John Jensen: The Simplicity of Classroom Turnaround

by John Jensen, Ph.D.

Recent articles have discussed the often-dim prospects of school turnaround (“Turning Around Turnaround – Elephants and the Role of Districts,” Heather Zavadsky, Education Week online, October 1, 2012, and others). The article’s premise  aligns with mainstream discussion of the issue: “Can schools really be improved, meaning, outside of closing them and starting fresh? Good question; we’ve been trying to fix schools for decades, with no clear answer.”

The phrase “…no clear answer” caught me.  Respectfully, there will never be a clear answer if one insists on looking in the wrong places.

John Jensen, Ph.D.

A basic, determinative condition has always been readily under teacher/school control but it does not seize anyone by the ankle unwillingly.  One must look at it squarely and think about it and then do a few actions implied by it. Is this too much to ask?  Not doing so amounts to gross misdirection of resources and effort, like a man getting a nail in his tire and concluding that he needs to buy a new car. No, he can just remove the nail, fix the tire, and he’s good to go.  Pay attention to basic cause and effect and see if that cures 80% of the problem before going on walkabout seeking arcane solutions.

Stated briefly, the problem is that hour by hour teachers spend their time exposing children to learning and involving them in it but not going the extra step to assimilate it.  Exposing and involving, carried on long enough, enable most students to learn most ideas superficially.  Most obtain a tenuous grasp of ideas barely enough for passing a test.

Recently, for instance, I watched a second grade teacher in an exemplary school present points of  grammar.  She is experienced, warm-hearted, and diligent. A few minutes in and I notice kids’ body position tell me they are losing interest even though they continue to face her.  No one writes anything down. Several children unconsciously pick up things to fiddle with, which she admonishes.  As she asks questions of the group, a few raise hands to answer. Because they like her and appreciate her enthusiasm, the period appears successful.

But which students got what?  We can guess here at a nationwide standard: Most-Most.  Most of the students understand most of the presentation. They grasped the meaning of what she was saying.  Chances are likely, however, that possibly a quarter missed some of it and a few missed nearly everything, leaving Most-Most as her average delivery of information.  If we apply the Most-Most principle for another ten years, will it be any surprise that a quarter of this class does not graduate?  Those who got only most but not all of second grade grammar will find it a tad harder to get third and fourth grade grammar even if they get most of it.  Year by year the increment between “all” and “most” widens and the marginal ones fall further behind in actual mastered knowledge until to defend their self-esteem they must ditch school as not for them.

Let’s at least see if we can improve on this one hour of a second grade addressing a few points of grammar. If so, maybe we can scale it up to more class periods, more grades, and more ideas.  What would have needed to happen differently?  The crux of it is really this simple: the laws of assimilating knowledge differ from the laws of grasping it.  We have to do something different once students have crossed the threshold of understanding, but we have to do it for each and every student. Their learning does not occur in a collective brain. The knowledge of the smarter does not supply for the others. The rest have to master it themselves, each creating their own mastered chunk of knowledge. If they fall outside the Most-Most group, we either write them off or else change our methods. What the teacher needed to do was this:

1.  Boil down the points she wanted to convey into specific questions and answers second graders understand.  She explains what she needs to, converts it into efficient notes, and everyone copies them down.  Time taken: 15 minutes.

There are three reasons for doing this. First, the marginal kids need a more specific tool for checking, correcting, and refreshing what they know than their rapidly extinguishing memory of what the teacher just said.  If we do not have them write it down when we first explain it, we guarantee  having to reteach the same material later, wasting time. Second, they need clearly defined questions and answers in order to practice the learning.  Third, questions and answers are how the entire system validates children’s learning anyway, so why not employ the structure steadily to help them learn?

2.  In pairs students practice asking and answering the questions, taking the remaining time in the period.  Enough paper-and-pencil sheets may eventually add up to the required practice, but this assumes that they aren’t pressed for time.  The direct route to making the time more valuable is for students each to explain fully the ideas they have just grasped approximately.

By explaining, they literally form it within.  Whenever we present ideas to another person, we expect to make sense to them, and consequently integrate fragments of thought more effectively than when we just think to ourselves. Practice in answering a question also deepens a child’s memory of it, and speaking to a peer cements its social significance.  In explaining more of what they know, students construct brain pathways that are more complex and complete for later use.

By the end of the period, the teacher can actually score everyone on a chart for the number of points of knowledge they were able to explain to their partner. Time not needed for the current lesson could be devoted to doing the same for all the lessons back to the beginning of the term.  By the end of the year, all students in the class can have all the learning, not “most-most.”

Once we grasp why these changes result in conscious knowledge in a single hour, we can scale them up to a day, a week, or a year, and to every subject and age.  The same requirements exist for each and all: understand it, put it in tangible question-and-answer form, and practice explaining everything back to the beginning of the course. No mystery is involved.  Every step is under teacher control.  Every step works. Cause and effect apply.

If teachers change a few details of their instructional method, they carve off most of the turnaround problem.  With the automobile analogy again, no matter what you do to the engine, if you don’t take the nail out of the tire, the tire will continue to run flat. No matter how many indirect influences with which you surround the classroom, if you do not change how children assimilate knowledge hour by hour, the period will continue to run flat.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the three-volume Practice Makes Permanent series (Rowman and Littlefield). He will send a proof copy of the volumes to anyone on request:

John Jensen, Ph.D.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at