Classroom Instruction that Works, the book is called, and it is a very valuable primer, it could be a terrific school-wide bible and centerpiece for referencing what is research based teaching excellence. It consists of very good, solid, meta-analysis of hundreds of research reports. Comparing and Contrasting, Quality Note-taking, Recognizing Student Achievement, Promoting Student Effort, Homework, Quality Feedback: they really do make a real difference.

Now, three caveats:

1. Marzano’s ‘scientific’ agenda is explicit, and induces in me a conflicted response. He is determined to shift the field of teaching “from an ‘art’ to a ‘science.'” For me, whose ten year teaching career began right out of college, and for which I never had a teaching credential or ‘scientific’ teaching preparation, I was always proud of the ‘art’ of my teaching: inspired, inspiring, engaging, vigorous, intellectual, problematizing, richly relational– but never, I thought, never ‘scientific.’ And yet, here I am, ready to embrace the significance of research supported instructional strategies– and I am, ready to, but still seeking to reconcile or synthesize them with the value of teaching ‘artistry.’ What does this mean in practice? In hiring, it means I will still value, still eagerly hire an artistic teacher (uncredentialed, unschooled in the research, but passionate about subject, energetic and engaging interpersonally), but I will ask, insist, that these folks be serious about studying Marzano, and utilizing this kind of research in lesson planning, and I won’t consider someone who in some way indicates a lack of interest or readiness to employ research-based strategies.

2. Achievement here in Marzano is a pretty narrow concept– it is about standardized test scores. Everything recommended in the book, every research-based strategy, is established upon the evidence it raises test scores, but we can worry that there is more to learning and school than that. What about motivation, what about curiosity, what about compassion, what about creativity, what about mental health, what about participation, what about the many things we want instruction to accomplish that are not measured by test scores?

3. As Marzano himself acknowledges, even calls attention to, there is no differentiation here for grade levels or aptitude. A struggling LD student in first grade and an IB honors student in 12th grade might, we could guess, benefit from dramatically different instructional strategies, yet this book offers no such differentiation. Marzano writes that “teachers should rely on their knowledge of their students, their subject matter, and their situation to indentify the most appropriate instructional strategies [from amongst the ones in this work].”

Marzano appears very much to this writer to lay a good claim to being the Jim Collins of educational research. I realize they are different in their approach to research: Collins and his team do original, long-term, rich research, whereas Marzano uses the tool of meta-analysis of exisiting research. But they parallel each other in the seriousness of their following the data: there is no agenda, no bias, no pre-condition– they want to wallow in as deep a data pool as they can, and from the deep data only generate the significant strategies. (They are both based in Colorado, too.).

Marzano organizes his book into 9 suggested strategies (some of which are awkwardly combined pairs of strategies), each with its own chapter, and then five more “specific type of knowledge.” What he calls “The Nine” I think could be considered as 18 or 19 in total. I am choosing to focus my discussion on about dozen of them, organized in the order he offers, which roughly corresponds to the significance of each, i.e. the size of impact they make on student achievement, from most to least.

1. Identifying Similarities & Differences, (or Comparing & Contrasting)
This teaching “strategy” tops Marzano’s list, with by far the greatest impact on student learning, which comes as a bit of a relief to me, a former English and History teacher who has assigned many, many compare and contrast essays in my time. The found impact is enormous– an average effect size of 1.61, or a percentile increase of 45 points! Admittedly it is a pretty large category– so large that you can start to wonder whether it a bit tautological to say that it is a recommended instrutional strategy, it being so central to all teaching. Contained within the category are Venn Diagrams, C&C essays, and learning of metaphor and analogues. To whit: “Researchers have found these mental operations to be basic to human thought. Indeed, they might be considered the ‘core’ of all learning.” Yes. Certainly, making metaphors and finding analogues are intellectual projects that define us as humans, and we do need to teach this, explicitly and emphatically. A tad self-evident, but essential to be sure.

2. Notetaking
Students who know how to, and have been taught effectively to, take notes, will be significantly more successful. This is true too of the closely related and intertwined work of summarizing. Some points: Verbatim notetaking is the least effective way to take notes; notes should be considered works in progress; notes should be used as study guides for tests; the more notes that are taken, the better. (I have a vivid memory of being a freshman in college, preparing for my first final exams, and being a bit overwhelmed by the vast quantity of information in my Comp. Gov course. I spent about 8 hours rewriting all my lecture notes into my computer, and was subsequently stunned by the mastery I felt during the exam.) “Although we sometimes refer to summarizing and note-taking as mere ‘study skills,’ they are two of the most powerful skills students can cultivate. They provide students with the tools for identifying and understanding the most important aspects of what they are learning.”

3. Reinforcing Effort
Carol Dweck’s book, Mindset, is quite in vogue this year, and it should be. Her research very powerfully demonstrates the significance of how we think about our abilities, and if we just can persuade ourself to believe that if we try hard enough to do something, our performance dramatically improves. It is the same here: A student’s “belief in effort is the most useful attribution” for success. “Not all students realize the importance in believing in effort,” but “students can learn to change their beliefs to an emphasis on effort.” “Reinforcing effort can help teach students one of the most valuable lessons they can learn– the harder you try, the more successful you are.”

4. Recognition of Student Accomplishment

Marzano really dives into this complicated subject, and jumps into the fray regarding praise, rewards and intrinsic v. extrinsic motivation. Many of are steeped in Alfie Kohn’s fierce advocacy for exclusively intrinsic motivation, and so it greatly appreciated that Marzano explicitly speaks to Alfie. Marzano does accept Kohn in that there is evidence of rewards creating a small decrease in intrinsic motivation when measured by students’ “free time activity” but not when measuring students attitudes or ability/achievement. To summarize: “rewards do not necessarily have a negative effect on intrinsic motivation; reward is most effective when it is contigent on the attainment of some standard of performance; and, abstract symbolic recognition , especially praise, is more effective than tangible rewards.” “Providing recognition for attainment of specific goals not only enhances achievement, but it stimulates motivation.” This really resonates here: I don’t like prizes or rewards, and don’t want gimmicky motivators, but praise matters– it impacts– especially when it is specific, contigent, spontaneous, and attributes success to effort.

5. Homework
Homework adds value, the research establishes. We are all enaged in the 21st c. “homework wars,” thanks in part again to Alfie Kohn, but the research of Marzano, with much reference to Duke’s homework guru Harris Cooper. Points to consider, all of with which I concur: it should ratchet upwards with advancing grades, but should start as early as second grade; parental involvement should be minimized; homework purpose should be clearly articulated; if homework is assigned it should be commented upon; and schools should establish and communicate a homework policy. Homework is a good thing, and the 10xgradelevel rule is a really useful rule of thumb.

6. Nonlinguistic Representation
Learning via multiple modalities is common currency these days: let’s provide, insist, students engage with and master concepts via approaches other than verbal/linguistic. Draw a picture, create a diagram, act out a performance: create visual/symbolic and bodily/kinesthetic learning opportunities for everything complex. And, it is not just a good idea: the research supports it strongly. “Probably the most underutilized instructional category of all those reviewed in this book– creating nonlinguistic representations– helps students understand content in a whole new way.”

7. Cooperative Learning
Do it thoughfully, avoid ability grouping, do it sparingly, keep groups small, and student learning does improve. “Of all classroom grouping strategies, cooperative learning may be the most flexible learning and powerful.” I would add that today’s digital tools can really enhance this approach; student chat rooms, peer review, classroom bulletin boards, asynchronous classroom discussion all can make for high quality cooperative learning. The student work demonstrated by English teacher Jonathan Howland at Urban School for instance, where his students posed to each other textual interpretations and got engaged in so-what and problematizing naysaying (see Graff) discourse really helped them sharpen their writing and argumentation, and it is all done, or mostly done, digitally.

8. Providing Feedback
Powerful it can be. Marzano refers to another meta-analysis, of nearly 8000 studies (!): “the most powerful single modification that enhances achievement is feedback. The simples prescription for improving education must be ‘dollops of feedback.'” Marzano makes these points: “Feedback should be corrective; timely, specific and criterion referenced; and students can effectively provide some of their own feedback.” Rubrics, Marzano goes on to point out, can be a valuable tool for feedback.

9. Questioning
Like Wiggins and Graff, two others I have been reading lately, the point made here is that research supports instructional strategies by which students really organize their learning around key, critical, higher level, analytical questions. Wait, pause, before accepting students answers– and use questions throughout as a framing technique and followup. Ask students to critique in order to sharper their questioning and analysis.

10. Vocabulary
Delving into what Marzano calls teaching specific types of knowledge, I want to call attention to two of his five key points. First, he presents a strong research backed case for teaching vocabulary “in a systematic way at virtually every grade level.” He engages with, and counters, the argument which I have been a fan of at times that reading alone– sustained silent reading it is sometimes called– will do enough to, or even will better achieve the goal of bolstering vocabulary. Instead, he says “students must encounter words in context many times to learn them, instruction in new words enhances learning those words in context, one of the best ways to learn a new word is to associate an image with it, direct vocabulary instruction works, and finally, direct instruction on words that are critical to new content produces the most powerful learning.” Sign me up for support of more frequent, more concentrated vocabulary instruction.

11. Organizing Ideas
Finally– and forgive my long-windedness– I like Marzano’s discussion of what he calls “organizing ideas,” and I think he gives it short shrift. Details are important, and another section of this chapter deals with how to teach details, but I am more drawn to the case for having students use “generalizations” to organize their ideas, and to understand why we bother with details in the first place: to support general ideas or propositions with supporting facts. I also like the connection here to Graff, whom I wrote about yesterday, and who is a great advocate for the theory we must teach to think via argument. To quote Marzano: “The biggest conceptual change comes when students must provide a sound defense or argument for their position.”