Every year, millions of American students fail a class—or several. As school leaders, what can we do?
There are all kinds of sophisticated approaches we could take, but I'm convinced that the most basic approaches are the best.
If you were a basketball coach, and your team wasn't winning games, what would you focus on in practice?
Trick shots from half court? Slam dunks? No and no.
You'd focus on the fundamentals: Moving. Passing. Hitting free throws.
And yet, if we look at why students fail their classes, it often comes down to something just as fundamental that we totally ignore: organization.
Students Need Help With Organization, Just Like We Do
At The Principal Center, organization is a major component of our High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network and other productivity-focused programs for school leaders. Why not take on the same focus for students?
We all know that most kids aren't naturally organized. They struggle to keep track of their assignments, their progress, and their class materials.
Yet we see these skills as something students should just show up with, so we don't teach them. So massive numbers of students fail their courses each semester.
I'm convinced that we can do better. We can do dramatically more to help our students in this crucial area.
We can teach the fundamentals.
Mitch Weathers is the founder of Organized Binder, and someone who thinks a lot about how to set students up for success.
In fact, he's doing a webinar with The Principal Center on Wednesday, April 8 (learn more here »)
Interview with Mitch Weathers
I asked Mitch about his experience helping schools around the country put simple, powerful systems in place to get students organized, and he was kind enough to share these insights.
Justin Baeder: What's the advantage of having a school-wide approach to organization?
I will start with a quote from Doug Lemov of Teach Like a Champion:
One of the biggest ironies…is that many of the tools likely to yield the strongest classroom results remain essentially beneath the notice of our theories and theorists in education. Consider one unmistakable driver of students’ achievement: Carefully built and practiced routines…
When a staff implements a school-wide approach to organization, like Organized Binder, and everyone on staff commits to implementing that system with fidelity, it does a number of things for students and their outcomes.
First, the school-wide implementation communicates to all students there is value in the system. Hence, the system that is implemented has to be proven to work. If the system has a proven track record, and it is implemented as intended, then the expected outcomes should result.
However, what I think is likely the most significant outcome of a shared school-wide approach is reducing friction in all classrooms for students, which results in greater access to the content.
When a school adopts common approaches or procedures, “how” a class runs or functions is the same in all classrooms. For example:
- what students are expected to do at the start of class
- how they are to file assignments
- where they update their daily calendar
- what they do during transitions in class
- how the class concludes,
looks the same in all classes.
In other words, how to “be” a student looks the same in every classroom, and that frees up cognitive energy towards the content we are trying to teach.
JB: I appreciate the concept of cognitive energy, which we talk about a lot in our productivity trainings for administrators. Do teachers ever feel like this impinges on their autonomy?
What is powerful about Organized Binder is that it allows for this shared implementation without changing the way a teacher delivers or teaches content.
This is important, as most teachers are fiercely independent, and we need to honor and support that independence while maintaining common or shared procedures for the sake of students.
Think of students for whom English is a second language, or students with learning needs in mainstream or college preparatory classes.
If such students go to 5 to 7 classes each day and each of those classes begins differently, transitions differently, handles assignments and work differently, there is a significant amount of cognitive energy that is spent just navigating the day.
When we adopt school-wide classroom norms, we free up that cognitive energy to be spent on accessing and learning the content.
In addition, we boost students' confidence, as they know exactly what to do and when to do it throughout the entire school day.
JB: What are the key elements students need to keep track of, that we should be consistent about school-wide?
The key elements are:
- Their calendar
- Personal academic and/or behavioral goals
- Overall school or academic organization
JB: I know we have a lot of digital tools for addressing those issues as working adults. Do you think going 100% digital with assignments is going to be a reality in the next couple of years in most schools? How will paper play a role, if at all?
No, I do not see this shift taking place in the next few years, if ever. I see the shift to paperless assessments leading the way, chiefly standardized exams around the Common Core and NGSS.
The jury is certainly out on the effectiveness of going 100% digital, as recent research highlights that taking notes longhand is more effective for long-term retention than typing them on a laptop, to name one.
That is not to say that we should not continue to digitize our classrooms, but what I hope to see is a “blended” model taking hold, rather than a “flipped” or paperless classroom.
There are a few reasons I believe we need to keep paper in the classroom, but the most critical is that when we institute an organization system like Organized Binder it brings a tangible, tactile, hands-on aspect to student learning that students and teachers can see.
It makes explicit the daily modeling of, and therefore learning of, non-cognitive skills or executive function that students desperately need to acquire for long-term or ongoing success.
If a student can't follow along with a shared implementation of Organized Binder, it becomes apparent immediately, as if a red flag is thrown up in the classroom, allowing the teachers and others to intervene.
My fear for struggling students in a 100% digital classroom is that the issues they face in the analog (paper) classroom are still present but they are less obvious and harder to identify.
JB: Why do you think so many schools have a haphazard approach to student organization, if they even have an approach? Why are the expectations different in every class?
This is a great question. All educators agree that students need to be organized and need to develop the skills needed to get and stay organized, but we rarely explicitly teach them in class.
As Robert Belfanz said in a report he authored on getting middle school students on a college path:
…we must now teach some skills formerly learned by students on their own. All students need lessons and modeling of study and work skills like time and task management, note taking, and assignment completion strategies…
The simple answer to your question is that classroom teachers can no longer assume that students will pick up these skills as they progress through school and life.
In other words, we need to teach these non-cognitive skills as explicitly as we teach content.
However, I empathize with teachers—where do we find the time to do this, and how do we teach or model these skills in such a way that students can acquire them?
Often, it becomes a didactic model of the teacher “telling” students what to do; this approach obviously does not work.
These skills must be modeled, repeatedly, if students are to acquire them.
Herein lies one of the things I am most proud of about Organized Binder: When teachers implement the system, it gives students the daily exposure they need to develop these non-cognitive skills, while freeing them up to teach the content of their class they way the want to teach it.
All of this is happening while class time is used more effective and efficiently, students are more organized, students’ confidence and grades increase, and they create academic resources for subsequent schools years and/or college, to name a few.
JB: What changes for students when schools use a common approach?
It depends on the common approach that is adopted. What changes if a school implements Organized Binder is that students are empowered and accountable for their education in a way they have not previously experienced.
Students’ education experience becomes more subjective and less objective—meaning students are active participants in the process of forming their education.
With a common approach, students spend less energy navigating the school day, and therefore have more energy to focus on and master the content in each class.
In addition, students have the opportunity to develop the non-cognitive skills they need for immediate and ongoing academic success.
What changes for teachers is that they now receive students who know what to do when they enter the classroom. There is less time spent on keeping students on task or managing off-task behavior, and much more time spent on teaching and learning.
For the new teacher, a shared approach can offer needed support for mechanisms or routines for starting class, managing transitions, ending class, etc.
JB: What kinds of results do teachers see when they start to explicitly teach skills and expectations for staying organized?
Please visit the “news” section of our website (www.organizedbinder.com) for data and testimonials. What is always fascinating to me is to measure academic progress in subject area courses when a shared approach like Organized Binder is implemented.
Organized Binder is a classroom process that is content agnostic. That is to say, the system can be used in any subject area and just about any grade level.
However, we see significant academic achievement in subject-specific courses when this system is implemented with fidelity. It is evidence of the importance of the modeling and teaching of non-cognitive skills.
To answer your question, what teachers see is their students making academic strides that may have been previously unattainable.
Furthermore, teachers are doing so without changing what or how they teach content. When we make explicit the skills needed to achieve academically student begin to achieve.
What teachers see are students with every single assignment, handout, notes, etc. that students have created or been given for the entire school year organized into unit specific, standards aligned content packets, that they can use to study for exams as well as utilize the following year in school.
- Set quarterly academic goals that have a daily action item, to better help them understand and achieve their academic goals
- Learn the skill of time management by maintaining a daily academic calendar
- Practice thinking metacognitively each day in class and reflect on their learning from each lesson
JB: Mitch, I'm impressed with the work you're doing to help schools implement a school-wide system that sets students up for success. Are you finding that Organized Binder has an impact beyond students' middle and high school experience?
In addition to k-12 schools, Organized Binder works with universities and community colleges. One of our community colleges recently shared recommendations from the Student Success Task Force for Community Colleges in California. Their goal is to “improve basic skills education. More than 70 percent of community college students who enter the system are under prepared to do college-level work, with the majority being first generation college students, low-income and/or minority.”
It is not that these students cannot “do” the work; it is that they lack the skillset needed to accomplish the work. By collectively implementing an organizational system that makes this skillset explicit, we go along way to helping out students be successfully in the K-12 sequence and beyond.