Friday, August 5, 2016

Focus on Learning, Not Work

Think of all the school language that uses the word “work”: school work, homework, seat work, workbook, worksheet…. And here we thought education was about learning! Of course, anything worthwhile takes work, but there is a difference between being focused on completing a task and being focused on learning. 

In one school studied, teachers used the word “work” 49 times more than the word “learning.” That’s according to Ron Ritchhart, a leading Harvard University researcher, in Creating Cultures of Learning: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools (44).  I’ll definitely be monitoring my own and my students’ language this year, talking to students about the difference between work and learning, and introducing new assignments by highlighting their purpose and what I want students to learn!

That sent me back to a book I’d read earlier this summer, but hadn’t yet blogged on. I hadn’t yet blogged on it because it was so intensely about focusing on the learning in each lesson that I was still digesting it. The book is Formative Classroom Walkthroughs: How Principals and Teachers Collaborate to Raise Student Achievement by Connie M. Moss and Susan M. Brookhart.

The authors identify 7 key learning processes that they say should be evident in every lesson (based on Fig. 2.1):
  1. Is the lesson worthwhile? (Does it contain important content that meets student needs while being part of a larger learning trajectory that leads to important curricular outcomes?)
  2. Is there a shared learning target? (Do students know what they are supposed to learn?)
  3. Is there a performance of understanding? (Does the lesson translate the learning target into action for the students by asking them to do, say, make, or write something that deepens their understanding and gives evidence of growth with the lesson’s content and skills?)
  4. Are there student look-fors? (Does the lesson include student-friendly criteria in a list or rubric that students use to measure their learning?) 
  5. Is there formative feedback? (Do students receive formative information from their teacher throughout the lesson that gives them a clear idea of where their understanding is now and what they should do next, and do they have a chance to use the information to immediately improve their work?
  6. Is there student self-assessment? (Do students use the learning target and apply their look-fors to monitor their own learning? Do they use the language of the look-fors to ask good questions when they need help?)
  7. Is there effective questioning? (Do teachers and students use questioning to advance student understanding toward the target more than to review facts and clarify assignment directions?)
I like the way they shift the focus from teacher instructional practices to student learning behaviors—however you get the students to do these things is up to you, but the students should be doing them. I also like the traction the breakdown gives on identifying and practicing parts of important skills like critical thinking. 

And I wonder if it is possible or even desirable to do all of these processes in every lesson, especially in high school where students are often refining complex skills that they’ve been using at less sophisticated levels for a long time. And with some of those skills, like reading and writing, part of what they need to build is stamina. 

Still, I’d like to experiment with the 7 key learning processes myself for a year—see what’s helpful and what’s hard. Maybe Im just avoiding acknowledging that while Ive worked hard on the worthwhile lesson in a learning trajectory, I need to work on identifying the exact step each lesson takes in that trajectory.

What I’d like even more is to have a handful of colleagues who’d also like to experiment with them, and we could watch each other and report to each other. 

Anybody want to join me? It may be a lot of work, but I think wed learn a lot!

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