The Quest For Student Mastery

First and foremost, we at IndistarConnect (Maureen Mirabito, Mark Williams and I) would like to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. As former educators, we know how thankful you are for a few days off to enjoy family and friends and to recharge your batteries for the stretch run to the winter break.  You’ve worked really hard since school opened and now that routines have been established you are beginning to see substantial progress in your students. Keep up the good work.

One of the important routines we talk about in Indistar is the establishment of regular meetings of not only the Leadership Team, but of the Instructional Teams.  These are either grade-level or subject-area teams of teachers (ID11) who regularly meet twice a month for 45 minutes to conduct business (ID12), and once a month for 4-6 hours to refine units of instruction and review student learning data (ID13).  These teams prepare agendas (ID04) and maintain minutes of their meetings (ID05).  There are additional indicators in Indistar defining more specifically the curriculum, assessment, and instructional planning activities these teams work to accomplish.

 Questions about the work of the Instructional Team that come to mind include:

  • Toward what goal are these instructional teams working? 
  • What do they expect to accomplish?
  • How does all this work translate into helping to improve teaching and learning in their classrooms?

Certainly the intent of this hard work is to provide high quality instruction that meets the needs of the range of learners they serve.  It’s to ensure that all “students … demonstrate deeper levels of understanding by explaining concepts, describing relationships, evaluating arguments, analyzing perspectives, and performing other tasks that require complex thinking.”    Johnson, J. F., Uline, C. L., and Perez, L. G., (2014). The Quest For Mastery, Educational Leadership, ASCD, Alexandria, VA

This statement encapsulates what we as educators are working so hard to help our students achieve. The statement is extracted from an article in the October 2014 Educational Leadership entitled “The Quest for Mastery.  Unfortunately, this is one of those pesky ASCD articles that cannot be shared so you’ll have to track down this edition of Educational Leadership to read it in its entirety.

The authors include the Executive and Associate Directors of the National Center for Urban School Transformation.   This website has some really good information about school improvement. Since 2005, The Center “has identified and studied more than 90 urban schools that achieve impressive results” … for all students, including “ high levels of achievement for every demographic of students they serve, including English Language Learners.”   Their criteria for selecting schools for the annual awards are highly rigorous.

The article goes into great detail about Planning for Depth of Understanding and Developing Objective-Driven Lessons that result in students’ deep understandings.  There are also plenty of examples of how it looks in the classroom to help the reader get a real sense of what the authors mean by objective-driven lessons and deep understanding.  Particularly important is the planning these Instructional Teams do, but that’s for a future blog on teaming and collaboration. Following are some examples of what these terms are and what they are not:

 Planning for Depth of Understanding

What it is - Collaboration among a team of teachers planning lessons that guide students to explain accurately why each step in the process of solving a linear equation makes sense.

What it is not – Getting students to demonstrate more surface-level understanding, such as when a teacher focuses on having students follow the steps for determining the value of x in a linear equation.

 Objective-Driven Lessons

What they are – Lessons that require teachers to create strategies to help all students describe the relationship between the earth’s revolution around the sun and the four seasons. They would also develop lessons that would help students use key vocabulary.   At the conclusion of the lessons, closely monitored by the teacher with adjustments and reteaching to ensure understanding, students would then be expected to explain how the relationship between the earth’s revolution around the sun would differ during the four seasons and at different locations around the earth.

A key component of an objective-driven lesson that assesses the students’ depth of understanding is that students have to be able to explain their thinking and conclusions in a variety of contexts.  Teachers in these schools make it clear to their students

  • what they will learn,
  • how they will learn it, and
  • how they will know they learned it.

Instructional Teams meeting regularly with agendas and minutes to analyze assessment data and develop units of instruction are necessary first steps toward improving teaching and learning.  Collaborative planning that leads to objective-driven lessons provides our next challenge to ensure the depth of understanding described in this article.

I hope you enjoy the article and find value in it. Please share your successful collaborative planning practices and  your objective-driven lessons with your Indistar colleagues through the Discussions or Share Your Stuff tabs in IndistarConnect.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Paul Axtell

With more than thirty years of experience helping organizations and individuals be more effective, Paul Axtell has honed his insights in executive offices and training programs for everyone from office staff and line workers to managers and team leaders.

A large focus of his work is how to run effective and productive meetings—to turn them from something people dread into useful, productive sessions with trackable results.

Paul is the author of multiple books, including Meetings Matter: 8 Powerful Strategies for Remarkable Conversations, Being Remarkable, and Ten Powerful Things to Say to Your Kids. He can be reached at <a href=""></a> and via email at
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