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September 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 1

Avoiding the Siren Calls

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Instructional Strategies
Leadership
In Homer's epic poem The Odyssey, the Sirens were dangerous creatures who tempted travelers with their captivating song, leading them astray and dangerously off-course. Similarly, familiar and deceptively efficient instructional strategies can be tempting to new teachers who are faced with the daunting task of keeping students productively engaged in a structured, yet flexible, learning environment. The abrupt transition from student to teacher demands that new educators master the requisite job skills under the watchful eye of parents and administrators. It is understandable that given that kind of pressure, as they anxiously strive to cover the curriculum and manage a classroom of students, new teachers end up duplicating the strategies they remember from their student-teaching experience, professional development workshops, or their own school days without a sophisticated understanding of how, when, and why to most effectively use them.
These are the misleading Siren calls for new teachers—and we must help them resist the temptation and steer them back to the most effective—if not the easiest—course.
Teacher efficacy is one of the highest factors affecting student achievement (Hattie, 2017). Therefore, as our new teachers begin their journey, they should be encouraged to seek out guidance and mentors in order to understand the "behind the scenes" work in designing meaningful learning experiences. Listen to the calls that tempt our new teachers, and discover strategies and suggestions to help them chart a more successful course.

Siren Call 1

Just stay on top of the details, and everything else will fall into place.
New teachers have so many professional responsibilities to juggle. They have to design engaging activities, learn new content, field questions from concerned parents, grade the inevitable volume of papers—the list goes on and on. The Sirens attempt to woo new teachers into devoting all of their time attending to these procedural tasks just so they can stay one step ahead. Yet heeding this call blindly can come at the expense of paying attention to what is most important—the students.
We can help our new teachers understand that what they may lack in confidence, experience, and expertise, they can compensate for with their abundance of passion and enthusiasm. Remind them: You have the power to create a classroom environment where students feel safe and cared for, and this culture has a direct impact on how well they learn. New teachers therefore must strive to create opportunities to get to know students in authentic ways and show an interest in who they are as individuals. Teachers who ask students about their lives and share theirs in return can bridge the divide between adults who seem to have all the answers and students who are still figuring things out.
These meaningful relationships can also support and inform a new teacher's classroom practices and policies. By making time to confer with individual students and give feedback on their writing, problem-solving strategies, or other projects, new teachers learn more about their students' learning needs and preferences. This allows educators to offer choices within the curriculum that are reflective of their learners, thereby creating a classroom environment that honors its students as individuals and motivates them to engage more deeply in the work. They can also continually show students that learning matters more than a grade by allowing for what Rick Wormeli calls "redos and retakes," while also being mindful to utilize "assessment [as] a tool, not a weapon" (Wiggins, 2017, p. 111).

Siren Call 2

A well-written learning objective is not as important as preparing for activities.
New teachers are faced with covering a daunting amount of material as well as the need to make each lesson engaging and hands-on. The Sirens tell new teachers that it's much more important to spend time preparing for the activities that students are going to do rather than writing a strong learning objective. Yet this temptation leads them to the problem that Wiggins and McTighe (2005) call the "twin sins" of instructional design: coverage- and activity-focused teaching that lacks an essential idea, understanding, or question to ensure that the desired learning will take place. Further, since all students generally finish the assignment in the time frame allotted, new teachers often conflate completion with success.
Instead, education leaders need to share with new teachers that student learning must drive instruction, and a well-designed objective grounded in the standards can help guide their instructional decisions. In this way, we can dispel the misconception that writing objectives is a cursory task necessary only for the successful review of a lesson plan. Education professor and author Norman Eng (2017) provides a simple formula that can help teachers in crafting learning objectives: Students will be able to (accomplish outcome X) by (using method Y) so that (they will be helped in Z way).
We can assure our new teachers that a well-written learning objective is crucial to helping them prioritize and make deliberate choices in the planning stage.
Most new teachers plan lessons in a sequential fashion, starting with the Do Now, followed by the activities, ending with the closure. However, time constraints often dictate which activities are actually completed, shortened, or even omitted. Consequently, by default, the initial activities earn a higher priority regardless of their relative impact on student learning. For example, if a lesson whose closing activity is for students to be able to reflect on how their understanding of a concept ("the hero's journey," democratic socialism, or public health, for example) was deepened, challenged, or apparent in their own lives, the time to reflect might be short-changed merely as a result of its placement in the lesson plan. Solidifying the learning objective can help teachers avoid this trap.

Siren Call 3

Group work automatically makes your classroom student-centered.
A common strategy that new teachers use to shift the learning from the teacher to the learner is to have the students work in groups. The Sirens deceptively call to new teachers to initiate group work without indicating the need for a significant change in lesson design. The problem is that merely arranging students into groups to accomplish a task does not create a more student-centered classroom.
New teachers may earnestly, but mistakenly, assign "group" work that consists of routine tasks that could just as easily be completed independently. Solving problems using a prescribed formula, selecting answers off a predetermined list, or simply filling in boxes on a graphic organizer are not activities that foster meaningful collaboration.
We can help our new teachers recognize the difference between work done in a group setting and a group-worthy task (Lotan, 2003). A group-worthy task challenges students to generate new ideas and revise their collective thinking in their quest to solve a problem, answer a question, or create an original product. It requires the unique talents and abilities of all members as they work independently and together to create a final product. A group-worthy task may involve students working together to write an editorial for a writing contest, build a boat out of recycled materials that will float, pitch a product to investors, or devise a feasible solution for a real-world problem. What these tasks have in common is that they are open-ended, involve choice, require complex problem solving, center around a big idea or central question, and often involve an authentic audience. Therefore, we need to help our new teachers understand that a truly student-centered classroom is one that celebrates learning as a "staccato process, full of errors" (Hattie, 2012, pp. 69–70) where students have the opportunity to engage meaningfully with others through collaboration and discord as well as conflict and resolution.

Siren Call 4

Quick-hit checks for understanding are effective checks for understanding.
New teachers are familiar with the importance of checking for understanding before moving on to introduce a new skill or concept. But the Sirens call to new teachers to save time in these checks with efficient yet ultimately ineffective methods, such as asking for a show of hands or posing the rhetorical: "Does anybody have any questions?"
Although these approaches don't highlight each student's level of understanding, the teacher often accepts quiet compliance or a few confident hands in the air as affirmation of understanding and permission to move on. By contrast, an effective check ensures that all students respond, or at least a representative sample, not just a few outspoken voices. The importance of checking for understanding in a thorough way cannot be understated. "It means that you can find out what's going wrong with students' learning when they're right in front of you and that you can put the whole class's learning back on track right away" (Wiliam, 2015).
We can help our new teachers more purposefully design checks for understanding. One strategy is to offer students time prior to a whole-class Q&A discussion to thoughtfully consider and prepare possible responses to the desired question in the form of a "turn and talk" or a "stop and jot." This processing time allows the teacher to respectfully call on even the most reticent student to assess individual understanding and draw more voices into the conversation. Similarly, new teachers can more efficiently check for understanding while circulating around the room by identifying their purpose ahead of time: Are they looking for accuracy? Demonstration of understanding? Finding common patterns or shared opinions? Knowing their purpose will save time and make conversations with students more productive.
It might be helpful if teachers imagine themselves as attending physicians in the ER who gather information before deciding on how to triage. They could ask for a whole-class pause to address a common misconception or share a powerful insight, organize small group mini-lessons to review a particular skill or concept for those who are struggling, or slow down the pace to clarify or reteach concepts that appear unclear. By preparing new teachers with specific strategies to accurately assess student understanding in real time, they will see how these intentional checks can have a greater impact on learning.

Siren Call 5

You don't have enough time in class to provide immediate feedback.
The Sirens call to new teachers to bring closure to the end of a lesson with an informal assessment of student understanding often in the form of an "exit ticket," such as a targeted question about the main idea of the lesson, a "thumbs up/thumbs down" indication of students' level of confidence, or posing "what is" questions: "What is one thing I learned? One thing I still don't understand? One question I still have?"
The problem with these strategies is that the students may leave class with unresolved questions or lingering misunderstandings, and this timing delays critical feedback to the learner by at least 24 hours. Imagine a football team down by 20 points at halftime with a coach who doesn't offer any new ideas, or a violin tutor who does not provide feedback when a measure is played sharply out of tune. We wouldn't allow actors in a play to continuously flub their lines without stopping to correct or coach them, so why wouldn't we want to provide valuable feedback to students during a lesson? Without using formative assessment as a vehicle for mid-course feedback, the same mistakes will likely be repeated, and the teacher will have missed an opportunity for real improvement in learning.
Timely feedback can be just as powerful a tool for classroom educators as it is for coaches and music instructors. "Effective feedback answers three questions: Where am I going? How am I doing? Where to next?" (Hattie, 2009, p. 177). New teachers should consider these questions and gather information about student performance through a variety of formative assessments. They can conference with students during the writing process to strengthen their writing, offer different strategies to solve a math problem, or suggest interventions during science labs to lead students to a more successful outcome. While providing real-time feedback can take up valuable instructional time, it's helpful for new teachers to remember that, "‘No time to give and use feedback’ actually means ‘no time to cause learning’" (Wiggins, 2012).
Along these lines, Buckingham and Goodall (2019) suggest that, instead of offering only critical comments as to what we think students need to do to improve, teachers should be more descriptive in their feedback comments, as in, "Here's what worked best for me, and here's why." They also suggest that we should point out the areas in which students already excel, so they can apply these same skills and abilities to their weaker areas. In this way, we are "highlighting a pattern that is already there … so that [the student] can recognize it, anchor it, re-create it, and refine it. That is learning."
Although new teachers often don't realize it, another way that students can gain meaningful feedback is through self-reflection activities. To encourage reflection, new teachers can prompt students through short writing exercises or brief conversations: How does this connect to or challenge what you already know? What way does this apply to your own life or to other content areas?

Silencing the Sirens

A new teacher's potential cannot be accurately measured by their résumé, degrees awarded, or based upon an interview and demo lesson. Malcolm Gladwell (2008) compares the hiring of new teachers with the drafting of quarterbacks in football when he writes, "No one knows what a person with the potential to be a great teacher looks like … what matters more than anything in predicting professional success is the quality of the learning environment that the quarterback is drafted into, not the quality of the experience he was drafted from." As education leaders, it should be our mission to create a school culture that fosters growth and enables our new teachers to thrive. To do this, we need to help them resist the Siren calls of inherited practice and short-term solutions and offer the voices they really need to listen to—those of education leaders, their colleagues, their students, and themselves.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Which of these Siren calls has had power over you? Why?

➛ Does your school do enough to help teachers—especially new ones—improve their instructional practices?

➛ Are there any other Siren calls that you would add to this list for new teachers to avoid?

References

Buckingham, M., & Goodall, A. (2019, March-April). The feedback fallacy. Harvard Business Review.

Eng, N. (2017, October 15). "Introducing the one sentence lesson plan" [blog post]. Cult of Pedagogy.

Gladwell, M. (2008). "Teachers and quarterbacks" [blog post]. Gladwell.com.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to student achievement. New York: Routledge.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. New York: Routledge.

Hattie, J. (2017). Visible learning: 250+ influences on student achievement. Retrieved from https://visible-learning.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/VLPLUS-252-Influences-Hattie-ranking-DEC-2017.pdf

Lotan, R. (2003). Group-worthy tasks. Educational Leadership, 60(6), 72–75.

Wiggins, A. (2017) The best class you never taught: How spider web discussion can turn students into learning leaders. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wiggins, G. (2012). Seven keys to effective feedback. Educational Leadership, 70(1), 10–16.

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design, expanded 2nd edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wiliam, D. (2015). Designing great hinge questions. Educational Leadership, 73(1) 40–44.

Mark Wise is the supervisor for curriculum and instruction at West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District in New Jersey.

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