Monday, 11 September 2017

Intentional by Design: We use the gradual release of responsibility model not only with student learners, but with adult learners as well.

In January, we identified hallmarks of a structure that we use when working with a system or school over time. The following is the fifth of seven posts that serve to illuminate those hallmarks.

“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” 
                                                                                        - Anton Chekov
“Show, don’t just tell.”

We’ve all heard this adage, and in particular referring to the area of writing.  Great writers create images for us that extend beyond the written word.  And yet, like many truly profound ideas, it applies to so much more than the teaching of writing.

“Show, don’t just tell” could also be the tagline for the gradual release of responsibility model of instruction (Pearson & Gallagher, 1983). In this model, learners develop an understanding of quality as they watch a teacher or classmate demonstrate or model how to do something, describing his or her thinking as they proceed. During shared practice, the student assumes more of the responsibility for the learning and yet is still supported by the teacher and other learners in the community. Further responsibility is given over to the student when he or she moves into independent practice. Using the gradual release of responsibility with students is a key strategy in our work with students.

We believe in “Show, don’t just tell” when it comes to adult learners as well. Working as a community of learners and truly digging into questions of practice benefits greatly from the gradual release of responsibility.

Consider the account of a K-8 school where the goal was to write authentic and meaningful learning destinations so that students would know where they were going, and indeed, would be motivated to actually go there. Initially I shared with a group of teachers some learning destinations I had created and then modelled my process for bringing curriculum outcomes, big ideas, and competencies together. I shared samples from others and we discussed the various formats and what seemed important in writing effective learning destinations that could truly guide our teaching and inspire our students to learn. Next we wrote learning destinations with grade level partners and shared them across teams, engaging in feedback cycles and conversations. At this point, some teachers began writing their own learning destinations and others continued to work with a partner or group. After three months of practice and exploration we came together again to share examples, ask questions, and talk about our learning.

Now let’s reflect on the use of the gradual release of responsibility with leaders.  A group of 32 school principals wanted to learn more about the coaching stance as a learning-focussed interaction.  While many of them thought that they notionally knew what it meant to be both leader and coach, they were uncertain of what it looked like practically. Over the course of several opportunities to come together, we followed this approach to learning:
·      I modelled several coaching conversations with teachers. Leaders were not simply passive observers, but scripted what I was saying. Each time, we unpacked what they had noticed and discussed the ways in which the demonstrations increased their understanding of coaching from the position of leader.
·      Next, we practiced together. In these instances (three in total), I began to coach a teacher. Approximately every four minutes or so, I would pause and turn to the group and ask them to write down what they might say next to this individual. We shared those ideas aloud in the group, I selected the one with which to continue, and the conversation unfolded in these deliberate chunks.
·      After that, leaders met in groups of three to practice. One leader coached the other, while the third scripted what the coach had said. In this way, the leader-coach could later reflect on his/her words.  A body of evidence was also being created that could demonstrate growth and progress over time. As the leaders practiced, my role was to listen carefully, re-direct when required, and re-teach when patterns across the room emerged.

The principals agreed that this would be the focus of their learning for the year and would precede coaching teachers in their own schools. The deliberate and conscious use of the gradual release of responsibility permitted the principals to take risks, while at the same time increasing their competence, capacity, and confidence.  (It is important to note that all of the teachers who were involved knew that they were assisting us in refining our instructional leadership and that this was not part of their supervisory cycle.)

As leaders, we leverage the powerful structures of classroom pedagogy. The gradual release of responsibility is one such structure. Just like we may hear students ask us to show them what we mean, we also hear those words from the adult learners whom we support and supervise.  And so why wouldn’t we use the gradual release of responsibility as an opportunity to strengthen our instructional leadership, as we “Show, don’t just tell.”

In our next post, we will further examine the sixth hallmark that we outlined in January 2017- We identify what we want the learners to notice as we teach and facilitate.

Written with my colleague Sandra Herbst


Pearson, P.D. & Gallagher, M. 1983. The instruction of reading apprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology, Vol. 8(3):317-344.