Thank you!

Before the holidays I posted a blog about the importance of academic tasks within classrooms.  Drawing from both learning theory and research on improving instruction, I argued that there tends to be wide variation in the cognitive demand asked of students in the tasks provided by their teachers.  To quote that blog: “The single most consistent pattern I observe in classrooms is variation—wide variation—in the cognitive demand expected of students.” To read the earlier blog in its entirety, click here.

I ended the blog with a humble request—that those of you with responsibilities for improving the quality of teaching and learning in classrooms send me your thoughts and suggestions for how we might reduce this variation.

And you responded.  I received several emails, LinkedIn, or Facebook messages containing your thoughts.  Several of you commiserated, identifying with the patterns I described and wanting some insight about what we leaders should do.  A few of you provided detailed descriptions of what you have attempted.  Moreover, a handful of you received my blog as a challenge, and you assembled your colleagues and attempted to answer the question as a leadership team.

Thank you to all who weighed in on the question.  Below is a summary of the most commonly referenced strategies and resources.  Space does not allow for all of the great ideas.

  1. Engage the faculty in collaboratively examining and reflecting on the nature of the assignments being provided. Over and over, you told me we need to bring teachers into this challenge, help them see and own the problem, and look to them for the answers.  You acknowledged—eloquently—the need to develop a culture of trust and respect, one that can promote honest dialogue, introspection, and professional growth.  In addition, you recommended:
    1. Lesson Study. Use the processes established by the Japanese to encouraged teachers to co-plan, administer, and reflect on common lessons.  Read a more detailed description of lesson study here.
    2. Looking at Student Work. Use established protocols for collaboratively examining assignments and the work subsequent produced so that educators develop greater insight and understanding of how to craft tasks. Several specific processes were named, including the ATLAS, Tuning, Student Work Analysis, and Slice
    3. Anchor Tasks. Engage teachers of common grade levels or courses to co-develop and administer common high-leverage tasks.  Powerful Task Design was referenced by a couple of respondents as a useful resource.
    4. Standards Cross-Walking. Engage educators in examining assignments in relation to the articulated content and performance standards.  Some of you mentioned the Standards-in-Action protocol and Eleanor Doughtery’s book Assignments Matter as important resources.
    5. Classroom visits. Either via instructional rounds or more informal peer visitations, getting educators into each other classrooms to observe lessons, examine the work produced by students, and to reflect on instructional practice.
  2. Build a framework that supports the designing of intentional and aligned academic tasks. Use backward design approaches to clarify learning outcomes before turning to unit, lesson and task design.  Wiggin and McTighe’s Learning by Design was referenced multiple times. 
  3. Develop teacher leaders to advance this long-term conversation throughout the entire faculty. A number of the blog respondents acknowledged the need for leadership, and that superintendents, assistant superintendents, and principals cannot do this work alone.

Good luck in your collective efforts to enhance academic tasks.  Again, I’d like to thank all of you who sent resources and ideas my way; I hope that I represented your thinking accurately.

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