As popular as the term has become, “best practices” is often more about adopting a trendy concept and posting lists on classroom walls than defining the way classroom instruction is actually delivered. Schools and school districts who have successfully integrated “best practices” into their classrooms have done so with a sincere commitment, hands-on professional development, and strategic implementation in every classroom.
It begins with the honest and transparent scrutiny of current classroom practices to remove those that are ineffective and to make room for those that work. The next step is to match them with the demands of Unit content standards and to connect them with actual teaching-learning activities. To simply mandate “this year, we will all do ‘goal-setting,’” is to miss the point about “best practices.”
EdFOCUS helps the district (and each school) make “best practices” an integral part of its deep-culture and daily operation. The EdFOCUS approach is to show teachers how to use each “practice” in the context of the actual curriculum and the Units they actually teach.
Below is the list of “best practices” offered by EdFOCUS as professional development. These are a compilation of the many such lists in circulation and the ones most supported in the research as making a difference in student performance. (Click here to see the bibliography of supporting research.)
Best Practices Training and Materials Provided by EdFOCUS Initiative
Multiple Levels of Thinking [e.g., Bloom’s Taxonomy]
A core feature of the 21st Century skills as well as the content standards is the requirement for students to process information at various cognitive levels, ranging from a reasonable command of necessary facts through the critical analysis of information. An education icon, Bloom’s Taxonomy provides familiar labels to help teachers differentiate learning activities and student products along a cognitive continuum. “Best Practice” classrooms use these levels strategically to help students construct meaning and apply what they learn to solve real-world problems.
For students to take ownership in their learning, they must feel they control at least a portion of it. To accomplish this empowerment, one “best practice” is to help students identify one or more academic (and personal learning) goals for each unit. These are specific, performance-based, and measurable outcomes tied to the unit content, not altruistic and vacuous year-long aims that mean anything and nothing. Throughout the unit, students monitor their progress on each goal, making notes in their journals. At the end of the unit, students give themselves a “grade” or rating on each goal—not so much whether goals were accomplished but how much progress was made. Did the needle move? Although the identification of viable goals may require the teacher’s assistance at first, students quickly learn to formulate their own goals from the previous unit, a pre-test on the current unit, or an important life experience.
Recognition and Reinforcement [to Promote Good Citizenship and Self-Management]
“Best Practice” teachers develop the habit of continuously recognizing individual students for legitimate effort and reinforcing positive indications of progress. These attentions to each student are for substantive accomplishments or courageous risk-taking—they are not phony and vacuous praise for simply showing up. Although many of the overtures are private, some are public recognitions to strengthen a student’s status among his or her peers. This “best practice” serves the dual purpose of strengthening each student’s self-confidence as a learner and establishing the classroom as a community of supportive learners. There is zero tolerance for teasing, ridicule, or refusal to work-with. This atmosphere of productive civility promotes good citizenship and self-management.
Continuous Monitoring with Feedback
Rather than waiting until the end of a unit or chunk of content, “best practice” teachers check for students’ understanding continuously. This is to ensure that adequate progress is being made as well as to detect any mis-learning or the need for intervention. Moreover, students should be given specific feedback to affirm correct answers and to re-direct or adjust those that are incorrect or incomplete.
Grading—Relating Mastery of Standards to Assigning a Letter Grade
Making content standards the central focus of the curriculum is a worthy accomplishment. But it does create one of the most troublesome issues in the business of school: what impact do standards have on grading? How does mastery of standards translate into a letter grade—and then the GPA? Most districts are accustomed to the “percentage” system—90-93% of all possible points earns an A; 80-90% earns a B, and so on. These “points” consist of scores on tests, quizzes, and projects. With student performance driven by the mastery of (or lack thereof) standards, teachers need to agree on a system whereby mastery aligns with a letter grade. In addition, what impact does effort have on the grade? And what about latent mastery (i.e., the student works hard without success for several weeks and then suddenly, the light goes on). Does the “mastery” become an average of the entire grading period—or is it cumulative? EdFOCUS consultants work with school teams to consider various alternatives, including the respective consequences for each.
Questioning and Cueing
Corresponding to the multiple degrees and types of thinking required of students, questioning can be simplified to three levels. Level I questions ask students to identify the literal detail of what has been said or written. Level II questions ask students to make inferences about what has been said or written—what is meant or implied. Level III questions ask students to think hypothetically about the material—extending the meaning, thinking about “what-ifs,” or making evaluative judgments. In the “best practices” classroom, students not only answer different levels of teacher-made questions, but they devise their own questions at all three levels and can convert back-and-forth among the levels.
Building the curriculum around content standards involves several challenges. One of these is Literacy. Various research studies of incoming college freshmen and entry-level workers document the continuous decline of students’ ability to read informational text as well as being able to write for a variety of purposes and audiences. Without the nurturance of a teacher previewing the important ideas, pre-teaching key vocabulary, and directing attention toward specific understandings, students were clueless. Moreover, the scores of American students on international tests tell the same story: a huge majority are unable to successfully analyze and interpret informational text. These studies led to the promulgation of Literacy standards for Reading and Writing in Science, Social Studies, and Mathematics in grades 6-12. EdFOCUS consultants share sample district-wide implementation plans for grades 6-12. They also provide specific classroom strategies to help teachers integrate Literacy instruction across the four core content areas.
Click here for a more complete description of the EdFOCUS approach to Literacy.
Vocabulary and Context
Every reader frequently encounters unfamiliar and difficult words. But successful readers comprehend the text even if they do not recognize every word. They use context clues and syntax to decipher the overall point of the passage. Struggling readers can learn several useful techniques to discern “approximate meaning” of unfamiliar words or phrases. These tools include:
- Syntax—placement in the sentence; does it act like a “doer,” an action, a modifier, etc?
- Structure—roots, affixes, and inflections; are there familiar ones like photo and –ful or re-?
- Context clues—do surrounding words help give clues to meaning?
- Figurative language—are familiar images (like a golf ball) included to help the reader with the unfamiliar ones (like the size of hail)?
- Shades of meaning—the subtle differences between words (e.g., suspected vs believed)
- Synonyms, Antonyms, Homonyms, or Multiple Meanings—words that mean the same; the opposite; words that look like another word but mean something else (like preSENT and PREsent); or sound like another word but mean something else (like watch = look and watch = to tell time)
- Connotative meanings—words that carry tone or feeling with them (such as skinny vs slender)
Organizational Patterns (referred to in standards as Text Structure)
Authors of non-fiction strategically organize text to communicate their message. They use specific Organizational Patterns such as chronological sequence, cause-effect, compare-contrast, “how-to,” persuasion, etc. These Patterns are also called “internal logic” or “rhetorical structures.” Many students who cannot read word-for-word can use these Patterns to discern an author’s major ideas and overall intent.
To fully comprehend a passage (or media presentation), one method is to distill it into two or three statements that represent its message. Contrary to some popular formulas, the summary is not “the 5 Ws” as if all text is fiction or presented as a narrative news account. An effective summary reflects the Organizational Pattern (text structure) of the text and includes only information provided by the author—without editorial comment or reference to other experiences or text.
Most of the texts, lectures, and media presentations for which students take notes have their own internal logic or Organizational Patterns. If students can use these Patterns to take notes, it helps to solidify the author’s message and provides an organizer for the supporting detail. Teachers can facilitate this “listening-for-patterns” by deliberately organizing their own presentations using an Organizational Pattern that reflects the internal logic of the message.
Graphic Organizers (aka Visual Organizers or Non-Linguistic Representations)
The purpose of visual or graphic organizers is to pictorially display a concept by showing key terms and their strategic relationship to each other. In effect, this is the “Organizational Pattern” of a discussion, a text, or a presentation. The Graphic Organizer is a pictorial summary of text, media, or verbal presentations and offers an effective means for delivering and processing information as well as for students to construct their own meaning.
Mathematical Problem-Analysis and Problem-Solving (appropriate for K-8, but best offered in clusters by primary, intermediate, and middle school)
Solving word problems in math is not only about getting the answer but getting students to think mathematically. There are often multiple ways to think about something, and students do not always “fit the mold” of thinking algorithmically. Posing a problem, asking students how they approach the problem, and recording all possibilities for solving the problem are key to students seeing mathematics reasoning. For example, if asked to add 18 and 13, some might say that they would make 18 to be (10 + 8) and 13 to be (10 + 3), then add the two tens and the 8 and 3. Another might say that 18 is about 20, and 13 is about 15, so that is 35 minus 4. Still others would make 18 a 20 and take the 2 (added on) off the 13 to make it 11. All of these are different ways to think about the same problem but may not be ways everyone would use. Then of course, there is the standard approach to add the ones place, “carry,” and add the tens place. This illustrates how many ways that people think mathematically.
Problem-solving is also about determining what the problem is “asking be done,” which information is needed and not needed, and what methods might be used to arrive at the solution. Although computational skill is of value, the more important competence is the analysis of the problem situation before attempting to solve it.
As emphasized in many newer math materials, getting students to think mathematically is something we must teach. For example, if we use the following problem:
Sue had 8 pieces of candy, and Jon gave her 3 pieces; how many does she have now?
We are looking for the result in the problem. However, we can turn that same problem inside-out to say:
Sue had 8 pieces of candy, and Jon gave her some candy; now she has 11 pieces of candy. How many pieces did Jon give to Sue?
Now we are looking for the change in the problem. Or, we could always say:
Sue had some candy, and Jon gave her 3 pieces and now she has 11 pieces of candy. How many pieces of candy did Sue have in the first place?
Here, we are looking for the start in the problem.
This type of questioning gets students thinking algebraically. It is the same problem, but what changes is what we are trying to find. This is the start of inverse operations, balancing equations, and other important skills that we all use as adults. Indeed, students should be able to represent mathematical situations with an expression or equation that includes the correct “place” of the unknown—the result, the change, or the start.
If we use word problems that consist of the start (the number or quantity at the beginning), the change (the amount and direction of shift), and the result (the number or quantity at the end), we get students to “think,” and not just react to math. It is suggested that students begin with simple whole numbers and one-step operations and then move to more complex numbers with multiple operations involving larger whole numbers, decimals, fractions, integers, and so on. And while start, change, result is just the beginning, students work with the basic concept with all operations and in real-world settings.
One final note is to avoid “trigger words or phrases.” Phrases such as “how many in all,” “how many are left,” what is the total,” cue students or lead them as to what should be done to solve a problem. This sets students up for failure. In the real world, there are no cues or leads or prompts, and people must be able to think. Using triggers in the math classroom is a disservice to students and actually prevents them from really understanding a problem situation and what it is asking.
Similarities and Differences
To demonstrate a deep-level knowledge of people, objects, events, ideas, or concepts, students are able to compare and contrast these, identifying how they are alike and different. There are several levels of this complex “best practice,” including:
- Categorization. Categories are mental “bins” into which students sort “things” by common attribute. The skill of categorization begins with simpler, more concrete “bins” (e.g., people by occupation, tools by function, etc.) and proceeds through more complex “bins” like principles or concepts (e.g., literary censorship, euthanasia, stem-cell research, etc.). Students move from (a) sorting given items to (b) supplying additional examples for their ‘sorts,’ to (c) creating new categories for sets of seemingly unrelated items.
- Comparison. Once students master the capacity to categorize things into “bins” by common attribute, they need to make deep-level comparisons and contrasts between and among members of the various “bins,” noting how they are alike and different. When they learn to make multiple comparisons (e.g., the Presidents who served during various times of war), they are able to construct additional connections and generalizations among (or between) the items being compared (e.g., war-time Presidents who were Republican versus Democrat).
- Critical Attributes. Some concepts are best understood by seeing them in contrast to other concepts. In some cases, what a concept IS becomes clearest when seeing what it is NOT. For example, by looking at two groups of vegetables and listing the attributes of each group, students will—by process of elimination—come to the realization that the distinguishing attribute between the two groups is that the primary edible portion of Group 1 is actually the root below the ground. Once that is clear, students can add new examples to the two groups using that attribute. This comparative strategy takes students into physical attributes, internal structures, functions, and processes. By comparing examples with non-examples of a concept, the concept itself becomes clearer.
Group 1: Examples Group 2: Non-examples • carrot • turnip • radish • potato • corn • pea pod • broccoli • spinach • squash
- Metaphor. Aristotle thought the capacity to think metaphorically was the sign of genius. It is the ability to understand an unfamiliar “thing” by associating with it one or more attributes of a familiar but otherwise unrelated “thing.” For example, no one confuses what Pink Floyd meant by students as “bricks in a wall.” A “personality of salt and vinegar” gives a definite impression. “Mitosis as the Xerox copying of a cell” makes that concept fairly vivid. Students who can interpret metaphors (and eventually create original ones) need minimal explanation about the concept or idea. An extension of the metaphor is the symbol. A red cross, the swastika, or the symbol for handicapped parking or seating all send a vivid though wordless message. Teachers have had very little training in how to use metaphors and symbols to help make concepts more understandable for students.
- Analogy. A member of the metaphor family is the Analogy. Some authors actually use them as twins. But for K-12 students, it is easier to make a distinction. The metaphor makes an indirect comparison (e.g., Watergate was Nixon’s Waterloo), and the Analogy is a direct and dual comparison. “Watergate was to Nixon as Waterloo was to Napoleon.” The “formula” for writing the Analogy is as follows: Watergate : Nixon :: Waterloo : Napoleon. As was explained with the Metaphor, students who learn to interpret—and eventually devise—analogies have acquired a deep-level skill of recognizing parallels. And beyond the Metaphor, students who can handle Analogies can identify the relationship that makes the four terms parallel. In the Nixon-Napoleon example, the relationship is downfall. A few other examples are:
Analogy Relationship purchase : buy :: throw : pitch synonyms purchase : sell :: throw : catch antonyms cut : bleed :: ignite : burn cause-effect tail : dog :: mane : horse part-whole chickens : roost :: moles : tunnel actions
As with Metaphors, teachers have had very little training in how to use Analogies to help students discover and create deep-level parallel analyses.
Assessment—Both Traditional and Authentic (Performance)
Traditional Paper-Pencil Tests: Because high stakes tests are and will continue to be part of the teaching- learning process, it is imperative that teachers learn the art of valid, standards-based test construction. To measure mastery, teachers should use the same formats that are used in high-stakes testing: Multiple Choice and Constructed Response.
Authentic or Performance Assessments: In addition to traditional paper-pencil tests, research has proven that students truly demonstrate mastery only when they can independently apply their learning to a new situation. They must construct meaning for themselves to solve a problem, create a product, discover an error, or conduct an original study or experiment.
Therefore, it is essential that teachers have both traditional assessments as well as authentic assessments as part of every Unit Plan.
Click here to go to the Classroom Assessments page.
Hypothesizing (Prediction) and Testing to Verify (aka Inquiry)
In preparation for what is required of them in life, students need opportunities to analyze and resolve problem situations. Teachers must provide students with quandaries, discrepant events, or problem scenarios. But teachers must model for students how this is done. It also includes “thinking out loud” or verbalizing what one is thinking and doing in the process. With practice, students learn to formulate hypotheses as to the underlying cause(s), possible solutions, or plausible explanations. Two levels of hypothesizing are important: (1) “real-time” quandaries, where students actually conduct action research or experiments to test their hypotheses; and (2) “hypothetical” problems, including those that have already occurred (i.e., the crash of the Hindenburg) and those that cannot actually be tested (i.e., how to weigh an asteroid).
For “real-time” action research, students devise and follow a research design, record observation data, assemble information, and draw valid conclusions. For “hypothetical” problem-solving, students examine possible solutions, gather pertinent information, devise “acceptability” criteria for solutions, and decide which solution best meets those criteria. On both levels, students formulate valid hypotheses about (a) what could be done or (b) what might have been done differently and use supporting information to “test” their theories.
Differentiation: Make the Plan Ahead of Time
The EdFOCUS approach to Differentiation is to help schools plan for different teaching-learning activities in advance—as part of the Unit Plan. Rather than devising a separate set of activities for students who struggle OR those excel, the idea is to plan for adjustments in the Unit itself. These differentiated activities must be appropriate to the various learning needs of individual students. It is not another name for tracking, since the “differentiation” is by the activity within a Unit and not “placing” students according to their ability. Effective differentiation is planned-for ahead of time—as part of every Unit Plan.
Click here to go to the Differentiation and RTI page.