Monday / April 22

Great Teaching by Design

The opening sentence in our new book, Visible Learning for Literacy, says “Every student deserves a great teacher, not by chance, but by design.” There is so much behind this deceptively simple statement. For example, the opening phrase every student conveys one of our core values: We care deeply about equity and inclusiveness. In some places, some students receive an amazing education while others are suspended and expelled at alarming rates. In other places, some students are segregated and not welcome in regular classrooms. These are important considerations, although not the primary focus of this blog.

We could also spend pages and pages on the topic of what it means to be a great teacher, but in this post, we’d like to focus on the final phrase in the sentence: by design. We don’t think educational experiences should be left to chance. Teachers must design learning environments and instructional events that have the greatest impact on students’ learning. Why use an approach that is known to have a minimal impact when other options are much more likely to ensure learning? It’s just not logical, but it happens in classrooms all over the world. Well meaning teachers try their best to help students learn. These teachers deserve the best information available about what works. But even more importantly, they need to know what works when and for whom.

With John Hattie, we have organized this information into three broad areas of focus: surface, deep, and transfer. Unfortunately, surface level learning has been disparaged in many communities. But surface level understanding is critical to students’ future success. You’ve got to know something to be able to do something. In the realm of reading, it’s impossible to make a logical inference if you don’t understand the literal level of the text. Learning doesn’t stop at the surface level, but it is foundational to subsequent deeper learning.

Importantly, some literacy strategies work better for developing students’ surface levels of learning. For example, systematic and direct instruction works really well at this level.  This approach includes a number of components:

  • Introducing the learning intention and hooking students’ interest
  • Explaining what students will do. This includes a focus on what the task is, why it is important, and adds to the knowledge of how it is done.
  • Modeling the thinking, content, skills, or strategies involved in completing the tasks.
  • Guiding students’ learning through tasks related to the examples provided during teacher modeling, reducing the instructional supports provided.
  • Holding students accountable for independently using the information or skills taught.

Of course there are a host of other actions teachers can take to develop students’ surface level learning. We have noted the value of vocabulary instruction, reading comprehension instruction in context, wide reading on a topic under investigation, and summarizing as a few of the other approaches that are effective in developing students’ surface level learning.

However, here’s a key finding: These approaches are less effective when developing students’ deep learning. That doesn’t mean that they are ineffective, but rather that they need to be used at the right time for the right students.

Leaving students at the surface level is an obstacle that all teachers face. As we have noted repeatedly, surface learning is important, but it’s not sufficient to ensure that students develop competence and confidence. They need to go deep. In order to do so, the instruction needs to change. Those strategies that worked well for surface learning aren’t going to do the trick for deep learning. They need to organize, consolidate, and extend their knowledge. As an example, concept maps can be used to help students think more deeply. It’s hard to create a strong graphic organizer if you don’t know anything about the topic. Foster metacognition by teaching reflective, self-assessing practices, and provide lots of feedback. In addition, classroom discussions and quality questioning allow students to use what they know to delve more deeply into their learning. Similarly, reciprocal teaching is a wonderful way to develop students’ deep learning as they assume increased responsibility for their collective understanding of a text.

Reciprocal teaching allows students to have a conversation several times while reading a text in which they practice summarizing, questioning, clarifying, and predicting. In doing so, they mobilize a great deal of their surface level learning to engage in a collaborative conversation with their peers focused on the content of the reading. This wouldn’t work so well if they didn’t have some topical knowledge, some familiarity with comprehension strategies, and some understanding of the procedures of the task.

Deep knowledge is as important as surface knowledge, but neither will ensure that students develop the expertise that they need to become lifelong learners. We have to ensure that there are opportunities for students to transfer their learning, from unit to unit and year to year. The approaches we discussed as useful for surface and deep learning aren’t very helping in facilitating transfer. Formal discussions, such as debates and Socratic Seminars, provide a level of cognitive demand that exceeds most classroom discussions. These approaches allow students to organize their deep understandings in new ways such that they transfer their understanding to new situations. Similarly, reading across multiple documents to draw conclusions and make a claim requires that students mobilize their surface and deep learning content knowledge and skills. Reading across multiple documents and making meaning of the diverse ideas within those documents is the hallmark of an educated person, which is the goal that all of us share for our students.  Simply starting a lesson or unit, and immediately requiring students to read across documents, is a recipe for failure. As we have noted before, teachers need to design learning so that students get the right approach, at the right time, for the right type of learning.

Written by

Douglas Fisher, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a teacher leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is the recipient of an IRA Celebrate Literacy Award, NCTE’s Farmer Award for Excellence in Writing, as well as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Education.

Nancy Frey, Ph.D., is Professor of Literacy in the Department of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University. The recipient of the 2008 Early Career Achievement Award from the National Reading Conference, she is also a teacher-leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College and a credentialed special educator, reading specialist, and administrator in California.

Latest comment

  • It has been great reading this post and it ticks a lot of boxes for me and my teaching. I am in my seventh year of teaching and every year I feel like I finally know what I am doing and then by the end of the year I look back and see things that could have been so much better and I resolve again to change. I am always trying to connect my students to our topics to help them develop the love of learning and when I reflect on this I have to acknowledge that I must also keep learning about my craft to help me to continue to love what I do. The challenges of a classroom that contains a very broad range of abilities is not unique and I find that this is the biggest challenge;giving every student the chance to find success is my aim. Hattie is constantly challenging me to think more deeply and question everything I do. Accepting I will never ‘arrive’ is the most logical first step but knowing that I have the opportunity to inspire both my students and myself keeps me going.

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