Conversations About Teaching and Learning - Steve Barkley

Conversations About Teaching and Learning

Justin Baeder wrote a great article for ASCD Express titled, Go and See: The Key to Improving Teaching and Leading.   Having read his thoughts, I’d add a little to the title: Go…See… and Converse. Baeder is clear on the value of the conversation:

“Making a daily practice of visiting classrooms, observing briefly, and talking with teachers has the greatest potential to improve student learning, help professionals grow, and help schools become more effective learning organizations. “

Sharing the writing of Mike Rother in his book, Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results, Baeder illustrates the value of engaging everyone in rapid cycles of inquiry—an interactive process between supervisors and employees at all levels of an organization. He contrasts that to our current school practice of over focusing on supervisors providing directive feedback.

Joellen Killion writing in The Feedback Process: Transforming Feedback for Professional Learning  describes the value of “Self-Generated” Feedback that promotes metacognition, reflection, construction of new knowledge, and deconstruction of that knowledge to question its meaning and application in diverse situations. (Earlier blog ) Killion stresses feedback as a process rather than a product. She describes the observer as a learning partner who serves as a facilitator and listening partner, clarifying, probing, and summarizing the learner’s process. The learning partner is a process facilitator not a content expert. In fact, expertise can interfere as the observer forms his own perceptions about effective practice and wants to be helpful.

LearningForward shares four misconceptions about feedback here.

One of the misconceptions identifies the problem with the feedback sandwich.

 “Some management advisers recommend the use of the feedback sandwich, critical feedback pressed between two slices of positive feedback…While common as a component of performance evaluations or review, the feedback sandwich also has the potential to miscommunicate the intent, lessen the learner’s motivation to act on the information, and eliminates the learner’s opportunity to learn how to be analytic and independent.”

The feedback sandwich is just one of the ways in which coaches or supervisors become predictable. That predictableness has the tendency to decrease thinking on the part of the receiver which decreases learning and ownership. I learned quickly as a teacher that my students uncovered my tendency to ask them, “How did you get that answer?” when they were wrong. So, I usually got the response from them, “I don’t know.” Knowing that their answer was incorrect, they were in no hurry to share with me and the class how they arrived at it. This shut down prevented me from learning about their process or misconception; decreasing my effectiveness as an instructor. It shut down their thinking and therefore their learning as they worked to protect their self- esteem.

I learned that to get students to share their thinking, I had to create an encouraging environment by being “consistent and unpredictable.” Not consistently unpredictable but consistent and unpredictable.

Consistent: students would never be laughed at, ridiculed, or put down for a wrong answer.
Unpredictable: students didn’t know what I thought about their answer by my question.

So, my question, “How did you get that answer?” had to be asked following correct answers as often as it was asked following incorrect or incomplete answers. My students needed to learn that I was interested in their thinking. Their willingness to share their thinking increased their learning, my learning, and often the learning of classmates.

The same environment, consistent and unpredictable, is valuable in coaching conferences. I need the teacher to learn that I am interested in his/her thinking. My questions are designed to learn the teacher’s thinking, not to take the teacher to some decision I have predetermined.

My question, “What did you notice about the students’ participation in the discussion?”,  must be asked as often when I saw high participation as when I saw low participation. The purpose of the question is to understand what the teacher saw and how the teacher interpreted what she saw.

The consistent part is that the teacher realizes I accept her answer as to what she saw and how she interpreted it … it is her thinking. I must communicate that I value knowing her thinking. The unpredictable part is that the teacher isn’t anticipating my question and preparing a “what she thinks I want to hear” response. This sharing of thinking often adds to the teacher’s and coach’s learning.

When school leaders go, see, ask and listen, learning can happen for all.

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