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Can New Teacher Observational Tools Help Boost Students' Critical Thinking and Analytic Skills?

By now the recent MET study findings have been widely discussed, but my fellow Ed Week blogger--and must-read reporter on all things teacher--Steven Sawchuck makes a sharp observation, drawing from both MET and a recent study from Chicago: The growing body of information we have from rigorous observational measures of teacher practice suggests that teachers are pretty good at what Sawchuck calls "procedural" tasks, such as behavior and classroom management and creating a supportive or respectful learning environment. But very few teachers are demonstrating strong performance on domains more associated with pushing students to think critically and analytically, such as "analysis and problem solving," "using questioning and instructional techniques," "quality of feedback," "student participation in meaning making and reasoning," "explicitness of importance," or "investigation/problem-based approach."

This strikes me as quite similar to what we've seen in research on the quality of teacher-child interactions in early childhood settings, where research suggests that most early childhood classrooms get high marks for a warm and nurturing climate, middling marks for organization and management, and score poorly on measures of instructional quality. (It's worth noting, that versions of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, developed by researchers at the University of Virginia were used in both the MET study and the most sweeping studies of preschool classroom quality).

This isn't surprising. No one who's not an idiot claims that effective classroom management or creating an emotional climate are easy. But most teachers care a lot about these things and it's also pretty clear to them and others whether they're doing a good job at them or not. In contrast, asking the right questions to push kids to really think and develop their analytic abilities is both really difficult and something many teachers haven't been taught to do--or how to know whether or not they're doing it effectively. One of the potential promises of new observational frameworks is that they help to make explicit expectations around how teachers will engage students at a deeper level to build their analytic and critical thinking skills.

More broadly, as the movement towards new teacher evaluation systems in K-12 and the adoption of "next generation" QRIS in early childhood lead to increased use of valid and reliable observational measures in both sectors, both sectors will encounter challenges in operationalizing these systems and potential opportunities to learn from one another. My former colleagues at the New America Foundation highlighted some of these potential opportunities recently. But given the amount of overlap here, it's important for states that are moving forward on observations in both the K-12 and early childhood fronts to keep the channels of communication open between what have traditionally be siloed sectors and departments--and the U.S. Department of Education can also help create incentives and support shared learning here.

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