Sunday, December 6, 2015

Tis the Season - Seeking Clarity in the Classroom!

This past week, while working with my colleagues in Green Bay Wisconsin and with so many wonderful and hard-working teachers, I was asked an interesting question that took me a bit by surprise and caused me to pause for a brief minute.

“Dr. Kanold, you have had a big influence on our thinking and our practice, but who do you look to? Who have you learned from? Who has influenced your thinking?”

As I hesitated to respond, my first teaching job (1973 -1979) flooded back into my memory. I was the only math teacher at a small rural high school south of Rockford, Illinois. There were no colleagues or daily sources to influence the focus of my work. No Internet. No social media. No Cell phones. Ha! In some cases, no phones period!

I had no idea how to measure my effectiveness.

I was often panicked about whether I was making an impact as a teacher. The routine of teaching all day, going to practice (coaching) for 3 hours, starting a young family, and then getting ready for the next day had a sort of exhaustion to it. I was working really hard, but my lessons - my efforts to “explain” the topics I was teaching – often seemed to confuse my students. In short, I lacked clarity.

Was it me or was it them, I wondered.

Unbeknownst to me, there was a national “Teacher Effectiveness” movement sweeping our country during the 70’s (This later fed a “School Effectiveness” movement during the 1980’s). It was a decade that closely examined “Teacher Moves” that made a significant impact on student learning. (Connecting teacher actions to student learning was a novel idea at the time). What was revealed during the Teacher Effectiveness movement were lesson design elements, that quite frankly are very similar to what we teach today – more than 40 years later.

Aware of my own shortcomings I had gone back to school part time to take some night classes through the University of Illinois. My professor for my very first class was a man named Barak Rosenshine. Yes, THE Barak Rosenshine. I had no idea at the time who he was, or how he was helping to define the blueprint descriptors of highly effective teaching actions. What I did know was that he provided for me, a holy grail for my work. Above all my other early influences, Rosenshine was certainly the best and brightest I knew.

Who is/was he? Well, check out this news article, What Characterizes an EffectiveTeacher? An exclusive interview with Barak Rosenshine (2002). 

I know many of you have heard me speak or read my work more than once over the years, and you will notice all of the swords I have fallen on in understanding the best there is for effective teaching practice dates back to and has morphed from that Tuesday night class, a long long time ago.

By 1986 (my 13th year in teaching) Rosenshine and Stevens (1986) summarized their research and concluded that effective teachers:

Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning
Begin a lesson with a short statement of goals
Give clear and detailed instructions and explanations
Provide a high level of active practice for all students
Provide systematic feedback and corrections

By 2000, I reframed these ideas into what I termed as the most essential elements of teacher clarity. Followed by the 12 Essential Lesson Design Questions (EDQ’s) for highly effective teachers (2010). In this blog I address the issues of clarity from 2000, and in my next blog, I will go deeper into the 12 EDQ’s from 2010.  

Are there actual teacher moves that can enhance clarity of the lesson for students? The answer is a resounding yes!  Rooted deeply in the discoveries of Rosenshine and his colleagues in the late 70's and into the 80's.

Essential Teacher Moves That Impact Clarity

1. Frame the Lesson  - Lessons should not appear as if they drop out of the sky with no connection to what content was before or ahead. Teachers that ask, “What have we done so far, in this Unit? How does that impact what we need to learn today? What will we see over the rest of this week? What might you expect today’s lesson to be about?” promote clarity for their students at the beginning and end of a lesson by providing context. How will the lesson be connected to student prior knowledge? How will students be expected to connect the lesson to their prior knowledge?

2. State and Overstate the Standards  Excessively. During the lesson. Ask your students to constantly re-state the learning target (orally and in writing) for the lesson. Connect the standard of the day, to each task for the day, explaining the connection, and why you chose that task. Require students to state (in I can student friendly language) the actual standard for the lesson, as part of a student led summary at the end of the lesson.

3. Label, Label, Label! – Too much of what students “Hear” from their teacher is not also placed in writing – so they can “see” your words. Label everything you do. Name the examples, provide in writing the nuggets of wisdom that pour out of your mouth during the lesson. Why is the example, idea or project important? Why is it relevant and meaningful? Why did you think that way? Place the why in writing! How will your thinking be labeled for the students? How will the students know your thinking if they can't process oral communication as well as others? How will students be expected to label their work in their notebooks? This really supports your ESL students in class. 

4. Precision of Teacher Language – Ask a colleague to come to your class and do nothing but write down every word and direction that flows from your mouth during the lesson. Take a close look at vague words or phrases, such as “Okay”, “You kinda should do this”, or “It is sorta like this”, or  “You might want to think about” Are your directions clear? Do students actually do what you tell them to do? Also, part of this clarity issue, is the vocabulary – your modeling of precise use of the language, and the impact it has on student use of the vocabulary. During class, what do you hear your students saying to one another? Is it precise, or vague? Can they clearly state the learning target for example or articulate their reasoning out loud?

5. Small Step Instruction  – You should present new material in small steps, providing for student practice after each step of whole group instruction. Think of it as blended discourse during the student learning of the lesson. The teacher constantly moves back and forth between whole group and small group discourse as essential elements of the lesson unfold. Clear lessons do not overwhelm the students, and have this built in formative check for understanding that gives students time to process the meaning of the content for that days’ lesson.

Consider this from Rosenshine (1986 and again in 2002):  

            First, there's the notion of teaching new material in small steps so that the learning process isn't   overloaded by getting too much at once. We have found that the most effective teachers, those teachers whose classes made the highest yearly gain, provided this support by teaching new material in manageable amounts, modeling, guiding student practice, helping students when they made errors, and providing for sufficient practice and review.  

Today there is exhaustive research and modern day language about effective teaching as we approach 2016. And although I might not agree with everything Rosenshine had to say to me 40 years ago, in that Tuesday night class, I know from my own teaching experience, that these elements of clarity will improve your teaching, but more importantly improve the level of student learning in your class.

Wishing you the best in the clarity journey as you reflect and renew this holiday season!  


  1. Huh wow very nice information ,thanks to add this article ...


  2. great article and really professional research on education

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