The 5th Friday: Teaching As Art and Science

“When you look at the truly effective teachers, you will also find caring, warm, lovable people. Years later, when the students remember their most significant teachers, the ones that they remember the most are the ones who really cared about them. Effective teachers know that they cannot get a student to learn unless that student knows that the teacher cares.”
(Wong & Wong, 1998)

Quotes like the one above from Wong and Wong relate to the art of teaching more than the science of teaching. This remains my primary passion related to education: the “artistic” abilities necessary to become and remain an outstanding educator. However, it is important to note that the subtitle to Wong and Wong’s now-famous tome, The First Days of School, is How to Be an Effective Teacher. Although the art of teaching is my own primary area of interest, and one that goes a long way toward making an effective teacher, we must also examine the science of teaching-----focusing on research that sheds light on what makes some teachers more effective, efficient, and relevant than other teachers. In one of the first graduate classes I ever took, I learned that teachers who were identified as exemplary possessed six common characteristics (Rice & Taylor, 2000):
  • Knowledge of content
  • Planning skills
  • Use, after selection, of appropriate materials
  • Classroom management skills
  • Human relations skills
  • Instructional skills
Obviously, the qualities listed above are neither esoteric, mystical, nor new. In addition, all but one is necessary for success in any line of work, not just teaching. The one characteristic unique to the teaching profession is instruction skills. What exactly are “instructional skills”? We could likely come up with several different—and possibly lengthy—lists, but many such lists go all the way back to Madeline Hunter’s work that has been around now for decades. Although not all-encompassing, her Seven Elements of Lesson Design might constitute one example of the “science” of teaching:

  • Anticipatory Set
  • Objective and Purpose
  • Input
  • Modeling
  • Checking for Understanding
  • Guided Practice
  • Independent Practice

The science of teaching, then, might be at least partially comprised of these lesson design elements. No matter what subject or grade, these elements remain useful to consider. Both the kindergarten teacher and the algebra teacher must select objectives at or near the correct range of difficulty and level of complexity. Elementary and secondary teachers need to teach the objectives while checking for understanding. Guided and independent practice opportunities are present in many instructional lessons, and all effective teachers use some form of modeling at some point during their teaching.
An oft-debated topic in many of my education classes back in the day revolved around whether effective teaching is an art or a science. Personally, I have always focused more on the art of teaching than the science of teaching. However, in reality, the two are not only nearly equal in importance, but also interrelated. Even the most sterling teaching performance may prove meaningless unless such a performance is based upon a sound scientific knowledge base. At the same time, the most scientifically sound lesson in the history of pedagogy will prove fruitless in terms of student learning if the teacher is not proficient in the art of teaching. In his book on the topic, Robert Marzano promotes the notion that teaching is part art and part science, suggesting that the science part is founded on extensive research that provides guidance, both general and specific. The art part is founded on the realization that such research cannot provide answers for every situation and that some teaching techniques can be employed in different fashion and different order by two different teachers with equally beneficial results.
The single biggest perk of my current job is that I am able to visit classrooms at a number of schools every single day. During these visits, I am able to observe artists and scientists (disguised as classroom teachers) in action, ensuring that students are comprehending complex material while also nurturing an inviting, caring, and warm environment in which to do so.

Book Bits…

As I have mentioned previously, O’Connor devotes a chapter each to 15 “broken” grading practices, offering a “fix” for each problem. This week, we look at the fifth problem, along with his fix:
Grades are broken when they are directly or indirectly related to a student’s attendance record. The simple fix requires absences to be reported separately from grades, and that grades be determined only from evidence of achievement. I suspect there are very few people who value attendance and punctuality more than I do, yet standards-based learning is not about seat time, but about what students know, understand, and can do. Most students need to attend class to be successful and teachers must ensure that engaging learning activities are being provided so that students feel it is worth their while to attend; however, absences should not directly affect students’ grades.

The 4th Friday: Questioning Techniques

“The most basic way teachers have to stimulate interactive thinking and learning in the classroom is through the use of questions.”
(Rice & Taylor, 2000)

A frequent refrain of mine is that classroom lessons should be effective, efficient, and relevant. To effect such an outcome, teachers must, alas, plan diligently each day, week, and year. One area that is often overlooked in planning for instruction is questioning techniques. Effective questioning techniques on the part of teachers can dramatically enhance student learning. Too often, we give little thought to the questioning techniques we use with our students. We either call questions and accept answers shouted at random, call only on those whose hands are raised, call on the same one or two students in each class, or call on students who are not paying attention as a “gotcha.”  Used carefully and with forethought, questioning techniques can enhance a lesson’s effectiveness, efficiency, and relevancy.

Obviously, through questioning, we can check for individual and whole-group understanding. Questioning individual students is most effective; questioning the whole group is most efficient. At times, it is appropriate to opt for efficiency. When so doing, you might consider using signal responses (teaching students to “show” the answer by a predetermined signal). Questioning individual students is more common and therefore requires greater teacher attention. In questioning, all students should believe that they are as likely to be called on as any other student. In questioning individual students, I find it more effective to utilize an “ask-pause-call” method as opposed to a “call-ask-wait” technique. In the first case, the teacher phrases a question, giving all students time to formulate a potential response. Then, she calls on a random student to provide an answer. Example: “I’m going to ask you a question, and I want everyone to think of an answer. From what you read in our text, what were some causes of the Civil War…...Benny?”

When calling on an individual for a response, allow ample wait time. Research suggests we should wait 3-5 seconds after asking the question before calling on any individual student. We should then allow at least 5 seconds for a response before reacting. If, after waiting, the student initially does not provide an answer, you might inveigle a response by offering a clue and restating the question. If, after this, the student still had no answer, I would often reply, “That’s OK, Jimmy, but pay attention, because I’m coming back to you.”  Then, I might call on another student to provide the correct answer. Once I received the correct answer, I would return to the original student, getting Jimmy to verbalize the correct answer.

On the other hand, by employing a “call-ask-wait” technique (e.g., "Jenna, what is a noun?”), the resulting effect is that the anxiety level is raised for one student while everyone else is off the hook and not accountable for responding or even attending. As a teacher, I often found myself reluctant to call on those struggling students who I feared would not be able to respond correctly. By employing an ask-pause-call method of questioning, allowing ample wait time, providing additional clues, and--ultimately--coming back to students who don’t initially know the correct answer, we are able to engage all learners more effectively in the learning.

Josef Albers stated with perspicacity, “Good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers.”  Thanks for taking the time to reflect on your daily questioning techniques. More importantly, thanks for Teaching with Passion each day!



Book Bits…

As I have mentioned previously, O’Connor devotes a chapter each to 15 “broken” grading practices, offering a “fix” for each problem. This week, we look at the fourth problem, along with his fix:

Grades are broken when we punish academic dishonesty with reduced grades. The fix is to apply other consequences for the behavior and reassess to determine actual level of achievement. Students must redo the test or assignment without cheating or plagiarizing to establish an accurate record for grading. Academic dishonesty is unacceptable and must not be tolerated, but grades are broken if the response to cheating is a lowered score because this renders inaccurate the student’s record of achievement.

The 3rd Friday: Thoughts on Homework

Friday  Focus

“Simply assigning homework may not produce the desired effect; in fact, ill-structured homework might even have a negative effect on student achievement. Teachers must carefully plan and assign homework in a way that maximizes the potential for student success.”
-Marzano (2007, p. 77)

I have never been a proponent of copious amounts of homework; my default mantra has been: small, meaningful amounts. However, used properly, homework has the potential to extend learning opportunities beyond the classroom. In assigning homework and establishing homework policies, I defer to Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock(2001) and pass along their suggestions in this area for your perusal.

First, parent involvement in homework should be kept to a minimum. Some studies suggest that when parents assist with homework, minimal and even negative effects may result. Also, the purpose of homework must be identified and communicated. Two obvious purposes should be practice and preparation or elaboration. When assigned for practice, the material must have a high degree of familiarity. Practicing a skill that is unfamiliar may only reinforce errors and misconceptions. It is also important that assigned homework receives feedback. Studies show that the effects of homework vary greatly depending on the feedback provided by the teacher. I find myself in cahoots with the authors’ three tenets of classroom practice in assigning homework (Marzano, et al., 2001):

1. Establish and communicate a homework policy. This should be done at the outset. Explain to students and parents the purposes of homework, the amount you expect students to complete, consequences for not completing homework, and the amount of parent involvement that is appropriate.

2. Design homework assignments that clearly articulate the purpose and the outcome. Clearly identify the purpose of any homework assignment and communicate that purpose to your students.

3. Vary the approaches to providing feedback. Although the goal is to provide meaningful, specific feedback for all assignments, reality suggests that not all homework will receive the same degree of teacher attention. Try to employ different strategies in this area to help you manage the workload and maximize the effectiveness of homework.

Homework remains a hot-button issue in the education profession and is one for which there is no simple answer pleasing to all stakeholders. It is vitally important, though, that the professionals directly involved—teachers and administrators—examine this issue thoroughly and come to agreement regarding the purpose of homework and how we best achieve this purpose. Secretly, I was never much of a homework assigner as a teacher—at the elementary, middle, or even high school level. However, I generally support the widely-known rule of thumb suggesting the ten-minute-per-grade-level amount. In our middle schools, then, our sixth graders would have no more than sixty minutes of homework each night, whereas our eighth graders should have no more than eighty minutes nightly.

Marzano recommends three general types of homework: (a) homework that helps students deepen their knowledge(e.g., compare two political systems we have been studying); (b) homework that enhances students’ fluency with procedural knowledge (e.g., solve multiplication problems quickly, checking for speed and accuracy); and (c) homework that introduces new content (e.g., read a section of a book that the teacher has not addressed but will address the following day). For each piece of homework assigned, Marzano (2007) insists that teachers should communicate with parents regarding the assignment and even offers sample scripts, such as this:

The homework tonight is to introduce your child to poetry terms before we learn more about them tomorrow in class. The assignment is to read pages 56-62. Remind your child that the content in those pages will be reviewed tomorrow. Please also remind them that it is important to complete the assignment so that s/he has some basic understanding of poetry terms. You can help by asking your child to summarize what s/he has learned as a result of reading those pages. You can also ask your child to write out at least two questions s/he has about what was read.”

It may be helpful to think of assigning homework for PRP: Practice (the material has already been taught and is being emphasized for fluency), Review(bringing all the facts, details, vocabulary together; applying what they have learned), and Preparation for future learning (careful, though, on this one; although OK to assign homework that asks students to begin thinking about a topic they will be studying, it can be counterproductive to have them read ahead to learn material that has yet to be taught). We might assign something that we think will take only twenty minutes when, in reality, it may take students much longer (we, as teachers, possess the “curse of knowledge,” meaning we may think something is easy, quick, or obvious to all because it is second nature to us as experts in our subject area).

A final issue to consider is how we maximize the likelihood that all students actually complete all homework assignments. The following tips—mainly from Jane Bluestein (2008), Linda Darling-Hammond, and Olivia Ifill-Lynch (2006)—may help:

  • Assign work that is worthy of the effect: Does it make sense?  Is it necessary?  Is it useful?  Is it authentic and engaging?
  • Make the work doable:  Be sure directions are clear and that students can complete the assignment without help.
  • Match assignments to student needs: Reach out to students who are not completing homework and brainstorm strategies that work for them. Assign independent work at or near their proficiency level.
  • Make work public: Display exemplars of proficient student work so they know what is expected. Talk students through the evening’s requirements.
  • Encourage collaboration: Among students (eighth graders helping sixth graders or classmates occasionally working together on an assignment) and among staff (communicating about amounts assignments and supporting each other by sharing ideas and assignments with the highest return rate).
  • Offer students choices: Find ways, when appropriate, for students to choose how they will extend learning, based on their interest or talent.
  • Build flexibility into your homework policy: At the outset, plan for the likelihood of some students not completing work and find ways for students to recover, while still holding them accountable for completing the work.
A survey conducted by PublicAgenda (2000), a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group, found that 50% of parents surveyed said they have had a serious argument with their children over homework and 34% said it became a source of struggle and stress for them and their children. By following some or all of the above bullet points, we can reduce this level of strife while increasing our students’ homework completion rate—and learning!


Book Bits…

As I have mentioned previously, O’Connor devotes a chapter each to 15 “broken” grading practices, offering a “fix” for each problem. This week, we look at the third problem, along with his fix:

Grades are broken when we offer extra credit and bonus points which can distort a student’s legitimate level of achievement. Grades are broken as a communication tool if we give points for “dressing like an Egyptian” when such performances do not demonstrate achievement of specified academic standards. The fix for this is to not use extra credit or bonus points. If students want to earn a higher grade, teachers can instead require them to provide “extra” evidence that demonstrates a higher level of achievement.

Grades are broken when teachers provide extra credit or bonus points that are just about points, not about higher levels of proficiency. Instead of doing this, we must communicate to students and parents that better grades come from evidence of higher levels of learning, not just points.

The 2nd Friday: A Teacher's Impact

"Educators who believe in effort-based ability believe that all students can do rigorous academic work at high standards, even if they are far behind academically and need a significant amount of time to catch up. Educators who carry this belief into practice are not unrealistic about the obstacles they and their students face. They simply have not given up. And we know for sure that they will get results if they translate this belief into appropriate practice" (Saphier, 2005).

This week, I stopped by a classroom in our district and the teacher there shared a list of “teacher traits” that her students wrote, including things they did/did not want their teacher to do. It was fun to see students’ insights into what constitutes good teaching! I enjoy reading articles suggesting the key attributes of great teachers; luckily, there appears to be no shortage of such lists and research. However, I still find myself going back to one such list that was comprised by a researcher fifteen years ago (Traina, 1999). Although I typically cite more current research, this one still rings true to me today. Moreover, I think these traits are also ones covered by my colleague's students and would likely be met with approval from all students—our primary customers. The author sought to identify characteristics that are consistently cited by students and parents as those exhibited by their very best teachers. Traina maintains that these three traits are critical to effective teaching and have been so for generations:

What Makes a Good Teacher:

Command of subject matter. Effective teachers know their subject matter inside and out. In addition, they convey a love of, and passion for, their subject matter.

Caring deeply about each student and about that student’s accomplishment and growth. Effective teachers take time to consider each student as an individual and a unique learner. They take the time and make the effort to get to know about each student, inquiring of their interests, family, and so forth.

Distinctive character. Effective teachers add a special flavor and zeal to their instruction that creates a memorable impression on their students. Whether it is an eccentric sense of humor or a tragedy overcome, such teachers stand out in the minds of their students.

One thing we can do to fulfill the second trait is to communicate—and embody through our actions—that we believe in the ability of all students to achieve at high levels. We must communicate on a daily basis that being smart is “something you can get” and not simply something with which you are born. In schools that value effort-based ability that Saphier alludes to above, teachers constantly remind students of three crucial messages:

“The work we are doing is important.” 

“You can do it.” 

“I (We) will not give up on you.”

Have you ever had someone in your life who believed in you and consistently communicated to you that you were an able, valuable person who could and would do great things? In my high school days, that person was Mr. Bruce Campbell, an elementary school principal I met by fortuitous chance at a National Student Council convention in Marlborough, Massachusetts, in 1977. Mr. Campbell believed in me during a time in my life when—upon reflection—this must have been a rather gargantuan leap of faith. Because of his belief in my ability to succeed, even against all evidence to the contrary, I forced myself to carry on so that I could achieve my goals. Sixteen years after this man entered my life, our newborn daughter was bestowed the middle name “Campbell” in honor of all he did for me as a youngster. Teachers, you, too, will have this long-term impact on one or more of your students this year.

Believing that all students have innate capacity and that academic ability can be grown is a foremost tenet of successful educators. Obviously, we all are born with innate skills and abilities, but it is effective effort, not such innate ability, that is the main determinant of achievement. To demonstrate effective effort, however, students must understand the attributes of time, focus, resourcefulness, strategies, use of feedback, and commitment (Saphier, 2005). These factors are extremely important to student success, and we must directly teach our students how to manage time, how to focus themselves, how and where to go when they are stuck, how to use feedback, and how to reap the rewards associated with hard work and perseverance. These topics must be interwoven into every curriculum standard we expect our students to master.

If we consistently send these messages to students regarding our belief in effort-based ability, our students—even those most at risk or lugubrious—will begin to believe in themselves and become motivated to be thriving members of our school culture based on aspiration and responsibility. Why? Because someone cares about them…someone wants them to succeed…they know what to work on in order to do well…they know what good work looks like and where their current performance is in relation to it…they know how to exert effort…they believe it would be worthwhile to do well…and they believe they are able to do well.

Once again this year, I charge each of us to a noble calling: to become some young person’s Bruce Campbell, inspiring that student to levels of attainment even he or she is uncertain is reachable at this stage of life. This is important work…you can do it…I will not give up on you! Not giving up on our students is one of the many ways we teach with passion!



by Ken O’Connor

As I mentioned last week in my first “Book Bits” last week, O’Connor devotes a chapter each to 15 “broken” grading practices, offering a “fix” for each problem. The second problem, along with his fix:
Grades are broken when they include penalties for student work submitted late. Penalties distort the achievement record the grade is intended to communicate, can actually harm student motivation, and typically does not result in changes in future behavior. The fix is to set up support systems that reduce or eliminate the problem of late work.

We still need to let students and parents know when students’ work habits are not meeting expectations, but this should not be mixed with communications regarding academic achievement to standards. From Doug Reeves, quoted in O’Connor: The appropriate consequence for failing to complete an assignment is simply completing the assignment. That is, students lose privileges until they complete the assignment.

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