Schmoker: Teach teachers how to structure lessons

well-structured lesson is one of  “the most effective known instructional practices,” writes Mike Schmoker, author of Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, in Teacher. Yet, in most schools, “successive waves of (mostly) unproven innovations and policy requirements” have marginalized lesson design.

An effective lesson starts with a carefully-formulated, clearly-stated purpose or “learning objective” accompanied by a brief preview or explanation of why that objective is worth learning and—of particular importance—how it will be assessed. This is followed by “modeling” or “demonstrating”—whereby teachers not only explain but explicitly show students, in very small, deliberately-calibrated steps, how to do the working and thinking necessary to succeed on that day’s assessment. .

Students should practice each step the teacher has modeled under the teacher’s eye, writes Schmoker. Instead of trying to tutor individual students, the teacher must “adjust instruction” by re-teaching a step or “enlisting students’ expertise by having them work in pairs to help each other.”

The name of the game is to repeat this cycle for each phase of the lesson until all or almost all students are ready to complete the day’s assignment, project, or assessment by themselves . . .

These elements “reduce boredom, increase student engagement, and guarantee significantly higher rates of student success on assessments of everything from content mastery to critical and creative thinking, to close reading, writing, and problem-solving,” writes Schmoker.

Numerous studies indicate that just three years of highly effective instruction will allow students to make average gains between 35 and 50 percentile points—effectively altering their academic trajectory. Dylan Wiliam’s oft-cited research found that when instruction embodies these elements, students will gain an additional six to nine months of academic progress each year. . . . Matched with even decent curriculum and increased opportunities for academic reading, writing, and discussion, the impact of such lessons would indeed be game-changing.

Yet he visits dozens of schools every year and rarely sees clear learning objectives and reteaching to ensure understanding for every student. “This is a scandal on the order of refusing to administer life-saving antibiotics to needy patients,” Schmoker concludes.

Adjusting instruction on the fly for a class of students with different abilities, prior knowledge and motivation sounds a lot harder than administering antibiotics.

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  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    “Numerous studies indicate that just three years of highly effective instruction will allow students to make average gains between 35 and 50 percentile points—effectively altering their academic trajectory. Dylan Wiliam’s oft-cited research found that when instruction embodies these elements, students will gain an additional six to nine months of academic progress each year…”

    I had a number of reactions to this, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” and Feynman’s, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool.” And, of course, Mark Twain’s insult from Life on the Mississippi:

    “In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      That comment was probably too snarky. But I am just so sick of overpromising (and underdelivering!) in the ed business. What is there about our business that makes people so okay with that? Are we so convinced of our own rightness that we think anything which causes people to adopt our improvement is a noble lie?

  2. The real scandal is the refusal to group kids according to instructional need, by subject. Assertions that X or Y method will “reduce boredom” are just so many horse apples; in a heterogeneous group, the kids who learn the material immediately (or, worse, already know that material) will always be bored with repetitions.

  3. palisadesk says:

    Sounds like Schmoker should visit us. At my school what he describes has been gradually but steadily and effectively implemented over a period of 5+ years. There is a strong emphasis on lesson design, with clear goals (usually posted in the classroom), advance organizers, lessons structured much as he explains, and often (depending on the subject and level) seatwork or follow-up in instructional-level groupings. The modeling and explication stage encompasses not only clear examples and step-by-step demonstrations but also non-examples, and interactive, descriptive feedback is an essential component. Our group of schools has been involved in implementing some of John Hattie’s findings on the value of explicit instruction, descriptive feedback and appropriate grouping; another influence has been Richard Elmore’s work on the “instructional core” and on staff working together with common learning goals, assessments, standards and strategies. This takes a lot of work and time but the results are worth it and none of us would go back to the “lone ranger” days. People who can’t hack it have transferred out. When you have a strong enough culture, peer pressure is highly effective at getting newcomers on board with the commitment required.

    The level of achievement in this 99% minority, low-income school — demographically almost identical to neighboring schools, but academically far surpassing them — suggests that Schmoker’s statement about “altering life trajectories” is substantively accurate. Feedback from our secondary schools, whether magnet or not, has been very positive about our students’ preparation. What I particularly notice is how well, comparatively (compared to what I saw in about a half-dozen other elementary and middle schools in low-SES neighborhoods) the lower performing children are doing, and how engaged and purposeful they are. They will probably not be academic stars — some don’t have the needed academic ability — but they are on track to complete school and have viable job and even post-secondary options.

    I always knew good teaching in particular subjects (like reading and math) made a difference, but a whole-school commitment to excellent teaching is transformative. If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it.

    • That’s very encouraging, and I’d love to see more schools doing explicit instruction. It works, not only in schools but in many other areas, and it’s EFFICIENT – a concept of which most of the ed world has apparently no knowledge or interest. Group work and discovery learning waste huge amounts of time.

      The military has a long, and successful, history of using direct instruction to teach everyone from new recruits to senior medical/technical specialists. There’s a very interesting post on Kitchen Table Math (link at left), which gives kids’ opinions of group and discovery learning; they don’t like it and would prefer teachers to actually teach.