Monday, December 7, 2009

Engaging Teachers with a Streamlined Version of Understanding by Design


Excitement filled the room as curriculum specialists and web designers from four universities designed the coolest unit design template. There was no shortage of ideas with valid arguments about what should be included in the final design.

Later, the excitement was quite different when I introduced this template to my first group of teachers. As the template was revealed, I could see the teachers deflate in their chairs. I'll never forget the hope in their faces turning into something more lifeless. But bless their hearts, willing to comply, they were soon going from box to box, and dropdown menu to dropdown menu, filling in the blanks. Like robots, they were filling in the blanks. I vowed to never again visit this day on another teacher. This was nine years ago.

What happened? The design model was sound, the research-based strategies were sound, and the template was way cool. The problem was that it became more about the template than their classroom.

I contrasted this day to a another day when a room of teachers was filled with laughter and creative passion; new ideas seemed endless, and energy was off the charts. The creativity was raw, innocent, intimate, and personal. That day, we were scanning and editing family photos, and shooting and editing video.

Discovering fast and easy ways to teach photo and video editing, it was easy for teachers to focus on their content. The process was so streamlined the day was less about the program and more about what mattered to the teachers that day - pictures of their families and stories they wanted to tell.

I decided I had to streamline the lesson design process and somehow get the creative ink flowing. I had to make it less about the improvement model, less about the template, less about the research, and more about what mattered to teachers - teaching and students. Somehow I had to get teachers to stand willing and open-minded in front of the canvas of instructional design. This streamlining was the most important thing I've done to engage teachers and help them find meaning, purpose, and motivation in the improvement process as they make it their own.

To do this, I began by identifying the overall goal in simplest terms; weave research-based teaching into the alignment of standards, curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Keep in mind there has been a long evolution of strategies and materials to make this what it is today, but I'll outline the process. By the way, you'll see I'm a big fan of backwards design.

The basic process is this:

1. Have teachers select very specific objectives from which to begin. Hopefully, performance objectives that represent where students are struggling the most.

2. Brainstorm a body of evidence. Challenge the existing practice and focus on written evidence because this leverages many research-based strategies.

3. Sequence the evidence into a beginning, middle, and end of lesson. Every day has a beginning, middle, and end full of research-based opportunities.

That's it. We quickly begin a process of improvement by linking and aligning their objectives to evidence of student understanding. Teachers soon believe this is about their teaching, their students, and their classroom.

The beauty about this focus on evidence is that it begins by meeting the teachers where they are ( i.e., the evidence they already have). However, we then expand and challenge their body of evidence, which in reality is expanding how they might teach differently while clarifying and focusing instruction. We focus on their content and focus their content.

We emphasize written evidence because of its ability to facilitate research-based strategies such as pre-assessing, activating prior knowledge, similarities and differences, advanced organizers, note taking and summarizing, providing feedback, reading, and writing. Then, following instruction and classroom use, written evidence in the form of student work samples provides a means for analyzing results and measuring success.

Even imperfect at first, the hands-on experience allows teachers to begin to see and feel an alignment of standards, curriculum, instruction, and assessment. They begin to share a common language. Objectives, content, and instruction become more focused. Data finds meaning in the cycle as a tool for teachers to target curriculum for renewal that will have the most impact on achievement. Teachers begin to feel predictability and control for doing something new.

Streamlining instructional design can ignite confidence, raise expectations for the achievable, and breathe life into small, intimate, meaningful cycles of improvement. Quick, practical cycles of designing, teaching, analyzing results, and making revisions, provide purpose for collaboration and collective learning.

When a specific curriculum is open to renewal, one that defines moments of instructional time, change is more likely. Working beyond lesson plans, creating materials of practice, the best of what we already know and the best new ideas can be evaluated, tested, and fit for their proper place in a journey to increased student achievement. Conversely, without these small cycles of change, without making materials ready to teach, new ideas are quickly overwhelmed by a relentless stream of other ideas, soon fading beyond the reach of new classroom practice.

Streamlining is hard because we know so much about what works, and there will be valid arguments to do many things. It is too easy to underestimate the personal implications of change and overestimate the amount of content that can be successfully assimilated into classroom practice.