I do it. We do it. You do it together. You do it alone. Those 14 words sum up the goals of an instructional method the district seeded in all of its school buildings starting with the 2006-07 school year. The goal: prepare students for the rigors of college and a competitive workforce. And it appears to be working.
“It” is Gradual Release of Responsibly (GRR), which moves classroom instruction from teacher-centered to joint responsibility between teachers and students, then ultimately to students’ independent learning.
The big-picture goal is for them to become competent, independent learners.
That is abundantly clear in math teacher Erin Ondrusek’s eighth-grade algebra I class, where desks are grouped in circles of four, known as “groupmates,” who bounce solutions off one another when they’re asked head-scratching questions.
At other times, Ondrusek asks them questions that build on previous lessons.
“It helps me to get prepared by having to work with others to complete a problem or task,” said eighth-grader Joe Slaktowski. “This will help me work with others during a job or activity in the future.”
All Learn Differently
“Who’s excited to write the quadratic equation?” Ondrusek recently asked her class. “Take 30 seconds to discuss the answer with your group.”
In that instant, gradual release is put in motion. The students are given one or two practice problems to work through with their groups. That time allows them to process the information and try using it while still having the ability to talk to others and get clarification from Ondrusek if needed.
“I encourage my students to talk to each other before asking me a question for two reasons,” she said. “For those who understand the concept, explaining it to someone else can strengthen their own understanding. And for those who need clarification, it can be helpful to discuss it with a peer.”
Gradual release recognizes different learning styles, which include listening to instructions and teaching one another as a group.
“Students really teach each other well,” Ondrusek said. “They explain their learning well. Those conversations among one another are important. It helps them stand on their own two feet. And sometimes those conversations can happen outside the classroom.”
Expectations After High School
Why are those conversations so important? Because that’s what will be expected of them in college and in the workforce, Assistant Superintendent Mark Kasmer said.
GRR, also known as scaffold instruction, uses four instructional frameworks: focus lessons, guided instruction, collaborative learning and independent learning tasks, which shepherd them to become increasingly self-directed and independent learners.
So in algebra, a focus lesson on “powers” — the number of times a certain number is multiplied by itself — would include explaining and defining the parts of a power and understanding the concept of repeated multiplication.
“Because students have already learned how to perform multiplication with positive and negative numbers, my focus lesson would include discussing how a negative sign on the base affects the value of the power and how we evaluate powers within an expression,” Ondrusek said.
Each of those frameworks digs deeper in how to do guided instruction well, Kasmer said. “It’s explicit and purposeful. The guided practice is intended to use prompts, guides and questions of what students know as opposed to having the teacher give a blanket answer, and yet students may not understand what that answer means.”
With GRR, teachers prompt the knowledge and experiences students already possess to help them solve problems on their own.
GRR in other words, shows students how to think.
“If a teacher notices a student misunderstanding or unsure about something, they guide them with their own thinking,” Kasmer said. “Our job is to prepare students for the transition to college and the workplace. Part of that is ensuring they know how to work collaboratively, how to share their information with other people and take that information and complete a task and be able to work independently on time and problem solve independently. ”
“Students can memorize the 50 states in the union,and that’s knowledge,” Kasmer said. “When they recognize a state’s region is agricultural or industrial, that’s reasoning, because that’s when they can explain how they can identify and apply that understanding.”
Working with their classmates is key to learning and problem solving, Kasmer added, skills that are in demand in college and the workplace.
“It prepares us, because in college or work we won’t have a teacher or boss who will do everything for us,” said eighth-grader Bailey Bradford. “Talking to our classmates will teach us collaboration skills, which happens frequently in work and college.”