S2 E2 - How do we know if our whole school approach has gone too far?

4 Women Chatting in Cafe

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Hello and welcome to the Structured Literacy Podcast. I'm your host, Jocelyn Seamer, and I'd like to welcome you to this episode. Before we get started, I'd like to pay my respects to the Palawa people of Tasmania, on whose lands this podcast is recorded, and invite you to take a moment to acknowledge the traditional peoples on whose lands you are currently standing.

Here on the Structured Literacy Podcast, we address all issues related to implementing, running, and sustaining a structured, explicit approach to teaching students to read and write. In this episode, I'd like to have a chat about how we know a whole school approach has gone that little bit too far.

Today's Topic.
The phrase 'whole school approach' is one that we hear a lot. It brings up visions of consistency, equity, ease of teaching, and a positive impact on student outcomes. As a school leader, I wanted my team all on the same page, rowing in the same direction and singing from the same hymn book. Another way to put this is that I wanted us to have a common understanding of the why and the what of instruction, common ways of working that brought consistency for students and for us to be speaking a common language about teaching and learning.

This idea of a whole-school approach is one that has really grown legs over the past few years, with more and more people recognizing the benefits of consistency for students and teachers alike. This very often involves purchasing a program or adopting a common approach to planning, teaching, and assessment.

From the title of this episode, you'd be forgiven for thinking that I wasn't a fan of whole-school approaches, but that really couldn't be further from the truth. Whether your school has two teachers or 200, consistency is key, and it's a huge factor in creating equitable, sustainable classroom practices for students.

What my parent hat has to say.
In a past career, we had a saying, "Consistency creates credibility". I can wear three hats here: my parent hat, my student advocate hat, and my school leader hat. As a parent, I want to know that, regardless of the classroom my child steps into, they will receive the same high-quality instruction. If you are a parent, and I know that many listeners are, think about that anxiety we have every year about who our child's teacher's going to be. What if we could eliminate that for our parents and our school community? What if we could, hand on heart, honestly promise that it doesn't matter which teacher students have? They'll receive nothing but the best instruction for maximum student outcomes.

What my student advocate hat has to say.
As a student advocate, I have similar concerns. You see, despite not being full-time in schools anymore, I still tutor, and I take this responsibility very seriously. Some students are with me for a short time to get them on their way, and others are longer term. But regardless of how long I work with students, I'm always frustrated when I do their initial assessment. Not with the students, but with the circumstances that led to them getting to me in years 3, 4, 5, 6, or even beyond, and are reading at a Foundation or Year One level. It's not unusual for me to work with students for six months to a year, seeing them make excellent progress and then having the same anxiety for the student as the parent does when it comes time for the new school year and a new classroom teacher.

What my school leader hat has to say.
Lastly, there's my school leader perspective on whole school approaches. In addition to the equity issues that I've discussed, having a whole school approach means that we can build collective efficacy. Collective understandings, language, and approaches to instruction mean that we have collective ways to track growth, celebrate success, and address struggle. We can induct new staff efficiently and get them up to speed with strong practice as soon as possible when they join us. And we also have ways to hold people accountable when that's necessary. Finally, we have a clear picture of how to help our team build capacity and grow in their practice.

When it goes too far.
So overall, a whole school approach ticks lots of boxes, but is it possible to have too much of a good thing? I think that the answer to this is, 'yes'. Any strength overused becomes a weakness. If you have a good sense of humour that's overused, you run the risk of looking like a buffoon. A direct approach that is great in helping everyone know what to expect can come across as unfeeling and rude if it's your dominant communication style. The same goes for whole school approaches. The very thing that creates all that consistency and certainty can stifle and demotivate teachers if overused.

I was recently speaking with a teacher who's working in a school where this is the case. Every single thing that this teacher is expected to teach across the curriculum comes from a script of some sort. Now, don't get me wrong, I think that a little script to help us learn common ways to explain concepts and keep students focused is terrific. But when every single aspect of your teaching life is scripted and provided for you to just implement, I think that this is taking things a bit too far. This teacher wasn't complaining about being asked to adopt a common approach with her colleagues. She wasn't saying that she wanted nothing scripted at all. What she was saying was that she wanted to still feel like a teacher who could use her judgment to help her students get the best outcomes. The whole situation left her asking herself, "Where am I in this whole thing?", and "Who am I as a teacher if I just stand here all day reading from pieces of paper and off screens?" She felt like anyone could just have walked in off the street and delivered these lessons. Was she really teaching if she was just reading a script?

Part of the issue I see when working with schools around how to give teachers the room to be themselves and respond to students while maintaining a whole school approach is that things get a bit fuzzy when it comes to the details of when to do what and who gets to decide things. So, I'm sharing some thoughts today in the podcast to help you bring clarity and certainty to your school to strike the balance between bureaucratic insistence on policy for the sake of it and a free-for-all that leaves everyone fending for themselves.

The 3 R's - No. 1
I have three Rs when it comes to maintaining a healthy whole-school approach to instruction, and those three Rs are resourcing routines and responses. Resourcing is pretty obvious. All teachers have access to the same resources, and each classroom is set up in the same way so that students and teachers all know what's going to happen. This means that anyone can jump in and cover a lesson if needed with a reasonable expectation of being successful.

The 3 R's - No. 2
The first R is very closely linked to the next one; routines. Not only do we need to have the same things, but we need to use them in the same way and in the same order. For example, if you are using our phonics and decoding resource reading success in action, I ask that you display the A3 lesson outline on the board, moving a magnet or marker along the steps throughout the lesson. I ask that you have your resources, your grapheme and word cards organized and ready to go each lesson. I ask that you teach the steps of the lesson in the order that they're written in that you use the direct, straight-to-the-point approach that I show you.

The 3 R's - No. 3
But there are going to be times when things need to be adjusted to suit the needs of the students, and this is where the third R comes in; response. A program or approach that leaves no room for response to student needs is not serving teachers or students. I see this when each teacher is expected to be teaching the same grapheme on the same day all year. This just doesn't make sense to me. After all, the needs of the students in the various classes will be different.

Some students will need more or fewer repetitions to learn the phoneme-grapheme correspondences. Others will have differing needs for how long they spend consolidating phonemic blending of words with three phonemes before moving on to four. One class might have had a major disruption, such as a critical incident that interrupted learning, or several absences due to illness. All of these situations mean that the classroom teacher is going to need to make some adjustments to pace and complexity of instruction.

Gaps in student data and knowledge.
If the teachers are required to teach the same graphemes and move through the scope and sequence at the same pace as their colleagues who are teaching in the same grade, and their students need more consolidation time but don't get it. The inevitable situation will be that data looks like Swiss cheese, and students will reach the next grade with serious gaps in their knowledge.

However, if the school has a common approach to formative assessment with tools that enable teachers to monitor student learning weekly or fortnightly, they can then make quality instructional decisions without deviating from the core of the teaching approach. The response aspect of the three Rs is the most important and also the hardest to get right. It's the most important because if we aren't paying attention to student learning and adjusting to the feedback that is the formative assessment data, we aren't going to get the results that we are looking for, particularly in phonics.

Phonics must be learned cumulatively, with mastery reached at each step before moving on. It is for this reason that you will never see me providing a scope and sequence that sets out all that you are to teach each term and each week.

The pace of instruction must respond to the needs of students, and teachers need space to engage in responsive practice. This doesn't mean we don't have expected milestones. It doesn't mean that we're not setting goals for our students, but that we are giving ourselves the space and the time to be who we need to be for our kids.

What about other subjects?
In other subject areas, such as science, being handed a unit outline that's incredibly tight on timeframes and requires all learning to be completed in particular weeks is similarly constraining. We simply don't know how much time we're going to need to spend helping students develop concepts until we get into the classroom and have a good look at what they do and do not know. We don't know if a week is going to be long enough for students to develop a solid understanding of concepts and vocabulary. We also don't know if there's going to be an area of knowledge or skill building that students have really responded to well, and you'd like to spend a bit more time on for extra strong student engagement. We simply don't know what's going to happen, so it's a good idea to cover a little bit less content and leave a little more room for responsive teaching. An experienced teacher once said to me that a teacher's program is like a holiday itinerary. It sets out the major points to be covered but leaves room for necessary and interesting side trips.

What is and isn't negotiable? - Phonics.
To get the three R's right. It's a great help to have a document that lays out exactly what is and isn't negotiable in instruction in your school. When it comes to phonics, I would say that resources and routines aren't negotiable. That the assessment aspect of response isn't negotiable, but that the pace of instruction, as in when you move on to new content complexity of instruction, is negotiable depending on what is found in formative assessment. For example, the teacher might determine that students need another couple of days to consolidate a few that haven't quite stuck yet, or that they will increase the number of words in each lesson for spelling to six words because the students are zipping through four. They might decide that they will include four single-syllable words and two multi-syllable words because that best serves the students in front of them. Whereas another teacher might have four multi-syllable words and two single-syllable words in response to the needs of their students. Both teachers are following the core of the school's whole-school approach, and both are responding to student need.

What is and isn't negotiable? - Morphology.
When it comes to morphology instruction in the upper primary, schools using the morphology resources in The Resource Room have the same sorts of guidelines to offer teachers. The units are taught across four days, with the lesson components all being delivered. However, individual teachers might spend more or less time on different aspects of the lesson depending on the students. I've been in the situation where I've modelled the same Latin base introduction lesson three times in a row in the same school, and the leader commented that I'd taught the lesson three slightly different ways. That was true. While I had followed the exact same steps and used the exact same materials in all three lessons, I'd read the room each time I entered the classroom and adjusted support and pace to suit the students in front of me. I had the security of the lesson guidelines, but was also able to use my teaching skills to respond appropriately to student need.

Who gets to make decisions?
The last part of this puzzle is about who gets to make decisions when resourcing and routines need to change, because this does happen. Sometimes we take on an approach or resource expecting that it's going to meet our needs, but we find that there are aspects of these that just aren't getting it done. For example, when it comes to text-based units, many people tell me that the units they're being asked to work with are just too long and too involved. So what do we do? There's no way that teachers are going to be able to fit everything in without stressing themselves and their students out. The answer is in the collective. If you want to change something about the resources you are using, rather than having every teacher adjust in the way that suits them, work collaboratively to decide on the changes that will help your students better access the desired learning. After all, more heads are better than one, but this needs to be done under the guidance of someone knowledgeable who can identify when changes will detract from the effectiveness of the chosen resource and when they won't.

Let's recap.
This has been a little bit of a longer episode, so let me recap and share a simple action that you can take away with you. Whole-school approaches are a terrific way to develop credibility with our school community and maximize student outcomes. However, if over used, they can leave teachers frustrated and overly constrained.

There are three R's to healthy whole school approaches; resources, routines, and responses. Responses is the most critical and the hardest to get right at the whole school level, and this brings us to our action from today's episode. To make the three R successful, create a document that clearly informs your team about what aspects of instruction are and are not negotiable. Pop your details in below and we'll send you the editable template. 

I hope that this episode has given you some food for thought about how to maintain the balance of rigour and wriggle room that will ensure that your whole school approach is serving both your students and staff for years to come.

That's all for me for now, but before you go, could you do me a favour? If you are finding the Structured Literacy podcast useful, I'd love it if you could rate, subscribe and share with others. Together, we can achieve marvellous things in education. Take care. Bye. 

Looking for support to get your resourcing and routines in alignment?  Join the Resource Room today. 


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