Teach Like an Expert: Using the EMPOWER model

By Adam Fachler and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, Professor of English Education at Boise State University; Director of the Boise State Writing Project, featured speakers at the CCIRA Conference in February 

Previously on this blog, literacy powerhouse Dr. Mary Howard wrote:

“…we are so busy filling our schools with programs, packages, quick fixes and magic bullets that we forgot to ‘fill the heads of our teachers with the body of knowledge’ that would make those programs null and void and help us realize just how stupid many of their suggestions are.”

This specialized body of knowledge has a name, pedagogical content knowledge, and it’s the hallmark of teacher expertise. It’s what enables a teacher to know:

  • how to apprentice novice learners into expertise with a given strategy or problem-solving task
  • the best ways to represent a particular concept or strategy (e.g. through analogies, examples/non-examples, demonstrations, etc.) and to help learners develop a mental model for understanding and using what they’ve learned
  • How to help learners navigate the productive struggle that inevitably arises when learning how to do a new complex task, like reading a new genre or using a new reading or composing strategy.

Here’s the big takeaway: without pedagogical content knowledge, we will lack the mindful capacity to guide learners to develop and apply deep and transferable expertise.

So, how do teachers actually develop and use expertise?

One way to develop this specialized understanding of pedagogical content knowledge (knowing how to teach learners how to do something) is to use a planning format that mirrors and reinforces the moves of highly effective teachers.

If you peruse curriculum sources like publishers’ websites, Teachers Pay Teachers, blogs, and Pinterest, then you will observe the nearly limitless variability of teacher planning templates. While we are all for open-endedness and creativity, very few of these planning formats actually meet the high bar of the correspondence concept in that they do not correspond with how effective teachers plan nor how successful learners learn in the real-world contexts of college and career.

Just as artists practice their craft and create anew on canvas, educators, too, need a space where they can practice their craft, move towards expertise, and design the highest quality instructional experiences possible.

Introducing EMPOWER

EMPOWER is a seven step process for teaching anyone anything. It is based on research from human development, cognitive science, the development of expertise and other fields.  It organizes the seven “must make moves” that expert educators enact in designing effective instruction into a convenient, powerful model for learning design. Further, EMPOWER is the kind of mental model and map that guides expertise of any kind (Ericsson & Poole, 2016). It is an example of the kind of mental model that we must help students to understand and use to guide them when they read or compose an argument of judgment, a story with a twist, an ironic monologue or any other kind of genre that is new to them:

Screen Shot 2018-11-06 at 6.25.58 AM

Unlike more “schoolish” formats, EMPOWER draws from real-world teaching-learning situations and organizes them into a powerful story:

First, educators ENVISION a future destination for learners and MAP out a proven path to achieving that outcome. Then they PRIME learners for the journey ahead by tapping into background knowledge and interests, and ORIENT the learning by pointing towards the destination, the purpose and payoff of reaching it, and laying out a plan for getting there. They then WALKTHROUGH a new strategy—modeling a new way of thinking about or solving a problem or task that can become a mental model or map to guide future use—and EXTEND learners’ expertise in that strategy through deliberate practice, fading as learners’ skills develop. Ultimately, the educator offers—or helps the learners find—a “call to action” that challenges them to EXPLORE new territory. Throughout the journey, the educator invites learners to REFLECT on progress and process.

The framework naturally organizes into two categories, behind-the-scenes big picture planning and student-facing instructional planning.

Screen Shot 2018-11-06 at 6.28.13 AM

Rather than having you reinvent the wheel, EMPOWER probably links to much of the brainstorming you are doing anyway, but does so in a consistent pattern that reflects what is known about effective teaching and learning:

Screen Shot 2018-11-06 at 6.29.36 AM.png

Educators who wish to build a new canvas work through each stage of the framework, populating it with ideas that can be captured via sticky notes or shorthand.  For example, when designing a unit on civil rights, a first pass at the EMPOWER canvas might look something like this:

Screen Shot 2018-11-06 at 6.30.26 AM

On a finished canvas like the one above, each sticky note serves as a “placeholder” for what will become a more evolved instructional activity or plan. (Want a FREE blank EMPOWER canvas? Click here.) For example, the “Civil Rights survey” and vocabulary sticky notes are shown in “expanded form” below:

EMPOWER-ing your curriculum at every level

While most designs for learning only allow you to design at one level–either the unit or the lesson–EMPOWER works at every level of the instructional design process because of its grounding in generative principles about all teaching and learning. Educators who EMPOWER their curriculum infuse research-based principles, design thinking, and thoughtful strategy throughout each level of their planning as more macro-level unit canvases inform modules and instructional sequences that inform individual lessons.  This develops curricular coherence, an important feature of instruction that most assists the most struggling learners.

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In our session at the upcoming CCIRA conference as well as in our forthcoming book, EMPOWER Your Teaching (Spring 2019, Corwin Press), we will provide you with ideas for planning powerful units and lessons that will move you from your goals to concrete teaching strategies that will help learners meet those goals. Our intention in this blog is to help you internalize our big picture thinking around the unit level (what’s captured on sticky notes) before circling back to explore each strategy (and lesson-level canvases) of cognitively apprenticing learners towards expertise as readers, composers and problem-solvers.

Getting to your first draft

When you (a) have extremely clear targets for what each must-make move of your unit plan should contain, and  (b) can write these out in shorthand, creatively constricted by the confines of a sticky note, your planning efforts will be highly focused, effective, and productive.

Like a painter who obsesses over every brush stroke of a new painting, educators engaged in the nitty gritty work of curriculum design can find it taking days and weeks to truly nail down their learning plans. But in an environment where we often need our curricular solutions done yesterday, this process can be inefficient.

Therefore, we recommend the following tips:

  1. Sketch a canvas in one sitting. While a unit plan can take weeks or months to write, your initial canvas should be sketched quickly. Yes, you read that right. Set a timer and get your first draft down in the space of one prep period. You are going to come back to the document anyway, and as the saying goes “1>0”; having most of the canvas boxes completed with 50% detail beats one complete, thoroughly detailed box any day.  It can also be very productive and fun to work with a colleague to draft out a unit or lesson plan with EMPOWER. Screen Shot 2018-11-06 at 6.33.39 AM2. It’s okay to leave sections incomplete… Rather than trying to research or debate the “right” answers, put something down quickly or leave it blank and come back to it later. Some elements like your unit’s mental models of expertise may take time to figure out. The canvas is meant to be an organic document that evolves over time. It’s okay to say “I don’t know” right now.
    3. …but not the first two sections. Remember: if you’re adopting a learning-centric approach, your learning designs will be less about what you will teach and more about what students will learn to do to independence. If you skip Envisioning and Mapping, you have no chance of successfully POWER-ing the rest of your unit. We advocate flexibility but starting with [E] and [M] is a must.

Conclusion: We cannot defy gravity

Whether we “believe” in it or not, we are still subject to the inescapable effects of gravity. We feel similarly about EMPOWER. Whether or not educators acknowledge that the EMPOWER pattern underlies the most effective teaching-learning situations, we (and by extension, our learners) are still subject to its effects.

An immediate example: imagine a teacher who does not Envision their students’ learning outcomes in sufficient enough detail and the resulting aimlessness that teacher’s students are likely to feel. After all, if the educator does not know the direction of the unit, how can students?

Screen Shot 2018-11-06 at 6.34.34 AM

Similarly, if an educator fails to Map out the unit into digestible pieces, it can lead to learners feeling overwhelmed at the depth or breadth of the content; and if that same educator chooses not to Prime or Orient students at the beginning of the unit, then those students may feel too disconnected or unmotivated to pursue the energy-intensive act of learning.

Suffice it to say that we cannot defy gravity anymore than we can defy the  “science laws” (as determined by the sciences of human development and cognition!) embodied in a principled paradigm like EMPOWER. In fact, once we started using EMPOWER, we started noticing missed opportunities in even our most successful lessons and units and steps we were tempted to skip in the instructional design process that would have come back to haunt us later.

With the “must make moves” embedded into our toolkit, we are guided to include all the essential elements of sound pedagogy, and we are deepening pedagogical content knowledge every single day.

If you are interested in a free copy of our canvas tool prior to our CCIRA session, get a blank EMPOWER canvas here (By the bye, our session is: 169. EMPOWER YOUR TEACHING! Teaching with Inquiry!) Our website provides other resources for using EMPOWER and how to enact pedagogical moves aligned to each of these principles of effective teaching and learning.

Ericcson, A. & Poole, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. New York: Houghton-Mifflin.

Adam Fachler, Education Consultant, Creator of the EMPOWER Method. Adam worked as an educator, coach, and interim principal at the Bronx School for Young Leaders, a public middle school. Adam completed the NYCDOE’s Leaders in Education Apprenticeship Program in 2014. In 2015, he co-authored the proposal for the School in the Square Public Charter School, a Washington Heights middle school, now open and in its second year.

Jeffrey D. Wilhelm is an internationally-known teacher, author, and presenter. He is driven by a desire to help teachers to help their students to more powerful literacy and compassionate, democratic living. A classroom teacher for fifteen years, Jeff is currently Professor of English Education at Boise State University. He works in local schools as part of a Virtual Professional Development Site Network sponsored by the Boise State Writing Project, and regularly teaches middle and high school students.  He is the founding director of the Maine Writing Project and the Boise State Writing Project. Wilhelm co-authored numerous books and articles, most notably, Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys.

Author: CCIRAblog

Check out CCIRA's website today at ccira.org

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