Incremental Improvement through Student Discourse

Over the summer I took in a rebroadcast of the Freakonomics podcast episode titled, “In Praise of Incrementalism”. The featured authors, economists, and guests of the show touted the power of incremental changes in a world where our attention is often yanked in the direction of “moonshots” and other eye-catching initiatives. The episode and its co-conspirator, “In Praise of Maintenance” resonated with me because of their relevance to my work (though my connections to the maintenance episode will need to be saved for another day!)

Incremental changes are at the heart of curriculum and instruction improvement in the Burlington Public Schools this year. All of the subject coaches have committed to centering their council work around lifting classroom discourse, using an adapted version of the table developed by Hufford-Ackles, Fuson, and Sherin (2014) to support Burlington educators exploration of student discourse in its many forms and levels.

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Burlington’s modified “Levels of Classroom Discourse” table

During our one-hour gathering with representatives from each grade level from each school we asked educators to first, independently reflect and share on Post-it Notes how “doing science” and our science curriculum as it stands supports each of the five facets of classroom discourse.

From here teachers contributed each of their stickies to five posters (one for each facet) before working collaboratively to organize the stickies into groups or patterns as they saw fit. This strategy was one we stole from John Antonetti who used a similar format to engage administrators during their own professional development around Learning Walks. After the groupings were completed teachers were given the second task of reflecting on how they and their colleagues supported their particular facet in their classroom and schools. Their groupings and strategies were ultimately shared out to the entire council.

For veteran science curriculum council members, our attention to student discourse isn’t novel or completely out of the blue. Before curriculum councils were temporarily disrupted last year our science council had explored Page Keeley’s Science Probes and the “science talk moves” necessary to effectively facilitate their use. With our science council’s ship steadied we will be honing in on the updated science curriculum we have been incrementally introducing to our K-5 educators over the past three years.

Teams of grade band teachers will meet in separate, afternoon meetings to systemically revisit our units and lessons. Teams of teachers will 1) Identify the level of classroom discourse being asked of the teacher and students and 2) consider and tweak lessons and units that are lower on the spectrum incrementally forward, preferably to levels 3 or 4 on our table.

The work won’t be worthy of click-baiting, head-turning headlines in our news outlets, but presumably the work will improve classroom discourse forward, supporting new teachers using the curriculum for the first time and veteran teachers refreshing their memory on desired lesson level outcomes and strategies to meet those expectations.

To empower our teachers with some tools and strategies they may use right away to drive their classroom discourse forward we are also providing our teachers with resources freely available online that have proven themselves in moving student discourse forward in classrooms at a wide range of grade levels. These include:

To wrap-up our time, teachers composed an exit ticket, answering two questions:

  • Which of these facets of classroom discourse do you aspire to develop this year personally or collaboratively?
  • How do you plan to develop this form of discourse and/or how can the Science Center support you in meeting your aspirations?

Our teachers responses will help inform the directions we take during our grade level curriculum council meetings later this year to move the needle forward and deepen the level of classroom discourse. Such aspirations may not sound much like a rally cry, and will not solve all of society’s ails, but it will almost certainly raise our capacity to engage our students, deepen their thinking, and improve their own capacity to communicate with each other and the world.

If you are interested in facilitating a similar conversation in your school or district, you may access a view only version of our presentation and make a copy for your own records and modifications here.

About Sean Musselman

Teacher Dad and Burlington MA Schools K-5 Science and Social Studies Curriculum Coordinator. NSTA Professional Development facilitator and author of "Think Like a Scientist: Investigating Weather and Climate" NSTA Kids ebook.
This entry was posted in Curriculum, Professional Development, Professional Reflections and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Incremental Improvement through Student Discourse

  1. Kevin Anderson says:

    Another nice resource, particularly in supporting dialogue with English Language Learners, can be found in some recent UW-Madison work:

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