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When Teachers Go on Autopilot: How to Recharge the Fundamentals of Instruction

By Dave Stuart Jr.

[If you are reading this on the blog, ignore the attribution above — I (Dave) can’t seem to get it to leave. This is, in fact, by none other than Gerard Dawson!]

Note from Dave: Gerard Dawson does good work, and I respect the fact that he seems to rightly prioritize his work: husband, father, teacher, writer. In that lattermost area, I have a lot of respect for what Gerard has been doing recently, consistently publishing helpful, actionable, thought-provoking articles based on what he’s learning in his teaching practice. Without further ado, here’s Gerard’s post on what we can do during those “autopilot” seasons we all go through.

As new teachers, we are desperate to make things work. We spend hours planning, believing that the right activity will engage everyone. We want to speed up time and gain the experience that we see in other teachers. We learn that teaching can be overwhelming. Then, as Dave says, we learn that there are no silver bullets.

Eventually, though, we make progress. We relax in front of the students. Our teaching persona begins to match our actual persona. We find a rhythm of planning, teaching, grading, and interacting with students and colleagues. And one day, we sit at our desks after the last bell, and a thought enters our minds…

I got this.

Of course, it’s important to celebrate our successes. But if we let this feeling linger, it can be dangerous for our careers and our students’ learning. The danger is that we begin to do what we do without intention or reflection.

When our moods, the day of the week, or other whims steer our teaching, we might be teaching on autopilot.

When we teach on autopilot, we may notice the following:

  • Our expectations for student behavior relax
  • The quality of our planning diminishes
  • We waste time in the classroom and during preps
  • Our patience with students and colleagues thins

And the area that is most affected is our actual delivery of instruction.

In Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility, Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey outline the “gradual release” model. This is a foundational part of teaching. It also requires intention and planning to do well. So, this aspect of our teaching is prone to suffering when we go on autopilot.

Below, we’ll examine the gradual release model, discuss pitfalls at each stage, and describe ways to teach with more purpose. Ready?

I do (modeling & direction instruction)

This is the stage of instruction commonly referred to as “teaching.” It’s also the part that is demonized (“Death to the lecture!”) and misunderstood. This is lecture, modeling, think alouds and other forms of direct instruction.

Signs we’re on autopilot

Instead of teaching, we read the instructions. This is not modeling. The purpose of this stage is to show students the thinking that often appears invisible. Kids often think that other, smarter kids and adults simply “get” the right answers. We need to show them the specific mental steps that we follow when solving problems.

Students are bored during our modeling. This might happen when we are too monotonous or we go on for too long. If our modeling is on minute 14 or 15, the learning graph will show diminishing returns.

We don’t think aloud. For example, when writing in front of students, I stop explaining my compositional decisions. A similar situation might happen with a math teacher solving a problem on the board without narrating the steps.

How can we recharge the I do part of our teaching?

Set a timer. Better yet, ask a student to set a timer for your modeling of a skill or process. This will encourage you to cut out rambling and asides. You can always decide later to take extra time to conclude.

Practice. I often practice read alouds, even in my head (does that make any sense?), and it produces better results than trying it cold.

Choose less. Think you’re going to model four math problems or write two full paragraphs? Cut it in half. It is the clarity and precision of modeling that makes the difference, not the quantity.

From Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey:

“When learners have a skill or strategy modeled, and not just merely told, they gain a deeper understanding of when to apply it, what to watch out for, and how to analyze their success. This is consistent with four dimensions of learning: declarative (What is it?), procedural (How do I use it?), conditional (When and where do I use it?), and reflective (How do I know I used it correctly?).”

If we can get kids to start asking themselves more of those questions during our focus lessons, we’re on the right track.

We do (guided instruction)

This dynamic stage of instruction contains many learning opportunities: teacher-to-student, student-to-teacher, and student-to-student.

During guided instruction, the teacher meets with small groups to assess and instruct based on specific needs.

Signs we’re on autopilot

We skip guided instruction. Often, teachers model or read instructions, then send students off to work. This is a lost opportunity. Guided instruction allows the teacher to meet the needs of individual learners in small groups, and allows students to learn through conversation and interaction with each other.

We dominate the conversation. When guided instruction takes the form of small group meetings, it is important to let the students show their needs through posing their questions and challenges. While it’s good practice to have specific questions and objectives ready, allowing students to bring their own challenges, realizations, and questions to the small group conference is a great opportunity for assessment.

How can we recharge the we do portion of our teaching?

Guided instruction is a complex part of teaching because there are so many variables at play. Here are some ideas for how we can refresh this aspect of teaching or begin using it in the first place.

Identify student leaders.  In this case, “leader” is defined as a student who is successful with a certain skill or concept. Meet with one of these student leaders and two or three others. Ask the student to explain her thinking process about information or a skill. Other students can take notes and then paraphrase her message. This new voice can help to clarify misconceptions for the group.

Build on the positive. For example, I may identify a student who is making good observations in a reading lesson. I’ll call over that student, compliment them on their work, and then push them to go even deeper in the same area. This builds a positive attitude about these meetings so that I can later push them into other areas of thinking where they may not be as strong.

Look for patterns. If several students make the same mistake, I know the topic of my next think aloud or focus lesson. Don’t rush to meet with every student. Instead, count each meeting as a check up for the individual students and the whole class.

From Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey:

“Guided instruction necessitates the use of small groups. This is time during the day when three to six students meet for teacher-guided instruction. The guiding occurs through cueing, prompting, scaffolding, and questioning. Meanwhile, the other students are engaged in collaborative learning. This guided instruction time is so valuable because it’s your opportunity as a teacher to explore just what each student knows and doesn’t know at that moment in time.”

You do it together (group work)

Ahh, group work. An educational cure-all to some teachers and the bane of existence to others. For the teacher on autopilot, it can be a source of frustration.

Signs we’re on autopilot

The group work task is not a group work task. Some intellectual tasks are better left to the individual. In general, students prefer a round of thinking about any text or task before they get into groups. I’ve often made the mistake of saying, “With a group of three, brainstorm five ways to begin your paper.” Instead of, “List as many introduction styles as you can think of in two minutes, then share your lists.” Creation from scratch in a group is glacial. Sharing original thinking in a group is dynamic.

It’s conducive to shirking or dominating. Earlier this year, students examined and performed passages from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Certain roles were more demanding, so students did different amounts of work. I realized this after it was too late.

We don’t model social interactions or processes. We assume that our directions are clear or that students can make decisions and solve problems. See the first item in the next section for a solution to this problem.

How do we recharge group work?

Model success. This felt awkward in my first few years of teaching; however, it is an essential part for student success. Never assume that students understand how to interact with each other. The other day I asked students to use statistics from the Harper’s Index to create an argument. My instructions for sharing these facts and arguments went something like this:

Share your statistic and argument with your group. Group, as you listen, consider how others might respond. So for example, if Jacob, Phoebe, and I are in a group, I will read my statistic and argument: “In a recent study, college students were given a dose of caffeine equal to 300 cups of coffee. I argue that medical research conducted with college students needs more oversight.” Phoebe will listen to this, and then she might say something like: “While you are right that we want to protect people, Mr. Dawson, I would argue that more restrictions on medical research will lead to fewer studies conducted and fewer people helped by medical research.”  Jacob will then offer his response to my argument as well. We will then repeat the process with Phoebe and Jacob’s arguments.

These hypothetical conversations can make all the difference in group work.

Differentiate tasks within the group. For any classrooms where students will read an informational text (ahem, every class), reciprocal teaching provides an example of why this is effective. In reciprocal teaching, students read an informational text and stop to discuss it along the way. At each stopping point, one student summarizes the text, one student questions the text, one student clarifies parts of the text and another student predicts how the text will unfold. If this is modeled and planned well, it provides a group work situation where each student contributes something of his/her own to the discussion and students have positive interdependence as they complete the task.

There’s an important distinction made by Fisher and Frey in regards to collaborative learning, and it invokes a powerful reflection question for us: are we teaching students or managing them?

From Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility:

“Showing a film in class is nearly always done with the whole class, while the teacher spends the time hushing students, redirecting their attention to the screen, and otherwise monitoring their behavior. This isn’t teaching; it’s managing. Your expertise is not being used. Instead, you are acting much like a movie theater usher. This is an activity that can be reconceived as a collaborative learning activity such as a listening and viewing station.”

If we take nothing else away from this section, we should notice when we are managing instead of teaching and seek to revise those elements of our instruction.

You do it alone (independent learning)

Even the description of this stage reveals the challenges that teachers face with this aspect of instruction. It is difficult to design activities for a class of students that allow them to push themselves enough to learn independently without the task being too easy or too difficult. Of course, this is why we are in the room. Some problems that happen with independent learning:

Signs we’re on autopilot

Students finish the task too quickly. If we haven’t thought ahead, we are likely to plan a task but not provide instructions for the steps student should take when they finish before their peers. This is a recipe for student disruptions and teacher frustrations.

Students don’t know the purpose of the activity. Students can smell a time waster or space filler from a mile away. Without detailing our objective or the larger purpose of a task, students may disengage.

Students are lost. When I say, “Ok, let’s get started,” and students stare at me and ask their classmates for help, it’s my fault.

How can we recharge independent learning?

Confer. Independent learning allows for the most powerful mode of instruction: the 1:1 conference. When teachers and students set goals during conferences, the conferences become a motivating force.

Use pause and process. As Jane Pollock describes in her book Feedback: The Hinge that Joins Teaching and Learning, the turn and talk technique can help students process their learning. Additionally, it provides formative assessment data to teachers. As students work independently, interrupt them to turn and explain their progress to their classmates. Listen and then share what you’ve heard.

From Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility:

“All learning is essentially independent learning. That is not to say that teachers don’t play a profound role in students’ learning. It just means that we must ultimately ensure that students take responsibility for their learning. We can do this through the materials we provide, the supports and scaffolds we offer, and the feedback we communicate to our students.”

Mastery only happens on purpose

In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink says that the modern employee requires autonomy, mastery, and purpose to thrive. More than showing up to collect a paycheck and benefits, we need a deeper experience to be fulfilled at work.

There is purpose built into our job, and it is easy to remember that when the kids arrive each morning.

Despite the top-down mandates, we have autonomy in our teaching, too.

But the mastery is only there if we seek it. Showing up is important, but our presence alone doesn’t cause the improvements that lead to teacher satisfaction and student learning. For that mastery to happen, we must plan, teach, reflect, learn, and repeat, over and over.

If we seek to improve the nuances of our teaching, we can live a more fulfilling life as educators and offer our students the educations they deserve.

Gerard Dawson teaches English and journalism to high school students in New Jersey. Get more on how to “hack” literacy instruction at www.GerardDawson.org.

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2 Responses to When Teachers Go on Autopilot: How to Recharge the Fundamentals of Instruction

  1. Jennifer Lynn Ringo April 1, 2017 at 10:41 am #

    A great reminder this time of the year when we are entrenched in Testing Season. Thank you!

    • Gerard Dawson April 1, 2017 at 5:24 pm #

      Yes, the oncoming testing season was definitely the impetus for this post, Jennifer. It’s so easy to get side-tracked at this time of year and so important to stay focused on the important things. Thanks for reading!

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