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Chocolate Chip Cookies and Instructional Coaching

How is baking chocolate chip cookies similar to implementing teaching strategies? It has a lot to do with “implementation with fidelity”–instructional coaches are often taught to look for key elements necessary for a given strategy to work. YES you need to identify those elements BUT when you’re observing a classroom, beware. They may be harder to recognize than you think. Just like a good chocolate chip cookie.

The Chef Effect

My mother taught my four big brothers and me to bake chocolate chip cookies. In education terms, we all had the same “instructional coach.” !

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Are We Open to Finding Answers?

Before you read this, read Bill Ferriter’s great recent blog, Are We Asking the Right Questions?  He is spot on about the dangers of focusing too much on “right answers” when asking questions about what is and isn’t working in schools. “Why did this student answer this question wrong?” is a far different question than “Can this student use what we’ve taught to innovate in some way?” Bill points out,

Phrases like “what would happen if” and “why should we believe in” that play a regular role in the language of innovators and entrepreneurs are replaced with phrases like “do you know how to” and “what do you remember about” which do nothing more than emphasize the skills required to find the right answers to someone else’s questions.

As an outside consultant, I’m often struck by how reluctant or even afraid professional learning communities can be to raise, and then seek answers to, questions involving anything but instruction and testing these days, even when finding answers might improve student outcomes. !

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Genuine Professional Collaboration

Recently I overheard a conversation between two eye doctors. One was treating a patient who had had a glue gun malfunction, spraying glue all over his eyes. “Yesterday, cleansing away the glue went far better than expected,” the doctor reported. “but I had him come in again today. Now the cornea is clouding and…” He went on to describe his concerns and a possible treatment. My own doctor listened carefully, asked some questions, and called another doctor into the conversation. Together they raised pros and cons of various options and helped the attending physician decide what to do.

All too often, I find that teachers shy away from such collaboration. Maybe they’re afraid that they’ll be judged if anyone finds out that they are struggling with a student or a teaching strategy or certain required concept. Maybe veteran teachers are only sharing what is going well in their classrooms. Maybe they’re thinking, “If I were really a master teacher, I could solve this on my own.”

WRONG. My eye doctor and his colleagues have extensive advanced training, around 20 years of experience, and are each experts in certain eye conditions. Yet, they actively consult with one another. Don’t you agree that teaching is every bit as complex as medical practice? !

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Differentiated Professional Development

Besides telling me, “That was practical,” attendees at my daylong workshops also comment, “You kept us awake all day. What did you do?” Well, I differentiated.

I do my best to model what I hope teachers will do for students: “teach around” the learning styles so that the day’s activities are varied and everyone’s needs are met at least some of the time. You can learn more about how these styles apply to students in my Educational Leadership article, “Let Me Learn My Own Way”, but the styles also apply to teachers. Try planning your next professional development session with something for each style.

  • “Let me master it!” Teachers with this learning style often appreciate receiving detailed instructions for new strategies or lessons. Provide time for reading those instructions and asking detailed questions. Give a demonstration or show a film clip of a teacher using the new strategy.
  • “Let me do something!” These teachers do not want to sit still all day!
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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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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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