Teacher Actions that Matter


Last week, as I was preparing for a session with teachers concerning strategies for vocabulary instruction, I had dual objectives. I wanted to share the latest in education research about how vocabulary instruction can change student achievement, but I also wanted to model the instructional strategies that would meet the teachers’ needs as learners and the needs of their students. 

Just as the adult learners have different learning styles and depths in their background knowledge, so do the students in their classrooms. It was important for me to select the right instructional strategies.

Just as the adult learners have different learning styles and depths in their background knowledge, so do the students in their classrooms. It was important for me to select the right instructional strategies. I wanted to use a strategy to reveal their prior knowledge and skills so that I would able to adjust my instruction during the session. I also wanted to use additional strategies to scaffold their growth in vocabulary skills as a way for them to assist their students.

The 2005 research findings titled “How People Learn” by the National Research Council, states that teachers have to make these same decisions each time they plan lessons for their students. First, by having a deep understanding of the concepts of the content area and then by dividing the concepts into topics and spacing them out in the order to be introduced. Once decisions are made about how each topic will be assessed; they begin planning how each will be taught. The Framework for K-12 Science Education also states how implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) will require more complex planning than in the past, in order for students to be able to master the three dimensions of the standards.

During my years as a science teacher mentor and coach, most of the novice teachers I worked with used a limited number of strategies. Their strategies were usually limited to the ones used when they were students; in elementary school, high school or even college. They couldn’t tell me why they thought the strategy was a good one or discuss which one they chose not to use when they selected that one. They just used it because that was how they were taught, it’s always been done that way, and it seemed to work. When asked if all students found it to be successful, they would say that some students were successful, but not all their students.

The more experienced teachers actively selected from several instructional strategies — some that they had used in the past, learned about from other teachers, were introduced to during professional development or read about in a professional article or journal. They had a wide variety to choose from based on the needs of their students. Often times they chose several strategies within the same lesson, being prepared to be flexible as the needs of their students changed.

Knowledgeable teachers made conscious decisions to disregard some strategies because perhaps the students were not ready, it would be too advanced or perhaps to remedial. Choices in strategies were based on the needs of the students and not the convenience of the teacher. Instructional decisions were made as a conscious choice and not by default due to a lack of alternatives.

In the book “The Five Levers to Improve Learning,” Tony Frontier and James Richabaugh (ASCD, 2014) suggest that two of the most powerful levers in changing student achievement are the choice of the strategy used by the teacher and the teacher knowledge about the needs of the students in her room. Choosing the appropriate strategy at the right time and knowing how to use the strategy correctly have long lasting impact on learning and retention of knowledge. “Each teachers’ ability to use the right strategy, in the right way, at the right time holds the greatest potential to improve student learning.” (Frontier and Richabough, Lever 4: Strategy)

Strategies have often been referred to as the tools teachers use in helping students in the construction of a strong and complex foundation in science. Having just a few strategies in their instructional portfolio would be like a carpenter having just a hammer in their toolbox. No matter what needed built or repaired, the hammer would be the tool used. Imagine trying to smooth a surface or cut a board; the hammer would not be effective or efficient.

The larger the variety of strategies available to a teacher to meet the variety of needs in his or her classroom, the more effective and efficient the lessons will be, and the more successful the students will be in learning.

Professional learning in the form of Professional Development, Learning Communities, working with a mentor, meeting with a coach, or reading professional articles and journals are ways to add more tools to your instructional toolbox. As a professional, having strategies that are effective and successful will make all the difference in your ability to meet the diverse needs of the students in your classroom.

As Frontier and Richabaugh stated in their book, “A classroom with an effective teacher is associated with growth in student learning at a rate that is three times greater than that in a classroom with a low-performing teacher.” Isn’t that what we want?

Terry Talley, Ed.D. is with STEMcoach in Action!


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