A common way of teaching
Sarah Dominick, a second-grade teacher at the Mather School in Boston, was getting ready to start the morning’s math lesson, which was on adding and subtracting from 100. “I looked through the exit tickets from yesterday, and I was feeling great about the good strategies you used,” Dominick told her students. “But I noticed something else, and thought we could work on that together today.”
Through this short kick-off to the day’s lesson, Dominick was demonstrating a deep attention to student outcomes: The “exit tickets”—short problems she’d assigned at the end of the lesson—had revealed that her students hadn’t fully learned the concept.
Focusing on what students are learning – instead of what you, as a teacher, are doing –sounds obvious, but it’s actually hard to do, particularly for novice teachers. The Boston Teacher Residency (BTR), where Dominick was educated and which is led by Deans for Impact member Jesse Solomon, places enormous importance on helping teachers learn how to make the shift from what they are doing to what students are learning.
To help residents make that shift, BTR employs a set of highly-structured instructional sequences that all residents learn to use with their content area and grade level span. These sequences – known as “Instructional Activities” or IAs – are intended to support novice teachers to engage in complex and ambitious instruction, from early on in their preparation. For many teachers early in their career, the sheer scope of decisions to be made at any one time can be overwhelming. Instructional Activities are designed to reduce some of this cognitive load and free up space for teachers to focus on what students are learning. The IAs also give BTR residents and graduates a shared language they can use to talk about effective instruction and what it looks like in the classroom. As BTR moves toward a “Teaching Academies” model, in which all BTR residents will be placed at one of two schools run by BTR, the IAs will be an important part of the instructional model: BTR’s common way of teaching. (The shift to Teaching Academies will be completed by the 2016-2017 school year.)
IAs aren’t just for novice teachers, either. While one BTR mentor teacher (and graduate) described them as “a way to get new teachers to do the kind of teaching we want, faster,” he also finds himself using them frequently in his own classroom. Not having to think about how to structure conversation with students means that he can spend more time focusing on all the other things happening in his classroom.
BTR also teaches its residents to use a very deliberate cycle of inquiry: plan, implement, collect evidence, reflect and revise. This approach, along with other assignments designed to build the “reflective muscle,” as one BTR graduate put it, forces novice teachers to slow down, to unpack what they’re doing in the classroom and to connect their actions to what their students are learning. Residents also learn to gather evidence of student learning as part of daily classroom activity, which helps them develop data fluency as part of their practice.
The cycle-of-inquiry approach isn’t a new concept, but the emphasis placed on it by BTR helps give residents a language to talk about the reflective process and helps residents develop habits of mind they can draw on throughout their teaching careers.