Which Teacher-Student Transactions Produce Drivers Instead of Passengers

January 4, 2011

What do you do if students’ core reading, writing, and problem solving behaviors aren’t improving? What do you do if your students are relying on you to help them process what they read, clarify what they have written, and nudge them to the finish line when solving a problem? What do you do to get between the learner and the learning so that you can mediate and coach as you would if your were skating along side a novice? What kinds of transactions (i.e., demonstrations, questions, conversations, prompts) build skill and empower kids to become self-directed, higher-level readers, writers, thinkers, and problem solvers prepared for the work of the 21st century?

Recent comprehensive research (Hattie, Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement; Pressley & Harris, Cognitive Strategies Instruction: From basic research to classroom instruction) is remarkably unambiguous about the teacher-student transactions that make a difference. The case is clear that the following practices improve achievement for diverse student populations: The explicit teaching of key strategies; fostering metacognitive and self-regulated learning; problem-solving in meaningful contexts; and teachers responding flexibly and opportunistically to students’ needs for instructive feedback.

These are practices that I gradually folded into my teaching over a period of many years with attention grabbing strategy lessons and collaborative problem solving activities. Explicit instruction is where I go when my students don’t know — when the experiences they have had and the lessons I have taught have not resulted in demonstrable understanding. I use my on-going informal assessments to determine where things are breaking down (e.g., making inferences, organizing ideas, flexibility in problem solving) and based on my deconstruction of the needed strategy, I begin instruction by providing a model for that behavior. Future posts will talk about the implementation of these practices, however, first let’s be explicit about explicit strategy instruction. Instruction begins with the teacher’s “show and tell” during which the teacher

  • Identifies the strategy and relates it to the students’ prior knowledge
  • Explains why the strategy is important and helpful
  • Demonstrates the steps in the strategy while thinking aloud
  • Coaches students as they reflect and describe the process they observed

This direct instruction is followed by an extended period of scaffolded, curriculum- embedded, problem- solving practice and application of the strategy. The teacher

  • Coaches students as they practice and apply the strategy while problem solving in the context of the curriculum
  • Prompts independent initiation and transfer of strategies to diverse problem solving situations

My initial uncertainty and hesitation to begin teaching strategies explicitly dissolved and my confidence in what I was doing grew in direct proportion to the growth in my students’ engagement, confidence, independence, and reading, writing, and problem solving proficiency.

Why is explicit strategy instruction so empowering and transformative? Just think about the dynamics of improving a complex behavior — like playing tennis — with the help of a good coach. First, your coach models the behavior you want to learn so that you can visualize what you want to re-create. Next, your coach watches your performance and gives you feedback. That feedback raises your awareness of what you are doing well and what you need to change. Then your coach views your actions with knowledge and specificity that you, as a learner, do not have. He or she breaks down and clarifies the process you are trying to learn; you are no longer just swinging at the ball. Finally, your coach gives you ample opportunity to practice while monitoring your actions, providing reminders, and answering your questions until your new behaviors become comfortable, natural, and automatic.

So while the coach is the catalyst for transformation, AWARENESS is the change agent.

Once we shine a light on the behaviors that drive the complex processes of reading, writing, and problem solving and illuminate what had been hidden from view, our teaching can move naturally back and forth between the processes and the products of learning. We can equip our students to make the all-important transition from the passenger’s seat to the driver’s seat. (For a guide to explicit strategy instruction, including sample lessons, see my book from ASCD: Learning for Keeps: Teaching the Strategies Essential for Creating Independent Learners)

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