Monday, October 21, 2013

Langer's Six Strategies of High-Performing Teachers

For last week's writing center professional development, my colleagues and I read George Hillocks' literature review on Middle and High School Composition from Smagorinsky's Research on Composition: Multiple Perspectives on Two Decades of Change. The chapter heavily concentrates on state-wide and national assessment, mostly via standardized tests, giving you an idea of what middle and high school writing education has become- an endless series of exams and rankings. Bleh!

In this chapter, Hillocks cites Langer's (2001) discussion of six strategies used by high-performing teachers. They are:
  1. applying a variety of teaching methods and approaches that "integrate the skills taught with ongoing larger curricular goals"
  2. integrating testing-based skills into the curriculum
  3. pointing out connections
  4. teaching students strategies for organizing thoughts and making tasks more manageable, focusing on the "development of meta-cognitive strategies"
  5. taking a "generative approach" that reiterates and makes connections to already-learned material, even after that unit/lesson/objective is over with
  6. creating social contexts for learning
Now, I recognize that these six strategies are all still in some ways shaped around the evaluation of teachers by their ability to get students to pass exams, which seems to be a very backwards way of educating anyone, but I still think the bigger picture, here, is an important one for educators to consider. The impact of high-performing teachers is best summarized in these lines:
English learning and high literacy (the content as well as the skills) were treated as social activity, with depth and complexity of understanding and proficiency with conversations growing out of the shared cognition that emerges from interaction with present and imagined others. (Langer, 2001)
The teachers who help their students to excel the most are those who recognize that learning and producing knowledge are social activities, built on conversation and interaction. Furthermore, Langer's findings demonstrate that learning and knowledge production are tied to an interdisciplinary approach that emphasizes connections and connect-making.

The problem is, of course, that most of what is being implemented as a result of current "education reform" steers educators away from the six strategies. We put lessons and units in boxes. We rank students by their individual accomplishments, rarely on collaborative efforts. We encourage them to succeed as individuals, and we encourage competition with peers to prove one's worth. We push for narrowly defined disciplines and sub-disciplines and call for specializations.

At the same time, we also know that beyond the microcosmic classroom, collaboration is important. Communities need people to come together, as do professions and academic disciplines. None of us can succeed on our own. We need everyone's skills pooled together. Most problem-solving in life requires integrated, interdisciplinary approaches. Communication, the very basis of our society, requires people to share information, negotiate, interact, and make connections. So why on earth aren't we teaching these skills? Why are those who do the "exception" and not the rule?

I'd argue that we've put far too much on individualism for the sake of individualism rather than pushing people to excel so that they may contribute to the whole, make things work better. That's what we have begun to teach in school- succeed at any cost, make a name for yourself, and leave the "weak" behind.

But literacy involves everyone! The United States created mass education so that Americans could be a community of knowledgeable individuals capable of making decisions that would benefit the entire community. The more individuals who are stomped down by this race to the top, the fewer people we will have to contribute to our society. This may seem like a good thing for those in power, but with time, it will break down the fibers of the community, leaving even those in power with much less power.

By returning social interaction and interdisciplinarity to education, high-performing teachers do more than just prepare students to meet standards. They tap back into this American democratic ideal of an educated mass, encouraging students to dive beneath the surface of texts and arguments and have educated conversations with peers, the stepping stones of social participation in the democratic microcosm.

The problem is that these high-performing teachers are considered extraordinary-- not the norm. So for those of us who teach or mentor pre-service teachers, the questions become:
How can we revise the standards for teaching high school writing in a way that is fruitful for all involved? How do we encourage development of educators who use socially-integrated, interdisciplinary, hybrid methods of teaching to help students achieve success on exams and, more importantly, beyond?