Using the Right Strategies at the Right Time

I recently had the opportunity to attend two outstanding conferences: the Conference for Advancement of Science Teaching, better known as CAST, which is sponsored by the Science Teachers Association of Texas; and the Texas Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (TASCD) Annual Conference. Both were well attended and interestingly attended by very different groups of people. The CAST conference was based on science content and instruction, while the TASCD conference addressed all content areas, including Health and PE, and focused on implementation and supervision of instructing all content standards. Although both had a large percentage of participants in administrative roles, the majority of the attendees were teachers who were in leadership roles and seeking ways to impact student achievement.

Our common goal was evident in the names of the short courses and sessions being offered as well as the focus of the keynote speakers. One highly engaging speaker at the TASCD conference was Dr. Tony Frontier. He is co-author, with James Brickabough, of the book entitled Five Levers to Improve Learning: How to Prioritize for Powerful Results in Your School (ASCD, 2014).

I would like to share with you the key point I took away from his presentation. He stated that there are five levers that the education community can utilize in an effort to impact student achievement. These levers include the school structure, the sample [how students are organized into teaching groups], the standards, the strategies, and self [the students self-concept and motivation]. Of these five, he stated the following from the research of Hattie (2009):

Components associated with instructional strategies and concepts of self were found to be, on average, eight times more effective at improving student learning than those practices associated with structure and sampling. (Frontier, 2014)

That impressed me! As a teacher who plans carefully for instruction, and as a professional developer and designer of teacher-coaching models, I consciously select the instructional strategy to use with the various groups I am going to be teaching.  As teachers, we realize one strategy is not enough to meet the diversity of needs in each of the groups we serve.

Even when referring to the research-based, highly effective strategies of Robert Marzano in Classroom Instruction that Works, (Marzano, 2009), Dr. Frontier pointed out that you cannot just use the one with the highest effect size—Similarities and Differences. It may not be the most effective with the group or for the content you are working with at the time.

I equated that to a carpenter who only has a hammer in his tool bag.  Although it can be quite effective in driving a nail into wood, it is not as effective when wanting to smooth a rough surface or when trying to carefully join two pieces of veneer. This is true when we are planning lessons for our students. In our classrooms, students have varied needs and come with different levels of background knowledge. Often, a traditional approach to science instruction, such as using lecture, demonstration, and textbook reading, will not meet the instructional needs of all learners, especially if we want instruction to impact their achievement.

Professional learning and development that cause us to step outside our comfort zone is sometimes that is needed to refocus our attention on why we are teaching in the first place—to make a difference for our students. Finding new strategies to engage, motivate, and teach science concepts is what is needed to bring those who are not responding to our current strategies out of the dark hole of mediocrity and even failure. Through their knowledge, understanding, and the use of science, we will be able to help them become what they aspire to be. Scientific literacy is only possible when the science content is accessible to all students, not just our top achievers.

Accessibility means, first, knowing our students: knowing their background in science, their reading ability, their interests, and the level of support by their families and social groups towards school and science. Creating a classroom-learning environment that is welcoming and motivating is a major part of knowing your students. If your room is not student-centered and prepared for learning, your students will recognize that they are not your priority!

I recently participated in an online webinar by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey and is sponsored by ASCD. They are the co-authors of a recently published book called Better Learning through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility(ASCD, 2014).  The key to their research is that the “I Do, We Do, You Do” instructional model may not be enough to reach all the students in our classrooms today.

Fisher and Frey advocate for increasing the time that students interact with each other to the majority of the time spent during instruction. As students collaborate and communicate their understanding and new thinking with each other, the teacher as facilitator, can adjust instruction and differentiate in the moment, depending on the needs revealed by her students! This frees the teacher to ask scaffolded questions of each group that are aimed at higher levels of thinking and understanding and also builds to a conceptual level needed for achievement gains!

As constructivists, we acknowledge the need for students to interact with materials to create their own understanding, but this research confirms the need to give student time to share what they understand and to discuss it with peers before releasing them to be held independently accountable!

Planning for your students’ success begins with your planning of the lessons.  I would like to challenge your thinking about preparation for instruction and assessment. Consider the key ideas of Frontier, Fisher, and Frey and try a new strategy with your students. Select one that is doable, at no cost to you, and can be utilized without being an add-on. Use it instead of a strategy you have traditionally used. Collect data to determine if it increases the level of engagement and motivation. Provide a formative assessment to determine if their understanding of the concept is at a higher level. Allow their success to motivate you to try additional ones, adding to your success as their teacher! and STEMcoach in Action have many great strategies that will work in your STEM classroom.  STEM-ify It provides videos of teachers who have implemented highly effective strategies with great levels of enthusiasm and engagement by the students. Use some of these ideas to bring the joy of learning into your classroom and your teaching career!

As comments to the blog this month, share 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 a place where you can comment and ask questions about what others find to be highly effective strategies for teaching in STEM content fields.

This month, Talley’s Take is focusing on Strategies for Increased Learning for your students.  Check out the STEM-ify It videos. I look forward to your comments!


Terry Talley, Ed.D.

STEMcoach in Action!



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