Instructional Practice to Foster Intellectual Engagement Centered on Instructional Equity

Student places sticky notes in front of class

University-level instructors need strategies to assist with engaging students intellectually in the critical work of centering classroom thinking and scholarship on equity and social justice. In my case, students in my classes are full-time teachers enrolled in a graduate transformational leadership program (GSTs). As an instructor, my goal is two-fold: (1) to teach and model a strategy that will engage my adult graduate students, and (2) to inspire the strategy’s application to students in their own PK-12 classrooms.

In the example that follows, the instructional goal of my lesson was to elicit the GSTs’ understanding of “achievement gaps” and “instructional root causes” for perceived student underperformance. In the lesson described below, I adapted the Eisenhower Matrix and Stephen Covey’s (1989) version of the Matrix to facilitate cognitive brainstorming and to capture student thinking.

The lesson description of “University Instructor Moves” combines adaptations of the Matrix as well as Frank Lyman’s (1981, 2016) Think-Pair-Share and Example to Idea strategy from the Think Trix. This combination served the GSTs well as they were engaged with the content, process, and product. Note: This idea can be adapted for in-person or virtual instruction.

The Eisenhower Matrix Covey Adaption:
Horizontal axis label: sense of urgency
Vertical axis label: scale of low to high

HIGH LOW
HIGH Urgent and important Not urgent but important
LOW Urgent but not important Not urgent and not important
Figure 1. The Eisenhower Matrix Covey Adaptation

University instructor moves

University instructor move 1:  Create and explain the Matrix template

I created a blank, four-quadrant Matrix with only the HIGH and LOW labels on the physical (or virtual) board and shared with students that this adapted Matrix would be used as the class discussion structure.

HIGH LOW
HIGH
LOW
Fig. 2 Blank Matrix

University instructor move 2:  Provide a focus question for the brainstorm

I asked the GSTs, “What kinds of instructional lessons are being prepared, taught, and assessed for all learners? Think about the typical instructional strategies used daily in classrooms and provide specific examples.”  Students were given Wait Time to think, and then were asked to independently write specific activities and brief descriptions on adhesive-backed notecards (if in person) or on their own paper (if virtual).

Example: “What kinds of instructional lessons are being prepared, taught, and assessed for all learners? Think about the typical instructional strategies used daily in classrooms and provide specific examples.”

HIGH LOW
HIGH
LOW
Fig. 3 Blank Matrix with instructor-led focus question

University instructor move 3:  Discuss key terms and concepts

I engaged the GSTs in a discussion and review of key concepts that supported or informed their thinking in this lesson. I also provided time for students to prepare additional notecards (examples of themes elicited by the instructor and students included: equity, access, rigorous content).

University instructor move 4: Facilitate a discussion on the themes discerned by the group

I used Think-Pair-Share to foster small group discussions on concepts provided, such as engagement and rigor. For virtual instruction, I used breakout rooms for pair discussion.

University instructor move 5: Place notecards and/or ideas into the quadrants

Based on the GSTs’ ideas, I created (internally) an initial label for each axis as an organizational tool to gather students’ ideas. Although not shared with the students, an example of each axis label may include:

Horizontal axis label: Level of engagement fostered for all learners
Vertical axis label: Level of rigor taught and assessed to all learners

HIGH ENGAGEMENT LOW ENGAGEMENT
HIGH RIGOR High engagement and high rigor Low engagement and high rigor
LOW RIGOR High engagement but low rigor Low engagement and low rigor
Fig. 4. Sample Matrix using student-generated ideas

Additional university instructor moves:

I called on one student, or pair of students, to either bring their notecard to me, share it verbally, or share it in writing within a virtual space. I then placed the idea in one of the quadrants without making any comments and without labeling the quadrants for the students—or explaining why the activity was placed in a specific quadrant.

  • As an example, one group may provide a notecard or verbal idea that says, “STEM-based experiment.” Another may say, “Using markers to make posters and then sharing the posters with the class.” Without explaining why to the GSTs just yet, I placed the student notecards into specific quadrants—this is based on the student description and where I initially believe the idea belongs.
  • NOTE: I may deem something to have low rigor and low engagement, but I do not give any comments or explanation to the students about why I placed it in the quadrant. And although students may suspect the axes labels, they do not know yet.
  • I repeated this process three or four more times, calling on students one at a time, and placing the card or idea into the quadrant that I felt, at first glance, to which it belonged. It is important to be sensitive to students and be realistic that instructors don’t have a full picture of the activity described yet. It is likely (and expected) that some of the notecards will be misplaced and will need to be moved later in the lesson.

After several cards were placed, I asked GSTs to read the notecards on the Matrix and use Think-Pair-Share to generate possible labels for the quadrant’s horizontal and vertical axes. However, I did not confirm each axis label; rather, the students were asked to provide an example that seemed to fit the criteria for one of the quadrants (example to idea). GSTs will surmise that the activities in the quadrants have some similarities and will generate activities they feel “fit” the quadrant, but still, they are not permitted to supply each axis label.

After repeating this process a few more times, I eventually ask for axes labels, and modify the labels as appropriate to reflect the student-generated ideas, as well as to move any misplaced activities. Once the axes labels are in place, and after restating the goal of the lesson (“to identify what kinds of instructional lessons are being prepared, taught and assessed for all learners as possible root causes for student underperformance”), students share anonymous and authentic classroom/school practices that meet the descriptions students created for the axes.  As a result, this lesson creates a shared understanding of terms, concepts, and experiences as a foundation for the discussion on instructional equity and root causes.

This strategy has been impactful in my graduate classroom. In both the virtual and in-person environments, the level of concern for equity which students voiced, the stated awareness of impact from instructional choices made, and the lively discussion within the class were three evidentiary artifacts that this thoughtful lesson made an impact to teacher agency.

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