In my first graduate education course, the teacher, the principal of a large comprehensive high school in Brooklyn, told us that teaching doesn’t get the respect given other professions. We took guesses about why and developed a list: lower pay than other professions, general disdain for public employees and organized labor, academic condescension toward schools of education, and resentments based on memories of bad teachers. We moved on to the reasons teaching should be as respected as any other profession: extensive education, high levels of responsibility, pressure to perform, provision of an indispensable, highly specialized service.
But, according to our professor, our lists were missing something. Every profession needs a language to be used by like-minded, learned colleagues. His intention was to let us in on the jargon, so we could ascend to the heights of professionalism, or more like his abstract notion of professionalness. Words may make the man, but jargon makes the job.
Driving Miss Data
As a student of modern prose, I like language lean and straightforward. Nonetheless, I have broken from the confines of the undergraduate writer’s workshop and learned to love words more ornamental, gymnastic, or imaginative. But when it comes to jargon, I always ask: What would Orwell do? I refuse to accept that it is better to utilize than to use or to dialogue than to converse. It is my humble, grumbling opinion that the hyper-specialized words we call jargon often do more to obscure meaning than to enhance it.
In that same course, we were given some sage advice as we entered the job market. Remember one phrase, the professor said: “I use data to drive instruction.” It’s as loaded as it is empty. And teachers, principals, superintendents, and policymakers use it all the time without thinking about what it means.
To say nothing of the ridiculous verb to drive, the apparently benign nouns data and instruction are fraught. Data can be quantitative or qualitative. Most administrators and wonks are concerned with quantitative data from standardized tests. When your principal or a visitor from the superintendent’s office asks you how you’re “using data to drive instruction,” he is thinking about the quantitative kind. The historic legislation known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) shifted the focus of education to quantitative data as never before. Heads have been counted: special needs heads, black heads, and Native American or Alaskan Native heads. The number of those heads and the performance of those heads on the tests play an unprecedented role in the awarding of federal school aid.
People like numbers—numbers don’t lie. But numbers are as susceptible to manipulation as any policy tool. Ironically, NCLB’s aggressive attention to numbers was matched by an unwillingness to standardize the system that measures students. States and school boards were left to their own devices to determine what tests to use. Colorado could count 85 percent of children as proficient readers, even as non-mandatory national exams showed them performing at lower than 30 percent proficiency.
With this in mind, it’s understandable that principals, jobs in the balance, grill their teachers about what they’re doing to raise test scores. What is often overlooked is that teachers have and always will use quantitative data to drive instruction. They use their students’ test and assignment scores to determine what to teach next. But these scores are not considered convincing data because it’s assumed that teachers manipulate them.
Teachers also use qualitative data all the time. These come from projects emphasizing process over product, like writing portfolios assembled over an entire marking period, and from records of student behavior called, in an inexplicably accepted error in word form, anecdotals.
When data means more than simply test results, it becomes obvious that “using data to drive instruction” is what a competent educator already does. But, of course, that’s what jargon does; a new phrase creates the illusion of a new way of doing things when, in fact, it’s a glib articulation of an existing idea.
Sharing out the anticipation
Instruction links planning and implementation of lessons with management of students in the classroom’s volatile ecosystem.
The first opportunity to use qualitative data in planning is in an anticipatory set. The key to this awkward phrase is “anticipation.” Teachers in New York are familiar with the “Do Now.” This short activity serves the practical purpose of occupying students at the beginning of a class so that the teacher can take attendance. Done well, it should “anticipate” the learning that we hope will soon take place by linking students’ prior knowledge to the lesson at hand. This requires teachers’ knowledge of their students’ frames of reference.
For example, a social studies teacher shouldn’t assume prior knowledge of the Boston Tea Party in creating a “Do Now” for a lesson on events leading to the American Revolution (even if he covered it yesterday). He might, instead, ask students to write about a time when they or someone they know felt like an important decision was made for them, and they didn’t take part in the decision-making. This is generic enough that most students will come up with something that can be linked to the idea of taxation without representation.
After the “Do Now,” it’s time for what has come to be called, redundantly, the share out. One can only imagine what sharing in might entail, but it doesn’t sound like appropriate classroom behavior. The share out, supposedly to be done at the conclusion of any activity, is an opportunity for accountable talk, which really means making kids explain those darndest things they are apt to say. Sally can’t just say, “Holden sounds like a whiny emo.” Right as she may be, she has to give evidence from the text for such a statement.
The best demonstration I know of accountable talk comes from an episode of HBO’s great TV series The Wire. A first-year math teacher calls on a boy, who quickly answers the multiple-choice question written on the board. The teacher tells him to demonstrate to the class how he got his answer. The boy struts to the board and says that the teacher asked the same question of his other classes earlier in the day and there are chalk marks surrounding the correct answer. Depending on their personalities, principals observing might be infuriated by the brazen student or the naïve teacher, but if the teacher has any brains, he is pleased with the student for being able to justify himself, and he is sure not to make the same mistake next time.
Differentiate the positive
After the anticipatory set and the requisite accountable talk, learning can happen in various ways, some more in vogue than others. Traditional classrooms rely on what is known, unfairly derisively these days, as direct instruction. Direct instruction is the demonstration or explanation of a skill or concept by a teacher at the center of attention in the room. All students are working on the same thing and at the same pace. Desks are in rows; students take notes; students raise their hands to ask questions.
Direct instruction is looked down on because it treats students as members of a class, rather than individuals. But because we know from the data our principals gave us at the beginning of the year that our students’ abilities range from far below grade level to well above it, we can’t give them all the same work and expect them to succeed. Furthermore, our class doesn’t just have a Jimmy and a Sally, it has a Daquan and a Talat. And Jimmy speaks Mandarin at home, while Talat speaks Urdu. “What do I do with all this data?” you ask your principal at the staff meeting. He gives you a one-word answer: “Differentiate!”
Perhaps no bit of jargon is the source of more misery to today’s teacher than differentiation of instruction. It’s simultaneously intuitive and infuriating; every principal wants to see it, but few can tell you what it looks like. Differentiation is founded in data, both quantitative and qualitative. It can be done on the basis of proficiency level, but also based on the interests, needs, and cultural backgrounds of students.
Most teachers have always understood this; some students are more capable of certain things than others. Most kids hover around the middle, with a few at the top and bottom. We don’t want to teach to the highest achievers because it excludes those underneath. We don’t want to teach to the lowest kids and lose everyone else’s interest. Most end up teaching to the middle, boring the highest performers and still baffling the lowest.
Differentiation is supposed to allow us to reach all of our students. This requires, for example, assigning different short stories to different students to teach them all the same concept. It could also mean adjusting the names in a textbook’s word problems to reflect the worlds that students live in. And this takes a ton of work. You need support and a lot of time to plan—two things most teachers don’t have. The principal with his slick one-word answer probably doesn’t know that, but it sounds good.
Eu-stress, I teach
Because it would be impossible to design individual lessons and projects for each of our students, differentiation of activities often comes in the form of collaborative learning, known more pejoratively as group work. In settings where group work is favored, the teacher takes a backseat and becomes the facilitator rather than the instructor. While this label connotes a lesser role, it’s actually harder to forfeit control than it is to keep it. You’re not just the facilitator. You’re the planner, the adviser, and the decider.
In order to keep the collaborative work from descending into pandemonium, the facilitator must keep students engaged by raising and lowering the level of concern, a student’s degree of interest in doing what she has to do. Level of concern exists on a scale at one end of which is a child in drooling REM sleep and at the other a student on the verge of a nervous breakdown at the thought of having to do the activity. Neither of these is ideal for learning, so it’s best to have kids in a state of eu-stress, close to the middle of the scale but leaning slightly toward the breakdown.
Aside from carefully planning engaging activities, a teacher can use two tools to manipulate students’ levels of concern: the body and the clock. If the teacher sees students taking too long or allowing themselves to become distracted, he or she can remind them how much time they have to complete the work. If a teacher sees a student disengaged completely, he can stand nearer to him. With luck the student will straighten up.
Now it’s time for some accountable talk. Let’s return to our anticipatory set. Considering the revolting can of worms opened by the discussion of a single, ubiquitous turn of phrase like “use data to drive instruction,” it’s clear that jargon isn’t enough. Its power to prescribe ways of thinking is too great, and its ability to describe is laughably limited. If jargon is what we need to get professional respect, then, by all means, we should learn it. But we’re teaching people’s kids, and parents deserve to know what we’re doing. If we use jargon to keep out-of-the-know people out of the discussion, what does that say about our goals as educators? It’s time to differentiate the conversation.