October 2017
Volume XIV Issue X


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On Second Thought: Reexamining Our Practices

Bruce Oliver

Bruce Oliver, the author of Just for the ASKing!, lives in Burke, Virginia. He uses the knowledge, skills, and experience he acquired as a teacher, professional developer, mentor, and middle school principal as he works with school districts across the nation. He has written more than 150 issues of Just for the ASKing!  He is also a co-author of Creating a Culture for Learning published by Just ASK.


Throughout my career having a second thought about an idea, a procedure or a decision has happened now and then. I usually tried to think through the pros and cons of a subject before making a decision, whether it was instructionally related or administrative in nature. In hindsight, there are those occasions when I wished I had reconsidered a choice I had made. Having second thoughts can be a healthy course of action since, as professionals, our decisions can have an impact on our students or our co-workers. Those after thoughts can help us improve our actions, avoid controversies, and achieve greater success. 

In this newsletter, you will see practices that might require a fresh look or a different way of doing business. As you read through the examples, perhaps they will cause you to think about the importance of second thoughts.

Cruise Control Grading
Teachers often bring papers to faculty gatherings, team meetings, or even workshops with the hope that they can get some of their grading done. As I observed these individuals, they moved through papers marking incorrect answers in a rapid-fire sequence, placing a grade on top of each paper. As I observed this seemingly robotic process, I wondered if the teacher gave consideration to important questions such as:

  • Do the grades indicate that students are learning/learned the content under study?
  • Are there individuals who did not do well and why were their grades low?
  • Do the grades indicate a pattern for selected students that may require a closer look?
  • Do certain students need more time on the topic in order to move closer toward mastery?
  • Can the data help the teacher plan future learning experiences for their students?

It is universal in the field of teaching that finding time “to get it all done” is a constant quest. Assessment results are an important part of the teaching/learning process. Perhaps more conscious thought should be given to a seemingly mechanical grading process. A closer look at the grades can help the teacher use this data to plan next steps or future units.

Questionable Policies
A new assistant principal was attending her first administrative meeting, mostly sitting on the sidelines and listening to the discussions. After a particular item was addressed, she asked, “Why do we suspend a student for excessive truancy?”  One administrator replied that truancy was a major school offense which required a consequence. “That’s been our policy for a long time; we want to send a strong message to our students” was his concluding remark.

The above scenario is an example of policies or practices that schools have followed without periodic review in order to determine if the tradition that was being followed was the wisest action to take. Topics such as school policies, grading practices, working with parents, discipline referrals, school climate or faculty morale might require attention by school leaders who can consider the following questions:

  • Is what we are doing working?
  • Are there different ways of thinking and decision making we should examine?
  • Are we taking into account the best interest of our stakeholders in our decision making process?
  • Are some of our policies ”yellowing with age” since they have not been reviewed for years (if ever)?
  • How can revised practices make our school a better place for everyone?

Meaningful Feedback
Australian educator and researcher John Hattie has written, “Students welcome praise. Indeed, we all do. The problem is that when a teacher combines praise with other feedback information, the student typically only hears the praise.” Hattie has found that effective feedback is essential to have a high-level impact on student learning. Because of the high-speed pace of addressing necessary material, teachers may not take the time to provide relevant feedback to their students. 

In order for teachers to improve their ability to provide valid growth-producing feedback, Hattie advises educators to make sure that learning goals are perfectly clear, that the teacher connects feedback to those goals, and that students truly understand the teacher’s words.  Hattie suggests that the teacher asks the student to put into his own words what they will do to improve after the teacher has provided reactions to the student’s work.  Just ASK consultant and elementary principal Heather Clayton has written, “When students can compare their work with a clearly understood criterion for success, they are more likely to accept and value the feedback the teacher provides.” A further important component of effective feedback is the suggestion by the teacher of specific strategies that will match a student’s individual needs. Providing the right kind of feedback (instead of praise, vague feedback, or no feedback at all) can result in a big pay-off for both student and teacher.

Balanced Homework
Until recently, homework was an issue that received very little attention in educational literature. It was a mainstay of the educational system that was considered without question an absolute necessity to support student learning.  Recent research has resulted in different schools of thought including the following conclusions:

  • In general, homework has shown some benefits at the high school level, decreased benefits for middle school students, and fewer gains for elementary students.
  • Too much homework can cut into important personal and family time.
  • The goal should not be to eliminate homework but to make it “authentic, meaningful, and engaging.”
  • Giving students too much homework can lead to fatigue, stress, and a decreased interest in academics
  • Homework can help parents better understand what their children are learning; however, parent involvement can result in “unintentional harm” when children are not given enough autonomy to complete assignments.
  • When assigning homework, teachers should focus on quality (assignments which are engaging and relevant), instead of quantity (assignments that require excessive amounts of time).

With this latest research in mind, perhaps it is time for practitioners to take another look at the type and volume of homework they are requiring students to complete.

Appropriate Tasks
A decisive responsibility a teacher makes is to select or create handouts that reinforce student learning, and that allow students time to practice newly acquired skills. A mistake that some teachers make is to require every student to complete identical tasks without taking into account each student’s readiness to successfully complete the assignment. In typical heterogeneous classes, there may be wide discrepancies in knowledge and skills and yet the students may be expected to tackle the same work simultaneously. When students are expected to complete tasks that are beyond their means, they may react in an emotional manner that may include a meltdown, acting out, or refusal to even try.

One-size-fits-all is an archaic way of thinking when teachers give students classroom work to complete. A judicious teacher will analyze any potential task and determine which students can independently complete the work, and then create alternate assignments that match students’ preparedness to get the job done. These positive steps on a teacher’s part (known as task analysis) can result in a classroom filled with determined students who are willing to take on a new challenge.

Thoughtful Responses
Most teachers have heard students pose the questions, “Why do we have to learn this?” or “When are we ever going to use this?” in relation to content being presented in a lesson. It can be a difficult question to answer. According to researcher Kristy Cooper, there are certain responses that we should avoid since they can undermine motivation. Common mistaken responses teachers might give include the following:

  • Responding, “Because we have to do it; it is a district requirement.”
  • Seeing subject matter as a “necessary evil” and telling students to “hang in there ‘til it’s over.”
  • Assuring students that they will use the content “when they grow up.”
  • Identifying it as a necessity because “You’ll need this for college” does not work because students live in the present.
  • Saying that “It is going to be on the test!”

Instead of justifying why a specific curriculum is being addressed, Cooper suggests that teachers “identify the enduring elements of their subject, and then relate class content to students’ daily lives in ways that are immediately interesting and useful and keep them hooked over the long haul.”  Linking content (mathematical applications, scientific principles, etc.) to the daily life of a young person can make a huge difference in their overall buy-in and attentiveness.  Perhaps the best time to introduce such ideas is early on so that students’ attention is focused on the new learning.

Knee-Jerk Reactions
In the fast-paced world of “school,” teachers often have to make quick decisions.  Sometimes these reactions might be hastily made, and, as a result, might not be the best choices. Below are four examples of real teacher reactions to frequent situations:

  • Assigning a student a detention because he did not put his name on a paper
  • Lowering a student‘s grade because she did not get a required parent signature on a test
  • Giving a student a zero because he did not complete a journal entry
  • Allowing students only one time a semester to respond to feedback and resubmit work without penalty
  • Sending a student out of class to the office for a minor infraction

After closer analysis, these responses might not be prudent. They might have been made in a moment of stress or frustration.  Lesson learned: Take a breath, have a sensible and calm reaction, and make sure a response is fair, rational, and well thought through. Be sure the response results in students engaging more produvely.

Beacon of Hope
There may come a point in some teacher’s life, when she looks across her classroom and sees students who feel they have reached a dead end; they feel they are mired in failure and have no hope of realizing success. Consultant and author Robyn Jackson refers to this situation as the valley of despair. Students facing this dilemma feel they are on a “treadmill of failure” and they often give up since they do not see any way to control their outcomes. Despite these situations, some teachers continue along the path of presenting content in order to keep up with a required pacing guide, while others realize that it is pointless to continue on in the same manner. 

Dr. Jackson writes about the three P’s of chronic failure which exist in the minds of struggling students:

  • Failure is permanent. (“Things will never change.”)
  • Failure is pervasive.  (“I can’t do anything right.”)
  • Failure is personal.  (“It’s my fault I’m a failure.”)

In order to minimize or erase these downtrodden feelings, she recommends steps teachers can take as they interact with students to counteract existing pessimism:

  • Instead of focusing on long-term results, and providing students with a laundry list of actions they can take, help students to chip away at the root cause of failure by identifying habits that need to change.
  • Teach students strategies that will result in small successes.
  • Shorten the feedback loop by focusing on doable steps so that students can see progress, perhaps on a daily basis.
  • Have students keep track of their actions and achieved results so that they can see that they have a sense of control.
  • Focus feedback on student effort rather than simply results.

When the teacher helps students take the right actions, they can eventually see themselves getting closer to a goal and coming out of their predicament. In short, the teacher has become a beacon of hope for the student who had been embroiled in hopelessness.

Parent Partnerships
Some educator’s interactions with parents are limited to Back-to-School Night, parent conferences, or stressful phone conversations during which the topic is a behavior issue or lack of student motivation. These scenarios are often viewed as necessary obligations and even irritants by the teacher, and can be contentious in nature. The parent is typically in a passive role, as they become the recipient of unexpected news. It doesn’t have to be that way. 

The September 2017 edition of Educational Leadership is entitled “In Sync with Families,” and is replete with ideas and suggestions that schools (and teachers) can use to make interactions with parents positive and fulfilling experiences.

One of the first steps schools can take is to understand family dynamics. University of Maryland professor Philip N. Cohen writes, “In 1960, two-thirds of children lived with married parents – a stay-at-home mother and an employed father. Now only 22 percent live in such families.”  Schools, therefore, must be careful not to impose a narrow definition of family structure. Cohen further believes that when school personnel fully understand and acknowledge family diversity, they can avoid paths to conflict, exclusion, and alienation. 

In her article entitled, “How Home Visits Transformed My Teaching,” Louise El Yaafouri-Kreuzer acknowledges, “Particularly with immigrant and refugee students, visiting families’ homes connects teachers to students’ histories, needs, and strengths.” A further suggestion that builds strong relationships comes from Debbie Zacarian and Michael Silverstone who write about the benefits of community-building events such as pot luck suppers, family game night, and hands-on curriculum events. They write, “By inviting families to join us for a social purpose, we can create positive momentum for the school year.”  When parents feel comfortable, they are more likely to support their child’s academic endeavors and interact with a teacher in a positive way.

The point to ponder is to ask: What is the status of our school’s relationship with our parents? Further, as a teacher, how can I strengthen bonds with families so that all families feel welcome and personally involved in their child’s education?

Underutilized Technology
Teacher Bryan Upshaw’s introductory paragraph in the July 2017 article in eSchool News grabbed my attention. He wrote:  “Is there anything a teacher hates more than to look out across his or her classroom and see a group of tired, uninterested, and unmotivated students?  Teachers are forced to cover state standards that students may not see any intrinsic reason to learn. Other students may not care about their grades or understand how their current education connects to their future success. What is a teacher to do?” 

He has found that real life connections are the key to hooking students into listening and learning. To accomplish this feat, he acknowledges that “a computer is not just a tool for doing research or typing papers; it is a gateway to real people that can bridge any topic from the classroom to the real world.” Bryan suggests that teachers begin to apply “the best classroom tool teachers are not using,” videoconferencing.  In his writing, he supplies multiple examples of how videoconferencing can bring life to any classroom. Through the use of videoconferencing, he concludes, “The really cool thing is this can be a person in your hometown or in the Amazon jungle.” He has discovered that there are numerous ways to interact with people around the world using such applications as Skype, Face Time, Facebook Messenger, Google Hangout or Viber. As a result of his use of videoconferencing he has seen increased motivation among his students. He concludes, “Motivation directs behavior toward goals, leads students to increased effort and energy, increases initiation and persistence in activities, positively affects cognitive processes, and often enhances performance.” 

A technological application does not replace direct instruction from the teacher.  However, it can add a whole new dynamic that can change the atmosphere in the classroom by grabbing student attention and perhaps providing an unforgettable learning experience.

All educators should be circumspect about their actions so that they make decisions that inspire, motivate, provide food for thought, or enhance relationships.  Each of the situations described above is an example of a circumstance that could be improved through thoughtful analysis. Maybe you may have other ways you approach your teaching or decision making that could use a second look. By taking time to give a second thought to the things you do, you may discover that unforeseen adjustment in your thinking that can lead to more desirable outcomes.



Resources and References


Clayton, Heather. “Feedback in the Mathematics Classroom.” Making the Standards Come Alive!, September 2017.

Cohen, Philip. “Families Are Changing – and Staying the Same.” Educational Leadership, September 2017.

Cooper, Kristy. “6 Common Mistakes That Undermine Motivation.” Phi Delta Kappan, May 2014.

El Yaafouri-Kreuzer, Louise. “How Home Visits Transformed My Teaching.” Educational Leadership, September 2017.

Hattie, John. “Know Thy Impact.” Educational Leadership, September 2012.

Jackson, Robyn. “How to Motivate Reluctant Learners.”

Upshaw, Bryan.“This is the Best Classroom Tools Teachers Are Not Using.” eSchool News, July 2017.

Zacarian, Debbie and Michael Silverstone. “Building Partnerships Through Classroom-Based Events.” Educational Leadership, September 2017.






Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “On Second Thought: Reexamining Our Practices.” Just for the ASKing! October 2017. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development. © 2017. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.