The missing middle

This post is part of a periodic series about Deans for Impact’s Design for Practice Network. Pilot work by Temple University and Boston Teacher Residency has also been featured on the blog.

We often ask teachers to answer two questions: “What did you want students to learn?” and then “Did they learn it?” These are important questions that help teachers focus on student outcomes. We want teachers to understand, for example, how to use exit tickets to help identify the students who “got it” and the students who didn’t.

But there’s something missing in the middle of those two questions. Teachers aren’t necessarily taught to diagnose why some students achieved the objective and some did not. In other words, they aren’t taught to ask themselves: “What are students thinking about?”

That simple question has changed the way that Sarah Langer, an induction coach at the Boston Plan for Excellence, coaches novice teachers. Over the past year, Sarah and other members of the BPE induction team have been piloting ways to ground coaching of novice teachers in cognitive science as part of Dean’s for Impact Design for Practice Network. At a recent meeting, members of the pilot network unpacked how this question about student cognition might help to plug what I’m calling “the missing middle.”

Sometimes, we try to fill this missing middle by focusing on teacher actions: What is the teacher doing in the classroom? Many teacher-observation rubrics, for example, focus overwhelmingly on teacher actions: “teacher communicates lesson objectives,” “teacher provides clear explanations,” or “teacher effectively differentiates content.”

But sometimes a teacher can be doing everything right, according to the observation rubric, and the classroom is still in chaos and students still aren’t learning.

We can also try and fill the missing middle by focusing on student actions. But sometimes students can be on task and engaged in an activity, and still not be thinking about the content.

A middle-school math teacher in Boston recently told me about a lesson on fractions she had planned during her first year of teaching. She was really excited about the activity, and her students were really engaged during the lesson. So she was taken aback when her coach said, “It looked like the kids did a lot of fun stuff…but the only math they were doing was subtraction.” She had been so focused on planning an engaging activity that she had forgotten to consider what she wanted students to be thinking about.

We want teachers to be aware of student cognition throughout the entirety of a lesson, not just checking at the end to see what students have (or haven’t) learned: this is the missing middle. And that’s why we think it’s important that teachers grapple with the questions we pose in The Science of Learning.

But cognitive science can seem daunting to teachers who have never been exposed to it. Mastering cognitive science is difficult; we’re asking teachers to learn a set of abstract concepts (cognitive-science principles) and then link them together into a mental model of how students learn. This requires a lot of practice and exposure to many concrete examples. And classroom environments can be chaotic, with many different things on which a teacher can choose to focus.

So how can teachers start on this journey? Asking a simple question — “What are students thinking about?” — is an unintimidating entry point that opens the door into cognitive science, helping early-career teachers shift their attention away from their own actions so they can focus on student cognition.

Valerie Sakimura

Vice President of Program

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