Learning-Driven Schools: A Practical Guide for Teachers and Principals
reviewed by Carol Ann Tomlinson - May 09, 2007
Title: Learning-Driven Schools: A Practical Guide for Teachers and Principals
Author(s): Barry Beers
Publisher: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA
ISBN: 1416603468 , Pages: 179, Year: 2006
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The field of education is defined by confounding and intractable contradictions. We know what constitutes effective classroom practice but frequently dont translate that knowledge into action. We teach novice teachers the research-theory-practice connection, but once in their own classrooms, teachers are likely to be overcome by the exigencies of dealing with complex young lives and regress to the pedagogy practiced on them when teachers dealt with their complexities. Academicians often dont speak the language of the classroom and, sensing this disconnect, teachers eschew their work as largely irrelevant. We speak of a principal as the instructional leader and more often than not watch him or her become a building manager. In education, the pieces often dont line up. Enter Barry Beers.
Beers is a bridge builder. His title is School Principalbut what he does in that role is construct bridges between what we know about learning and how teachers teach. He aligns the pieces. Learning-Driven Schools: A Practical Guide for Teachers and Principals provides a framework for other educators who share that goal.
In little more than 150 pages, Beers distills much of what we know to be best practice in teaching and in instructional leadership. His writing is clear, dense with ideas, and generous with examples. It is simple without being simplistic. He avoids jargon, getting to the essence of a principle and/or practice in a way that emphasizes their logic, common sense, and interrelatedness.
The books center of gravity is the need to ensure that classrooms focus on the learner and learning, not on the teacher and teaching. Beers first provides a very brief history of what we know about learning. Behaviorism discounts the work of the brain. Individuals learn in a social context. Different students learn differently. In order to really learn, we have to make sense of things, and that sense-making process is highly personal. It takes time. Threats, punishment, and stress deter learning. Challenge, emotional engagement, meaning, and relevance support learning.
Bridging what we know about learning and classroom practice, Beers describes what it meansand illustrates what it looks liketo plan for learning. Learner plans focus on what students will be able to do as the result of each lesson. Notes Beers, a student passes through a classroom 180 times a year and there should be a specific learning outcome for each of those encounters. Learner-doing focuses students on deep understandings related to content rather than only on absorption of information or on favored activities. It requires students to reason. Learner plans are also purposeful in attending to student engagement. Further, learning-focused classrooms employ assessment to ensure that the teacher understands the relationship of each student to learning outcomes. Beers explains that assessment only becomes formative assessment when it causes the teacher to adjust instructional plans to ensure that they are working for individual learners. As a teacher continually monitors the academic progress of each learner toward essential knowledge, understanding, and skill, differentiation is simply a logical teacher response to inevitable student differences. Assessment for learning, Beers reminds us, not only involves the teacher in reflection and planning but involves the student as well.
Teaching for learning necessitates providing an environment in which students search for meaning. Teachers in such settings check for students prior knowledge as a unit of study beginslikely discovering learning gaps for some students and early mastery for others. Teaching for learning requires student action; growing student awareness of him or herself as a learner; processing of ideas and reflection on those ideas; motivation via removal of threat, use of novelty, and positive feedback; monitoring and enlisting student emotions in learning; and teaching for memory and meaning. Teaching for learning also calls on teachers to use strategies that enhance learningfor example, effective cooperative strategies, identifying similarities and differences, interactive writing, hypothesis-testing, organizers, and non-linguistic representations of ideas.
Finally, Beers constructs a bridge between what teachers must do to create learning-centered classrooms and what principals must do to ensure that teachers develop the beliefs, attitudes, and practices necessary for learning-centered instruction. Using illustrations from his 21 years as a building principal, Beers makes it clear that he and his teachers learn together and that there is no finish line in that shared learning.
In providing learning-centered classroom observations, it is clear that Beers believes the principal becomes a teacher of teachers and must both plan for and model learner-centeredness in principal-faculty interactions. He explains that principal feedback will need to focus on what students are doing during a lessonnot what the teacher is doing. He provides a framework for analyzing approximate percentages of students who are wandering, watching, working, and learning at various points in the lessona potent and sobering lens for observation, feedback, reflection, and planning. He reminds principals that the same principles of learning that apply to students apply to teachers as well. For that reason, when planning conversations with teachers about their work, principals must take into account the teachers starting point, emotions, and motivationjust as those things are necessary in teachers planning for student work. Likewise, clear and positive feedback and opportunity for reflection should be a part of principal planning for teacher learning. Beers also advocates keeping track of recommendations made to teachers over the years so that it is possible to examine teacher growth over time in developing learning-centered classrooms.
Teacher learning also requires professional development that models what it advocates. To that end, Beers shares examples of his learner plans for a faculty meetingin the same format and with the same detail he expects of teachers. He guides teachers in using student learning data to make instructional plans at both department and individual levels. Further, he ensures that professional development is differentiated in response to the varying needs of teachers, that he models learner-centered practice, and that he helps teachers build a collaborative community that supports teacher learning.
It would be easy to criticize Learning-Driven Schools as reductionistic. For me, that is its strength. Beers has accurately distilled much of what the education profession knows about the nature of learning and practices that support it. He has, in fact, bridged the theory-research-practice gap in a highly useful way. His language makes complex ideas seem both fresh and sensible. His illustrations are clear and challenging. No teacher or principal is likely come away from the book with an illusion that what the author is advocating is easyor that it is optional if we see teaching as more than a job. As is the case with younger learners, starting with the big ideas, as this book does, supports meaning making.
To this point, my go-to book for capturing the essence of effective classroom practice with clarity and brevity has been Ron Brandts (1998) Powerful Learning. That will now be joined on my bookshelf and in my classes with Barry Beers Learning-Driven Schools.
Brandt, R. S. (1998). Powerful learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development.