Katie White is coordinator of learning for the North East School Division in Canada. With more than 20 years in education, she has been an administrator, a learning coach, and a classroom teacher.

Engaging in Instructional Agility by Trusting Ourselves

The other day, I was sitting with a colleague after we had facilitated a reading intervention lesson with four grade six students. It had been a lively hour, with the students finding it difficult to engage in writing about reading after we had spent time reinforcing comprehension. They needed to be reminded often to focus on the task and apply their understanding of the text in written form.  We discussed these challenges and proposed reasons why the students were finding the work difficult. We looked again at their comprehension and fluency assessments from the previous day and examined the writing the students had piled in front of us on their way out of the room.

The accumulation of knowledge we gained from examining their reading and writing indicated that all four students were finding it difficult to put their ideas into written form. I proposed that the writing task we had invited the students to create was too difficult or we had asked for independence too soon and, in fact, our learners needed more modeling and support. My colleague agreed but soon followed by asserting that we couldn’t offer more support because the teaching guide stated that the students should be ready to move to writing independently. We were at a critical point in our conversation—we had to decide whether to honor the guide or honor our students’ needs.

This moment presents itself more often than we may acknowledge, every day in our classrooms.  It may look slightly different depending on the context but at several points in any given day, we have to decide whether to move ahead with our plans or attend to the information we have received through a variety of forms of assessment. To be sure, this is one of the most difficult factors teachers face when teaching several human beings at once—they do not always learn what we want, when we want, in the way we hope they will learn, and they most certainly do not learn it at the same time as their peers. We know this is true and yet we feel a little pang of regret each time we are faced with this reality. Instructional agility depends on our ability to respond to assessment information in a way that meets student needs in the moment. Often, this means abandoning well-crafted plans in favor of timely response or shifting our processes to attend to the messages we are receiving about our learners’ journeys toward proficiency.

Added to this complexity is the layer of self-doubt that may accompany our instruction if we are teaching something unfamiliar, if we feel unprepared, or if something is particularly complex. In these cases, we may not have done quite enough exploration of our standards, and we may be really depending on a resource. When this happens, we may experience fear of instructional agility and resort to following the lock-step lessons we have been provided. The resource begins to trump everything, including our own professional knowledge.

Whether we hesitate to engage in instructional agility because we do not want to abandon our own plans or abandon those of someone else, our decision to march ahead despite what our assessment information is telling us creates the conditions for future frustration. I cannot be sure exactly why my colleague was hesitating to stray from the lesson plans in front of us but I know that had we decided to continue on as we were, our students were going to become increasingly disengaged and we were going to become similarly frustrated. We had to trust our own knowledge of our students and trust our ability to respond to their needs, regardless of what the guide was telling us. We needed to own our professional knowledge and lean on our assessment practices to guide the way. “The power of the reflective cycle seems to rest in its ability to first slow down a teachers’ thinking so that they can attend to what is rather than what they wish were so, and then to shift the weight of that thinking from their own teaching to their students’ learning.” (Rodgers, 2002, p.231) These are the precursors for instructional agility—trusting ourselves, trusting our students, and trusting our assessment to adjust instruction to meet student needs.

In the end, we left the pre-made lessons behind and inserted more practice and modeling, which resulted in far more proficient work by our students and a clear increase in confidence. It took more time, but in the end, our students gained skill which would buy us back time in the long run. It is normal to feel regret when we have to shift our plans. It is normal to want to follow a program step-by-step because it seems much easier. However, the reality is that our students depend on our use of assessment information to support instructional agility. Without these things, they get stuck and, in the end, we get stuck, too. Maxine Greene (1995) confirms the need to develop the skill of reflection in order to remain instructionally agile: “An ability to take a fresh look at the taken for granted seems equally important; without that ability, most of us, along with our students, would remain submerged in the habitual.” (p.100)

References:

Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the imagination: Essays on education, the arts, and social change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Rodgers, C.R. (2002). Voices inside schools: Seeing student learning: Teacher change and the role of reflection. Harvard Educational Review, 72, 2, 230-253.

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