It is going to sound crazy, perhaps ignorant or even arrogant, however, with all the research and advice that floats around about transforming education the answers lay in two questions which teachers have been asking intuitively for decades, maybe even centuries.
While the questions are simple, there are many variations to these questions and these subtle differences make a very big difference in the result they produce. No matter how often leadership has espoused the need for transformation and the educational reformers have pushed models and new tools, with these questions transformation is inevitable. Transformation without spending a cent on Professional Development.
All teachers reflect on two question with their planning and delivery; What do my students need to know and how should I teach them? Very simple questions, but with a few tweaks the questions will become the most powerful catalyst for change in your classroom and school.
The two powerful questions that bring change are:
What do my students need to learn, NOW?
What is the BEST way to get them there?
The first question is informed by the teacher's knowledge of curriculum, formative assessment and the school's vision for the learner. Three very important components to planning for the success of the learner. The following are some iterations of the first question which consider a mix of the three components and the effect they have on the learner.
This is, unfortunately, the most common way the first question is asked. Here the teacher takes direction for what is to be taught in the class purely from a guiding syllabus. Far too often the syllabus is prepared years in advance and is very much unresponsive to the actual learners the teacher has in front of him/her.
When asked this way, the first question considers only elements of the curriculum, at a push it may consider the school's vision for the learner but it ignores all elements of assessment. Assessment may be used to 'measure' the student at the end of a unit but it is not used at all to inform the teacher.
This is similar to the previous variation of the first question but it very much ignores the school's vision for the learner and focuses solely on how to get the student to 'pass'. Preparing students to pass a test is an amicable objective, even critical for the teacher, however, when content pushing for the sake of the exam is done at the expense of students developing a passion for the subject, becoming critical thinkers within the subject and understanding how the subject content relates to the wider world than the teacher misses the broader purpose of education.
To illustrate this, in my time in Christian School's I have seen students become very much 'put off' the Bible because of the way the Bible teacher has pushed a content heavy approach to their classes. Due to perhaps the teachers own insecurity of the content students' questions have been discouraged and have resulted in students' interest and curiosity dampened towards the Bible rather than sparked.
It is the folly of the system that leads teachers to measure their success as a teacher by their students' grades in a quiz rather than the depth of curiosity their students have for that curriculum area once they finish the course.
The ability for a 15-year-old to recall scientific facts must be considered second to the same student having their scientific imagination sparked by the development of an incessant curiosity for understanding the world around them.
This is a great place to begin with in order to bring success for the learner. When this question is asked the teacher recognises two important factors in the students she has. Firstly, that it is unlikely that all of her learners are at the same place in their journey to success and secondly, is the consideration of now. I have read that differentiated learning in the U.S. is a failure (Read it here) and having taught from an American curriculum I can understand why. However, the concerns raised are more to do with the curriculum design and the impact on the teacher rather than what is best for the learner (Please read my 'The Two Types of Teachers; Teacher-First and Learner-First' to get my thoughts on that.) To say differentiation in the classroom is a failure because it is 'difficult for the teacher' is a slap on the face of the profession we call education rather than a commentary about whether it is right to personalise learning in the classroom.
The answers to this question make learning relevant to the learner. It uses formative assessment within the context of both curriculum and the school's vision to gain an understanding of where the student is achieving, and where they either need to be challenged or to have their learning consolidated.
Assessment should be a living organism within the classroom, continually informing the teacher on what a student's progress and struggles are. Assessment should never be treated as a measuring pole at the end of a unit that surprises the teacher like a present under the Christmas tree. If used as a summative tool at the end of a unit, assessment should always be a confirmation of the teacher's knowledge of each student's progress at that stage of learning.
Teachers who ask, 'What do My Students Need to learn, Now?' will be continually seeking an understanding of what the student now needs to know. Assessment, for this information, should not be heavy, now 'do this test', sort of manner. Teachers can gain a clear understanding of 'who got it' through reflective questioning, reviewing students work and among other things the use of apps such as Socrative and KaHoot!! Lesson delivery is therefore done at the speed of the learner rather than the speed of a predetermined schedule. Dynamic grouping allows for the learners to progress at the appropriate rate, rather than every learner progressing at the speed of the slowest in the class.
This is a great question, in my experience, this is actually the question that is most likely to lead to transformation within a school. It provides for an environment where teachers are not sentenced to certain students for the year, and conversantly, students are not sentenced to any one teacher for the year. Rather it is a larger group of students being grouped with a larger group of teachers. With this question, the school no longer operates as a 1:25 ratio of teachers to students. This question allows for the much more dynamic ratio of 3:75. This concept will be explored more when we consider the second question but is still an effective way to answer the first question.
Even if the teacher is asking the first question in a way that brings transformation, ultimately, their ability to answer this question is limited to their knowledge of curriculum, of the school's vision for the learner and their effective use of formative assessment. School leaders need to continue to provide opportunities for teachers to develop deeper understandings in each of these areas. The more teachers understand, the more effective the learning environment.
The first question informs that the student needs to learn and the second question considers how the teacher will make that learning happen.
This, sadly is the most common way teachers approach the pedagogical question for a given unit. The decision for 'how' to engage the learner in a set of objectives is determined by the way the teacher last taught the objectives, often regardless of how successful or unsuccessful that unit was.
Another way teachers approach the second question is through a very general 'best practice' age appropriate pedagogy, at least that is what they tell themselves. The issue is that age appropriate pedagogy has some meaning but it actually is second to many other factors. Each learner is so different. I have four children at home and the diversity between them is incredible, and they have the same DNA! How incredulous to think that there could be one way to engage 28 learners in learner objectives with a single pedagogical approach. When we go for a general approach to pedagogy we generally miss the mark for most learners. Sure you might be able to teach some students to recall some 'knowledge' but have you installed a passion, curiosity and some critical thinking in them about the subject?
This question becomes real and can be effective when the first question has focused on assessment. As a result of the assessment, the teacher or teachers can effectively group students on a basis of achievement. This 'segregation by ability' can be effective in curriculum areas which have a clearly defined and linear pathway for learning progression.
This is often the case for reading, writing and mathematics. However, even in the delivery and grouping of students in these curriculum areas teachers really need to consider what grouping would bring the best results...does a student engage best in a learning environment because they are in a group with other learners who are at the same level as them or because the context of the concept is something they are passionate about?
The question about what tools a student brings to or has access to in the learning environment is a very important one. It would actually seem inappropriate for a teacher to plan any learning without considering what tool a student has access to.
The failure to do so results in technology being used in a capacity that does not add value in the learning. Take the use of tools in carpentry to explore this concept.
In carpentry tools are used to provide leverage that enables the carpenter to do things they could not to in the natural. Take even the most basic of tools, the hammer. If the builder holds the handle of the hammer and swings the hammer squarely onto the head of a nail the force will cause the nail to become embedded into a piece of wood. However, the builder holds a hammer by the head and tries to 'push' the nail into the wood it will be no more successful in embedding the nail into the piece of wood than if he had tried to push the nail with his thumb.
Learning tools, such as iPads have the same effect on our learners. Used correctly, the tool brings leverage that can embed learning deeper and fast than in the absence of that tool. However, far too often teachers generate learning tasks that have students 'holding the head' of the tool and pushing. When used incorrectly the tools adds no value to the learning. Used incorrectly the tool can actually get in the way of the learning. (See my book Measured Success, in the iBookstore for more information on this)
This is a fantastic question for a teacher to be asking. Once the teacher has established what their students need to know, engagement is the key to bringing success for their students. There is little that will engage a student in learning than a context which they are passionate about. Think about it, have you ever seen disengaged, and/or low achieving students involved in a statistics unit delivered in the context of football? Suddenly they come to life and while the teacher may have 'issues' keeping students focused on the actual learning objectives, the context brings passion into the classroom. And what about their achievement in the football unit. In my experience, this passion always translated into stronger achievement. Sadly, even though as educators we know the power of engagement, we shift back to delivering statistics through the surveying of how many students in the class came to school by bus.
This is the ultimate question that a teacher, or even better, a group of teachers, should be asking for their students. When a teacher truly knows their students they know what sparks them. They know the best way to engage that learner in any learning challenge.
Although not a focus of this post, the ability to answer the second question effectively is a cause for a reconsideration for why we have students shifting from one teacher to the next every year. One group of three teachers having a group of 75 students over a period of two years needs to be a consideration for effective practice.
Asking, 'What is the best way to get each of them there?' recognises that there are many different ways for students to be grouped. Sadly, with all the possibilities of why students should be grouped together, their year of birth is the most common way. Grouping students because of ability, passions, challenges, learning contexts, connection with a certain teacher and even their gender need to all be in the equation of what is the best grouping for students.
The essence of the second question is two-fold. Firstly, does the teacher truly know the student and secondly, what does the teacher know about effective pedagogy? The only way to develop an understanding for a student is time and actually making an effort. As educators, we need to understand how each of our students tick and then group them and design learning accordingly.
Included in my concept of, how much a teacher understands different pedagogues, is an understanding of how technology can be used to add value to the learning environment. The possibilities of how to answer the second question more effectively are endless and difficult to articulate in its completeness, however, it most certainly does not begin with grouping students according to the year they were born and teaching them something in week seven of term three because the syllabus demands it.
When the two questions are considered from a perspective of multiple teachers to multiple groups of students they form the basis for true collaborative and team teaching. Teachers consider what each student needs to learn now and then groups the students accordingly.
The ability of a teacher to answer these two questions in detail to the level of two or three random students is a sure sign of their effectiveness as a teacher. How well does the teacher know what a student understands about the current unit? When was the last time the teacher had any knowledge of that student's progress? Assessment knowledge should not be gained solely through lengthy and regular assessment, rather it should be through conversation, conferencing, 'book' marking, short quizzes and even reflective questions at the end of a session.
Secondly, how well does the teacher actually know the learner? Does the teacher know the student enough to know how they engage in learning? If we as educators are actually shaping the learning for the learner then we must know them. In the absence of knowing how different learners engage in learning, the teacher is expecting to deliver a one-size-fits-all (or as I heard once, a one-size-fits-NONE) style of learning.
The importance of asking the two questions is well illustrated in an analogy from the local gym.
One day (probably January 1) I decide that I need to 'get into shape'. I am already a shape, but I want to take care of my body and make it a better shape, it is the temple of the Holy Spirit after all. All enthusiastic, at the first opportunity I walk into my local gym and pay for an annual membership and a pay even more for a personal trainer.
I then sit with the personal trainer and he asks me ONE question. The question is NOT, what would I like to achieve (for example, better fitness, wanting to bulk up, wanting to trim down). The question is NOT, 'have you been to a gym before?'. He is not interested in external factors such as giving me a dietary plan to support my ambitions, or even how many times a week I would train. The only question he (or she) had for me is, 'what year were you born?'. Based on that, and not any other factor already mentioned, even how strong I am or even if I am a male or female, I am handed a plan. The generic plan had predetermined how any reps, how much weight and which machines I needed to use. A generic plan for all 41-year-olds. He reassured me that the plan has proven to be successful for some at the gym over the years, so it is tried and tested.
Once I have been using the generic plan for a year and at the end of the year I would complete a gym assessment, again standardised to how old I am. Then, regardless of how well or poorly I do in that test and am handed a new plan that I need to complete because I am now a year older.
The above scenario would be completely unacceptable in a gym, yet it is the very basis upon which many teachers operate. Blindly teaching students content from a predetermined schedule from their 'once successful' one-size-fits-all pedagogy.
The big things about the two questions are:
As educators, far too often we design learning in a way that expects the learner to fit into our mould and schedule. We are the paid professionals in the classroom, we need to the one in the student-teacher relationship that designs and fits around the learner's needs, not the other way around. Education is likely the only profession in the world that expects those who it serves to fit our mould. It is harder and does mean that we need to think more deeply about what we do, but as educators, we need to be more deliberate in designing and delivering for those who we serve.
Finally, the way that the two questions are asked is ultimately the difference between a mediocre teacher and a master teacher. The mediocre teacher makes decisions based on a syllabus and what they have done in the past. The master uses their knowledge of curriculum, school vision and assessment to inform what needs to be taught and ultimately their knowledge of the student to determine how to engage the student.
Education transformation is not all about tools and crazy looking classrooms. Educational transformation is all about looking at the two questions teachers already ask and rephrasing those questions for better answers that reflect what we know in 2016 about how students learn rather than how we learnt at school in the last millennia.