Newswise — A familiar scene plays out in classrooms across the country every day – students file in, take their seats, then listen to an instructor lecture.

At Slaton Junior High School, it’s a scenario teachers and administrators are trying to make less familiar. Through a partnership with the Texas Tech University College of Education and the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET), the teachers at Slaton Junior High are learning how to engage students with high-cognitive demand tasks in order to give students the opportunity to become problem-solvers instead of observers.

“Unfortunately, in many classrooms teachers teach as they were taught, which typically results in a lecture-based classroom environment,” said Kristopher Childs, an assistant professor of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education at Texas Tech. “In this project, teachers were taught to reverse-engineer the classroom and instead of telling students what to do, they provide students with rich, real-world tasks and scenarios related to their interests. Based upon those scenarios, teachers then build upon the knowledge students already have, making the classroom environment student-centered.”

Changing the way students learn in the classroom begins with training teachers, said Childs, who is joined in the program at Slaton Junior High by Mellinee Lesley, a professor in the Language, Diversity and Literacy Studies program, and Vanessa DeLeon, a visiting assistant professor in Educational Leadership. Childs leads teachers in classes about STEM, while Lesley leads language and literacy education and DeLeon focuses on interactions with the leadership team, including Slaton Junior High Principal Jim Andrus.

“Essentially, it’s an embedded professorship. The idea was to help a local school by having professors actively involved in the school in their day-to-day lives to impact teachers with professional development,” Childs said. “The professional development focused on increasing teachers’ content and pedagogical content knowledge to impact their instructional practices.” 

The program at Slaton Junior High began in 2016 and is the third phase of the implementation of a Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) grant that began three years ago. The first phase, or cohort one, provided advanced certificates to teachers in leadership, literacy or STEM. The second phase, or cohort two, implemented a model where professors began visiting campuses and participating in the leadership team meetings and professional development meetings, in addition to teaching graduate courses online.

The third phase, known as cohort three, is even more hands-on and will last three years. During the first year of cohort three, Texas Tech faculty visit the Slaton Junior High campus every week. The first week, they lead meetings and provide classroom strategies to teachers. The next week, they hold one-on-one meetings with teachers, complete walkthroughs in the classrooms and provide feedback.

Working with NIET, the teachers have an opportunity for professional growth and career advancement through TAP: The System for Teacher and Student Advancement. The third year of the phase at Slaton Junior High is the “gold standard” of what administrators would like the campus to be and the way they hope teachers are leading classrooms.

“At the end of this semester, the professors will be releasing responsibility to the campus as the grant comes to a close,” said Elizabeth Woodall, a regional master teacher at Texas Tech. “What we’re expecting is with the work we’ve done with them, they’ll continue this model because they’ve had the different levels of support for three years.”

Teachers in the program work in three roles: (1) a career teacher who stays in the classroom, (2) a mentor teacher who coaches other teachers in the school or (3) a master teacher who is charged with running professional development meetings, evaluating teachers and working closely with the leadership team.

“Research shows professional improvement directly impacts a teacher’s knowledge,” Childs said. “A teacher’s knowledge impacts instructional practices and instructional practices impact student achievement.”

Katie Negen, a master teacher at Slaton Junior High, leads classes for her fellow teachers, showing them how to implement high-cognitive demand tasks in the classroom and then evaluating the data they bring back to show how effective it has been. Data is gathered from teacher feedback and from video capture within the classrooms and then methods are adjusted as needed.

Many of the problems teachers are tackling in their teaching methods are those they identified during “instructional rounds” last summer. 

“Basically what we saw when we did those instructional rounds were things like a lack of cooperative learning,” Negen said. “Our kids are sitting in groups, but they’re not learning cooperatively, they’re not really engaging in things that make them think at a higher level. They were doing a lot of recall. That’s foundational stuff, so you want to take it to a deeper level.”

Childs said one way to do this is to focus on things students already enjoy doing. High-cognitive demand tasks give students a problem and have them tackle all aspects of it using skills, knowledge and interests they already have. Students ask questions like why a problem exists, what could have prevented it, how much it cost and who it affected; this allows them to gain an appreciation for problem-solving.

Using high-cognitive demand tasks in a classroom is not common, Negen said, but it’s a crucial way to achieve these goals.

“We needed the Texas Tech professors to come in and really teach our teachers what that was about and teach us from a leadership perspective so that we could adjust our practices to meet those needs and get our kids performing at a higher level,” Negen said. “We’ve gone from teachers who were really doing more of a guided-practice lesson to much more independent learning and thinking on the students’ part. Teachers are becoming aware of the type of thinking they’re requiring of their students and the problem-solving models that are embedded within the activities they’re planning. Instead of seating our kids in groups, we’re now having them interact collaboratively.”

As the grant comes to an end this semester, educators at Slaton Junior High are already preparing for the sustainability of the program.

“Slaton made a commitment from the very beginning to continue to sustain the TAP system after the grant has ended,” Woodall said. “The teachers already have systems in place that allow time for their weekly professional meetings. They will maintain practices like reviewing video from classroom activities and examining student work, and will continue discussing strategies for implementing high-cognitive demand tasks in their classrooms.”

Because the cohort is nearing only the end of the first of a three-year plan, Childs said the impact on students will not yet be evident through data. Andrus said those metrics will come in the form of STAAR test results over the next couple of years, but those scores are not the most important measure of the program’s success.

“It has everything to do with lifelong skills,” Andrus said. “Problem-solving is a lifelong skill – if you can solve problems in mathematics, in science, in English language arts or in social studies, you can solve problems on a construction site, or as an architect, you can solve social problems. You begin to know how to attack complex situations, separate those problems into manageable pieces, then solve them.”

Showing teachers how to turn their students into problem-solvers will allow those students to see how math, science and all the other subjects they are learning can be used to solve problems within their own communities.

“They’ll start seeing the real-world applications of the content. Students will start to use that knowledge and see how it can make an impact on a social justice level,” Childs said. “We’re building up a generation of students who can look at a problem and who can make decisions based on facts and figures and not decisions based just upon their feelings.”

Childs said the most important thing to remember is that everyone is in the fight to improve education together. There’s no such thing as a perfect educational system or a one-size-fits-all solution, he said, so educators must work on methods that meet students where they are and get them where they need to be, and they must work on creating equitable learning environments that provide all students an opportunity to succeed.

“What they do with these opportunities is up to them,” Childs said. “It’s our job to make sure they have those opportunities.”