30 November 2011

A Look into The Purposeful Classroom, Part I

Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey’s new book is The Purposeful Classroom: How to Structure Lessons with Learning Goals in Mind, published by ASCD. In this post, I’ll provide an overview and some thoughts on the first three chapters, and follow up with a look at the second half of the book in the next post.

I’ve been a Fisher and Frey Fangirl for a few years now. I appreciate their continuing commitment to walk their talk by staying involved with high school teachers and students. This sets them apart from many of the “expert” voices in education who have either no experience (or, at least, no relevant recent experience) working in classrooms. Fisher’s and Frey’s deep background knowledge shows throughout the book in the form of the personal stories they share. As a teacher, I really connect with that approach.

The focus of The Purposeful Classroom is on creating clear and meaningful purpose statements for students, and then supporting work toward these goals. At first blush, this doesn’t sound particularly new or groundbreaking—let alone deserving of an entire book. But Fisher and Frey take this concept in a direction that may be different for a lot of teachers. We know about standards. We likely encountered Madelyn Hunter’s version of lesson objectives in our teacher preparation programs. Fisher and Frey make the case that standards, objectives, and purpose statements are actually three separate things. Standards are broad and lack specific direction for students (How long will it take to learn the ideas? What will it look like when I’ve learned it?). Objectives are more for the teacher than the student (The student will be able to…). A purpose statement provides students with a clear expectation around “what they are going to learn and how they will be expected to demonstrate their understanding” (p. 6). There are some very subtle differences among the terms. The rubric on pp. 20 – 21 is a tool that PLC groups may find useful for developing and revising purpose statements, but I found myself aching for a checklist, too. I can’t help but think of all of the teachers in our small schools who don’t have a way to collaborate with others very often. A tool containing “look fors” when developing purpose statements would be a very welcome addition here.

In Chapter 2, Focusing on Learning Targets, Not Tasks, Fisher and Frey provide background on developing purpose statements that move student understanding forward by using what students already know. Part of this chapter made me want to cheer (they shy away from “higher order” and “lower order” ranking of skills), but other parts raised a lot of questions for me. On pp. 36 – 37, they state that “In addition to identifying what students already know, teachers have to understand the type of knowledge that students still need to gain.” I’d like to know more about Fisher’s and Frey’s view of both Learning Maps and Learning Progressions. It seems like a natural connection here—tools which a teacher might use to help plot the course, as it were, for students. There is a connection back to this concept in Chapter 3 during a discussion of Pacing Guides. Here again, it is refreshing to see a very common sense approach to using Pacing Guides—one which speaks directly against using them as “scripts,” but as their name suggests, a guide for planning and instruction. I’d still like to learn more about how Fisher and Frey view Pacing Guides vs. Learning Maps.

Fisher and Frey look at content and language components of purpose statements in Chapter 3. Content refers to subject-area knowledge; language the terminology used. I like the attention placed to both of these areas. It elevates the importance of content vocabulary as a basis to understanding deeper concepts. Fisher and Frey advocate for “unpacking standards” in order to look for both content and language components. This can be a great exercise for teachers in terms of identifying what students need to know and be able to do. I was also left hanging, however, waiting for Webb’s Depth of Knowledge to make an appearance during the discussion of unpacking standards. Fisher and Frey use a table to separate the nouns and verbs from some Common Core State Standards. I think this process can be useful for teachers as a way to focus on what a standard includes, but I’m not sure of the reasoning behind separating the nouns from the verbs. The table makes things look like a mix-and-match approach, when the standard is very direct about which verb and noun should be partnered…something more Webb-like. I hope to find out more about the reasoning for doing so.

I recently had a sneak peek at the upcoming revision to Classroom Instruction That Works. “Setting Objectives” is still one of the strategies listed. What I like about The Purposeful Classroom is that it gives time and attention to Setting Objectives (or, in this case, purpose statements). The book is a deep dive into being intentional with the goals we provide for students, something that can only help them in identifying gaps in their knowledge and determining pathways for growth.

No comments: