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Book and Film Reviews, Learning at its Best

Focus – a book written by Mike Schmoker

A few of us on Twitter started talking about the newest ASCD member book Focus and decided to start a Twitter book group.  You can read more about this and find out how to participate at

For the past two Wednesday nights at 9 pm EST, I have sat on my couch discussing an education book with colleagues from around the country and maybe a few in other countries as well.  We have used Twitter and Elluminate as discussion platforms.

While much of what Schmoker writes is darn near “self-evident,”  much of it is controversial and clearly based more on what he thinks than any body of research.  I personally think he does a reasonable job of letting the reader know this.

In chapter 3, he uses a term “interactive lecture” that seems like an oxymoron.  Here’s how he describes it:
“At its heart, we find guided practice, formative assessment, and ongoing adjustments to instruction.”
“…where the focus is on the teacher’s words and directions, but students take part in lots of pair-sharing, note-taking, and quick-writing.”

Oxymoron or not, it certainly sounds better than the inflexible worksheeting we see in far too many places these days.

Schmoker also writes that “teachers are in this habit of spending too much time sitting during the period” and that teachers should be “circulating, observing, and listening as students work in pairs.”  And, the work he describes them doing in pairs is NOT necessarily worksheets but various means of “formative assessments.”

Schmoker does not promote technology as a solution to educations woes and falls short of recognizing its potential to, in the right hands, solidly deliver exactly what he is describing as best practice.  I would love to spend a few days with him taking him to a few, albeit hand-picked, classrooms where a few teachers are masterfully using technology to support solid teaching.  Sadly enough, though, I could take him to as many or more classrooms where technology is the center of the activity and solid teaching has gone by the wayside in favor of pursuing the next cool thing.  I could also take him to a number of “teaching by packets”-centered classrooms as well, but I am sure he has seen many of these.

I haven’t finished reading the book yet but will hopefully do so this weekend.  This is, perhaps, the last ASCD book I will receive on paper as I understand they will offer members e-platform choices beginning in June.  So, I have broken the spine and marked the book up in three colors of highlighters as I have engaged about the book with colleagues I have never met face-to-face.  I have tried to get local colleagues to join in (see but have failed miserably. Perhaps this pseudo-review is enough to hook you in to joining us on Wednesday!

About beckyfisher73

DEN Star Educator, NTTI Master Teacher, Director of Educational Technology and Professional Development, former HS math teacher, avid RVer, baseball fan. ____________________________________________________ Becky received a BA and MAT in Physics from the University of Virginia while working as a FORTRAN programmer for the University's Institute of Nuclear and Particle Physics. After assisting in an NSF-funded summer institute for Physics teachers, she committed to a career in public education. Over two decades later, she has been a classroom teacher, instructional technology specialist, and central office leader working diligently to change the landscape of public education by ensuring choices are made as close to the learner as possible!


6 thoughts on “Focus – a book written by Mike Schmoker

  1. The drawback of self-directed professional development is that there’s no guarantee others around you will be directing themselves to the same activity.

    Maybe what we need is more like a mastermind group dedicated to transforming local education. That group could meet and listen to its members’ accounts of their own work – the different kinds of work could inform one another.

    I might be learning like you, but not learning what you’re learning.

    We need a red team for this…


    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 1, 2011, 9:41 pm
  2. Okay Paula, I just went to Amazon to check it out. What’s so special about this book? What is Schmoker saying that I should know?

    Help me.


    Posted by Kirsten | March 4, 2011, 1:15 pm
  3. Sorry, Becky, it’s you. Question still stands.

    Posted by Kirsten | March 4, 2011, 1:16 pm
    • Contrary to the original post’s contention, Schmoker does not rely on his own opinion for this book. His conclusions are drawn from hundreds of studies and meta-analyses of those studies. His work is cited regularly by education leaders such as Robert Marzano and Douglas Reeves ( as well as countless others (especially in the ASCD community).

      To paraphrase Schmoker’s work in the context of my own school’s professional development, there are five levers educators (and others) try to pull to leverage student learning, known as “the 5 S’s”: structure (how students’ schedules work), sample (the kids who are grouped together), self (whether students subscribe to a growth or a fixed mindset when it comes to intelligence), standards (namely, the clarity and prioritization of them), and strategies (instructional, literally what the teacher does in the classroom). That said, only THREE of those levers actually are considered “high-torque”: self, standards, and strategies.

      That is to say, you will NOT improve student achievement through changing the schedule or the kids in a class alone. Only through doing work in the other three domains will you see increases in student learning. That said, if you need to change your schedule in order to deliver better instructional strategies (e.g. 43-minute blocks are not conducive to Socratic Seminars, which are recognized as an effective instructional strategy) or change your classes to target smaller groups with motivation problems (i.e. help them develop a growth mindset rather than a fixed one) then you are using a large gear (strategy/self) to influence a smaller one (structure/sample).

      Schmoker is keenly aware of this and explains it in no uncertain terms in Focus, which I highly recommend.

      Posted by Adam Fachler | April 25, 2011, 11:29 pm
      • While I like this book and agree with much of what is said, I still need to be convinced that this book does not rely on Schmoker’s opinions more than research, Adam. I’ve been reading and going to the references Schmoker lists but if there are meta-analyses of studies that are being drawn upon, this is difficult to perceive when many of the references are to books and opinion pieces such as those in Educational Leadership.

        The fact that Schmoker’s work is regularly cited by Marzano and Reeves and others is, of course, important, but then he regularly cites them as well. Having high visibility and being a respected voice in the education community gives me some confidence in Schmoker’s opinions and his good judgement but it is not a substitute for transparent use of research to substantiate very strong claims.

        Perhaps I’m asking too much of a popular book that is really an opinion piece and a polemic, but I do worry that works like this are not understood as being several steps away from careful scholarship.


        Posted by Jim Rooks | July 22, 2011, 8:54 am


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