Making Time to Push the Learning Deeper
This post is by Kathleen Cushman, a journalist and educator who for more than 25 years has documented deeper learning in articles, books, and mixed media. Her book with colleague Barbara Cervone at What Kids Can Do, describing social and emotional learning in five U.S. high schools, will be published by Harvard Education Press in the fall.
Teachers only get so much time with students, yet the demands on that time are continually ramping up. Many of us worry that going after deeper learning will require squeezing an impossible amount into their endless days.
But when I observe schools around the country, I notice that some of the most striking instances of deeper learning happen when teachers dare to spend more time on fewer areas. By reinforcing key habits in depth, they create powerful leverage to push all learning deeper.
Collaboration, for example, is key to pushing learners to go deep. Schools rarely explicitly teach or assess it; but Envision Academy, a high school in Oakland, California, does both, emblazoning five "keys to collaborate effectively" on classroom walls.
Acting it out
So when math teacher Ron Towns starts the year with his ninth-grade students, he spends a lot of class time "acting out." To handle the challenging math problems that he will be giving them, he believes they first have to know what effective collaboration looks like.
Few students have seen those skills explicitly modeled in action, he told me. "So I do skits in front of them," he said. "Literally, every day for the first two or three weeks of school, I act out what I have seen struggling students do in math class."
Pulling up his chair next to a couple of kids, Towns will role-play with relish the typical avoidance behaviors of students in small groups. "This is what we don't want to do," he declares after "playing dumb" by acting as if a math problem is beyond him. "And now this is what we do want to do." (Clue: "We love group questions and we love questions that answer our questions.")
It can take anywhere between 12 and 18 minutes for Towns to demonstrate the do's and don'ts for all of the five key habits. And that's not always the end of it. Regularly, he has students form small groups of their own, collaborating to illustrate the habits with positive and negative examples.
Building expectations, mindset, culture
That intensive process goes on throughout the first weeks of school, and throughout the year Towns revisits it again and again. Investing so much time is critical, since "it's really the focus of the culture I want to build," he said. "It's teaching them the expectations of the class. But it's also giving them time to reflect on their behavior."
In addition to assessing students' math skills, Towns gives them points toward a participation grade as they demonstrate collaboration. As he notates their names, points, and specific behaviors on the board, "it really encourages them to see themselves with a growth mindset," he said.
"The student who does well is not necessarily the strongest in math--it's the one who can collaborate and engage in that struggle. And there's room for all students. Sometimes because they're skill-deficient, we think that they're intellectually deficient. And I have found that not to be true at all."
Take a one-minute look at his classroom in this video I produced for New Teacher Center, and I think you'll agree.
Photo by Lili Shidlovski