Introducing Content Logically, Clearly, and Concisely
In high-performing urban schools, formally or informally, teachers create and follow logical task analyses as the means to help children build a strong understanding of various key concepts and skills. In the math lesson at Highland Elementary (described in our previous blog post), the teacher did not rush to present the entire concept of linear equations in one lesson. Instead, he carefully worked to help students build an understanding of all of the components. He carefully considered what students needed to understand at each rung of the ladder. Logically and systematically, he moved students from one key concept to the next.
In more typical lessons, often the ladder toward understanding is missing rungs. Textbooks and workbooks are often constructed to cover large amounts of material in a minimal number of pages. Sometimes concepts with three, four, or more important components are presented briefly with little or no attention to the important sequence of details that might bolster student understanding. If teachers rely heavily on such teaching tools, their students may experience confusion and frustration.
The task of dividing learning goals into logical steps may not be necessary when one is teaching simple concepts with minimal depth. In contrast, logical, sequential presentations may be essential as teachers focus upon Common Core State Standards and other learning goals that require substantial utilization of higher-order thinking skills. In high-performing urban schools, we observed teachers tackling rigorous, complex academic standards by identifying a logical sequence of specific objectives students needed to learn in order to master the standard.
Teachers are much better equipped to help students pursue mastery when teachers possess deep knowledge of the content they intend to teach. Teachers must be able to identify the subconcepts and subskills that will influence mastery. They must be able to predict the issues that might confuse and frustrate students if students do not understand them well. Through their own mastery of the content, teachers are better able to plan and deliver a logical sequence of lessons and a logical sequence of activities within a lesson, leading students to deeper levels of understanding.
High-performing urban schools do not simply acquire teachers with great content knowledge. They continuously work to build teachers’ content knowledge through excellent teacher-to-teacher collaboration. By collaboratively planning how they will lead students to deep levels of mastery, teachers collectively build their own content mastery. By sharing and examining student work products, teachers learn from each other’s insights, knowledge, and skills.
While many schools claim to promote teacher collaboration, sometimes the efforts fall short of influencing improvement in teaching and learning. In contrast, in the high-performing urban schools we studied, collaboration was keenly focused upon, helping teachers deepen their expertise. For example, at Nueva Vista Elementary School in Los Angeles, California, teachers worked together in professional learning communities that resulted in substantial improvements in the quality of instruction throughout the school. Similarly, at Escontrias Elementary in El Paso, Texas (Socorro Independent School District), teachers meet in grade-level teams and in vertical teams to discuss the content they intend to teach. In the vertical teams, teachers meet with teachers at other grade levels who share leadership responsibility for specific subject areas (e.g., mathematics or reading). Teachers engage in detailed conversation about what needs to be learned at each grade level in order to ensure that students are ready to succeed at the next grade level. In grade-level team meetings, teachers discuss what students will need to master in order to meet specific learning expectations. They discuss the intricacies of what students must master in ways that help build their own content knowledge. Also, the teachers will share and discuss student work and give particular attention to the nature of instruction that led some students to higher levels of mastery.
It is important to note that sometimes delivery of a more logical sequence of lessons takes more time than is often allotted in district pacing guides. In high-performing urban schools, we found it common for principals to encourage teachers to pursue depth, even if it meant covering fewer topics. Fewer concepts may have been covered, but more concepts were mastered in depth, in part because teachers were careful to identify and deliberately teach the concepts and skills students needed to learn in order to attain mastery of challenging academic standards.
What It Is
Making sure students attain clarity regarding one concept before advancing to the next related concept
Example: The music teacher explains what quarter notes are, models examples of playing quarter notes, and gives students multiple opportunities to play quarter notes. When the teacher is fairly certain that students understand quarter notes, he introduces the concept of triplets.
What It Isn’t
Trying to get students to differentiate related ideas before they have clarity about any of the ideas being taught
Example: The teacher plays quarter notes, then plays half notes, and then plays triplets. Immediately, the teacher asks students to distinguish between the three types of notes.