Sunday, February 18, 2018

Scaffolding Questions to Develop Deeper Understanding

Over the past couple of months, I have been working with a variety of schools and districts in the role of a coach.  Most of this work is focused on digital pedagogy so naturally, I am focused on observing and collecting evidence to get a handle on both the level of instruction and the learning that is taking place.  To allow educators to critically reflect on their practice I take many pictures of what I see, especially the types of learning activities with which students are engaged.  After numerous visits, we all debrief and discuss the good practices that were observed, but also areas needing improvement.

The message that I try to convey is that technology should not be separate from sound instructional design, but instead serve as a ubiquitous entity that supports or enhances curriculum, instruction, and assessment.  There are five main areas that are critical components of sound instructional design that I tend to focus on during debriefing conversations: level of questioning, authentic or interdisciplinary contexts, rigorous performance tasks, innovative assessments, and improved feedback. Of these five components, questioning techniques are something teachers and administrators can work to improve in every lesson. 

Here is what I struggle with based on what I actually see in practice.  In many cases, the "wow" factor of technology is placed ahead of getting kids to think deeply or authentically applying their learning.  Take tools like Kahoot and Quizizz.  There are no inherent issues with the tools themselves, educators just have to be more mindful of how they are being used.  Many of these tools add either a fun or competitive factor to the process of answering low-level, multiple-choice questions. Now I am not saying that foundational knowledge is not important. It is in many cases. However, if this the only way tools like this are utilized then we are missing a golden opportunity to challenge our learners to think deeply about concepts.

While conducting some coaching visits at Wells Elementary School recently, I saw Ms. Mican using Quizizz.  At first glance, all I saw were student responses to knowledge-based questions on the interactive whiteboard to check for understanding.  What I saw next really made me smile.  With the students sitting on the floor around the IWB Ms. Mican displayed the Quizziz results and then had the kids explain why they answered the way they did.  This is a great example of scaffolding and building on the content.  As I said previously, foundational knowledge provides a bridge to higher-level thinking and application.  They key is to make sure when using response-based technologies that the level of questioning is addressed through scaffolding techniques. The same can be said in regard to any type of activity without technology.

Scaffolding refers to a variety of instructional techniques used to move students progressively toward stronger understanding and, ultimately, greater independence in the learning process. Questioning is an integral component of this process. NSEAD provides this synopsis on the importance of good questioning techniques. Check out the link in the previous sentence it contains a wealth of information to improve the level of questioning in any class. 
Historically, teachers have asked questions to check what has been learned and understood, to help them gauge whether to further review previous learning, increase or decrease the challenge, and assess whether students are ready to move forward and learn new information (factual checks - ie 'Closed' questions). This can be structured as a simple 'teacher versus the class' approach (Bat and Ball), where the teacher asks a question and accepts an answer from a volunteer, or selects/conscripts a specific student to answer. These approaches are implicit in any pedagogy, but teachers need a range of 'Open' questioning strategies to address different learning needs and situations. Teachers must also pitch questions effectively to raise the thinking challenge, target specific students or groups within the class.
The Rigor Relevance Framework provides all educators with guidance to scaffold questions.  It is an action-oriented continuum that describes putting knowledge to use by giving teachers a way to develop both instruction and assessment and gives students a way to project learning goals. This framework, based on traditional elements of education yet encouraging movement from the acquisition of knowledge to the application of knowledge, charts learning along the two dimensions of higher standards and student performance



Below is a breakdown of the four quadrants:

  • Quad A - Students gather and store bits of knowledge and information. Students are primarily expected to remember or understand this knowledge.
  • Quad B - Students use acquired knowledge to solve problems, design solutions, and complete work. The highest level of application is to apply knowledge to new and unpredictable situations.
  • Quad C - Students extend and refine their acquired knowledge to be able to use that knowledge automatically and routinely to analyze and solve problems and create solutions.
  • Quad D - Students have the competence to think in complex ways and to apply their knowledge and skills they have acquired. Even when confronted with perplexing unknowns, students are able to use extensive knowledge and skill to create solutions and take action that further develops their skills and knowledge.

Below you will see how questions can be scaffolded according to each quadrant of the Rigor Relevance Framework.



With and without technology it is important to empower our learners to think. Scaffolding questions enhance learning and aids in the mastery of concepts by systematically building on knowledge and relevance. The ultimate goal is to develop competent thinkers and doers who can not only use knowledge in new ways but also construct their own.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

To Improve Outcomes, We Need to Take a Critical Lens to Instructional Design

No one can deny the fact that we are seeing some pretty exciting changes to teaching, learning, and leadership.  Advances in research, brain science, and technology are opening up new and better pathways to reach learners like never before.  This excitement in some cases is leading to change with supporting evidence of improvement. In other cases, money is being dumped on the latest tool, program, idea, or professional development without ensuring that instructional design is up to par in the first place.  Pedagogy trumps technology.  It also goes without saying that a solid pedagogical foundation should be in place prior to implementing any innovative idea.

Let's start by looking at practice from a general lens.  To transform learning, we must also transform teaching.  When looking at the image below where does your practice or that of your teachers lie? What immediate changes can be made to improve learning for your students tomorrow? 



Now let's turn our focus to some more specific elements of instruction. It is important to take a critical lens to our work to ensure efficacy if the goal is to improve learning.  With that being said it is incumbent upon all of us to make sure shifts to instructional design are occurring that result in better student outcomes. This is why a Return on Instruction (ROI) as described in Learning Transformed is so important both with and without technology.
"When integrating technology and innovative ideas there needs to be a Return on Instruction (ROI) that results in evidence of improved student learning outcomes."
The key to future-proofing education is to get kids to think. If it is easy, then it probably isn't learning. Challenging learners through complex problem solving and activities that involve critical thinking is extremely important, but they also must be afforded opportunities to apply their learning in relevant ways.  This does not have to be an arduous process that takes up a great deal of time.  Below are five areas to look at when implementing any digital tool or innovative idea to determine whether or not improvements to pedagogy are changing. Each area is followed by a question or two as a means to help self-assess where you are and if improvements can be made. 

  • Level of questioning: Are students being asked questions at the higher levels of knowledge taxonomy? Do students have the opportunity to develop and then answer their own higher-order questions?
  • Authentic and/or interdisciplinary context: Is there a connection to help students see why this learning is important and how it can be used outside of school?
  • Rigorous performance tasks: Are students afforded an opportunity to actively apply what they have learned and create a product to demonstrate conceptual mastery aligned to standards?
  • Innovative assessment - Is assessment changing to provide critical information about what students know or don't? Are alternative forms of assessment being implemented such as portfolios to illustrate growth over time?
  • Improved Feedback - Is feedback timely, aligned to standards, specific, and does it provide details on advancement towards a learning goal?

Improving outcomes relies on aligning instruction to solid research, ensuring that pedagogical shifts are occurring, holding ourselves (and others) accountable for growth, and showcasing evidence of improvement.  By taking a critical lens to our practice we can determine where we are, but more importantly where we actually want and need to be for our learners. 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Lost Art of Listening

Have you ever had a conversation with someone and knew with certainty that he or she was not listening? Of course, you have.  It is fairly easy to tell when someone is not engaged in a conversation either through lack of eye contact, facial expressions, or the loathed phrase "What did you just say?"  The chances are that the shoe has been on the other foot and you have been guilty of the same behavior.  People know when we are distracted and not actually "present". We must rediscover the lost art of listening.

You would be hard-pressed to find an effective leader who is not an effective communicator.  Communication is vital in accomplishing tasks and getting things done, passing on important information, acquiring information, developing a shared vision, reaching decisions through consensus, building relationships, and moving people to embrace change. For many people, communication is viewed through a lens that focuses on why and how information or targeted messages are delivered.  However, the most effective communicators are those people who listen intently.


By improving our listening skills, we can become better communicators in our respective positions while simultaneously building better relationships with students, colleagues, and other stakeholders.  Below are some solid tips from Ed Brodow that can help you become a better listener:

  • Develop the desire to listen. You must accept the fact that listening to others is your strongest weapon. Given the opportunity, the other person will tell you everything you need to know. If this doesn't create desire, I don't know what will.
  • Always let the other person do most of the talking. This is a simple matter of mathematics. I suggest a 70/30 rule. You listen 70% of the time and you talk 30% of the time.
  • Don't interrupt.  There is always the temptation to interrupt so you can tell the other person something you think is vitally important. It isn't, so don't. When you are about to speak, ask yourself if it is really necessary.
  • Learn active listening.  It's not enough that you're listening to someone - you want to be sure that they know you're listening. Active listening is the art of communicating to the other person that you're hearing their every word.
  • Ask for clarification if needed.  This will clear up any misunderstanding you have.
  • Get used to 'listening' for nonverbal messages - body language.  The other person may be communicating with you via body language. You need to decode the message.
  • Ask a question...then shut up.  This is a foolproof way to listen. Think of yourself as an interviewer - Barbara Walters! She listens and questions - so should you.

In addition to the great tips above, I would add that we must work harder to let other people know that we are actually listening.  The use of eye contact and facial expressions followed up by either additional questions or a synthesis of what was heard conveys to others that you are actually present. If the conversation is happening over the phone or through a digital medium, consider following up with a short summary as to what you heard. The final tip is probably the most important.  The best way to illustrate that you have really listened is to take action in some way so that the other person, or people, know that they were actually heard. The action could be moving an idea forward or explaining your decision to go in another direction.  There are always the times when people just want to vent and be listened to. In these cases, the most important thing you can do is show you care. 

In the digital age, we are all trying so hard to be heard, but are we making the time to listen and reflect?  As I discussed at length in Digital Leadership, social media ushered in a new era of communication and collaboration.  Traditional hurdles such as time, distance, and money have been overcome as more and more tools are available that allow people to share resources, ideas, opinions, and feedback.  For all of us who routinely leverage social media for these purposes, we are a vibrant part of a globally connected community committed to improving professional practice as well as our own lives.  Being able to share information and ideas like never before is exhilarating, but are we taking the time to really listen to what others are sharing? 

The art of listening can be extended to the social media space.  This applies to all of us and I know personally it is an area that I can improve upon.  Consider engaging others in conversations about their ideas and questions by commenting on blog posts or responding to updates on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, or Facebook.  This means more to people than you will ever know, especially if that person doesn't have a large social media following.  It shows that you care and are actually listening in digital spaces. If someone reaches out to you in this space with a question or comment, take the time to reply back. 

As Aristotle once said, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." Make improved listening a habit to move more ideas forward and build positive relationships in the process.