Influencing student engagement through observation and feedback
Across the country, achievement gaps persist. Standardized assessments suggest that the educational needs of English learners, students of color, students living in poverty, and students with special needs, in general, are not being met. Yet, in the high-performing urban schools that NCUST has awarded and studied, the same groups of students are achieving at or above all students in their states, proving that the gap indeed can be bridged.
These schools are succeeding in achieving excellence and equity due, in large part, to teachers’ relentless pursuit of mastery. Every day, teachers deliver lessons that are thoughtfully designed to lead their students to mastery. However, quality first instruction doesn’t happen by chance. School leaders implement structures and practices that support teachers toward the planning and delivery of instruction that leads to engagement in the learning process – a prerequisite for mastery.
How does a school leader influence student engagement? In the schools we studied, principals and others serving as instructional leaders spent considerable time in classrooms observing teaching and learning. Rather than focusing only on what the teacher did, school leaders focused their attention on what the students were doing – assessing the degree to which each learner was actively engaged in the lesson. One principal explained it like this.
When I watch, I look first for all students, and I look around the class to make sure that they’re all participating. I also walk around and ask kids. I’ll take three kids in different areas of the room and if they’re doing partner-share, I listen to what they are saying. Is the conversation that they are having related to what the teacher is asking them to participate in? When they’re doing independent work, I look at what they’re doing and I ask them, “How do you know how to do this? What are you doing? What are you working on?” And that’s kind of the way I can see that they’re engaged in that activity, and they’re able to explain it.
While engagement is critical to mastery, it is not enough. Students’ engagement in the lesson should be leading to their understanding of the content and skills being taught. If mastery is the goal, teachers must have ways of knowing whether or not students are acquiring meaning from the lesson. Consequently, principals in the schools we studied also focused on the degree to which teachers gathered and responded to evidence of students’ understanding. Principals wanted to see teachers use multiple strategies (including questions to individual students, group response questions, written responses, performance tasks, etc.) to acquire feedback from all or almost all students (not just a few) to assess each student’s level of mastery. “I want to see teachers asking lots of questions and keeping track of who is answering,” one principal stated. Another principal insisted, “I need to see teachers using good questioning techniques, getting all students to participate, challenging students, and getting students to explain their thinking.” And, principals wanted to see teachers making on the spot adjustments to their lessons based upon the feedback. As one principal stated:
“I’m looking …[to determine if] the teacher is using formative assessment. If she’s understanding that when she’s teaching the lesson she’s constantly readjusting the lesson based on the needs of the children or how the lesson is going. Just because she planned the lesson, if its’ not going well, she doesn’t keep down that road. She understands that she needs to change and try it a different way.”
Regular, systematic observations influenced better learning results for diverse populations of students because leaders attended specifically to whether or not English learners, Black, Latino, and immigrant students were actually engaged in the learning activities and making sense of the content being taught. These observations helped principals identify students that struggled to engage and the reasons for their lack of engagement. And, by providing ongoing constructive feedback, principals were able to help teachers reflect upon their planning and delivery of lessons and refine their instruction in ways that lead to increased student engagement and learning.