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'Adolescents Are Complex': Jim Burke on 10 Elements Of Effective Instruction

Editor's Note: This is the eighth post in a series called "A Look Back." In it, I'll be highlighting a particularly insightful response an educator has provided in a past column.

Past posts in this series have included:

'Stop Hiding Behind the Factory Model of Teaching': Rick Wormeli on Differentiation

'The Importance Of White Students Having Black Teachers': Gloria Ladson-Billings on Education

'Educators Get Transformed From Life-Changers Into Wardens': Chris Emdin on Urban Schools

Don't 'Veer Off-Course': Roxanna Elden on Finishing The School Year Strong

'No Easy Answers': Dan Pink on Student Motivation

'Learning Follows A Spiral': Doug Fisher & Nancy Frey On Learning Transfer

'We Need Fewer John Waynes & More John Deweys': Randi Weingarten on School District Leadership

'Change Doesn't Come Simply Because We Wish It': Sonia Nieto on Justice & Teaching 

Today's "A Look Back" features part of a contribution made by Jim Burke in response to the question "How can English Teachers Best Improve Their Craft?"

You can see his complete response at Response: "Ten Elements Of Effective Instruction."

Jim Burke (@englishcomp, www.englishcompanion.com) is the author of the English Teacher's Companion, Fourth Edition and What's the Big Idea?, and many other bestselling professional books; the founder of the English Companion Ning; and a senior author on the Holt McDougal Harcourt Literature series. He teaches at Burlingame High School in California:

What we want, what we need is a clear set of teaching moves we can use to make teaching consistently effective despite the inherent complexity of the classroom. Every year it seems we are asked to do more, though never, of course, given more time in which to accomplish the goals. One year I kept track of every minute taken from my instructional time--whether for interruptions from the counseling office, extended lunch activities, mandatory state testing, or anything else: it added up to, cumulatively, 29 hours. As our classes grow larger and more diverse, the core of our work--teaching students to read, write, speak, and think--grows more complex. Atul Gawande, writing about a similar though inevitably more accelerated trend in medicine in his book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, identifies three kinds of problems related to work: simple, complicated, and complex (49).

Simple problems, explains Gawunde, have established steps, such as using a recipe to bake a cake, one can follow. Complicated problems, such as sending a rocket to the moon, can be broken into a series of simple problems. Complicated problems, such as building that rocket, require greater expertise; however, since this problem has already been solved, success can be achieved with some reliability. Complex problems, such as teaching a class of 35 adolescents, however, have no inevitable, replicable solution given their inherent--dare I say it?--complexity. As a parent of three children (two boys and a girl), I can attest to the lack of any available recipe that delivers a predictable result. After teaching adolescents for more than 25 years, I know only one thing for sure: they are complex.

As Gawande notes in his book about the practice of medicine (surgery in particular), "a doctor must be prepared for unpredictable turns . . . [because] medicine contains the entire range of problems--the simple, the complicated, and the complex" (51). Teaching is not so different.

Gawande set out to create what he called the "safe surgery checklist," a brief list of actions a doctor could complete before, during, and after any operation, under any conditions, to ensure a safe and successful procedure.

After analyzing many studies on effective literacy and English language arts instruction, I arrived at the following 10 elements of effective instruction. These elements appear on my lesson plan template so that I can consult them when planning. I find, as Gawande did when he demanded of himself that he use his own safe-surgery checklist, that I am more consistently effective and have become, over time, more conscious of what I do that makes a difference.

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The Ten Elements of Effective Instruction

1. Provide the necessary conditions for optimum learning and engagement: a safe and supportive environment in which students can do what you want them to so that they learn within a meaningful, authentic context.

2. Establish and communicate clear, specific learning objectives aligned with established state and national academic and career standards.

3. Make explicit connections between present and past lessons, students' lives, other texts or subjects, the real world, and the Big Ideas around which lessons are organized.

4. Prepare students by teaching relevant background knowledge, skills, and academic language and literacies.

5. Integrate assessment throughout the instructional process, using the data to establish initial understanding, measure progress, provide feedback, refine instruction, and prepare students for future performances; this includes students reflecting on and assessing their own performance and progress.

6. Teach students strategies for learning, remembering, and doing.

7. Demystify literacy practices and performances by modeling, providing examples, and giving clear directions as students graduate from dependence on you to responsibility for their own learning.

8. Use different instructional methods, modes, and media in clear, coherent ways.

9. Ask students to generate a range of ideas, interpretations, solutions, questions, and connections.

10. Provide meaningful opportunities to practice, perfect, and perform all lessons in class and at home.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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