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The center of the education universe: the instructional core

Here on the Learning Edge we're focusing on key topics to promote dialogue, learning and questions.  None of this is about "THIS IS WHAT WE SHOULD DO!!!!" or "WAIT, LET'S SCRAP EVERYTHING AND ADOPT THIS!!!!".  Those approaches benefit no system, no learner and no kids.  Today I want to discuss with you all a topic that I think will resonate with many of you out there.

Over and over again in my classes, people keep referring to "the instructional core".  At one point I turned to my neighbor and said "What are they talking about?" She shrugged.  But one day we were in a class being taught by Deborah Jewell-Sherman where she describes her experience trying to turn around the schools in Richmond, Virginia.  She talked about how the instructional core is simply the classroom.  It's the holy and special interaction between a teacher, content and a student.  That's at the "core" of everything we do.  Everything a state does, a district supports and a school is designed to do is to promote the instructional core.  At first I thought it was blindingly obvious.  But then I began to think deeper and deeper and started to think about my time as a teacher, in education politics and policy, etc.  How much of what my school did promoted the instructional core? How much did legislators in Santa Fe talked about focusing like a laser beam on the instructional core?  As I reflected, I realized it wasn't as much as it probably should have been.

In their book "Instructional Rounds in Education", Dr. Richard Ellmore, Dr. Elizabeth City and Sarah Fiarman and Lee Teitel discuss their proposal for a system and practice designed to help focus system leaders, school leaders and teachers on the instructional core.  They ask us to adopt an "instructional rounds" process - borrowed from medicine - to help us begin to diagnose and strengthen the instruction in our classrooms.  What I will do in this blog post is first discuss the instructional core. Second, I want to talk about how their rounds approach supports the core.  Finally I want to discuss where and where we don't see this sort of action in New Mexico.

 What is the instructional core?

The instructional core is that special, critical place where students, teachers and content work together.  In my first grade class, this was reading time, math time, writing time.  It was when I would teach a science lesson about the different types of plants and then ask students to use our vocabulary words in their writing response.  This work is the central work of our effort as educators.  It's the learning that happens in classrooms across New Mexico.

It's also where we have the greatest opportunities and challenges.  It's in the instructional core that our students learn the civics lesson that convinces them to engage the democratic process.  It's when a teacher engages the students in a meaningful way so that they understand physics for the first time.  It's also where breakdowns occur -where students leave classes unsure of what they just learned and how to apply it in life.  At it's heart the idea of the instructional core is powerful because it's literally where the great work of education happens.

At the heart of the instructional core is the instructional task "...the actual work that students are asked to do in the process of instruction - not what the teachers think they are asking students to do, but what they are actually asked to do."1  This reminds me of when I'd ask my students to write about those plants, thinking that I was asking them to engage in higher level work when in reality I was asking them to repeat back to me what I had just told them.  No wonder so many of my writing samples looked the same - I hadn't engaged them in the rigorous content application I thought I had asked for.

The instructional core rests on seven principles that the authors describe as being essential.

The first principle of the instructional core is described by the authors and is essential for understanding their theory on learning: "There are only three ways to improve student learning at scale.  The first is to increase the level of knowledge and skill that the teacher brings to the instructional process.  The second is to increase the level and complexity of the content that students are asked to learn.  And the third is to change the role of the student in the instructional process. That's it.  If you are not doing one of these three things, you are not improving instruction and learning.  Everything else is instrumental.  That is, everything that's not in the instructional core can only affect student learning and performance by somehow influencing what goes on inside the core."2  By focusing on student, teacher and content the authors are asking us to prioritize and understand the critical relationships between these factors.  The instructional core depends on alignment between these forces.

The second principle follows from this.  If you modify one element of the teacher-student-content formula - then you need to adjust course.  If you put a ton of resources into teachers and then don't figure out how to increase student engagement or bring a better curriculum to the table, then you're creating misalignment in the core.  How often do teachers feel like new curriculum is dropped down on them without adequate training or consideration of student needs?  This is central to making sure their is alignment in the instructional core.  The third principle says we need to open up our systems to make sure we can see it. How can one see know if effective instruction is happening unless we can observe it and start building a common language around what's happening?  More specifically, this comes from not just observing what a teacher is doing but what a student is doing.  Looking at student work and engagement as critical signs of how they are or are not learning.  Our school and classrooms need to be open places where we can work together to see the work happening.

As you start to engage more and more in the process, the sixth principle focuses us on making sure everyone is involved in the process.  As the authors spend more time discussing their "rounds" process you see how a school could use this concept to focus on what matters.  As principals, teachers and system leaders take time looking at student work and seeing how the instructional core is fairing (that intersection of teacher-student-content) they start to build a common dialogue, understanding and thinking about the problems and solutions.  Think of in education when people say things like "my students aren't engaged" - what does that mean?  Does that mean they aren't interested in the material? Does that mean it's too easy, too hard?  Or that we need more "rigor" in our instruction? Is everyone who is saying that or expecting it to be implemented know what that means?  This flows into the final and critical principle which is about making sure everyone makes the common language clear before you analyze and then before you predict outcomes or evaluate people.  Quoting the authors: "The is also an issue of humility involved here.  Most of the people who, by virtue of their positional authority, are evaluating teachers could not themselves do what they are asking teachers to do.  Teachers know this.  The escalating demands of teaching practice are such that the knowledge and skill required to do the work is beyond both the experience and practical knowledge of the people charged with supervision.  Creating a powerful culture of instructional practice in this situation requires supervisors to act as if they don't know; in this way, they learn what they need to know."3

So how then does the "rounds" system apply to the instructional core? For the authors, the rounds are a way to bring everyone together in discovering, understanding and making the change necessary to promote a vibrant, aligned and positive instructional core.  Like I mentioned before, borrowed from the medical profession, the rounds process brings key leaders together to figure out jointly how the instructional core is fairing and how to best improve it.  Imagine then, your principal, instrutional coach, a peer teacher coming and observing a lesson.  Imagine then them leaving to sit down and discuss, after not only seeing your classroom but multiple others.  They talk about the curriculum, your skill and the students.  They start to understand whats making certain classes get better results and others struggle.  In your classroom they saw some great stuff.  The principal talks about the student work examples, discusses how you were aligning the work students were doing with what you were expecting and how they want to see the same thing in other classrooms.  Maybe there is some disagreement but anchored in this disagreement is not about labeling you a "bad" teacher or a "rock star".  It's about learning, diagnosing, and understanding how to figure out the instructional core across a system.

What does this mean for New Mexico?

So I ask you then: do you see this kind of focus at your school? Where you teach? At your child's school?  Maybe they don't use the term "instructional core" but they say something else.  But beyond that, do you feel like there is a great and clear conversation about how learning is being made, how meaning is being discovered?  Do we see a focus on the instructional core as the first priority of policy-makers and system leaders in our state? If not, should there be? We have a lot of priorities in New Mexico and how should this rank?

The authors of the book have a very clear message about it's important vis-a-vis other strategies:

  • "Don't broaden the work with new initiatives; deepen the work with greater focus on building a strong culture of instructional practice."4
  • "Most of the low-performing schools in which we work don't need more programs or even, in most cases, more resources...These schools don't need more things to do.  In fact, they need to do less with greater focus.  They need a powerful, coherent culture of instructional practice."5

How can we reconcile this approach when we always want to create new programs and new services to serve our kids?  How do we reconcile a need for strong, clear understanding of great learning with all the other challenges and needs our kids have?

Where do we see great examples of system leaders and other leaders (including parents, students and teachers) focusing on the instructional core?  How could we start focusing more on this important piece of the effort to ensure all children have a great education? Is this something we need to be more focused on? And remember, our hope here is have a dialogue of learning - not of implementation.  Let's start by getting smart about what could work!

Until next time,


1 pg 23

2 pg 24


3 pg 34-35

4 pgs 36-37

5 pg 37

Ellmore, City, Fiarman, Teitel.  Instructional Rounds in Education.  Harvard Education Press. 2009.

All pictures copyright Ellmore, City et al.