At Westlake, hand-raising and lecturing are out, “learning targets” are in

photo from m_napper’s photostream at flickr.com/creativecommons

This morning, I stopped by one of Oakland’s large, comprehensive middle schools to see what was happening there this year. If you’re not familiar with Westlake, it’s the one across from Whole Foods on Harrison Street, near Lake Merritt. About 600 students go there. Assistant Principal Peter Van Tassell (“VT,” to the kids), an Oakland public schools grad, showed me around.

During passing periods — when Van Tassell wasn’t greeting students by name, rushing stragglers to their next class or telling kids to throw out their gum — we talked about Westlake and about public education in Oakland. (He has some wild stories of OUSD in the 80s, along the lines of what Steve Weinberg described.)

Standardized testing aside, the practice of teaching has also changed quite a bit since either one of us was in school. First off, Westlake teachers are discouraged from lecturing too much and from requiring students to raise their hands before speaking. In the classrooms I observed, students looked busy and focused, often working independently. One teacher rolled the dice to determine who he’d call on to answer a question.

I also learned a couple of new buzz words. This year, in almost every classroom at Westlake (and, apparently, at other Oakland middle schools), each teacher will write a “learning target” on the board so that students know why they’re doing what they’re doing. Teachers are also trying to incorporate a method called “structured cooperative learning” — group work, but where everyone has a specific role instead of one person doing all the work and the others slacking off.

Westlake Principal Misha Karigaca said the focus of his middle school has shifted over the years. “The work is mostly about instruction now, it’s not about operations,” he said, adding that the same principle goes for staff meetings, too.

What practices have you seen or experienced at your middle schools? Are they working? Has yours moved away from hand-raising, as well?

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Nextset

    Interesting. To each his own. I rather think lecturing is a way to impart knowledge quickly, especially when the lecturer has the knowledge and the kiddies don’t. Some subjects are counterintuitive and the students can’t muddle through efficiently and can’t just “experience” the subject (like when it’s dangerous).

    It will be interesting to see how much value is added to these students vs a more traditional approach. Perhaps the subject matter involved makes the difference.

  • oakteach


    It’s a refreshing change for this blog to see a report on what is actually taking place within Oakland schools, rather than the regurgitation of national news or sensational storytelling. Definitely a step in the right direction in my opinion.

    Education theorists have known for generations that cooperative and constructivist learning are more effective ways of teaching for understanding, as opposed to lecture or “banking.” Lecture may be easier and on the surface more efficient, but students retain significantly less information, regardless of subject matter. Some input is usually necessary, but rephrasing and reforming are key to retention.

  • http://friendsofdave.org Dave Johnston

    While reducing lectures and not asking kids to raise their hands is interesting, if you look at the test scores from Westlake Middle, you’ll see they’re quite disappointing. The school hasn’t made much progress in the last 7 years. They’ve never, ever met the Federal AYP targets. They’re a year 5 Program Improvement School (they’d be a higher number of years, except we stop counting after 5 years) with little indication that they’re headed toward getting out of PI.

    Compare their test scores with AIPC or OCA. I’d rather my student went there than to Westlake Middle any day.

  • Nextset

    Oakteach: I can’t agree with your comment above. I’m a lawyer. I work with law graduates from Ivy League schools and from State Bar accredited schools which are not nationally accredited.

    The more expensive schools teach history and theory mainly by lecture. The cheaper, state accredited schools tend to do more of the “cooperative and constructivist learning” you describe. At least that’s how it seems to me.

    The state school grads can be effective in simple and repetitive things that actually are the bulk of a lot of practice. They can be dangerously thin when it comes to comes to uncharted waters, advancing areas of law and first impressions. Also they may know most of the general rules but they are far less capable on the exceptions and even worse on the exceptions to the exceptions. The reasons for this is they were so busy with the “cooperative and constructivist learning” they did not learn why things are the way they are at the various times in question.

    Sorry Oakteach, you don’t learn theory by “cooperative and constructivist learning”. You learn theory by lecture and study.

    Which takes us to the subject of the Black Bar Passage rate and the Black Medical National Boards pass rate. If those students are being put through “cooperative and constructivist learning” rather than the more traditional method you get people who are long on technique and short on underlying science. It makes them more vulnerable to tests that score for the deeper understanding. Like the Bar Exam, and the National Boards.

    Lecture and study is not as fast, not as much fun, and not as exciting as what you are praising here. Be careful – you are pushing a quicker and easier approach to learning that does have fast payoffs but will not allow the students to progress as far.

    Which is why better/more expensive schools don’t rely on it.

    Brave New World.

  • Gordon Danning


    I’m not clear on why you equate “better” with “more expensive” or “private.” When I was a student at Boalt, teaching was as you describe at the “expensive” schools, even though at the time it was quite inexpensive.

    That being said, you make a valid point: The more sophisticated the curriculum, the less useful many “alternative” strategies are. Nevertheless, there is a happy medium: in my AP World History class, I give students evidence and ask them to make inferences therefrom — I dont just lecture and give them “the right answer.” (After all, the most interesting questions in history have no “right” answer). However, I DO make sure that they understand major themes and concepts, and much of that is through lecture. But, I also use handouts and more student-centered discussion, using techniques that seek to get students to ask questions about the material.

  • Harold

    I’ve taught (3) Westlake graduates, the last three years, who are now students at Harvard College – Mr. Johnston

  • Nextset

    Gordon Danning: I have no problem with the State accredited law schools – they are less expensive – but they can’t give the same education as the more expensive ABA schools. It is expensive to maintain full time faculty, it’s expensive to maintain a library of the required size for ABA standards, It’s expensive to have the higher student faculty staff ratios, I can go on, but all the things the ABA requires for accreditation including a full time Dean run up all the bills, which makes that education too expensive for many older students who don’t have the years ahead of them to repay all that cost. To each his own. If you are hellbent of being a public defender anyway, you don’t need all that education in theory because you are going to have narrow practice in criminal law. If you can survive the Bar Exam, that is.

    I have seen over and over students who were trained
    “less expensively” fail to grasp discreet issues that in some cases make the difference. Typically they don’t understand why a rule is the way it is and only memorize current rules. They miss exceptions and exceptions to those exceptions. They don’t pick up on any trends. Most of the time that isn’t a problem anyway. Especially if they stick to well established and common cases.

    For purposes of this discussion I did equate “better” with broader. That’s a subjective thing and it’s not always true. Sometimes you are trying to turn out a bunch of workers in a hurry. Sometimes you are training engineers. With Westlake my point is not to smugly accept the notion that Westlake or any other school in any subject can magically come up with a “new” method of teaching that is more fun, takes less energy and struggle, and is supposedly more effective. If it’s too good to be true it isn’t.

    Harold: Of course Westlake grads can go to Harvard. Obama went to Harvard (and did pot and coke there). That’s not the point. The point is whether the training at Westlake using this method we’re discussing bests prepares students to academically compete with the other Harvard kids after they get there.

  • Nextset

    Gordon Danning: Boalt Hall has always been quite expensive (tons of money to run the place). The taxpayers were footing the bill. University of CA is tuition-free, with the students only paying “fees”. This is a subsidy where the working class of CA pays for the professional education of the children of the well to do (there are exceptions but the professional school students in CA tend to be the kids of the cognitively gifted and relatively wealthy).

    Over time the “fees” were increased to reflect the problem the middle class has with enriching the professional class students. As the fees rose the social class climbers were helped with needs-based scholarships. The children of the wealthy just had to pay a little more unless they could find scholarships without a needs test where they are paid for being smart.

  • blackthought

    There are many strategies one can employ in the teaching of students, lecture and/presentation is one of those strategies. There are some content areas that lend themselves to this method of instruction but lecture is not necessarily best for everyone, ELLs for example, are unable to access the content via oral presentation exclusively. A thoughtful teacher will employ a variety of methods to differentiate instruction to meet the varying needs of his/her students.

    In regards to Westlake, I would encourage the respondents to this article to check out Bloom’s Taxonomy of higher order thinking. Remembering or merely recitation of facts presented through lecture is the bottom of the pyramid, verses evaluating and creating which sits at the top level of the taxonomy. I would encourage all of you out there who believe that there isn’t anything happening with OUSD because a school hasn’t meet its AYP, to volunteer and do some actual work with the schools.

    By the way, Westlake did make its CA Academic Performance Index target but missed the federal AYP target because not enough students in one of its disaggregated subgroups took the CSTs, not because students are not learning.

  • Pepe

    Nextset, the first statement shows your misunderstanding of cause and effect in education and the second statement shows your lack of understanding of pedagogy in general:

    “The state school grads can be effective in simple and repetitive things that actually are the bulk of a lot of practice. They can be dangerously thin when it comes to comes to uncharted waters, advancing areas of law and first impressions. Also they may know most of the general rules but they are far less capable on the exceptions and even worse on the exceptions to the exceptions. The reasons for this is they were so busy with the “cooperative and constructivist learning” they did not learn why things are the way they are at the various times in question.”

    “you are pushing a quicker and easier approach to learning that does have fast payoffs but will not allow the students to progress as far.”

    So much research in education has shown the opposite of your statements to be true. When “structured cooperative learning” is done properly, studies show that students are more capable of problem solving, thinking out of the box, and dealing with exceptions. On state standardized tests, I believe both methods of teaching (traditional lecture and cooperative learning) show fairly equivalent results. However when it comes to “dealing with exceptions,” students in specific non-traditional classrooms outperform the other group. The reason most often given is that students that are in these non-traditional classrooms work toward a much deeper conceptual understanding of “why things are the way they are.”

    In addition, cooperative learning is not a “quicker, easier approach to learning”–it is much more complex than lecture. Students could achieve the results of lecturing from reading a book. Cooperative learning done well requires teaching at the top of your game. On both the teachers’ and students’ part, this “new” method of teaching takes much more “energy and struggle.” The most important payoffs are not fast, but take time to develop.

    Sure, there are bad teacher who profess to use cooperative learning. That’s the thing, they are just bad teachers. Their lecture would be just as bad, but they achieve a much more comfortable life of laziness by depending on what they call cooperative learning. Don’t be fooled by them. They are just bad teachers.

    I’d encourage you to actually do some research into this topic and gain some knowledge about it before you pass judgement. I think it holds a lot of promise for the future of educating our kids–as long as we can find teachers who are talented/trained/supported enough to carry it out.

  • Nextset


    I have no idea what your life experience is. So I can’t be moved by your comment. I have a lifetime both going through professional education and in practice. Not only that, familiy members have different professional training and practics – medicine vs law. Some of the younger cousins are MBAs in Corporate America. Not my cup of tea.

    My experience does not bear out what you say. I am aware of learning by doing and the co-operative approaches. It has it’s uses and it has it’s place. Lecture, study and testing appears to have the greatest results in getting across the basics of theory. Without a firm grip on theory a student flounders with trial and error and is unguided. The foundation of theory is required to judge and evaluate exactly what it is you are seeing and handling – for science and for law.

    You assume I am “passing judgement”. Mistake. There is a place for both kinds of training. There is a price to pay for forgoing the more classical approach in favor of fads. We have learned that over and over.. remember new math – and someone’s bright idea to abandon phonics in favor of whole language, etc..

    I am old enough to have heard new wave teachers talking about their latest fad in teaching – and old enough to have seen the consequences. This Westlake thread reminds me of that. It’s history repeating.

    When oh so fashionable people start pushing their great new idea – look out. Especially when they want to try the idea on you-know-who’s kids.

    Brave New World. I’d stick with old money on this.

  • Pepe

    You’re right, we should ignore the results of years of research because Nextset’s experiences don’t back it up.

  • Nextset

    And because Pepe can’t cite his source. And because Pepe is perhaps some student without a clue about life..

  • Pepe

    Thanks for the laugh, Nextset. You assume about me just like you assume about education.

  • Cranky Teacher

    Haha, if most of our students wrote and thought as well as Pepe, we wouldn’t even be having these arguments, Nexxy! Obviously, he has education training/experience.

  • Losing Interest

    These comments are not interesting or helpful to anyone who wants to be informed about how OUSD is serving students. Reaction to Nextset’s provocations are futile and a waste of time.

  • Nextset

    So Cranky thinks he’s a student also? Or that just sounds like one. A student from which school I wonder.

  • Responding to Nextset

    Nextset, you are a bit of a troll aren’t you. Every time I see you post, it is inflammatory and based on your “experience” as someone in the upper class who seemingly has no connection to the classroom.

    If you honestly think you get do a better job, get your butt out in the trenches and do something about it. Being a jerk online, doesn’t do any good. You always talk about how old you are, and how experienced you are, and how much you know about everything. Awesome, get in the classroom and teach some kids using the methods that YOU know are BEST (lecture, etc) and let’s see what impact you make.

    Everyone else, sorry for the rant.

  • Pepe

    So, here are some sources (after a quick google search-I don’t have time to figure out where I actually first read about the research):




    Now, it’s your turn, Nextset. I’m sure they don’t allow you to use your and your families’ experience as precedent in the courts. Or do you get away with it by questioning the qualifications of any potential critics? What makes you think your limited experiences in education are sufficient for making broad generalizations and judging effective pedagogy?

    So, please cite your sources.

  • Cranky Teacher

    Uh, no, the opposite. Clearly NOT a teenager.

  • Public School Teacher

    I heard a comment that really disturbed me in reference to teachers enrolled in a professional development seminar. They were told to use cooperative learning with students of color and direct instruction with students of European and Asian decent. I thought about that for a while and finally understood what was implied by that statement. Regardless of what we think about DI, students need to increase their attention span and sit and listen for a while…then they can engage in cooperative group activities.

  • Debora

    I have the privilege of driving by Westlake Middle School nearly every morning. The students are friendly, well-behaved, are lugging backpacks with books and are talking about academics. I, too, have looked at the scores. I, too, believe the scores have a long way to go. But I see learning, and talking about learning. I rarely see students just “hanging.”

    Without the use of harsh discipline, students are learning to become self-disciplined learners. As an employer, these are the employees I am looking to hire. OUSD families and teachers are often quick to say that test scores don’t tell the whole picture, I am one of those parents. I also believe in content rich education of high standards. Teaching high standards to students who do not show up reading to learn will keep test scores low as well. Westlake Middle School has taken the right steps in the right order, first to restore order, next to require students to be responsible for learning and finally to think about the content presented, to learn from it and evaluate it. My strong belief is that the test scores will follow.

  • Nextset

    Public School Teacher: Your post is exactly what I’m thinking about. “Co-operative Learning” is being used on blacks/browns and traditional teaching on (the increasingly fewer) whites. Different strokes for different folks.

    And the White parents of college bound white students will typically not tolerate their kids being bypassed the tried and tested method in favor of a faddish method.

    I’ve noticed this forever. The parents who were themselves professionals/grad school alumni would avoid new math, new this and that, new anything, and get their kids into the (traditional) classes known to be a sure track to university level education. Kids without high-status families were the ones experimented on.

    I’m not familiar with Westlake specifically. But this drill I have experience with.

    On the other hand since people are different it’s always possible that lesser cognitively functioning students might function better with the different method. To the extent they function at all. What does experience show on this?

    My orginal point is that the traditionally trained people in the professions (and that training can be more expensive) perform better on high demand tasks than the cheaper more comfortably trained people. Stress tested professionals are better, especially when the going gets rough. But there is a place for drones even in the professions.

    Still, we have like studying with like, associating with like and marrying like – sending their kids to like education. A caste society, with different language, mores, and tastes. We (US Society) will have so little in common even the classroom experience if different.

    Brave New World.

  • Nextset

    para 7 typo “is different.”

  • Nextset

    Responding: That was good. Please continue. Tell us something about yourself. Why should anybody including me care about your point of view?

    I don’t think students get the point of view that I bring to the table. The reason I do like to post is because that point of view is usually missing from these threads. It does seem provocative because it’s often the polar opposite of the politically correct pap that is being served up to the public school students – those students who will face a solid wall of competition in the near future from private school educated caste who I suspect will be taking the things in life which used to be more available in previous decades for all.

    Not that I have a problem with that – it’s the way of the Brave New World. A New American Caste system that is starting in grade school. I think in fairness our society should have more social mobility.

    As far as me being upper class – in your dreams. Study the American Class Structure, there are numerous articles on it on the Internet. I am no more than upper middle. And that nowadays cannot be automatically passed to children and grandchildren. I have relatives on MediCal. No one lives on their investments. Get real.

    What I can say is that it’s going to be more difficult for CA public school students to get what I have through public education, like I did. And my parents did. To keep kids competitive we’d have to turn down the comfort level and work them more. I don’t see that happening. In the mid 20th Century we worked public school students differently. They were tougher for it.

  • Sara

    I was in a middle school classroom last week where there were 7 or 8 tables of 4. Each child at the table read in turn and then was supposed to comment on the paragraph he/she had just read. It was so loud in the room it was hard for anyone to hear and and at least 3 tables there was more talking about their social life than reading going on. Some had their books closed so they weren’t following along and were in the ozone. I felt sorry for the kids who wanted to learn and get through the chapter but couldn’t because their table mates were messing around or in one case, a girl was reading at just a fast speed no one, not even me, could understand what she was saying. It just seems like a waste of time for the higher achievers and the lower achievers could have been better served by a detailed guided reading sheet that asked questions about each paragraph.