WHEN LESSONS ADD UP STUDENTS ENGAGE (And Teachers Teach Better) – The Shift Paradigm Series

lesson.001Imagine yourself in classroom. Where you are observing a teacher and her students. You watch the lesson that she is teaching. Scan the room. Look at the students. See the behavior of each student that corresponds to what is happening in the lesson.

Are students engaging? Do they do what they are supposed to do? In five minutes, see what is happening in the lesson. Scan the room. What is each student doing? Are they on task? Repeat every five minutes until the bell ends the class period.

As you watch, a pattern emerges of the students’ engagement with the lesson. Most likely the pattern is like this. The class begins with attendance, announcements, and other business. Then the lesson starts. A majority of students, but not all, engage with the lesson. As the lesson continues, fewer students engage. Over time, less than half are engaging. At some point, as engagement dwindles, the teacher attempts to re-engage students by raising her voice. Perhaps she says, “Pay attention, this content will be on the test.” Or maybe she calls on a student, one, not engaging with the lesson, who is distracting a student near him. Student engagement keeps dissipating. As the period winds down, students and the teacher idly pass time until a bell signals class period done.

Hold on to the pattern. We will come back to it in a moment. In the meantime, think about how What Teachers Teach dominates the current educational discourse, and has for over a decade.

What Teachers Teach drives the standards that guide the curriculum that in turn determines what students are supposed to learn. Further, it drives the efforts to measure student, and sometimes, teacher, performance against the standards and curriculum and is the basis for the standardized tests that are the primary measure of performance. Some of the discourse about what teachers should teach occurs at the federal and state levels, a little of it happens in the private sector, but most takes place locally. Regardless of where the discourse occurs, you saw the end result of it in the lesson you observed.

Now, return to the pattern that you saw in the classroom. As you do, think about the field’s longstanding discourse. Were content, standards, and tests present in the lesson?

YES they were. However, their presence in the lesson, as the dissipating engagement of students made apparent, had little effect on student learning and the teaching of the teacher. The minimal effect is due to a disconnect that exists between the high levels of learning and teaching that the field seeks, its discourse about how to get both, and what actually happens when students engage with the lessons that they are supposed to learn.

Learning, as you saw, is about minutes and moments. When students engage minute-by-minute with a lesson they learn what the teacher is teaching. If, over time, students’ engagement with a lesson declines steadily, then their learning declines too. So if greater learning the Field of Education’s penultimate goal, then student engagement is an essential indicator whether progress toward attaining the field’s goal is occurring. The quality of a lesson asserts a direct and powerful effect on students’ engagement. The volume of a teacher’s voice and having items on a test do not.

To better understand the relationship between learning, engagement, and lessons, think about the lesson you saw in the classroom. Was it complete? Was its quality high? For instance, did it have sufficient structure to engage all students from beginning to end? Did it help all students understand why what they were learning mattered? Did the lesson connect to the lesson from the previous day? Set the stage for the lesson tomorrow? Was an instructional approach (e.g. direct teaching, cooperative learning) readily apparent? Did it employ instructional strategies (e.g. guided practice, rotate and check)? The answer to each question is NO.

If all students are going to learn at high levels, and perform well on standardized tests, then the answer we must seek is YES. Getting there requires that all lessons be complete, high quality—all the time. Here is why.

A complete, high quality lesson solves the engagement problem. A sizeable sequence of complete, high quality lessons solves the learning problem. Solving the learning problem across several classrooms makes standards attainable and achievement gains possible for a school. Attaining standards and achieving gains in multiple schools makes attainment and gains possible for a district.

Such attainments and gains at widespread scale necessitate that we take up the challenge of designing and building high-quality lessons. There are two routes we can take. One route is obvious, but little travelled. The other is little considered and under construction. Let’s start with the obvious route.

To understand the obvious route please consider a question that I often ask teachers—over 2500 of them during the past 15 years. How long does it take you to design and build a complete, high-quality lesson? A lesson that you are confident will engage every student for an entire class period. One that you are certain each student will master, and necessitates no re-teaching on your part.

Typically, the answers I get range from 1 hour to one day. Teachers quickly adjust their answer, when I say a complete lesson may include a PowerPoint or equivalent presentation, a video, connections to curriculum standards, and, of course, the dreaded lesson plan.

They adjust their answers, again, when I mention the requisite worksheets, handouts, and rubrics. And upon hearing visuals, manipulative, and graphic organizers they adjust yet again. Adjustments finished, they say that to design and build one complete, high-quality lesson for one class period, will take them one day to one week.

Next, I ask, “And how many ready-to-go, complete, sure-to-engage and produce-mastery-of-each student, high-quality lessons do you have?” Whatever response the question elicits, I welcome with a gentle smile, supportive nod, and receptive ear. Ten to 30 lessons, most teachers report. A few teachers offer up that they deliberately use one such lesson during semi-annual observations. Most talk about how they keeping their high quality lessons safe and frequently back them up.

Finally, I ask, “When and where do you design and build high quality lessons?” Teachers tell me how each day the have a 60-minute period for planning and preparation, 25 minutes for lunch, and barely enough time to go to the bathroom. That they must design and build lessons during evenings, weekends, holiday breaks, and summers—while raising families, taking classes, and living their lives.

Let’s do some calculating. First, a typical teacher teaches at least 180 days per year. She teaches four lessons per day. So that teacher needs, at least, 720 complete, high quality lessons per year.

Second, a typical teacher needs at least one day to design and build a lesson. Let’s assume she can use her one-hour of daily planning time to do so. And that maybe, just maybe, she can make one lesson per week. She will, working every week with no breaks, she will make the lessons she needs in 13 years and 10 months.

Third, if a typical teacher spends a five-day week building lessons, nothing else. Does so for 52 weeks (no vacations or holidays). Annually she will make 260 lessons. So in 2 years and 9 months she will have the 720 lessons she needs.

The calculations shed light on the challenges that await travellers who take obvious route. Hopefully the other route is better.

The little considered route involves creating the conditions necessary for all students to engage in their learning all the time. The presence of certain practices makes such conditions possible. The conditions emerge school wide when multiple teachers teach, share, compare, and refine lessons containing the practices.

Technology, in the form of a toolkit, enables teachers to design, build, deliver, share, and refine complete and high quality lessons based on specific Common Core Standards or Provincial Expectations.  Building one lesson takes a teacher 30-minutes. With the toolkit, doing so involves her clicking through a series of screens, accessing libraries, inserting elements, and attaching resources. Doing these steps automatically aligns the lesson to an appropriate standard. When the steps are done, a teacher, with one click, produces a handout, lesson plan, rubric, and homework assignment. Another click produces a PowerPoint-like presentation she can use with a classroom of students. Yet another click initiates a feedback process that improves the quality of the lesson and its delivery.

Independent researchers, using a controlled match methodology, found significant increases in student engagement and instructional quality at schools using a prototype of the toolkit. The increases came within 60 days of the first use of the toolkit. Moreover, its continual use led to sustained levels of high engagement and high quality instruction. Not surprisingly, these outcomes are prompting numerous conversations about next steps for the toolkit approach.

If you are a teacher, you know the impact that high quality lessons have on student engagement, learning, and achievement. Also, you know why so few teachers travel the obvious route to such lessons. For you, a toolkit is an exciting and much welcomed possibility. Hang on! Help is on the way.


Note: This is the fifth post in the Shift Paradigm series. Please click the subscribe button on the right side of the blog page to be notified of future posts.


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