Edthena CEO Adam Geller talked with Doug Fisher, a literacy and leadership expert, about how to get the most out of student thinking and adapt instruction if you’re distance teaching.

Watch the video above or read the transcript below. And if you’re looking for more from the expert, here are all of our interviews with Doug Fisher and blog posts about Doug’s insights into student thinking and engagement.

Getting the most out of student thinking

– Welcome to #PLtogether Lounge talks. I’m Adam Geller, founder and CEO of Edthena. Today we’re joined by Doug Fisher. He is a professor at San Diego State University who researches and writes about literacy and leadership and education. Doug, thanks so much for joining us.

– And thanks for the invitation.

– Absolutely. Well, let’s start with some good news. There’s a lot of things in the world that have got us all on edge related to the pandemic. What’s given you some energy, some excitement, some hope from something you’ve seen or heard about on the ground?

– I’m seeing amazing attendance in our synchronous lessons. We’re at 97% attendance in synchronous learning with our students in the high school. It’s amazing. It’s better than it was last year. We’re getting students to show up and they want to be connected with their peers and their teachers.

– That is fascinating. Is there a lot of districts, school leaders are struggling with student attendance? Is there a secret ingredient you can share? What’s driving that student attendance?

– We do have an attendance team, formerly the paraprofessionals who come through the attendance records. And then if kids aren’t showing up, they’re reaching out, calling, contacting families, reminding students, getting them to log back in. And so we’ve been pretty aggressive about, you gotta show up to learn. Attendance still matters in a virtual space and so our attendance is climbing and it’s really cool because we’re seeing them there. We’re also seeing more cameras on. And that comes from teachers talking from the heart, about why they wanna see those students’ faces. So sometimes we see cameras on and I like to say I teach to a lot of ceiling fans. I see a lot of different ceiling fans on but they’ve cameras are on. And when I needed to do a little check for understanding, thumbs up, thumbs down mystified, show me your card. They put it in the camera cause the camera’s on. And then every once in a while I can get them to put their face in and talk a little bit. So we’re seeing some successes, some trust being built, some increasing willingness to engage.

– I like how you mentioned the kind of deliberate approach on the part of the school. You kind of repurpose the capacity of the paraprofessionals to think about attendance in the virtual setting, but you didn’t take for granted that the students would assume that they still had to do it. It was an interesting kind of mind-shift there, like reminding them that being present and logging in was important. It’s a different positioning on that than I’ve heard versus a lot of the kind of why aren’t they here? Why aren’t they here? Well, let’s talk about what teachers are doing first and there’s been a lot of changes of course, but I guess take us through how you’re thinking about it as a teacher, but also how other teachers are thinking about adapting and instruction. What do we know about what used to work in teaching that we should think about is the stuff that does work now, and then maybe what wasn’t working in and how we should start adjusting?

– Awesome. I think one of the big differences now is we plan with synchronous and asynchronous in mind. We never did that before. It was essentially synchronous and maybe some occasional flip classroom or an occasional you’re gonna do this, practice activities that kind of thing. Now we’re being very intentional. What’s the best thing students could learn asynchronously? So my mindset there says, what is the preview or review opportunity that students could do asynchronously whenever they are ready for it? How many video reviews do they do? How much practice work do they do? And when we’re synchronous with students, can we really get them interacting, talking, making meaning of the content, collaborating, problem solving. We are seeing an increase in teacher talk originally in distance learning, and teachers are generally uncomfortable. I was, with silence in distance learning, the wait time, the thinking time, the processing time and when cameras are off and they’re not responding in the chat, what we see as we fill the space. And we have to allow some processing time to thinking time, some collaboration time, some peer interaction time. So now that shift is what kind of review or preview could I provide asynchronously? So then when I’m synchronous with my students, I can get the most thinking interaction out of them.

– I was listening to that and trying to connect it to more generalizable experience that teachers may have. So they can be in some ways convinced of that a suggestion you’re making, by the way really clever preview review. I like that kind of parallel. But I was thinking about how often times teachers don’t want more meetings, right? They’re like, “Oh, like why can’t I read the memo or read the email?” And so maybe there’s something really valuable in that instinct that we have as adults, which is like sometimes I can consume and prepare for things asynchronously, and that way, when we get together it’s really high value time. I think I’m hearing you say that you have to apply the same standard of care if you will, to how you’re planning a lesson, make sure that that time together with students is high value, create the expectation they do independent learning, but make sure that time together really is meaningful and couldn’t be replaced in any other way.

– Yes, I agree with that. And if we think about things like interactive video, where we use the systems that pause video to ask questions and there are many of them. If we can get students to engage with that kind of learning asynchronously so that when they’re with us they have background knowledge or they have vocabulary or there’s some introductory information that we’re gonna use together in this session. Having them read things is a good use of asynchronous time too, it’s not technology based. They can read things. So how do we think through the use of time, cause many teachers aren’t getting fewer minutes with their students synchronously as a result of this. Many states have reduced instructional minutes requirements because of pandemic teaching. And so how do we maximize the time? And my position is, if we can get students using academic language, interacting with each other, problem solving, it’s a good use of time. Do they still need scaffolding? Yes. Do they still need support? Yes. Do they still need some modeling? Yes. But a lot of those things can occur asynchronously or in small groups outside of the whole class lesson.

– I’ve seen kind of a summary of some of your suggestions as thinking about pandemic teaching as really including four buckets of kind of planning which was demonstration, collaboration, coaching and facilitating with the students and practice. So I feel like we were talking about maybe the practice piece a little bit, but talk to us a little bit more on that demonstration piece because you were warning against, don’t default to too much talk time for the teacher, but what kinds of demonstration are still the right kinds of demonstration for Synchronous learning?

– So there are synchronous and asynchronous demonstrations. So things like direct instruction, think alouds and think alongs, worked examples, lectures, share sessions, those kinds of experiences that provide a cognitive apprenticeship. The whole idea is I’m apprenticing the learners cognitively to more complex thinking or things than they can do on their own right now. And by and large thinking is invisible. So we have to talk about our thinking. We can demonstrate, we can show, we can think aloud. And these are short lessons. Often on video because students can go back to them over and over again. I watched a teacher do a worked example in mathematics. The entire problem had already been finished, and she thought aloud each step of what this other person had done to solve the problem. And students can watch that over and over. So when they go to practice and they get stuck, they can go back to that video and say “What did my teacher do with that step, cause I’m stuck there.” So we see students going back and forth between the practice and the demonstrations in asynchronous. And if they have that background and they have that knowledge, when they come to the synchronous session, they’re more likely to share. They’re more likely to talk. They’re more likely to type in the chat. They’re more likely to hold up their work to the camera and show what they’ve been doing.

– Well, like I said before, I really liked the preview and review. So I’m curious if you have another branding suggestion for teachers on how to talk about the thing formerly known as homework, given that everything’s at home. Is it a clever way of to think about that? Like what do we call that?

– I don’t know that if I had a clever answer about what to call it homework. I don’t hear the phrase homework said a lot because as you noted, all of the works are at home now for most of our students. But how can we get them into deliberate practice? Not just compliance, what I like to say, not just shut up sheets, not just battery operated worksheets but actually deliberately practicing something. Our students by and large say if I want to play soccer or I want to play the trumpet, I have to practice and receive instruction. But when it comes to mathematics or English, language arts, science, history, they don’t see that connection as obvious. We’ve got to figure out how to get them to engage in deliberate practice, so that the instruction has a chance of sticking. I think, piano players get both instruction and practice and they accept that I have to practice. And I don’t think we framed the homework or they had homework as practice to increase your performance just like motor things we learn, cognitive things. So I wanna reframe it as this is deliberate practice to line you up to be successful on the big event.

– Maybe in summary, you’re saying if your mindset was how do I get better compliance with completing homework? You’re probably still on the wrong track for how to design “Homework” Because you should be focused on the design and good practice opportunities for the students. Doug, we need to take a break. If you’re just joining us and wondering what we talk about next or who else I’ve talked with, head to PLtogether.org for the rest of this conversation, as well as many others. Doug, thanks so much for joining us.

– Yes, thank you.