Coaches Corner: Teacher Actions that Matter

Last week, I prepared components for a session with teachers on strategies for vocabulary instruction. As I was creating the materials, I focused on two objectives: I wanted to share the latest in educational research about how vocabulary instruction can change student achievement, and I wanted to model the instructional strategies that would meet the teachers’ needs as learners and the needs of their students.

Just as 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 one strategy to reveal their prior knowledge and skills so that I could 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 called 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 should begin planning how each will be taught. A Framework for K-12 Science Education also states how implementation of the 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.

Strategies are often referred to as the tools teachers use to help students build 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 his toolbox. Imagine trying to smooth a surface or cut a board; the hammer would be neither effective nor efficient.

During my years as a science teacher, mentor, and coach, most of the novice teachers I worked with only use a handful of strategic tools: ones that were familiar to them and ones used when they were students in elementary school, high school, and even college. They couldn’t tell me why they thought a strategy was a good one nor could they discuss which one they chose not to use. They simply used it because that was how they were taught, or it had always been done that way and it seemed to work. However, did it work with all students? For the most part, sadly, the answer was “No.”

I noticed that the more experienced teachers deliberately selected from several instructional strategies. Some were those they had used in the past or learned about from other teachers. Some were introduced during professional development or even read about in a professional article or journal. They had a varied, open toolbox to choose from based on the needs of their students. Often times they chose several strategies within the same lesson, preparing to be flexible as the needs of their students changed.

The knowledgeable teachers made informed decisions to dismiss some strategies because maybe the students were not ready, or it would be too advanced or, perhaps, too remedial. Strategy choices honed in on the needs of the students and not merely 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’s knowledge about the needs of the students in her classroom. Choosing the appropriate strategy at the right time and knowing how to use the strategy correctly have a long lasting impact on learning and knowledge retention. “Each teacher’s ability to use the right strategy, in the right way, and at the right time holds the greatest potential to improve student learning.” (Frontier and Richabough, Lever 4: Strategy)

As Frontier and Richabough 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?

So, do you need to add more tools to your instructional toolbox? Take some action! There are many ways to gain professional learning: through professional development or Learning Communities, by working with a mentor or meeting with a coach, and by reading professional articles.

It is the goal for STEMcoach.com and STEMscopes curriculum to help each teacher be the most effective teacher possible. We want to help you build your teaching tool portfolio by providing many resources about easy-to-implement, highly effective strategies that are based on research and have a proven success with teachers for meeting the needs of their students. It is taking action that matters both professionally and in your classroom that can make all the difference.

Have you had similar experiences? As comments to the blog this month, share with us your ideas and experiences about bringing new strategies into the science classroom and in preparing a student-centered learning environment! I hope Talley’s Take becomes a place where you and others can share your thinking about being a STEM teacher and where you can comment and ask questions about what others find to be highly effective strategies for teaching in STEM content fields. I look forward to your comments!

Terry Talley, Ed.D.

STEMcoach in Action!