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Best Teaching Part 3: Lauren Resnick & Accountable Talk + Stephen Raudenbush – More from Chicago

Lauren Resnick, Pittsburgh: Higher-order learning emerges from continual challenge to question

Professor Lauren Resnick of the University of Pittsburgh is another of the many leading education researchers in the US. In a paper with colleague Megan Williams Hall (‘Learning organizations for sustainable education reform’, Daedalus. Boston: Fall 1998. Vol. 127/4; p. 89, 30 pp) she points out that the habits of mind which influence beliefs about learning are acquired through socialisation, the process by which standards, values and knowledge of society are developed; it is a process influenced by other people who influence development during the child’s life. Though socialisation is acknowledged in out of school settings such as the family, when it comes to more formally organised educational settings such as school it role is not usually acknowledged. Resnick talks of nested learning communities in which students teachers, principals, and central-office administrators are all learners focused on improving their practice and becoming increasingly expert as conductors of learning communities in the classroom, the school, and the district. Since children’s learning depends heavily on how well adults learn how to teach them, every adult is responsible for his or her ongoing professional growth.

“Children develop cognitive strategies and effort-based beliefs about intelligence-the habits of mind associated with higher-order learning-when they are continuously pressed to raise questions and accept challenges, to find solutions that are not immediately apparent, to explain concepts, justify their reasoning, and seek information. When we do not hold children accountable for this kind of intelligent behavior, they take it as a signal that we do not think they are smart, and they often come to accept this judgment. The paradox is that children become smart by being treated as if they already were intelligent. This is a hallmark of knowledge-based constructivist pedagogy.”

From the “pedagogical core” of nested learning communities Resnick and Hall proceed to describe a school district in New York City with a high proportion of poor and non-English-speaking students that under the leadership of the superintendent and deputy has organised itself to promote and sustain a continuous upgrading of teaching practice. Teaching quality improved and student achievement rose. The University of Pittsburgh, through the Institute for Learning, has expanded this model to develop “nested communities” of partnerships between schools and University.

“… the orchestrator of the school-based learning community for teachers is the school principal. In this role, district principals observe and evaluate classroom practice, arrange professional-development opportunities, work out improvement goals with teachers, and assess whether goals are being met… In nested learning communities, instruction, management, and professional development are joined in a single set of aspirations, and the principal plays a pivotal role in the instructional-improvement process…”

In all her work Resnick emphasises competent performance as involving explanation and argumentation, discussion as discursive rather than question and answer and knowledge as distributed. In a thinking curriculum high cognitive demand is embedded in challenging subject matter and students are initiated into knowledge-based communities of participation. The key is the right classroom instruction embedded in a supportive organisational structure.

In her paper ‘Nested Learning Systems for the Thinking Curriculum’ (The 2009 Wallace Foundation Distinguished Lecture, Educational Researcher 39, p 183-197, 2010) Resnick considers that “despite the rhetoric of 21st-century skills, we have by and large built our accountability system so that it actually suppresses the kind of learning that the 21st century calls for. Since the middle of the 20th century, the science of learning, and thus the underpinnings for trying to reach the gold star of knowledge-based reasoning for all Americans, has expanded substantially. The recommendations now coming from an expanded, multidisciplinary learning science community are substantially different from those of the first half of the 20th century.

The transformation of learning theory over a century of its attempted application to schooling is remarkable. Scientific research on learning has produced changed concepts of knowledge itself, new criteria for what counts as competent performance and as intelligence, new principles for instruction, and even new theories of how educational organizations work.”

Changes in understanding the nature of learning have pointed Resnick toward a form of instruction that she calls the “Thinking Curriculum”. This requires “instruction that is high in cognitive demand (conceptual learning, reasoning, explaining, and problem solving are engaged daily) and that is embedded in specific, challenging subject matter. Evidence has accumulated that teaching cognitive skills in the absence of specific content rarely works. It appears that thinking abilities have to develop in the course of reasoning about specific information and knowledge. At the same time, there is plenty of evidence that drilling on the facts without demands for explanation and reasoning produces fragile knowledge, which is likely to disappear once the test is over and is unlikely to transfer. A form of the Thinking Curriculum that uses guided classroom discussion of core disciplinary ideas (we call this accountable talk) apparently yields both long-term retention and transfer to other disciplines.”

Emeritus Professor Robin Alexander of Cambridge University talks of ‘dialogic teaching’, how teachers as well as children talk (Alexander 2010). Alexander studied children in their classes in schools in England, France, Russia, India and Australia. His book, Culture and pedagogy: international comparisons in primary education (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000) is highly critical of the tendency to transplant policies and practices from one country to another with little understanding of the multi layered historical, cultural and political contexts of their origin.  The data is based on analysis of 36 lessons in 30 schools in the five countries. David Zyngier of Monash University, in his 2013 review of Alexander’s book , says the study ‘should clearly send the message to our policy movers, makers and shakers that there is no “magic bullet”, no single pedagogy or pedagogical practice and no single definition of best practice’.

Chicago: powerful instructional systems require shared aims, shared assessment tools, shared instructional strategies and active collaboration.

The south side of Chicago is in many ways a very difficult neighbourhood. But it has been the focus of ground breaking research by the University of Chicago research group. Their studies overwhelmingly concerned children from disadvantaged circumstances; most of the children were African American, all considered to contribute to poor educational achievement. The University of Chicago studies, like some other studies, show these disadvantages can be overcome. Their studies reveal the importance of developing relationships with the community.

Professor Stephen W. Raudenbush, Professor of Sociology and Chair of the Committee on Educationat the University of Chicago, speaking at an American Education Research Association Conference in 2009 (‘The Brown Legacy and the O’Connor Challenge: Transforming Schools in the Images of Children’s Potential’, Educational Researcher, 38 (3), 169-180, 2009), illustrated an aspect of effective teaching and learning with a story from China.

“[The teachers in] MaPing Li’s (1999) study of elementary mathematics instruction in China … did not have 4-year college degrees, but they had a good working knowledge of the mathematics they needed to teach and somewhat beyond. They had a common curriculum, common assessments, common instructional strategies—a shared, systematic instructional system. They collaborated closely, sharing knowledge, expertise, and teaching plans. They tested their students frequently and generated common strategies to overcome student misconceptions and to drive instruction to the next level. Their students displayed uniformly high levels of achievement. Access to expert teachers supported the least expert teachers and developed the leadership capacities of the most expert.”

This story again shows that good knowledge is important but not enough and that close collaboration around common goals is also important.

Raudenbush asserts “powerful instructional systems require shared aims, shared assessment tools, shared instructional strategies, active collaboration, routine public inspection of practice, and accountability to peers… In this view, variability in teachers’ expertise is highly visible and widely recognized, and novice teachers have strong incentives to seek out expert teachers’ advice to advance their own expertise. School principals have incentives to increase the leadership responsibilities of the most expert teachers and to encourage growth in teacher expertise. Increased teacher expertise leads to greater responsibilities and higher compensation.” Raudenbush refers to this notion of teaching as “shared, systematic practice”.

“Privatized, idiosyncratic practice”, on the other hand, is the received notion of teachers’ work and teacher professionalism, according to which teachers’ work has a high level of autonomy but is rarely open to public inspection (and may therefore lack rigour, testability or validity). Such a notion stands in the way of reforms which would drive improvement and equity.

The University of Chicago established the Center for Urban School Improvement (USI) to work with a small network of south side Chicago schools to improve literacy instruction. The inner urban kids demonstrated great intellectual energy but dealing with regular public schools was frustrating because of the restrictive bureaucracy. So USI set up a special elementary charter school which was free to shape teacher recruitment, curriculum design and instructional time to “pursue ambitious intellectual goals”. (A charter school arrangement overcame bureaucratic problems which would likely have attended a regular public school.)

Literacy instruction, developed through close cooperation with a number of outstanding practitioners and researchers, was built around a schoolwide formative assessment system known as STEP (Strategic Teaching and Evaluation of Progress). Every child was assessed every 10 weeks on a broad array of literacy skills, hierarchically arranged. Associated with each level was one or more required books for children to read, calibrated for difficulty. Associated with each level of STEP was a series of instructional strategies designed to get to the next level… work on word decoding, reading aloud, text comprehension, and lots of writing [combined] to create a coherent instructional system.

Every child’s progress was recorded on a ‘STEP wall’ in the school’s central office. Teachers of children lagging behind had help from the literacy coordinator who got experienced teachers to work with less experienced ones. So instruction was not left to the judgement of one teacher. Teachers whose students progressed gained expertise which was then used to help other teachers.

More expert teachers could contribute to revising the system to promote higher levels of learning. The logging of student achievement meant results were open to inspection. Raudenbush observes, “The system rewards advances in expertise, as it accords more responsibility to the more expert teachers… Teacher expertise is not a generic quality but rather a set of attainable skills and knowledge embedded in a well-defined instructional system. To be expert is to understand that system, to demonstrate skill in enacting it, and to develop the capacity to help other teachers enact the system effectively.”

USI later set up a second charter school which expanded instruction time and gave attention to extended tutoring for those who needed it and also embarked on an ambitious outreach program aimed at getting parents to understand the STEP system, their child’s progress and understand their role in helping their child reach the next goal. Support staff were provided to help the small number of children whose parents lacked the resources to participate. The “vice principal” became the “director of parent and community engagement”, got to know all the parents and siblings of each student.

Though Raudenbush admitted that evidence was limited he noted that “80% of the first graduating class on their way to a 4-year college—in a system where most African American children don’t even finish high school.”

The next essay pays particular attention to the teaching of science and the research of Stanford University’s Jonathan Osborne and others