What we teach- He argues that the curriculum is impossibly loaded with concepts and ideas that cannot possibly be taught in a year. In looking at the CCSS, the designers would tell you they addressed this issue. They reduced the number of standards and required more depth in instruction. On the face this is true. At a presentation around the roll out of the standards, I was shown the previous and new math standards for fifth grade, at the elementary level where the most standards had been removed in New York. They removed 10% of the content, but were going to require considerably more depth of understanding. Unfortunately when you look at the international standards that they were trying to emulate, 75-50% fewer standards were present. Schmoker would argue that at least 50% of the curriculum should be eliminated to have room for high quality instruction and focus. At a school level, he would suggest that the staff get together, identify their 50% most important standards by dot voting or another polling activity and then focus there. He proposes that the clear, focused curriculum is essential to achievement. Repeatedly we have demonstrated that merely test practice focused instruction raises test scores so far and then plateaus. What is worse is that performance on international tests remains stagnant in the face of improving local or state scores where this approach is the norm. In order to significantly improve performance, we need to teach fewer concepts better.
How we teach- Mike suggests that literacy pervade every lesson. Reading as the access to material. Writing is a key way to improve thinking and learning. He suggests removing fancy technology lessons, and embedding traditional whole group instruction into the classroom. Going back to Madeline Hunter's plan of anticipatory set, model instruction, guided instruction, independent practice and closure accompanied with frequent checks for understanding provides a framework that dramatically improves results. All too often tech lessons have lots of bells and whistles and engagement, but little learning. For our Smartboards to increase performance they need to do two things- increase opportunities for feedback and increase opportunities to respond. Clickers or other personal response systems are key; without them you just have an expensive projector.
Schmoker presents two lesson templates for instruction:
- Interactive lecture- Lecture is used because of its ability to convey lots of information quickly. By itself, however, much goes in one ear and out the other of our students. The key is to make it interactive. Every 5-7 minutes there needs to be a break for student response. It could be a question answered with a personal response device; a request to summarize a key piece of information from the segment either orally, in writing or both; a request to try a problem either in a small group or alone; a request to use a nonlinguistic representation to demonstrate understanding; or another idea. While students spend 3-5 minutes on the activity, the teacher circulates, addressing misunderstandings and planning whether to move on or provide more guidance on the segment of knowledge.
- Authentic literacy- He includes three components to this: close reading/underlining and annotating the text, discussion of the text and writing about the text informed by the text. He suggests preteaching key vocabulary, establishing a purpose, modeling the task at the beginning and gradually releasing responsibility to the students as formative assessments would suggest prudent. He stresses the importance of pair-share activities, group sharing and then quick writing.
Both of these templates can be used in every classroom. It would have been nice for him to include blank templates rather than just describing them.
Authentic literacy- He argues that students should spend at least 100 minutes a day on literacy activities. Students should read for 60 minutes and write for 40 minutes. Since students often do not read at home, this should be reading spent in class. We know that the only way to get better at reading is to read and the only way to get better at writing is to write, but are reluctant to devote the time to this because of all we need to do. I have worked with classes where students are not expected to read- everything is read to them. I know that low level readers are going to be unable to approach texts that are far to high above their reading level. Perhaps what we need to do is pick different texts. Most classics have abridged and lower reading level versions. If we need to provide two separate texts that are readable to the students in order for them to read, we should do it. Simply reading to them does not increase their skill. Having them read along will increase reading skill, but all too often in these classrooms books are closed and students are zoning out.
What Schmoker seems to ignore is classroom management and organization. These two items are critical for any learning to occur. It seems that he takes these items for granted. Unfortunately, like in many teacher prep programs, management is a sidelined item. Discussion requires
that teachers have control of their classes- they can keep students on topic and minimize behavior problems.
Although this book has been around for a while, it is valuable in its insights around how to improve learning and preparation for the future.