New ways of teaching

About a month ago, Dan Meyer authored a blog post entitled The Unengageables in which he shared four “secret skepticisms” of teachers who attend his workshops.

-This process assumes every student wants to learn or has the motivation to learn.

– How do I get students to buy-in when they struggle with any problem solving skills at all?

– What if my kids don’t know enough math to be engaged?

– This approach is very compelling but this lesson will have additional challenges with students who could care less about getting involved. It is difficult getting any engagement by students who have little interest.

As an instructional coach and someone who frequently facilitates professional learning for teachers, I often hear these same sentiments from teachers in all content areas. Indeed, it can be challenging to engage learners who have become accustomed to being passive participants in the game of school. Dan refers to this as the “didactic contract” – the longstanding agreement between students and teachers that students attend class, the teachers tells them what they are going to learn and demonstrates examples, then assigns homework in which the students reproduce what the teacher showed them in class.

I’ve spent the last two days at “Common Core Boot Camp” where we’ve spent a long time talking about the instructional shifts required by the standards and the types of instructional strategies that support these shifts. It was made abundantly clear that this type of teaching isn’t going to cut it anymore. I’m sure many of the thoughts listed above were running through many teachers’ heads.

I am part of many conversations about the challenge of engaging teachers in professional learning. Just like many of the students in our classes, many teachers have become accustomed to “receiving” professional development rather than being actively engaged in professional learning which challenges them to stretch beyond their everyday practices and try new strategies. Many school leaders, including myself, are particularly frustrated by the few teachers who aren’t interested in anything we have to offer in professional development. Like the teacher who breathes a sigh of relief when a disruptive student is absent, we’re just a tad relieved when they call in sick on PD days so we won’t have to deal with their negativity or rudeness.

While teachers may say they are reluctant to try new teaching strategies or plan engaging activities because they don’t think their kids can handle it, I believe often times they are more reluctant because they’re not sure if they can handle it. We’re pretty good at holding up our end of that didactic contract because we were introduced to it when we were students. Teaching how we were taught is easy. As was noted in today’s training, we can’t keep teaching this way if we expect to meet the rigor of the Common Core Standards. Changing our teaching practice is hard, and teachers are going to need a lot of support in the form of high quality professional development and ongoing support in order to do so.

In his blog, Dan also shares some techniques for helping students gradually become accustomed to new ways of learning:
– Model curiosity.
– Ask the question, “What questions do you have?”
– Make estimation part of your daily routine.

This is also good advice for school leaders and professional developers to help teachers gradually become accustomed to new ways of teaching.

– Model curiosity: Share an interesting article or blog post that you have read. Post a sign on your door with what you’re reading, and ask others to do the same.
– Ask the question, “What questions do you have?”: Give teachers a short classroom vignette, mode a strategy, or show a short classroom video clip like those on Teaching Channel, then have teachers write down the first question that comes to their mind. Poll the group for their responses and the have a discussion.
– Make estimation part of your daily routine: this one’s a little trickier, but if you’re using data, it’s easy to ask teachers to make predictions about the data before looking at the actual figures. Similarly, you could have teachers estimate how many questions they ask in a class period, what percent of a class period they are talking versus students discussing, average time on task,etc before an observation. Helping teachers become more aware of their current level of practice helps them identify areas where they can improve.

What other ways can we help teachers develop the knowledge and skills they will need to facilitate learning in Common Core classrooms?

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