Classroom Practices That Need to Be Reconsidered

by Robert Pondiscio
January 19th, 2012

Teaching ideas whose time has come…and gone? Courtesy of yours truly and Alice Wiggins, who oversees the Core Knowledge Foundation’s Schools Department, here are common classroom practices that need to go away, be rethought, or curtailed:

1.      Data Driven…What?

An increasingly common feature in classrooms are data walls—bright, cheerful displays that show if students are advanced, proficient, basic or below basic in ELA and math.  As Rick Hess has written, schools have gone from not using data to inform decision making, to using data in half-baked or simplistic ways. Displaying decontextualized data is a prime example.  What exactly do we expect a third-grader to do with the knowledge that he or she is “approaching proficiency” in reading?  If data isn’t being used to drive instruction thoughtfully, what’s the point?

2.      Fiction Only Read-alouds

Fortunately, very few elementary school teachers need to be sold on the benefits of read-alouds.  They’re great for language development and exposing kids to rich vocabulary, since a child’s ability to read with comprehension doesn’t catch up with listening comprehension until about 8th grade. But if teachers aren’t devoting significant class time to nonfiction readalouds, they’re missing out on a golden opportunity to build background knowledge, which is essential for reading comprehension.

3.      Dumb Test Prep

Decrying test prep as a misuse of class time is a little like complaining that your kids are watching Fear Factor when they could be reading Chaucer. It’s true, but it’s not likely to change anytime soon.  But if we have to waste devote precious class time to test prep, let’s stop trying to teach and reinforce decontextualized reading skills like making inferences and finding the main idea that are content-specific, and cannot be mastered in the abstract.  More effective might be what Dan Willingham calls practice that reinforces the basic skills required for the learning of more advanced skills, protects against forgetting, and improves transfer.

4.      Reciting Lesson Aim and Standard

There’s nothing wrong with standards for planning and focusing lessons.  However, the idea of standards-based instruction is often misinterpreted.  Sure, students should be introduced to what they are about to learn, but having kindergarteners recite, “Through this lesson I will develop phonemic awareness and understanding of alphabetic principles” does nothing to support attainment of this standard or develop these students reading achievement.  In other cases, rather than using the standards to guide instruction on meaningful content, the standards become the instruction. Neither practice is an effective use of limited instructional time.

5.      Overusing Teaching Strategies

Too many classrooms seem to function on the principal that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.  Group work and differentiated instruction are two prime examples.  In Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov writes that group work is “as likely to yield discussions of last night’s episode of American Idol as it is higher-order discussions of content.”  Asking frequent, targeted, rigorous questions of students, Lemov believes, “is a powerful and much simpler tool for differentiating.”  Too many classroom practices are used based on a compliance mentality—students are in groups because “that’s what administration wants to see”—rather that because it makes sense for a particular unit, lesson or activity.  Like using data to drive instruction rather than as bulletin board fodder (see above) there needs to be a sound instructional strategy underlying pedagogical choices.  And let’s not even talk about learning styles.

6.      The “Theme of the Month”

It’s standard practice to organize instruction by “themes,” such as holidays, seasons, my neighborhood or foods of the world, for example.  Organize units around knowledge “domains” instead.  A teacher might use the theme “Our Great Big World” in kindergarten to invite children to explore the setting of a story.  But since every story has a setting, that “theme” is arbitrary and doesn’t coherently build background knowledge.  A domain-based approach to “Our Great Big World” might include teaching children about continents, countries, climates and land forms in a coherent fashion.

7.      Reading Comprehension Skills

We can’t say it enough and Dan Willingham said it best:  Teaching content is teaching reading.  The most overused tool in the box in elementary school is reading strategies.  Yes, there are benefits to reading strategies, but there’s no evidence that repeated practice yields additional benefits.  Comprehension typically breaks down and test scores plummet because of a lack of background knowledge, not because kids have failed to master reading strategies.

Paul Hoss on “Individualized Instruction”

by Robert Pondiscio
December 30th, 2009

Earlier this month, in a comment thread debating the practice of tracking vs. heterogeneous classrooms, veteran teacher Paul Hoss, a frequent commenter on the Core Knowledge Blog, took issue with my opinion that differentiated instruction is a practice “more honored in the breach than the observance” in most classrooms.  Hoss, who prefers the term “individualized instruction,” also took me to task for implicitly favoring the interests of teachers over students, arguing that individualizing is “not much more demanding or time consuming than the way most teachers operate.” 

Brian Rude, another frequent contributor to this blog, challenged Hoss to offer “a comprehensive description of what you have done in the classroom”  to individualize teaching for the disparate skill levels in the room.  Hoss agreed.  When someone with 34 years of classroom experience under his belt wants to tell you how it’s done, attention must be paid.  I’m grateful to Paul Hoss for accepting the challenge and sharing the benefit of his experience and practice with the readers of this blog.  rp

Individualized Instruction

by Paul Hoss

I’m convinced anyone who has ever been a teacher encountered the conundrum I confronted in my first year in the classroom. It was unavoidable, inevitable. How was I ever going to satisfy all the different academic levels sitting in front of me?

Flash back to that point in your teaching career and ask yourself what went through your mind. Surely, you had to have encountered this same situation at some point in your first year in the classroom, maybe even within the first few weeks. Then ask yourself how you rationalized your way around it to continue teaching the way you taught. Was it because that’s the way everyone else taught or the way you were taught when you were in school? Was it because none of the professors you had in college encouraged you to think outside the box? Or was it because you had no idea where to even begin? It is for this reason that many teachers could possibly benefit from considering the following. 

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