I was chatting with my colleagues (instructional coaches) the other day, about turning points in our teaching practices, and reflecting on this wonderful blog post about shadowing high school students. It made me think about observation – about the lenses through which we refine and improve our practice.
I asked – do you remember “where you were” when you experienced a fundamental shift in your teaching practice?
Here is my story – the day the lens turned!
Several years ago, an opportunity presented itself to work with a team of colleagues through lesson study. We chose “differentiated instruction” as our topic (inquiry questions hadn’t been invented yet, neither had problems of practice or SMART goals 🙂 ) We all read Karen Hume’s book, Start Where They Are, on differentiation, and set about planning, observing, and debriefing a series of lessons to help us learn more deeply.
As a department head, I volunteered to go first. I had a rowdy group of Grade 9 Applied students – my first time teaching the course, and I was not doing it particularly well (this is generous) – and I was very eager to learn how to improve my teaching.
In our study of differentiation, we learned that we could differentiate by readiness, by interest, or by learning style. We chose readiness and interest for my lesson. To do this, we needed groups – since needed to give them options – and we needed to think of questions that would actually be interesting! The lesson we made up involved collecting data from students at the school about a series of variables connected to things we thought that grade 9 students cared about. We then let them choose among the variables, make a hypotheses and look for correlations in the data – in groups, using chart paper, meter sticks and markers. We grouped them by readiness for the task (skill with graphing, previous demonstration of understanding of relationships) with the idea that the members of the same group would be working at similar `proximal zones`. We worked very hard together – this lesson was very different than anything we had done before – it was exciting – it felt risky ! These students had very poor self control – they weren’t used to working in groups, there were bullies in the class, and their math skills were SO low…. but I felt I had nothing to lose, and the support of my colleagues gave me the courage to try.
The class went terribly. Students liked working in groups – a little TOO much… they were socializing… acting silly…loudly and physically. They were arguing, and using inappropriate language. They were using the meter sticks as swords, and colouring on each other with markers. I had to isolate students outside the room several times, and I sent a couple of them to the office during the lesson. They made hypotheses about the relationships between variables, but they were unable to create graphs – they didn’t know how to label axes, create scale, plot points. They made random lines of best fit. I was moving frantically from group to group, trying to help them with the most basic things and re-directing them back on task. I had to raise my voice several times to get their attention. When it came time to “present” their graphs to the class, every group thought that the data had confirmed their hypothesis, and made passionate arguments (based on nothing mathematical) to prove their points. I was mortified in front of my peers because of the lack of control. The classroom was a complete and total mess at the end of the class. I had a huge lump in my throat, and felt like crying.
We gathered up all of the artifacts, and went to debrief. I was so embarrassed. Our co-constructed lesson that we had worked so hard on had clearly failed miserably.
As we went around for our debrief, eating our snacks, a different picture started to emerge. The teacher observers, my colleagues, had seen many things that I hadn’t. Some of the arguing had been about which variables to choose, about what the hypothesis should be. Some kids had learned together, for the first time, how to plot points on a scatter plot and were very (loudly) excited about it. An important gap around understanding scale had emerged from the whole class – students didn’t know how to create axes, and they didn’t know the values had to be equally spaced. One of the groups who had correctly plotted their points, thought there must be some mistakes because no relationship was evident, and spent some time discussing this. The lesson had worked. Students were engaged in math. They were struggling with mathematical ideas together – without me. They had learned different things based on their “proximal zones”. Learning gaps and misconceptions were being exposed. My colleagues were the extra eyes and ears I needed help me see the lesson through the eyes of the learners – my beautiful, immature, boisterous grade 9 applied students!
The lesson, of course, wasn’t perfect, and my challenges with this class weren’t over, however I had a new working perspective – the lens of the learner.
This was the first domino in a professional learning adventure that continues to take me through a re-examination of many of my personal paradigms around instruction, learning, mathematics, assessment, collaboration, leadership, creativity…. the journey continues!
Did you have a professional turning point? Do you have a story to share?