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Hechinger Commentary

Instruction: Part 2

The first teacher we see lays out for her fourth- and fifth-graders at a university-based demonstration school what Cotsen Family Foundation's director Judy Johnson calls in her audio commentary a “packed agenda” of reading and writing tasks. She reminds them of concepts taught earlier in the year, helping them connect what’s to come to what came before. Cognitive psychologists will tell you this is a key step in learning.

This is not an average public school. The teachers are all top experts and the kids are diverse, capable, motivated, and backed by engaged parents. But the principles of instruction apply elsewhere as they do here. The children in these videos are being asked to complete ambitious assignments that require them to think—not just do. How demanding are the assignments in the classrooms you write about? How engaged are the students? How can you tell?

Notice that in addition to teaching reading and writing skills, this teacher is teaching her students how to be effective readers. The reader’s job, she says, is to “make sense” of what he or she reads. This is a phrase (a variant is “make meaning”) that journalists hear often from elementary school educators. How could you tell if a teacher is helping students learn to do that? Will the assignments and lessons you observe and analyze develop those skills? You might ask the teacher to explain the connection between this goal and his or her teaching and describe that connection for your audience.

The children in the second featured classroom are first-graders. Do you notice the rapid pace? Instruction is mostly in the form of questions. To find out if one boy is counting accurately, the teacher asks him to do so out loud. She says to one girl, “Show me that,” and counts with her: “One group, two groups …” Then, she asks: “Where’s your third group? Where’s your fourth group? Do you need those?” The questions help the girl organize her thinking. The teacher asks, “What does this represent?” of another boy to determine if he has kept the purpose of the problem in mind while manipulating the numbers. “Sixty-three what, Stephen? Candies with ...?” Listen as the one young boy talks about his thinking when solving an addition problem. Did you hear him say, “I decided to challenge myself”?

Remember, these are first-graders. And they are expected to talk about their thinking—not an easy task! This middle-class suburban Los Angeles classroom of 20 students includes eight who live in nearby lower-income neighborhoods. Can you tell which ones they are? Do you notice that all of the children are working on the same math concepts but that some are using single-digit numbers and others are using two- or even three-digit numbers?

Many journalists have written stories about the so-called “math wars,” which is a disagreement among educators and mathematicians about not only which math is important to learn but how best to teach it. The two camps in this debate are often stereotyped as the “traditional” crowd that emphasizes calculations, memorization, and drills and the “reform” crowd that embraces activities, student “discovery” of mathematical relationships, and the use of objects to make abstract concepts concrete. But classroom teachers—especially excellent ones—are not pedagogical purists.

This teacher uses a variety of methods and approaches. In this brief segment you’ll see rapid-fire practice of arithmetic, explicit teaching of concepts such as decimals and fractions, and allowing students to choose the method they like best for calculation (counting on fingers, using a number chart, counting with objects educators refer to as “manipulatives” because they can be touched and moved). Even asking students to write and talk about math is sometimes caricatured as so-called “fuzzy” math. And the direct teaching of arithmetic at the start of the video would be disdained by others as too teacher-centered. It would be possible for a journalist to take any one of these examples to characterize the teaching in a classroom to suit the journalist’s purpose. But doing so would eliminate the richness and complexity of the teaching that is occurring here.

The phrase Judy uses—that allowing the children to choose among methods promotes inquiry and engagement and helps them “organize their thinking” —is a key one. Learning really is figuring out how new knowledge fits in with existing knowledge.

Notice, too, how the teacher communicates with the children by holding a hand, touching a shoulder. She gets down low so that she can look into the child’s eyes, locking in the student’s attention. She touches the cubes or chips or the student’s paper when she wants the child to focus on a particular set of numbers. From such subtle signs, a journalist can begin to construct a sense of the relationship between the teacher and her students and how important this is to instruction.