There aren’t enough hours in the day for educators to teach everything we’re asking of them, let alone constructively criticize peers to improve how we teach young people.
That’s the abbreviated, cliff notes version of education guru Robert Marzano’s theory on how we can improve K-12 education. Marzano, an author, trainer and CEO of Marzano Research, has spent the past 40 years boiling down research on education into usable chunks for educators. Marzano spoke recently to the staff at Forest Hills Public Schools during a professional development event.
Those using his system note it starts with the general and bores down into very specific strategies for what works in the classroom, and what doesn’t. For Marzano, the key to successful learning seems to be near constant evaluation of how teachers teach and learners learn. Even with the Common Core curriculum, Marzano says we’re asking teachers to teach way too much content to do it effectively.
“That’s our number one problem with K-12 education,” Marzano told teachers. “We hand teachers this curriculum that they just can’t get through. When you try to do that much, you’re just not doing anything well.”
We need to collectively agree to boil down the most important elements of subjects and focus on teaching those things well said Marzano, adding that a rigorous curriculum is great, but the way to get there is to “pick a few essentials and go in very deep.”
Another must on Marzano’s list is evaluating what’s working for teachers and students. He said we need constructive criticism of teachers in an educational culture that shuns negative feedback. We need to find a way to celebrate success, and not fear constructive criticism.
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Gail Sutton, a teacher of 39 years who teaches at Forest Hills Central High School, said she feels improvement in her skills after using Marzano’s system for about three years. She said the key has been supportive administrators who have effectively communicated to staff that along with high expectations, they know there’s bound to be hiccups implementing any new system.
“I am retiring at the end of this year after 39 years of teaching so you name it I’ve been through the program and I like Marzano because he is just so specific in the different domains,” Sutton said. “Even with this being my last year, I think last year was probably my best year for my methodologies and I feel like this year I’m even better.
“He really gets you to evaluate what you are doing,” Sutton added. “In a nutshell, he’s different from all the other types of programs because he takes the focus off the teacher doing everything right on to whether students are learning.”
Sutton likes Marzano’s characterization of effective teaching as both a science and an art. Marzano concedes there is such a thing as a “talent for teaching” but that talent merely gives you a good head start and nothing more.
“Under the old evaluation system, every time I went in they said you’re a master teacher, you’re doing everything right and that’s it,” Sutton said. “That’s not good. You may be a master teacher but you can still get better. It’s similar to what we ask our high-achieving students who get their A’s. Are they really learning everything they can and becoming even better?”
Marzano also believes teachers need time to explore what really drives students, relating a story about his “gear-head” son whose interest in cars led his educators to discourage him seeking a college education. A couple of years later, he saw the movie “Top Gun,” fell in love with aviation, earned his college degree, and now serves as the second in command on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier.
“All that knowledge he didn’t have before, he got because he wanted it,” Marzano said of his son. “Once he had something he was shooting for, everything else came along.”
Marzano also believes even the youngest students should be included in setting their own education goals. That’s something Kim Fowler, a kindergarten teacher at Thornapple Elementary School, conceded she was surprised to find works.
“I feel that my students are better able to articulate how they are doing as they work to master learning targets and achieve goals,” said Fowler who’s taught kindergarten for 18 years. “They seem to feel empowered.”