What is the 5×8 card, and how was it developed? What effect is it having on the classroom?
What does good instruction look like?
Ask principals what tools they want to help them be better instructional leaders and you will hear…if you listen empathetically…laughter. Reality for a principal presents itself as clamor and urgency, as “too much” and no time. Their relationship with teachers, as often as not, is: protect them so they can do the real work, back them up, and then time runs out. A tool? Sure, show me the tool…I can spare a minute to see if it has any value.
SERP has been advised by professional designers like Keith McDaniel that user-centered design begins with developing a detailed empathy for the user and refining that empathy with rapid prototyping and testing. Using these design techniques we concluded that principals wanted a plug-and-play tool that helped them focus on what matters in instruction in mathematics as schools shift to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). They needed minimal reading, and no transformational experiences.
We set our design specs for classroom observation tool at less than a page; it had to fit on a 5×8 card. The purpose of the tool is to help principals see good instruction, or it’s absence. The observations create evidence that is the grist for discussion with other principals and the leadership team. Later, when teachers use a parallel tool in a peer coaching system, discussions horizontally among teachers and vertically across levels could be based on evidence from the classroom about practice.
The design principles and user considerations:
Focus on student actions, not teachers
Phil Tucher, Mathematics Director of Oakland Unified School District, working with principals and deputy superintendents to whom principals report, ran into the hyper-charged anxieties related to teacher evaluation. This concern led to a careful shifting of focus from teachers to student actions. We were careful not to focus on how the teacher did or did not get the student actions to happen. By turning toward the students we aligned the process to the teachers perspective: teachers face the students; so do we.
Student actions , not student behaviors, were what we looked for.
What’s the difference? Student actions include the student as a responsible agent; the actor to whom the action belongs. Behavior is more abstract, and the intentionality is less certain. The Standards for Mathematical Practice define actions and responsibilities of students as responsible agents; they do not describe behaviors. To settle for behavior is to miss the point of the Standards.
Catalytic not comprehensive
When you start with a comprehensive framework for good instruction, and methodically “cover” all the components, you wind up with a boring, dreary document that is very difficult to comprehend. It covers, but does not reveal. It loses the very spirit of what it is trying to represent. The SERP team aimed for catalytic implements in the tool, rather than trying to be comprehensive. We tried to capture the deeper spirit of the Standards in a short list (yes, a list) of observables.
Concrete actions and observable by principals
To be plug and play, the tool had to work productively without much training and without transformational professional development. This requires a design that gets to “good enough to want to learn more” very quickly. Our learning model, therefore, was based on having principals go forth and try it in their own classrooms after an hour of introduction, which included a little video, a little inspiration, and a lot of participant discussion. After trying it, the principals came back a month later and traded experiences. Repeat. The shift in what the principal looks for in instruction happens through their own experiences in classrooms and their talk with other principals. Workshops play a small, but crucial role of motivating and facilitating the experiences.