The individual Essentials books are great for going deep into a particular strategy, for instance creating and using learning targets and performance scales or identifying critical content. The Essentials for Standards-Driven Classrooms
brings all 13 strategies from the Essentials for Achieving Rigor
series together and addresses how to use them collectively as a model of instruction.
What is the most significant ideological change teachers must embrace to shift their classrooms to the Essentials model?
The biggest shift teachers need to embrace is encouraging students to take ownership of the thinking and allowing them to do the work. We continue to see teachers doing the thinking and not encouraging students to think critically.
Enabling students to think critically is at the heart of the standards, but how do teachers implement that in reality?
To answer this question, we start at the beginning: planning. What do we look at first? Do we begin with a teacher’s guide to a textbook, other resources, or maybe an instructional strategy? If the starting point is a resource, this would lead to the resource driving instruction with standards being referenced. If a strategy is driving instruction, this would lead to strategy-driven instruction. To be truly standards-driven, we must begin with the standards and align strategies and resources. In this book, we emphasize how teachers use resources and strategies while still creating standards-driven instruction.
In the section, “Tips for Grouping Standards into Units,” you recommend that teachers use state test specifications to help determine their measurement topics. How do you respond when you are asked if this equates to teaching to the standards?
The College Readiness Standards were not designed to be taught in isolation and are not tested in isolation. Test specs help us check if we are interpreting which standards should be taught together and if we are grouping the standards accurately for implementation. Standards should be grouped together and taught in a specific way. Currently, many districts are interpreting the standards for themselves, which may or may not be beneficial to students or teachers if the interpretation is not aligned to the architecture of the standards or to how the test creators are going to measure standards implementation. We do not see using test specification’s to determine how to group standards as preparing for a test; rather, testing is the measurement to see if our students are learning what we intended them to learn.
When you discuss unpacking the standards to create learning targets, you advise teachers not to “over-chunk the standards.” Would you elaborate on that?
Learning targets should be lesson-sized—a chunk of the standard that can be learned within a lesson. If you over-chunk, there are too many small pieces for students to see the full intent and rigor of the standards. Some standards may be too large for students to learn in one lesson. We need to keep the lesson size chunk-appropriate and break it down enough to be learned within a lesson, but not so small students cannot see how the chunks connect or build to the full standard. The verbs in the standards serve as the guides or anchors.
You wrote that it can take three years for a teacher to create and refine standards-based performance scales. Do you find that teachers typically expect it to be a quick process or that they can create a system once and use it for every class? How do you counsel them?
We explain the first year is going to be the creating or building stage. The second and third years are the refining years. Teachers find nuances each time they practice. And yes, we do need to encourage teachers, It will get easier, I promise, and you’re going to see the value in going through this process. Teachers tell us all the time that once they learn the process, it becomes faster and easier to do it. In the beginning, it’s difficult because like any new skill, you are thinking and learning through every step. Teachers find building performance scales are worth the effort and dividends are in the student learning.
What is one of the biggest roadblocks for teachers as they unpack the standards, and how do you address this?
The biggest roadblock is that teachers struggle to understand the full intent and rigor of the standards. As they unpack each standard, they realize that they may not really know what it means or what it looks like. They may not fully understand how the shifts fit into the big picture or how a shift or standard may look from subject to subject. There’s so much learning going on right now and not many resources out there to help.
In your description of what rigor is and how to achieve it, you mention complexity and autonomy. What are some examples of how a teacher can provide complexity while supporting autonomy in the classroom?
To understand the standards, you have to look at the taxonomy or level of thinking, and many educators are missing this helpful tool. In the book, we look at the level of thinking of the standard, which is what we mean by the complexity. The question is What are the cognitive demands on the students? It is important that the teacher scaffold and support students in the beginning, but then the students have to think for themselves and demonstrate with fluency that they can complete the task and understand the standard on their own.
How will this book assist teachers in understanding which Essentials instructional strategies to use in a given situation?
The key is helping teachers fully understand each strategy. Once teachers really know the strategies and the desired result of each strategy―what should students be able to do―we guide teachers in comparing that information with the standard. In the beginning, this can seem complex, but we walk teachers through the process so it becomes second nature.
The Learning Sciences Marzano Center Essentials for Achieving Rigor model calls for close collaboration among teachers. In your evaluations of school districts, are you seeing more teachers working together in professional learning communities? What does that look like?
Yes, we are seeing a lot of these communities, and it’s great because professional learning communities (PLCs) are crucial to the Essentials model. When teachers work together, planning becomes lighter due to collaboration, experience, and shared thinking of every team member. PLCs become true teams when they own the learning of every student from a team, not just those in their individual classes. We are seeing the power that comes out of that. We did a study around PLC work and found teacher motivation increases when work is relevant and authentic. The teachers in our PLCs have made working together a way of life. They meet daily because they want to, not because they feel they have to.
Is there something I didn’t ask about you or your book that you would like to share?
In the Essentials model, we define quality instruction from planning all the way to reflection after a lesson. The model with the book gives a process for teaching, learning, and reflecting. This has been a missing critical piece. Teaching is complex, but when we look for the quick fix, it doesn’t usually give lasting results. The Essentials model of instruction provides the path to achieve lasting results and instruction to rigor.