Saturday, February 12, 2011


Found out that I have until mid-April on my warranty and that I can't live without my computer for two weeks while in France. So, I'll wait to get it fixed back in England. I'm's true.

I have just read the first half of the book Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning by Mike Schmoker and I think that I am ready to be back in a classroom!! Schmoker argues that we have gotten utterly ridiculous in terms of the volume and breadth of our state and national standards and that we need to cut them to 40-50% of their current levels and focus on the truly essential ones. More on this later…but most importantly, he thinks that in every class, regardless of content, we need to focus on the following four standards or habits of mind: (Page 38). Not only do we need to focus on them, but they should be central to every instructional decision in the classroom and to how we view the standards.

1. Reading to infer/interpret/draw conclusions

2. Supporting arguments with evidence

3. Resolving conflicting views encountered in source documents

4. Solving complex problems with no obvious answer

He argues that all of these require students to have a deep level of content understanding in order to complete them, and so even if we are cutting the amount of content standards, we are doing students a great service. They will have opportunities to think deeply and really understand content instead of just having a few facts committed to memory that they then forget quickly.

When I think about “preparing students for adulthood” in a democratic society where everyone has the opportunity to vote, these four habits of mind, are crucial. From a science perspective, many of the issues students are going to vote on in the future have a scientific background, so of course they need to have a conceptual understanding, but more importantly, they need to have the skills listed above. Life is about “solving problems with no obvious answer” most of the time and if we are not preparing students to do this in school, what are we doing?

Most of his arguments focus around having embedded, authentic literacy practices in every classroom almost every day. This means that students are truly engaged with a variety of texts and that teachers are providing opportunities for reading, discussions, and the four “new standards” listed above on a regular basis. He also stresses that teachers should be modeling and doing think-alouds about how to read text and how to annotate in order to infer/interpret/draw conclusions, etc. There is so much information constantly coming at people (I think I heard somewhere that the amount of information in the world doubles every 40-some days or something like that!) that unless they have the skills listed above, they won’t be able to survive and thrive in the modern world. So, bye-bye canned programs…hello real instruction!

**(On a quick aside- at my school in England, I was observed doing a think-aloud and lots of modeling and a gradual release lesson on how to read scientific text, and I was told that it was a waste of time! That was definitely not the school for me!)**

Schmoker talks about how focusing on these four habits of mind, while also focusing on only 50% of the standards, allows students to really learn and that teachers can slow down, include many checks for understanding, and ensure that all kids are truly understanding. How many times have I heard people say, or said/thought it myself, “Well, I taught it. If they didn’t get it, that’s not my fault because I taught it.” HA!

Ummm, yeah, it is my fault if I “taught” something and my students didn’t “get” it. I always was shocked in college courses when a teacher would grade on a curve so that a 45% was an A or something like that. Even then, before I was a teacher, I used to think that if students were doing that poorly in your class, maybe the teacher should do a little re-evaluation of their teaching practices.

I am sure that many teachers and standards-writers reading his book will be mad that the implications of it might be that people might have to give up their “pet unit.” Well, (and this is probably why I wouldn’t be a good administrator…not tactful enough) if you are doing a unit just because it is interesting to you, and not what is good for kids, then you shouldn’t be doing it. He talks about how to determine what standards should stay and which should go (page 47).

Endurance: Will the standard provide students with knowledge and skills beyond a single test date?

Leverage: Will the standard provide knowledge and skills that are of value in multiple disciplines?

Readiness for the Next Level: Will the standard provide the students with essential knowledge and skills that are necessary for their success in the next grade level?

He says that schools, departments, and teams need to sit down and go through the processes of cutting down the standards to a manageable, focused, and essential level. I’m glad I won’t have to be the manager of that, as I can see that being a tough process where many people will be upset. I’ve been to plenty of meetings where teachers just sit around a bitch about everything so I’m glad I don’t have to be the facilitator of the “cutting down the standards” meetings!

So, basically, reading this, just made me really excited. I hope this is the way the pendulum is going to swing. I think it should. It makes me even more excited to be out of a system that is just driven by exams to the exclusion of everything else.

I think Schmoker is dead-on. I also think that this is what PEBC has been saying for a long time. If you are reading this and not familiar with PEBC (the Public Education and Business Coalition- they are an amazing organization based around the ideas encapsulated in Schmoker’s book. (At least so far in the first half, so I hope I’m not jumping the gun by saying this!) Any school that has had the opportunity to be involved with PEBC will likely be ahead of the curve here in terms of what Schmoker is saying…it won’t be earth-shattering information to them!

If you aren’t an education person and you’re reading this blog…sorry…I am isolated from my professional colleagues in my current situation and have no other mode for discussing this great book. But, any teachers out there…read it!


AS said...

I TOTALLY agree with slimming down standards to make for a more effective, more realistic learning environment!!! Numerous times I'd heard, "But, I've ALWAYS taught this or....taught it in this way." Lessons lacked in breadth and depth because of that mindset. I'm so happy to see you excited once again to be in the classroom, Lizbeth!!! Kids need teachers like you! xoxo AS

Diane Lauer said...

When I got this book I started reading and I just could not put it down. I, too, connected with the 4 points of focus Mike gleaned from the book College Knowledge. I think those cross-disciplinary frames should be the critical scythe we slash our curriculum with. But, I'm dying to know ---- what did you think of his section on Science Inquiry??? That is the one area where I felt some real cognitive dissonance. Not so much the reading part - but I'm thinking about the hands-on part....