As educators, structure runs in our blood. And even for the most “go with the flow” types, who may not want to admit it, having structural flow in the classroom is essential. And by structural flow, I am referring to having a routine or schedule of sorts within our lessons. For example, maybe you have designated specific days to review specific skills, such as Grammar Thursday’s, Multiplication Monday’s (elementary school teachers, I am looking at you). Maybe you consistently administer projects or assessments at the end of the unit. Maybe your routine is introducing background information via a slide presentation before teaching new content or skills. For me, I prescribed the I do, We do, You do framework. Little did I know that this routine was stifling in many ways.
Students like routines. And to a certain extent, they need it. It provides them with a sense of order, predictability, and a solid foundation for learning. Within the classroom, structure helps establish expectations and a comfortable environment that fosters productivity and focus. Undoubtedly, all of these are important.
As educators, we, too, find comfort and practicality in structure. It serves as a reliable framework that keeps us organized, focused, and ensures smooth classroom management. Knowing what we need to accomplish and when we need to do it allows us to plan effectively, allocate resources efficiently, and create a sense of stability in our professional and personal lives.
Yet, while structure is beneficial and a needed commodity in many ways, it is also responsible for the challenges we face in creating a responsive classroom that truly caters to our students needs and their wants.
Think of it this way. Ever fall into the routine of eating the same thing for dinner? Over time, we lose interest in the meal. We swear that we will change it up, but having to find a new recipe or go to the store to buy the ingredients, or even just think about having to cook something new, seems like too much effort and stress. So we keep eating the same old thing for dinner because it is easy and fits neatly into our lives.
Now, although it may be a lighthearted (yet relatable) illustration, the identical principle applies to our teaching. We stick to the same flow because it is comfortable for us, it keeps us on our curriculum schedule, our students are accustomed to it, it fits our teaching personalities and traditional teaching norms.
Let me be clear. I am not suggesting we do away with routines. We need those. What I am suggesting is that we build more responsive and adaptable routines and then emphasize the solid expectations around them that keep student behaviors and disruptions at bay.
So, how do we shake it up? How do we move away from traditional classroom routines and move into transformational practices that embrace flexibility, spontaneity, and exploration? How do we adjust teaching strategies that will spark student curiosity, while still keeping classroom management expectations? How do we create routines that are student-based rather than teacher-based?
We reflect and start small.
Select an instructional routine that is scheduled or predictable in your week. It can be anything that you consistently find yourself employing based on your needs and wants.
Next, determine the learning-outcome of that routine. This will require you to think about why the routine exists, why it happens in your lesson when it does, why it is so important. By identifying the intended learning outcome, you may find the routine to be dispensable. You might reconsider its role in your classroom. You may find the routine actually exists more for YOU, than for your students.
Identify how that learning outcome can be achieved after measuring student proficiency levels. This is where the shift happens! The outcome is what drives the circumstances of the routine (such as how and when it is delivered), rather than the circumstances being driven by you.
Next, determine an assessment strategy that will measure student proficiency. Be specific about that strategy.
Identify the task or behavior that will allow you to respond to the assessment and still fulfill that learning-outcome.
In sticking with the I do, We do, You do routine that I had obliged to early in my teaching career, here is an example of the above:
Select an instructional routine that is scheduled or predictable in your week. Starting small from the gradual release framework, the routine I selected is the "I do." I consistently introduced new skills to students by initially demonstrating how to perform them, followed by engaging students in partner practice.
Next, determine the learning-outcome of that routine. The primary objective of this routine was to expose students to the skill. And, at the time, the only way I thought to do that was through explicit modeling. I placed significant importance on this approach because I firmly believed that students needed to observe me demonstrating how to do something before they could do it themselves.
Identify how that learning outcome can be achieved after measuring student proficiency levels. Students can be exposed to the skill through different approaches based on learning levels; explicit modeling may not be necessary for all students. Some students may be able to independently explore the skill and materials initially, while others simply require a worked problem or additional example.
Determine an assessment strategy that will measure student proficiency. To identify the specific needs of each student, I designed a brief Check for Understanding (CFU) as part of the Do-Now activity. The CFU was designed to be highly specific and targeted, allowing me to quickly assess students' understanding levels.
Identify the task or behavior that will allow you to respond to the assessment and still fulfill that learning-outcome. Following this Do-Now, students went into one of three groups. Group 1: students explored the skill independently with provided materials, Group 2: students were provided with a worked-problem of the skill and investigated it with a partner, Group 3: students worked with me while I explicitly modeled the skill.
Sometimes, students are going to need the direct instruction of information. Sometimes they are going to need days that are dedicated to specific content or skills. Ultimately, however, the goal here is that we do not become so comfortable in prescribed routines that they stifle our students' motivation and engagement. If we incorporate responsive structures that are based on student proficiency, then we can shake-up student expectations and lesson structure. Classroom expectations should not be limited to specific instances, tasks, or routines. Instead, they should be ingrained within the overall classroom climate and culture, as this will help maintain appropriate boundaries while fostering student autonomy and igniting curiosity in their learning.