From the superintendent: From 'good' to 'great'
Because we are building our improvement plan for next year, I thought it would be useful to do a series of articles on how schools make the leap from good to great.
It may seem obvious, but the mission of a school is insuring high levels of students learning. And, in keeping with the spirit of stating the apparent, what happens in the classroom between the teacher and the students is the most important factor is student learning. But the definition and characteristics of a well-run classroom have changed enormously since many of us were K—12 students.
Take, for instance, the way students answer questions. In the past, a good teacher demanded that students raise their hands to volunteer the answer to a question. The other students were expected to sit quietly and listen to the correct answer before the lesson proceeded to the next topic. But research tells us that this method of classroom interaction limits both what students learn, and how accurately the teacher assesses student understanding.
When many students raise their hands to answer a question, the teacher assumed that the point was made and students generally understood. However, that assumption was often incorrect. Studies have shown that students frequently volunteer to answer questions for reasons other than wanting to demonstrate their learning. Sometimes they do it to gain attention, or they might think they have the right answer, when in fact their thinking is far from correct. By calling on a single student, the teacher only knows with certainty that one student does or does not understand.
Multiple Response Strategies allow the teacher to see whether every student in the class knows the correct answer. Instead of asking just one student to offer the answer, a teacher using MRS demands that all students show their work and answers. Many teachers distribute squares of white board and dry erase markers. When the teacher asks a question, the students all write down their answer. Then the teacher asks students to show their answers in unison, and the kids all hold up their square. There are many other multiple response strategies.
Teachers may show four possible answers to students, and ask students to hold up the number of fingers corresponding to the correct response. With simple yes or no questions, a group thumbs up or thumbs down shows the teacher how many students understand.
When all of the students respond, the teacher has a very clear idea about which students understand, and which do not. More importantly, the teacher can look for patterns in the wrong answers and demonstrate to the students why their response was incorrect. At the same time, MRS questioning techniques allow students to learn from one another. Students will look at their response, and if their neighbor has something different, instinctually ask why.
That "peer-to-peer" discussion is another tactic which has only recently been accepted as best practice in the classroom. If we let students talk to one another, they get explanations and clarifications from their friends. The act of sharing the correct information helps solidify the learning of the student who already knew the answer, and helps communicate the answer in understandable terms to the student who did not know the correct information.
Classrooms today are much louder, and more active than they may have been in the past. But the noise and movement are not signs of chaos, they are signs of teachers working to get all students involved with high level learning.
– Dwayne K. Newman is superintendent of Colusa Unified School District.