My Teaching Watershed: Five Days in July

A conference in Potomac the five days before we were heading to the beach for vacation seemed like a fine idea in March,  a terrible idea in July, and a blessing in retrospect. The Science of Teaching and School Leadership Academy from the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School lived up to its name. It rocked my teaching world. My blogging journey this school year will follow my implementation of the learning from those workshop sessions as well as the reading I have done both before and since.

As I begin to dip my toes back in the planning water (after a week of dipping them in ocean water), I need to make some adjustments to my practices. Some of my instincts have sound research supporting them; others do not. Some of the practices that my students identify as helpful in their learning, are indeed helpful. In other cases, they are simply convenient and comfortable. So – in my opening blog post for the 2017-18 school year, here are some things I need to work on.

Feedback – I piloted Individual Feedback Sessions last year, which were popular with students, but perhaps not as effective in promoting learning as I had hoped. I need to do a better job in scaffolding the feedback so that as the year goes on students are doing more of the adjustments on their own based on more general feedback. Otherwise, they become good at following my directions and specific suggestions, but not necessarily better at writing. At the beginning, I need to give specific, quick feedback, but if I continue that all year I risk creating a culture of dependency that actually stunts growth. I am still thinking through how to maximize the benefits of the feedback sessions, which did promote clarity and relationships, with increasing student independence.

Reflection and metacognition – I do better with promoting reflection on the content than I do with reflection on learning. I am hoping to focus more on metacognition, helping students think more about how they approach learning. I plan to continue blogging with my students, but I might include more metacognitive prompts along with open reflections on content.

Content – While I have known that formative assessment, self-testing, spacing and interleaving are effective, I need to employ them more deliberately in my planning. In a session by Mark McDaniel, co-author of make it stick: The Science of Successful Learning, an activity we did drove home how important it is for content to have meaning for learners, rather than seeming to be random. He read a series of sentences that seemed random and then quizzed us on them. Then, he read another similar series of questions but asked us to create meaning for each one as he read them. We all did markedly better on the second set. In fact, I can still remember some of them. Similarly, having students complete “why” worksheets can significantly improve learning outcomes. That made sense. Then, what he said about spacing and interleaving being more effective block learning was less intuitive, as students appear to learn less in the short run, but actually retain more in the long run. That will take some unpacking.

I think it will be really important this year for me to be transparent with students about what I am doing and why. I may even do the activity that Mark McDaniel did with us. It is important for students to know that there is solid research informing my choices, and that what feels most comfortable and most effective may not be. They will need to trust me. Which means…

the first order of business for the year remains unchanged from any other year – getting to know my students. Relationships have one of the most significant impacts on learning – an intuitive idea that is supported by robust research.