Last week, I had the opportunity to speak to the administrative staff from Jeffco, who were coming back from their summer break for some beginning-of-school-year training in preparation for this upcoming school year.
The Superintendent’s beginning of year talk is intended to set the tone for the upcoming school year. Too often, these talks are the announcement of the year’s “next big thing” – the annual roll-out of some new program or nifty approach.
Don’t get me wrong, these sorts of things have their place and they (occasionally) can improve practice. Too often, however, the “next big thing” fails to live up to expectations and in a few years becomes yet another tried and failed effort.
Instead of rolling out the “next big thing,” I think we need to focus our efforts at the level they make the most difference. That is, changing the experience students have in learning through a profound redesign of something called student “task.”
Now, task is a sort of wonky pedagogical term, but it really means the stuff we ask kids to do on a daily basis – and if we aren’t doing something to change it, we aren’t really changing the educational experience.
I’ll put an excerpt from my talk to the administrators below which discusses two different student tasks, both focused on the same content and in the same grade.
I’d be interested in what differences you see between the two – and in which class you’d rather be!
In one classroom, a 3rd grade teacher is teaching column addition. This is an important and useful concept for kids and you may recall it’s when you stack two (or more) multiple digit numbers on top of one another and add them together.
In this first classroom, the teacher has the students coming up to the white board, writing two digit numbers on top of each other, and adding them using the column addition method in front of their peers. The other students call out if the student at the board is right or wrong, and then another student comes up and repeats the exercise. After doing several of these together, the teacher passes out worksheets on column addition, the students work mostly quietly and independently for a while, then they trade worksheets and go over the answers with the teacher.
In the second classroom, also in the third grade where a teacher is at the same place in the math curriculum scope and sequence. In this classroom, the teacher pulls everyone in the class together and tells them “we are going to have a party” instant engagement! Then she tells them that she needs the class’ help in getting ready for the party because they are going to have lemonade and ice cream cones. She needs to know how many cups to buy, how many cones. And also, they should take into account that people may use more than one cup, or cone. And, that they will be having the party not just with their class, but also with the 3rd grade class across the hall, with Ms. Jones and Mr. Smith’s class – and even those poor saps doing the column addition worksheets! She tells them to “go.”
The students start working together and it takes about 30 seconds before the column addition starts coming out. How many students are in this class (22), and how many across the hall (24), and in the other classes?