Part 2 of our conversation with Deborah Ball, founder of TeachingWorks

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Here is the transcript.

– Hi and thanks for joining us, I’m Adam Geller, founder and CEO of Edthena, and this is another episode of the #PLtogether lounge talks. I’m joined today by Deborah Ball, she is a faculty member and the former dean at the University of Michigan School of Education. She’s also the director and founder of TeachingWorks, and another role which I know is one of her favorites, she’s also a math teacher, and teaches elementary math. Deborah thanks so much for joining us.

– I’m glad to be here Adam, thank you for inviting me.

– Absolutely; so TeachingWorks, for those that watched our last conversation together, it’s an organization focused on giving tools to teachers to really think about the process of teaching, and that’s a variety of different tools, but one of the tools that I think is really valuable, and I love talking about because of my particular work, and focus on professional learning, is the high leverage practices developed by TeachingWorks. So can you tell us, what are the high leveraged practices? Is this just yet another list of standards? Or is this something else?

– The high leverage teaching practices, which by the way are always evolving as we do our work, is an attempt to make a sensible list of the things that teachers have to do all of the time, that often we treat as somehow taken for granted that one should know how to do these things, things like learning how to elicit a child’s thinking, or have a group of children work together on a set of ideas, discuss with one another and listen to one another, how to find out more about what children do outside of school in their community, what they know, what they learn, what their community resources are, being able to explain an idea, I think these are all, I would think of them as almost bread and butter aspects of the work of teaching. Anyone who’s taught does these things all the time, and yet one doesn’t just get better at them by doing them, and I think we’ve all had experiences with teachers who’ve taught for a long time, and really don’t explain ideas very well, or aren’t very good at listening or understanding what a child is saying, or, you don’t get better at this just by experience. Certainly some people do, but we’re committed to thinking, what are these things one has to do all the time that makes such a difference for the equity of the teaching, they make such a difference for the quality of the teaching, and yet we shouldn’t leave for chance whether someone learns how to do them. They’re at a grain size that you could name them, but learning to do them involves unpacking them further. So something like leading a discussion, which is something incredibly complicated, and people do this not only as teachers but if they run an organization they have their staff come together to have a discussion, most of us have been in discussions that are in no way discussions, somebody talks the whole time and dominates, people don’t listen to one another, there’s no thread that’s going on, the facilitator inserts themselves too much. We’ve all had those experiences, and we’ve all hopefully had experiences where someone was just amazing at getting a group of people to do, and learn, and talk together. So leading a discussion, which is an important part of elementary, middle, and high school teaching is something people have to learn how to do, and so an example for TeachingWorks would be how we’ve drawn on work in the field, and our own work, to figure out what are the core things one does when one is leading a discussion, like how do you watch the topic? And how do you get people oriented to one another where they’re not just talking to the teacher? What are some of those moves that get kids talking to each other and listening? What are ways to wrap up a discussion? What are ways to insert something, to steer it in a particular way? What’s involved with recording ideas during a discussion? There’s so many things that go on, so a high leverage practice is the name of something you do all the time, and then the work we do to what Pam Grossman calls decompose that practice into parts you can actually learn. That’s what a high level practice is.

– So, take us, I guess, into this moment, which is the moment of exploring distanced teaching, and adapting everything we thought we knew, I guess, how are those high leverage practices still relevant? I think they’re still relevant, but convince somebody else, are those still relevant for what’s happening right now? Should we be pulling those up and having a discussion? And maybe take us into one as an example, you were talking about leading student discussion, I mean, I’m not trying to lead you here toward a particular answer, but how is leading student discussions something we should still be thinking about in the era of COVID-19 teaching?

– One thing to really worry about, frankly, is that on one hand some of the solutions in more distanced, if you call it distanced learning and distant teaching, might be that we’ll see fewer discussions, that people will become much more individualized learning, and I know there are people who think that’s an improvement ’cause you can design for the individual learner, but public schooling is actually about learning to live in a democratic society, and interact with people, and learn how to express your ideas, and have agency, that’s gonna be hard to do unless we continue to prioritize the importance of talking, and listening, and thinking with others. So what does that look like in synchronous or asynchronous spaces if that’s one of the contexts in which children are going to be learning? So in a synchronous discussion, some of the skills that we thought of that are part of leading a good discussion will apply. How do you orient people to listen to one another in Zoom? What are the norms for having opportunities to listen to one another? What is recording a set of ideas look like when you don’t have a white board and you’re not in a room together? How do you track the development of ideas? A lot of the same considerations come up, but they’re again almost more acute and more important to be really thinking about carefully. Something like eliciting a child’s thinking becomes just as important as ever, and maybe more so, when the child isn’t in the company of other children, doesn’t have the opportunity to hear other children in the same way that they might in class, so the skill of eliciting someone’s thinking, and really tuning into what they might be saying, and listening, and think about what that means as we deal with children with a wide range of communication skills, is this gonna make us too language dependent? Too talk dependent? How do we make sure in the remote spaces that we’re attending to how children move, and how they gesture, and how they draw, and how they use their voices? We’re gonna have to keep growing our capacity to do something that is always important, but we might have gotten inattentive to that in the face to face teaching context. Communicating with families could never have been more important, I mean, basically, everything on our list strikes me as not only still important, but likely to be something we have to continue to really develop our capacity to do it well, as we adapt it across the environments in which we’re exercising those kinds of practices.

– Something that popped into my mind as you were describing that, ’cause I think when I was thinking about this question, I was anticipating you to say, “Well, they’re still important,” but one thing that really popped into mind for me, hearing you talk about it, was so that we don’t forget that those things are important. That the idea of leading student discussion, and having it on that list, isn’t just so we can purposefully plan how we’re going to do the discussion in this virtual way, but to remember that we still need to have discussion in the first place. That even in a world without parent conferences we still need to have, and by the way parent conference is not the only mechanism to do it, but we still need to have some formal channels for building relationships with, and communicating with, parents over time. We can’t forget about those things. So I like that, it’s almost like the priority list as well as the don’t forget list in this new age.

– Communicating with families is one which I think is going to really come more and more to the floor, and it’s a travesty that it hasn’t been more in the foreground in a lot of cases, in both professional development and teacher development, because there’s so much for people to learn, but it’s so crucial right now. And just think of the range of things that across culture, across contexts, across social class, across access issues, that we need to be even more attentive to on one hand the opportunity to Zoom, or Facetime, or whatever, with a family member, is amazing, you could have a really easy conversation face to face, but it could also be very difficult. People may not want you looking at their home when you have this conversation, normally they have some control over what you’re seeing, and do you really want someone in your space? And communicating with parents for whom English isn’t their first language, and what does that mean in these environments? And a host of considerations that we always should be thinking about, about sensitivity and connection, are even more important, and at the same time there are opportunities, perhaps, for a kind of connection and communication that we don’t do enough of on an everyday basis. So I think almost any practice on that list. I mean, a pretty obvious one, explaining content, I myself have had some experiences trying to work on some mathematical idea with a child on Zoom, and it has really caused me to think as carefully as I possibly can about what it looks like to explain something that the person, a child was asking me about, when I don’t have materials right here for us, and whiteboard, certainly you can contrive all of those things, and we will get better at that, but really thinking through how I’m connecting, how I’m asking, how I’m thinking about what the child was thinking, made me even more aware about the simple teaching task of explaining an idea. I think all the practices come into sharper relief, and I think the questions about equity are always there, and those too which I have mentioned a few times now are even more prominently displayed, how deeply inequitable so many of our normalized practices are, and how much in order to be really connecting with children in their context is gonna require us to be much more constantly aware of all the deep rifts in our society that are unequal, and how to cross over those, connect, bridge, and really dismantle some of those systems that have pervaded our school systems.

– As we think about this challenge of adapting, and sometimes that includes being on video, in addition to being a math educator, another area of focus for you is the use of video to drive reflective practice for teachers, so how can recorded artifacts play a part in what’s happening right now? And what’s the importance of thinking through that as we do all this adapting?

– It’s interesting that you’re saying that because the platforms that many people are using to do their teaching, and there are multiple versions of this, most of those record automatically, or can, so the opportunity to on a routine basis look back on how a class went by looking to see, or an interaction with an individual child, or with a parent, very likely one would often have artifacts from that that one doesn’t normally have, and so the opportunity for developing the skill of how one learns from recordings of oneself, is really accentuated right now, and of course many people have learned to do that, but there’s still a kind of hesitance often on the part of teachers to look at themselves on video and such, but this might be a moment where in the privacy of one’s own home, learning to see the value of watching oneself, to see how one looks, how one talks, how one sounds, and to scrutinize that might allow people to see the value under any circumstances of looking at recorded artifacts. I imagine also that teachers could be supported to be exchanging artifacts, or to give one another access to things that they’ve tried in ways that might be quite easy to do right now as we settle in to realizing the platforms on which we’re working. So I think there might be real promise for extending professional interests, skill, disposition to use recorded not only video but certainly video recorded artifacts that might be really important for leveraging improvement and teaching practice.

– I think that question as well is how I asked the prior questions, I really oriented it around the unit of and the ownership that the teacher could take, and obviously the teacher does own those individual interactions with the students, but maybe let’s step back here for just one second and think about those folks who are in the role to support the teachers, the instructional coaches, the school leaders, the system leaders who are designing a variety of different plans and supports right now for students and teachers, you talked about the opportunity to work on sharing those artifacts, I mean, what would you say to a school leader, or someone whose in a role where they’re designing that professional learning right now?

– I think there’s probably big risks here, I don’t think that as teachers are learning they’re gonna want to have the sense that people are watching videos of themselves. I’m wondering what kinds of support for things like video clubs, which Marian Sharon, and other people have developed, for supporting teachers to have opportunities to show one another things they’ve tried to do. How they’re managing particular challenges of this very strange set of connections. How they’re thinking about some of the questions of communicating to the variety of children. It seems like school district leaders and coaches could be thinking of how to set teachers up and encourage this kind of work, both individually and with partners, and we know quite a bit about that, so it’s a question of prioritizing that as an opportunity for professional learning. I think that also recognizing that while we’re talking a great deal about making sure that teachers and children have access, and tools, and a lot of work has gone on very rapidly to try to distribute and make available internet access, and devices, and the like, that’s, really only gets us back to where we normally are, which is that people have stuff. But the problems of really disrupting inequity will only be magnified, and they won’t be solved just by getting everybody access. Certainly they’ll be worse if we don’t give everyone access, but at the point that everyone has access, teachers, and children, and families, that’s when we have actually new work to do about how do we really bridge the things that have continued to create inequities, and I think that’s a place where school district leaders could notice that their work isn’t done just because they’ve done the hard work of making sure that all children had Chromebooks, or whatever it is they did, which many districts did just amazing and rapid work to get that done. But this could be a moment for really prioritizing careful thought about justice, about how teaching can be a force for that, and how we can use this time to begin to think differently about both what we’re teaching and how we’re relating to children. One thing that worries me a lot is that the panic over lost time in the curriculum is leading, at least in the initial period, people to stuff all the conventional curriculum online, and I really think we have an opportunity here to think again about what is it that’s important for children to be doing? What is it we don’t wanna let go of? What do we wanna be careful not to be replicating? What are the things we might do that would only exacerbate inequality? I think they’re just opportunities for leaders to guide people to take the opportunity to rethink how we’re thinking about school, how we’re thinking about relations to the home, how we’re thinking about what’s important to learn. Is it really important that every child complete every last standard that was in their grade level? What will happen if they don’t? Nothing that terrible, but we’re almost afraid to think about that. Whereas there are things kids could begin exploring and imagining that we ordinarily don’t give them any space for. So I hope that school leaders will see the opportunities to do some rethinking, and not just reproducing the same problems that we always have but doing it online.

– Yeah, yeah, I’ve been thinking about that as well, that question of just like in our personal lives we’ve been having to evaluate, what is really important? Maybe this is an opportunity to do that within our curriculum, and maybe that’s something we can explore again, or explore further together, because this is a lounge talk, so we wanna keep it short, so I might cut us there, but I will say we’ll definitely invite you back, Deborah Ball, thank you so much for joining us and participating and supporting these efforts to get these kind of ideas out there during this time of great change, and as you framed it, great opportunity for rethinking what we’re doing to support children and teachers.

– Thank you so much for doing this, Adam, I think it’ll be great for people, it’s another way of us all connecting with one another, so thank you very much, I’m honored to be involved with it, thanks.

– My pleasure, all right, well, look forward to talking to you soon.

– Take care Adam.

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