Where The Rubber Meets The Road

The past few days, I shared site visit notes from four years ago when I visited classrooms using our digital math curriculum. It was an eye opening experience. One of the biggest things I took away from it was that despite all the careful planning on our part, including numerous debates over the math content itself as well as numerous review cycles to hone the pedagogical flow of each lesson, teachers weren’t necessarily using our lessons as intended.

In some respects that’s fine. We weren’t writing a bible, but a suggested flow for how a teacher and her students could work through the material each day. I’m a-ok when teachers go “off book” because they have a better vision for working with their particular class. However, it was frustrating to sit through some of the observations because what I was seeing “off book” wasn’t effective instruction.

I want to elaborate by focusing on one specific area today: the intended flow of one of our lessons vs. the actual flow I witnessed in several classrooms. Here’s the typical (intended) flow for one of our math lessons:

Engage (5-10 minutes) – The purpose of the Engage activity is self-evident in its name. It is a whole-class activity to grab students’ attention and get them started thinking about the math concept of the day before sending them off to work in the Explore activity. Its motto: Keep it short and simple.

Explore (15-20 minutes) – In this activity, the students work alone, in pairs, or in groups to explore the day’s math content. There is no expectation of mastery during this activity. We want students to be learning as they are working through the activity. If they are in a state of learning, then it is not reasonable to expect them to master it at the exact same moment. I like to think of the Explore activity as a shared experience that the class is able to draw upon in the next phase.

Summarize (10-15 minutes) – As you can tell from the names of our activities, they’re somewhat self explanatory. After students have worked through the Explore activity, the class comes back together to debrief and summarize what was learned about the math concepts in the day’s lesson.

Now, here’s how this flow played out in numerous classrooms:

Engage (15-30 minutes) – The class is presented with a scenario, usually through an animation, and then the teacher leads the students through a discussion. (And now this is where it goes “off book”.) As they are discussing, she starts doing a direct teach of all of the content in the lesson to prepare the students to be successful during the Explore activity. During this time, the teacher is doing a lot of talking, going way “off script” of what is actually presented in the activity on the computer. She asks questions as she talks, but the students are quiet and not very engaged. They often look bored.

Explore (15-20 minutes) – The students finally have the opportunity to get their hands on the content on the computer. Their eyes light up! The teacher may have given away some of the big reveals or “a-ha” moments that students were supposed to uncover on their own during this activity. However, the students were so bored and inattentive during the direct teach, that this is still an engaging activity for most of them.

Summarize (5 minutes, if lucky?) – If the teacher has any time left at the end of the lesson, because she spent so much time up front teaching all of the content, she will pull the students back together for a quick summary. During this discussion, the students are very talkative and engaged. Too bad there’s so little time left at this point in the class.

So let’s debrief a bit about this. The reason we intend for the Engage activity to be short and simple is twofold. First, the students are eager to get on the computer. They know they are going to work on the computer in pretty much every one of our lessons, and so as soon as the lesson starts, the teacher has a limited window of attention before the kids get bored because she made them wait too long.

Second, the lesson is engaging for a teacher differently than it is for a student. A teacher will watch one of our opening movies and immediately see what content is being taught that day. This triggers her prior knowledge of the content and she’s ready to get started telling the students all about it.

And this is exactly what happened in many of the classes I observed. The teacher had all of this content in mind right as the lesson began, and she couldn’t help but share it all with the students before they got started on their work. A discussion that should have lasted 5-10 minutes easily became a 20-30 minute direct teach.

Now look at it from the student’s perspective. The students just watched a movie about a brother and sister building a clubhouse. They might see some math in there, but they also might be thinking stuff like, “Wow, I wish I could build a clubhouse,” or “I like my clubhouse,” or, “It was so funny when Robin had to wear the chicken suit because she was wrong.” What they are thinking about and what the teaching is thinking about are generally on two very different levels and drawing on two very different pools of prior knowledge.

This has quite an impact on the dynamic in the room. The teacher is direct teaching everything at the beginning of the lesson, trying to convey her pool of knowledge to the students so that they can be successful when she sets them loose on the computers. The students, on the other hand, are passively listening to her. From my observations, they are quiet and don’t really have a lot to contribute because frankly, they don’t know much about what the teacher is talking about.

Contrast this with the Summarize activity. As I said before, our goal is for the class to use the shared experience of the Explore activity to debrief and summarize the day’s learning. This works because the students finally have a personal experience with the math content that they can draw from to engage in a discussion with the teacher and their classmates. And this is exactly what happens. Those quiet students who were doodling in their notebooks during the direct teach, all of a sudden have observations to share and questions to ask. Unfortunately, when the teacher monopolizes so much class time to do a direct teach for 30 minutes, this rich discussion tends to get cut.

So we end with the question of why does this happen? My team, as far as I can tell, clearly spelled out what we think should be happening in each lesson, but that isn’t stopping teachers from doing what they think should be happening in each lesson. My guess is that many of these teachers were used to using the direct teach model long before they encountered our curriculum. And regardless of anything they were told by the lesson materials or our instructional coaches, they went with what they were used to do doing.

In the past, they probably couldn’t fathom talking for a few minutes and sending their students off to complete a set of practice problems. So even though our Explore activity is not a practice set – it is time that the students are learning as they engage with the concepts – the teachers viewed it as an activity they needed to prepare the students for. And in order for students to be ready, the teacher had a lot of front loading of content to accomplish.

This comes back to my question from the other day about whether teachers should be curriculum designers. I think I’ll wait and share my thoughts on that tomorrow since this post is already lengthy and I’m past due to go to bed.


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