Interview Notes, Resources, & Links
About Mike Fisher
Mike Fisher is a writer, curriculum designer, and instructional coach who helps schools revitalize and modernize their curriculum.
Mike Fisher is a writer, curriculum designer, and instructional coach who helps schools revitalize and modernize their curriculum.
Jimmy Casas is an educator, bestselling author, and speaker with 22 years of school leadership experience.
Jeff Zoul is a lifelong teacher, leader, and learner. After many years of public school service, Jeff now focuses on writing, speaking, consulting, and organizing What Great Educators Do Differently events.
Todd Whitaker is a professor of educational leadership at the University of Missouri. He is a leading presenter in the field of education and is the bestselling author of more than 50 books.
Who's the best person to decide what instructional practices to use in a lesson?
Obviously, the teacher who planned the lesson, and who is responsible for teaching it and ensuring that students learn what they're supposed to learn.
Yet too often, we second-guess our teachers.
We do it to be helpful—to provide feedback to help teachers grow—but I'd suggest it's often not the best way to help teachers grow.
Over the past couple of days, I've been arguing that we're facing a crisis of credibility in our profession.
Too often, we adopt reductive definitions of teacher practice, because so much of teacher practice can't be seen in a brief observation.
It's either beneath the surface—the invisible thinking and decision-making that teachers do—or it takes place over too long a span of time.
We've been calling these two issues “visibility” and “zoom.”
Sometimes, when we second-guess teachers, we tell them they should have used other practices:
“Did you think about doing a jigsaw?”
“Did you think about using small groups for that part of the lesson?”
And hey, this can be helpful. Every day, administrators are giving teachers thousands of good ideas.
But sometimes we're making these suggestions without a clear sense of the teacher's instructional purpose.
The practices must match the purpose, and a quick visit may not give us enough information to make truly useful suggestions.
The remedy to most of this is simply to have a conversation with the teacher—to treat feedback as a two-way street rather than a one-way transfer of ideas from leader to teacher.
But we shouldn't enter into these conversations alone.
There aren't just two parties involved when a leader speaks with a teacher.
The third party in every conversation should be the instructional framework—the set of shared expectations for practice.
Because a framework serves as an objective standard—an arbiter.
It turns a conversation from a clash of opinions into a process of triangulation.
A more formal definition:
An instructional framework is a set of shared expectations serving as the basis for conversations about professional practice.
The best frameworks aren't just descriptions—they're leveled descriptions…
Or what we typically call rubrics.
When you have a rubric, you have a growth pathway.
When teachers can see where their practice currently is—on a rubric, based on evidence—they can get a clear next step.
By simply looking at the next level in the rubric.
If you're at a 3, look at level 4.
If you're at a 1, look at level 2.
Now, we usually have rubrics for our evaluation criteria.
But what about the instructional practices that teachers are using every day?
Do we have leveled rubrics describing those practices?
Often, we don't bother creating them, because they're so specific to each subject and grade.
They don't apply to all teachers in all departments, and we prefer to focus on things that we can use with our entire staff.
So we miss out on one of the highest-leverage opportunities we have in our profession:
The opportunity to create clear descriptions of instructional practice, with subject-specific details that provide every teacher with pathways for growth.
We can do it. In fact, teachers can do it mostly on their own, with just a bit of guidance.
So let me ask you:
What areas of instructional practice could your teachers focus on?
Where would it be helpful to have them develop leveled rubrics?
I'm sure it's specific to your school, and you wouldn't want to just download a rubric from the internet. You'd want teachers to have ownership.
So what would it be?
|Is teacher practice always something we can actually see in an |
Sometimes, the answer is clearly yes. But as I've argued over the past few emails, it's not always so simple.
I thought it might be helpful to plot this visually, along two axes. Let's call this the Evidence of Practice Grid:
|If a teaching practice falls in the top-left quadrant, it's probably something you can directly observe, |
There's still an “observer effect”—teachers can easily put on a song and dance to show you what you want to see—but at least the practice itself is fundamentally see-able.
If it's in the top-right quadrant, a practice may be visible, but not on the time scale of a typical classroom visit. It might take weeks or months for the practice to play out—for example, building relationships with students.
The bottom two quadrants include what Charlotte Danielson calls the “cognitive” work of teaching—the thinking and decision-making that depend on teachers' professional judgment.
These “beneath the surface” aspects of practice are huge, but we can't observe them directly. We must talk with teachers to get at them.
So, for any given practice, we can figure out how visible it is, and how long it takes to play out, using this grid.
That's the Evidence of Practice Grid.
The horizontal axis in our diagram is zoom—the “grain size” or time scale of the practice.
The vertical axis in our diagram is visibility—how directly observable the practice is.
So how can this grid be useful?
If you're focusing on an area of practice that's on the bottom or to the right, the grid can help you realize that it's something that's hard to directly observe.
With this knowledge, you can stop yourself and say “Wait…did I actually see conclusive evidence for this
Conversely, when you know you're looking at a tight-zoom, highly visible practice, you don't have to shy away from giving immediate feedback.
And in all cases, if you want to know more than observation alone can tell you…
You can ask. You can get the teacher talking.
Conversation makes the invisible visible—and therefore, useful for growth and evaluation.
Hope this is helpful!
As you gather evidence of teacher
Make sure you're aware of the zoom level and visibility of the practice you're focusing on.
Give it a try now:
Plot a given practice on this grid—mentally—and think about
Where does it fall?
What comes up when you try to observe for or give feedback on this area of teacher practice?
|When should teachers use any given instructional practice?|
If we're going to give feedback about teachers' instructional practices, it's worth asking:
When is it appropriate to use a given practice? Under what circumstances?
I'm using “practice” to mean professional practice—as in, exercising professional judgment and skill—as well as to mean teaching technique.
So some practices are in use all the time—for example, monitoring student comprehension as you teach, or maintaining a learning-focused classroom environment.
Other practices are more specific to a particular instructional purpose.
For example, if a teacher is trying to help students think critically about a historical event, she might use higher-order questioning techniques, with plenty of wait time.
If a teacher is trying to review factual information to prepare students for a test, he might pepper them with lower-level questions, with less wait time.
If we're going to use instructional practices for the right instructional
purposes, we have to be OK with not seeing them on command.
If we insist on seeing the practices we want to see, when we want to see them…we'll get what we want.
But it won't be what we really want. It'll be what I call hoop-jumping.
Have you ever seen a dog jumping through a hoop?
My 5-year-old saw one at a high school talent show the other day, and it blew her mind.
The human holds up the hoop, and the dog knows what to do.
|(And yes, that's actually a pig in the GIF 🙂|
Cute, but a terrible metaphor for instructional leadership, right?
Teachers aren't trained animals doing tricks.
Yet too often, we treat them that way.
“Hey everyone, this week I'm going to be visiting classrooms and giving feedback on rigor. I'll be looking for higher-order questions, which—as we
learned in our last PD session—are more rigorous.”
We show up, ready to “inspect what we expect.”
Only, if we haven't thought deeply enough about what it is that we expect, or whether it's appropriate for that moment and the teacher's instructional purpose, or whether it's even observable…
Teaching is reduced to jumping through a hoop.
Dutifully, most teachers will do it.
We'll show up, and teachers will see the hoop.
They'll know they need to ask some higher-order questions while we're in the
They know what we're hoping to see, so they'll use our pet strategy (see
what I did there?).
We'll have something to write down and give feedback on, and we'll go away happy—satisfied that we've instructional-leaded* for the day.
Yet in reality, we've made things worse.
We've wasted teachers' time playing a dumb game—a game in which we pretend to give feedback, and teachers pretend to value it, and we all pretend it's beneficial for student learning.
*And no, “instructional-leaded” is not a grammatically correct term.
I really hope it doesn't catch on.
But when I see dumb practices masquerading as instructional leadership, I feel compelled to give them a conspicuously dumb label. I'm not grumpy—I'm just passionate about this 🙂
All of this foolishness is
Last week, I shared some thoughts on observability bias—the idea that instructional leaders tend to oversimplify what teachers are really doing, in
We adopt reductive definitions of teacher practice in order to make our lives easier, even if it means giving bad feedback, like “You shouldn't ask so many lower-level questions, because higher-order questions are more rigorous.”
So far, we've identified a couple of different factors to consider when
1. Zoom—is it something you can observe in a moment, or does it play out over days, weeks, or the entire year?
2. Visibility—is it an observable behavior you can see, or is it really invisible thinking and decision-making?
|We're calling ^^^ this diagram ^^^ the Evidence of Practice Grid. |
And now we can add a third factor:
3. Instructional Purpose—under what circumstances is the practice
If we ignore instructional
We'll walk into a classroom and immediately see the practice we're
focusing on—not because it fits the instructional purpose,
So if you're seeing this kind of behavior, it's worth asking yourself—whenshould teachers
what would be good evidence*** that they're using it appropriately and
***P.S. And if you're thinking “Well, I'd really have to talk with the teacher to know” then I think we're on the same page 🙂
Earlier this week, I asked for examples of oversimplified expectations——when administrators reduce teaching to whatever is easiest to observe and document…
…even if that means lower-quality instruction for students…
…and downright absurd expectations for teachers.
And wow, did people deliver. My favorite example so far:
The main push this year is “where is the teacher standing?” (with the implication that “at the front” = bad).
…teachers now lecture from the back of the room (with the projection up front), which is resulting in a diminished learning environment for the students, even while earning more “points” for the teacher from the roaming administrators.
Students have even complained that they have to turn around to even listen well…
…the teachers miss out on many interactions with the students because they can't see the students' faces and reactions to the (poor) lectures.
You can't make this stuff up!
But here's the kicker: at least this school is trying!
The administrators are getting into classrooms, and emphasizing something they think will be better for students.
That's more than most schools are doing! But we can do better.
Having clear expectations is great.
Getting into classrooms to support those expectations is great.
Giving teachers feedback on how they're doing relative to shared expectations is great.
But the “how” matters. It matters enormously.
So why are schools taking such a reductive, dumbed-down approach to shared expectations?
I have a one-word answer and explanation: data.
I blame the desire for data.
To collect data, you MUST define whatever you're measuring reductively.
If your goal is to have a rich, nuanced conversation, you don't have to resort to crude oversimplifications.
If you talk with teachers in depth about lecturing less and getting around the classroom more as you teach, the possibilities are endless.
But if your goal is to fill out a form or a spreadsheet—well, thenyou have to be reductive.
In order to produce a check mark or score from the complex realities of teaching and learning…oversimplifying is the only option.
So here's my question—and I'd love to have your thoughts on this:
What if we stopped trying to collect data?
What if we said, as a profession, that it's not our job as instructional leaders to collect data?
As a principal and teacher in Seattle Public Schools, I interacted with many university-trained researchers who visited schools to collect data.
I myself was trained in both qualitative and quantitative research methods as part of my PhD program as well as earlier graduate training.
I knew how to collect data about classroom practice…
But as a principal, I realized that I was the worst person in the worldto actually do this data collection in my school.
Why? Because of what scholars have identified as one of the biggest threats to quality data collection:
When the principal shows up, teachers behave differently.
When teachers know what the observer wants to see, the song-and-dance commences.
You want to see students talking with each other? OK, I'll have them “turn and talk” every time you walk into the room, Justin. Write that down on your little clipboard.
You don't want me to lecture from the Smartboard all day? OK, I'll stand at the back, and lecture from there, Colleague.
The late, great Rick DuFour—godfather of Professional Learning Communities—used to tell the story of how he'd prepare his students for formal observations when he was a teacher.
I'm paraphrasing, but it went something like this:
OK, kids—the principal is coming for my observation today, so whenever I ask a question, you all have to raise your hands.
If you know the answer, raise your right hand. If you don't know the answer, raise your left hand, and I won't call on you.
The principal needed “data” on whether students were engaged and understanding the lesson…so the teacher and students obliged with their song-and-dance routine.
Across our profession, in tens of thousands of schools, we're engaged in a conspiracy to manufacture data about classroom practice.
It's not a sinister conspiracy. No one is trying to do anything bad.
We're all behaving rationally and ethically:
—We've been told we need data about teacher practice
—We have a limited number of chances to collect that data from classroom visits
—Teachers know they'll be judged by the data we collect
So they show us what we want to see…
…even if it results in absurd practices like lecturing from the back of the room.
So here's my suggestion: let's stop collecting data from classroom visits.
We already get plenty of quantitative data from assessments, surveys, and other administrative sources.
We already have enough hats to wear as instructional leaders. We don't need to be clipboard-toting researchers on top of everything else.
Instead, let's focus on understanding what's happening in classrooms.
Let's gather evidence in the form of rich, descriptive notes, not oversimplified marks on a form.
Let's talk with teachers about what they're doing, and why, and how it's working.
Let's stop trying to reduce it all to a score or a check mark.
Cathy Sanford leads research and development efforts at Highlander Institute, and Shawn Rubin is the chief education officer at Highlander Institute, and he's the author, with Cathy Sanford, of Pathways to Personalization: A Framework for School Change
Our profession is facing a crisis of credibility:
We often don't know good practice when we see it.
Two observers can see the same lesson, and draw very different conclusions. Yet we mischaracterize the nature of the problem.
We think this is a problem of inter-rater reliability. We define it as a calibration issue.
But it's not.
Calibration training—getting administrators to rate the same video clip the same way—won't fix this problem. The crisis runs
See, we have an “observability bias” crisis in our profession.
I don't mean that observers are biased. I mean that we've warped our understanding of teacher
…while undervaluing and overlooking the harder-to-observe aspects of teacher practice, like exercising professional judgment.
We pay a great deal of attention to surface-level features of teaching, like whether the objective is written on the board…Yet we don't even bother to ask deeper questions, like “How is this lesson based on what the teacher discovered from students' work yesterday?”
The Danielson Framework is easily the best rubric for understanding teacher practice, because it avoids this bias toward the observable, and doesn't shy away from prioritizing hard-to-observe aspects of practice.
Charlotte Danielson writes:
“Teaching entails expertise; like other professions, professionalism in teaching requires complex decision making in conditions of uncertainty.
If one acknowledges, as one must, the cognitive nature of teaching, then conversations about teaching must be about the cognition.”
—Talk About Teaching, pp. 6-7, emphasis in original
When we forget that teaching is, fundamentally, cognition—not a song and dance at the front of the room—we can distort teaching by emphasizing the wrong “look-
It's exceptionally easy to see this problem in the case of questioning strategies, vis-à-vis Bloom's Taxonomy and Webb's Depth of Knowledge (DoK).
I like Bloom's Taxonomy and DoK. They're great ways to think about the variety of questions we're asking, and to make sure we're asking students to do the right type of intellectual work given our instructional purpose.
But the pervasive bias toward the easily observable has resulted in what we might call “Rigor for Dummies.”
Rigor for Dummies works like this:
If you're asking higher-order questions, you're providing rigorous instruction.
If you're asking factual recall or other lower-level questions, that's not rigorous.
Now, to some readers, this will sound too stupid to be true, but I promise, this is what administrators are telling teachers.
Observability bias at work. It's happening every day, all around the US: Administrators are giving teachers feedback that they need to make their questioning more “rigorous” by asking more higher-order
Never mind that neither Bloom nor Webb ever said we should avoid factual-level questions. Never mind that no rigor expert believes factual knowledge is unimportant.
We want rigor, so we ask ourselves “What does rigor look like?” Then, we come up with the most reductive, oversimplified definition of rigor, so we can assess it without ever talking to the teacher.
My friend, this will never work.
We simply cannot understand a teacher's practice without talking with the teacher. Observation alone can't give us true insight into teacher practice.
Back to Danielson: Because teaching is cognitive work.
It's not just behavior.
It can't be reduced to “look-fors” that you can assess in a drive-by observation and check off on a feedback form.
The Danielson Framework gives us another great example.
Domain 1, Component C, is “Setting Instructional Outcomes.”
(This is a teacher evaluation criterion for at least 40% of teachers in the US.)
How well a teacher sets instructional outcomes is fairly hard to assess based on a single direct observation.
Danielson describes “Proficient” practice in this area as follows:
“Most outcomes represent rigorous and important learning in the discipline and are clear, are written in the form of student learning, and suggest viable methods of assessment. Outcomes reflect several different types of learning and opportunities for coordination, and they are differentiated, in whatever way is needed, for different groups of students.” (Danielson, Framework for Teaching, 2013)
Is that a great definition? Yes!
But it's hard to observe, so we reduce it to something that's easier to document. We reduce it to “Is the learning target written on the board?”
(And if we're really serious, we might also ask that the teacher cite the standards the lesson addresses, and word the objective in student-friendly “I can…” or “We will…” language.)
Don't get me wrong—clarity is great. Letting teachers know exactly what good practice looks like is incredibly helpful—especially if they're struggling.
And for solid teachers to move from good to great, they need a clearly defined growth pathway, describing the next level of excellence.
But let's not be reductive. Let's not squeeze out all the critical cognitive aspects of teaching, just because they're harder for us to observe.
Let's embrace the fact that teaching is complex intellectual work.
Let's accept the reality that to give teachers useful feedback, we can't just observe and fill out a form.
We must have a conversation. We must listen. We must inquire about teachers' invisible thinking, not just their observable behavior.
What do you think?
Are you seeing the same reductive “observability bias” at work in instructional leadership practice?
In what areas of teacher practice? Leave a comment and let me know.
Dr. Peter DeWitt is an education consultant focusing on collaborative leadership and fostering inclusive school climates. Within North America, his work has been adopted at the university and state level, and he works with numerous districts, school boards, regional and state organizations where he trains leadership teams and coaches building leaders. He's the author of five books, including his new book Coach It Further.
Dr. Michael McDowell is Superintendent of the Ross School District outside of San Francisco, and an expert in project-based learning and professional development. He's the author of three books, including The Lead Learner: Improving Clarity, Coherence, and Capacity for All.