Introducing Content Logically, Clearly, and Concisely
The task of dividing learning goals into logical, clear and concise steps may not be necessary when one is teaching simple concepts with minimal depth. But, in the high-performing urban schools we studied, teachers had learning goals that required substantial utilization of higher-order thinking skills. Teachers were not satisfied with rote memorization of facts, rather they wanted their students to learn deeply and be able to apply their knowledge to solve novel problems. Leaders knew for teachers to teach to this level of mastery, they needed teachers who were experts in their content areas. Teachers needed to be able to identify subconcepts and subskills as well as predict issues that might confuse and frustrate students to create clear and logical lesson plans.
High-performing urban schools do not just acquire such teachers. They continually work to build teachers content knowledge through excellent teacher-to-teacher collaboration. First, leaders made sure teachers had time to collaborate in grade level teams and vertical teams during the school day on a regular basis. By collaboratively planning how they will lead students to deep levels of mastery day by day and year by year, leaders believed teachers would collectively build their own content mastery. Depending on how many teachers taught a grade level or subject area and the local context in regard to meeting time, the exact specifics varied, but collaboration and teamwork were non-negotiable and were prioritized in the master schedule.
Second, leaders ensure meeting time is devoted to detailed conversations about what needs to be learned at each grade level and what skills students will need to master in order to meet those learning expectations. Sometimes they provide meeting agendas and protocol to help focus attention, sometimes they have teams submit meeting notes they review and sometimes leaders arrange their time, so they can attend and participate in meetings. Most importantly, the expectation is teachers share and examine student work products and learn from one another new insights, knowledge and skills that improve their understanding and pedagogy. One strategy we observed is to have teachers pay particular attention to instruction that led to high levels of mastery; these analyses helped teachers break down and identify logical sequences of content that were digestible to all students.
Finally, this work is embedded in a culture in which leaders believe all students will succeed academically and that all teachers can perform effectively when they have quality support. Unfortunately, when adults perform ineffectively, they are often perceived as unwilling to change or not capable of changing. Leaders of high-performing schools instead believe it is their responsibility to help everyone succeed.