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Changing the Ask: Shifting the Questions Around Teaching and Learning

"You do have an ability to get students to do things, now it is about changing what you ask students to do."

In a recent conversation, I said the above message to a teacher that was looking for ways to improve her instruction. At different points and turns in the conversation, she expressed passion for finding a better way to reach every child. Most teachers feel this extraordinary burden. So much of the educational community has to contend with teaching and reaching everyone. Or as many as possible.

Dialogue in the "edu-space" centers around reform, with a laser-like focus on issues of accountability and equity. Practitioners, policy-makers and the general public volley solutions back and forth, oftentimes producing principles for effective change. Despite the efficacious progress of the conversation, I think it is time we take this moment, at the beginning of the new year and after the passage of ESSA, to shift our perspectives. We need to change the questions we ask. 

As an Instructional Coach, it is incumbent upon me to ask the right questions in order to lead teachers towards solving their own issues. I have come to understand that asking effective questions is a function of perspective. The way I see the situation shapes the questions I derive from it. Perspective matters. Being in and around classrooms from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. to Brazil for over a decade has allowed me to see many opportunities. Many frustrations. Many solutions. The one binding thread between frustrations and solutions that I have seen is asking specific questions that shape specific outcomes.

To that end, here are six questions we should begin asking that could buoy the progress we have already made:

  1. How can we create a school climate where teachers choose expertise in their craft and excellence for their students rather than being coerced into it?
  2. How practical yet substantive can we message what student achievement should look like for teachers, students and the community?
  3. What are the high leverage organizational processes that facilitate school-level solutions authored by teachers, students and the community?
  4. How do we create schools and classrooms that traditionally underserved students cannot wait to enter and never want to leave?
  5. What are the components of a K-12 education that honors all students' cultures while exposing them to American and world traditions?
  6. If we succeed in highly educating all students, what should we see in our classrooms? In our society?

Each of these questions operate on three basic principles: teachers, students and the community should be at the heart of any change; climates create sustainable improvement and goals for excellence must be clear and tangible before we achieve them. These questions could push accountability to the edges of the education reform circle and push strategic support, student voice and teacher initiation to the center. Where it should be.

The opening quote came after I had spoken with a teacher on my case load at length about what she could do rather than what she could not do in her classroom. This focus on what we are able to further accomplish rather than what has been left unsolved is principally about the words we use. It is about the questions we ask. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't state that the questions we ask are only as important as the people we ask. In that sense, students should be at the center, with teachers, administrators and educational chiefs in supportive layers. 

Josh Parker, the 2012 Maryland Teacher of the Year, is an instructional coach at Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School in Washington, D.C. He recently completed a global fellowship to Brazil courtesy of a partnership between the NEA Foundation and Pearson. Josh holds multiple degrees including a Master's in Leadership in Teaching from Notre Dame of Maryland University.

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