Education Nation Response: What’s Working?

Flickr photo by Wesley Fryer.

Today I had the opportunity to attend NBC’s Education Nation Teacher Town Hall online.  While I have my concerns about bias, I am glad there is a lot of attention being paid to education right now.  But rather than rehash my experience and opinion of the Town Hall, I have chosen to be inspired by Paula White, L. Lee and other colleagues on Twitter.  I am choosing to write about possible solutions and what I see working in education with the hope that these ideas will help others to find their own solutions.

Instructional Coaches/Facilitators

An alternative to traditional professional development, coaches are typically veteran or master teachers who collaborate with other teachers in small groups or individually to improve instruction and to raise student achievement.  What better way to improve teacher practice than to individualize and differentiate for our teachers, just as we like to do for our students?  Please keep in mind that coaches are not intended to be “teacher fixers” or traditional evaluators, but rather work with any teacher who choses continual improvement.  After all, we can all strive to be a better educator.  (Full Bias Disclosure: I worked as an Instructional Facilitator for 2 years.) You can read more about Instructional Coaches/Facilitators at the following links:

Collaboration Time

During the 2009-2010 school year, I had the opportunity to study Professional Learning Communities (or PLCs) for possible implementation in our school.  During that time I talked with people doing PLCs and visited schools currently using the PLC model.  While the PLC model is generally positive (there are negative aspects as well), what I took away was the value of built-in collaboration time for teachers.  The schools where this really seems to work have created time for teachers to collaborate within the school schedule and outside of regular planning time (because teachers have enough to do already, right?).   And by outside, I don’t mean before or after school.  It is built into the school day either on a frequent basis (an extra planning type period every other day) or less frequent on a monthly type basis.  I’ve also seen principals willing to provide subs for teachers who want to occasionally work together in this way.  Teachers seem very positive about this time to work with their colleagues and even “non-believers” have come to value this time once they have experienced it.  I often hear people say that teaching is an isolated profession.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  We can find ways to value and protect collaborative time with our colleagues.


A best practice I have seen many teachers employ is that of student choice.  When it comes to professional development, teachers also deserve that choice.  Whether it is choosing which PD session is most relevant to them, whether or not to work with an Instructional Coach and more, choice will yield better results in teacher improvement.

What have you seen work to help improve teaching and learning in our schools?  Please feel free to comment here or write your own blog post with the tag #educationnation.  Also, feel free to comment on or ask questions about the three options I’ve written about here.  Let’s focus on solutions and move forward!


What I’ve Learned as an Instructional Facilitator

At the close of the school year, I completed my time as an Instructional Facilitator.  This fall I will be moving back into the classroom, where I will trade my adult clientel for that of teenagers.  The last two years have been a huge learning experience for me and I wanted to write down some of the things that have had an impact on my educational philosophy.

Professional Development – In my role as embedded professional development, there wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t think about or work on crafting PD for teachers.  I feel as though I could write volumes on this topic, so I’ll just address what I feel is the biggest point.  Teachers don’t really learn much differently than our students.  They deserve to be treated as learners with individual learning styles.  Choice in learning can have a huge impact.  One-on-one feedback can be very useful.  Listening to what teachers have to say about what they need to learn and what they want to learn is important.  Orchestrate opportunities for teachers to learn from the experts in their building, each other.

Teaching Strategies – I have had the chance to study many different teaching strategies in depth.  I feel like I have gone from having a tool box to a tool chest on wheels.

Technology – Working in a 1:1 High Access school for the first time, I have been surrounded by technology.  I learned a great deal concerning the ins and outs of our MacBooks, their programs, Web 2.0, and our filtering system.  But more importantly, I have seen the variety of ways other people learn about technology.  Different learning styles can play out dramatically when teaching tech skills.  Fear and confidence play a big part in the willingness to try new things.  And my own teaching philosophy has shifted as a result of what I’ve learned.  To me, it’s not about incorporating technology to build skills.  It’s about shifting from a teacher-centered classroom to a student-centered approach.

The Big Picture – Being more involved with both building and district level issues, I have gained a better understanding of the big picture of education.  I feel I better get the role of administrators and I understand that as a teacher there are so many things that go on behind the scenes to make my job better.  Decisions can be pretty complicated and there are many factors and people to consider.

Teamwork – Being part of a team of 5-6 Instructional Facilitators over the past two years has taught me a lot about what it means to work as a collaborative group.  The best teams aren’t those that think alike, but those that can meld different perspectives, talents and skills to accomplish their goal.  Not everyone will (or should!) agree or approach things in the same way.  What is important is how you meld those different perspectives, talents, and skills to accomplish your goals.

Change – I have been told over and over that as an Instructional Facilitator that I am an “agent of change.”  Sometimes that has excited me, and at other times that thought has been rather scary.  Change is a tricky thing.  One of the mantras I often repeat to myself is something I learned from Jim Knight.  Change needs to be easy and powerful.  If you want people to change, you have to make it doable.  It needs to be something easily within their grasp, not some sudden monumental shift.  That’s not to say that you can’t have multiple smaller shifts that lead to large scale change.  It just means that it’s something people can look at and say “hey, I can do that.”  If you want people to change, they have to see the impact of that change.  If the results are not powerful, people will wonder why they even bothered.  Make the change worth their effort.

What Great Teachers Look Like – Over the past two years I have been in many different classrooms and had the chance to observe and work with many different teachers.  Would you like to know what the perfect teacher looks like?  Well, I can’t tell you.  Why?  Because there is no prescription or magic pill for great teaching.  What one teacher does in their classroom would be a disaster if a different teacher tried to do it in their’s.  The best description I have been able to come up with for a great teacher involves two things. 1) They care about kids and 2) They continually strive to be a better teacher.  If someone has these two elements, they have the potential to be a fantastic educator.

My new classroom where I will be learning & teaching.

This is just a small summary of what I have learned over the past two years.  I could greatly expand on any of these or other topics.  If you have any comments or questions, please let me know.

Thoughts on Collaboration and Developing Higher Level Questioning Skills

Whether you are an Instructional Coach, a peer coach, or a teacher, higher level questioning is something that we all think about in one form or another.  In the conversations I’ve heard about critical thinking, Bloom’s Taxonomy is almost always referenced.  As a quick background knowledge review, here is the recently revised version of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Searching for the attribution info. Any leads would be appreciated.
Searching for the attribution info. Any leads would be appreciated.

As teachers, we work to  to ask higher-level questions and help our students stretch their minds and develop higher-order thinking skills.  However, as a teacher this can sometimes sound a lot easier than it actually is.  I believe it takes time and practice to develop this teaching skill.  As Instructional Coaches, we need to have the tools to assist our teachers in their quest to continually develop and refine these important skills.  I would like to put forth some suggestions on how to coach teachers on this area, but they are by no means comprehensive.  I would appreciate any feedback or thoughts in the comments area.

Classroom Observations – This is one of the first places to start.  Coaches need to get a baseline of where their teachers currently are so they can differentiate the best approach for each individual.  Multiple observations are preferable, but any observation in which classroom discussion takes place will suffice.  Be sure that you are aware of the purpose of the discussion, so you can best gauge which levels of questioning are appropriate.

There are different types of data forms that can be used for observation.  One is p. 9 of Jim Knight and the Kansas Coaching Project’s Mini-Coaching Manual Effective Questioning: Empowering Teachers to Ask Powerful Questions version 2.0.  In this method, the coach dictates the questions that the teacher is asking.  The coach can then categorize those questions or, better yet, do so alongside the teacher.  Forms from Coaching Classroom Management can be modified to fit your needs.  You can, of course, also create your own forms.

Common Vocabulary – Before working with another teacher on specific skills, be sure that you both have a common vocabulary from which to draw.  I have found that educational jargon can vary depending on grade levels, content, and region.  This just keeps everyone on the same page.  Bloom’s Taxonomy is often a common starting point where I work.  However, I have found that it is easier to use a simplified system put forth by Knight and the Kansas Coaching Project (see Effective Questioning Manual above).

  1. Know: Questions that prompt students to demonstrate that they can remember information they have learned.
  2. Understand: Questions that prompt students to demonstrate that they comprehend the implications of the information they have learned.
  3. Apply:  Questions that prompt students to extend their knowledge and understanding to new situations or settings.

Elements of Higher-Level Questioning – Here is a list of elements to consider and discuss when collaborating with your teacher, a peer, or in your own self-study.

Opportunities to Respond – How often does the teacher ask questions or give students a chance to respond to the topic at hand?

Levels of Questions – Can the teacher match specific questions with the appropriate instructional level for that lesson?  Do teachers understand when certain levels of questioning are the most appropriate?  Lower level question are important.  They help teachers and students scaffold and prepare for other questions that require deeper thought.

Frequency – How often does the teacher ask each level of question?  Do they almost only ever ask Level 1 or Level 3 questions?  Do the questions they ask match goals of their curriculum?

Wait Time – How long does the teacher wait…….after asking their question?  This is absolutely crucial to eliciting better student answers.  Remember that students need time to process their answers, especially for higher level questions.  Strategies such as Think-Pair-Share can help students do this.  It is also important to “train” students to know that you expect an answer.  The silence may bother you as a teacher, but remember that it also bothers your students.  Use this to your advantage. 🙂

Wording of Questions – How does the wording of a question impact student answers?  Does the question elicit a one-word or yes/no answer?  Does the question have a definate right or wrong answer?  Are there a multitude of ways to answer a question “correctly?”  Does the question require students to provide evidence to support their opinion?  There is no one type of question students should be asked, but how does the wording impact the outcome?

Use of Background Knowledge – The concept of background knowledge and scaffolding is essential for students to connect to knew learning.  Strong neural pathways in the brain are created by connecting to pathways that already exist, much like a system of roads.  The more background knowledge students have to draw upon (content related or not) the better answers they can devise.  Consider structuring higher-level thinking activities so students can draw on that background knowledge to make stronger learning connections.

Student Responses – How students respond to the teacher’s questions can tell you a lot about the discussion norms in a classroom.  Are they respectful of other’s answers?  Do they intelligently contradict one another with evidence?  Do they answer at all?  Is there a broad spectrum of the class involved in the conversation or is it just 2 or 3 students?  How easily can the teacher recognize and redirect students when needed?

Teacher’s Response – The answers a teacher gets can depend a great deal on how the teacher responds to student answers.  I’ve seen many different approaches to this, but which is the right one for the teacher you are collaborating with?  The teacher’s responses can cause students to keep their mouths closed or inspire them to deeper and more creative ways of thinking.

Possible Collaboration & Development Ideas: Here is a list of things you can do with your collaborating teacher to consider the use of higher-level questions in the classroom.

  • Sit down with an example list of questions or a list of questions that a teacher has asked in class.  Collaborate with the teacher to identify the level of each question.  You can have a conversation on any of the observable points above and how student answers would change as the questioning method changes.
  • Write out possible discussion questions ahead of time.  This doesn’t mean that the teacher needs to stick to the exact list, though some may find that method useful.  The point is to consider what you want students to think about before entering into the discussion.  What is the purpose of the discussion?  This helps the teacher to guide the conversation more artfully and elicit better responses from students.
  • Strengthen the teacher’s ability to “go with the flow.”  Discuss and/or reflect on the teacher’s ability to direct the conversation and coax better answers out of students.  How does this work for each of you?  (It can be different)  How do you adapt your questions to get to the purpose of the conversation?
  • Develop classroom activities with other teachers in which students identify and develop higher level questions.  Afterall, we learn best by teaching!
  • Wordle Reference Tool – This Wordle was created using a list of verbs related to the top three levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.  The purpose of the Wordle is to help teachers brainstorm class discussion questions or activities.  While the focus of this post is on classroom discussion, these verbs can be used to create a myriad of classroom activities and assessment options for students.


A note about community: Classroom community is paramount to the willingness of students to take academic risks.  How comfortable are students with trying out new ideas and making mistakes in a classroom?  If students have differing opinions, how does the teacher facilitate respectful conversation?  I believe that this can have a large impact on the types of classroom discussions teachers are able to have.

I am continually looking for ways to help my teachers and myself grow in this important area of teaching.  If you have any suggestions, resources or ideas, please feel free to leave comments.  I would apprecaite hearing from you.

Additional Resources:

Personalized Professional Development: My New Job as an Instructional Facilitator

“We now accept the fact that learning is a lifelong process of keeping abreast with change.” -Peter F. Drucker

I have often been asked in the last few months about my job and what exactly I do now that I’m not in the classroom.  I still consider myself new at coaching, thus I’m continually learning every day.   However, I’ve decided to write my own description/interpretation of what it means to be an “Instructional Facilitator” or an “Instructional Coach.”

Educators have been searching for alternatives to the “traditional” method of professional development (what some call “Sit and Git”),  and the concept of the Instructional Coach/Facilitator (IF) was developed as a result.  In a nutshell, IFs are on-site, embedded professional developers who work one-on-one with teachers to enhance classroom instruction (Kansas Coaching Project).  Some IFs are assigned to specific content or grade levels.  In my building, we do not have specific assignments and we work in any and all content areas.  In some places, teachers are required to work with their IFs.  However, no teacher in my building is required to work with us, although many do so voluntarily.  I am fortunate enough to work with a great team in my building (6 IFs in all) where we each bring our own unique skills and knowledge to the table, along with a willinness to learn new things.

We assist our staff with a wide variety of topics, including (but not limited to):

  • Unit/Lesson planning
  • Technology integration
  • Assessment
  • Classroom management
  • Student engagement
  • Reading strategies
  • Writing instruction
  • Brain based teaching
  • Higher level thinking/questioning techniques
  • Researching & implementing new techniques
  • Data coaching
  • Specific content issues

These topics are really just the tip of the iceberg.  While we primarily collaborate with teachers one-on-one, we also coordinate and conduct professional development presentations and classes on topics of interest that fit the needs of our school.  You can see my “About Me” to see what I’ve been working on.  Just remember that I am part of a team of 6 and we each have presented on various topics over the course of the year.  We try very hard to make our classes/presentations interactive.  We design each one to model best teaching practices.  The majority of these opportunities are voluntary for teachers and occur during planning periods or after school.

Some people make the assumption that coaches are employed to “fix bad teachers.”  In my situation, this is very far from the truth.  We work with teachers of all levels, experience, and abilities.  Our mentality is that we are assisting our teachers as they progress from “Good to Great.”  I believe that it is very important that we are not teacher evaluators and we have a general policy of confidentiality.  We do not discuss with anyone, not even our administrators, what we are working on with specific teachers unless that teacher has given us permission to do so.  The artistic aspect of teaching can be a very personal endeavor, and this way teachers are more likely to invite us into the realm of their classroom.

Our district’s coaching model is based primarily on the work of Jim Knight, an educational researcher at the University of Kansas.  We have also been incorporating the work of others such as Joellen Killion and Jean A. G. Kise.

In this new position I have been learning a great deal about what it means to be an effective teacher.  Balancing the art and science of education can result in many different approaches, all of them with great possibility.  I would love to hear from others on how coaching is set up in your school or about helpful resources you are willing to share.  Please also feel free to ask questions about my team’s approach.  Thank you.

More Information on Instructional Coaching

Sooo…What is an Instructiona Coach?

Coaching Chronicles: What is an Instructional Coach?

Kansas Coaching Project

Instructional Coaching: A Partnership Approach to Improving Instruction

Differentiated Coaching