Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Drilling Down to The Skill

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post called "Can You Really Describe Good Teaching?", in which I highlighted the book Instructional Rounds in Education by City and Elmore.  I am just finishing this book, and am starting to see the principles of this book tie a number of initiatives together for me in our school.

The Instructional Rounds concept is based in seven principles, two of which have truly impacted my thinking about classrooms, teaching and learning:
  1. Increases in student learning occur only as a consequence of improvements in the level of content, teacher’s knowledge and skill, and student engagement.
  2. If you change any single element of the instructional core, you have to change the other two.
  3. If you can’t see it in the core, it’s not there.
  4. Tasks predict performance.
  5. The real accountability system is in the tasks that students are asked to do.
  6. We learn to do things by doing the work.
  7. Description before analysis, analysis before prediction, prediction before evaluation.
I find that #4 and #5 work for me on many levels.

There are many educators (teachers, administrators, district coordinators and leaders) that have charisma.  They make tremendous relationships with the people that they work with, whether they are students or colleagues.  The room lights up when they walk in, and we follow them wherever they want to take us--through the Kreb's Cycle in Biology, on board the ship in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, or along the journey of understanding logarithms in mathematics.  They bring to life subjects that may often seem lifeless in the hands of others.  They have this ability to draw us in to nearly any topic in their classes, meetings or professional development sessions.  We even want to hang out with them.

I sincerely believe that some (many?) of these 'soft' skills that help to engage students can be learned.  We can strive to learn more about our students and the way the learn, to treat them with respect, to show humility and even vulnerability ourselves as learners, and to have high expectations that students will succeed.

However, there are many teachers who have skills that are a function of the personality that they bring to the classroom each day--many of which are very difficult for one teacher to adopt from another.  We all have our own identities, and I can tell you with certainty that there are educators and administrators out there that make me say "Wow, I wish I could be more like them." or "They just have this knack for....".  The ones that when they walk in the room and pause for thought the rest of us collectively hold our breath waiting for them to let us in on it.

But why #4 and #5 seem to make a great deal of sense is that in some ways, they can be 'personality-proofed'.

Please don't hear that I am devaluing the relationship piece between educators and learners.  Relationships are vitally important.  However, the relationship piece can often be a challenging one to change from person to person because we often think that we are good relationships already.

But we can determine skills that are important for students to acquire.

And we can change the task.

And if the task predicts performance, and creates a situation where we can be accountable to our learning, an effectively designed and well-planned task can allow us drill all the way down to the actions that develop the skills we want for our students.

I don't want this to sound like I wish to de-personalize teaching and learning--quite the contrary.  What I mean to discover are ways to make lessons that are more about the skills we wish students to acquire and the tasks that lead to their being developed rather than their success being dependent upon their being performed by some permutation of Bill Nye the Science Guy/Jerry Seinfeld.

At our school, I have often written about key initiatives we have adopted that I feel are high-yield strategies to improving student achievement. We have created collaborative time for teachers, embedded staff development within a staff meeting model that has provided authentic ownership of our meeting time by our teachers.  We have made assessment a central focus of this embedded staff development and collaboratively developed areas for us to further investigate to increase the number and style of assessment tools in our tool cases.  I think we are doing good work that is making a difference in the learning of our students.

I think.

But as much as we have seen a consistent drop in our failure rates in core and overall courses over the last six years (something that makes me very proud of our teachers and our students), is this because of our initiatives?  Are we sure that we are graduating students with the skills that society values?  Students that are critical thinkers?  That are creative?  That are learners capable of being independent and collaborative?   That are going to lead us through the 21st Century?

Hmmm.  Now I'm not so sure.  Please read that we MAY actually be doing this.  But as the Principal of our school, if we are, I'm really not sure of the 'how' behind this. Nor am I sure that I have been looking for the some of the predicates of that successfully create these sorts of learners in our classes that we may be able to replicate in other classes. 

When I was reading Instructional Rounds a few days ago before I went to sleep, I began doodling at the end of Chapter 6 about how all of this might come together for us (Check out this low-tech infographic!).

While I am sure this is not a complete (nor tremendously attractive or artistic) representation of the direction I feel our school needs to go, I am starting to have a clearer vision of where I would like us to go.

Against a backdrop of continuous reflection, we need to work with students, staff and community to determine the skills that we feel students must have attained by the time they leave us.  Once we have determined this set of skills (which likely will be ever-evolving) we must be highly committed to the process of creating engaging activities and tasks that develop these skills.  While this sounds simple, I think that this is an area that bears a great deal of examination.  How many times in education have we said that we want to develop collaborative thinkers but continue to have our students seated in rows and working independently?  Or that we want problem-discoverers but give students a set of problems to solve?  Are we doing the work of developing creative thinkers by offering learners a fill-in the blank worksheet and a crossword puzzle?  Do we facilitate knowledgeable gatherers and consumers of information that are able to articulate their points of view when we give a reading from a chapter in a textbook and questions at the end of the chapter? (Please note that I have done each and every one of these things when I taught).

We need to make sure that the skills that we want students to learn are supported by the activities that actually allow them to (get ready for it)....learn, practice, demonstrate and apply that skill!  We then need to be able to assess it in a way that provides meaningful guidance and feedback to both the learner and the teacher.  And through collaborating with our peers about the appropriate pedagogical theories of learning, differentiation, engagement, we create a rich process of drilling down to the teaching of the skill in the classroom.

Which is where I want us to be (and what my diagram is supposed to depict)

Instructional Rounds suggests a mechanism that allows District Staff, Administrators, Teacher Leaders and fellow teachers to see this all in action.  To bring everyone back to the classroom where it all happens.  Where we are able to see the teacher in action, and the students in action, and the activities and tasks that actually lead to learning the skills that we want them to acquire.

In the new year, I look forward to working with other educators and administrators at all levels in our district so that we can all see what it takes to "drill down to the skill".


  1. Many excellent thinking points in this post. I believe, with you, that quality of tasks is key to effective instruction and learning. With this, teachers need to be more aware of their obligation to provide students with models that define expectations. Asking students to elaborate in writing, for example, without providing them with mentor texts, produces poor results. I also see what you're driving at when you talk about "personality-proofing" instruction, but I would hate to see us go so far that we return to the 1970s(?) model of scripted instruction. BTW, your low-tech infographic is precisely the type of thing we need to teach our own students to do in their note taking to reflect upon ideas.

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