Recently, I conducted a workshop for instructional coaches who wanted to learn more about how to promote and support rigorous instruction in their schools. I had about 150 K-12 instructional coaches at the training, and we started the day by looking at some classroom video footage. I asked the coaches to watch each five-minute slice of instruction and then answer three questions:
I intentionally chose videos of teachers who were doing an average to decent job. It would be too easy to show them classrooms where everything was going wrong or right. Instead, I wanted them to see classrooms that were more like the ones they were going into every day where it wasn’t always obvious what was – and what wasn’t – working.
I showed the first video to the instructional coaches, and they worked in groups to answer the three questions. After, I asked the groups to share their answers. Although there was some initial disagreement about the level of instruction and whether or not the class was rigorous, we were able to arrive to a consensus as a group. But, when it came to the advice we would give the teacher, the group was all over the place.
“I would tell the teacher to use another activator instead of the KWL chart,” offered one coach.
“When I taught that same grade level, I really liked to have students work in groups. I think that the teacher should change the way that she has set up the lesson to make it a cooperative learning activity,” suggested a second.
“I think that the teacher needs to re-think the assignment she used. That’s not really a major part of the curriculum and she could spend the time on a more salient part of the curriculum,” tossed out a third.
I listened to the various suggestions for a second and then asked, “If you offer these suggestions to this teacher, who has done the thinking?”
At first they really didn’t understand my question, so I posed it another way. “Why are you rewriting this teacher’s lesson plans for her?”
The room went quiet. I continued. “If you go into this teacher’s classroom and offer these suggestions, even if they are very good, how does the teacher ever learn how to think through her lessons herself? How will she ever learn to develop a better lesson?”
A few coaches began to bristle. “But isn’t our job to offer suggestions to teachers?” one argued.
Again the room went silent.
I continued. “It’s not that you don’t ever offer suggestions. But, you should only offer suggestions after you’ve engaged teachers in the important work of thinking through their lessons themselves.”
“But how do we do that?” a few coaches asked.
“Let’s take a look at this teacher again. What was the root reason this lesson wasn’t quite working?”
A few coaches offered some suggestions. “She didn’t do a good job of circling back to her KWL chart at the end of the lesson segment,” offered one.
“Why is that important?” I asked.
“Because then the students never had a chance to summarize what they just learned.”
“Ok,” I concede. “So what’s the root problem?”
The coaches thought for a moment. Finally, one raised his hand. “She needs to give the students a chance to summarize what they were learning.”
“Do you see the difference between the two?” I asked. “If you tell the teacher to circle back to her KWL, that’s a strategy. If you tell the teacher that the students need a chance to summarize what they are learning, then the teacher can determine how to best help students do that. At that point, you can suggest a strategy or two but not before you’ve helped the teacher understand why she needs the strategy.”
We looked at several other slices of instruction with two other teachers and practiced answering the three questions. The more they practiced, the more the coaches began to see how to shape their advice so that they helped the teachers think through their instruction rather than doing the thinking for them. At the end of the session, several coaches came up to me and lamented the way that they have been giving teachers advice. Suddenly, they could see how their advice wasn’t helping teachers learn for themselves.
Rigor isn’t just something we should seek to implement with our students. We need to be equally rigorous about our own instructional practice and the way that we support other teachers. Teachers are smart and they want to get better, but often, the way that they’re often given coaching, feedback, and support robs them of the chance to think rigorously about their instruction.
If you’re asked to provide rigor feedback to teachers, look for ways to engage in coaching conversations that support teachers to think for themselves. And if you’re on the receiving end of advice that spoon feeds you a solution, probe for more information about why you’re receiving that specific feedback.
To guide your entire staff through the process of adding rigor to their instruction (including how to give them feedback), check out the Planning Rigorous Lessons Staff Development Kit.