When talking about independence and self-sufficiency in their students, educators often use the term “Personal Responsibility” which refers to the set of mental skills that neuroscience describes to be Executive Function. Teachers recognize that in order to develop a level of independence and agency, educators must have a plan to transfer the “process tools” from the teacher to the students just as a relay-race runner passes his baton to the athlete that follows him. The question is, how do teachers create and foster a learning environment that centers around facilitating a sense of personal responsibility in children while helping them build their knowledge?
On this episode, educator, researcher, author, and member of the California Reading Hall of Fame, Douglas Fisher, Ph.D. discusses the role of Executive Function in teaching and learning and how his highly specialized Gradual Release of Responsibility Modelprompts students towards greater autonomy and self-initiation. Finally, he discusses how essential it is to understand the tools and strategies deployed to move learning from the surface to something more deep and meaningful.
About Doug Fisher, Ph.D.
Douglas Fisher is Professor and Chair of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University and a leader at Health Sciences High & Middle College having been an early intervention teacher and elementary school educator. He is the recipient of an International Reading Association William S. Grey citation of merit, an Exemplary Leader award from the Conference on English Leadership of NCTE, as well as a Christa McAuliffe award for excellence in teacher education. He has published numerous articles on reading and literacy, differentiated instruction, and curriculum design as well as books, such as PLC+: Better Decisions and Greater Impact by Design, Building Equity, and Assessment-capable Learners.
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Sucheta Kamath: Welcome to the podcast Full PreFrontal. I’m here with Todd. How are you, Todd?
Producer: I’m doing good. I’m looking forward to this conversation. As we record all these, we are in the throes of the COVID-19 lockdown, so I’m so grateful that we have so many great conversations scheduled. It’s occupying a lot of our time.
Sucheta: And you’re certainly up for a treat because today’s guest is going to help us understand how to elevate the experience of education and learning not just for students but for the teachers as well. He’s a very compassionate human being who at least everything I’ve read that he has written makes me feel very optimistic about the future of the next generation that’s coming up the rankings, so it’s my great measure to introduce our guest today. He is Dr. Douglas Fisher, he joined the Department of Education Leadership in 2011, having served as a professor of language and literacy education in the Department of Teacher Education in San Diego State University where he has been since 1998. In addition, he is a teacher and an administrator at Health Sciences High & Middle College. He is a prolific writer and he has written incredible and meaningful books on several topics and he has co-authored them with a few partners that he works with, and finally, he is a recipient of an International Reading Association Celebrate Literacy award, he’s a member of the California Reading Hall Of Fame, and Farmer Award for excellence in writing from the National Council of Teachers of English, and the last one but not the least is as a Christa McAuliffe Award for Excellence in Teacher Association.
So, welcome to the podcast, Doug.
Dr. Douglas Fisher: Glad to be here with you today.
Sucheta: Well, I asked this question of all my guests. You are in the business of teaching the educators who teach how to learn. Tell me a little bit about your own experience as a learner, when did you discover the methods of teaching yourself if you did during K-12 education, and if you have any memorable experience with a teacher who had a deep influential role in your life.
Dr. Fisher: Oh, great, so I think if you read my report cards from elementary school, I was always teaching other people’s stuff. I was a peer tutor, I was a class tutor –
Dr. Fisher: That’s part of who I was growing up, so I think that that was always there. Now, I always knew teaching would be something part of my life, so whether it was teaching health or teaching English, or teaching young kids, I know [inaudible] where like I majored in different things in college, but I always knew that whatever I was looking to learn, I would end up teaching, so that was my vision, that was my goal. I had so many amazing teachers who shape to me through my K-12 experiences in public school, so a student teacher in sixth grade – my teacher had a student teacher when I was in sixth grade and he was just a really interesting dynamic young guy – and [inaudible] to think now but he would put us in a car and he would take us places, go on these field trips and things like that – of course, with parent permission and everything, but it’s kind of hard to believe that that was allowed, and then I had teachers in high school that blended courses together in creative ways, and they changed from year to year, and different teacher combinations and different topics, and they were also very passionate and very credible with all of us.
Sucheta: Wow! So, certainly, what comes through here is you are a very engaged the learner and you care deeply about what you are learning and of the people that surrounded you. That brings me to our first question: how do you define learning? You say that every child achieves when there is an opportunity to learn. Can you tell us a little bit about what receiving that opportunity to learn means in the educational context?
Dr. Fisher: Yeah, I guess learning is change to me, that you’re different after the experience, so when you’ve learned something, you’ve now changed and whether that’s your conceptional knowledge, your strategic knowledge, your [inaudible] knowledge, you’ve changed, and so I think of learning as how do we encourage change? And you can learn things yourself, but some things, you learn through other people: through your interactions with other people, whether those are your peers or your teachers, or the adults in your life. I think the whole idea is, for me, it’s how do we best structure experience to get that change, that learning that we’re looking for, and then having opportunities to apply that learning in other situations where the people who were supporting are no longer present? So, how do I structure things such that you will get an opportunity to practice and apply that change that you went through? It’s not just learning for learning’s sake. It’s also learning so that you can practice and apply things in weird, different, unique situations.
Sucheta: I really love this second part of your definition of learning, that the learner becomes the self-teacher where they have the capacity – they have developed that capacity and inculcated those habits and behaviors where they can sustain themselves without the external support. That is a very powerful way to become independent. You have spent substantial time evaluating and examining what type of instructional methodologies foster learning. What are some of the conclusions that you have drawn or have arrived at?
Dr. Fisher: I guess Nancy and I started our journey trying to figure out how to make a theory come to life in a classroom, and that theory that we adopted was gradually [inaudible]. That was our first big like, okay, we’re going to see how you actually – because it sounds awesome. We release responsibility gradually and [inaudible] purposely to students, but how does that look in a classroom? So, we spent a lot of years working through the various moves that teachers could make to release responsibility, and so we ended up with four phases, can occur in any order that makes sense to what the students need to learn, that every day, there’s an opportunity for students to collaborate and talk, and interact using academic language with their peers. Some of the minutes would be spent in those collaborative, productive struggle kinds of conversations, and then every day, the teacher would look for errors, mistakes, misconceptions, and guide learners through some thinking – from prompting and queueing, and questioning to guide learners, and then every day, the teachers would model their thinking or demonstrate, making sure kids knew what they were supposed to learn, and then giving them examples of that learning. That doesn’t have to come at the outset of a lesson, and I think that’s one of the mistakes, when people read some of our works, they think it’s very linear, and we’re thinking it’s more recursive or more cyclical, that you can use these four any way. The last is independent application and practice, we were talking about that a little bit before, how do you get to practice and apply, so that that learning really sticks? And [inaudible] change the situation and get kids to generalize and apply it.
So, there are four phases that I think about for general learning, is there’s always a collaborative where you interact with someone else, there’s always an error correction or guiding phase, there’s always a focusing, a phase where we go deep in the teacher’s mind or another adult’s mind, learner’s mind, and then there’s a phase where you’ll practice and apply it, so we think there’s collaborative learning every day, there’s guided instruction every day, there’s focused instruction every day, and then there’s independent learning every day. Those are the four major things. Over the time, we started to look at [inaudible] how these work and saying wow, there are [inaudible] that we can consider, like what is the most powerful thing we could do as educators? What are the big effects that we can get for students? And we started seeing wow, many of them are in what we call the collaborative phase, so jigsaws and reciprocal teaching, and class discussions have a really good effect [inaudible], and then there’s [inaudible] direct instruction which we would put under the focus, so we started doing that, and then we had a conversation with John and he was talking about his interest in the difference between surface learning, deep learning, and more transferred learning. Now, we’ve been thinking about there are things we do as educators that work when students are at the surface introductory foundational level of learning, but [inaudible] by and large don’t work when the learner’s ready to go to deep learning, and then we have to change our approaches again to get a student to go from deep to transfer, to become that self-regulated learner that we were talking about earlier. So now, we think, even in a gradual release of responsibility, what are the strategies, what are the tools we have when it’s surface learning time versus what are the tools we have when it’s more deep learning time versus transfer of learning? And sometimes, within the same lesson, we can take a learner, depending on the learning intention, the objective of a goal, we can take them surface, deep, to transfer in the same lesson, but sometimes, that [line cut] just to do the surface learning and it might take a couple days to do deep learning, and then it might take you [inaudible] week to actually get to the point of transfer. We want to be very careful about putting times on these things, like how many minutes do you do collaborative learning or how many minutes do you do independent learnings, or how many minutes requires for surface learning? We’re really careful not to quantify that because we don’t know [inaudible] of units required for those kinds of things. We do think a lot about what are the moves that teachers can make to build the learning experiences for our students?
Sucheta: Do you mind giving us some examples, so that the listeners can understand these moments of learning, like what kind constitutes the surface learning versus deep learning, versus transferred learning?
Dr. Fisher: Sure. So, when I think about surface learning, so it’s introductory or foundational knowledge, so some of that knowledge is more conceptual and some of that knowledge is more strategic. If students aren’t great at making inferences, if that’s new or if they have not yet developed that, [inaudible] learning that I would have to do around inferencing and that’s so this learning could occur through teacher modeling or teacher think aloud because that is very introductory in nature, but if I teach thinking aloud after they get it on inferencing, they are never going to go deep. To go deep, that you could start interacting with other people may be doing some more sophisticated notetaking or some graphic organizers where they talk to other people and they start to look at those inferences, and then at some point, when they are reading on their own, they should be making logical inferences on text that they are not being taught where they apply it.
Sucheta: Got it.
Dr. Fisher: Here’s another example. Graphic organizers, well-researched, decades of research, strong exercises, but if you don’t know anything on the concept yet, you can’t do the graphic organizers. The graphic organizers are often used prematurely because if you don’t know anything, if you don’t know enough to see the relationship, you can’t do the graphic organizer. Unfortunately, in some classrooms, what happens is the students copy what they see on a dry erase board on to their old graphic organizer but they didn’t do any of the conceptual organization of the information, and that was like, oh, we have moved too fast for these brains, they weren’t ready for it, so we got to go back to surface learning, built some of the conceptual knowledge, and tendency to students, “Here’s what we are thinking about next: how do you see the cause and effect relationships? How do you see the hierarchy of this information? How do you [inaudible] dividing into three areas?” or whatever it is because then, students are likely to go from surface to keep, but then to transfer that information, they have to use it beyond the graphic organizers. Graphic organizers worked really well for deep learning, not so well for disciplining and not so well for transfer of learning. They have a moment in the learner’s trajectory where the serve a purpose well.
Sucheta: Yeah, so very interesting. You’re talking about very engaged teaching where the teacher is deeply observant of these milestones that students are reaching or not reaching and adapting very effectively. I have a very quick question: recently, I had a guest, journalist Natalie Wexler who wrote a beautiful book The Knowledge Gap and she talks about this issue – I’m sure you’re familiar with the book – but this idea that the teachers, particularly in elementary where there is a lot of freedom – not so much for freedom but there is no prescribed content-specific fund of knowledge for students to grow and the teachers have the autonomy to choose, but sometimes, the choices they make may not be creating this vast base of knowledge upon which comprehension can take place. Instead, a lot of hope goes on to teaching comprehension such as identifying the main idea but not seeing the big picture. So, I was thinking, and maybe I’m misinterpreting so please help me, but that surface learning may be misinterpreted what you are also referring to laying the groundwork so that all the pertinent details that builds the comprehension upon which deeper reflective thinking and extrapolations can be built needs to be done, right? So, who is deciding the content or rather the subject matter, or the depth to which the subject needs to be taught, like for example, dinosaurs – it can be taught to second graders for a whole year or it can be introduced in one week. I mean, we’re going into the weeds of that but I see that having incredible bearing on student developing knowledge, right?
Dr. Fisher: You’re exactly right, so we do have to use our standard [inaudible] guides, so if we are going to do a longer unit of study on dinosaurs, what are the standards that student mastering as a vehicle, the example of dinosaurs? Because dinosaurs are not in our standards, so there is no reading standard that says you have to know about dinosaurs.
Sucheta: Exactly, so that creates confusion, yes.
Dr. Fisher: [inaudible] Yes! But background knowledge, your knowledge of the world, the information in the world significantly predicts whether or not you’re going to understand something, and so if all I teach you for a year is dinosaurs, then in the future in third grade, you’ll be really good at anything related to dinosaurs, but when you read about – third grade starts to talk about the way government works, you won’t know anything and all the readings you do will be really hard because you don’t have sufficient background knowledge, so these are really difficult decisions teachers have to make, but what do the standards say that kids need to know? I do think we have got so far into the reading standards and the mathematic standards that in elementary school, science and social studies get shortchanged and as a result, we are ceiling knowledge gaps with kids which then compounded their comprehension because if you don’t know a lot of stuff, when the author brings that it, you don’t really understand it. So, I know we really focus on getting reading scores up, but I do think the lessons learned there, how are we also making sure kids knows stuff about the biologic, physical, and social world out there so that when they read about it and they encounter these ideas, they have some background knowledge, they have some vocabulary, but that’s already part of the experience of the world? So, to answer your questions about dinosaurs for one week versus a year, I think we got to be very careful about what do the standards say kids need to know and be able to do as we design learning experiences for them?
Sucheta: Hmm… That such a very, very important thing of what we want children to be able to do, and I know, I don’t want to spend too much time, but in my understanding it correctly that in elementary, the activities and content that builds knowledge is not as well-defined? So, let’s talk about the themes that develop understanding of the biological world or the social world, but does individual school system or private versus public school have autonomy to choose what part of biological system they exposed the children to? Is that why that leads to some disparity were differences? And the social economic background, how does that influence those kids come with poor background knowledge to begin with, enter the school system, and then that teaching also may not further enrich their background knowledge?
Dr. Fisher: Well, the states and provinces have standards for kindergarten up of what kids are supposed to learn in social sciences, in science, in mathematics. The challenge is that some schools have so extreme pressure because those areas are not assessed, and so if you only assess reading and mathematics [inaudible] grade 3, that’s what gets taught by and large and other things get crowded out because there is pressure to perform well on state tests. So, the state [inaudible] I live in California, we have, here’s what first-graders are supposed to know around science and social studies, [inaudible] arts and all of that stuff. It’s highly dependent on the pressure, whether it comes at the district level, the site level, or the personal teacher level, how do I use the minutes and given to accomplish things and what do I need to accomplish? And so, your question about kids will live in poverty, we do see more skill-based reading lessons by and large because the reading skills have to grow, and what gets crowded out this science and social studies knowledge, but that then compounds the fact that when they start to encounter text that are related to the biologic, physical, and social world, they don’t know, so yes, it can’t be just either/or. We have to teach kids with skills they need and in doing so, the vehicles should be the appropriate science and social studies concepts and content, so that they start to have knowledge of the world, so I don’t want to say we only teach concepts because we do teach kids how to read, but the examples and ideas, and the things we talk about with them should be around the concepts around the life outside that, so the biological world, the physical world, the social world. All of those kinds of things should come into their classes, so I do think we are in this knowledge gap era where you are seeing a lot of people writing about. Younger kids need more knowledge so that they can localize that knowledge and comprehension, and you are seeing people saying clearly, young kids especially have to be taught skills to read so we can accelerate their reading growth and then the knowledge helps build their comprehension.
Sucheta: Wow, it is such a tricky balance.
Dr. Fisher: It is.
Sucheta: A lot of wisdom goes into it. If I can take us into a little bit more depth of what you were talking about earlier in the gradual release of responsibility model which I’m a big fan of the way you have studied it and talked about it, so in your work with Nancy Frey, you talk about the collaborative learning that you have mentioned earlier. It is a productive group were but it has specific component and I think it might be very interesting if you could share some thoughts about how it works out and what benefits can teacher facilitate for the student in kind of developing this understanding? Because I do see lots of schools I go observe – of course, my practice is such that I work with children with executive function difficulties, and by definition, they are having difficulty managing themselves, managing intent, managing relationships, and they sometimes are lost in group work because they do not understand the purpose or they don’t understand their place, or they may have social emotional challenges, but what is interesting to me about the group work is, there is a certain intention that teacher has, but sometimes, if the intention doesn’t come through to a student, it can be ineffective, but you talk about that collaborative work in a very specific way. Do you mind diving deep into that a little bit?
Dr. Fisher: Sure, and I think one of the things you just said is super important: students have to know the purpose of the collaborative work, they have to know what they are supposed to be getting from it and why, and I think if that precondition is not available, there is a whole bunch of kids that are going to say, “Hey, that other student wants to do all the work for the group, fine by me.”
Sucheta: Exactly, I see that a lot.
Dr. Fisher: Yeah, we do see that a lot. In part, purpose is super important. I think purpose in our life is super important. I think purpose for collaborative learning is important, so that is a precondition, and then I think [inaudible] positive learning, we have decided this umbrella into two sites, so there’s something we call group work and there’s something we call productive group work. Group works have no accountability. It’s for sharing, whereas productive group work has accountability, it’s more of a problem-solving, and when a teacher says to a class, “We’ve been talking about this [inaudible] and say what you think,” [inaudible] and talk about this or whatever. That’s a group work task. If a teacher uses a group work task, the teacher has to be present, use the learning environment, listening into what students are saying, monitoring it. It’s an opportunity to share and then you come back together. Productive group work, however, has this individual accountability, so for example, [inaudible], I have a part of the text, I am responsible for part of this text, nobody else in my group has that part of the text, so I have to know this part really well, so that I can share it with other members of my group. My role is to find my purpose of design, etc., so that’s increasingly accountability. In elementary school, we ask the teachers to use this collaborative process, so it’s a large piece of paper, poster-sized paper in each kid gets a different color marker. The first thing they do is put their name on the bottom in their color marker, and then they can only contribute to the poster in the color that they’ve been assigned, so their name is in that color at the bottom.
Sucheta: Oh, I love that, I love that.
Dr. Fisher: It’s super simple but people forget about it. If you don’t have that individual accountability, then someone sits back and says, “I don’t know what we’re doing,” and someone says, “Oh, she will do it for us. She always does all the work,” but when you have some simple individual accountability and the teacher comes by and says, “Tell me why you wrote this in red,” even if another kid said it to that kid, “Here, like this in red. Here’s why.” Even if a kid says, “Here’s why I wrote it, here’s [inaudible] red,” it’s now coming out of that learner’s mouth when the teacher asks, but even more importantly in this productive group work, saying, “The answer’s 24,” is not helpful, so when we teach kids what help looks like, it’s not helpful to give away the answer. It’s helpful to say, “The answer is 24 because here’s how I found it out.” The other kids might say, “I agree with you, I disagree with you, where did you find that? How did you know that?” That’s what we’re trying to get to the collaborative learning which is more of argumentation skills, more of which there is individual accountability. I think schools are filled with grown-ups who have experienced very bad collaborative learning by their well-meaning teachers at the time with no accountability, and I think schools are filled with grown-ups who did all the work for the group and there were other people in their groups who did very little work, and then this many years later, they are all bitter about it because it wasn’t fair, and so when I talk to teachers about collaborative learning, a whole bunch of them say, “I know I should be doing this, my kids should be talking together more often, but I don’t like group works,” and when I ask why, it always goes back to their own experiences when they were in school, that they did all the work for the group, and so they were starting to [inaudible] individual accountability – well, how do you consider this and how do you consider this? Once you add individual accountability, then a speech learner knows, here’s what I’m responsible for, here’s how my teacher is going to know what I’m responsible for, but it also gives the kids a sense of we’re all in this together. I’m not successful unless we are all successful.
Sucheta: I love that.
Dr. Fisher: That doesn’t mean I have to agree with you, that doesn’t mean I have to get the same answer as you unless there is only one answer or there’s not just one way to get to the answer, so the purpose, the right path, and then setting of the structures that don’t say one person can do all the work, that is defined as success.
Sucheta: So, can I ask you an example of how will the teacher deliver the purpose of a collaborative group work, what would she be saying to the class? I kind of know what you will say but it will be nice to hear how you would facilitate that and how will it look different for younger kids versus older kids?
Dr. Fisher: Yes, so it depends on what kids are going to be learning. Let’s say we’ve chosen high-yield strategies. Today, we are learning about animal adaptations to their environments, so in your expert group, you are going to have owls and in your group, you’re going to have chameleons, and the other group is going to have [inaudible]. You will note that, that creature really, really, really well, but the other people, when you go to your home group, they won’t know that because they didn’t read about house because they were reading about crocodiles or moths, or chameleons, and so your job is to teach them, and then you are going to come back to your group and say, “How are the animals that we read about different and unlike?” Just by setting up the expectations and the rules, we introduce the task. First of all, it sets clarity to learning and it sets kids on the expectations: here is my role in doing this, and the success I experience will be because of these things.
Sucheta: Wow, that’s great, that’s great, and for older kids, because they tend to do a lot more group work but the group work turns to be like submitting or adding to a blog post or creating a poster, when they [inaudible] at work and they do work at home, sometimes, the purpose is lost on them, and also, I think the teacher moves from an explicit discussion of the purpose to a more implicit nature of discussion of discussion or conveying purpose.
Dr. Fisher: Yeah, they do.
Sucheta: And that’s lost on these children who don’t have the greatest executive function.
Dr. Fisher: Right, and I think even in kids who do have better executive function, they just say, compliance, “I’m just going to do it because the teacher told me to.”
Sucheta: Yes, oh, that’s [inaudible].
Dr. Fisher: I do think the adolescents should know what it is that they are spurs to be learning from the task they are doing, so I think we focus too much on the task, so teachers say, “We are going to make a blog post today,” or “We’re going to update our Google Docs today.” Yes, we’re going to do that but why? What are we learning from this? So, I think learning intentions, learning objective, learning goals, whatever people call them, it has to focus on what they want the kids to learn, especially when we get to adolescents, they need to know the relevance of this: why am I learning this? And is Nancy always says, it doesn’t have to be for world peace. I mean, that would be great, but that’s not what we are trying to accomplish with this. They have to know why. This part will help you when we get to this part which will help you when we do this. It’s simple. Nancy and I do a lot of English language [inaudible], so we teach a lot of writing, so when we say to them, “We’re working on our introductions because if you can grab your reader right away, your reader is most likely to stick with you. That’s why we’re working on introductions right now, so the only thing we are working on our introductions because we want you to really grab your reader, so your reader keeps paying attention to you.”
Sucheta: I love that.
Dr. Fisher: So, that’s where we want to go with it not because standard 3.2 or whatever says you must have, they don’t care about that and I certainly don’t think we should say to ninth graders, “When you’re in business someday, you’ll need to write memos with good introduction.” That’s too distant.
Sucheta: Yeah, and meaningless, yeah, totally.
Dr. Fisher: [inaudible]
Sucheta: That’s great. Now, kind of set us up. You talk a lot about this idea of personal responsibility as a process and as a goal which is fantastic because that’s what good education that has embedded executive function teaching and learning can achieve. So, how do you define personal responsibility in the context of education when students don’t know why they are learning what they are learning as you just mentioned about the purpose, but secondly, why these methodologies or why this process, like why am I asking you to do an essay versus a fill in the blanks, versus match the columns, versus draw a cell and label? So, there is that understanding of a function in every activity which kind of creates a global or larger understanding, but the second part is that it leads to these process tools – which I love the idea of process tools because ultimately, what the student is going to take from previous great to next grade is these process tools, and then the foundational knowledge, so what were your thoughts behind this concept of personal responsibility in education, in the learning environment?
Dr. Fisher: Nancy and I have spent our careers in school to educate kids who by and large live in poverty and they end up in some places being taught all kinds of isolated skills and lots of skill practice and I’m saying that’s inequitable, that doesn’t result in kids who have great responsibilities on learning and self-regulation and all those kinds of things. So, we started on this journey of how do we get kids to have responsibility for their learning? That doesn’t mean that teachers are not responsible for learning as well but how do we have the students be responsible for their learning, and over many years and lots of live reviews and lots of reading, we started narrowing it down to some things that have to be in place for students to have responsibility for their learning. The first one we’ve talked about, they have to know what would they need to learn, they have to know where they are going, but even more importantly, I think, is they have to know where they currently are, and I think we are embarrassed to say to kids, “These are things you don’t know yet,” or “These are the areas where you are not strong on yet.” We tend to hide current performance levels from students or we are too harsh when we are talking about them. I think motivation comes in a couple ways. So, if I know I’m supposed to be here and this is what I’m learning but I’m here right now, that helps motivate me to try. The second part of motivation is when you experience success, so if you need to be at level 30 [inaudible] level 2, I don’t give you level 36 to do next, I give you level 3 to do next, and I think that gets confusing with more of a developmental approach, but success builds motivation, but there has to be a gap. If I could easily run a marathon and do it tomorrow, I wouldn’t be working so hard to do this, right? Because I have a goal, I know my current performance, and I know the gap in between it, so that’s the first two. It’s kids need to know where they’re going, what’s next in their learning journey, and they need to know where they are, and that changes teacher behavior. We have to be clear on what kids need to learn, what’s next for you, and where they are now in a kind, growth-producing way rather than a harsh [inaudible] everybody’s reading scores on a wall and [inaudible] make them move [inaudible] reading scores. It’s personal, it’s not public in that. So, celebrations can be public but I don’t think we should put up their current performance levels in a big public way. And then, the third area that I think about is helping students select tools for their learning. There are many ways to learn things. Unfortunately, lots of teachers say to kids, “This is the one way we are going to do it because this is the way that I like it and it worked for me,” and if you think about notetaking, I like Cornell notetaking because I learned it, but there are other ways to take notes. So, [inaudible] our students, “We are all going to do Cornell notetaking at our school. Everybody does it – all the teachers because we are trying to build a habit, but if you really prefer a different way, it’s time for you to take notes in a different way, but all the examples you will see will come from Cornell notes because we are trying to give you some consistency,” so we try to balance school. Same with graphic organizers, I talked about that earlier. Here are 20 graphic organizers at the beginning of the school year. By this point in the year, they should be picking the graphic organizers that work for them. If you are doing compare and contrast, I don’t care which graphic organizer you use. [Inaudible] We have to get to that place where students are selecting tools. There are piles of study skills, why would I say to students here is the only way you can study. Here are different study tools. Which one do you believe is going to work for you?
And then, the fourth area that we think a lot about is how to help students monitor their progress area that we set a goal for ourselves, we figure out how to monitor if we’re going to make it or not. We on track to meet this goal? If not, how do we make adjustments? A lot of students know, here’s my goal, here is what I should attain nine weeks from now or whatever. But they don’t really know if they are on track and I think these point-based systems where it’s all about the letter grade are all about performance goals, since I get enough points, I get the A, and the evidence says mastery goals are way better. You actually learn more with the goals focus on mastery rather than performance, and so that we could reframe some of this – so, here’s what you need to know, here’s what you can master to be really good at this, here is where you are now. Here is how you can monitor your progress getting there, and I’ve had all these videos of all these kids, like [inaudible] writing, I’m at a level 4 in my writing right now, here are the things I do to get to level 5, here’s what I need to do next, really working on my paragraphing, I’m really working on dividing ideas into paragraphs. That’s going to get me to my level 5, and then after that, I’m going to go to level 6, and when they have tools to monitor their progress and did they know where they are and they know where they are going, the more likely they will actually get there.
And then, the fifth and sixth areas we think about is recognizing errors as opportunities to learn, like that’s part of it, you shouldn’t be humiliated, shamed, or embarrassed when you make an error. Errors are opportunities to learn, something we didn’t know before. As an hour goes by in the classroom and there were no errors, your students already knew all that stuff and kind of wasted the time.
And then, the last area is ultimately, when kids own their learning, when they self-regulate at high levels, they naturally start to teach other people, and so we have to, as educators, find opportunity for students to tutor, teach, guide each other. It can’t only be the adults who is the “teacher.” I read recently this book called The Third Teacher, and this is way back Italian [inaudible] schools and [inaudible] and they talk about three teachers. In every person’s life, there are three teachers. There’s the adult, and that could be the parents or the people who pay the teachers, the second are your peers. Nancy and I have done a ton of work on the second teacher, on how we get the peers [inaudible], but the third teacher, the third teacher is the environment, and what the environment does [inaudible] their environment that is created and as you were talking about kids who struggle with executive function, the environment can be a really good teacher or a bad teacher in this area, and I think we tend to ignore the environmental stimuli and the environmental cues as a teaching tool, and instead focus on the adults in the room. For a teacher, we have to mobilize all the other kids to be the second teacher and create spaces where the third teacher is actually contributing, so all three are always in play.
Sucheta: Wow. Okay, so many amazing ideas running on here. One quick clarification for myself, when you say mastery goals are way better, how does a teacher handle when she has 19, 20 kids in the classroom and they are at different tempos and they are not all aligned in the same way? So, she somehow is held back by not being able to move the curriculum over because many are lagging or many are advancing.
Dr. Fisher: Yeah, these are all the realities of diverse classrooms that have existed since school started and we talk about the diversity that exists today, but my grandmother had kids from five years of age to 14 years of age in the same classroom, and so diversity in classrooms has always existed. We do our best, but when we say to students, “Here’s how you get an A on this essay,” versus “Here’s how you know you can write an essay.” There is a difference there, and I think those are important distinctions, is how do you know that you can convey your ideas in a compelling way? How do you know that you can persuade someone or convince someone of something, and how do you report information where people find you credible? And so, the mastery on it – yes, you are going to get a grade. I’m required by the state of California to give you a great, but I care that you actually learn something.
Sucheta: Very, very good. I think you just pointed out something as you were talking about your grandmother – you don’t even need to go back – I will tell you from my own childhood, some of these practices, my teachers had deployed – in so many ways, my third teacher was a deeply profound and meaningful teacher for me, the environment and the wide experience with the world really, really helped me to become very adaptive, but some of the techniques of setting the kids to compete with each other was something that I saw in my classroom displaying student results, performance results openly with their names and shaming people, and ranking them by accomplishment was something that was not cool and also really not waiting to check in with students to see if learning actually had occurred as long as the teacher felt the teaching had occurred. So, not so great practices.
Dr. Fisher: Right, yes, exactly. There’s a super old, there is a cartoon, I think, from when I was becoming a teacher and it’s two boys talking and there’s a dog in between them and one of the boys says, “I taught Stripe to whistle,” and the other kid says, “I don’t hear him whistling,” and the first one says, “I said I taught him, I didn’t say he learned it,” and I think that happens all the time like you were just saying.
Sucheta: Yeah, I love that.
Dr. Fisher: There’s a difference between teaching and learning, and that’s [inaudible] major focus is we stopped spending so much of our energy on the teaching, we’ve just been more on [inaudible].
Sucheta: Lovely. I asked this question of the other day to another guest of mine, so let me ask you this: what is harder, teaching or learning and why so, you think?
Dr. Fisher: Oh, that is a fascinating question. Wow, I’m going to go with teaching is harder because I think too often, we just give away information and we don’t let learners construct it, and so I think we plan experiences, so it is teacher modeling, direct instruction, but we plan things so that the learner owns that learning, and so I would love it if learning was easy because there is such awesome meaningful experiences which I think are super hard to design.
Sucheta: So, is it fair to characterize some children is difficult to teach children? Maybe a better question would be in your experience, what are some of the essential skills that all educators must exercise that are likely to guaranteed transformation of behaviors in these difficult to teach children such that they are more engaged, curious, and willing to work in spite of having roadblocks in learning.
Dr. Fisher: Okay, so I think earlier in my career, I would say that there were kids that were difficult to teach. I now say it, they are difficult to reach.
Sucheta: Oh, wow, tell me the distinction, yeah, that’s neat.
Dr. Fisher: Because it’s difficult to teach, I think put some blame on the kids that yes, you are difficult to teach because of whatever versus for me, difficult to reach means it’s my responsibility. I’m having a hard time reaching you but it’s my job, and people might say difficult to teach is at the same. As for me, it blames the kid. They [inaudible] difficult to teach, it’s part of who you are. I’m having a hard time reaching you. Now, I do think some teacher relationships matter a lot. To paraphrase Rita Pearson, young people don’t learn from old people they don’t like, and so if they don’t have a good relationship with the adults, they are probably not going to learn much. I think teacher credibility is always at play because the kids actually think they can learn from this person has one of the highest effects [inaudible]. I think that’s part of the same strategy, just different outcomes in different classrooms. It’s all about teacher credibility. I think teacher clarity matters. Do the teachers actually know what the kids need to learn and do they communicate that to kids? And it’s part of clarity – do we make everything relevant, meaning we have a whole bunch of kids who have all kinds of competing priorities towards their time, and when something is relevant, highly relevant, they choose that over other options, and I think there are things we can do that focus on our reach: how do we actually reach this kid? What’s my relationship with this learner? Does this learner believe he or she can learn from me? Am I credible is that kid’s eyes? Am I clear? Am I relevant? Do I line up tasks that make sense to get you to learn this? And the last thing, I will just emphasize that success breeds motivation. I think we’re giving kids things that are super hard for them and no one wants to spend their day doing things they can’t do. It doesn’t feel good. There are some things that should cause us some struggle. I struggle with some things. Today, I did my very first ever Facebook live event and it was hard for me. I’ve never done this before, so some things, but then the rest of my day are things I probably could do, but I still needed to do them, and I think for some students, they never get that sense of success that they want again and they want again, as they want again. When we think about questions, asking questions, why do you have to start with the hardest question you can think of? Why can’t we start with the questions pretty easy, let kids have some success? We are not going to leave them there. We’re going to keep asking harder and harder questions, but why do teachers feel the need to ask the hardest question we can to show them how smart we are?
Sucheta: Yeah, it just becomes all about them, and I love that, like hard to reach is really – difficult to reach is something of your ownership, your own responsibility. My biggest regret is you were not my teacher. I would have been a kick ass student.
Dr. Fisher: Oh, that’s so sweet! Thank you, that’s very sweet.
Sucheta: Oh, that’s absolutely true. So, as we close, do you believe that we have teacher education in place where teachers are learning all the things you just talked about? Because I would love that to be part of every young educator’s curriculum, either I’m not 100% sure where the gap is that I’m seeing the, and the, of course, the best teachers continue to do amazing work and live in this base, but that we are leaving some teachers behind it I don’t know what the reasons are for that. Not lack of commitment or effort, of course.
Dr. Fisher: I think there are islands of excellence all over of amazing teacher proportioned program, and I think there are places that are allowed to be average and that’s part of the challenge in the profession, is we don’t have very clear, like this is what you actually need as a teacher to be successful, but I do think there’s islands of excellence everywhere all over, but not every place is excellent yet. There are teacher ed programs which just aren’t very good at getting this kind of outcome. They produce technical experts, people who know the techniques of teaching. They don’t produce people who have all of this [inaudible] thinking about how you meet [inaudible].
Sucheta: Thank you. Doug, again, this has been the most invigorating, exciting conversation, and truly meaningful for me as I think about myself as I do teacher training and talk about executive function curriculum for teachers to infuse their classrooms. One of the inspirations that I have gotten today from you is to also apply the same principles to a difficult-to-reach teacher who may not understand the importance of reflection or may feel that reflection takes too long or consumes time and doesn’t yield the right results because the kids are not cooperating, so the ownership is back on me, so I really appreciate that. So, thank you so much for being here and really lighting up our world, so I’m very grateful for your presence today, thank you.
Dr. Fisher: And thank you so much for the invitation, I enjoyed our conversation today. Thank you very much.
Producer: All right, that’s all the time we have for today. If you know someone who might benefit from listening to today’s conversation – a teacher, a principal, coach, parent, or student, we would be most grateful if you would kindly forward it to them.
So, on behalf of our host, Sucheta Kamath, today’s guest, Dr. Douglas Fisher, and all of us at EXQ, thanks for listening and we look forward to seeing you again right here next week on Full PreFrontal.