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Are You Scaffolding Instruction? Or Proceduralizing It?

I’m often asked to help professional learning communities (PLC’s) develop common definitions of rigor. We start with a reading on what defines rigor and then rate sample tasks as high– or low–level. You can download the article “What Is Rigor?” as well as sample task cards at

That’s the easy part. Usually, disagreements about the rigor of the task come from how teachers envision implementing the task rather than the task itself. For example, one teacher might picture using a task early in the unit while another envisions it as a summative assessment. That changes how they view its rigor. Or, one teacher would create a worksheet to lead students through the task while another would leave it open–ended.

Eventually, these discussions lead to the insight that how we implement a task is at least as important as the task we choose in the first place. And, that there is a key difference between scaffolding to give all students access to a task and creating procedures so that students only have to follow steps to complete the task. Take procedures far enough, everyone soon agrees, and you can have kindergartners doing calculus. However, those proceduralized problems won’t be rigorous, no matter how difficult they were at the start.

Scaffolding is completely different from procedures.

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Are You Helping Parents Help Their Children?

Volunteering at an education booth at Minnesota’s State Fair let me observe parent-child interactions as passers-by tried toothpick puzzles along our front counter—quick little exercises in spatial reasoning.

Most parents lovingly encouraged their children, but a few incidents triggered this blog’s topic: Educate parents that math ability comes from hard work. It’s a myth that we either are or aren’t good at math.

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A Window Into Effective Problem-Solving

True story:

A school board decided that middle school students weren’t paying attention in class because they were looking out the windows. Their solution? Build a windowless school. Honest. They did just that. Four wings with white walls. Students couldn’t tell where they were so they added grey, brown, and other neutral-colored panels to identify the wings. Sounds more like a prison than a school, doesn’t it?

Of course, this design failed to rivet student attention to teacher instruction. Why? Students were gazing out windows because they were bored with what and how they were being taught–instruction, not construction, was the root cause of the problem!

Each time we solve problems without identifying the root cause, we risk spending millions, as did this school district, on something that won’t further student learning.

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Of Course Teachers Can Become More Effective!

A recent article proclaims that “The findings of several recent studies by psychologists, economists, and educators show that—despite many reformers’ claims to the contrary—it may be possible to make low-performing teachers better, instead of firing them.” (“How To Build a Better Teacher

Why would we think otherwise? How has the debate over teacher quality lost track of how excellence is developed in any field? It takes time, targeted practice, and the right support!

First, it takes 10,000 hours to reach excellence, as Malcolm Gladwell so eloquently documents in Outliers. That’s 10,000 hours–about 8 school years’ worth–with the right sort of coaching and support. Let’s be clear, too, that only actual teaching, lesson planning, assessment construction and analysis, and other core responsibilities count toward those hours, not preservice theory work (although that may guide practice).

A compilation of over 100 studies from many disciplines revealed, “When most people practice, they focus on the things they already know how to do. Deliberate practice is different. It entails considerable, specific, and sustained efforts to do something you can’t do well—or even at all.” [1] 

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Tripped Any Teachers Lately?

One of just a handful of early risers using a hotel health club, I was “in the zone” on a treadmill, my attention glued to one of my favorite movies on the television screen above the row of machines. Suddenly the image disappeared, replaced by a news station, and…I tripped and skidded off the treadmill. Ouch! A newcomer had changed channels without even asking whether any of us minded. As I brushed off my scraped elbow, I thought, How rude can you be? If she’d asked, I wouldn’t have minded changing channels, and I would have had enough warning to avoid taking a tumble.

Teachers get “in the zone” in their classroom, too. Granted, they can be in a rut, teaching in their favorite ways just as I stuck on watching my favorite movie. But how often do we force change on them without enough preparation, causing them to trip? We say, “Make it so” and expect them to implement something foreign–without considering how each teacher must adjust in order to make the change. Here are three anti-tripping tips.

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Coaching for the World Cup of Life

[From a keynote address to the New Zealand Association for Psychological Type, July 2, 2011]
Some rights reserved by Kiwi Flickr

My favorite definition of coaching comes from the origin of the word “coach”: a vehicle for taking valuable people from where they are to where they want to go. Using personality type in my coaching practice improves my ability to show those I coach that I value each client, their time, their goals and aspirations, and their unique way of being.

Chances are, if you use type you’re coaching someone. A child? A friend? Clients during teambuilding or conflict resolution? Life coaching clients who are trying to balance priorities or find meaning? All of these are legitimate coaching vehicles for helping valuable people head in a direction that is right for them. To me, that’s coaching for life’s “World Cup.”

World Cup Coaching

Of course, the most common usage of the word “coach” refers to sports. As I prepared this talk, I ran across an article called “Rugby High-Performance Coaching” by Ben Pierce, which described the five key goals that the All-Black coaches have for each player. And, I’d say these are my top goals for every client I coach!

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What Does “Whole Child” Mean to You?

“The only thing that kept me motivated in high school was singing in the choir.” That statement came from a very successful student who landed a scholarship at a top engineering university. Not the AP classes, not being on the championship math team, not competing for valedictorian. No, motivation came from having a chance to perform, to express himself, to use parts of the brain separate from logic and reasoning. In essence, it was the class that gave him a chance to stretch outside of academics.

If top students need the arts to stay motivated, what about those who struggle with math or reading? In all too many schools these “extras” are being cut in the push to get students “on track” with core skills. However, where is the research and common sense that says that a narrow focus will produce better mathematicians and readers? As one 11-year-old who was struggling told me, “With an extra hour of math and one of reading, I don’t get to do anything fun. Not even Spanish.”

Here’s the THREE reasons to push back on such a narrowing of the courses students take in school:

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Deep, Level III Collaboration for Professional Learning Communities

Occasionally people ask me, “Aren’t you introverted? Then why all the co-authoring and co-presenting?” Because collaborating with people who don’t think quite like me increases my chance of heading in a good direction.

If your colleagues or staff roll their eyes at the mention of professional learning communities, it just may be that they aren’t engaged in the kind of deep collaboration that makes meeting time invaluable to all involved. In preparation for facilitating the #atplc chat # 16 on Twitter , I posted this excerpt from my book Differentiated Coaching: A Framework for Helping Teachers Change. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2006), pages 53-55.

Collaboration: to work jointly with others in an intellectual endeavor. That’s the dictionary definition.

In my first career as a financial controller, collaboration was the norm. At each new job, colleagues shared computer programs, spreadsheet templates, and every trick of the trade they knew to get me up to speed as soon as possible. The faster I could carry my own weight, the better for all. However, collaboration continued even after I was competent. We had no choice but to collaborate, for many reasons:

  • We often faced unworkable deadlines
  • Many tasks were too big for one person to handle
  • Coordination among departments was key to success
  • We needed to share resources
  • Often, tasks required skills I didn’t have; I partnered with others who needed my skills.

Look back through the list; those same reasons apply to educators as well, yet few teachers collaborate. When I first began working in schools, this lack of teaming astounded me. I asked a friend, head of the world language department at a large high school, why teachers didn’t work together more. She said, “Deep down, many view it as stealing. It took me years to get the other teachers to share lesson plans. ‘Competent teachers do it themselves,’ was their message back to me. And finally, when they used something I’d created, students said, ‘Ms. Hartman, did you know someone stole your idea?’ I made sure my name didn’t appear on anything after that!”

In a sense, teachers seem to use a second dictionary definition of collaboration: cooperating with the enemy. They avoid it. Yes, there is a push for teaming, professional learning communities, small schools-within-a-school, and other possibilities for deeper team work, but let’s look at three different levels of collaboration and see where most teaching teams fall:

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