Minneapolis science teacher: Focused Instruction makes sense

Michael O'Connor

"Science teachers like things numbered, sequenced, and bullet-pointed," said science teacher Michael O'Connor. "I can see why English or social studies teachers might not like this approach, though."

Michael O’Connor has been teaching high school science in the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) for more than a decade. He is currently teaching 9th grade physics and biology at Washburn High School. As part of an ongoing series on curriculum, including the use of “Focused Instruction” in the Minneapolis Public Schools, I spoke with O’Connor about how the district’s latest approach to teaching is impacting his work.

In your view, what is the purpose of Focused Instruction?

At the high school level, I think MPS is using Focused Instruction as a way to equalize schedules across the district. To me, it makes sense. If someone is teaching a particular course, it should be available at all of the city’s high schools.

Does student mobility factor into this?

When I was teaching at Roosevelt High School, before I came to Washburn, student mobility was more of an issue. At Roosevelt, up to one-third of my students would leave in any semester, and another third would then be new. When there were more science offerings across the district, a student might start Environmental Science in one school, and then transfer to another school that didn’t offer that class. Now, all 9th graders in the district, for example, will take a semester of physics and a semester of biology. This could be important because, like foreign languages, with science there is a huge amount of vocabulary to learn. Consistent course offerings could help with this.

What is your view of the Focused Instruction curriculum for high school physics courses?

I think it is pretty well laid out. Some very thoughtful, deliberate thinkers and science teachers in the district, such as Meg Hoyt and John Rozeboom, who reached out to other physics teachers for feedback, put it together. Science teachers like things numbered, sequenced, and bullet-pointed. I can see why English or social studies teachers might not like this approach, though.

Do you see Focused Instruction as an asset for teachers?

A lot of folks will understandably think that Focused Instruction is about moving creativity away from teachers, but I see how it can help teachers. In physics and biology, Focused Instruction can provide teachers with a strong sense of suggested materials. It tells teachers what the learning targets for each class are, and it provides book references and suggested labs.

What role does technology play in your classrooms, when it comes to Focused Instruction?

There are different instructional and technology initiatives going on at the same time, which can mean teachers are learning content and technology delivery at the same time. I am lucky enough to have a laptop cart for my students because I was in a “blended learning” pilot program. This has allowed me to use an online program called “PhET,” which has wonderful simulations that help students understand Physics. Another science teacher in the building, however, was part of a Chromebook pilot. He has Chromebooks for his students, but those do not support the PhET program, and so his students can’t access the simulations. This teacher has been trying to write code on his own time, so that his students can participate in the PhET site, but that’s hard to do. Without technology, I might be singing a different tune when it comes to using the Focused Instruction units.

Accountability is a big theme in public education these days. How does “accountability” factor in to Focused Instruction?

Focused Instruction requires that benchmark tests be given at the end of each unit of study (there are five units per semester in Physics). The students take these on paper first and then transfer their answers, on a laptop, to a computer system called “Classroom for Success,” which is how the district accesses their scores. These benchmark tests provide quick snapshots for the district and let MPS see where students are when it comes to understanding the material. When it comes to accountability, we also have to be able to satisfy the community around us and convince them to send their children to our school. A lot of people are busy and want to be sure their kids are being adequately prepared, and this is one way to show that.

Do you see any issues with the implementation of Focused Instruction?

With something aiming this wide you’re going to have more than a few bumps. My question is, how much will the district seek honest feedback? Will there be a commitment to a full evaluation of Focused Instruction? Is there the money and the will to revisit it and make it more effective? A quote I heard once from a colleague comes to mind: “Americans love to build but hate to maintain.”

  • I'd be interested to know how the curriculum engages and ignites interest in students. Clearly the main point here is for the district to measure outcomes as they assess school programs (and teachers?), which are important assessments. But if the curriculum does little to raise student completion and graduation rates across demographics, we'll have solid district-level measurement of a perhaps unsuccessful classroom approach. Interesting insights, thanks Mr. O'Connor. - by Kathleen DeVore on Tue, 01/21/2014 - 1:59pm
  • Interesting. Maybe tis approach does work best with very quantifiably based subject areas and not in English and social studies. And he does make the excellent point about having technology available, which the other teacher doesn't have. I hope both districts access these stories. Well-done! - by Peggy Rader on Wed, 01/15/2014 - 4:19pm

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Sarah Lahm

Sarah Lahm (sarah dot lahm at gmail dot com) is a writer, blogger, and former English Instructor, and has children in the Minneapolis Public Schools.