Helping students train their inner voices

IStock_000022895993_LargeWhen it comes to asking questions in the classroom, the most important voice may be the one that you don’t hear. As McREL President and CEO Bryan Goodwin writes in the September issue of Educational Leadership, while we know teacher questioning is key to student learning, research suggests what matters more are the questions that students ask themselves.

Self-questioning, Goodwin explains, is something effective learners do naturally. For example, say you’re watching a science program on TV and you hear an astronomer explain that much of the starlight in the night sky comes from stars that may no longer exist. A little voice in your head might say, Wait, I don’t get that as you reach for the remote and rewind the program to listen again. This voice helps us connect what we’re learning with what we already know, look for the “big ideas” and connect them back to ourselves, and ask more questions that extend learning.

Fortunately, this kind of self-questioning is something teachers can train all students to do. Goodwin notes several research studies that support the effectiveness of such training—in one study, for example, a teacher named Alison King trained a class of 9th graders to ask themselves higher-order comparison-contrast questions, causal-relationship questions, and analysis questions while listening to history lectures. Comprehension tests showed that those students significantly outperformed their peers who did not receive the training.

Not only that, Goodwin points out, but such interventions don’t require much time to do and the effects appear to stick. In King’s study, the training took a mere 90 minutes and, when students listened to a subsequent lecture without any prompts about self-questioning, they still showed higher levels of comprehension.

Read the entire column here.

Posted by McREL International.


Siloed teacher PD: Why it doesn’t work

IStock_000021923625LargeA new report on a two-year study conducted by TNTP on the effectiveness of professional development (PD) for teachers suggests that much of the available PD is ineffective in helping teachers improve, and that vast resources are being spent on programs that don’t stick.

Our experience in working with districts and regional/state agencies has been that some PD works, and some doesn’t.

What doesn’t work, in our experience, are those PD activities that are “siloed.” These are sessions or efforts that have little or no direct connection to a school or district’s improvement goals, and aren’t built on a researched, proven framework. They may have ignited a spark of enthusiasm or interest among participants in the moment, but when learnings and take-aways aren’t embedded into daily practice, they become easily forgotten or ignored. Outcomes are not monitored and analyzed, and the focus might shift or a new spark might ignite after a year or two.

Teachers who have been in education for a while see many PD programs come and go, often with little time to fully develop, implement, test, and master the new processes. Because of this, unfortunately, I’ve heard about cases of veteran teachers who advised newer teachers to wait a new PD program out, knowing that the PD pendulum will likely swing in a new direction soon enough.

PD that does work is driven by, and aligned with, strategic plans and an assessment of staff needs. Session content is founded on research and proven frameworks. The delivery of the professional learning is thoughtfully planned and spread throughout the school year, giving participants time to hone their use of the new strategies and establish a sequence of learning and mastery for each concept. Implementation is monitored, feedback is given, and effect on professional practice and student learning is measured. The spark is fed and fanned into a sustained flame.

The following components of effective PD can yield better, long-lasting results:

      • Relevancy over time
      • Practical application
      • Conducted by professionals with classroom experience
      • Immediate application of the new learning with students
      • Buy-in and support from administrators who incorporate the same practices into their own work

Here’s an example of this more systemic approach in action. The Florida Department of Education embarked on a statewide initiative a couple of years ago to provide more effective PD systems for teachers, focusing on protocol standards across four strands: planning, learning, implementing, and evaluating. McREL helped the department with this initiative, focusing on data-driven, systemic planning that assessed PD needs, monitoring each stage of implementation, and evaluating the impact of the PD on classroom practice.

Paramount to every aspect of the process was the development of a common language in which PD was discussed, with clear definitions about what success was and how it would be measured. This framework enabled districts to collaborate with each other throughout the process, encouraging feedback that further informed the improvement process and helped districts align their policies and practices on curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

To read more about good PD system practices, check out these additional blog posts by my colleagues at McREL:

You might also be interested in this response to the TNTP study from three educators who question its findings and explain their position. 


AblaCheryl_6851_webCheryl Abla is an education consultant and product manager for McREL International. After 26 years in the classroom, she now works with teachers and schools on what matters most in classrooms using knowledge gleaned from The 12 Touchstones of Good TeachingClassroom Instruction that Works with English Language LearnersUsing Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works, and Classroom Instruction that Works. You can reach her at cabla@mcrel.org.


Are your school improvement efforts stuck? Try an inside-out approach

IStock_000021258674_LargeAt one point or another, most educators find themselves in a school improvement effort that gets “stuck.” Frustratingly, this often happens after some initial success—and then, improvements reach a plateau or even slide backwards. In an article in the June online edition of Educational Leadership, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin looks at why this happens and what schools can do to get back on track.

The problem, Goodwin asserts, is that schools often latch on to a solution that works in the short term without understanding why it’s working. When efforts start to stall, they are then unable to adjust. For example, a school may adopt a new curriculum that leads to quick improvements in student achievement. But, a few years later, achievement stops improving and, unsure why, the school may either double down on implementation or drop it altogether and replace it with something else.

McREL's Success In Sight® Improvement Cycle
a similar improvement process cycle

High-performing schools, he explains, aren’t wedded to specific programs and, instead, adapt what they have to align with student needs. They know, for example, that their initial success was not just because of the program but because they had made their curriculum consistent and aligned.

Making long-term, meaningful changes require what Goodwin calls an “inside-out approach” to school improvement. The elements of this approach include a deep understanding of the problem, rapid-cycle improvement (studying a solution, improving it, studying the improved solution, etc.), and peer observation and coaching.

 You can read the entire article here.

Posted by McREL International.


Look Before You Launch: 6 questions to ask before you add more tech to your school

IStock_000041712190_LargeOver many years of guiding schools and districts on integrating technology and instruction, the costliest mistake I see is the rush to purchase hardware and software without first identifying a 
clear purpose and plan for the new technology. This kind of oversight can lead to misuse or neglect of expensive equipment and systems, resulting in little of the intended impact on student learning outcomes.

Before you add new technologies to your school or district, here are six vital questions—and a few related ones—I recommend you ask first to help you look before you launch.

Why are we doing this?

Number 1This may sound obvious, but, too often, schools launch new technology initiatives before clearly defining the intent. Are you preparing for online assessments? Is the new technology meant to make teacher tasks more efficient? Are you trying to increase student engagement or creativity? All of these reasons have merit and you might even say, “Yes, all of those and more!” As a first step, it is imperative to define your goals clearly, and long before you make any major purchases.

How will we know if we are successful?

Number 2Once you’ve identified your intended goals, define the measureable targets, both quantitative and qualitative, that you will use to track and report on progress. For example, if you’re adding tech to classrooms to increase student engagement, start by defining what you mean by engagement and how you’ll measure change over time. Will you look for evidence of fewer discipline referrals and higher attendance rates? Do you expect to see students working in a wider variety of grouping strategies? What leading and lagging indicators will you expect and monitor? How will you collect, disaggregate, and report your data?

Are our teachers ready for this?

Number 3Conduct a survey of staff readiness for your proposed changes, reviewing their tech skills and their instructional practices. For example, if you’re considering a one-to-one or a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) program, first assess how your teachers typically group students for instruction and identify the more appropriate strategy for tech integration.

One district I worked with was considering providing laptops for all high school students to encourage collaborative learning, but, in auditing their program, we found that a significant majority of instruction occurred in whole-group settings. Teachers had very little professional development in cooperative and collaborative learning strategies. We realized that moving staff from traditional lecture-style instruction to a one-to-one environment in a short amount of time would be a very heavy lift, causing more problems than it might solve. The district made the wise decision to modify its plan and begin the laptop program at the middle level, where students were already working collaboratively more frequently.

Is our facility ready for this?

Number 4Adding new tech to a building requires a certain level of supportive infrastructure. If students will be taking online assessments, creating videos and animations, or using 3D printers, ensure you’re providing sufficient bandwidth for all of the computers, especially those performing more network intensive tasks. Are you going to need to add local data storage space or use a cloud service? Consider not just the network inside the building, but also the pipeline from the school to the district to the Internet service provider (ISP). Is the entire system robust enough to accommodate increased data use from multiple schools?

For one-to-one and BYOD programs, verify that you have enough electrical outlets available in classrooms. Regardless of manufacturer claims, devices will need charging during the school day, especially as the batteries age. Can your building’s electrical system handle a simultaneous re-charging of all devices or charging carts over the lunch period? 

How will you support your staff in this change initiative?

Number 5Look again at your identified goal: What professional development (PD) have teachers experienced in the past three years that directly relates to that goal? If your initiative is focused on technology integration in the classroom, was the PD teachers received focused on pedagogy or on the mechanics of using the hardware or software? Be sure you have a plan and budget that gives staff the adequate and appropriate PD that maximizes their use of the new tech and increases the odds of achieving your goals.

What is your sustainability plan?

Number 6Technology has a much shorter useful lifespan than other fixtures and equipment in a building. In most cases, you should plan to renew hardware and software at least every five years. If you’re using grant money to purchase technology today, determine where the renewal funding will come from five years from now. Form a plan for repair and maintenance—whether in-house or through the manufacturer—and  know what the manufacturer’s extended warranty covers. Finally, establish a protocol for loaner technologies while the devices are being repaired.

As with hardware, staff PD training and resources should also be forecasted over time. You’ll have new staff who will need to be trained on the technology, and your current staff will need continued support.

Look before you launch

Launching into a new tech initiative without taking the time to ask and answer these six questions can easily lead to squandered financial capital and lost educational opportunities. With some planning, you can save yourself some stress and pain.


A former elementary and middle school principal, Dr. Howard Pitler is McREL's executive director of digital solutions.  He is co-author of Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), lead author of Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.)and was the lead developer of McREL's Power Walkthrough® classroom observation softwareHe can be reached at hpitler@mcrel.org  or followed on Twitter at @hpitler.


How to make excitement for learning contagious

Teacher reading laughing_000014533534_LargeWhen you think about the teachers who made a difference in your life, do you wonder why they made such an impression on you? Was it because they taught you clever strategies for comma usage, or posted the learning objectives and referred to them often? Perhaps, it was the way they kept everyone quiet during tests. Sound improbable? More likely, you remember how they respected and valued what you had to say, or that they cared about you as a person. You might also recall how passionate and excited they were to teach their favorite subjects.

As a teacher, it’s important for you to consider the type of personality and energy you bring to the classroom each day. You, like everyone, have troubles inside and outside of the classroom. However, when working with students, you have to check your problems at the classroom door—to a degree. Your students come to you because you are focused, supportive, and provide encouraging words.  Your guidance helps them improve in school and learn many of life’s lessons.

Sometimes, though, students do need to know that you have a life outside of the classroom and will better connect with you when you reveal some personal details. You, too, might have had a pet who passed away, or may have been disappointed with yourself or been let down by others. When you reveal your struggles and challenges, it helps your students see you as real, understanding, and approachable. Students don’t need to know every detail, of course—just enough to see you, the teacher, as similar to them. In The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day, McREL’s Bryan Goodwin and Elizabeth Hubbell advise that meaningful interactions with students “are critical to student academic success” (p. 79), leading to positive classroom interactions and better behavioral and achievement outcomes.

Showing enthusiasm and humor helps. University of Virginia researchers Hamre and Pianta suggest that classrooms sprinkled with “pleasant conversations, spontaneous laughter, and exclamations of excitement” (p. 957) generally support higher levels of learning. British teacher research coordinator Helena Marsh states that students want teachers who aren’t so serious that they can’t feel “confident enough to do silly and memorable things to help [students] to understand something” (p. 162). In other words, students appreciate teachers who seize on opportunities to inject a little humor. Don’t take it too far; be purposeful with your instruction, but incorporate humor into your classroom and share a laugh with your students every now and again. Kids will certainly remember when you danced the Charlie Brown or the Macarena during break time. They won’t forget their teacher jumping in a 90-degree, 180-degree or a 360-degree pattern during math, either. And, in the end, the lessons will stick better.

When you model your enthusiasm for learning, your students will really want to grasp the information and do something with it. Excitement for learning is contagious!

Note: McREL is offering a 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching professional development workshop this summer in Denver. For more information, visit the registration page.

AblaCheryl_6851_webCheryl Abla is an education consultant and product manager for McREL International. After 26 years in the classroom, she now works with teachers and schools on what matters most in classrooms using knowledge gleaned from The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching, Classroom Instruction that Works with English Language Learners, Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works, and Classroom Instruction that Works. You can reach her at cabla@mcrel.org