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Identifying High-Leverage Teaching Practices

posted Dec 17, 2010, 6:30 AM by Kristan Rodriguez

Over the past few years,w e have provided embedded Skillful Teaching PD at the middle/high school as well as offered a course on Skillful Teaching last year.  This year, we will offer a Skillful Teaching book group in the spring, led by Maryellen Iannibelli.  The article below supports these efforts and I felt it was worthwhile to share.

(Originally titled “Teaching Skillful Teaching”)

            Some believe that teaching requires little more than patience, content knowledge, and liking children, say University of Michigan/Ann Arbor education dean Deborah Loewenberg Ball and doctoral student Francesca Forzani in this thoughtful Educational Leadership article. In fact, effective teaching “demands special kinds of knowledge and skill that most individuals do not naturally possess,” including:

Making expertise explicit – “At its heart, teaching involves being able to ‘unpack’ something one knows well to make it accessible to and learnable by someone else,” say Ball and Forzani. “Teaching is unnatural in that it demands not only skill in a given domain, but also the ability to take that skill apart so others can learn it.” An expert tennis player, for example, isn’t automatically a good tennis teacher.

Seeing the world through students’ eyes – “Even if a teacher remembers what helped her solve linear equations, write a good paragraph, or understand the concept of gravity, this may not help her students,” say Ball and Forzani. “[T]eaching without attention to learners’ perspectives and prior knowledge is like flying a plane in fog without instruments.”  

Working with groups – Lawyers and doctors usually work one-on-one with their clients; teachers must somehow orchestrate learning for a whole class.

Teacher proficiency in these three areas is at the heart of improving underperforming schools, say Ball and Forzani. Unfortunately, most teacher-education programs do a mediocre job, and too many teachers learn on the job, which can result in:

-    Improvising ways of teaching that are ineffective;

-    Teaching students mnemonic devices that help them remember but not understand;

-    Favoring some children;

-    Using punitive discipline techniques.

“Winging it doesn’t work,” say Ball and Forzani. There’s a crying need to “identify a common set of high-leverage practices that underlie effective teaching and to develop ways to teach them.”

To fill this void, they have launched the Teacher Education Initiative at the University of Michigan. Their team narrowed an initial list of more than 200 teaching practices to 19 high-leverage practices that significantly increase student learning. One example: the teacher’s ability to recognize ideas and misconceptions that students at a particular grade level have when they encounter a given idea (e.g., why fifth graders are so often confused by the process of photosynthesis). The Teacher Education Initiative also aims to help teachers build on student strengths – for example, using African-American adolescents’ experience with word play to engage in complex literary analysis.

As they have worked to identify high-leverage practices, researchers have grappled with three challenges:

            Each subject area has different demands. The kinds of questions that spur learning in a history class are quite different from those that are effective in a math class.

            Cultural context matters. “Introducing 9th graders to the work of Maya Angelou may be a somewhat different task in a suburban Connecticut classroom than it is in a classroom in rural Mississippi,” say Ball and Forzani.

            The knowledge base is undeveloped. Other professions have broken down skills to a helpful “grain size” – for example, medical students learning how to conduct a physical examination – but for the most part, education hasn’t. Teaching goals and evaluation criteria tend to be too microscopic – for example, wait-time – or too abstract – “Planning instruction” or  “Engaging students in using methods of inquiry.” A more useful grain size would include the specific skills such as:

-    Launching a task with students;

-    Conducting a whole-group discussion;

-    Creating norms for talking and listening;

-    Using learning goals to keep the discussion focused on its point;

-    Quickly checking on students’ understanding;

-    Figuring out and responding to what students say;

-    Connecting students’ contributions;

-    Tying up the discussion;

-    Writing careful feedback on a student’s essay;

-    Designing an assessment that will give helpful information on learning;

-    Discussing a student’s progress with a caregiver.

“Teachers who cannot marshal these skills effectively may be able to generate some collective talk in their classrooms but will be limited in their ability to use discussions to achieve specific learning goals,” say Ball and Forzani.

A major goal of the Teacher Education Initiative is to steer the teaching profession away from idiosyncratic, on-the-spot improvisation that is often unproductive. “Surgeons do not invent techniques at their pleasure that fit their ‘style,’” say Ball and Forzani. “Pilots do not creatively land planes. Of course, skilled practitioners flexibly adapt to conditions, but they do not make up practices according to their individual ‘way’ of doing things. There is a professionally based bottom line: Surgeons must meticulously carry out procedures that result in high levels of success; pilots must land planes safely. Teachers, too, must teach skillfully so their students learn.”

Identifying those common practices, they believe, will provide a common professional language for teacher training, professional development, and evaluation.


“Teaching Skillful Teaching” by Deborah Loewenberg Ball and Francesca Forzani in Educational Leadership, December 2010/January 2011 (Vol. 68, #4, p. 40-45),; the authors are at and

From the Marshall Memo