Years ago, I was invited to coach some teachers. I’ve done a lot of that over the past almost 50 years. I watch a lesson, and the teacher and I sit down and discuss how it may be improved.
But this was going to be a strange situation.
The school had adopted a curriculum program I’d developed. They hadn’t told me that. Now I was to critique teachers who were using my lessons. Uncomfortable territory.
The principal assured me it would be fine since the classes using my stuff were doing well—better test scores than in the past. I wasn’t so sure.
Two teachers were using the program: one was experienced but she’d never taught reading before, and the other was a rookie.
I watched the first teacher, had the follow up meeting… nothing remarkable.
But then I sat in on the neophyte’s class. She wasn’t a superstar—yet. But she was darn good, one of those lessons that probably couldn’t get much better. What she may have lacked in artfulness, she more than made up in fundamental teaching chops. Heinemann probably wouldn’t sign her to a book contract, but you’d be pleased if she were teaching your kids!
During that lesson I started to think I was pretty wonderful. Here was a fresh-faced beginning teacher, a greenie, working with a challenged bunch of kids and outperforming past teachers… using my program. Magic!
Then I came to my senses.
For instance, when presenting the brilliant vocabulary lesson that I’d designed, the rook would sometimes add an extra example of a word’s meaning; other times, she omitted one.
The same kind of thing happened during the comprehension portion of the lesson: Sometimes she’d ask the wonderful questions as I’d written them, sometimes she’d recast one or omit one or add one.
It looked like she was following my lesson plan, and she was, kinda. But she was also sort of teaching her own lesson.
When we sat down for our debriefing, she immediately thanked me for designing such a wonderful program. She explained that she wouldn’t have known what to do if it hadn’t been for me. That was true—in a way. And, yet, it was only part of the reason for her pedagogical success.
That incident came to mind while reading a new research synthesis (Parsons, Vaughn, Scales, Gallagher, et al., 2018) published this month in Review of Educational Research that examined studies of “teachers’ instructional adaptations;” the kind of instructional responsiveness that rookie had demonstrated.
Parsons and company reported that studies over the past 40 years have described the phenomenon in a variety of ways: instructional decision-making, scaffolding, reflective teaching, adaptation, teacher metacognition, dialogic teaching, etc. But whatever it has been called, it’s an essential, and too often ignored, component of effective teaching.
Coaching has been found to enable adaptive teaching (Vogt & Rogalla, 2009), and six studies reported that focusing teacher attention on student learning (assessment) improved both teacher adaptability and student outcomes. Teaching experience also tends to improve adaptability (my rookie was an outlier—it usually takes awhile to gain the kind of “teacher vision” she exhibited).
What was it that I had seen in that observation? A complex pedagogical dance between a teacher trying to adhere to the major outlines of a program—I’d provided the bones of the lesson and sequenced the major activities—while she observed the students’ responses and reacted accordingly. If she saw confusion, she reworded my script or added an example or helpful explanation. If the lesson was clear, but student interest was flagging, she added a teaspoon of enthusiasm and kept their heads in the game.
That reminds me that there are two really important things underlying effective teaching.
On the one hand, as teachers we need to have a profound understanding of what needs to be taught. It matters that primary teachers possess a depth of knowledge of the alphabetic system, or that high school algebra teachers be well schooled in math. That’s where great curricula come in; a coordinated body of texts, lesson plans, and activities that have a strong chance of engendering the desired knowledge and skills.
On the other hand, slavishly following such a curriculum is unlikely to succeed, unless teachers are wisely adaptive. Effective teaching will always be more than following a script. Teachers must assess on the fly and note whether the kids are getting it and if they are not, then something needs to happen. Teachers must make both immediate adjustments—adding explanations, changing examples, requiring more practice—and more ambitious changes, too (“today’s lesson was a bust, I need to reteach it tomorrow”).
I worry these days about the idea of teaching with “fidelity to program.” Was my rookie evidencing fidelity? In a way she was. And, yet, any careful analysis of a transcript of her lesson would reveal that she was making important adaptations to my brilliant handiwork. She was taking a good lesson and making it go. Both components are essential, and one is no more important than the other if learning is the goal.
I’m a big fan of shared curriculum because without it, it is virtually impossible to get large-scale school improvement. Likewise, it makes no sense to adopt such a shared curriculum and then tell everyone they can do whatever they want with it. But such a collective commitment to a common program of instruction in no way should limit a teacher’s ability to adapt lessons to student response. Follow the research, teacher adaptation matters.
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