Thank you, Dr. Schmoker, for writing your book, Focus. Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning. You provide an excellent framework that is easy to understand and your ideas are actionable. I do have questions! As a disciple of Project CRISS strategies and Marzano’s Fabulous Nine (my term referring to Marzano’s nine instructional strategies that work), I agree that we should utilize a variety of reading material in our instructional practice, including textbooks – 25% of the time. And I absolutely agree that our primary responsibility as educators is to provide our students with a model of how to: read, write, speak, and think critically. I agree that we should model for our students how to meta-cognate, or think out-loud, so that our students know what critical thinking looks like, sounds like and even what it feels like to wonder why, to wonder what if, and to wonder how we can find out – the heart of inquiry based learning.
BUT! As a former self-contained educator (a model I deplore), I recall feeling very uncomfortable utilizing the five different 8th grade textbooks I was given to utilize with my twenty students who, on average, were reading at second and third grade levels. Dr. Schmoker, at the bottom of my Essential Review of your book are a few questions. I’m sure my readers will add to that list of questions as well. We would be honored to hear from you.
Carol’s Essential Review
At it’s core, Focus. Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning is asking us to get back to basics or the essentials of what to teach, how to teach, and how to provide students ample opportunity to engage in authentic literacy practices. Get back to basics? In the 21st century? Sounds strikingly backwards but it’s hard to argue that the skills we most often utilize now as adults are fundamentally reading, writing, speaking and critical thinking.
FOCUS, by Mike Schmoker, is a tight little book, no more than 212 pages. I recommend you read it. In the mean time, here’s my Essential Review of what and how Mike suggests we teach to promote students acquisition of reading, writing, speaking and critical thinking skills.
Mike relates we should first identify and teach essential standards. Here’s how he suggests going about reducing what we teach to a more manageable number of standards:
- Working in PLCs, cohorts of grade level, content area teams should first remove verbs from their current list of standards and narrow the standards to topics
- By PLC consensus, narrow the number of standards by 50%
- Agree that 80 percent of instructional time will focus only on standards deemed essential, the other 20 percent of time can be spent on individual teacher choice
- Build quarterly common assessments where only 25% of any given assessment includes multiple-choice questions, the rest should be short and long written answers to complex questions
Next, Mike suggests we implement effective lessons and instruction that includes the following essential components:
- Clearly articulate the learning objective and expected outcomes for students
- Provide a compelling anticipatory set
- Build academic vocabulary
- Build background knowledge
- Teach, Model, Demonstrate: Mike offers templates for teaching, modeling and demonstrating including: “Interactive lecture and direct teaching where the focus is on the teacher’s words and directions, but students take part in lots of pair-sharing, note-taking, or quick-writes.” Template two: “Literacy-based lessons (read, talk, and write) with a focus on any text, which requires more lengthy treatment and would be used more often than the lecture template in most subjects.”
- Provide students with guided practice applying the above templates with Interactive Lecture (I talk, we talk, talk with a peer, etc)
- Provide students with independent practice. I would add that during independent practice opportunities, the educator could pull individual students for one-on-one intensive acceleration of learning or “direct instruction”
Finally, Mr. Schmoker relates that perhaps most importantly, educators should implement simple but continuous checks for understanding throughout a lesson. Consider the following:
- During guided practice, the teacher should check whether students are grasping concepts simply by asking whole-group probing questions and or during guided practice, circulate the room to check for understanding by listening in on conversations, looking at student work, answering questions, and asking questions. According to Mike we shouldn’t over complicate this practice. Circulate! And you’ll know what they get and don’t get.
- The teacher should utilize formative assessments to target instruction based on individual student need. Mike doesn’t appear to be a particular fan of differentiated instruction, but I could have misinterpreted him. I agree that DI can become a distraction. We shouldn’t overwhelm ourselves with creating differentiated assignments for individual students, especially based on learning style. Learners can certainly seek to learn in his or her chosen “style” but reality doesn’t often afford that choice. But, I do think an educator could create three levels of differentiated assignments for individuals and small groups for extended guided and independent practice opportunities. Why three levels? Based on formative assessment data and the bell curve, there will be students who don’t get it at all and therefore require direct instruction. Then there are those students who didn’t quite master fundamental skills and need further practice and finally, there are students who will have demonstrated mastery and would benefit from extension activities. I do agree with Mike on this point, educators who have not yet mastered how to run a class using the whole group instructional strategies he suggests should probably refrain from venturing into the DI zone until they have a handle on basic instructional strategies. It’s okay, this is a process for us all.
- Utilize common assessments built in PLCs. I think common assessments are essential to create a level playing field for students, e.g. what one student learns in one class is the same thing being taught in the class next door. I also think common assessments create a foundation for PLCs to compare and contrast results, share ideas and to share strategies. What I described above is predicated on a foundation of trust and won’t work unless teams operate on a basis of mutual respect and shared leadership. Of course we can also utilize common assessments to grade students and identify individual areas of skill deficits to further accelerate learning for individual students – perhaps through after school tutoring opportunities (my point)
Why should we apply the above essential curriculum and instructional adjustments? Mike provides compelling research that is hard to argue with, including:
- Only three years of effective teaching will catapult students in the lowest quartiles into the third or even fourth quartile (Haycock, 2003)
- Effective teaching could eliminate the achievement gap in about five years (Kain & Hanushek in Schmoker, 2006)
- The highest performing teachers ensure that students learn twice as much material in the same amount of time as their peers (Garnaut, 2007)
- And, research suggests that when lessons include effective use of formative assessment and checks for understanding: they are about 10 times as cost-effective as reducing class size, would add between 6 and 9 months of additional learning growth per year, account for as much as 400 percent “speed of learning differences”, and students would learn four times as fast as a result of its consistent use (Wiliam, 2007).
Questions for Mike:
Many secondary educators, including myself as a former middle school teacher, find the disparity of reading levels in a single class daunting. Teacher led modeling of reading, writing, speaking and thinking I get. But, what do we do with those students that are reading significantly below reading level? If we are primarily conducting whole group instruction, as you suggest, how are these students going to read the content along with their peers without significant frustration; frustration that often manifests in behavior problems and giving up?
A follow up question to the above: how will I know where my students are in terms of their reading and writing abilities if my school doesn’t articulate that kind of data? For instance, as a secondary science teacher, if my organization fails to provide me student reading levels, should I conduct a reading and writing assessment myself? Or just go for it?
Regarding trimming the curriculum by 50%. If my district or school believes we should cover the entire curriculum, what are your suggestions for individual educators or even schools that want to identify and focus on essential standards? Should they, just do it?
How long do you think it should take for PLCs, with proper assistance and coaching from school leadership, to trim a curriculum by 50%? A day? How much time should it take a team to create a quarterly common assessment? Answers to these questions will help us figure out how much time we should a lot to conduct these tasks before students arrive for a new year of school.
I like that you suggest we cherry pick specific passages in textbooks for our students to read, up to 25%, and I agree wholeheartedly that basal readers and worksheet driven textbooks in the primary grades should be eliminated all-together. But, given the expense of textbooks and the politics, censorship, and potential for inaccuracy and over use of textbooks, wouldn’t it be more economical (especially if we are only going to tap 25% of a book that costs upwards of $125 x 2 for the one that lays fallow at home) to outfit school classrooms with a variety of literacy rich resources including: non-fiction, fiction, magazines, newspaper, digital resources and the Internet?
I understand your hesitance to engage teachers and students in technology that results in time sucking “bling” rather than substantive use of technology, e.g. learning with technology rather than learning from technology but, do you agree that if students have access to computers they could more easily annotate, create mind maps using clip-art and or pictures and video rather than drawing mind-maps and pictures, write notes, write papers, research online, communicate and collaborate with their peers, create blogs such as this, etc. I think I know how you would answer this question. My guess is you would say to an educator that wants to employ these strategies to first demonstrate he or she has mastered the fundamental instructional strategies, and then he or she can provide students with technology to enhance the learning environment. Am I right or are you totally against technology?
Again, thank you, Mike, for writing a powerful book that brings us back down to earth, firmly replanting our roots in essential ideals founded on research. And thank you, Dear Blog Reader! I look forward to your thoughts, questions, and answers to this thoughtful and action provoking book. C