Doing...Learning...Doing - Steve Barkley


I have recently spent several days doing observations in teachers’ classrooms in several states. In every instance the observations, often done with other teachers and principals, were focused on student behaviors: “What are students doing?”. The approach we took was to assess if “what the students were doing” was likely to cause the student achievement the school was seeking.

In some cases we focused the observations on groups of students. If a school wasn’t meeting AYP with a certain subgroup, what did we notice when observing that subgroup of students?

A common pattern emerged for me. As the grade level I was observing rose, K to 12, the amount of student doing decreased. Kindergartners had more freedom to move and change the space they were in and choose to whom they spoke… than 5th graders who were more likely to be working with hands on materials and producing …than middle schoolers who were more likely to working in cooperative groups than high school students.

One of the teacher groups who observed K-5 classes pondered if the centers we saw in the primary classes might not increase the interest and effort of struggling fifth graders. Across the board teachers noted more student energy in math and science classes than in reading classes.

Jane Goodman, a professor at University of PA, recently wrote in Education Week a piece titled Anything a Child Can DO, a Teacher Shouldn’t. She sees an ever increasing list of opportunities for students to be doers.

In early grades students could take attendance, pass out and collect papers, snacks and notes,…eventually they might collect topics for class meetings, run errands, help in the office, answer phones, greet visitors…

Older students might lead class meetings, conduct building tours, select work for display, check homework and tutor.

Gaining experience students could advise on school safety, school appearance, and lunch appeal…..with supervision they might organize mural paintings, extra curricular activities, or the program for parents’ night.

Goodman suggests that increasing student authority and responsibility could produce these benefits:

*decrease the passivity and minimal engagement found in too many classrooms
* create an opportunity for real student leadership
* increase students’ sense of belongingness and loyalty

“As students do more of the controlling, the necessity to control them will lessen”
Joan F Goodman

I have always enjoyed reading about the MET School in Providence, Rhode Island and its founder Dennis Litkey. One of the elements of the MET is connecting students’ learning to doing….doing real work.

A recent question that @Dennis_Littky offered on Twitter made me smile..
What is learning? A reason given by many for why Jessica Watson,a 14 year old should not sail the world…How will she do her school work?

I am arranging several more observations of student learning by teachers. I’d encourage you to set up similar opportunities and see what insights emerge from the debriefings.

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4 Responses to “ Doing…Learning…Doing ”

  1. Chuck Says:

    What a timely post! We are involved in peer observations across grade levels and content areas this week at our middle school. It wasn’t that long ago that observations focused on teacher behaviors. As you have mentioned, the focus is now on the students. Whenever possible, we take the time to talk with students during our observations to determine their understandings of the lesson/activity and how it fits the course standards. I’m a bit skeptical of what you can ascertain about subgroups in these observations.

  2. Stephen G. Barkley Says:

    Chuck… if you focus on a subgroup, note their behaviors…where are they seated, what are they doing, asking ..saying…

    Are they doing what they need to do to achieve…? If they are not, what change on the teacher’s part might gain the needed student behavior?

  3. Wes Says:

    Thanks for sharing your interesting observations on student “doing.” In CA this week, I’ve been working as a District Assistance and Intervention Team consultant doing classroom walk-throughs. What we’re finding as a missing element, regardless of the level of student activity or “doing,” is the absence of meaningful feedback to students on their performance. Student busy-ness seems often to be removed from appropriate and timely feedback from the instructor.

    And this might be part of your response to Chuck. What change on the teacher’s part might produce the desired/needed student behavior? Meaningful feedback to the student on how their actions/thoughts/peer dialogue is leading to learning.

  4. Stephen G. Barkley Says:


    No question that teacher feedback is a key in motivating student effort and learning. An area overlooked in many observation discussions

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