What I’m Reading – TeachingWorks High-Leverage Teaching Practices

Recently on Twitter I asked for advice about how other people engage with professional reading.

I got a lot of great advice. (Thank you to everyone who contributed!) A recurring theme was how much more people get out of their reading when they interact with others. One way I’d like to try to spur some interaction while I read is to use my blog as a place to share my thoughts on my professional reading. At worst, no one will respond, but I’ll still have done some reflecting on my own so that’s not so bad. At best, folks will comment and I’ll get to engage more with the ideas from whatever I happen to be reading.

I’m not quite ready to dive into a professional book at the moment, but I did want to spur myself to get started, so today I reread over the material at TeachingWorks (Link) on high-leverage teaching practices to refresh my memory. I jotted down notes while I read that I’m putting in this post. If you read through them and they spark any thoughts, feel free to share in the comments! I’m particularly interested in the topic of high-leverage teaching practices. I’d love to hear what others think about them or hear what other resources on this topic that you think I should read!

The Work of Teaching (Link)

“Great teachers aren’t born. They’re taught.”

“Having a skillful teacher has been a matter of chance and students of color and low-income have unequal access to good teaching.”

Identifying and teaching high-leverage practices – “an action or task central to teaching” – is one way to support new and early career teachers.

Core Ideas (Link)

  1. “The goal of classroom teaching is to help students learn worthwhile knowledge and skills and develop the ability to use what they learn for their own purposes.” – I’m curious how “worthwhile” is defined. Worthwhile to whom? Deemed worthwhile by whom? I do like the idea of using “what they learn for their own purposes.” Schooling isn’t about what anyone else thinks a student should ultimately do, but about the knowledge and skills a student learns and their agency to make choices about how they use them.
  2. “All students deserve the opportunity to learn at high levels.” – I just listened to an episode (Link) of the podcast “Teaching While White” where Tim Wise talks about the history of schooling in this country and he shares a quote by Thomas Jefferson where he says 6 years or so of schooling should be provided to all (white people) in order to elevate those with talent from the “rubbish.” Clearly the goals of public education in this county from its inception have not been to ensure that all students learn at high levels, but rather to find a small population who we deem capable of learning at high levels and letting them rise to the top.
  3. “Learning is an active sense-making process.” – This is the nature of human brains. Even if we could provide every student the same inputs, our brains are making sense of them against the background of our own unique experiences which is why the outputs can be so vastly different for each person. Regardless of what those outputs are, it is the sense that each person’s brain has been able to make of what they’re experiencing. It’s no wonder that you can have such a broad range of skills and abilities within a single classroom. It also demonstrates the challenges teachers face in identifying and responding to what their students have learned.
  4. “Teaching is interactive with and constructed together with students.” – If you’ve ever tried to teach the same lesson to different groups, this will make sense. What stands out to one group vs. another may impact the conversation you have and where you focus your time and what the ultimate learning is for a given group. One group may need a different way of interacting than another group in order to be successful. Even if you teach just one class (like an elementary teacher), you’ll notice year to year differences between groups of students. Those variations and your interactions are the basis of constructing knowledge together. There might be similarities about what’s learned between groups, but there will inherently be differences.
  5. “The contexts of classroom teaching matter, and teachers must manage and use them well.” – This reminds me of the porous boundary between the classroom and the surrounding environments Dr. Deborah Ball talks about in her AERA 2018 Presidential Address (Link). According to Dr. Ball, these environments aren’t just physical, they also include historical racism, the legacy of slavery, colonialism, whiteness, housing policies, segregation, school structure, teaching as an occupation, the enormous health and wealth disparities in our country, and curriculum. It’s a big “multivariate soup” within which teaching and learning take place. “Environments permeate the classroom and have no bounds themselves.”

Origin & Evolution (Link)

“The goal has been to identify a small set of instructional practices that are crucial for beginning and early career teachers to be able to do well, and a small number of topics and ideas that they should understand and know how to teach.” – From the elementary lens, this is a powerful idea because elementary teachers are required to “do it all.” They are expected to teach every subject well, and while there are unique challenges to teaching each content area, how might it benefit teachers (particularly new and early career teachers) to focus on a core set of skills that can be applied across content areas? It feels like a much better use of their time, especially when you consider all the professional development opportunities teachers can be bombarded with that are often siloed by content. Each of these PD opportunities may be amazing, but if they aren’t helping teachers develop big picture understandings about teaching and learning, the impact may be smaller than we’d hope. I’d much rather focus professional learning on these core skills and then look at how they can be applied in different content areas.

“…striving to isolate those aspects of the work of teaching that matter most for the quality of students’ educational opportunities.” – From reading this page it sounds like their group has done a lot of work to involve a variety of stakeholders in order to create and refine their list. I wonder how others who weren’t part of this work can create buy-in with teachers that these practices “matter most for the quality of students’ educational opportunities.”

“We also seek to identify the highest-leverage content knowledge needed for teaching. High-leverage content is particular topics, practices, and texts that are both foundational to the K-12 curriculum in this country and important for beginning teachers to be able to teach.” – This would be useful to connect with standards at a given grade level to help teachers understand where and how to focus their time and attention with their students.

High-Leverage Practices (Link)

“These practices are used constantly and are critical to helping students learn important content. The high-leverage practices are also central to supporting students’ social and emotional development.” – I like how this acknowledges that we’re teaching people, not just content, and so the skills of teaching need to include skills related to building relationships and working with people.

Here’s the list of high-leverage practices

  1. Leading a group discussion
  2. Explaining and modeling content, practices, and strategies
  3. Eliciting and interpreting student thinking
  4. Diagnosing particular common patterns of student thinking and development in a subject-matter domain
  5. Implementing norms and routines for classroom discourse and work
  6. Coordinating and adjusting instruction during a lesson
  7. Specifying and reinforcing productive student behavior
  8. Implementing organizational routines
  9. Setting up and managing small group work
  10. Building respectful relationships with students
  11. Talking about a student with parents or other caregivers
  12. Learning about students’ cultural, religious, family, intellectual, and personal experiences and resources for use in instruction
  13. Setting long- and short-term learning goals for students
  14. Designing single lessons and sequences of lessons
  15. Checking student understanding during and at the conclusion of lessons
  16. Selecting and designing formal assessments of student learning
  17. Interpreting the results of student work, including routine assignments, quizzes, tests, projects, and standardized assessments
  18. Providing oral and written feedback to students
  19. Analyzing instruction for the purpose of improving it

It’s overwhelming when you look at it all at once, especially when you consider there’s quite a bit of depth to each of these statements, but I like the idea that if these are the things that matter most, then this list provides solid avenues teachers, instructional coaches, and administrators can pursue to help improve the quality of students’ educational opportunities.

High-Leverage Content (Link)

“Although many teaching capabilities are used across subject areas, some are subject-specific.” – This is where I’d like to see subject-area PD focus. The high-leverage practices keep us focused, but we can learn the nuances of how to use them successfully in each subject area without feeling like we’re always learning something brand new or disconnected from previous learning.

TeachingWorks hasn’t provided a list of high-leverage content yet. It says they began the work of identifying high-leverage content in 2011. I’m curious where they are 10 years on.

Practice-Based Teacher Education (Link)

I guess everything gets a list on this site. This page shares 10 critical features of practice-based teacher education – “professional training that is deliberate about making sure that novice teachers can use specific practices of teaching” in an effort to create “a more just society, achieved through classroom instruction that disrupts racism and attends to all students as individuals and as members of multiples communities.”

Here is their list of critical features of practice-based education

  1. Shared vision
  2. High-leverage practices
  3. Models of skillful teaching
  4. Opportunity to practice
  5. Ambitious learning goals for children
  6. Deliberate attention to Black and brown children
  7. Content knowledge for teaching
  8. Ethical obligations
  9. Performance assessments
  10. Coherence, sustainability, and continuous improvement

Part of why they share this list is because there’s not one model program or way to teach teachers. Rather, we need to create programs for particular contexts and students, but these critical features can help shape that work.

One thing they talk about in this section is how they decompose the high-leverage practices and provide opportunities for teachers to learn and practice individual parts of each practice. This makes sense given how dense the high-leverage practices are.

If you want to see some of these critical features in practice, I recommend watching the entirety of Dr. Deborah Ball’s talk that I mentioned earlier. In particular she demonstrates deliberate attention to two Black children in her class and the power we have as teachers to build up or tear down these students with decisions we have to make in-the-moment.

Fast forward to 46:31 for the start of Dr. Ball’s talk

Final Thoughts

I’ve been drawn to this idea of high-leverage practices for several years now. Having worked as a curriculum coordinator in a school district with 34 elementary schools with over 1,000 elementary teachers, I constantly bumped into the limits of teachers’ time. Teachers are pulled in many directions from administrators, instructional coaches, the curriculum department, state requirements, not to mention teachers’ own interests about what they’d like to learn. I feel like we can work smarter, not harder, by centering our professional learning efforts around a set of common practices like those shared by TeachingWorks. It would create common language and would reassure teachers that any professional learning they are doing is tied into the bigger picture of what it means to provide quality instruction to all students. Unfortunately I wasn’t a very good salesman because I never found any traction with the idea in my district, which is fine, but it doesn’t mean I’m letting it go. I don’t know how or when I might be able to work with these ideas further, but I know that I’d like to.

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