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The Biggest Trend in Teaching Today

Michael Sonbert is the founder of Skyrocket Educator Training, an organization that trains teachers and leaders in 300 urban and turnaround schools. Before this, he was a teacher, director of strategic partnerships for Mastery Charter Schools, a head-banging singer, and an author of dystopian fiction.

Do you want to know what the biggest trend in teaching today is? I bet you'll never guess it. Even if I gave you 50 guesses, you wouldn't get it. OK, here it is. The biggest trend in teaching today, from someone who's in dozens and dozens of schools, hundreds of classrooms, and who observes thousands of lessons every year, is that teachers aren't teaching.

Yes. You read that correctly. Teachers aren't actually teaching. I'm not suggesting that teachers aren't working hard, because overwhelmingly, they are. And I'm not suggesting that kids are just sitting in classes doing nothing (though sometimes they are). What I am saying is that in the majority of classrooms I visit, when students are working, it's usually in workbooks. Or on computers. Or in groups. But often, the teacher is reading something or asking questions, and students are sitting there. Most times, without a task beyond "following along" (which students usually aren't doing anyway). "Instruction" can look like a teacher standing at the board or his projector, his novel in hand, trying to get students to an answer that he hasn't set students up to find. This is because he hasn't provided a model or a process students should follow to do this.

What's missing in these classrooms is the explicit teaching of a transferable skill that students will either master or not.

I was in a classroom recently where students were being asked to find the main idea of a text. When I asked the teacher what process students would take to do this, she told me, "They read the text. And then they find the main idea." As you can imagine, when asked by the teacher what the main idea was, students squeaked out reluctant guesses that were nowhere near correct. Then the teacher, who I'm not sure knew the main idea herself, tried to mold and shape those responses into anything resembling correct answers.

This trend doesn't just exist in ELA (though it is prevalent there). In social studies and science, students are often on the receiving end of information and notes that, while important, don't require any intellectual effort beyond copying. These lessons usually culminate with questions, but again, students in these classes aren't mastering a skill as much as they're looking back through their notes to answer comprehension questions.

And in math, a class where steps and process are everything, often the teaching portion becomes more an elongated guided practice with the teacher up at the board, working through problems with the whole group. But again, this is missing the explicit teaching and sometimes missing the independent work time on the back end to see if students know how to do it. 

To be clear, I'm not referring here to teachers who make an intentional choice to have students grapple with material to allow for productive struggle. I'm referring to the overwhelming majority of teachers whose lesson plans read that they'll be teaching skill X or skill Y but who aren't actually doing that.

I believe this trend exists for a few reasons. The first is that it takes time to plan great lessons, and teachers are very busy. But this isn't the main reason. The second reason is because so many scripted programs don't provide a process teachers can follow to actually teach the content. If teachers follow those programs and aren't allowed or are unable to modify them, direct teaching may not occur. Third is because this is what school was for many of us growing up. The teacher talked, and we listened. But I rarely (math was sometimes an exception) remember being taught skills in school. Fourth, this is occurring because of a lack of clear messaging from school leadership that explicit modeling is an expectation. Maybe because school leaders don't know it should be. Or maybe because they don't believe it should be (which is strange as it would increase student engagement and outcomes). Finally, this is happening because many teachers (they've told me this) don't know what explicit modeling of their content-specific skills looks like. So they avoid this modeling while also avoiding the potential embarrassment of standing in front of students and looking like they don't know what they're talking about.

This lack of teaching is rarely (if ever) addressed. And until it is, conversations about which curricula schools should be using, why NAEP scores are stagnant, and whether or not the shift to Common Core was the right move are a waste of breath.

— Michael Sonbert

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