Building an Instructional Core for Student Literacy: Part I

Identifying the problem

Why aren’t many students graduating from our schools ready to perform the reading and writing tasks demanded of them by a college or career?

Answers to this will vary widely, of course. Based on my own experience working in NYC schools, I suspect that at the core of this problem lies incoherency, and beginning with this post, I’m going to try to persuade you that this is an issue, as well as provide some ideas on what schools can do about it. BTW I’m not the only one who suspects incoherency is at the core of our educational woes: researchers like Anthony Bryk have been making this case.

Read the vision and mission statements of most schools and you’ll see it for yourself in the vague, fluffy proclamations that bear little meaning to the content of what is actually taught.

What is taught in most schools? Who knows? Good luck finding data on curriculum being used. Despite the moniker of “public,” most public schools make little effort to transparently communicate what curriculum they purchase or develop and use from year to year.

There are a few charter networks that now publish most of their curriculum online. Kudos to Success Academy, Match, and Achievement First. Apparently KIPP will also start sharing their content. New York and Louisiana have at least made quality curriculum freely available, though it’s unclear how many of their schools employ it. (If I’m missing any schools, public, private, or otherwise that are doing this, please share in the comments so I can include them.)

Why we need to change how we approach literacy instruction

Every year schools examine state test results, then set targets for supporting their students’ literacy development. But they typically fail to consider the actual curriculum students receive in their classrooms each and every day—the texts they read and the writing tasks they are expected to perform—and whether that curriculum coherently and intentionally fosters and reinforces the skills and knowledge considered most essential to future student success (more on which skills and knowledge in a future post).

Or, they substitute one curricular program for another, ready to adopt the “next new thing” despite substantial time invested in adapting and tailoring a curriculum. Or, they adopt multiple curricular programs that don’t align, then expect teachers to be able to interpret, synthesize, and implement them with little support nor time for collaborative planning.

This is a significant problem I see in many of the schools I work with, which happen to be the schools in the Bronx struggling the most. There are schools using both EngageNY’s Expeditionary Learning curriculum for the “reading” period, and Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project’s writing curriculum for the “writing” period. If you know anything about either curriculum, this is confounding, both from a teacher and a student standpoint. Students are receiving two unaligned approaches, most likely delivered poorly, and teachers are being asked to read through and understand and plan and implement two very dense and confusing narratives for every single lesson.

Teachers, for various reasons, but most especially due to nonsense like the aforementioned, choose to do their own thing, drawing lessons from test prep books or online sources willy nilly, without coming to a consensus as a department or school on what is most important to teach across grades and classrooms.

Gaining academic knowledge, language, and skills are not natural and require a structured and systematic core curriculum in order to ensure all students have plentiful opportunities to practice and master them at the level necessary to succeed in higher education or in a complex career. We know from decades of research on learning and cognition that in order to transfer an understanding of new concepts and skills into long-term memory and apply them in real-world contexts, students require repeated exposures to those concepts and skills, spaced out over time.

Yet in many schools, most especially those that serve disadvantaged communities, students are exposed to an incoherent mix of concepts and skills that ill prepare them for success in a competitive college or career.

The literacy department of a school should promote a coherent vision oriented around shared instructional concepts, practices, and content. By coming to a consensus on what is most essential for students to know and be able to do in reading, writing, speaking, and listening, then designing backwards from those targets, the ELA team can build a backbone of coherency that will support literacy development across grades and classrooms.

A 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.

In my next post or two, I’ll lay out some ideas and processes that can help an ELA team to do this work.

The Symbiosis Between Scaffolding and Differentiation

A while back I wrote a long post redefining scaffolds and examining their connection to success criteria.

I then wrote a post drawing a distinction between scaffolds and differentiation, and I cast some shade on differentiation.

But I’m no longer quite as opposed to differentiation, and I can now see how there can be a strong symbiosis between scaffolding and differentiation.

I’ve been working with a school in the Bronx where we’ve been talking a lot about these concepts, and they’ve helped me to think a little more deeply. So I figured it would be worth sharing my updated learning.

Why it’s important

Teachers are often criticized by school and district leaders for not “differentiating” enough, yet rarely provided any clear guidance on how to do so. And there’s furthermore a lot of vagueness out there in the field on the distinctions between scaffolding and differentiation.

I want to share my revised thinking on the connection between the two concepts in the hope that I can help to clarify, rather than muddy, the use of these terms.

Here’s a visual model of how I now view scaffolds and differentiation:

Scaffolding = Steps

As students practice a skill or develop knowledge of a concept, their ability and understanding increases in complexity. A master teacher breaks down a skill or concept into smaller components, all the way down to the most basic and fundamental level, so that students can accelerate up the ladder towards mastery (just as jump school recruits do with a parachute landing fall).

Those sequential steps are the scaffolds.

Scaffolding, therefore, requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught (content/skills).

Differentiation = Where each student is on those steps and what they need to progress

Differentiation, on the other hand, requires a teacher to know their individual students well enough to know what each student requires at every step on their trajectory towards mastery, and where they are on that trajectory.

Differentiation requires a teacher to be deeply aware of each of their individual student’s needs and current level of performance.

Distinguishing between Scaffolds and Differentiation

  • Scaffolding is aligned to a concept or skill.
  • Differentiation is aligned to the individual student.
  • Scaffolds are the sequential steps that lead to mastery of a skill or a deeper understanding of a concept.
  • Differentiation is in what manner and how much time a student may need to practice or review a step, as well as how much feedback may need to be provided.
  • Scaffolding requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught.
  • Differentiation requires a teacher to be deeply aware of each individual student’s needs and current level of performance.

The two thus work in tandem.

A sidenote on how all this relates to personalized learning

This brings out something interesting about the edtech industry’s drive for “personalized learning.” The concept of personalized learning arguably aligns most strongly with differentiation.

What is not frequently discussed is that in order to personalize something, you must first define that “something” and break it into its component parts. How you do this and the decisions you make and the feedback you provide are just as important as matching that content to a student’s needs.

In other words, whenever you hear about personalized learning, ignore the inspirational student-centered rhetoric and home in on the content itself. What platform or curriculum is being used? What trajectory is presented by that content? Does this trajectory align with widely respected standards or guidance from national or international professional organizations.

Definitions and Characteristics

Scaffolding

Definition

A scaffold provides opportunities for performance and practice of the component content and skills that a student requires to achieve success in a unit of study.

Characteristics

  • Smaller, sequential components of a complex concept, task, or skill
  • Requires a teacher to be deeply knowledgeable of what is taught
  • At the right level of “desirable difficulty” for practice; in other words, a scaffold isn’t about making something “easier” for students
  • Must be mastered at each step along the way. Students shouldn’t move along or have a scaffold removed until they have demonstrated mastery of each component
  • Doubles as performance-based formative assessment

Differentiation

Definition

Differentiation provides an individual student with the targeted practice or thinking, and with the necessary feedback, in order to progress towards defined learning goals.

Characteristics

  • Adjustments in environment, content, process, or product to account for an individual student’s current level of knowledge, ability, or interest
  • Based on the trajectory of scaffolding for the current topic or unit of study
  • Requires the teacher to be deeply aware of an individual student’s needs and current level of performance
  • At the right level of “desirable difficulty” for practice; in other words, differentiation isn’t about making something “easier” for the student

You’ll notice that there is a key characteristic that is shared between these two: neither are about making something easier for a student — they are both about moving learners closer to mastery of whatever it is that they are practicing and studying.

This is important because unfortunately there is a strong tendency by educators to deem some students as incapable of achieving mastery of success in academic learning.

But what is most often the case is that the educator doesn’t know what they are teaching well enough in order to provide specific and targeted supports for their students.

There’s still a lot more to dig into on this topic — specifically how it relates to formal education plans (IEPs) for students with disabilities. But I think this is more than enough for one post!

Please push back on any of this to help me further clarify and refine my thinking on scaffolding and differentiation.

Scaffolding vs Differentiation

My recent post on scaffolds and success criteria seemed to be useful to folks, so I thought I should share something more on scaffolding that can help to further clarify the term.

Scaffolding and differentiation are both words frequently thrown around in schools, often interchangeably and without precision. But there’s a clear distinction between the two that must be made, most especially as teachers are increasingly pressured to “differentiate” their lessons by school and district leadership with little guidance and concrete models.

So what is differentiation?

Differentiation asks teachers to plan different tasks or learning experiences for different groups of students, with the idea being that we can better meet the needs of diverse learners.

So for example, if we had our “high” student, our “medium” student, and our “low” performing student, we might provide a different text for each one in order to ensure they would be reading something at their “level.”

But there’s a problem with this. If the so-called “low” students only ever receive less complex and challenging expectations, texts, and learning experiences, they will continue to perform at a lower level.

This is why too many of our kids end up in “remedial” classes if and when they make it to college. This is why too many students consigned to a segregated “self-contained” program rarely even make it to graduation.

There’s another problem with differentiation. It demands quite a bit from a teacher to design (at least) 3 separate tasks or resources for any given lesson — time and energy that could perhaps be more effectively spent elsewhere.

To acknowledge these problems is not to say that differentiation can’t be applied effectively nor that it is universally the wrong thing to do. Structures for guided reading, for example, draw from this model and can be very effective in a school and classroom that have developed the necessary systems and routines. But these problems are big enough that they should give us strong pause before mindlessly evaluating and chiding teachers about whether they are adequately “differentiating” their lessons.

What is scaffolding, and how is it different?

The concept of scaffolding shifts how we approach meeting the needs of diverse learners.

We may have students coming into a learning experience with differing levels of knowledge, ability, or background, but rather than providing them with something different, we instead consider how we can provide the scaffolding necessary to ensure they can work together in grappling with a common task or text.

This is a shift offered by common standards, which demand a shared set of expectations for all students. For our students who may struggle in meeting these more rigorous demands, we must consider how to scaffold the concepts, procedures, and environment to support their engagement in practice with the texts and learning experiences that can enable them to meet those expectations.

This is certainly not an easy thing to do, either. But if I had to take a pick about what is going to give me the most bang for my buck, designing access and practice with common vocabulary, tasks, and texts is where I would ask educators to more wisely invest their time and energy.

For more on what that scaffolding should look like, take a look at my prior post, Scaffolding and Success Criteria.

Scaffolding & Success Criteria

What is a scaffold, anyway?

While working on a series of workshops about scaffolding, I came to a revelation about what the term really means. It’s one of those words, like “differentiation,” so ubiquitous in the field it seems to mean almost anything. But such generality can easily lead to some big misconceptions in actual application. I’m going to share my learning here in the case it may be useful and help others to avoid some of those missteps.

In order to truly understand scaffolding, I think you need to be able to answer this question:

Why should a scaffold used during a lesson align to the success criteria of a unit of study?

Furthermore, I think you need to understand what it takes to master a parachute landing fall at the army jump school in Fort Benning, Georgia.

Mastering a Parachute Landing Fall

For a reading that serves as a great basis for a team discussion on rigor, assessment, or scaffolding, I urge you to read Chapter 4 pg. 69 – 71 of Make It Stick by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. Read the whole darn book while you’re at it, of course; it’s all good. But I found this particular chapter especially relevant to scaffolding.

Since I obviously can’t reproduce the chapter for copyright reasons, I’ll give you an executive summary. At the army jump school in Georgia, mastering a parachute landing fall is a necessity. The jump school supports and drives recruits to mastery of this extremely complex and difficult skill within three weeks. How do they do this?

First, recruits initiate their practice in a gravel pit. They receive demonstrations of different falls. Then they practice falling and they receive feedback and they practice some more.

Next, recruits move to a short platform a couple feet off the ground. They practice jumping off the platform and executing the falls they had mastered in the gravel pit.

The challenge is ratched up. Recruits move to a zip line and practice falling from a higher drop that’s propelling them in different moving directions. They can control when they drop off the line.

You see where this is going. The recruits move to a platform 12 feet off the ground. They put on gear and jump down a mock chute, connected to a zip line. But this time the instructor pulls the cord and introduces the element of uncertainty and surprise. Recruits now have to be able to demonstrate a PLF according to chance, simulating the variables of an actual fall.

Finally, they move to a 34 foot tower. This is the final step of demonstrating mastery before boarding a moving airplane and engaging in a real-world application of the skill.

There’s some aspects of this narrative that illuminates effective scaffolding:

    • Each step provides practice and feedback on a component skill that requires mastery before moving on
    • Practice grows increasingly complex and difficult
    • At no point is the practice easy
    • Practice serves simultaneously as performance-based assessment

 

There’s a term that the authors of Make It Stick introduce that is useful for this progression of increasingly rigorous steps: desirable difficulty.

Desirable Difficulty, Academic Rigor, and Scaffolding

Desirable difficulty, a term coined by psychologists Elizabeth and Robert Bjork, is a way to describe short-term impediments that lead to stronger learning. At the army jump school, you can see desirable difficulty in action, and it highlights key aspects of effective scaffolding and how it connects to academic rigor.

At each successive step of training, the recruits are engaged in practice at a level of desirable difficulty required for them to master each successive component skill. Once they’ve mastered that skill or set of skills, they are then ready to move to the next level.

This is important to highlight for a few reasons. One is that it’s clear that at no level is the work and practice “easy.” A common misapplication of scaffolding is that it makes work easier for a student. This might make the teacher and student feel better about themselves, but it does long-term damage to student learning.

But a well-designed scaffold should not make a task or concept easy. Rather, it should provide the right level of impediment and challenge for the level of practice in the skills or concepts required to move forward.

This means that instructors can have extremely high expectations for students, as the army jump school has for its recruits, while providing well-structured practice and guidance that will lead to achievement that matches those expectations.

It also means instructors must be crystal clear about the component skills and practice that will build successively and sequentially to mastery.

Scaffolding as Performance-based Formative Assessment

“It’s one thing to feel confident of your knowledge; it’s something else to demonstrate mastery. Testing is not only a powerful learning strategy, it is a potent reality check on the accuracy of your own judgement of what you know how to do. When confidence is based on repeated performance, demonstrated through testing that simulates real-world conditions, you can lean into it.”

Make It Stick

There’s another aspect of scaffolding that is really interesting to consider from the jump school example: effective scaffolding is a performance-based form of formative assessment. Formative assessment, for those of you not up on the ed jargon, simply means testing that occurs during learning. This is in opposition to summative assessment which takes place at the end as an evaluative measure, and is usually accompanied with a grade. In the jump school example, the summative assessment would be executing the parachute landing fall from a plane.

A well-designed scaffold, therefore, engages a student in the practice of a skill that informs the instructor whether the student is ready to move on. This should be immediately visible and clear, enabling the instructor to provide ongoing feedback as the student engages with the scaffold.

Now let’s return to our original question and bring this back to the classroom:

Why should a scaffold used during a lesson align to the success criteria of a unit of study?

Success Criteria

Let’s break this down. What the heck are “success criteria”?

Success criteria are what you use to assess whether you’ve achieved the goals for learning in a unit of study. You’ll typically see these as a rubric or a checklist. The criteria are directly aligned to standards or expectations for learning for the subject and grade.

As an example, let’s say I’m an ELA teacher and I wanted to assess a third grade student’s ability to determine a central idea of a text. The Common Core Standard for Reading Literature states that by the end of third grade, kids should be able to “Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details.

So an example of a few success criteria I might use to assess that student’s progress towards the standard could be:

☐ I can distinguish between the important and unimportant details in a text.
☐ I can determine the details most essential to understanding a text.
☐ I can combine key details to determine a main idea.

Let’s look one of these criteria: “I can distinguish between important and unimportant details in a text.”

Many students will struggle with this abstract skill (not least because they don’t know enough about whatever they’re reading in order to do so . . . but that’s a whole other post). So they will need some type of scaffold to assist them in getting started on this.

So what could such a scaffold be?

One possible scaffold could be to support them in first distinguishing between details that are merely interesting, such as details that an author gives to make the text more engaging to read, from details that are central to understanding the topic of the text.

We might create some type of graphic organizer or chart to support students in practicing this with a text, and of course, we’d probably model it and do it together as a whole class before having students practice it in groups or pairs, then we’d ask individual students use it on their own.

Some students may be ready to just make a T-chart in their notebooks, while other students may need some more guided practice with a handout. Some students may need manipulatives, such as cut outs of both interesting and important details, in order to get started and to feel success before they are ready to move to greater abstraction.

But notice something about my description: the scaffold is less about a graphic organizer, chart, or manipulative, and more about the practice of a specific skill component: clarifying the difference between interesting and important details.

In other words, the point of a scaffold like this isn’t really about the thing — it’s about the thinking that students are training their minds to do through the application of the scaffold.

A scaffold should therefore provide the thinking practice that a student needs to master the criteria for success.

If we just told students to distinguish between the important and unimportant details in an informational text, some might be able to do so, and some will not. The point of the scaffold, in this example, is to train students who don’t yet see it to become aware of the difference between details provided by an author that are merely interesting, versus details that are important to understanding the topic.

Eventually, those students should no longer need a scaffold. They’ll internalize the concept and be able to apply it without thinking. A few students may never need such a scaffold at all. That’s the differentiation piece. If they don’t need it, they shouldn’t be practicing it.

We may think of something like a stepladder or the scaffolding on a building when we use the word “scaffolding.” Or you might think of a bike with training wheels, or a parent holding the bike as the child learns to pedal.

The model of a bike with training wheels is probably closer to the way we should think of what a scaffold means in instruction. We want to shift our mental model of what a “scaffold” is away from it being a tool that merely makes a task easier, to a process or activity that engages a student in the practice that they can experience success with, while on the road to mastery.

What’s the difference? Some students will need to practice a whole bunch using a scaffold before they get it. A few students may not need it at all. But the expectation is that all students will be expected to achieve that mastery.

Which leads us to another realization about what function a scaffold serves. If a scaffold is directly aligned to the success criteria in a unit of study, then it serves not only as a form of practice to achieve mastery, but it furthermore serves as method of formative assessment for both students and teachers. It provides performance-based, task-based feedback on whether or not a student has achieved the success criteria.
So a scaffold does not mean making learning easy. It doesn’t mean giving kids a shortcut so they can reach something they will never be able to reach again. It’s about having rigorous expectations and demanding that students practice in a way that will enable them to achieve those expectations.

A New Definition of Scaffold

A scaffold provides opportunities for performance and practice of the component content and skills that a student requires to achieve success in a unit of study.

Characteristics of Scaffolds

  • Scaffolds are smaller components of a complex task or skill
  • Scaffolds are at the right level of “desirable difficulty” for practice.
  • Scaffolds are not “easy”
  • Scaffolds must be mastered at each step along the way. Students shouldn’t move along until they have mastered each component
  • Scaffolds serve as performance-based formative assessment

 

Smorgasbord: Some Important Stuff

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Buffet Train Lunch

On the necessity for deliberate practice of foundational writing skills in classrooms.

“The idea behind progressive mastery is to protect students from what confuses them until they have mastered each individual component.”

Connect this to what I wrote about Hochman’s writing method.

https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2017/02/20/is-it-time-to-go-back-to-basics-with-writing-instruction/

Air pollution is damaging our nation’s children in the one place they spend some of the most time in and should be most protected in — our schools.

A critically important piece from The Center for Public Integrity on the invisible–and thus largely ignored–health risk of air pollution. Many schools, especially here in NYC, are built right next to busy roadways. The long-term health costs are incalculable, and all it would take would be a high grade air filter that can remove 90 percent of the pollution. And forcing old diesel trucks off of our roads. This may sound like a pipe dream, but California has already led the way.

Says one baffled Californian:

“The technology is well established, the installation is straightforward and the maintenance is simple,” said district spokesman Sam Atwood, who doesn’t recall officials from other states getting in touch to learn from his agency’s experience.

https://www.publicintegrity.org/2017/02/17/20716/invisible-hazard-afflicting-thousands-schools

As in the office, so in the classroom. Empower students to design their spaces.

“When workers were empowered to design their own space, they had fun and worked hard and accurately, producing 30 per cent more work than in the minimalist office and 15 per cent more than in the decorated office. When workers were deliberately disempowered, their work suffered and of course, they hated it. “I wanted to hit you,” one participant later admitted to an experimenter.”

http://timharford.com/2017/02/what_makes_the_perfect_office/

A special education teacher discovers the power in scheduling for effective collaboration.

http://www.realcleareducation.com/articles/2017/02/15/scheduled_for_success_110120.html

“Most people struggle with the idea that medicine is all about probability”

An important ProPublica piece on the hit and miss nature of many medicinal and surgical interventions. Most will do no harm —a few may gain benefit—and some will be harmed. There’s some parallels to consider with education here.

“If we really wanted to make a big impact on a large number of people. . . we’d be doing a lot more diet and exercise and lifestyle stuff.”

https://www.propublica.org/article/when-evidence-says-no-but-doctors-say-yes

Kevin Carey outlines the generally poor results on vouchers.

“while vouchers and charters are often grouped under the umbrella of ‘school choice,’ the best charters tend to be nonprofit public schools, open to all and accountable to public authorities. The less ‘private’ that school choice programs are, the better they seem to work.”

Interactional motivational scaffolds are more effective than other scaffolds.

ink

http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/2332858416680353

“conversing with a child in an elaborative way could help them remember more about their lesson”

https://digest.bps.org.uk/2017/02/23/could-the-way-we-talk-to-children-help-them-remember-their-science-lessons/

Need to remember something? Use weird visual cues to trigger your memory. Classroom teachers, take heed.

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-new-way-to-remember-the-power-of-quirky-memory-jogs/

We blame a lot of problems on immigrants. But maybe it’s time to point the finger at the “longstanding native-born Americans” as the real source of the problem.

http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2017/02/real-assimilation-dilemma.html

Daniel Kahneman comments on a blog post. The world changes.

Kahneman responds to a blog post, noting that he was overzealous in his interpretation of studies on social priming. This is important not only as an encapsulation of the “replication crisis,” but furthermore for those of us who have read and been heavily influenced by Thinking Fast and Slow.

https://mindhacks.com/2017/02/16/how-replicable-are-the-social-priming-studies-in-thinking-fast-and-slow/

Wind turbines inspired by insect wings are 35% more efficient.

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/02/wind-turbines-inspired-insect-wings-are-35-more-efficient