Focus Your PD: The Practices that Pay Off for Learning

Dr. Natalie Saaris
October 16, 2017

In his book Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, Mike Schmoker argues that schools could significantly improve their outcomes if they concentrated on the essentials of learning and ignored the fads, programs, and untested innovations that so often distract us from what actually works. He advises schools to focus on three simple goals at the exclusion of everything else: “reasonably coherent curriculum (what we teach); sound lessons (how we teach); and far more purposeful reading and writing in every discipline, or authentic literacy (integral to both what and how we teach).” In Schmoker’s view, focusing on too many things at once ensures that none of the initiatives will be successful because educators end up spreading themselves thin.

Unfortunately, focusing on the essentials is becoming increasingly challenging as the criteria for effective teaching seemingly grow in number. Here are just a few examples of the various initiatives an administrator might choose to pursue:

  • Personalized learning
  • Blended learning
  • Social-emotional learning
  • Project-based learning
  • Deeper learning
  • Competency-based learning

What do you choose to focus on when everything seems important?

Despite all the recent buzzwords and fads, the research consistently points to a handful of key instructional practices that promote learning gains and ultimately determine student achievement. No initiative will succeed without high-quality teaching, and no product can ever substitute sound instructional practice. Here is the short list of what matters most:

1. Higher-order questions

Questions are the currency of education. They set expectations for the kind of thinking that students are expected to do, they determine the degree of challenge in the curriculum, and they make or break student interest in a given topic. If a teacher is primarily asking students to answer lower-level recall questions, it is a guarantee that those students are not thinking analytically about the material.

Questioning is also a great practice to target because the odds are that there is room for improvement. In an analysis of over 1,500 middle-school assignments, the Education Trust found that fewer than 4% of assignments pushed student thinking to greater levels of complexity. The assignments reviewed by the researchers were all too often limited to superficial thinking and recall.

“Remember this: Students can do no better than the assignments they receive.” 

- Marshall (2017)

Improving questioning as a practice requires a robust understanding of what rigorous questions look like. Looking through various types of questions and identifying the criteria for a higher-order question would help teachers know what to strive for. Teachers also find great value in seeing examples of higher-order questions and leveraging question stems for their instruction. Enabling more sharing of assignments, particularly between teachers and coaches or teachers and their professional learning groups, would create opportunities to reflect on what constitutes quality questioning. Getting regular feedback on questions and monitoring their depth using data will also lead to improved learning gains; teachers would benefit from aligning their questions to Common Core or Depth of Knowledge standards in order to ensure they are meeting the questioning criteria.

2. Formative assessment

Formative assessment entails much more than daily quizzing; it’s a way to transform teaching by creating a feedback loop between instruction and learning. Teachers who effectively use formative assessment tailor their instruction to their students’ needs. They have an understanding of what their students do and don’t know, where their instruction may have fallen short, and what they need to do to drive learning gains. Formative assessment is the foundation of student-centered instruction: if students are not making incremental gains toward a larger learning goal, teachers are aware of it and find a way to get back on track.

“Formative assessment involves getting the best possible evidence about what students have learned and then using this information to decide what to do next.” 

- Wiliam (2011)

Formative assessment is more complex than it seems; teachers need to know what their goals are, how to assess whether those goals are being met, how to interpret student results, and how to take action based on what they learn. Developing these skills and integrating them into daily instruction will likely require considerable support: a professional learning community that drives reflection about instructional practices, tools that enable teachers to track student performance data and reveal thinking, and the insight to figure out what to do next. It’s an investment in a highly impactful practice that will pay dividends in student learning gains.

3. Effective feedback

The final essential practice is feedback. This one might seem surprising, given that teachers generally offer lots of feedback to students. The research, however, suggests that much of teacher feedback is ineffective and, in some instances, detrimental to student learning.  A review of 131 studies on feedback found that over a third of feedback interventions actually decreased performance.

Like questioning and formative assessment, feedback is a deceptively simple practice that when done right can transform teaching and learning. Teachers who practice effective feedback outline clear criteria for success and refer to that criteria when commenting on student work. They provide guidance and get students to reflect on their learning rather than merely correcting errors. They offer feedback while learning is still happening and the student can act on the guidance rather than during summative assessment. They also instill a growth mindset by demonstrating that student work is not the product of inherent talents but rather the result of effortful, deliberate practice and improvement.

For each one of these practices, deeply understanding why it matters, how it can go wrong, and what it looks like successfully takes intentionality and time. There is no one-hour session that will suddenly transform poor instruction into high-quality teaching. The trick, then, is deciding to pursue what truly matters to student learning and dedicating ongoing resources to improving that instructional practice.

Related posts:

Works cited:

Marshall, T. R. (2017, September 20). Classroom Assignments Matter. Here's Why. Retrieved October 16, 2017, from

Santelises, S. B., & Dabrowski, J. (2015). Checking In: Do Classroom Assignments Reflect Today's Higher Standards (Publication). Washington, DC: Education Trust.

Schmoker, M. J. (2011). Focus: elevating the essentials to radically improve student learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

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