A couple of years ago, I read Results Now by Mike Schmoker as was intrigued by his simplistic approach to improving student learning and achievement in the classroom. I was also intrigued by the impact that his ideas could have on teacher professional development. In the 12 years I have spent in education, I have seen many initiatives come and go. Unfortunately, in my role as a teacher leader, I hear the saying all too often, “This too shall pass.” (technology in the classroom, project based learning, work based learning, cooperative learning, benchmarking, standards based grading, checkpoints.) One thing that I have seen is that all of them include Schmoker’s essential principles. Many times they are clouded by mandates, unnecessary approaches, hoops, and activities. Sometimes they are blurred in the shuffle of the various accountability tasks that schools must navigate through. (ie. state assessments, district assessments, lengthy school improvement plans, ) All these initiatives have their worth and place in education but did they take away our own “focus” on the what was essentially important. Were they truly the wars and battles that we should have been fighting? Did we neglect what was essential?
Simplicity, Clarity, and Priority. Think about those three words for a minute. Every book you read about self help proudly advertises these three principles to enhancing life. It is the essence of enlightenment, the Zen of Feng Shui, and the now most important thing that educators can embrace. In a time when standards that are filled with multiple verbs and too many components, where “archaic” skills such as plot elements are assessed on state assessments, and mandates to use multiple choice assessments that lack any authenticity dominate our work, these three word bring a breath of fresh air. We get lost in our expectations, clouded in our aspirations, and disillusioned by different approaches that seem to muddy the waters versus clear them. What if we took Mike Schmoker’s thoughts to heart? What would that do for our system? In order to begin this, we have to answer the following question…What does he means by Simplicity, Clarity, and Priority?
What impact do these three words have on our work with standards?
I believe that the Language Arts department in USD 500 took a right step in this direction. We spent a year to really hone in on making Standards more simple. We used teacher input to come up with our working draft of a Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum. (this has gone through multiple revisions) We eliminated most of the verbs and focused on the essential components. Through this we were able to reduce our standards in writing and reading by over 50%. We went from 29 in writing standards to 9. We went from 27 standards in reading to 13. This was our first step in regaining simplicity in our work by reducing the amount of verbage in each standard, focusing on components and identifying power standards. We also combined many standards to create a more holistic approach to teaching the Language Arts. We stopped isolating every single verb and component in state and ACT standards to make our work complete. It was our first step in providing simplicity, clarity, and priority. We know we have some work left to do but we have left our teachers with much less to manage in regards to what is essential to student learning. Now they can focus on the delivery and authentic assessment of standards versus the coverage.
What impact do these three words have on instruction?
Differentiated instruction has gotten a lot of buzz in education. I would also say that many people have made a lot of money on this word. For a business that is non-profit there has been much profit to be had. I would say that the attempt to differentiate, although pure and good in nature, has taken us away from the essential components of whole class instruction. If a teacher’s whole class instruction is not solid, why would we think that differentiation could solve any of the learning issues? Have we lost “Focus” on the essentials of good solid whole class instruction?
Schmoker points out that there are three essential components to quality instruction. Reading, Writing, and Discussing. These three acts should be present in every lesson plan. They provide the strongest foundations to 21st century skills, college preparation, and work force readiness. Simplistic…yes…necessary…absolutely. A student’s ability to read a piece of text in-depth by annotating, to write about it carefully and freely with diligently crafted essential questions from teachers, and the requirement to respond verbally with their thoughts are the bedrock of college readiness. Yet, we dilute these three components with so many other activities that they become unessential. What if every teacher in our district were really really good at teaching these three skills? What if every student had deep exposure to these three areas every class and every day? I think that we would continue to see our improvements grow to a much higher level.
What impact do these three words have on assessment?
I cannot count how many hours I have wasted as an educator creating multiple choice, true and false, and matching assessments in my early years. Although easy to grade, it is extremely difficult to find authenticity in any of these measures. I am not downplaying the need for students to be able to master the art of multiple choice assessments. (even teachers are bombarded with them in regards to endorsement and licensure.) What I want to argue is the rampant overuse of these types of measures. Think about your work for a minute and the skills that you need in order to function at your job. You have to be able to process information, come up with a plan of attack, and be able to talk or write about it when questioned. Now I want you think about the ability to take an argumentative stance about an idea in a piece of text, the ability to write well and deeply about it, and the ability to verbally defend and explain your thinking. What other type of assessment can accomplish so much with so little? What other type of assessment can prepare you so well for your job. Create a problem based question to frame the thinking of the student and you have college and work force readiness. A teachers ability to formatively measure a student’s knowledge of content taught cannot be measured any more clearly than their ability to write and speak about it. Think about the clarity this brings to education. Should this not be the “focus” of our work?
I could go on and on about this topic. This book has moved me to post about it.