In my last post, I sounded a somber note and was feeling just a mite pessimistic about this remote learning thing. It’s hard not to feel that way when you hear ambulances every few minutes and wake up to the steady death tolls in the hundreds across the city each day.
But thanks to inspiration from the hard work of teachers and leaders putting their nose to the grindstone, I’m feeling hopeful about remote learning. We can’t just throw up our hands and write off this time. There is learning to be done, folks. And it’s happening. So let’s get to it!
Let’s talk about synchronous and asynchronous remote learning.
Synchronicity vs. Whenever’s Clever
Synchronous means instruction occurs in real-time, such as via a videoconference or livestream. Asynchronous means instruction happens whenever a learner chooses to access it.
If Twitter be any gauge, people have strong opinions bending towards one or the other. And it seems like individual schools may have a strong preference for one or the other in how they attempt to structure their students’ on-line time.
I’ll admit when this whole remote learning thing kicked off, I had a strong bias myself towards asynchronous learning, more due to familiarity with that form than anything else. I’d never Zoomed or videoconferenced a lesson before. I assumed that the primary function of synchronous would be community building or social-emotional in nature. After all, it really is important to simply see the faces and hear the voices of people we know when we are in this unnatural state of exile.
But after seeing and reading about some strong examples of synchronous learning for instruction, such as via Baltimore teacher Kyair Butts, Brooklyn history teacher Amy Berman, and NYC math teacher Michael Pershan, I realized that synchronous learning can hold a lot of power.
Asking Better Questions
So I think what we should really be asking ourselves is:
What is the right balance between synchronous and asynchronous learning for this [school/student/content]?
I think a related question could also be:
What is the least amount of synchronous instruction we can provide that will motivate and equip students to complete asynchronous tasks and access resources independently?
It may be that some progression also needs to occur between the two forms over time, such via a gradual release model, whereby more synchronous learning is needed initially for new content or for students who are struggling, then is tapered off.
Teach Like a Champion: Remote Learning Style
I had the opportunity (H/T Tiffany Peltier) to attend a small group Zoom session with Teach Like a Champion guru Doug Lemov last week (UPDATE: the Uncommon team has graciously provided the content for free! Check it out) where he provided what I’ve found to be the most useful guidance for thinking about these two types of remote learning. Rather than suggesting one or the other was superior, he simply laid out some of the opportunities and challenges of each, then asked what might be done to leverage those opportunities and mitigate against their weaknesses. We watched a few example lessons from each form to consider effective teaching moves. I was really impressed with the high quality teaching evident in these videos, which were by teachers that had just jumped into remote learning themselves. Doug posts these videos on his Teach Like a Champion blog, by the way–you should be following his posts, as these models are invaluable. Here’s a few to get you started: K-1 teachers at Brooklyn Rise, Alex Barba’s AP Bio class, and teachers doing online read alouds.
He also provided an overview of cognitive load theory in a nutshell, and really got me thinking about how it is all the more critical that we make our remote learning instruction and tasks as concrete and bite-sized as possible. Why? Because unlike in a traditional classroom, we have no control over our students’ environment. And their working memory may be getting taxed by any number of factors — siblings demanding attention, overstimulation from noise around them, the stress of neighbors and family getting sick, ad nauseam. So we need to provide content and tasks in a manner bite-sized and solid enough that it can be consolidated into long-term memory despite everything else that may be happening.
A few other tips to leave you with from this session:
Use cold-calling! Doug modeled this throughout the session and it really keeps you on your toes.
Provide frequent opportunities, as in a typical classroom, to consolidate learning and clarify misconceptions, such as via a turn and talk or stop and jot
Include “pause points” to allow students to engage in an activity and provide clear directions for how they will do it
Provide a graphic organizer or “tracker” so students can follow your instruction and you can monitor their learning, such as via a Google Doc
That’s a Wrap
Just touching the tip of the iceberg on this, but wanted to get this out there so I can keep building on these ideas. I’ve heard a lot of initial talk about synchronous and asynchronous forms in NYC, but I think there’s still schools that haven’t quite thought through how they are distinguishing between them and attempting to leverage them to full effect.
How are you balancing the two? And what have you found most effective so far?
I spent some time this summer drafting a policy proposal for the P2Tomorrow competition, mostly as an exercise to sharpen my own thinking around issues I’ve seen with literacy. Thanks to some great feedback from some very smart people (if you are reading this and you are one of them: thank you!), I am proud of the final result. I didn’t win, but I don’t feel so bad about that since the winners are a truly diverse and amazing collection of ideas (see the list of winners and their ideas here).
So I’m sharing my proposal with you. Please share if you find these ideas useful.
Supporting the Development of Clear and Coherent Literacy Instruction in Schools
The Problem with Literacy: It’s Not Just ELA
Is literacy a subject, or a whole school endeavor?
While defining “literacy” is tricky, especially in a rapidly changing society, most would include in their definition the ability to read and think critically and to communicate effectively. Such literacy is not developed haphazardly nor solely within one subject. It requires a school to work cohesively across classrooms to develop shared expectations, content, and practices.
Yet states label Grade 3-8 literacy assessments as “English Language Arts,” and accountability thus falls primarily on the shoulders of one content area: the ELA department. In effect, ELA is reduced to the practice of generic and shallow reading and writing skills as preparation for state assessments. Results on both national (NAEP) and international (PISA) scores for reading have flatlined for two decades. One reason is that most students receive only scattered exposure to the academic language and conceptual understandings gained from a school-wide engagement in a coherent set of literacy practices.
Though the Common Core Standards attempted to address this disconnect through promotion of literacy standards for ELA and History/Social Studies, Science, & Technical Subjects, a misconception remains in the field that the recommendation for a “balance between informational and literary reading” should be solely driven by ELA, rather than across those other content areas. This has led some educators to believe literature should now rarely be taught, a misreading reinforced by state ELA assessments skewed towards nonfiction passages.
This narrowing of the curriculum has been widely recognized since 2001. ESSA sought to rectify this by redefining what is meant by a “well-rounded education,” and including more subjects beyond the “core academic subjects” of the original ESEA legislation. ESSA also allows Title II funding to be used to help teachers “integrate comprehensive literacy instruction in a well-rounded education.”
Yet thus far states have been largely unable to clarify what it means to teach literacy coherently and effectively at the ground-level. Some school leaders and teachers continue to remain misinformed about the key shifts of their own state standards, and confusion about the meaning of literacy and its relationship to ELA and other subjects has led to a wide variety of pedagogical approaches and curricula of variable quality, complicated by layers of often contradictory state and district policies and initiatives.
A growingrecognition of the importance of curriculum and the need for more effective resources is promising, but solutions must go far beyond the evaluation and adoption of higher quality curriculum. A school may adopt standards-aligned, high quality curriculum for various subjects but remain completely incoherent. What is needed are consistent and ongoing processes for collaborative planning and reflection on curriculum and literacy practices across a school.
What State and District Leaders Can Do
How can state and district leaders support school teams in developing, reflecting on, and sustaining processes that will promote literacy coherently across a school?
There are four moves that policy leaders can make:
Clarify expectations for school-wide processes for collaborative planning and reflection on literacy content and practices
Create a process for surveying educators and the wider public on what texts should be selected for literacy assessments, and publish that list in advance of each school year
Promote team — rather than individual — accountability for results on literacy assessments
Step 1 We have to begin with a redefinition of what we mean by literacy. The ESEA, since updated under NCLB and ESSA, requires states to assess “reading or language arts” annually in grades 3-8. Despite ESSA’s expansion on a “well-rounded education,” states continue to narrowly label their assessments as subject-specific ELA(46 out of 50, according to my count). Only 6 states mention the word “literacy” in their assessment title.
It may seem like a small thing, but relabeling state assessments as literacy assessments, rather than ELA, would send a clear signal that literacy is not confined to a single subject. This could initiate a state-wide dialogue about what literacy means as a whole school endeavor.
Step 2 As a part of that dialogue, expectations should be developed for what school-level processes will support the development of shared, high-quality literacy content and practices. As a model, the International Baccalaureate standards for curriculum provide guidance for the collaboration and discussion expected between all teachers within a school. By establishing clear criteria for ongoing school-based reflection and curriculum alignment, state and district leaders can promote the idea that curriculum is dynamic and constantly in development, rather than a static item that is purchased and put in place.
Step 3 To further foster an innovative school-wide focus on literacy improvement, the state could engage multiple stakeholders in the cross-curricular selection of texts that would be on assessments the following year. By involving educators and the wider public in this process in partnership with the assessment vendor, greater focus, clarity, and transparency for what is taught and assessed would be cultivated. Furthermore, this could help level the playing field for students that need more exposure to the academic vocabulary and background knowledge required for comprehension of the selected texts and topics.
Step 4 Accountability for literacy assessments could then shift from resting solely on ELA departments to include other subjects, resisting the narrowing of curriculum that is so pervasive. One state, Louisiana, has already taken a bold step towards this by piloting assessments that blend social studies and ELA, and which assesses books that kids have actually studied, rather than random passages.
Such measures signal to schools that teaching literacy is the responsibility of a team, and can do much to counteract the prevailing headwinds of narrow and shallow test prep.
What could we expect as a result of these moves?
Let’s consider a school representative of our current situation.
MS 900 is a public middle school in an urban district. The school has an alternating schedule for reading and writing, using two separate and unaligned ELA curriculum. The ELA teachers complain about the complexity of the writing program and the lack of professional development. Students complain about boring instruction. Grade-level ELA and math teams meet two times per week, and the social studies and science teams meet once per week. According to the state’s teacher evaluation system and testing data, the instructional quality varies widely across the school, with a few effective teachers, two highly effective teachers, and the rest developing.
Step 1 At a district meeting, the MS 900 staff learned about a new state initiative where the expectation would be that a whole school should work together to teach literacy, and that tests will reflect this. The administrators and teachers considered how schedules would need to change to provide opportunities for cross-curricular teams to meet regularly to discuss and plan for this new conception of literacy.
Step 2 Grade-level teams at MS 900 were rescheduled to meet 3 times a week, and each departmental team 1 time a week. The school’s support organization introduced protocols for teams to share and discuss the content and practices currently used across different classrooms. Grade-level teams also examined student work and discussed common approaches to targeting student literacy needs. Meanwhile, the ELA department determined that reading literature and writing narratives and poetry had been too long neglected, and discussed with their grade-level teams how strategies for reading and writing informational texts could be shared across the grade. The SS and science departments highlighted strategies specific to their subjects, while sharing topics and themes that could be developed across the the grade. The teachers who had more effective practices began to be recognized by their colleagues for their expertise, and other teachers requested to visit their classrooms to learn.
Step 3 When the new state survey for text selection opened up in the next year, both grade-level and departmental teams discussed which texts and topics were critical for meeting state standards, for teaching their students about the world, and for providing texts and topics that were relevant and engaging. Each team came to a consensus and submitted their selections. When the state published the texts, teachers were excited to see some of their choices reflected on the list, as well as to be introduced to new literary and nonfiction texts they hadn’t read yet but that were highly rated. Teams began planning how they would incorporate study of the selected texts into their shared curriculum.
Step 4 After two years of this process, when the state introduced new accountability measures for schools based on literacy results that bear shared weighting by ELA, social studies, and science teachers, MS 900 teachers felt prepared for the challenge, and were even eager to view the results and item analysis so they could figure out how they could work together to improve their students’ literacy abilities. Imagine that.
In my last post, way back in August (things got busy!), we examined the problem of incoherency in literacy instruction, and I proposed the following hypothesis:
If a school comes to a clear understanding of what they teach, and can articulate why they are teaching it to parents, students, and the wider public, then this will ultimately result in improved academic outcomes for students due to the greater coherency and consistency in what is taught to students throughout the school.
So how can a school come to a clearer understanding of what they teach, how they will teach it, and a rationale and vision for literacy?
Define What You Want Kids to Know and Be Able to Do
A good place to start is for a school to define what knowledge and skills they believe children should walk out of their building equipped with when they graduate. And by define, I mean truly define discretely, not simply generate a set of feelgood statements like, “I want kids to be lifelong learners and passionate, independent readers who have 21st century learning skills. . .”
A hearty chunk of skills are already defined by state standards (which was already contentious enough of a process) but due to the decentralized nature of American schools, as well as a strong anti-intellectual current, there’s reluctance to define the content–in the form of topics or texts–that students should study.
And so here we are, like I said in my last post, in the situation wherein parents and the wider public have nary a clear what is actually taught in most public school classrooms.
I think that much of this is attributable to confusion between knowledge and skills. Some school officials, if challenged, will point to state standards and say, “There’s what we teach.” But standards are relatively abstract goals composed of various strands of skills wrapped together. They require significant work on the educator’s part to “unpack” in order to break them down into more concrete subskills and targets for learning.
But even then, you’ll still be missing a critical component of literacy.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say you’ve broken down the third grade Common Core reading literature standard which states, “Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details.” You’ve broken down the ability to meet this standard into a few subskills, such as, “I can distinguish between the important and unimportant details in a text” (look familiar? This is from my post on scaffolding a while back!).
That would be a typical “learning target” in a classroom. But there’s a key element missing: Which text? What details?
Because that’s really where the rubber hits the road. We pretend academic literacy can be developed from an isolated set of skills, but vocabulary and background knowledge are a critical component of literacy. And academic vocabulary and knowledge are built cumulatively from the study of related texts and topics over time.
Knowledge vs. Skills
Knowledge and skills are not the same thing, and it’s important to be able to delineate them. They exist on different planes, but they share a point at which they converge.
Here’s a little graphic I came up with to demonstrate their convergence and differentiation:
Where lies the point of convergence between literacy knowledge and skills? It lies in the texts that students read.
Do the texts cumulatively build knowledge of key topics and themes? Or are they happenstance and scattered, dependent on the teacher?
This is why you’ll hear literacy experts talk about the importance of “text sets” that focus on key topics and themes. This is how academic vocabulary and knowledge is built.
Speaking of “experts,” I had an extended dialogue with an author and professional development facilitator who claimed that rather than two strands, like the one above, that there are in fact three strands, or “three dimensions” of learning: concepts, facts, and skills. She and I went back and forth about whether and how conceptual knowledge is distinguished from factual knowledge. Rather than refer me to research or other verified sources, she would just tell me that I needed to read her book. Color me skeptical.
Maybe she’s right, but I ain’t reading her book (unless she sends me a free copy. Then, maybe). But I figured I should put it out there in case you do find that distinction useful.
I’ll stop there for this already overlong post. There’s a heck of a lot more to dive into. But I’m hoping that even just drawing that line between knowledge and skills might help you to redefine how you talk about literacy in your school. Do your students have text sets available to them that build knowledge around key topics and themes that they can use to practice and apply key literacy skills more independently? Has your school defined key topics and themes?
Does the curriculum your school uses build knowledge around key topics and themes? Does it build it vertically across grades and horizontally across subjects? Or is it so heavily skills-based that it’s entirely unclear what texts are actually to be read?
Start there, and your school can begin to tackle the sticky problems of literacy at a much deeper level, and that approach can pay dividends in student learning over time.
Paul Kirschner, John Sweller, Femke Kirschner, and Jimmy Zambrano published a recent paper in the International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning titled, “From Cognitive Load Theory to Collaborative Cognitive Load Theory,” in which they make the case that cognitive load theory needs to be reconsidered from a different frame for group tasks.
I found it interesting because I had created a synthesis on group learning a while back (read all about it here), and much of Kirschner et al.’s synthesis aligns with much of what I found, such as that group work requires the development of collaborative skills, the importance of clear, accountable roles and expectations for group tasks, or that heterogenous grouping should be our default when creating groups.
However, there was one key piece that seemed to contradict a finding I had drawn from Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey’s book, “Guided Instruction,” which is that new concepts and information should not be introduced during group work, as this would overload students’ working memory.
Kirschner et al. instead suggest that working as a group creates a collective working memory, and that therefore group tasks should be more complex. They state, “… learning in a team is more effective than individual learning if the complexity of the to-be-learned material is so high that it exceeds the limits of each individual learner’s working memory.” They furthermore suggest that greater complexity will make the task more engaging for the group: “Collaboration will occur when the task is complex enough to justify the extra time and effort involved in collaborating with others.”
However, they also caution that “In terms of cognitive load, if learners have not acquired [task-specific collaboration] skills prior to beginning on the collaborative task, the load induced here could be so high as to hinder collaborative learning.” This agrees with what I also found in my synthesis, which is that fostering effective group work requires time and training, with explicit learning objectives for the skills practiced in group specific tasks. As Kirschner et al. puts it, “We may need to be taught how to communicate and coordinate carrying out complex tasks in order to optimize transactive activities and construct better knowledge and skill schemas (Zambrano et al. 2018).”
Kirschner et al. also highlight the different considerations we need to make for students based on what they already know. In fact, they seem to suggest that students with low levels of domain-specific knowledge can benefit the most from engaging in group tasks, whereas students with higher level of expertise may have their learning hindered by the additional elements introduced by collaboration. Here’s two relevant quotes on this:
“When teams are composed of learners with a low level of domain-specific knowledge, these novices need to be involved in cognitively demanding search-based problem solving, whereas when they are knowledgeable, this is not the case as the learners can probably deal with the problems using their available knowledge base. Also, when teams are composed of learners with a low level of domain-specific knowledge, there is a greater potential for a larger increase in collective WM than when individuals have high levels of domain-specific knowledge required by the task.”
“With respect to cognitive load, if learners have relevant knowledge to carry out a task, communication and coordination activities may be unnecessary or even detrimental to learning. When there is little domain-specific knowledge, the cognitive load incurred by transactions could positively impact learning but where there is a great degree of expertise, and thus where transactions are either unnecessary for or detrimental to learning (Zambrano et al. 2017b), the cognitive load incurred could negatively impact learning.”
I’m glad I reviewed this article, as it has helped me to clarify my thinking about assigning group work.
To summarize the key point I’m revising my thinking about group work on:
From “new concepts and information should not be introduced during group work. Group work should be used for reinforcing, consolidating, and applying information students have already been exposed to”
When assigning group work, ensure that the task is complex enough to warrant collaborative effort.
I’ll provide an updated decision-tree and guiding document to reflect this learning soon.
I recently shared a fascinating study on the impact of the historical legacy of a place, which found that students living in neighborhoods with a legacy of economic and residential segregation had greater odds of dropping out of high school compared to their peers in other neighborhoods.
The existing social capital of a neighborhood, in other words, is associated with the historical legacy of that particular place.
This makes a lot of sense to those of us that work in communities with legacies of poverty and trauma. And it also relates to a concept that Will shared here back in 2012: hysteresis.As explained on Wikipedia, hysteresis refers to “the dependence of the state of a system on its history.” This concept can be applicable to a wide range of systems—in our case here, we are considering socio-ecological systems.
Another recent study presents further support for the impact of the legacy of a place on people. Researchers used online surveys of the “big five” personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) and examined them in connection to a region’s historical legacy associated with industrialization during the 19th and 20th century.
Their results suggest “that the massive industrialization of the 19th and 20th centuries had long-term psychosocial effects that continue to shape the well-being, health, and behaviors of millions of people in these regions today.”
“. . . .Our research shows that a region’s historical industries leave a lasting imprint on the local psychology, which remains even when those industries are no longer dominant or have almost completely disappeared.”
The author concludes that “Without a strong orchestrated effort to improve economic circumstances and people’s well-being and health in these regions, this legacy is likely to persist.”
Granted that this study is based on data gathered from online surveys. But the “big five” survey has a fairly robust research base behind it and predicts academic achievement and parenting behavior (you can also take the survey yourself; I found my own results enlightening). But of course, further research into the impacts of the historical legacy of a place should continue to be pursued.
In the meantime, for those of us who work with children raised in communities that bear the legacies of injury, we need to be mindful not only of the individual needs of the children before us, but furthermore the history of the place within which they live.