Central to the success of CCSS is student attainment of grade level standards. But the only way to achieve secure and lasting learning of the knowledge and skills embedded within the standards is through effective instruction embedded within “work worth doing” (Coleman, as quoted in Ed Week, 31 Oct. 2012, p.7). No amount of standards writing and tweaking and publishing and proselytizing can make kids learn. One step along the teaching continuum includes turning grade level standards into teachable learning objectives using relevant content materials. “And what,” you may ask, “constitutes relevant material?” Based on guidance found in Appendix B and Coleman’s comments, the answer is “‘what matters most’” (para. 18): documents essential to our democracy, speeches of social and historical import, literature representing timeless themes, scientific theory and explanations foundational to human understanding and progress.
Given these new standards, what purpose do learning objectives serve in the shadow of the CCSS, itself an encompassing document? Many teachers gave up preparing learning objectives or instructional objectives many years ago. Comfortable in their teaching, they delivered the same lesson year after year, often losing touch of the lesson’s initial purpose. However, given these new standards, teachers need to revisit their professional practice and for the first time in many years, engage in an analysis of the established standards in order to tease out instructional implications inherent to each and every standard. Therein will learning objectives emerge to define what kids should know and be able to do.
But the work doesn’t end there. Writing instructional objectives is but one step on the teaching and learning journey. Before the Common Core Standards can be effective as both goals and indicators of teaching and learning, teachers must identify learning targets that support the larger goals and adopt instructional methods that invite active participation and explicit self-evaluation. Learning objectives defined by clear student friendly targets will support teachers’ judicious selection of appropriate activities and as a result, ensure learners fully understand the underlying knowledge and skills encompassed by the objective. Close scrutiny of the standards will support teachers in purposeful lesson design. Purposeful lesson design combined with effective instruction will provide students with practice incorporating the knowledge and skills relevant to lesson objectives and overall grade-level standard.
Ultimately, effective instruction is a combination of instructional strategies: writing objectives, targeting student outcomes, planning lessons, designing activities, and preparing for assessments—baseline, formative and summative, self-reflection. Effective instruction is complex and not the result of a single teaching pedagogy measureable by the mean score attained by a classroom or cohort of learners.
Probably among the most touted and least practiced of effective instructional methods is the gradual release of responsibility (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983). Too often, we give students the responsibility of showing us what they know without ever really teaching them anything. Rather, teachers often assume (especially in middle and high school grades) that students have prerequisite knowledge or skills that they in fact lack. As a result, they ask learners to draw on background knowledge and make connections to experiences that just aren’t there.
In my workshops, I invite and sometimes challenge teachers to use Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey’s (2007) model of the gradual release: the “I do”, “We do”, “You do” model. This can be done in a whole class setting, with a small group, and even one-on-one. Moreover, the model has applications at all grade levels and in all content areas. The simple method can be awkward to the inexperienced teacher because the teaching strategy requires teachers to talk to themselves as they work through a text, a math problem, a science experiment, a set of instructions, a problem solving method.
The model aligns well with David Coleman’s admonition to quit spending so much time foregrounding of learning and get kids into the reading or content of a text. Likewise, Fisher and Frey suggest that rather than begin lessons with questions over topics that students know little about, teachers begin instruction with a focus lesson that establishes a learning purpose.
A focus lesson is one that focuses on the teacher modeling the focus skill as he or she “thinks aloud.” In this process, the lesson purpose is obvious and the means by which to “do” the lesson transparent. The role of the teacher then is not to tell the students what to do, but to show them the very cognitive processes—typically invisible—by explaining how their brain (sometimes called the “competent expert”) reads, thinks, or problem solves. Unfortunately, there seems to be a stigma attached to thinking out loud—and that we need to move beyond. Consider how powerful everyone’s learning could be if your students would verbalize the steps they go though in making connections, drawing inferences, and solving problems.
Effective instruction demands modeling. We can name cognitive modeling, but what does it look like? In “Modeling Expert Thinking” (2010, p. 58-59), Fisher and Frey list “some indicators” of good teacher modeling during the “I do” or “think aloud” phase of instruction:
- Name the strategy, skill, or task being modeled
- State the purpose of using the strategy, skill, or task
- Use “I” statements
- Demonstrate how the strategy, the skill, or the task is used
- Alert learners about errors to avoid
- Assess the usefulness of the strategy or the skill.
All that said, effective instruction requires more than teacher modeling and student practice before turning to independent work. Effective instruction requires planned, strategic integration of the new strategies, skills, and tasks. Because no two students in the classroom have the exact same sets of knowledge and experience in their heads, strategic placement of gradual release may require that teachers differentiate their instruction further inviting students to become active in scaffolding their own learning. Well planned, logical, and incremental learning better prepares students to integrate new learning with prior learning. Clearly stated relationships between prerequisite skills and target learning allow students to use their individual cache of understandings and expertise to build a strong cognitive foundation. As a result, students move up the learning ladder, engaging themselves with increasingly sophisticated content requiring higher cognitive processes.
The third factor in effective instruction, judicious review, allows students to regularly reflect on their own learning: refining understandings, verbalizing questions, and generating extensions. When students communicate their thoughts and thought processes in a variety of nonthreatening ways (journals, text messages!, blogs, small group discussions, clickers!), teachers become privy to the incremental placement of each learner on the continuum of larger teaching goals or objectives. Such incremental assessment builds to assessments of learning, summative or grade establishing measures of achievement that represent the cumulative measure of the students’ and the teachers’ success in conveying and transferring skills, knowledge, techniques.
As said earlier, effective instruction is not the result of a single teaching pedagogy nor is it measureable by the mean score attained by a classroom of learners. Rather, effective instruction is a combination of whole class and flexible group instruction that focuses on modeling and reflection rather than telling and testing. Moreover, these methods cannot be random occurrences in a classroom but must be practiced with fidelity. The impact of the Common Core Standards to change the trajectory of student learning can be exponentially heightened through the incorporation of effective instruction. Together, they have the potential to brighten the educational and career options for students of today and tomorrow.
Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2010). Modeling Expert Thinking. Principal Leadership, 11(3). p. 58-59.
Pearson, P.D., & Gallagher, M.C. (1983). Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8(3). p. 317-344. doi: 0.1016/0361-476X(83)90019-X