Sunday, June 6, 2021

A Path to Equity

For a very long time, we have known that an inequitable environment exists for many learners across the world. It’s no one’s fault per se but a reality, nonetheless. Even with this knowledge in hand, change has been hard to come by. Now many might blame a lack of movement in this area on insufficient resources and differences in income levels of families. While these certainly add to the issue, it is important to focus less and the “yeah buts” that morph into excuses and more on the “what ifs” that represent viable solutions to overcome at least part of the problem.

From a school standpoint, the key to equity is the learning experience that is created for students.  Within the walls of a classroom, this is the one thing where there is a certain amount of control. It begins by taking a critical lens to instructional design. If all kids are doing the same thing the same way at the same time, that results in an inequitable experience. While it might seem fair and equal if every student is blanketed with the same direct instruction or have access to a device, it should not be assumed that there is an inherent benefit. There is a great deal of research and evidence out there that tells us people learn differently, and eventually, success relies on a vast spectrum of strategies.  Think about your own learning and what you need.

A move to a more personalized approach can begin to pave the way for a more equitable classroom and school culture.  It relies on the premise that all kids get what they need, when and where they need it, in order to develop into competent learners. Now, this is not to say that direct instruction and devices don’t have a place in the process. They most certainly do, but they only represent some of many interconnected components that a teacher uses to create an experience grounded in relevant application, appropriate challenge, purposeful use of technology, and targeted support. In addition to these, the most significant advantage of personalization in terms of equity is addressing individual strengths and needs during the school day. It’s about controlling what can be controlled.

There is no one right way to personalize. However, high agency elements such as voice, choice, path, pace, and place can be used to create an equitable learning experience. Don’t overthink things. It could simply consist of concerted efforts to get all students involved during a review of prior learning, checks for understanding, or closure.  Another possibility is allowing kids choice when it comes to demonstrating learning or selecting the right tool for completing a task.  When looking at larger-scale efforts, virtual courses, academies, and smaller learning communities (SLC’s) can be established that has the potential to incorporate all five high agency elements,

Blended learning represents the most appropriate way to ensure equity through personalization. In Chapter 5 of Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms, I provide numerous strategies and classroom examples in alignment with the following models:

  • Station rotation: After a short period of direct instruction, the teacher has students move through various activities where they are grouped by data. These stations can consist of targeted instruction, independent work, collaborative tasks, and adaptive learning tools. There is frequent re-grouping based on student progress over the year. 
  • Choice boards (and other activities): Following a short mini-lesson, students are given an array of scaffolded options where they select only a certain number to complete.  One of the most common options is modeled after Tic-Tac-Toe. While the class works, the teacher pulls students based on data for 1:1 support. Differentiation can occur by making available different versions based on ability, which is derived from data.
  • Playlists – A short period of instruction sets up a variety of tasks that a teacher curates into a playlist.  Unlike a choice board, students must complete all of them in the order that they wish. Differentiation can occur by making slight alterations and providing kids the best version aligned with where they are currently. 
  • Flipped lessons – With this approach, the teacher provides a short video lesson that addresses the main concepts that are to be learned, which the student completes at his or her pace outside of class.  Content, modeling, checks for understanding, practice (guided and independent), and closure are included.  During class, the teacher differentiates to meet their respective needs. 

In each of the above models (except flipped lessons), a timer is displayed for pacing and transitions. Once the activities have been completed a short formative assessment is given, which should consider of at least three scaffolded questions to ensure efficacy. To achieve greater equity, visuals with embedded tasks should be made available in the learning management system (LMS) for access in class or at home. 

You can only control what happens during the time you have with your students.  While this isn’t optimal, it does present an opportunity to level the playing field. The path to equity begins and ends with how time is used in their presence to create an experience that meets both their diverse needs and interests in alignment with either the curriculum or standards that you are accountable for as an educator. 

Sunday, May 30, 2021

How to Make Learning Stick

It is no secret how we retain information, construct new knowledge, and develop competencies critical for success in the world of work and, more importantly, life.  Learning is shaped by specific conditions that are either created or engaged in by chance that allow for authentic application through an immersive experience.  If there were a secret sauce, then that is it, but it's not as mysterious as one might think.  When it comes to classrooms and schools getting students actively involved, it isn't a gimmick.  It is a proven way to improve academic outcomes.

As I wrote in a recent post, direct instruction serves a purpose and can be an invaluable strategy to help set the stage for learning.  The key is to not only rely on this teaching technique as it mainly focuses on providing information and modeling as opposed to active learning. Research shows how students learn best, and it's not by talking at them for extended periods.  Take a look at this synopsis from Peter Reuell:

For decades, there has been evidence that classroom techniques designed to get students to participate in the learning process produce better educational outcomes at virtually all levels. A Harvard study suggests it may be important to let students know it. The study shows that, though students felt as if they learned more through traditional lectures, they actually learned more when taking part in classrooms that employed so-called active-learning strategies by scoring higher on tests. 

There are many ways to make learning stick.  Here are things to consider as you develop lessons, activities, and assessments.


  1. Cognitive overload inhibits learning. Too much information results in stress that prevents students from assimilating information effectively (Waddington, 1996).
  2. Learning requires an emotional journey. Emotion has a substantial influence on the cognitive processes in humans, including perception, attention, learning, memory, reasoning, and problem-solving. Emotion has a particularly strong influence on attention, significantly modulating the selectivity of attention as well as motivating action and behavior (Tyn et al., 2017).
  3. Help learners embrace mistakes. By constructing a psychologically safe environment through reframing metacognitive interpretation of subjective difficulty, children can express their full cognitive potential (Autin & Croizet, 2012).
  4. Create opportunities for students to teach each other. When students actually teach the content of a lesson, they develop a deeper and more persistent understanding of the material than from solely preparing to teach (Fiorella & Mayer, 2013).
  5. Find ways to include novelty. Extensive research has shown that you have to navigate through unknown territory when visiting a new place and remember landmarks to find your way back. Quickly learning where to expect danger and where to find rewards is therefore crucial for survival. Several theories have suggested that to promote learning, novelty elicits a learning signal by activating dopamine, making it easier to remember. 
  6. Focus on active application. As noted at the beginning of this post, research has shown that students learn more when they are actively involved in the process. 
  7. Promote collaboration and peer interaction.  Research in cognitive science has illustrated the efficacy and significance of social learning, leading to improved academic and behavioral outcomes (Li & Jeong, 2020, Wood & O'Malley, 1996).

The ideas above set the stage for incorporating a variety of pedagogical techniques such as scaffolded questions, inquiry-based learning, and performance tasks where reflection, movement, and purposeful play can be integrated.  In Chapter 4 of Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms, I dive into these practical and realistic strategies and many others that can help learn stick for all kids.  When it is all said and done, the key takeaway is more significant levels of empowerment and ownership.  Learning is and should be treated as a process, not an event.  Hence the need for research-based pedagogies that don't prepare kids for something but anything!  

Autin, F. & Croizet, J. C. (2012). Improving working memory efficiency by reframing metacognitive interpretation of task difficulty. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141(4), 610.  

Fiorella, L. & Mayer, R. E. (2013). The relative benefits of learning by teaching and teaching expectancy. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 38(4), 281-288.  

Li, P. & Jeong, H. (2020). The social brain of language: Grounding second language learning in social interaction. NPJ Science of Learning, 5(1), 1-9.

Tyng, C. M., Amin, H. U., Saad, M., & Malik, A. S. (2017). The Influences of Emotion on Learning and Memory. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 1454. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01454

Waddington, P. (1996). Dying for information: an investigation of information overload in the UK and world-wide. London: Reuters Business Information.

Wood, D. & O'Malley, C. (1996). Collaborative learning between peers: An overview. Educational Psychology in Practice, 11(4), 4-9.


Sunday, May 23, 2021

Evolving Instruction in a Rapidly Changing World

We all first learned of idioms probably during the middle school years in English class.  There are so many out there, such as “it’s raining cats and dogs,” “you hit the nail on the head,” and “there are bigger fish to fry.” These expressions represent a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words. They have a metaphorical purpose as opposed to literal.  When it comes to practices in education, one of my favorite idioms is “don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.”  It represents an expression of an avoidable error in which something good is eliminated when trying to get rid of something bad. Direct instruction is one such practice.

I have and never will say that this strategy does not have value, but let’s be honest for a second.  For the most part, instruction focuses on the teacher, consisting of what he or she does and the way in which content is conveyed. Learning, on the other hand, focuses on the student. It is a multi-faceted process consisting of what they do, how knowledge is acquired or constructed, and then applied in meaningful ways to demonstrate competency.  While learning is the ultimate goal, direct instruction plays an integral part in setting the stage for it to occur. Thus, the move to a more desirable pedagogy such as differentiation, personalized, blended, inquiry-based, cooperative, or any other student-centered strategy might not succeed without a preceding direct instructional component. 

The key is brevity.  Whereas in the past, teachers could lecture on end with little or no pushback from compliant students, things have changed for a myriad of reasons. One of the most apparent challenges is how difficult it is to engage kids today.  Many of us as adults experienced this firsthand during what seemed like daily and never-ending video calls. While breakout rooms might have been used to foster discourse, the length of the session almost always led to some sort of off-task behavior. Another stems from the fact that it is near impossible to meet the diverse needs using a one-size-fits-all format. 

In Chapter 3 of Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms, I lay out tried and true strategies to consider during any direct instruction component of a lesson while setting the stage for learning that empowers students to think disruptively by replacing conventional ideas with innovative solutions to authentic problems.  Below is a summary of things to consider as you plan out your instructional design:

  • Make it brief (10-15 minutes)
  • Include a hook
  • Review previous concepts
  • Build in authentic contexts and connections
  • Continuously check for understanding 
  • Spark higher order thinking with questions
  • Provide a wrap-up at the end of the lesson
  • Leverage technology for all of the above

Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater in a quest to improve learning for all kids. As a realist, there is still value in direct instruction. In his meta-analysis of over 300 research studies, John Hattie found that direct instruction has above-average gains when it comes to student results, specifically an effect size of 0.59. Another meta-analysis on over 400 studies indicated strong positive results (Stockard et al., 2018).  The effectiveness of this pedagogical technique relies on it being only a small component of a lesson while using strategies that foster engagement and set the stage for empowered learning. 

Stockard, Jean & W. Wood, Timothy & Coughlin, Cristy & Rasplica Khoury, Caitlin. (2018). The Effectiveness of Direct Instruction Curricula: A Meta-Analysis of a Half Century of Research. Review of Educational Research: 88(4).

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Tackling the Status Quo

We often hear about companies who are either unwilling or afraid to change and ultimately pay the price. Blockbuster is one that often comes to mind, but many others have become victims of the status quo.  Robert Brodo shared this in relation to Kodak:

Challenging the status quo is defined as asking “why” and then identifying new and better ways of doing things.  For example, in 1975, a young engineer at Kodak by the name of Steve Sasson invented the first digital camera.  It was clunky and crude, it didn’t use paper and chemicals, and best of all, it was “electronic.”  Yet, the leaders within Kodak refused to challenge the status quo and ask hard questions such as “Is there a better way of capturing the most important moments of life without taking a film cartridge to a camera shop?”  There are hundreds of other similar stories about companies that went bankrupt because they couldn’t and wouldn’t create a culture that challenged the status quo.

Prior to the pandemic, change efforts were often stymied by the status quo. Typically, this came in the form of TTWWADI (that’s the way we’ve always done it), and the result was business as usual.  In many cases, the mirage of great test scores being indicative of a thriving school culture that was adequately preparing learners for success was more than enough to keep trudging forward with a one-size-fits-all approach.  As frustrating as this might be, it is easy to see why this is the case, and it isn’t just because of high standardized test scores. Comfort and fear often keep us in our perceived lanes of success.  In the end, both contribute to maintaining the status quo, and that can negatively impact learners. 

While change in education has historically been both tough and slow, the pandemic disrupted the way school was done across the globe. Many important lessons were learned, and innovative change was implemented at scale in a short period of time.  The “clean slate” moment, as I have called it, saw resilient educators rise to the occasion in response to the most challenging event ever to impact the profession.  While it might not have always been pretty or smooth sailing, the status quo was an afterthought.  We must keep it that way. 

I bring this all up because there might be a yearning to get back to the way things were before the pandemic.  Maybe you have even seen this from your lens. Even though virtually everyone changed by necessity, some were not happy with remote and hybrid teaching or using technology.  Others might have fallen into a sense of complacency.  No matter the reason, it is up to you to tackle the status quo head-on.  In Chapter 2 of Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms, I go into detail about shifting mindsets and helping others find comfort in growth to move past conventional thinking and ideas. Below are some ways that any educator can challenge the status quo:

  • Ask questions
  • Develop an innovative idea 
  • Move from an idea to action
  • Connect to learning outcomes
  • Empower others through modeling
  • Showcase results through storytelling

Begin with questions such as why has it always been done this way, how might it be done better, and what are the outcomes that can be used to determine if the approach is valid or not? Develop ideas supported by research that can improve both instruction and learning, then begin to put them in place. When actions are taken connect them to outcomes to establish validity. As you find your groove, model to empower others to get on board.  Success breeds success. Finally, the status quo can only be overcome through results.  Embrace the power of storytelling and craft powerful narratives that illustrate why this approach is better for kids. 

Settling for the status quo not only inhibits the creation of a disruptive thinking culture but also negatively impacts our learners.  Don’t let your role inhibit you from becoming an advocate for something better. Always remember that leadership is about action, not position, title, or power.