Monday, January 24, 2011

Powerful Idea: "If you can’t see it in the core, it’s not there"

I'm reading up on work by Richard Elmore and his colleagues.  Kentucky educators keep telling me that body of work is helpful, and it's time to understand some of what they've been learning.

The "instructional core" is the interaction of student, teacher, and content.  In Instructional Rounds in Education, it's shown as a triangle with those three elements at the corners and an invitation to think separately how each side is really connected: student and teacher, student and content, and teacher and content.

Defining and thinking about "the core" also sharpens some further thinking about improvement strategies:
It doesn't matter how much money you've spent.  Nor does it even really matter whether everyone thinks it's a fantastic idea (since many people like best the changes that are the least disruptive).  And, above all, it doesn't matter whether everyone else is doing it.  What matters is whether you can see it in the core.  If you can't, it isn't there.
Once you take in the idea, it's hard to figure out why someone needed to spell it out--but it really is liberating to have it stated explicitly.

The learning happens where student, teacher, and content interact.  If that interaction stays the same, the results won't vary much. If the instructional core looks the same before and after your big investment, your investment didn't make a difference.  If you can't see the change there, it isn't there.

It doesn't matter whether the investment was in textbooks, workbooks, computer programs, or iPads.  it doesn't matter whether the investment was in exciting professional development or a bold new approach to evaluations.  It doesn't matter whether the money went into classroom staff or student support services or stronger school leadership.  Unless you can see its impact by observing the instructional core, it isn't there.

Of course, there's room for theories that say the change will get to the instructional core, but it will take several steps.  For example, school leaders could research a strategy, bring in experts to share more about how it works, ask teachers to think through how to use it, and then allow a little time for them to begin actual implementation.  In those cases, there's a "theory of action" that explains how the early efforts can culminate in a meaningful change to the instructional core.  But until you can see the change in the core, you can't begin to say the theory has actually worked.

Source note: Instructional Rounds in Education: A Network Approach to Improving Teaching and Learning, by Elizabeth City, Richard Elmore, Sarah Fiarman and Lee Teitel, was published by Harvard Education Press in 2009.  This post is drawn from pages 22 to 30 in that book.

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