Taking Instructional Improvement to Task (Part 1 of 2)

I live a privileged professional life.

Each year, I am invited to visit dozens of school districts and spend time in hundreds of classrooms kneeling next to students aged 4 to 20.  Whether through the formal process of Instructional Rounds or more casually dropping into classrooms, I am typically working with teachers and administrators who puzzle over how to improve student learning.

I count my blessings.  The conversations are intellectually challenging and they are anchored in a deep sense of moral urgency.  Moreover, these experiences have afforded me a broad view of the patterns of teaching and learning within the state of Connecticut and across the United States.

First off, the good news.  On average, schools are full of adults working hard on behalf of children and families.  Educators care, and they are committed to doing right by students.  On the whole, students are well behaved and respectful to adults and their peers.  If anything, I often wonder if students are too compliant, abiding by the norms and rules they’ve been given.

Now, the not-so-good news.  The single most consistent pattern I observe in classrooms is variation—wide variation—in the cognitive demand expected of students.  And lest you assume that I’m the only one seeing this, my observation is consistent with findings from experts ranging from Robert Pianta to Robert Marzano.

Imagine This
Imagine classroom 1.  Fourth graders are asked to write a paragraph following a writing algorithm.  A teacher-produced handout provides a stem for the first sentence, and all students dutifully fill in the blanks:  “The best month of the year is _____________ because _____________, ___________, and ______________.”   Over the next ten minutes, these 9 and 10 year olds complete four additional sentences, one for each “because” and a final “summary sentence.”

Now, imagine classroom 2:  Fourth graders are provided twenty minutes to begin developing a draft essay from their pre-writing.  The prompt asks students to “identify the character from [recently read book] who experiences the most significant transformation over the course of the novel’s plot.”  In addition, students are instructed to “build a compelling, multi-paragraph essay that uses aspects of powerful persuasive writing, including careful use of specific evidence drawn the book alongside [their] well-reasoned logic that deliberately explains how the presented evidence supports [their] claim.”

Now, before you make too many assumptions . . . Each of these two classrooms resides in the same school and is comprised of randomly-selected, heterogeneous groups of students.    These classrooms are neither leveled nor drawn from schools in dramatically different communities.  The difference lies in the tasks designed by the teachers.

And while I have you imagining, visualize what happens throughout an entire year as your child engages in the thinking demanded within classroom 1 while your next-door neighbor (your son’s longtime best friend) is sitting in class 2.

Within Reason(ing) and Task
Several years ago I worked and taught with Professor Barry Sheckley, noted expert in professional learning.  One of the many research-based ideas I came to learn under his mentorship was “learning is a byproduct of reasoning.”  This principle is not only true for adults; it holds for students.  Put plainly, if we want to get students learning, we have to create the conditions that support and demand that they think—think deeply and about worthy ideas.

Almost two decades ago, Professor Richard Elmore taught me that to truly understand the instructional core (the dynamic relationship among the teacher, student and content in classrooms), I needed to recognize that “task predicts performance.”  As he and others have explained in numerous writings and presentations (see Instructional Rounds in Education), the quality of the academic work teachers are putting before students is the precursor to and predictor of learning and achievement.

These two ideas come together for me in classrooms.  If we want to improve the learning in classrooms dramatically, we have to support the intellectual development of students by getting them reasoning through thoughtful, well-constructed, cognitively challenging academic tasks.  If this proposition holds any truth, then some significant aspect of instructional leadership is the reduction of variation in the academic tasks showing up in classrooms.

Easy enough, right?

Wrong.  Numerous intelligent and dedicated superintendents and principals I know struggle to make a dent in the quality of tasks within their districts and schools.  In fact, this is one of the reoccurring challenges identified within the CT Superintendents’ Network, a community of practice with almost twenty years’ experience analyzing classroom practice through instructional rounds.

And This is Where Your Come In
I’m looking for practical ideas for improving the quality of academic tasks across schools and district.  Please email me any resources, strategies, processes, or practices you have used and that have made a difference in your instructional leadership practice.

After winter break I will post part 2 of this blog, and I hope to include your ideas.   I am eager to read your responses:  rlemons@ctschoolchange.org

Richard W. Lemons, EdD
Executive Director, CT Center for School Change