Monday, November 5, 2012

learning to teach (plan + execute)

I've been wondering for a while how teachers decide how to allocate their precious lesson minutes, and how they learn how to make those decisions. Our training model has traditionally started with a (modified Madeline Hunter) template, which leads teachers to develop the habit of planning really procedural and lecture-heavy lessons. Some question (and rightly so) whether the template is really the be-all end-all of good teaching, and therefore question our entire training model (no comment as to whether that's a logical leap), while others feel trapped and fall back on the template because they don't know what else to do. In fact, one of the biggest wins from my summer pilot project was a shift in teacher attitudes from "I like the ideas you're proposing but tell me how to fit them into this template" (common among previous pilot participants) to "I like the ideas you're proposing; what can I use aside from this template?" See this branch, started by Peps McCrea, for more reflections and resources about the purpose and use of templates.

Our early childhood team has seen tremendous improvement-- in how teachers choose to interact with students, the quality of those interactions, students' academic and socioemotional growth, how teachers understand their roles, etc.-- by starting pre-service training with what they call an "execution-first" approach. Rather than learning to plan lessons, then learning some principles and doing some rehearsal around general execution strategies like "clearly explain academic content" or "give clear directions," early childhood teachers practice common structures like morning meeting (they sit in a circle, learn songs to sing, and practice singing them), read-aloud, writer's workshop, etc. This makes sense in the early childhood context-- way more sense than asking them to plan full lessons-- for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which relate to how it is developmentally appropriate to spend time with three- and four-year olds and what novice teachers do and do not remember about what it's like to be three or four.

Would this work in secondary math?
I think there's much to be learned from this approach, although I don't think high school math teachers will be singing circle time songs anytime soon. What I've been wrestling with is determining the secondary math analogues to read-aloud, writer's workshop, morning meeting, and other academic routines (note: I'm not talking about procedures, like a homework check or exit ticket or turning in papers); our elementary counterparts have their number talks, choral counting, mental math drills, etc., and our secondary literacy friends have their read-alouds, writer's workshops, Socratic seminars, etc. This Lampert et al. article helped me start to think about secondary math routines maybe as being things more like:
  • setting up a problem
  • discussing multiple approaches/solution strategies 
  • facilitating a discussion (thinking about Leinhardt & Steele's exchange routines... can't find a link)
Learning Cycles
For a while, I've been championing a learning cycle where new teachers observe veterans teaching, debrief with the veteran and with a trained facilitator/coach to analyze what they saw in the lesson, rehearse the same lesson the veteran taught, teach it to their own students, and then reflect, debrief, and receive feedback from that facilitator/coach. I was thrilled to see that it looks a lot like Michigan's proposed learning cycle, with one key difference: their learning cycle has teachers plan their own lessons (or use of a routine, not necessarily a whole lesson) between debrief/analysis and rehearsal. It makes me think about van Es and Sherin's work on noticing, which first came to my attention during a session at last year's NCTM conference on using video with pre-service teachers, and helping new teachers focus their observation on what matters-- not on how cluttered the classroom is or the posters on the wall.

I don't think I've progressed far enough in my thinking to have good questions to ask you yet... but I wanted to write this post at least for myself, to chronicle some of the sources of my thinking and the arc of how I've gotten to where I am. If you have thoughts, reactions, ideas, questions or comments though, they would be incredibly welcome as I continue to consider!


  1. Trying to think of common structures.

    - guess and check (fiddle around within these constraints until you find a solution)
    - generalize numeric examples into an algebraic rule
    - compare and contrast (i.e. sets of numbers, shapes of graphs)

    I think this is more zoomed-in than where you want the focus to be, though.

  2. Maybe it’s not so much template vs. routine as finding a template that is in line with desired routines? I’m a veteran teacher (man, that sounds weird) and in the last three years, I’ve been using Van de Walle’s three-part lesson format. This template has helped me move away from teaching as telling. Your three bulleted routines show up in this template in parts 1 & 3. Strange that a lesson plan template should have such a large effect 12+ years into my teaching career.

    I hadn’t thought of it like this before but you’re right– I can’t immediately think of math analogues to writer’s workshop, at least ones that are widely used.

    Peg Smith’s 5 Practices has helped me improve my ability to facilitate discussions, both in the classrooms I visit and in workshops with groups of teachers. This resource could provide beginning teachers with alternatives to asking “Who wants to go next?” I like the idea of learning a routine like “facilitate class discussion” that can be transferred from one lesson to the next. Also, Marian Small’s More Good Questions might be a good resource for beginning teachers as they learn how to discuss multiple strategies/solutions.

  3. Thanks for these comments! Both of your suggestions feel to me like structures and strategies for encouraging students to talk productively about math, and I like the direction that's going. It makes me wonder about situating these strategies within routines, so they feel less like techniques teachers deploy once in a blue moon and more like things that need to happen every day; even though this may be tweaking more with the messaging than with the actual idea, I suspect it'll feel more concrete to novice teachers than something like the 5 practices, which could lead them to wonder "great, but when do I do those things" until they've developed the judgment/proficiency to have them ready to go at a moment's notice.

    @reflectionsinthewhy, would you be willing to share a lesson you've written in that format?

    Grant Wiggins' latest post on instructional planning also seems timely to note here, particularly his Eisenhower quote: "In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable."

  4. It's like you're in my head, Grace. Recently, I've been thinking about lesson prototyping - trying to offer the least amount of structure necessary for learning to occur, evaluating the success, and then making the necessary adjustments to the next lesson. This all came from the Marshmallow Challenge -

    John and I have been going back and forth about what is the initial, least-intrusive lesson structure. Right now I'm thinking it's related to purpose (task), monitoring progress (rubric), and environment (class norms). What do you think?

  5. Grace,

    These posts contains three-part lesson plans for secondary math:

    I see a connection btwn this format and Dan's 3 Act work: