Are Students “Getting It”? The Interaction of Teaching and Learning in a Professional Learning Community (Tomlinson versus Schmoker)

 Have you ever watched a basketball practice session?
I was sitting in the bleachers as the kids entered the gym, the coach walked onto the court and the kids immediately lined up and started stretching exercises. The coach began by teaching a skill for about five minutes, had the players demonstrate the skill, evaluated and corrected, retaught, another demonstration of skills acquisition followed, the coach moved on to demonstrating the skill within a set play, and continued  the session in the same manner. He frequently asked the players questions, encouraged players to respond to each other and finished with an intense game situation drill.
It was a demonstration of superb teaching.
The ultimate test of our success is whether the kids can succeed in demonstrating the skill on the State tests or on a Regents exam, the coach only has to wait until the next game.
As teachers we are the writer, director, producer, set designer, actor, and, hopefully, the critic, of a play with a run of one day.
Each evening we work on the next iteration of the “play,” the lesson, we work as hard and as smart as we can on the “teaching” side, and worry about the “learning” side. The substance of what we teach is not a constant. Both on the national scene and in New York State the mandarins are creating “common core standards.” (see detailed description here)
Over the eight years of Children First the one constant has been the focus on data collection/assessment and proscriptive instruction. In most districts and networks the message to teachers is the workshop model and differentiated instruction. Some principals rigidly enforce the message, others allow more teacher choice, all depending upon the two school assessments, the Quality Review (QR) and the Report Card grade. If you’re an “A” and “Well-Developed,” all smiles, anything less, frowns.
From the teacher prospective it’s about those urchins sitting in front of you (or around you, depending upon how you set up your class), are they “getting it,” are they “learning,” as defined by being able to master the “test.”
The debates on the teaching side have been going on for generations: from the “sage on the stage” to the developmental lesson, from homogeneous grouping to heterogeneous grouping (the sparrows, the bluebirds and the robins), to the workshop model and differentiated instruction.
The smart aleck teacher asks the supervisor: how do I differentiate instruction and still teach to the same common core standards for each group? and, if he’s really a wiseass s/he asks: is there any evidence that differentiated instruction is more successful than any other instructional modality? (a friend was on a break during a network PD, at the next table a consultant was explaining to a group of principals how to “marginalize” teachers who weren’t “on board.”).
When the lesson observation checklist is amended  to include “evidence of differentiation instruction,” we know it resonates at the top.
 Carol Tomlinson, the mistress of DI describes it as,
The idea of differentiating instruction to accommodate the different ways that students learn involves a hefty dose of common sense, as well as sturdy support in the theory and research of education (Tomlinson & Allan, 2000). It is an approach to teaching that advocates active planning for student differences in classrooms.
If you’re a teacher who believes in constantly growing as a professional, who keeps up with the literature you may read  Mike Schmoker who, in his new book  Results Now avers,
This book pleads with educators and administrators to assist in the immediate transformation of American schools. He describes in detail the “buffers” that American schools have created which have led to the illusion that a high percentage of American schools are actually effective (which he points out in detail, actually are not). This “buffer” that Schmoker describes has led to teacher isolation, lack of quality instruction, and to the reality that administrators are virtually devoid of influence when trying to effect the quality of instruction.
What makes Schomker so attractive to teachers is that he is specific in his strategies,
The key is to teach the basic aspects of writing and the criteria in our scoring guides carefully, explicitly and frequently, making sure that students write a sufficient number of both short and long papers.  It is critical that in the course of instruction we provide student and professional exemplars—so that students can learn to peer-edit and self-evaluate their work at each stage, before submitting it to the teacher.

His conclusion is that “Differentiated Instruction is only one among many prominent detours American education has taken” away from “three simple things” that are far more apt to increase learning: “coherent, content-rich guaranteed curriculum” (emphasis his), “good lessons,” and ensuring that students “read, write, and discuss, in the analytic and argumentative modes.”

I don’t know whether Tomlinson is right or Schmoker is right, that’s for each individual teacher and each school to discuss, if discussions occur.

Schools should be professional learning communities, teachers and school leaders meeting to discuss one modality versus another all in the lens of student learning, how do we know if our “teaching” is impacting student “learning”? Are we checking for understanding multiple times within a lesson?

It is only when teachers cease being isolated in their classrooms, interact with colleagues, feel they have voice, when mutual respect describes the school leader-teacher relationship can schools move from a factory model to a learning community model.



2 responses to “Are Students “Getting It”? The Interaction of Teaching and Learning in a Professional Learning Community (Tomlinson versus Schmoker)

  1. The coach in this example knows what works – and he’s allowed to coach that way. Good teachers know what works for each particular and unique class. They should likewise be allowed to teach in the manner that the kids “get it.” We don’t need more theories – enough already. Human nature has not changed that much. A teacher passionate about the subject they are teaching has the kids in the palm of his/her hand. And this teacher can use many different methods. There’s an energy in a classroom when the kids see excitement in the teacher who wants to share his/her passion.


  2. High school teachers have to “perform” five periods a day. Most know that the same lesson may work one period and not another because of many factors, including time of the day, students’ mood, etc. I agree with Koppell regarding theories. One size does not fit all, for students or teachers. Any theory is only as good as its execution and the sensitivity of the teacher to the students.


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