Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Thinking Teacher

I'm not sure if I mentioned this before, but I'm in a virtual Cognitive Coaching book group.  We "meet" every Wednesday and discuss a chapter from Art Costa and Bob Garmston's book Cognitive Coaching.  This week we have been focusing on teacher cognition.

Near the start of this chapter is a quote by Charlotte Danielson that teaching is very cognitively demanding - "a teacher makes hundreds of nontrivial decisions daily" - as he or she manages the multitude of activities in the classroom.  This made me think about when I first started teaching in Amsterdam where I was a high school teacher, however I used to eat lunch in the classroom of a colleague in lower elementary where it seemed that all sorts of different activities were going on simultaneously and where the teacher was totally aware of all of these and managing them skillfully. At that time I remember thinking I could never be an elementary school teacher - and yet eventually I did become one!

My earliest experiences in the classroom allowed me a lot of flexibility to make instructional decisions.  In both the UK and in Amsterdam I wrote and assessed most of my own curriculum.  The longer I've been teaching, the more the trend has been away from this - and with some state or national curricula that has now been adopted in many schools, I have seen a growth in the tendency for some teachers to deliver this curriculum in a rather unthinking way (hence my wish to stay working in PYP schools where teachers have agency to collaboratively build the curriculum).  It has been clear to me, and something that I continually aspire to, that teaching is a highly intellectual process and, as Art and Bob point out, "teachers who possess cognitive systems with highly developed levels of perception, abstraction, complexity and decision making consistently have students who perform well on both lower and higher cognitive tasks".  Teachers who do not actively think about their experience are more likely to focus on short-term surface knowledge (the content) when planning or teaching a lesson, whereas the thinking teacher simultaneously is aware of the deep long-term learning (conceptual understanding) which can be transferred to other situations in school and later in life.

There has been research on teacher cognition, with studies showing that when teachers talk aloud about their decisions this causes examination, refinement and the development of new theories and practices, and it also engages teachers emotionally - another plus for collaborative planning!  Further research has shown that there are 4 real categories of teacher thinking:  planning before teaching, interacting during teaching, reflection when recalling and analysing a lesson, and projection when teachers use this thinking and apply their learning to plan next steps.  As I read this I immediately called to mind the coaching maps we use when having our conversations with teachers, which really provoke thinking in all these 4 areas.

I was interested to read that developing learner outcomes is often a low priority for many teachers when planning their lessons.  Studies point to the fact that teachers often think first about the content, materials and resources before they consider aims and purposes.  In Cognitive Coaching the learning outcomes are discussed right from the start in the planning conversation, with the first 2 areas of the map being those of clarifying goals and specifying success indicators - what the students will be thinking, saying or doing that shows the learning outcome has been achieved.  At the same time the coach will be aware of the need for flexibility, and the ability of the teacher to see not just the immediate details of the lesson, but also how this connects to other long-term learning or curriculum goals.  A flexible teacher can design multiple alternative instructional strategies for achieving their learning objectives because during a lesson teachers need to juggle many things - the content, the instructional process, and the learners - and the flexible teacher will be able to respond to how all these are interacting and how the lesson plan is paying out.  In a nutshell, what Art and Bob are telling us is that the basic teaching skill is decision making.

The goal of Cognitive Coaching is to help teachers become more thoughtful in the decisions they make - as teachers reflect upon their experiences they will become more conscious, efficacious, precise, flexible, informed and skillful decision makers - and therefore together coaches and teachers will come to impact student learning.

Photo Credit: Oneras Flickr via Compfight cc

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