Mike Schmoker, author of Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, spoke at Western Kentucky University's Ransdell Hall Auditorium last night and again this morning at the Carroll Knicely Conference Center on WKU's South Campus.
Schmoker outlined key ideas laid out in Focus, including his conviction that we already know what it takes to make sizable gains in student learning, and it's not technology or fancy instructional or assessment techniques. In fact, Schmoker called for a moratorium on all new educational "innovations." Instead, Schmoker argues that the key to better schools is a relentless focus on a handful of tried-and-true strategies:
- A tight, focused curriuculum, based on power standards (whittling the current curriuclum down by about 50%), and guaranteed to be delivered in every classroom, every day.
- Madeline Hunter-style lesson designs, with a clear learning target, gradual release of responsibility, and regular checks for understanding (formative assessment) that lead to immediate instructional adjustments.
- Deeply embedded, authentic literacy in every subject and grade level.
If you didn't get to hear Schmoker speak, or if you haven't read Focus, I strongly encourage you to do so. His ideas are challenging and compelling, but I recommend you keep an open mind and consider the real possibilities he describes. In the classrooms and schools Schmoker highlights in Focus, teachers and administrators are getting vivid results from this kind of devotion to the "first things."
During the question-and-answer session last night I described my own experience of hearing Schmoker speak several years ago after his book Results Now appeared, and how a room full of school administrators vigorously nodded their heads in agreement that we need to prioritize our improvement efforts - and then promptly went back to our schools and did the same things we've always done. I wondered if this wasn't because we feared a lack of support from our superintendents and state officials, and I asked Schmoker about his recommendations for the lone principal - or teacher - who wanted to put his ideas into practice.
He essentially suggested that we just do it anyway, perhaps without much fanfare, but with as much intention to focus on the essentials as we can, even if we are going it alone. As Schmoker noted, there's no major risk in teaching with power standards, for example, because the curriculum is already too big to "cover" in a year. So we make decisions about what won't get covered all the time. Using power standards just makes it a much more intentional and focused process.
I liked this idea and suggested it was a form of "guerrilla warfare," and Schmoker demurred a bit, suggesting that perhaps it was "soft guerrilla warfare." (What does it mean when I say something a little too radical for Mike Schmoker?) At any rate, I think his point is that we have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, if we can make the bold, radical, and utterly simple commitment to just focus on the essentials.