Sunday, January 30, 2011

Stages of Competence

This past week our coaches had a good discussion concerning the 4 stages of developing competence. In developing a skill, a person is:

unconsciously incompetent – completely unaware of their lack of skill. Of course, many children are at this stage in many areas, but I also think of some adults I know and their joyous, uncoordinated flailings on the dance floor. At some point the person then becomes:
consciously incompetent – all that’s changed is that the person now realizes they could be better at this thing they’re flailing at. Their skill hasn’t improved, simply their awareness of their lack of ability has. With focused effort, the person then becomes:
consciously competent – much has to happen between stage 2 and stage 3. Really, it’s the crux of everything – how do we get people from stage 2 to 3? Brenda Powers, of Choice Literacy, argues that it’s often “third things” such as books, videos, demonstration lessons, etc. that provide the person with what they need to improve their skill. With time, the person then becomes:
unconsciously competent – the skill has become natural enough that little thought is given to decisions that are made. In the case of the dancer, after someone has pointed out their lack of coordination , and a great deal of dance lessons have been undertaken, the person can become a graceful, fluid dancer who need not concentrate to the degree they must have when learning their new steps.

For those of us attempting to teach people acquiring new skills, the mistake we too often make is assuming the person is already at stage 2. We take for granted that they’re aware of their need to improve and are willing participants. If, however, they are still at stage 1 no amount of advice or instruction will get through to them until they realize they’re not as good as they think they are. This requires us to “create the need”. Until they know they need help, they won’t hear a bit of the advice that’s given them. No need to buy something they already think they have.

And so, the parallels to coaching should be fairly obvious at this point. As coaches we must:
1. Find out which stage our learners are at
2. If they’re at stage 1, we have to create the need for change to take place
3. If they’re at stage 2, we have to provide those things the learners need to improve their skills. This is the very heart of coaching, and many books have been written about what coaches do at this stage.
4. For teachers at stage 4, we can help them develop what David Baume has termed “reflective competence”.

His thoughts, and I agree completely, are that we can’t stop at simply being unconsciously competent, otherwise how will you teach someone else the skill? If you don’t know how you do it, you can’t pass it on. So in order to become a teacher of that skill yourself, you must become reflective about the theories, skills, and knowledge required in the process.

Regarding teaching, this is where future coaches are made. Those reflective teachers who know why they do what they do and are aware of the literature and research behind it are the perfect people to help those further down the stages of competence.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Different Paths

I’ve been reading Georgia Heard’s “A Place for Wonder” about reading and writing nonfiction in the primary grades, and in the latest section she’s had the 1st graders brainstorm things they wonder about and then sort them according to whether they’re “research wonders” or “heart wonders” (meaning it’s more opinion-based, such as “What makes a best friend?”). She recounts her conferences with various children and the few questions they’re not sure how to categorize, or which they categorize differently than an adult might. For instance, one little girl puts the card for “How do oceans get made?” into the heart pile, and when Georgia asks why, it’s because to this little girl the ocean is an enormous place of mystery and she has no concept of the scientific aspects of it. Different than many teachers would, however, Georgia and her co-teacher Jen don’t correct her, realizing there’s time later on for this child to discover the potential of research to re-categorize it on her own.

It didn’t matter whether the distinctions were exact but rather that the children understood that there are various ways to go about exploring questions.

(p. 69) That’s a very “free-ing” statement, one that I remember feeling quite often as I read books from the various New York teachers connected to Teacher’s College or Denver’s PEBC – things like, you don’t have to complete a picture book all in one sitting, or it’s ok not to have literacy centers, or think of your day as a menu of options rather than a to-do list. Too often, nowadays, it seems teachers don’t hear enough free-ing statements, and instead feel more tied down by regulations and expectations.

Heard’s quote above caused me to think about my work as a coach as well. In the same way that she and Jen didn’t worry about the correctness of their students’ responses right away and instead gave them room to find them on their own, as a coach my concern should not be that teachers correctly implement a teaching strategy right away as much as it should be about giving them room to think about and explore it on their own. Coaching is more about the conversations we have about our teaching, not a search for one correct way of doing it. If these first graders had the freedom to grow their own confidence in their abilities as researchers, then shouldn’t teachers feel that same freedom to explore what works with kids? I did that for years as a teacher in a school without a coach, and the role I’d have liked the coach to serve would not have been as “fount of knowledge” but rather sounding board for successes and failures; a conversation partner about teaching.

There’s never only one way to do something. As coaches we should be able to encourage teachers to take different paths to common outcomes.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Book Review: "A Place for Wonder"

If you’re interested in learning more about inquiry learning – currently a hot topic in the field – and if in particular you work with the primary grades, check out Georgia Heard and Jennifer McDonough’s book “A Place for Wonder: Reading and Writing Nonfiction in the Primary Grades”.

Georgia ‘s other books are always easy to read, user friendly, and chock-full of ideas, and this book is no different. Georgia follows Jennifer as she teaches first Kindergarteners and then first graders about nonfiction text by first tapping into their natural tendency to wonder about the world at large.

The book is organized into three long chapters: the first chapter explores centers, projects and clubs set up entice kids to wonder about the world around them. Chapter two describes the kids at they tap into their “heart” wonders – questions they have which may not be research-able, such as “Where does magic come from?” and “Why do I love my dog?” Georgia and Jennifer model for the kids how to write from the heart to address these important questions for kids. Finally, chapter three outlines 18 mini-lessons that lead kids through traditional nonfiction writing that explores “research wonders”, including lessons on leads, text features, inferring, formatting options, and elaboration.

The authors include many photos, resource lists, and vignettes of classroom life that make this book an enjoyable, quick read. They make teaching nonfiction writing to primary kids easy and fun!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Purposeful Teaching

Everything we do in a classroom must have purpose. If there’s anything I’ve learned from years of teaching, it’s that we can’t afford to waste a single minute of learning, and that it’s fairly easy to fill every one of those classroom minutes with something meaningful.

Sharon Taberski, author of “On Solid Ground”, says that the day should make sense to kids. For instance, rather than chopping up “reading” into a whole group time, small group time, independent reading times, grammar time, etc., we should subscribe to the workshop approach which involves teaching kids a little something and then sending them off to try it. Within that time we get most of those other goals accomplished. It makes sense to kids and makes sense to us because it resembles what reading looks like outside of school, in the real world.

After hearing Sharon mention that at a workshop years ago, I worked to make my classroom time make sense. I examined everything I did and asked, “What does this look like in the real world? Why am I teaching this and what will kids eventually do with this knowledge?” From those questions evolved a version of math workshop, so that my kids were working first on problem solving and second on algorithms and content knowledge. In Social Studies, it caused me examine our government standards from the point of view of a third grader and realize that to make this meaningful we’d have to act it out in our classroom over several weeks. For writing workshop, I realized that publication, in its various forms, is the ultimate purpose of working long and hard on individual drafts, and so I tried creating more authentic publication options and asked kids to choose writing partners with whom to discuss their progress.

The one area I had some difficulty connecting to the outside world was grammar. Who do I know who discusses past tense verbs over dinner or argues over sentence fragments with friends? After careful consideration, it seems the only good that comes from knowing grammatical terms is the ability to quickly identify the problem within a grammatically incorrect sentence. Whereas my grammar-phile friends quickly realize the two verbs in the compound sentence don’t match tenses, someone without that knowledge mostly just senses that it’s wrong. By knowing how it’s wrong, we can more quickly fix it.

However, doesn’t it seem that the ability to label the parts of written language should come after you’re fluent with the act of reading and writing? We wouldn’t teach a kid all the intricate parts of a bicycle and train them on maintenance and upkeep before ever letting them get on and ride. No, instead we let them enjoy the act of riding, get comfortable riding in circles in the cul-de-sac, brave the world without training wheels, and maybe even take off through the bushes on an off-road excursion before pulling them aside for a basic maintenance session. Actually, that session usually occurs out of necessity after the first mechanical problem renders the bike unusable.

It seems the same process should happen with grammar. Let kids enjoy writing, become fluent with it, and even begin to experiment with writing off the beaten path. They’ll gain real-world knowledge about what writing is for; experience the joy of communicating emotions with peers until WHAM! – They experience a mechanical problem and suddenly the need for grammar is obvious, even to them. They’ll be ready to try out more specific nouns, interesting verbs, and purposeful sentence fragment because the ultimate goal of writing – to communicate with others - will make sense.

And shouldn’t everything we do in the classroom make sense?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Pay for Performance

The big item on my mind today has been PFP, based on an article in the AJC. They reported that Georgia teachers will begin participating in PFP this coming fall – at least the 26 districts that opted in to RTTT here .

I’m conflicted about it. On the one hand, this morning I read this interview of Bill Gates and the head of the American Federation of Teachers in which he said that 25% of teachers are very good. Many teachers are not, granted. I’ve worked in two very good school systems which have probably given me a skewed view of education – I think education is much better off than it probably is because of the high quality of teachers I’ve had the privilege to work with.

That being said, if only 25% of teachers are top notch, how does that compare to other professions? What percentage of doctors or lawyers or computer techs would be considered to be “very good”? For that matter, how do we decide what “very good” looks like? If we continually make more teachers “very good”, wouldn’t the bar continue to rise, so that we’ll never have, say, 80% of teachers reach that mark? It’s a moving target, right?

The same goes for student achievement, I’d think. As more knowledge enters the world and as our expectations for what students should be able to do increases, the bar for what we consider an “average” student to be will rise. Fareed Zakaria says that the past few years hasn’t been a case of America falling behind in the world (he was talking economically, but I think it applies to education too). Instead, he says it’s the phenomenon of “the rise of the rest”. We’re not necessarily falling further behind, it’s just that the others are beginning to catch up.

Now, that doesn’t mean I think there’s not progress to be made. Ironically, the very system that was created to help us increase our standing in the world has done the most damage – Bush’s NCLB legislation relied so heavily on standardized test scores that the last 10 years has seen an over-emphasis on linear, narrow-minded thinking, both in children and in the educators who teach them. We’ve come to worship correct answers instead of embracing the idea of failure. We need to be open to failure in order for growth to occur (this makes more sense after seeing the previous clip). And that’s not happening in our current school culture.

My question is: Will teachers be open to failure with pay for performance? In other words, will they be willing to try a new instructional strategy if their pay is riding on the progress their students make? Or will they stay inside their instructional box because it’s worked so well in the past?

I understand that education needs to be improved. I even agree that good teaching should be rewarded and also emulated. Perhaps education needs to become a capitalist endeavor, where success is met with monetary reward and comparison of scores from this year and last creates a competitive edge. For me, the jury’s still out. But like it or not, a verdict is coming soon.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Underlying Messages

Last month, at our monthly instructional coach meeting, we had a fascinating discussion revolving around Peter Johnston’s book “Choice Words” and the implications not only for our interactions with students, but also with other teachers.

Johnston argues that how we speak has as much impact as what we say. For instance, saying to a student, “How did you go about solving that?” implies an underlying assumption that, “You’re the kind of person who solves things, and I’m interested in hearing how you did it. I value your ideas.” Or simply using wait time sends the message that we believe that the child is capable of coming up with the answer, and we won’t give up.

On the other hand, when we jump in too quickly to prompt a student when they make an error, the underlying message is that we believe they need support and are incapable of solving the problem on their own. Over time, this creates the kind of passive child who puts for little effort because she knows the teacher will do most of the work for her.

As coaches, we discussed this language, and the underlying messages in what we say, as it regarded students. But then we took it a step further and looked back at what we’d read as it relates to our work with teachers. What do our underlying messages say to teachers, and do they match our actual words? Do our words imply a partnership approach with teachers, or do we send the message that we are the experts, the ones who know best? For instance, saying, “I’m so proud of you!” instantly puts the two people talking on unequal footing. Or by saying, “We have to do running records every two weeks” places this assessment in a negative, mandated context. How often do we use wait time with teachers instead of jumping in quickly to provide support? What messages might that send about our confidence in their opinions?

My favorite quote of Johnston’s comes near the end of this fascinating book:

The way we interact with children [and adults!] and arrange for them to interact shows them what kinds of people we think they are and gives them opportunities to practice being those kinds of people.”