Hold on to a Learning Focus

“You have got to have a lot of dance steps, so depending on who your dance partner is, and what the music is, you can actually shift the repertoire. A lot of us fall into default mode so when the music changes to rumba or cha-cha, we keep doing the samba…. A skilled professional … will actually shift repertoire, and has a range of pedagogy.” (Allan Luke, Leaders in Educational Thought, 2012)

This year #Cyberpd is exploring DIY Literacy: Teaching Tools for Differentiation, Rigor, and Independence by Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts. Roberts and Beattie Roberts focus our attention on the idea that students will have different learning needs at different times and that we need to be ready to meet them where they are with the tools they need so that they can be independent learners. While I agree that tools that make the learning sticky are important, I want to first pull the focus away from the teaching need (the tools) and put it on how we determine what the student learning need is because it’s only with a very clear sense of the ‘why’ that the tools become meaningful. Without focusing on the problem first (the learning need), tools and strategies may become “activity traps” (Katz, 24). 

Sometimes teachers struggle to identify student learning needs. They reference things like students’ level of organization (coming to class prepared to learn) or self-regulation (putting phone way) or responsibility (completing independent work/homework) as obstacles to learning. And sometimes they identify “the curriculum, or the politics of education, or the lesson plan” (DIY, 2) as the things that block student learning. But none of these things are student learning needs.

What does a student learning need look like?

It is learning that the student(s) needs based on the evidence we have. This might be our own assessments, and it might be evidence from standardized tests, and it might be a combination. What is clear, however, is that even after we have taught the skill in the best way we know how to, some students still don’t get it.

What Roberts and Beattie Roberts note is that a student learning need is a teacher learning need; that “we don’t [always] have at our fingertips the content we most need to teach our kids” (23).  What do you do if the way you have been teaching students a skill is not reaching all of your students? If we have evaluated the importance of the skill; that is, we have determine that the skill is valuable, then there must be a sense of urgency for students to learn it (33)!

If you don’t belong to a collaborative inquiry or a professional learning community  then the authors suggest that teachers can access professional texts and a professional learning network (PLN) to help them find new content and/or strategies that may address their students learning needs. But by far and away, their first suggestion “Never teach alone” is the best alternative. We are better together! And not just because we need to model modern learning for our students, but also because the themes of teacher leadership, collaboration, and inquiry feature prominently in the research findings of leading education experts (e.g., Little, 1982; Darling-Hammond, 1998; Ball and Cohen, 1999; Lieberman and Miller, 2004; Hargreaves and Fullan, 2012; Hattie, 2012; Timperley et al., 2007; and Katz et al., 2013) (Donhoo and Velasco, 13-15). This research drives the collaborative inquiry I facilitate each year. The “link between teacher practice and student learning is a strong and robust one (Katz et al., 36), and it compells me and my team to work together to do the learning we need to.

So, when I read the Bonus Chapter, “Do it Yourself: Mining Your Own Work for Strategies”, I immediately made the connection to the work we do in our collaborative inquiry. Based on the determined learning need, we do

  • ask “How do we teach our students to…?;
  • seek the advice of experts;
  • challenge each other’s perspectives to “try to see a lot of different kinds of WHATS”;
  • do the work ourselves to see what will happen;
  • study what we did;
  • challenge each other’s assumptions about the learning.

We do all of this because we are trying to get to the WHY–the WHY behind the observable because that is what makes the difference. (Katz et al., 2013)

What is the it – if improved – that is going to make a difference for learning? This is what defines powerful professional inquiry, “a challenge of practice” or “a persistent and familiar instructional improvement dilemma” for which both educators and learners “at this point in their learning, have no easy solution” (City, Elmore, Flarman, & Teitel, 2009). Addressing challenges of practice is complex work as educators examine, analyze and make sense of the connections between student learning needs and their instructional practices. (Capacity Building Series, Dynamic Learning)

The challenge while reading DIY Literacy: Teaching Tools for Differentiation, Rigor, and Independence is to not get caught up in the tools…in a teaching focus, but to hold on to a learning focus.

Please share your collaborative professional learning experiences in the comment box.

Let’s learn together!




Filed under #CyberPD, Professional Learning

6 responses to “Hold on to a Learning Focus

  1. Phew, you have packed a whole lot into this response, not to mention synthesized so many sources. I totally agree with you about defining WHAT it is that we want students to know and WHY we want them to know that, before we ever start thinking about the HOW. One of the things that I thought about continually as I was reading the first few chapters was how I, as a literacy coach, could encourage more authentic reading and writing for my teachers. I feel like it’s almost impossible to talk about the strategies readers and writers use, if you aren’t actually reading and writing yourself. I love the phrase “activity trap.” Can’t wait to talk about that with teachers. We already talk a lot about “durable strategies,” tools that learners will take with them and use to independently grow their reading and writing lives. “Activity traps” is kind of an opposite of that.

    And YES, YES, YES to professional collaboration!!!! So, so, so important. I struggled this year, with making the conversations authentic and rich and deep (they have been in the past), and not just going through motions as per a specific protocol.

    Thanks for all of these resources! I’m going to check some of them out today!


    • Thanks for your detailed comment Carol!

      I know my post is long and “academic” but I needed to figure out my response to the book. I can’t talk about the tools without the context of teacher learning, so I needed to pull ideas/beliefs/best and next practices together in a way that I hoped made sense.

      “Activity trap” is a Steven Katz phrase from his book Intentional Interruption. It’s a fantastic read-not long-but so well put together. As a lit coach and facilitator of adult learning, you will likely find it a worthy read. His work has greatly impacted my thinking about professional learning and change.

      Katz has also influenced the thinking of Jenni Donohoo and Moses Velasco who just published The Transformative Power of Collaborative Inquiry. I am familiar with the work of Jenni and Moses and they support my work often. These two books (along with Hattie) are my main references.

      Now, on to chapter three and four!


  2. Julie,
    Thank you for your synthesis of our reading. I appreciated the way you shared many important points from DIY Literacy, but then also pushed to consider what that means for you as you work alongside students. You remind us that there is a human side to all of these tools, that we need to take the time to really understand what students’ learning needs truly are. You remind us that we need to pay attention and be ready to adjust as those need change. If we think tools before need, we lose the effectiveness gained by these supports. Most of all, you remind us that we need to be part of learning communities with other colleagues that help us to see things from new perspectives.



    • CyberPD books have one thing in common…they are deceptive in their complexity! I am working harder than I thought I would need to to place the content within the context of my practice. As I now delve more deeply into the tools, that is, actually making a tool for a student learning need that I know exists from this past year, I find that I am being challenged. Part of my current difficulty lies in the fact that I rarely work alone any more. For the past three years, I have been fortunate to have found a colleague who recognizes the power of collaboration as much as I do.

      Thanks for stopping by Cathy! Always love to hear what you have to say.


  3. Your #bettertogether comment really spoke to me. One of the most effective professional development opportunities I’ve ever had was to co-teach Grade 9 Applied Mathematics. To have reflective conversations at the end of every class, to co-plan with someone else, to have someone else to watch how students respond to specific learning activities… All of this helped me grow professionally more within one semester than ever before.

    The one thing I noticed was that it also was the most effective method of improving student success as well. Not only did students have two teachers to get help from, but more importantly they observed two teachers model learning from and with each other every day. We had discussions openly and learned from each other daily. By doing this openly and visibly, students could adopt strategies that worked for them and learned the importance of reflection and collaboration in learning.

    Thanks for sharing your reflection on this book! It’s been added to my reading list. Thanks!


  4. And the tools, the strategies, the approaches emerged from those conversations, right?

    I struggle with two interconnected ideas. First, I am compelled by Marzano’s findings that it is how well we use a strategy that determines effectiveness, not the tool itself.

    “The research on instructional strategies will continue to provide teachers with guidance concerning the types of instructional strategies they might use in their classrooms. However, a strategy is just a tool that teachers can use at different levels of effectiveness.
    At a minimum, teachers should strive to use strategies at the applying level, continually monitoring students to see whether the strategy is having its intended effect on student learning. Ideally, over time, teachers should move toward the innovating level, adapting strategies to meet student needs and maximize learning” (Marzano)

    This excerpt is taken from “Art and Science of Teaching / It’s How You Use a Strategy” (http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/dec11/vol69/num04/It's-How-You-Use-a-Strategy.aspx). Marzano describes four levels of implementation: Beginning, Developing, Applying, and Innovating. If we accept this idea (that it’s not until we are using a strategy at the Applying level that we see gains in student learning), then I wonder how many strategies/tools should (?) or can (?) a teacher have in her back pocket.

    And secondly, what is our expectation about the time it takes us to get to the Applying level? The Innovating level?

    Take, for example, the work I did in #craft. The inquiry process was the tool or the strategy. I began learning about the inquiry process in 2013 and I have used this strategy a number of times (on a smaller scale), so I would say that I began the semester at the Developing level. When I consider the thinking I have done about this past semester’s work, I would say that I will begin this semester at the Applying level.

    Three years to get from Beginning to Applying. Is this typical? Reasonable? Appropriate? I don’t know. There are so many variables that can impact the implementation trajectory. But regardless, I can’t help but think that many educators and system leaders think that this process if it happens at all, is faster that it actually is.


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