Words matter. Routines and procedures matter. The more we can simplify each in our educational systems, the more likely we are to reach high levels of success.
At the risk of sounding like I desire robotic teaching, where we all do the exact same thing, I’m going to make the following statement: I think we all need to do the exact same thing. 🙂 Fear not, there is plenty of room for autonomy and individuality in what I am proposing.
Common Language for Educators
It’s pretty tough to establish common instructional language with our students if we haven’t first established common instructional language with our educators. In education, there is no shortage of educational terms, phrases, and initiatives, all frequently and lovingly captured in acronyms. MTSS, PBIS, SEL, SEBH, RTI, EBP, SDI, IEP, BIP, PLC anybody???
In an effort to achieve high levels of learning for all learners, our district has been working toward becoming a high performing professional learning community for approximately 6 years. Despite great efforts, we still have a long way to go. And that’s OK… education is a massive system with tons of mini-systems in place, each serving vital functions. My proposal is that we simplify the multitude of systems by sticking with common language and expectations for our educators.
As part of our 2022-2023 district action plan, our administrative team established 3 instructional expectations. This is a perfect example of establishing common language and expectations. My strong desire and plea to our administrative team throughout this year has been to maintain those same three instructional expectations for the 2023-2024 school year. Each needs to be unpacked, analyzed with examples and non-examples, clearly communicated with all educators, and revisited frequently. In addition, accountability needs to be established.
- Teacher uses total participation techniques to engage a variety of learners.
- Students do the majority of thinking or questioning to clarify or build on each others’ thinking.
- Teachers use frequent checks for understanding to assess student learning.
The evaluation system for the instructional expectations needs to be clearly communicated and tied to already-established teaching standards. Levels of proficiency need to be defined and communicated; reflective conversations and plans for moving forward need to be established with each staff member. In our district, we currently use levels of proficiency (Not Yet Proficient, Developing, Proficient, Beyond Proficient) for reporting progress on priority standards with our students. If our students are being measured in this way, is there anything to say that the same system wouldn’t work for our educators?
Common Language for Students
Curriculum matters. The beauty of adopting a high-quality curriculum is that educational systems are automatically adopting common language for both routines & procedures and for concepts across a span of grade levels.
EL Education has a clear lesson structure for both Foundational Skills lessons in kindergarten through second grade, and for Module lessons in kindergarten through eighth grade. Think about that: as a student, I know the lesson structure of every lesson. I know what to expect. Barriers/obstacles have been eliminated that otherwise may have tugged on my limited cognitive capacity.
An example of a Foundational Skills lesson structure and a Module lesson structure are included below:
In addition to a clear and intentional lesson sequence, common language is provided in the protocols that the EL Education curriculum utilizes to ensure that students are leaders of their own learning. Each protocol is designed with a clear set of steps to be followed. As students become familiar with the steps of the protocol, they are able to use the protocol to further their learning about content. According to the the EL Education website, “Protocols hold each student accountable and responsible for learning. They teach students how to lead their own learning.”
At a broad look, high quality curriculums provide a staircase of complexity from grade level to grade level. In the case of EL Education, topics are clearly outlined in four modules across a grade level, from kindergarten through eighth grade. Topics and concepts overlap between grades, allowing students to make connections to previous learning.
Common Language & Procedures for Foundational Literacy Skills
Foundational Literacy Skills are critical to a student’s success as a proficient reader. A well-defined scope and sequence for foundational literacy skills lays the foundation for mastery of said skills. As stated by Student Achievement Partners, “…foundational reading skills need to be systematically taught, carefully assessed, and robustly practiced (in response to assessment results) skill after skill in a research-grounded sequence through a research-based program.”
Systematic and explicit instruction of foundational skills is required for the majority of our young learners. When we use common procedures and common language during this instruction, we eliminate unnecessary barriers and obstacles to learning by freeing up students’ cognitive capacity. Pushback around this topic typically comes with statements like, “This is so boring for students. We need to change things up.” Actually, we do NOT need to change things up. What may be boring for the educator is not boring for the learner. Again, their cognitive energy needs to be dedicated to the concept being learned, not to the procedure for learning it.
A Quick Note About Cognitive Load Theory
As we think about utilizing common instructional language, routines, and procedures, it would behoove us to think about cognitive load theory. When it comes to working memory – taking in new information, our cognitive capacity is limited. When it comes to long-term memory, our cognitive capacity is nearly unlimited. Cognitive load theory is “the single most important thing for teachers to know,” according to Dylan Wiliam and shared by Natalie Wexler in a must-read article, Want Kids to be Better Readers and Writers? Look to Cognitive Science, Forbes.com, November 19, 2022.
Every time we remove an unnecessary barrier to our students’ learning, we are paving the way to ensuring high levels of learning for all students. Those barriers can be removed when we nail down the language of instruction. Perhaps this is what the phenomenal Anita Archer means when she says: