Over the past few years, we have done a ton of work at Centennial School District around instructional equity, led by my colleague Shawanna Coles and the Equity and Excellence team. During our equity review process, and the dialogue that followed, I constantly went back to the same book, again and again, to focus on the more practical aspects of leading and coaching for instructional equity.
That’s why I was so excited to share a conversation on this recent podcast episode with Zaretta Hammond. She is the author of Culture Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. She’s a former classroom English teacher, and she’s been doing instructional design, school coaching, professional development for the past 18 years. She’s been on the national education reform organizations, National Equity Project, the former Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, and she does work every single day around the idea of practice, specifically in culturally responsive teaching and instructional equity.
Here’s some of what Zaretta shared on the podcast. My questions are in bold, followed by her responses.
How do you define practice?
I define practice as getting better, right? The path toward mastery around something that feels really, really important, so for educators or adults, you know, we want to get good at something, and so in order to do that, you need to practice, but I think we have a lot of misconceptions about practice, and similarly, you know, we want children to be good learners, and to develop skills, and sometimes it’s not just knowing stuff, but it’s being able to actually understand it, recall it, and be at a higher level, so all of those are some aspect of this simple thing we call practice.
How did you improve your practice as a teacher?
Yeah, it meant that I had to, I had this moment, right? I’d come out of my teacher ed program, and all the techniques, and had taken my methods classes, and I remember sitting with a student, Adam, right, even all these many years ago, decades at this point, I remember sitting with him and conferencing, having our writing conference, and I could not get him to really understand that he was making these consistent errors, right? Run-on sentences, comma splices, and, you know, I could use all the red ink in the world, but he would just like, “I don’t really understand” “what I’m doing wrong here,” and I had this epiphany that if I couldn’t get him to see, not just see the mistake and learn how to correct it, because that’s a lot of what we do, but to actually think about his learning moves.
I couldn’t help him get better because only the learner learns, so after that epiphany, unbeknownst to me and to Adam, that meant that we had to do some practice, and the way I broke practice down is, I needed to help him internalize some information, then I needed to help him practice that, right? But the practicing, and I think that this is a piece that educators really get wrong, that practice requires feedback, so just doing the same think over and over is not practice.
Why is feedback so critical to practice?
And unfortunately, too many educators think, “Oh, let’s just keep doing it,” but if no one gives you corrective feedback, all you’re doing is reinforcing bad habits or misconceptions, right? And so there has to be a feedback loop in there, and that feedback loop has to not just be right or wrong. There are different types of feedback that you have to give, and that feedback has to come in a timely fashion. It’s got to be actionable, and it’s got to help you see where the gap is, where your gap analysis is. Where are you on the road to actually mastering that? So if you can’t give people that feedback, kind of like GPS, Siri to, you know, and here’s, and we go past our exit, she’s like, “Rerouting,” right? So that’s feedback, right? She tells us, “You’re getting close, you’re getting close.” “Oops, no, you passed it.” If our young people don’t get that, they can’t get better, so I knew I had to do that. I had to get, you know, mentors, a group of other educators who were trying to get better, as well, so we could be thinking about this, so I could take my practice and kind of open it up and be in conversation and collaboration with others, and so it meant, you know, I had to have conditions that made that happen. Sometimes it’s hard for teachers to get, and I think we forget what a true professional learning community should be about, right? It should be getting better, so it was really in the service of teaching writing effectively, not just the techniques, but helping students actually use them and improve that I started to understand about practice and the need for opportunities for students to do things over, check to see, “Am I getting closer?” And if they weren’t, “What did I need to adjust?” And so, practice has a lot of different pieces to it. Here’s the other piece I’d say is really important. There’s a socioemotional piece to practice as well, meaning I have to be okay with being bad because in the beginning, when we’re getting good at something, we are conscious of how bad we are, right? It’s called, conscious incompetence, right? And at first, we’re just unconscious of our incompetence until it becomes important to us. “Oh, I can’t do that, but I really want to get better.” Now, I’m knee-deep in this conscious incompetence. “I suck at this,” and you’re probably gonna suck for a minute, right? But if we can’t emotionally move through that as part of learning, not as some, you know, thing that says, “I’m bad at this,” right, or, “I can’t get it,” or, “I’m not capable,” right? There’s so many messages connected to that because we want instant, you know, application. We want instant mastery, so helping people actually move through conscious incompetence is really important.
How did you take what worked in the classroom, those four to six practices that we talked about, and actually translate that into professional learning?
So the biggest challenge that I saw were number one conditions, so when I came out and started to do, and you’re right, for a time it was, you know, doing both, and then eventually, I came out of having my own classroom and really just started working with adults, but I found that I was much more frustrated than having my own classroom, because there have to be conditions of practice, so I call it the dojo, right, that the dojo, when you start to think about martial arts, there’s this space that people come into, and it’s padded. It’s set up for that kind of thing.
We have very few dojos for adults in their learning, meaning we don’t help them getting socioemotionally ready for that first pancake because they feel they are fearing evaluation. Many don’t have coaches who are giving them feedback, so the feedback loop is not there. Many don’t have time, so they’re, what I ran up against wasn’t just, how do I take these techniques I’ve used with kids and use them with adults, is how do I actually, to begin with, find the right conditions? I found very few districts, very few school leaders that were actually creating the conditions, even what they call PLCs right now.
What does it look like to coach instructional equity?
Well, the reality is, this is where, even when we talk about culturally responsive, the operative word, the first word we should focus on is not the culture, but the responsive. Who’s the person in front of me?
So I first have to understand that person as a learner, but I can’t get that close, right, until I have some relationship where they let down a little of the facade, so practice, right, getting to the point where practice, and you’re recognizing that I’m not as good as I want to be yet, comes with vulnerability, so the relationship becomes key. How do I get close enough to have some cognitive insight so that I can pick the right tool, so that I can see where you need to strengthen? Your kick is good, but when you rebound, right? So that coach is that second pair of eyes, and the teacher has to be that. The leader has to be that for teachers. If you’re just doing walk-throughs and you’re just dinging folks for not having something on the board, or not, then, the teacher gets and starts to believe that there’s no practice.
That this is all just evaluative, versus, there’s feedback for me to get better. That there’s a culture of getting better and moving toward mastery. This is how we manage, as adults, conscious incompetence. We hold each other up. This is why the collaborative inquiry process becomes so critical. I see some districts doing PDSA cycles, right, and the reality is, when they are doing, or trying to implement a new strategy, it’s all about the strategy, not about the kids.
And so, part of the practice in working with adults is actually helping them understand how we get better at things, so, because that’s not something they quite understand coming out of their education prep, their teacher prep programs, so, you know, part of my work these days is, how do we get good at stuff? Helping them create the right conditions, helping them talk about it, helping them manage their own socioemotional stuff so that they actually can tolerate that conscious incompetence until they move on the other side of it, and when we embrace it, and actually lean into it, that’s how we get better faster.
Why does progress and momentum matter in coaching?
So what that means is, you have to either have peer coaches, or you have to have an instructional coach who can be your other pair of eyes, and sometimes we have to self-coach. If you don’t have that, then you need to set up a videotape, right? Or maybe you do audiotape. What’s happening during that period of instruction that I want to get better at? What am I saying? You know, maybe you’re just tallying who’s doing most of the talking, right, because here’s the thing. Self-reporting’s 100%. “I’m doing everything.” “It’s going great,” until somebody shows us it’s not, right?
And so sometimes, we don’t see our own progress, right, and that’s the other piece, that we continue when we see progress. The brain actually has this thing called a progress principle. It’s why we love our Fitbits and our pedometers. You will actually hang in there longer when you see that you’re making incremental progress.
So where are we starting to see that? We love to do this with kids, chart your fluency, chart your, but we don’t do this with adults.
Right? How many times, how can you change these things? What are the three things you need to change? Leaders need to give that detailed feedback, and for teachers who know they want to get better at a certain aspect of instruction, you know, maybe it’s, “How do I hook the students’ curiosity?” I call it igniting, or, “How do I get students to chew on their content” “so I am not doing all the cognitive work” “in the classroom,” right? I want to get better at that. Okay, you’re gonna have to set up your own inquiry. You’re gonna have to set up your own practice. Then you’re gonna have to tape-record or audiotape so that you have a baseline because if you don’t know where you’re starting, you don’t know if you’re progressing, and therein lies the real challenge, so we have attentional density. You’ve gotta pay attention to fewer things. You have deliberate practice. What’s the small, but high-leverage thing? Where are you gonna get your feedback?
So these are critical things, you know? Being able to set that up in a school setting in many ways is antithetical. We don’t always create schools as dojos for teacher learning.
Are there specific practices that we can do to help develop those cognitive skills?
Wow, yeah, we can do a whole nother podcast on that, right? And that’s what I’m actually trying to unpack for people in my upcoming book is really understanding what that is and how we help students develop this because I think it goes back to what you just said. We didn’t get a lot of that. We got a little bit in that ed psych class and maybe we read a book over here, and we’re stitching it together ourselves, but we don’t really understand how it all comes together to either create inequity by design, under-educating the most vulnerable kids, or equity by design, right? Deliberately making sure that we get those things in that will help them accelerate their own learning, and I think the biggest thing that I try to help educators understand is, this is not just, we’re gonna teach thinking skills, and it relates to practice. I actually need kids to develop ways of looking at a task and having a mental algorithm, like when I, here’s what we know. The minute you look at something new, you’re in confusion. The minute learning gets hard, you’re in confusion. First, I have to help you socioemotionally be okay, yes, because it triggers our amygdala. We all panic a little. “Ah, this is confusing,” or, “Oh, this is hard.” All right, how do you coach a student to that next level, right, and so the cognitive structure, the first cognitive structure would be, “I understand,” has sized things up, right? And that sizing things up when we look at cognition is really around classification. What is this in front of me? But that means I’ve internalized some things. Teachers don’t teach how to learn, right? Learning how to learn, and back in the day, we did HOTS, higher-order thinking skills, and it was a separate curriculum. We’re gonna teach HOTS over here, and here’s our content.
We’re now doing socioemotional learning and development. It’s over here, 15 minutes over here, and then we’ll go back to instruction. People don’t understand, emotions and cognition are linked, so I’ve gotta first get myself, brain, calm and ready, like, “Yeah, I’m in confusion now.”
– [AJ] Right.
– “But this should be an exciting place to be,” right? And now, I have to be able to size it up. What is this? Is this relationship, we call these thinking dispositions. Then, there are habits of mind, right? They’re things I actually internally move myself through. Here’s the thing I want to say about that. For the independent learner, these are unconscious things. They don’t know that they actually do them. For dependent learners, they know that they can’t do them. They see people doing things to the point that their lack of understanding about these invisible cognitive structures, for them, it just means, “I’m stupid,” and if they, particularly black and brown kids, get the dominant narrative that goes along with that, then we just chalk that up to, they don’t have the intellectual capacity. We know intellect is malleable. We can grow parts of our brainpower, and so, you know, we have inclinations, people have, you know, can gravitate toward things. There are talents that we have, but we all can get smarter, and part of what teachers don’t learn in their own process of professional learning in the profession, as well as their training prior to entering the profession is how brains get smarter. What do those structures look like? What’s the dojo kids need to be in while they’re taking in the new content that actually does that? So yeah, in this new book, that’s actually what I’m trying to break down for folks.
So, break down for me the difference between culturally responsive teaching and instructional equity?
That’s really what I’m striving for is helping people, you know, get past the label of culturally responsive. That’s confusing. It’s misleading. Right now, it’s just moved into the jargon realm.
So I want people to think instead about instructional equity. How are we making sure that all students, particularly the most vulnerable, historically marginalized kids, get the most powerful teaching that helps grow their brainpower, so not just the content to, you know, I mean, the teaching to move through the content, but the teaching that actually helps them expand the mental algorithms that allowed them to literally level up the amount of content they can take in in the process. That’s the goal. That’s equity in a nutshell.