Musical interlude #4
How does monitoring help?
Evidence-based education goes beyond employing strategies and practices that have scientifically documented benefits. Another important aspect of evidence-based instruction is monitoring whether strategies and practices, as implemented in day-to-day instructional situations are having those anticipated benefits.
We know that we’re working with exceptional children, so we should understand that even when we employ well-researched practices, there’s still a chance that they may not “work” with one of more of our students—they may be the exception! Maybe our implementation wasn’t so special or maybe this student really need something waaay different. We won’t know unless we assess our students’ performance.
Said another way: Not only should we champion guiding our special education practices by consulting resarch, but we also should collect and respond to data about the evidence about our own instruction. To me, this is a foundational feature of being a special educator.
We should assess the effects of our instruction (academic or social) and adapt that instruction so that we can produce better outcomes for our students. To do so, we have to montior students’ behavior.
If something is worth teaching, it’s worth assessing to determine whether our teaching is succeeding.
Monitoring takes time, especially if one is going to do it well. It’s tempting to think that the time could be used more beneficially doing something else. However, considering that teachers who employ monitoring procedures are likely to have more successful students, the time is probably well spent. I’ll come back to this in a paragraph or two.
First, though, let’s just consider the logic. Why would educators monitor student’s behavior? Uhmmm…because we give a damn about their outcomes. We want them to have successes! If we want our students to have better outcomes, then we need to know what outcomes they have so that we can assess whether those outcomes are better than the outcomes they had previously. This is the fundamental logic of a comparison. Is Outcome A greater (or lessor) than Outcome B? The only way to know is to monitor the outcomes under conditions A and B.
In addition, let me argue that monitoring matters. In a classic study, Lynn and Doug Fuchs (1986) showed that teachers who used systematic progress-monitoring procedures—what we now routinely call “curriculum-based assessment”—had students who had substantially better outcomes than teachers who did not use those procedures. Not only were students’ outcomes better (ES = .70), but the students whose those teachers who used behavior modification procedures had even greater benefits (ES with behavior mod = 1.1, without = 0.5). There are plenty of replications of this effect.
How to monitor
So, beyond the logic, there is some method. How we monitor matters.
Cutting to the chase: We should monitor objectively. It’s not fair to monitor on one metric when assessing the benefits of our least-favored method (whether that’s direct, explicit instruction, student-centered methods, etc.) and then switch outcome assessments when arguing the same comparison. It’s whacky to argue that, for example, “These veggies are red and orange, so they are healthy” and then turn around and say, “Well, these veggies are green, so they are more healthy.” Unless “healthy” is assessed on the same metric, that’s bologna (which isn’t healthy?).
So, we must ascertain the fundamental basis for our monitoring. That basis, I suggest, should be predicated on students’ benfits. We should assess those outcomes that matter for student’s futures.
So, we should monitor on an objective basis. And that basis should also reflect important outcomes.
So, for example, as strongly as I advocate that it’s important to teach young children letter-sound correspondences, I want educators to understand that learning grapheme-phoneme connections is only a stair-step along the way to really reading. So, in the long run, we need to assess really reading, meaning getting new learning from what one is reading. We need to adapt our monitoring according to learners’ levels of accomplishment. Early on, it might be letter-sounds, but it might become word reading, and then it ought to become Stan Deno’s “generalized outcome measure” or reading connected text aloud. (Now, I know some advocates of CBM might differ with me, here, but I hope they are willing to acknowledge the importance of assessing what one is teaching.)
One strategy for monitoring is simply to watch what’s going on in a setting, what a student is doing. Lawrence Peter Berra—he was a baseball player and coach who was known as “Yogi”—explained the rationale for this approach succinctly: “You can observe a lot by watching.”
Watching successfully, however, requires that one employ the strategy carefully. These suggestions probably will help one to observe effectively.
It’s easy to fall into The Interpretation Whirlpool. The whirlpool occurs when one seeks to explain behavior rather than simply describing or reporting it. “Why in the world would he do that?” “Well, she’s just trying to get peer attention.” “That silly kid would do just about anything to avoid working on math sheets.”1 (One can tell if he’s fallen into the Interpretation Whirlpool by, ahem, monitoring his own behavior: If you’re piling interpretations atop speculations, you’re at risk of going down the drain.)
It’s often important to record systematically what one’s observing. “Systematically” means “according to a plan that’s executed faithfully.” What is the behavior one’s observing? Under what conditions are the observations being conducted? Of course, one can complete less-formal observations, but they need to have an asterisk so that they won’t carry unmerited weight when one is making sense of observational evidence.
The methods of “CBM” and related approaches are valuable here.
Well, yes, it is a musical interlude…so we need a song. Let’s try this by Police and Sting:
Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take I'll be watching you
Every single day Every word you say
Every game you play
Every night you stay
I'll be watching you
Oh, can't you see
You belong to me
How my poor heart aches with every step you take
Here is a marvelous version of that song by Sting and Bruce Stringsteen.
Now, sure, don’t feel stalked, but catch the love. It’s important to monitor. So, how do we remember “monitoring?” This song is an alternative prompt.
Berra, Y. (1998). The Yogi book. Workman Publishing.
Fuchs, L. S., & Fuchs, D. (1986). Effects of systematic formative evaluation: A meta-analysis. Exceptional children, 53(3), 199-208.
Note, by the way, that the Interpretation Whirlpool often occurs when the observer focuses on a single instance of behavior rather than basing interpretations on multiple, documented occurrences of behavior. This helps to explain the differencee between the Interpretation Whirlpool and valuable methods for ascertaining the causes of behavior (especially, functional behavior assessment).