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Teachers’ Quest for Powerful Real-Time Data | Carrie Wilson

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Carrie Wilson, Executive Director of Mills Teacher Scholars, and Mills Alum '08

Carrie Wilson, Executive Director of Mills Teacher Scholars, and Mills Alum ’08

“What does a successful science journal look like in second grade?” … “What do I hope this partner reading conversation sounds like?” …

“What data would indicate that my students have really internalized the science concept we are studying?”

These are the kinds of questions that our teacher scholars grapple with in their collaborative Mills Teacher Scholars work sessions. On the surface, these questions may seem straightforward. But in practice, seeking thoughtful answers to questions about student understanding of content involves delving in to messy issues. Perhaps the most common struggle our teachers scholars face is teasing apart evidence of student understanding from evidence of a student’s ability to follow directions. Upon looking closely and reflecting with colleagues teachers discover that an assignment with very clear and complete directions may yield more data about students’ ability to follow directions than about their understanding of the key concepts. So how can we figure out what students really understand?

In a Mills Teacher Scholars session facilitated last month by teacher scholar leaders from Oakland Unified, I listened as teachers went around the circle sharing the focus of their inquiries and what data might provide useful information as to how their students were, or were not, progressing towards the learning goal each teacher had established.

Several teachers shared that they changed their routine data source from their initial idea. In each case, the teacher wanted to know what the students were thinking, and which concepts the students understood. And they realized that when their assignment provided teacher-created sentence frames, and teacher-designed structures for thinking, the results didn’t show student thinking. Rather, they showed successful completion of a carefully designed task. But whether the student really understood the ideas they were expressing was not at all clear.

One second grade teacher initially used, as her routine data source, student science journal entries written using teacher-designed sentence frames. This teacher changed her routine data source to be interviews with focal students in which they talked about the conclusions they had drawn and the evidence they had used that supported those conclusions.

Another teacher began her inquiry by using, as her routine data source, information about how many students had completed their learning center written work. Now she has moved to using recordings of partner conversations at the reading center to find out what kind of learning conversations partners are (or are not) having.

Yet another teacher began by looking at Accelerated Reader test scores. (Accelerated Reader is a computer based reading assessment widely used for monitoring reading progress.) She realized that the scores were not telling her much about how the students were interacting with the text, and she changed her routine data source to book talks with her focal students.

Each of these teacher scholars went beyond checking for completion and recording numerical scores to implementing practices that allowed them to find out how their students are thinking.

Through their Mills Teacher Scholars work, teachers consistently create new opportunities for students to express their understanding of the key concepts. Teacher scholars then use these powerful data to guide their classroom instruction. Creating time and support for teachers to collect, analyze, and share these real-time data is an essential component to transforming classrooms into places where a diverse group of students find opportunities for deepened learning.

Written by collegialconnections

February 11, 2013 at 10:49 am

A Public Proving Ground for Standards-Based Practice: Why we need it, what it might look like.

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Catherine Lewis
Distinguished Research Fellow
School of Education at Mills College

As states and school districts across the country embrace common-core standards, U.S. educators are in need of a public proving ground where standards-based instruction can be enacted and studied. What might such a proving ground look like?

In Japan, changes in national education standards cause ripples of activity across the country, as practitioners and researchers collaborate to bring their ideas to life in “public research lessons.” Here’s a simple example of how this process works:

When the topic of solar cells was added to the Japanese elementary curriculum, national guidelines specified only the basic objectives for student learning, not the specific teaching methods. Teachers and researchers, working collaboratively in dozens of small groups across the country, studied the available research and curricula (much of it from the United States). These teams then tried out their ideas in a local elementary school, progressively refining teaching materials and approaches based on student responses. After a year or so of experimentation, they opened up their instruction to others in large public research lessons.

The tens of thousands of educators, researchers, and policymakers who attended these public research lessons could see and discuss live instruction designed to enact the standards. They were able to question the teachers and researchers about the rationale for their choices, scrutinize the entire unit plan and records of student learning across the unit, and offer their own ideas and critiques. Each team focused on the needs of their own local students, but also drew on work by other teams when useful.

Over the first year or two of public lessons, information on how to teach about solar cells spread rapidly. A store of shared knowledge developed about practical aspects of teaching the subject—for example, which solar toys were inexpensive and made important ideas visible—as well as about the kinds of student thinking to expect, how to handle it, and the subject matter itself. One teacher observing a public research lesson, for example, asked about the scientific significance of some student strategies, including moving a solar cell closer to a light source, adding a second light source, and using a magnifying class to “concentrate” light.

“I want to know whether the three conditions the children described—’to put the solar cell closer to the light source,”to make the light stronger,’ and to ‘gather the light’—would all be considered the same thing by scientists. They don’t seem the same to me. But I want to ask the teachers who know science whether scientists would regard them as the same thing.”

The Japanese system of distributed, local, collaborative lesson-study work, culminating in public research lessons, enables educators to develop and share the many intertwined types of knowledge needed to implement standards well in the classroom—knowledge of instructional materials, teaching strategies, student thinking, and content. Such a public proving ground has several advantages over the processes of standards enactment currently familiar in the United States.

First, it recognizes that translating standards into practice is demanding, important, intellectual work. The final product of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, now being adopted here, represents an enormous accomplishment. But the standards are only splotches of ink on paper until a teacher brings them to life in a classroom. Their enactment in the classroom requires continuing experimentation, intense scrutiny, and the development of shared knowledge about what works and does not—in many different settings.

Second, it allows teachers to take the initiative in the implementation of standards and to bring their own important knowledge to bear. Public research lessons provide a natural incentive for collaborative between teachers and researchers, who share the desire to create effective lessons and document them in ways that enable others to learn from their work.

Third, it places students and student thinking at the center of reform. Although U.S. policymakers talk about “a marketplace of good materials,” how well can materials be judged without actually seeing students and teachers use them in diverse settings?

Fourth, it recognizes that the knowledge needed for standards-based instruction cannot be captured entirely in written documents such as frameworks and teacher manuals. Much of the knowledge for teaching is embodied in the instruction itself, and is spread and refined as teachers watch each other teach.

Fifth, it recognizes that improvement needs to be continuous. A static set of “best practices” on paper or video is insufficient because students are not static.

Sixth, it exerts much-needed pressure on textbook content and design. In the work leading up to public research lessons in Japan, teachers and researchers together review existing textbooks and research and choose what they believe to be the best approach. Plans written by lesson-study groups explain why they chose—and rejected—various textbook approaches.

Japanese publishers notice the conclusions emerging from public research lessons and revise textbook content to reflect what is being learned. That may explain why our recent study of two U.S. and two Japanese elementary textbook series found that the Japanese texts use the same four models to represent fractions, while the U.S. texts use 15 different models.

Finally, public research lessons provide an opportunity for policymakers to see how teachers and students actually respond to the standards in a best-case scenario in which teachers have adequate time and support to enact them. Because the policymakers who write the national standards attend public research lessons and see what aspects of the standards need further support or revision, the lessons also allow formative research on policy.

Moreover, policymakers, teachers, and researchers develop a shared understanding of the standards, based on instruction they have all seen and discussed. For example, after a recent public research lesson in California, something startling happened. While many of the nearly 100 observers thought that the mathematics lesson they had seen brilliantly realized the mathematician George Polya’s ideas about problem-solving, a few, including some influential state policymakers, could not see any relationship between the lesson and the state’s problem-solving standards. This gap in perception sparked useful conversations about the meaning of “problem-solving” in the state standards, and helped lead to eventual consensus: that solving novel problems—not just solving word problems with known procedures—was an important facet of the standard.

How feasible is such a public proving ground in this country? Experienced lesson-study groups already exist over most of the United States, and some of them hold regular public research lessons one or more times a year, using video and audio projection to accommodate large audiences. Many of these groups center on close collaboration between classroom teachers and university-based subject-matter specialists. And evidence is accumulating to show that the groups help their members build content and instructional knowledge, enhance student learning, improve collegial work, and spread teaching knowledge across the boundaries of schools and districts.

In the quest to bring common-core standards to life, we should consider the power of public research lessons. In a recent Education Week article on the implementation of common standards, a researcher described the process of developing curriculum frameworks this way: “When people go into a room and come out with solutions, it’s typically about money or politics. … So the question is, why are people going into that room? What are they after?”

What would happen if “that room” were a classroom? By using classrooms all over the United States as the public proving ground to enact, analyze, and refine standards-based practice, we could come out of the room with solutions that are not about money or politics, but about what and how students are learning.


This post was originally published in 2010 in Education Week (Vol. 30, Issue 03, Pages 28-30).

Written by collegialconnections

October 1, 2012 at 3:55 pm

Reading Japanese Classrooms

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Kathy Schultz, Dean - Mills College School of Education

Kathy Schultz, Dean
Mills College School of Education

I had the good fortune to accompany a group of Mills colleagues, along with several teachers and administrators from the Oakland Unified School District, on a trip to Japan to learn about Japanese Lesson Study in elementary and middle school mathematics classrooms. Generously funded by the Toyota Foundation, and overseen by senior researcher and Principal Investigator Catherine Lewis, this trip was designed to teach us about this powerful form of professional development through an immersion experience in Japanese schools with educators from Japan and around the world. We visited seven schools in seven days.

There is much to say about this trip and what I learned, but the aspect that I want to write about here is the way that we were taught, or attempted to learn, how to read Japanese classrooms.  My mentor Frederick Erickson often said that children are always learning or on task; it’s simply a question of whose task they are on: their own, the teacher’s, one set by their peers, or the like. I tend to approach classrooms with that in mind. I look for how and what students are learning, not whether they are learning.  I try to understand teaching in relationship to students’ learning, whether the teaching is generated from the front of the classroom or through more informal interactions. I have written about how silence is a critical form of participation in classrooms, and often focus on how students are representing learning (and teachers are instructing) through silence in addition to verbal responses.

In order to understand our observations in Japanese classrooms, we wore transmitters with headphones while one of our Japanese colleagues interpreted the teacher and students’ talk and writing. We also were also given the lesson plans ahead of time. Many of the lesson plans were comprehensive and included possible dialogues for the problem-solving period as well as the instructional context. At times we had discussions before the lesson with our Japanese guides, experts both in the Japanese mathematics curriculum and Lesson Study as practiced in Japan.

One of the most complex lessons we observed was about angles. The lesson followed what we came to understand as a typical pattern of Japanese mathematics lessons. The teacher introduced the topic by drawing on the students’ prior knowledge. He posed a problem for the students and then asked them to generate solutions.  While they worked independently, he walked around and observed the students, taking notes on a seating chart.  Occasionally he commented on students’ solutions or posed questions to prompt their thinking. As the students generated solutions, he documented their thinking on the chalkboard which created a visual map of the lesson. The students documented their work and the class’s collective thinking in journals. At the conclusion of the class, the teacher summed up the work and asked them to write briefly in these journals.

During the discussion period, the teacher made the decision to follow the lead of two students, which distracted him from getting to the stated purpose of the lesson. The conversation was lively, several students seemed engaged, and at the end of the class the students hadn’t reached the predicted conclusion or endpoint on the lesson plan. Still I believe that the students had gained new understanding of angles, and that their curiosity and desire to learn more was piqued. In Erickson’s terms, they were “on task.”  My notes contain transcripts of what the teacher and students said, and little analysis of the quality of the interactions.

A Japanese Classroom

After the lesson, we assembled to observe the next phase of the lesson study process: a discussion and analysis of the lesson led by teacher leaders, followed by a talk from a university professor reflecting on both the lesson and the ensuing discussion.  The post-lesson conversation among the teachers centered on student solutions and the teachers’ pedagogical choices.  A new chalkboard was pulled down as various teachers illustrated what they saw on students’ papers, and how and whether it indicated understanding. We followed the discussion with interest.  At the conclusion, the professor unequivocally declared, “This lesson was a disaster in terms of what was indicated in the textbook.” He went on to explain the mathematics of the lesson and the missed opportunities that were a consequence of poor decisions the teacher had made. Simply put, the teacher had chosen the wrong examples or solutions from the students to focus on and, as a consequence, been unable to reach the critical teaching point suggested by the text.

Although I tried hard to follow his exposition through the somewhat difficult translation, I was not convinced that the lesson was really a disaster until we later posed the same question to our Japanese leader. “Yes,” he informed us without hesitation, “The lesson was a disaster.” Along with several of my colleagues, I had completely misread the lesson and classroom activity. From that moment on, I wanted to understand how Japanese educators “read” classrooms, to understand how my vision of exploration and possibility in the classroom was in conflict with their interpretation of the lesson as characterized by errors in decision-making and mathematics.

The debate about education in this country often boils down to how can we compete in a global market and improve the education of our American youth so that they achieve at the same high level as youth in other countries. In order to achieve these goals, the US has established national standards, adopted new curricula, instituted high stakes testing. But how often do we really try to read the classrooms in these countries, attempting to deeply understand—and even critical analyze—the pedagogical decisions of teachers and learners? How do we facilitate true dialogue and learning across international contexts when there are such high stakes and national loyalties? I wonder about the value or role of outside perspectives.  How does my own focus on the importance of listening to or paying close attention to student silence add to Japanese educators’ understandings of their own classrooms? And finally, I wonder, how can those of us on the trip use our experiences to inform our own work in local schools and our preparation of future educators?

Written by collegialconnections

August 22, 2012 at 11:47 am

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