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Are Those Kids Off-Task Again? One Trick to Change Off-Task Behaviour

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“…when students are off task they often get check marks, they lose privileges or get phone calls home.  It was always about the student, and what was wrong with the students and how we could use coercive and persuasive techniques to increase on-task behaviour.”

Geez … and what’s wrong with that picture? Isn’t that what we learned in our teacher training?

I just re-read a very interesting blog entry written by Principal Lori Cullen called http://www.attheprincipalsoffice.com/2012/02/13/are-those-kids-off-task-again-one-trick-to-change-off-task-behaviour/ and I can’t agree more with her words of wisdom. In these next months, as I plan August professional development for the teachers at my new school, I will be pondering this basic idea – that, when children are engaged they are learning and when they are “off task” they aren’t. This foundational fact, is not rocket science but it is one of most important and misconstrued tenets in teaching. As we continue to talk, as a nation, about teacher evaluations and standardized test scores and “failing schools” and unacceptable high rates of illiteracy and numbers of students who are not graduating from high school … it becomes more and more clearer how evaluating what is effective teaching becomes a game of high-stakes  educational roulette. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Teachers need tools and sometimes teachers need training. We didn’t learn everything we needed to know in teacher training – the world has changed.

Principal Lori asks, … should we hold teachers responsible for designing tasks that result in student engagement? Shouldn’t students be required to complete the work assigned to them?  And she provides two visuals to explain the answer with a resounding, “YES, teachers are responsible!” And teachers need support in figuring out how be effective in designing lessons that engage students. But it can be done – to the benefit of all.

Principal Cullens gives a list of  the attributes of tasks that result in differing levels of engagement and tells us, task design is the key to on-task, high engagement behaviour from students.  In the end, it is not the student who is at fault.  When those students so many years ago were timed for on or off task behaviour I don’t think we even considered whether or not the task they were being asked to do was appropriate for the learner or had the attributes of a task that often results in engaging behaviour.

In my own teaching career, I have observed many students who have been caught in this trap of shame and blame (for not engaging in their lessons) and who ultimately slid through the cracks of the educational system – with reprehensible negative life-changing consequence. In many cases, I believe, it didn’t have to end that way. And I believe we can learn from those mistakes.

Teachers can design lessons that engage children in behaviors that result in meaningful learning. Students can sit in the driver seat (rather than the passenger seat) of their own learning. This summer, I will be reading and thinking and rethinking about this basic foundational tenet as I work with my colleagues to figure out what tools the teachers and students need in their tool box to accomplish this important task of creating a school where all children can learn the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in school and in adult-life. My mantra is now, yes, we can! Together we can do it. And I am looking forward, with pleasure, to the new school year at Experiencia Preparatory Academy.

About Maestrasasha

I envision a healthy, flourishing planet and society that sustainably and equitably meets the needs of all its inhabitants through an educational reform movement that is diverse, inclusive, successful, vibrant, and relevant, taking into account the needs, perspectives, and voices of all. Three decades of experience teaching diverse populations ranging in age from infants to nonagenarians. Innovative, talented artist with exhibition experience and art therapy and crisis intervention training; skilled school administrator with expertise in specialized services, sheltered English instruction, art education, curriculum development and early childhood; a proven ability to differentiate common core curriculum, meet the needs of students with learning and language challenges, and a strong background in project-based, art-infused, placed-based and inclusive education seeks to render my knowledge, experience, and expertise in all aspects - starting from organizational management, to policy making, to supporting classroom teachers, to transforming instruction through joyful, engaging and meaningful learning.

3 responses »

  1. Yes you can! The key is to reflect on each and every day and make adjustments if needed. Have a wonderful summer 🙂
    Lori Cullen
    http://www.attheprincipalsoffice.com

    Reply
  2. I’m not a teacher, so please excuse my lack of knowledge, but after reading this I’m wondering whether the definition of “off-task” depends on what the child *is* doing? For example, say the class is doing a creative writing task and in the act of writing a student’s thoughts go to a topic, such as social studies or science. The student wants to find out more about something in that topic, or refresh their memory, in order to write about it better, so the student stops writing and is looking through a science book instead. Is he “off-task”? I would say no, but it could easily appear that the answer was yes. In any case, that type of activity should not be put in the same category as a student who is purely goofing off, in my opinion.

    I also wonder about other potential reasons for a child being “off-task” – e.g. being hungry, tired, or emotionally distressed – that no amount of task design is going to change. But I suppose those issues never were considered either, in the past, when evaluating how much time students spent “on-task”.

    As a parent with one child who’s highly engaged in school, and one who I see as falling into your description of being “caught in this trap of shame and blame (for not engaging in their lessons) and who ultimately slid through the cracks of the educational system”, I’m excited and happy to see your philosophy and hope you succeed in finding ways to reach kids like my second. I don’t think it’s always the teacher’s fault, but it can’t always be the kid’s fault, either!

    Reply

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