Improving Instruction & Learning in a Primary School
by Thomas Fowler-Finn on 06/19/17
Instructional rounds in the primary school (in this example, a PreK - 2 school in Passaic, New Jersey) presents a range of grade levels and age appropriate teaching and learning elements unique in many ways. From grade level standards, teacher skill and knowledge, and the young student as a learner, the challenges to improving instruction are different than in other schools. The network of educators who conducted instructional rounds in this early childhood school was carefully constructed to ensure that the membership was composed of a variety of expertise necessary to help the school improve. The efforts of the network and the school are showing results.
The primary school in question knew they had a problem with teaching and learning that failed to challenge students in their thinking. The school's goal to improve the level of challenge in student thinking became the basis for seeking help from the network of colleagues engaged in instructional rounds in the district. An instructional rounds session was conducted by district colleagues in May of 2016 and revealed school-wide teaching and learning patterns that the school staff found to be quite discouraging. Key descriptors of the school at that time included such patterns as: 1.) All questions were asked by the teacher; 2.) Nearly 100% of teacher questions were "recall"; 3.) With few exceptions, students responded with one-word answers; 4.) During whole group instruction teachers led by giving continuous procedures and directions for doing activities; 5.) Regardless of the grouping (whole group, small group, or individual student interactions) teachers asked a question, took one student response, and moved on without comment; 6.) Teachers accepted all student responses regardless of the accuracy of the response.
Given these findings, it was clear to the network observers that students were not being challenged in their thinking. This confirmed what the school recognized as a problem, and the network offered several pathways for improving instruction and learning in a network document called The Next Level of Work. The principal and staff took these to heart and began a concerted effort to improve teaching and learning.
In May of 2017, last month, the network returned to this primary school to conduct a follow-up instructional rounds session, again observing in classrooms across the school. The patterns of teaching and learning revealed significant change. We saw such patterns as: 1.) Teachers introduced academically elevated vocabulary that was then used by many students during the lessons; 2.) Students were able to monitor their own work and describe the activity they were doing; 3.) Teachers often asked follow-up questions of the same student before moving on. These follow-up questions asked for additional information/explanation, and most scaffolded student learning; 4.) Teachers often provided feedback to students before moving on; 5.) Teachers went beyond "recall" questions to include many questions about "understanding"; 6.) Students offered mostly one-word answers, but many students used phrases and complete sentences to respond to teachers.
The new patterns in 2017 demonstrate huge changes in a short period of time. The hard work to improve instruction and learning is paying off and encouraging the principal and teachers to continue their efforts. Both the network and the host principal in this rounds session recognize that there is more work ahead in a continuous improvement effort. There is a need for restructuring lessons and use of higher order thinking assignments and questions. Development of language in primary schools is critical and should remain an area of focus in this school. While it was great to see teachers initiate feedback to students, the use and quality of feedback warrant attention.
These improvement suggestions were incorporated into the Network's 2017 Next Level of Work suggestions. The school is making progress and now can build upon successful change efforts from the past year. I look forward to our rounds session next year.