about the learning that we can modify any task so that the task meets the needs of all learners.
The daily hustle and bustle in our schools and classrooms distract and disorient us from the one thing that matters most – learning. Knowing that these distractions are unavoidable and simply come with the job, we could all use a little help navigating the time we do have to plan, prepare, and implement learning experiences. The next time we sit down by ourselves or with colleagues, the calibrating questions will re-orient us to focus on what matters most – learning.
John Almarode has worked with schools, classrooms, and teachers all over the world. John began his career teaching mathematics and science to a wide range of students. In addition to his time in PreK – 12 schools and classrooms he is an Associate Professor in the Department of Early, Elementary, and Reading Education and the Co-Director of James Madison University’s Center for STEM Education and Outreach. At James Madison University, he works with pre-service teachers and actively pursues his research interests including the science of learning, the design and measurement of classroom environments that promote student engagement and learning. John and his colleagues have presented their work to the United States Congress, the United States Department of Education as well as the Office of Science and Technology Policy at The White House.
This blog provides an overview of the work of John and his colleagues on Teacher Clarity and Visible Learning. More information about these topics is available here.
To learn more about John Almarode’s work please watch the video series, “Student Well-being: A Collective Responsibility.”