In this week’s episode of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast, Steve ponders “Focusing on Learning or Teaching?”
Listen as Steve discusses whether the focus should be placed on learning or teaching in order to create student success.
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Steve Barkley: Hello, and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud Podcast. For the last 35 years, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. In each of the coming episodes, I’ll explore my thoughts and my learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning and leading, thanks for listening in. Focusing on learning or teaching. Several years back I pondered the thought that many of the schools I was working in seem to be overly focused on teaching and insufficiently focused on learning.
As I thought about why that might be, I realized that teaching can be neat, orderly, sequential, managed and documented. In a central office, we can receive a set of grade level standards from the State Department. We can take those grade level standards and spread them out on the wall, sorted into 180 boxes, and we now have a scope and sequence. We can take that scope and sequence, deliver it to teachers and administrators, and then inform administrators that we’re going to hold them accountable for the teachers implementing the scope and sequence.
Administrators in turn can request that teachers provide lesson plans where they identify which of the standards are being addressed on which days. Then as a teacher, I can be concerned that I need to document my teaching. At the end of teaching a standard, I do an assessment. Now I can document that the material was taught, that’s the problem. Too often we think that that process can document that the content was learned. The problem is that while teaching is often neat, orderly, sequential, managed and documented.
Learning is often messy, spontaneous, irregular, non-linear, and complex. Have any of you had the experience I did, of having taught for a couple of years, changed grade level and had the opportunity to be humbled by working with students who had the previous year? I learned rather quickly when teaching fifth grade, that I better keep some samples of my student work because there would be some sixth grade teacher in the future questioning me. “What did you do? Skip that whole unit on fractions?”
At that point, I could pull out my assessments and look at the teacher and say, “I don’t know what you did when you got up there but they knew fractions when they were here.” After a few years, I ended up teaching some of those sixth grade students that I had as fifth graders and I found myself looking in the mirror asking, “What did you do? Skipped that whole unit last year?” I was pulling out the student assessments and giving it back to the students, shaking and fist going, “You knew this last year.”
That’s when that that realization that doing an assessment immediately after I taught the material, probably does that provide me with good feedback that the learning has occurred. That thought goes through my mind when I’m visiting a classroom in block schedule and find the first 45 minutes of the class being spent reviewing the material that the students have been working on and then the second 45 minutes taking an assessment. I’ve always suggested that the best way for a teacher to get a depth of understanding of what your students learned is interacting with next year’s teacher.
If the following year’s teacher finds in an assessment that student’s master content that you had taught the previous here, that’s usually a solid indicator. I’d suggest that often the quality of the discussions in professional learning communities should be around a student learning and examining the struggle that we’re constantly in as teachers between being focused on teaching and being focused on learning. I had presented this list that teaching can be neat, orderly, sequential, managed and documented, and that learning often is messy, spontaneous, irregular, nonlinear and complex to a teacher audience.
I asked the question of how often people find themselves struggling with those two lists. I suggest that, as a teacher, we frequently go through the day with a parrot on each shoulder. On one shoulder we have the teaching parrot, frequently called pacing guide, who’s yelling into our ear, “Move on, move on.” While on the other shoulder is the learning parrot, usually in the voice of a child crying, “Wait for me.” As a teacher, I’m, struggling in those responses. I find meeting in my professional learning community, taking student work samples, laying them out in front of the my colleagues and helping me make a decision as to what do I know from the student work about the learning that’s occurred for the student.
I had put these two list up in front of an audience and a gentleman in the room yelled out, “I’ve known it all along.” I said, “Sir, please share your insight with the group.” He said, “I’ve told my principal for years that planning wasn’t important.” I surprisingly looked and said, “That’s not the message I’m looking for you to take from here.” The teaching side of this is critical and planning is critical to that teaching side. The learning’s not going to occur if the teaching side doesn’t happen.
I looked back at the gentleman, I said, “It’s extremely important to plan, and it’s just as important to make sure that you don’t do what you planned.” In other words, what are you picking up indicators about the student learning that is now providing you with information that says you need to be back, changing and modifying the plan because you’re splitting that focus between being focused on my teaching and being focused on the student learning outcomes. As I looked at that struggle between a focus on learning and a focus on teaching, I recognize that teaching really comes down to four critical behaviors that I’ve identified as observing, thinking, creating and experimenting.
Think of those four as a cycle, observing leading into thinking, thinking leading into creating, creating leading into experimenting, and experimenting leading back into observing, so it’s an ongoing cycle. As a teacher, I study learning and I study student work to take me through this process of observing, thinking, creating an experiment. I often ask, “Are there times that as a teacher you need to start by planting instruction for students that you don’t know a whole lot about?” That’s a pretty common occurrence for a lot of teachers in August.
I’m teaching freshman English. I know the freshman English curriculum, but I don’t know a lot about my incoming students. When that’s happening, I believe we start at the thinking element. I think about my curriculum and the standards that my students need to me. I create in my mind who I believe my students will be, and as I put those two things together, I move into creation. I now create, I now design the learning activities that I will initially engage students with. I might be selecting a piece of poetry that I’m going to open with.
I might be designing a writing activity that I will have students do early on. I might be selecting a video clip and a discussion that I want to lead to kick things off. The experiment begins when my students arrive. I now engage the students who show up with the learning task that I created. As my students engage, I now go into observation, I’m observing what’s happening as the students engage.
My initial observation may be that they’re not engaging, which takes me back to a redesign, or as I observe, I realize students are missing some prerequisites set of skills, and so now I need to go into a redesign, to backup and provided a different instructional piece, and then come back to the piece that I designed. I might pick up here that I need to begin to differentiate. As I’m observing, I now move back into thinking. I’m thinking and pondering what I’ve learned from my observation and how that takes me back into the creating cycle.
As a teacher, I’m in this constant flow of observing, thinking, creating and experimenting. It illustrates the problem a beginning teacher has because a beginning teacher goes through this cycle, creates a lesson and then they deliver that lesson. It’s not until they’re home that evening, recognizing the lesson didn’t work that they’re back into a design process. I remember working with the beginning teacher and sharing with him that I had some time to observe in his classroom second period and he said, “Oh, that’s great,” he said, “but I wish you could come fifth.”
When I said, “Why?”, he said, “It’s usually pretty good by then.” I congratulated him that he was progressing as a professional teacher because now he was able to make those adjustments at the end of each period, improving the success of the learning activity in the second round. If you take this process, for me, it describes working with an instructional coach and working in a professional learning community. I suggest to instructional coaches that they actually exist inside that teacher’s circle that’s created by observing, thinking, creating and experimenting.
When I get to work with an instructional coach, the job of the instructional coach is to assist and strengthen me in each of those four areas. Because a coach is observing in my classroom, the coach is seeing things in student behavior, in student reactions that I didn’t see, so my observing is strengthened. As the coach shares those observations with me and engages me in a reflective conversation, I’m thinking. I’m thinking and analyzing things that I wouldn’t have thought of, wouldn’t have analyze if it hadn’t been for that opportunity with the coach.
That thinking often leads me into creating a improved design for learning. For most of us, that interaction with another person strengthens our creativity. Then what I move into experimenting, a coach should assist in building the environment that allows me to be comfortable with experimentation and with change. I suggest that the same is true for being part of a professional learning community. If I again look at those words, observe, think create and experiment, I enter the professional learning community, I take my student work and I lay it down on the table.
As soon as my colleagues begin to look at my student work, my colleagues see things in that student work that I didn’t see. They ask questions that cause me to think about things I wouldn’t have thought of had I sat and looked at that student work on my own. Again, my creativity is strengthen as three or four people enter into a conversation about problem solving a design of a learning activity for a group of students or for an individual student.
Lastly, my sense of experimentation is certainly increased when, one, the people in my PLC may be running the same experiment I am or, two, the members of my professional learning community share that the idea of my experiment makes sense. Can’t guarantee that it’s going to work but it makes sense. That support of my idea making sense increases my courage to move at the experiment. As you reflect on coaching conferences and as you reflect on the dialogues occurring in professional learning communities, consider how much of the focus is on teaching versus how much of the focus is on learning.
I see a major difference in PLCs when they switch from common planning time to being a professional learning community. When people are working in common planning time, the conversation is built around teaching. The movement becomes more of a professional learning community as people spend more of their focus time exploring learning. As an instructional coach, you’ll find that the conversation is moving more to learning as an increase in the coaches observation is focused on student behaviors and student reaction to the teacher behaviors being implemented. Enjoy the focus on learning. Thanks for listening in.
Thanks for listening, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter at Steve Barkley, or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.
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