September 21, 2020

What Do We Want Students To Do?

In my work in coaching, professional development, continuous improvement, leadership, change, and technology applications, I am often asking the question,”What do we need students to do?”. The question is driven by my assumption that students, not teachers, create student achievement. Only when the teacher is clear as to what student behaviors are likely to generate the student achievement, can the teacher design learning activities (instruction) that create and promote the desired student actions. Only by knowing what those student behaviors are can the teacher assess if the current activity is “working.”

I’m becoming convinced that we need to spend substantially more time as educators in this exploration and conversation:

Some recent experiences:

During walk-throughs in a small school district with the superintendent I met a high school teacher who didn’t have students when we entered his classroom. I was informed that he was a teacher who was frequently using the Smart Board installed in his classroom. I asked, “How does the Smart Board change the student learning experience?” He began telling me how convenient it was for him as a teacher. I stopped and repeated my question and again he described how he could now identify and play short video clips. It took additional conversation to get to the words… the students experience a visual context/representation of the historical content…if I had the chance to probe longer… what do students get to do with or because of getting that visual representation?

Working with a school based RtI (Response to Intervention) team, we were examining their issue of teacher fidelity of an intervention. I asked,”How about student fidelity?”. If an intervention is a 30 min. daily session on a computer reading program, “What is the program supposed to get the student to do?” … practice building fluency, be exposed to broader vocabulary, hear fluent reading etc.?

Then, what does the student need to do while in the program? What should be happening in the student’s head as they work? Many participants struggled to answer these questions. That led me to the next obvious question, “Does the student know the purpose of the intervention?”. Several teachers volunteered that they hadn’t thought of having that conversation. Those that did were general in their approach,”Make you a better reader.”. We are more likely to get student effort when students understand specifically what behavior we are requesting and why?

In the April 2010 Phi Delta Kappan, Steven Wolk raises a question about what we want students to be doing In this case, what should they be reading:

“Walk into any 1st grade classroom and you’re surrounded by voracious readers. Walk into a 6th grade classroom, and you’re surrounded by children who desperately avoid books, especially boys. What do schools do— and not do— to turn reading books into such drudgery?

…simply reading a text doesn’t mean students are intellectually engaged. Much of their school reading is done with little thought. They read to get the assignment done as quickly as possible. Why do we perpetuate this school culture of fake reading when our school is filled with so many astonishing things to read.”(pg 10)

To develop the reading skills and reading attitudes that you believe are important, what do you want students to do? Does what we assign for required reading have an impact?

How much material is available (newspapers, magazines, online) on the stories of citizens/children of Haiti? If that topic were assigned reading, might we see a change in student behavior during the reading work?

By deciding the student behaviors that will create the achievement we seek, teachers can get immediate feedback on the impact of our instructional choice. If my learning activity is not getting the needed student engagement, I need to modify my strategy.

Try these questions in your coaching pre-conferences. What are the most important student behaviors during the learning activity for it to produce the desired achievement? What choices are you making as the teacher to get those behaviors? What can you plan for in advance? How much will you have to design/decide during the lesson?

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