How innovative are you, teacher?

Yesterday I wrote about the NYC public school requirement that every student have a “learning goal” in every subject. Today I will talk about teacher goals. (What, did you think teachers could slip away without goals? Everyone must have goals!) In setting these goals for themselves, teachers must follow the Continuum of Teacher Development (you have to buy it to see it), a rubric devised by the New Teacher Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Based on constructivist assumptions, this rubric was originally devised for new teachers. Now all teachers must use it to evaluate themselves. Apparently that has been deemed such a success (in advance) that Quality Reviewers use it to observe lessons and rate schools (see slide 13).

I first encountered the Continuum of Teacher Development as a new teacher. My official mentor from the Department of Education, a gracious and knowledgeable woman, would help me fill out the sheets for each category. This took up much of our meeting time, and it had to be done. My mentor spent much time with me in the classroom and at play rehearsals, so it wasn’t all paperwork. I reconciled myself with the paperwork requirement, thinking that after my first year I would not have to deal with the Continuum again.

I was wrong. The Continuum is now for everyone. And a strange rubric it is. Each category and subcategory contains descriptions for the levels Beginning, Emerging, Applying, Integrating, and Innovating. What does it take to be an “innovative” teacher, according to the rubric? First of all, it takes a willingness to hand over the authority to the kids. Second, it takes… er, well, I don’t know what it takes. The descriptions of the “innovative” level are sometimes hard to understand.

Here is a sample of the levels from the subcategory “Facilitating learning experiences that promote autonomy, interaction, and choice”:

Beginning: Directs learning experiences through whole group and individual work with possibilities for interaction and choice.
Emerging: Varies learning experiences to include work in large groups and small groups, with student choice within learning activities.
Applying: Provides learning experiences utilizing individual and group structures to develop autonomy and group participation skills. Students make choices about and within their work.
Integrating: Uses a variety of learning experiences to assist students in developing independent working skills and group participation skills. Supports students in making appropriate choices for learning.
Innovating: Integrates a variety of challenging learning experiences that develop students’ independent learning, collaboration, and choice.

Now just what does one do when the students need to learn something specific and follow the teacher’s directions? I suppose teachers are supposed to outgrow the belief that students need to do anything of the sort.

Here’s another sample, this time from the subcategory “Engaging students in problem solving, critical thinking, and other activities that make subject matter meaningful”:

Beginning: Focuses questions on fact and key concepts to support learning subject matter.
Emerging: Asks critical thinking questions to relate facts and key concepts of subject matter. Some issues within the subject matter are identified by the teacher.
Applying: Engages students through activities and questioning strategies that develop skills in identification and understanding of key concepts and issues. Supports all students in problem posing and problem solving.
Integrating: Engages students in analysis of key concepts and facts through activities and questions that consider multiple perspectives. Supports students to initiate problem posing, problem solving, and inquiry.
Innovating: Facilitates regular opportunities for students to design and implement inquiries and problem solving to analyze content and draw conclusions, considering multiple perspectives within and across subject matter.

I am a pretty good reader, but I find the last description incomprehensible. Nor do I understand how first graders learning to read (or, for that matter, high school seniors taking introductory physics) are going to “analyze content and draw conclusions, considering multiple perspectives within and across subject matter.”

I see nothing “beginner-like” about good, solid instruction in the subject matter. I see nothing so “innovative” about having students analyze things they have not learned. What matters is how well the teacher knows and teaches the subject. The method of teaching the subject will vary according to grade level, topic, students, and the teacher’s own judgment.

Yet the rubric is being used to evaluate schools.

Comments

  1. Margo/Mom says:

    Diana:

    I don’t see anything inherently wrong with aiming at things like: “Engaging students in problem solving, critical thinking, and other activities that make subject matter meaningful.” Nor do I find rubrics to be a terrible thing. On the contrary, the first time that I used one (grading essays for GED students), I found it to be an enormous improvement over the previous methodology–which was to give a number from 1-4 (the aide who broke me in explained that I should never give anything higher than a 3, because we wanted students to try harder. That’s OK, the previous teacher was certified in math–with English credentials, I expected more of myself). The rubric that I found gave much more specific information about whether the student should apply themselves to the grammar, to the organization and flow of information, the creative uses of language, etc. Areas of strength and areas of weakness.

    In reading your examples, my first thought is: these were obviously written by teachers. Profiling, I know. But, I have worked many years in grant-writing (one of the other things one can do with an English credential) and small time journalism, which has given me something of a keen eye for meaningless fluff and uses of language to commit to things that don’t mean much. As a parent who has been through about a decade and a half of IEP meetings, and some study of school improvement plans (aimed at being an “involved” parent), I would observe that teachers have highly developed skills in the arena of obfuscation.

    In fact, there is science behind the sorts of categories (beginning, etc) that frequently appear in rubrics. Prochaska has delineated stages of change as pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation for action, action and maintenance. Personally, I find these far more helpful that what you have cited. Each of these steps has certain hallmarks that help in categorization. Preparation for action, for instance, might include recognition of a problem, setting a timeline for change, etc. I rather suspect that someone, somewhere was imitating their notion of a rubric–without taking the time to understand any underlying behavioral theory to hang it on. Again–I would say that this is a weakness I have frequently observed in education, where there is a marked preference for professional development in the form of “workshops” or powerpoint sessions by visiting experts. A really dedicated teacher might purchase the book for sale in the lobby. What follows, then, is a slew of educators “doing” whatever the author’s topic was. We have schools “doing” Ruby Payne, or “doing” small schools, or “doing” block scheduling–with nothing more than the briefest of indoctrinations (or perhaps a workbook of “strategies”). It’s possible that someone in an administrative position got excited enough to try and implement something across the board. But, the orientation of teachers to administrators is frequently, “just tell me what I have to do to get my ‘A’ so I can go on with doing what I think is important.” In other words, in Prochaska’s terminology they are at the pre-contemplation stage with regard to the desired change (some refer to this as denial). They see no problem, nor admit any need for change. They may actively sabotage change efforts likely to be imposed upon them.

    One act of self-protection is to ensure that any measures of progress are so vague and meaningless that anyone can “get an ‘A'” with very little effort–thus being enabled to continue without change.

    I would suggest that the rubric in question most likely aligns to Bloom’s taxonomy, leading from transmission of facts to higher order thinking such as questioning, comparing, etc. These are not bad things. Research tends in the direction of higher order skills not being prominent in the learning of many American students (recent study looking at math abilities of US and Korean Students comes to mind, but also Linda Darling-Hammond’s comparisons of US and various international tests, and the paucity, by comparison to world leaders, of US students at the highest levels of PISA). Perhaps it is very appropriate for a teacher of students who are very young to focus more intensely on “beginning” ways of transmitting knowledge–as they are beginners. I don’t know that universal indicators of “innovating” are the most desireable of all possible conditions. I once wrote grants for an organization that worked with smoking cessation. It was a given than much of their work was going to be at the “pre-contemplation” and “contemplation” levels. But health care workers are much less attuned to a four point scale–with four being the best and only desired state (or giving 3’s out to motivate hard work).

    I am not outraged by what you describe, as you appear to be. I am more saddened by the overall state of education in which this takes place. There is such scorn for administration in education, such an unwillingness for teachers to see themselves as educators in a larger sense and to assume management and administrative roles. There is also an unwillingness to dig deeper into theorists such as Bloom or Prochaska and to apply their work in responsible ways, with clear hallmarks to stages, and a willingness to think about what theory looks like in practice.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Some people don’t have a finely developed nose for bull$#!+. Allow me to enhance the odors a bit, that we might see the full glory of folly:

    WHAT IS OUR GOAL:
    Facilitating learning experiences that promote autonomy, interaction, and choice.

    HOW SHALL WE DO THIS?
    Directs learning experiences through whole group and individual work with possibilities for interaction and choice.

    That a teacher “directs learning experiences” is either a tautology or wishful thinking, depending on how one approaches it. (I.e., things are either learning experiences simply by virtue of being directed by a teacher qua teacher, or they are experiences where some sort of actual learning takes place.) Let us be charitable and assume the latter is the intended meaning. Now we can rewrite this as:

    Does things to make students actually learn through whole group and individual work with possibilities for interaction and choice.

    One might next respond “But what is there besides whole group and individual work?” That would be missing the point, however. That’s not an “or” connector, but an “and” connector. The teacher’s goal should be to use BOTH whole group and individual work. Presumably the definition being employed here for “whole group” does not mean “every student” in the sense of each and every student working individually, but rather some sort of group project. (Again we are being charitable.) But care must be taken: we cannot break the classroom into groups for group work. It must be the whole group on the one hand, and individuals on the other. Yet once again we should be charitable: traditional group-work is not forbidden; just not required.

    So the “through whole group and individual” part of this sentence is quite clear. What is problematic is the “work” part.

    Except for recess, everything a teacher assigns in the course of directing learning experiences is work. Sometimes it’s fun, but it’s all schoolwork. Indeed, work is the mechanism by which teachers “direct” the learning experience. So let’s rewrite:

    Gives individual and whole group work in such a way as to make students actually learn with possibilities for interaction and choice.

    But students’ actually learning, while a laudable goal for a teacher, really is beyond his or her power. No one can guarantee an outcome in another human being. The best we can get is very strong probabilities. So:

    Gives individual and whole group work in such a way as to make it likely students actually learn with possibilities for interaction and choice.

    Now we’ve really brutalized the sentence and need to fix things. “with possibilities” is supposed to be modifying “work” and we’ve moved them away. So:

    Gives individual and whole group work with possibilities for interaction and choice in such a way as to make it likely students actually learn.

    Now, it must be acknowledged that even though our goal is “Facilitating learning experiences that promote autonomy, interaction, and choice”, everyone would acknowledge that it is implicit in the goal that we have good teachers out there facilitating. Good teachers are those teachers who give work that is likely to make students actually learn.

    So to the extent that a step towards a goal is a distinct thing from the goal itself, let us remove the goal from the step and see what remains:

    individual and whole group work with possibilities for interaction and choice

    But this isn’t a sentence. We need a verb.

    Use individual and whole group work with possibilities for interaction and choice.

    So there you are. Step 1, the “emerging” level of “Facilitating learning experiences that promote autonomy, interaction, and choice” is to make sure that your assigned work has possibilities for interaction and choice.

    Don’t worry about the autonomy yet. That’s for the more advanced levels. Speaking of which: WHAT’S OUR NEXT SUB-GOAL?

    Varies learning experiences to include work in large groups and small groups, with student choice within learning activities.

    Ah, Step 2! Use the other types of group we discussed above. Let’s skip the intermediate steps, and just rephrase this in a meaninful way:

    Add in less-than-whole group work, and start making the choice not just a possibility, but a requirement.

    Now the rest:

    Provides learning experiences utilizing individual and group structures to develop autonomy and group participation skills. Students make choices about and within their work.

    Translation: (bearing in mind both that working in groups is precisely how students learn to “participate” in groups and that student’s actually making choices is, like student learning, something that isn’t ultimately in the teacher’s hands)

    Add in autonomy and make the assignments really really hard to complete without the students’ making some sort of choice.

    Next?

    Uses a variety of learning experiences to assist students in developing independent working skills and group participation skills. Supports students in making appropriate choices for learning.

    Translation?

    .

    Yes, that’s right. There is nothing whatsoever in this sentence that has not been covered in the previous sentences. But that’s not helpful to anyone. So let’s add something concrete that a teacher can do without altering the substance of what it actually means:

    Keep doing what you are doing.

    Finally:

    Integrates a variety of challenging learning experiences that develop students’ independent learning, collaboration, and choice.

    Translation? (Again, removing things that have been said before.)

    Make the work harder.

    So now we can rewrite our entire program like this, and change all the verbs to simple present tense so that it sounds less like an imperative and more like a description.

    Facilitating learning experiences that promote autonomy, interaction, and choice

    Beginning: Uses individual and whole group work with possibilities for interaction and choice.

    Emerging: Adds in less-than-whole group work, and starts making the choice not just a possibility, but a requirement.

    Applying: Adds in autonomy and makes the assignments really really hard to complete without the students’ making some sort of choice.

    Integrating: Keeps doing what he/she is doing.

    Innovating: Makes the work harder.

    Translation of the subgoals as a whole?

    Start with easy things and build up to harder things, making sure to save both group work and autonomy for later down the road.

    Which is not only shorter, but clearer.

  3. Oy.

  4. Margo/Mom, you’re right, there’s no harm in identifying what an Innovative approach to (whatever topic or subject is being taught) would look like. But this rubric seems to value moving all teaching into that realm, which would be an inappropriate (even harmful) goal.
    This system sacrifices actual knowledge and skill development (including the skill of critical thinking), to the creator of the system’s fear of teachers being too bossy or directive.
    On top of that, these benchmarks are vague to the point of uselessness.

  5. Who writes this way? Who thinks this is clear and logical communication?

  6. More to the point, why is anyone who writes that way drawing a paycheck from the public?

  7. Sharon R. says:

    In college, I called that last one “Paying the professor to watch the students teach themselves”. I dropped my Chaucer class mostly for this reason. The prof (probably one of the top Chaucer scholars anywhere) was very 1960’s in his outlook (like the Santa Cruz standards, perhaps). We were all supposed to be questioning and exploring the material while he sat at the head of the table and nodded sagely. But it was the late 1980’s and we were all thinking about how much debt we and our parents were taking on while we sat with a noted Chaucer scholar who let us teach ourselves a subject about which we knew nothing and he knew a great deal – that he rarely shared with us.

    Understand that I’m not against discussion, digging into a text, trying to uderstand what is says, what it means, etc. But it’s maddening to know you are just re-inventing the wheel. Looking at the standards, and comparing them to my own school experience, I’d say they are bass-ackwards. The teachers who didn’t know their subject matter and couldn’t teach provided plenty of opportunities for students to explore and learn on their own (we called it babysitting). The really good teachers taught. We listened, then did our own integrative thinking in the form of essay tests and term papers and occasionally trying to ask intelligent questions in class.

    The nightmare of horror and degradation and misery of mandatory group projects in junior high I will leave undiscussed, except to say that I eventually decided it was easier to just flunk any activity that required group projects. The horror. The horror. Thankfully that fad, along with useless daily agenda copying, was limited to my junior high and hadn’t infected the honors and (then new) AP classes at my high school.

  8. I know that some professions like doctors and pilots follow protocols on how to do their jobs. This sounds like an unsuccessful attempt to do the same for teachers. I do not think it is a complete waste though. It serves as a bad example.

    ‘…high school seniors taking introductory physics) are going to “analyze content and draw conclusions, considering multiple perspectives within and across subject matter.” ”

    One way to do this would be to expose students to the history and philosophy of science.

    My recollection of high school physics and my attitude at the time suggest to me this approach would have gone over my head while I tried to deal with particle kinematics and dynamics. I was not the brightest bulb in the box. It might have worked with the brighter students.

    What I find disturbing is the idea that the class of an “innovating” teacher could completely fail to learn anything, yet the teacher is at the top of the Continuum. Innovation by itself is not enough. Innovation frequently fails.

    I find it hard to imagine a way to measure how well we teach, “independent learning, collaboration, and choice.” Should we be in the business of teaching skills in the classroom we cannot evaluate? How will we know what works or if we are wasting our time?

    Am I taking the Continuum out of context?

  9. I think the education world, both k-12 and ed schools, put far too much emphasis on creativity and innovation. The basic skills and knowledge in math, reading and all of the other disciplines have already been discovered; any creativity should be limited to the most efficient way to teach these. Students can learn to write about literature and the other content areas; corrected and graded for content and grammar.The only situation in which students should be required to do any creative writing is in a high-school ELECTIVE creative writing class.

  10. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Oh, pish. Creative writing is part of any regular English course.

  11. My high school had an excellent college-prep English sequence, with lots of in-class and out-of-class writing, including major research papers during the last two years. We were never required to do creative writing, although it was sometimes an option. I don’t think that it is an essential element, but I have absolutely no problem with it being one of several choices for a writing assignment. It can be a privacy issue that makes some kids uncomfortable.

  12. Juanita Rhudy says:

    I think it is very important for students to learn to think critically and when we allow students to work in small groups they can accomplish this. Currently, in my school there is a huge push for the teacher to be the facilitator which allows for students to teach themselves. In order for this type of learning to be successful, students must have a clear understanding of what is expected of them. Rules, procedures, and goals must be established and understood by all students. Also, the teacher must find a way to motivate students to want to learn. I have noticed with this type of teaching that many lessons hinge of real-life scenerios and things that students are interested in.

  13. Every time I hear “Bloom’s Taxonomy” or about Prochaska, I want to stab my ears out…

  14. patricia says:

    Ms. Rhudy, as a former student (who is now simply interested in education, for my own sake and my kids’ sake), I can say that I NEVER learned to think critically because of any small group work. As the “smart kid,” group work meant I did all the work and everyone else skated by on my effort. EVERY time. It was never a question of “allowing” me to work in groups; I would have preferred anything but. Perhaps if group work were implemented better, it may be the case that it facilitates critical thinking, but I will say that is beyond most teachers, in my experience.

    And the process of letting the kids teach themselves sounds awful. I can teach myself almost anything, but it is significantly easier to learn something from someone who knows more than I and is willing to share that knowledge. Again, perhaps if done effectively, it could work (I had some professors who were great at the Socratic method in law school), but I suspect that it is beyond many, maybe even most, teachers to be good at this (nearly all of my professors in law school taught using the Socratic method, and only a very few of them were any good at it- most were awful).

  15. Leave the group work to doctoral or MBA seminars, where each individual is a professional with expertise and experience in the field.

    I have seen third graders trying to discover multiplication in groups and it’s beyond ugly, not to mention hopeless and a huge waste of time. It is nothing less than educational malpractice.

  16. Creative writing isn’t a privacy violation. Perhaps the personal essay, depending on what one wants to be personal about, but you have to master that for the dreaded college essay gamut anyway.

    Example of a creative assignment I do: we study satire, learn the techniques, identify the techniques in a Simpson’s episode, identify the technqiues in Candide, students then write a short satire of their own critiquing something about our society. Heck, I’m teaching them how to write blog posts! Not only is it Com Arts, it’s flat out 21st century literacy. They’re also fun to mark, and I get some nice writing. No privacy issues.

    Socratic method is very hard to pull off. It has taken me years of practice, and I use it only about once a unit. My seniors have to be able to pull a piece of literature apart on their own by the time they take the test, and it’s a good way to get them to practice that, under my supervision, without Sparknotes. It’s a great way to assess who has been reading closely.

    When I do group work with my kids, I NEVER do mixed-work ethic grouping — especially if I’m going to take a grade. And I never give the whole group the same grade (unless they all earned it). If the slackers don’t step up, they get the grade they deserve. I will not waste the time of my high achievers having them do somebody else’s group work — these are always the busy kids in sports, clubs, church, etc. while the low achievers are invariably the ones involved in nothing constructive.

  17. Lightly seasoned, I think we’re on the same page. The devil is in the way creative writing is defined. Every time one of my kids was given a creative writing assignment, it was personal and they did feel that their privacy was being invaded. I think it relates to the new post on this site about the far-too-common emphasis on ME, ME, ME.

  18. Margo/Mom says:

    LS–I want to go to your school.

  19. SuperSub says:

    Chakotay-
    The problem isn’t with Bloom’s Taxonomy itself, but the failure of schools to apply it correctly. There is a reason that it is often displayed as a pyramid… before you can work on the higher levels, you must build a solid foundation of knowledge and comprehension. Too many schools ignore the base and attempt to go straight to the top levels.

  20. To read the Continuum for Teacher Quality rubric is to feel Dave’s fear in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when he realizes Hal really is trying to kill him.

  21. patricia says:

    I agree with Margo/Mom- LS, I want to go to your school. Heck, I want you to teach my kids!

  22. I’m afraid I’m less popular than the guy down the hall (expensively educated at all the very best schools — think of the most highly selective schools out there, and you’ve got it) who does a lot of drawing (in dual credit).

    I do teach in a very fine public school under one of the best principals, I think, in our state and probably the country. You are welcome to bring your kids on in; taxes are pretty steep, though. California we ain’t.