|I hope you are doing well. Here in Connecticut, fall seems to have started later than usual—but today is a lot cooler, and the trees outside my window have all changed their colors, and so have we. As you probably know by now, the Center has changed its name to Partners for Educational Leadership. We have a new website, and if you want to learn more about the shift, you can read my colleague Richard’s letter explaining the background. And I have a new email address, which is also at the bottom of every blog post—please bookmark and/or whitelist. This is the new link for the Coaching Letter archive—and allow me to remind you that the Coaching Letter is free to all, and that I would be grateful if you would forward this message to colleagues who would find it interesting and/or useful—here is a link to sign up.
At the end of the last Coaching Letter, I asked for a favor: feedback on the Coaching Letter. Thank you to those of you who responded, it was very helpful, not least because some of the suggestions were for things I thought I was doing already! Always a humbling experience… Anyway, the link is still open, so if you didn’t get a chance to add your thoughts yet, you can do so any time. And I will do my best to respond to your suggestions.
This Coaching Letter manages to be an extension of two recent CL topics: attribution theory and task design. In CL #152, the most recent, I wrote about how we tend to ascribe causation to a person over the situation in which the person is acting. And in CL #150, I wrote about the work that I was doing to try to get a handle on task design, as part of the work that we’ve been doing on Acceleration in its many forms. And then I read Peter Liljedahl’s book, Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics, which brought those two things—attribution theory and task design—into juxtaposition in really surprising ways. And that’s what I’m going to write about.
OK, I know that’s abstract, so let me tell you about the book.
Liljedahl, a professor of math education at Simon Fraser University, starts by describing what happened when he went to observe a teacher trying a problem-based approach to instruction for the first time—actually, the first three times—and what a disaster it was. He embarked on a research program trying to create what he calls “thinking classrooms”, and along the way he documented what is going on in classrooms where the teacher demonstrates how to do an operation and then says “now you try one.” In an average classroom using that kind of pedagogy, about half are copying what the teacher is doing, some are doing nothing, and some are faking it: they are doing something that looks legitimate, like sharpening their pencils or digging in their backpacks (I once timed a kid going through his backpack for a full seven minutes). And some are actually thinking independently and trying for themselves the way the teachers wants them to. These are behaviors, whether actual learning or not, that Liljedahl calls “studenting”:
“Studenting, a term first coined by Fenstermacher (1986), is the analogue to teaching. As teachers, we do a great number of things that may or may not have to do with the facilitation of student learning. We take attendance, deal with classroom disruptions, make school announcements, collect permission forms, fund raise, and oh yeah, we also help students learn the curricular content and develop some skills.” Liljedahl, 2021, p. 7.
“There is much more to studenting than learning how to learn. In the school setting, studenting includes getting along with one’s teachers, coping with one’s peers, dealing with one’s parents about being a student, and handling the non-academic aspects of school life.” Fenstermacher, 1986, p. 39.
What is really cool is what he did next. He made a list of all the characteristics of a typical classroom environment—in other words, the context in which students are operating—and then he systematically went about upending those aspects of classrooms, one at a time, to see what made a difference. In other words, more than any other researcher I’ve ever read when talking about instruction rather than behavior, he assumes that the context matters; that students are behaving in certain ways because of their mental model of what is expected of them. They pick up signals from the environment—their cues, if we want to extend the metaphor of having a role or playing a part—and they behave accordingly. (This is true of all social contexts; we behave differently at work, at home, at the mall, at a party, or at synagogue—and as educators know, from classroom to classroom, because different teachers create different learning environments with different behavioral expectations.)
Here is the list of 14 variables he distilled from his research that impact thinking in a classroom (remarks in italics are mine, obviously):
- What types of tasks we use. Hallelujah! It would have been pretty discouraging if task never came up, but it’s at the top of the list!
- How we form collaborative groups.
- Where students work.
- How we arrange the furniture.
- How we answer questions. As a coach, reading about this one was just so interesting, because the parallels to our (I mean the Partners) stance on coaching are so clear.
- When, where, and how tasks are given.
- What homework looks like.
- How we foster student autonomy.
- How we use hints and extensions. The parallel here is to how we have talked in our Acceleration work about scaffolding.
- How we consolidate a lesson.
- How students take notes.
- How we choose to evaluate.
- How we use formative assessment. Another connection to the Acceleration Framework, obviously.
- How we grade.
So when I say that he systematically upended the way that classrooms are usually organized, I mean he did things like have students stand up rather than sit down, rearrange the furniture so that it’s not only not in rows but also not even at right-angles, take away the furniture completely, remove the concept of the front of the room, have students do their work on vertical, non-permanent surfaces (whiteboards, chalkboard, chart paper) rather than horizontal (notebook paper). And he kept track of what happened—how much real learning rather than mere studenting each change produced. And the book is the compendium of that research.
I looked at A LOT of books to feel ready to talk about task design at our recent Acceleration-related events—thank you again to everyone who made a recommendation. (It was 23 books, actually, thank you for asking.) Liljedahl’s book was one of the last ones I picked up because I couldn’t afford to focus just on one subject area. But the book is about so much more than math—indeed, I could argue that it’s really a book about creating the context for student thinking, and math happens to be the content area in the frame. So I think you should read it whether or not you are a math teacher:
- Coaches, it will make you think differently about classroom instruction. But it will also make you think differently about coaching. Kerry and I have been talking for a few years now about creating the context for coaching—big shout-out to the teachers, coaches and principal of New Haven Adult Ed for helping us with this—and how coaching, like learning, and like task, does not happen in isolation. What are the equivalents of “studenting” in coaching, and how can we signal that we are not enacting a mental model of coaching that only has the coach telling a teacher what to do?
- Leaders, it will make you think differently about faculty meetings, classroom observations, and teacher evaluation—what are the equivalents of “studenting” in those situations, and how much stalling and slacking is going on during faculty meetings? While I was reading the book, I started imagining what it would look like to make a complete break from the typical faculty meeting or data team meeting, and what teachers would think. And it should also make you think differently about coaching—in many districts, the coaching is being asked to do all the lifting, and would be more effective if leaders were more intentional about creating the context for coaching.
- Teachers, it will make you think differently about everything.
Oh, and for everyone with a view about what good instruction looks like, please don’t say anything else about engagement or voice and choice until you have read the book.
One of the things that came through loud and clear in your feedback on the Coaching Letter is that you like the links—the connections to other resources—articles, podcasts, TED talks. In this case, I’m really tempted to say, just read the book! But I know that you have multiple demands on your time and you can’t necessarily devote time to reading a book just because I said you should. So… Peter Liljedahl’s website has lots of examples of “good problems” if you are actually a math teacher, plus links to some of his articles and presentations. I highly recommend this interview with Peter Liljedahl—it’s a YouTube link, but there’s no video, just audio. You can also watch this presentation, with much the same content but with slides. Sorry, no TED Talk. But there will be more about task design at the Acceleration Convening this week, and I look forward to seeing many of you there.
Every time I write a Coaching Letter, I have to fight the urge to thank a lot of people, but then it sounds like an Oscar speech rather than a newsletter. But can I just say that I am very grateful for the people that I have worked with lately? My colleagues at the Partners—I work most closely with Kerry, Rydell and Richard, but they are all great—the colleagues I have co-opted from other places because they are brilliant, David and Andrew; the district and school teams who are working very hard to improve school for students in a uniquely challenging time; my coaching clients, whom I love especially; and all the coaches Kerry and I have worked with lately in the very large number of workshops we have facilitated this fall, who have been universally thoughtful, generous and conscientious humans.
Let me know if I can do anything else for you; all my contact info is below. Best, Isobel
Isobel Stevenson, PhD PCC