Designing Learning for Complexity and Difficulty | Steve Barkley

Designing Learning for Complexity and Difficulty

Student learning production behaviors have been the focus of my coaching for many years. Knowing what we want students to gain as learning outcomes, drives us to identify what students do (learning tasks and experiences) that are most likely to generate those desired outcomes. Just like performing arts coaches plan what students will “do” to generate their learning, as teachers we need to do the same. Finding or designing those learning tasks and coaching students’ learning behaviors are key teaching components.

In The Elements: Transforming Teaching through Curriculum-Based Professional Learning, authors, Jim Short and Stephanie Hirsh, illustrate the importance of challenging learning tasks.

Every day, teachers tailor learning tasks based on their perception of what students are prepared to accomplish. When they teach students who are not yet at grade level, they often choose simpler, less demanding work that the students can complete independently, eliminating opportunities for them to engage with sophisticated content and complex cognitive tasks. During class, teachers may cut short moments of struggle and lead students to a correct answer to keep the discussion moving. Teachers may also mistake students’ current preparation levels for their ability to learn rather than understand it as a reflection of their learning experiences to date. Yet research shows that when teachers hold students to high expectations, including those not yet performing at grade level, they rise to the challenge.

“Learning happens in the process of creating and solving not the product that was created from it.”

(Jeff Utecht)

Coaches can play a key role as they work with PLCs and observe teaching and learning to keep a focus on, and increase teachers’ understanding of, the “why” behind student learning tasks that are present in a quality curriculum. I found this chart that can guide initial coaching conversations in Grades K-12 Rebound: A Playbook For Rebuilding Agency, Accelerating Learning Recovery, and Rethinking Schools (page 79)

The authors describe difficulty as the amount of effort, time, or work needed to complete the task and complexity as the number of cognitive steps or potential outcomes. All students need opportunities to build fluency and stamina; practice strategic thinking; and experience the struggle of high difficulty and high complex tasks. The Rebound authors describe the same concern as that mentioned above by Short and Hirsh:

“Unfortunately, students not yet making expected progress are relegated to tasks below the line (fluency and stamina) with fewer opportunities to engage in strategic thinking and problem-solving. The result is that learning is inhibited, and students fail to make progress……..our experience has been that students with gaps or loss in learning don’t encounter complex tasks very often.”

The need for curriculum-based professional learning was present prior to COVID. The events and impact of the past two years have increasingly shone a spotlight on the need. Short and Hirsh identify three elements of curriculum-based professional learning:

  • rigorous, standards-aligned curriculum with guidance for teachers on what to teach and how to use the instructional materials;
  • transformative learning experiences that shift teachers’ beliefs, perceptions, and practices;
  • the development of teachers’ understanding of how to prioritize and promote equity through high expectations and culturally relevant instruction.

I am currently collaborating with a team of district-based curriculum coaches, examining strategies to guide teachers in using quality curriculum with teaching practices that support all learners. The coaches have communicated a strong teacher desire and expectation for student success. The teachers’ question is, ” What do I do?”

Here’s the first step we are taking to increase coaches’ understanding and gather information and models for expanding support to all teachers. Each coach is identifying a teacher partner for planning and executing a unit of study. Coaches and participating teachers will record the questions and processes they used in designing the plan for student learning tasks and in facilitating the plan (What did we learn along the way?)

Planning questions might include:

What do we know or need to find out about student readiness?
Where will we need scaffolding or extending?
What are the student production behaviors we need to generate?
Which instructional strategies align with those learning behaviors?
What will indicate mastery of content skill?
What other skills might we want to assess for progress?
Are formative assessments available or do they need to be created?

Facilitating process (instructional agility) questions might include:

What did we learn/discover as the instructional plan was implemented?
In what ways did we respond in the flow of instruction?
What changes or modifications were made as the plans progressed?
How will we use information gained in planning future learning?
In many ways, the professional learning teachers and coaches engage in needs to be of high complexity, like the strategic thinking and struggle that are important for students’ learning.

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