Coaching Letter #121

Hello, I hope you’re well. This Coaching Letter is about planning for the fall the right way—by paying attention to the research and by not getting trapped in a deficit mindset.

As part of my principal preparation program—I mean, the one I took as a student myself—I had to take two courses in the C & I department. (This, amazingly enough, is not required in all principal prep programs, many of which start from the premise that everyone entering the program knows as much as they need to know about curriculum, instruction, and assessment, which I don’t believe is a sound assumption.) The professor who taught it, Gary Mackenzie, was an interesting guy. I don’t think he was all that popular, but he was not shy about kicking some sacred cows.

He wasn’t the first professor to make me read original research, but it’s the first time I remember reading anything that surprised me or that I had to critique. This was in Texas 25 years ago, and there was a statewide teacher evaluation system, and another thing I remember realizing was that I was being evaluated under this system—which of course everyone complained about—but I had never read the underlying research. Indeed, I don’t think it had occurred to me that there was underlying research, which embarrassed me, and I resolved not to be in that position again.

So for anyone who’s ever heard me say, “there’s research on this”, you have Gary Mackenzie to thank for that. I took his courses back when you still had to go pick up course packets from Kinko’s, and I still have the three ring binder I put the articles in on my shelf next to my desk.

Those memories have come to consciousness in the last few days as I have been fielding questions from districts, planning the Acceleration Workshop, and reading an article in the Washington Post by Daniel Willingham and Benjamin Riley. I’ve given you the link, but it’s behind the WaPo firewall, so I’ll quote liberally from it in case you don’t have a subscription.

The past three months have not transformed children’s brains, just the context where learning takes place. If you understand the mental processes supporting learning, attention, reading and so on, you can predict how students will be affected by a new environment, such as distance learning, and adapt teaching accordingly.
For example, research shows it’s very difficult to think of two things simultaneously. That’s why talking on the phone while driving increases accident rates, even if the call is hands-free. Distance learning often involves simultaneous visual and auditory information. If these complement one another — for example, the teacher describing an animation — learning is enhanced. But if they conflict — for example, the teacher saying one thing while different text appears — learning suffers.

Or consider the problem of attention. Learning at home means a whole host of new distractions for students. (One of us is married to a teacher and frequently overhears her pleading “Come back!” during Zoom lessons.) Researchers have shown that periodic quizzes interspersed during video lectures not only help cement new ideas into memory but also help keep students focused on what’s being taught.

If, in contrast, you’re not well-informed about how children learn, you may think videos are useful for visual learners (as an education consultant recently claimed in the New York Times), but you may worry such a lesson offers little to children who learn by moving, not seeing. This notion of learning styles has been debunked for years by scientists, but the idea persists.

Unfortunately, data suggests educators are unfamiliar with most principles of cognitive science. Recently, we tested more than 1,000 teachers-in-training and found that fewer than half could identify these principles, and when they knew them, they often couldn’t say how they applied in classrooms. Other research shows practicing teachers endorse learning myths: that children are less attentive after consuming sugary snacks, that students are “left-brained” or “right-brained” and that dyslexia is caused by seeing letters backward.
This needs to change. And while policymakers and philanthropists are right in wanting teachers to use technology wisely and to adapt nimbly to changing circumstances, the irony is that the best way to do that is to focus on what won’t change — the science of learning.

So, build your plans according to what we know about student learning, is the take-away. And as my colleague Richard pointed out: The irony in their argument is that anchoring all educational practice and policy in sound science would be incredibly transformational. In other words, we don’t have to adopt a new vision of schooling in order to do the right thing by kids. In fact, we might do better by actually applying research that is, in some cases, almost as old as I am. Constructing schooling according to what we know about teaching and learning would be, in itself, a radical act.

I confess to have used language like “re-imagine” and “re-invent” myself, but I have an ulterior motive. My hope is that we can use this time of ambiguity and amorphousness to provide more clarity and better guide-ropes than we have been willing to provide before. Let me repeat: I don’t think that means that we should go after shiny new things just because they are shiny new things.

Which leads me to the Acceleration Workshop. As I wrote about in the last CL, we are planning an online workshop on acceleration comprising a 3-session series in the first week of August. We think this is good timing, at least for Connecticut, because the plans due to the state will have been turned in, and teachers and leaders will, we hope, be ready to focus on the specifics of curriculum and instruction. And as I argued in the last CL, we have to make sure that kids have access to grade-level curriculum, execute truly effective teaching—which includes supplying students with any pre-requisites they have missed and scaffolding instruction—engage kids in worthwhile tasks that will also provide us with information about their skills and understanding that we can use to adapt our teaching, and lead in such a way that all this can happen.

Here, then, is the Acceleration Workshop flyer—and actually, you can find all the same information on the workshop registration page.

If for some strange reason you can’t make it to the Acceleration Workshop, I have added online resources on acceleration to the resources for thinking about hybrid teaching and learning Google doc. (This Google doc represents a ton of my time, so it’s really gratifying that almost every time I’m on the document—including 3 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, when every self-respecting person is making peach cobbler—there’s at least one other person on it, and sometimes 20+). But you should also buy a copy of Learning in the Fast Lane by Suzy Pepper Rollins (which was an ASCD member book in 2014, so check your bookshelf before you order it; also, you might find that it’s cheaper and faster to buy it through bookshop.org.) and read chapter 8 if nothing else.

I’m also re-reading What does this look like in the classroom: Bridging the gap between research and practice, by Hendrick and Macpherson, which I was looking at to help me plan for the Acceleration Workshop, and which fits right in with the Willingham and Riley piece—there are so many myths out there about what good teaching should look like (I wrote about differentiation last CL, but there are so many others: learning styles; that we are somehow in a “post-knowledge” world because you can Google anything you need to know; that hand-writing is obsolete and taking notes by hand is inefficient, and so on…)

There’s also a new edition of Leading Modern Learning, McTighe and Curtis, which is a book that I ought to love but I find curiously difficult to use, but you may find it helpful. And I just ordered Assignments Matter by Eleanor Dougherty, since working from the screenshots Richard sent me wasn’t really tenable.

I expect that I shall be beating the drum of acceleration not remediation as a strategy for teaching and learning after the shutdown all summer. Because if you enter planning for the fall with a deficit mindset about students and what they are capable of, you have a lot of unlearning to do.

I know that sometimes these Coaching Letters get a little preachy, and I hear about it when they do, but I don’t regret the tone of this one. I think we have a limited window to get this right, so I’m willing to get a bit shrill when I talk about it. If you still need convincing, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Or just sign up for the workshop!

Best, Isobel

Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC
Connecticut Center for School Change
istevenson@ctschoolchange.org
860-576-9410
@IsobelTX
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2020-07-13T07:30:12+00:00