Sunday, September 19, 2021

Closing the Digital Divide with an Emphasis on Learning

Sponsored post

Bridging the digital divide is a monumental task. It begins with providing learners with access to devices and high-quality Internet. For all the challenges it has placed on school systems, the pandemic managed to close the gap in this area significantly.  I watched some districts go 1:1 in a matter of days while also providing mobile hotspots for disadvantaged students.  While this represents a good start, there is much more to the process if the goal is to impact learning. With access to technology, there needs to be an equal focus on supporting educators on how to use it in a purposeful way that leads to improved outcomes.  Here is where Verizon is stepping up.

Connectivity is a lifeline to progress these days for students. Verizon is not only working to increase access to close the digital divide, but they are also providing critical support to improve learning. To that end, they recently launched Verizon Innovative Learning HQ, an amazing next-generation learning portal that is completely FREE! Highlights include the following:

  • Standards-aligned lesson plans across an array of content areas: There is a great deal to explore here. Each lesson contains an estimated time for completion, materials, technology to be used, and appropriate grade level. There are also learning outcomes aligned to Common Core, ISTE, and Next Generation Science Standards. As I explored, I also discovered full-length courses that students can take.
  • Augmented and virtual reality apps (AR/VR) – Engagement is always on the minds of educators. With these tools, students can dive deeper into concepts while also collaborating with their peers. Using the camera on a mobile device, augmented reality overlays images/media over the real world. It is a social experience, as opposed to virtual reality, where a single student would wear goggles that would obstruct them from their surroundings. There is so much potential for these tools to engage and empower learners.
  • Professional development – Through a partnership with Digital Promise, Verizon Innovative Learning HQ provides self-paced courses that educators can take on topics such as remote learning, hybrid instruction, digital inclusion, and blended learning. If the relevancy of the topics wasn’t enough, there is also an option for educators to be recognized for their learning. A unique aspect provided by Digital Promise is the ability to earn micro-credentials for certain completed sessions.  These asynchronous learning opportunities offer much-needed flexibility to educators. For more resources on remote and hybrid learning, be sure to check out my collection HERE.

As the world continues to change, learners need equitable access while educators require the tools and support to create powerful learning experiences.  These disruptive times have taught us not to prepare learners for something but to prepare them for anything! To accomplish this task, they will need technology and the means to use it in a purposeful way that develops critical competencies.  As I shared in Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms, learners need to be empowered to replace conventional ideas with innovative solutions to authentic problems. Hence the need to close the digital divide while making sure both learners and educators have the tools to support this goal.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Four Practical Ways to Blend

When it comes to blended learning, it is essential first to have an underlying understanding as to why this pedagogical strategy is valuable in the classroom. Let’s take a step back before diving into the nuts and bolts. Over the years, I have written a great deal about personalization, which is basically a shift from “what” to “who” as a means for students to demonstrate more ownership over their learning.  What is taught or on the test has little value if the diverse needs of learners aren’t addressed. The same could be said if all kids are learning the same thing at the same time in the same way.  

The path to equity begins with a vision where all learners get what they need when and where they need it, regardless of the learning environment.  This is the essence of personalization. While there are many strategies to personalize, blended pedagogies represent the most practical means.  While you don’t need technology to personalize, it is required to blend. Here is my definition shared in Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms that makes a distinction between instruction:

Blended instruction is what the teacher does with technology. Blended learning is where students use tech to have control over path, place, and pace.

Over time through my extensive work with schools, I have identified the four most practical ways to personalize through blended learning.  These include station rotation, choice activities, playlists, and the flipped approach. While each has unique benefits, they all help move teaching and learning from a state of equality to equity. The image below is my attempt to capture these significant changes.

I realized that I have separate posts and images on all four of these blended learning strategies and thought it might be a good idea to curate this information that educators have found valuable to create a resource. Below I have briefly summarized each approach and encourage you to click on the link for more detailed information.  

Station Rotation 

Students are grouped based on data and move through a variety of set activities typically consisting of targeted instruction with the teacher, collaborative exercises, independent work, and online tasks that are personalized for individual learners. The teacher establishes a block of time for each station, and students visit each one during a class period followed by some sort of forma¬tive assessment.

Choice Activities 

These allow students to select a set number of activities to complete from numerous options. Typically, they are arranged in a choice board or must-do/may-do format. Often a teacher will differentiate by having different versions. Students do not complete all of the activities.


A series of individualized assignments that students work through at their own pace while following the path of their choice. As students complete a task, they either color in the corre¬sponding box on a digital sheet next to their name or check off each box on a paper worksheet. Unlike choice activities, all tasks are completed. 

Flipped Approach

Students watch a short, direct instruction video or consume other forms of content outside of school at their own pace while communicating with peers and teachers using online tools. While in school, students work to actively apply what they have learned through concept engagement and empowering learning activities with assistance from the teacher.

All the blended learning strategies listed above allow educators to better use their time with students while opening the door to more significant equity through personalization.  It is important to remember that instruction still plays an important role, especially in terms of setting up the blended pathway of choice. It is up to the teacher to determine when and the extent to which each strategy is implemented.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Trust is a Leader's Best Friend

When I began the journey to become a school administrator many years ago, I took the typical courses that were required.  These focused on topics such as school law, instructional leadership, change management, school finance, and curriculum development, among many others. While I felt adequately prepared when I finally became a building leader, I quickly realized how valuable the on-the-job training was to my growth. Truth be told, no book or course can replace authentic experience. 

Leadership is hard. Initiating and sustaining change is even harder. Below are some thoughts I shared a few years back:

It is difficult to adequately prepare any leader for the challenges they will face as well as the decisions that will have to be made.  There are so many unique variables that just cannot be taught.  It’s tough work knowing that difficult decisions will have to be made at times, including letting staff go.  Making decisions in a time of crisis is also a topic that is regularly explored in leadership courses.  The solutions addressed always sound great in theory, but their application typically isn’t very practical.   Talking the talk must be accompanied by walking the walk. That’s the hard part. It’s relatively easy for people to tell others what they should do. However, true leaders go through the challenging work of showing how it can be done. Accomplishments and success are earned through the actions that are taken that result in evidence of improvement.   Leaders know that it is not the work of one person that moves an organization in a positive direction but rather the collective efforts of all. 

Knowing the inherent difficulties in leading, it is critical to developing an understanding of what can stymie or ensure success.  Relationships are of utmost importance, but these do not materialize out of thin air.  Trust is a leader’s best friend. Recently my publishers Jeff Zoul and Jimmy Casas, shared their views on the topic.  I encourage you to give the piece a read, as it contains some valuable insight.  As I work as a leadership coach in schools, the topic of trust comes up all the time.  The following seven elements are critical in building and sustaining trust: empathy, delegation, consensus, transparency, autonomy, feedback, and communication. 

Empathy through kindness, compassion, and gratitude is fundamental to creating powerful relationships.  Whether it is a simple thank you, consoling a staff member, or handwritten notes of appreciation, using a consistent empathetic lens pays dividends ten times over.

Delegation builds capacity by empowering others to take a leadership role. If a leader tries to do everything by themselves, the result can lead to mistrust.  Look for opportunities to develop the leadership potential in your staff.

Consensus values the input of others when implementing large-scale initiatives. When warranted, use a committee approach or create a district or school-based leadership team that contains a wide range of staff to garner input. 

Transparency validates major decisions using research and data. When there is clarity as to why decisions are made, the seeds of trust begin to take root. Transparency also infers personal accountability by a leader if things don’t work out, as a unilateral decision is made when needed.

Autonomy creates a culture that promotes the freedom to take risks and fail forward. In Disruptive Thinking, I highlighted how autonomy helps educators move beyond their fears, which leads to a pursuit of innovative practices.  Additionally, influential leaders know when to get out of the way of their staff and let them flourish. 

Feedback that is timely, specific, consistent, actionable, and focuses on a dialogue sets the stage for growth. Trust develops when leaders are always looking for ways to help their staff improve or avoid pitfalls. 

Communication, when done effectively, relies on getting the right information out at the right time using the right medium.  While disseminating information consistently and with clarity is critical, non-verbal means such as listening and body language are just as, if not more, necessary.  As I shared in Digital Leadership, you won’t find an effective leader who is not an effective communicator.

All of the elements above help a leader build trust amongst staff resulting in a positive school culture. While there is no single silver bullet, consider where there is an opportunity for growth and the actions that need to be taken to either build or strengthen relationships through trust. 

Sunday, August 29, 2021

The 6 Dimensions of Disruptive Thinkers

What is really needed for success in the world today?  I think this might be the million-dollar question. Even though it is difficult, if not impossible, to predict the future, we can examine current trends and societal forces to determine the competencies that learners need to thrive.  While some will remain the same, others will evolve or change completely depending on the disruption at the moment. What I think we can all agree on is that in the face of disruptive forces, conditions in classrooms need to empower learners to replace conventional ideas with innovative solutions to authentic problems.  This is how I define disruptive thinking.

On the front lines of this endeavor are educators tasked with balancing mandated curriculum and testing with the responsibility to prepare students for college and careers. The former can result in perceived roadblocks to accomplishing the latter.  Success relies on instructional strategies and pedagogical techniques that both engage and empower students to dive deep into standards and concepts while applying them in meaningful ways.  While there is a time and place for content to be disseminated through instruction, the key to accomplishing all that educators are tasked with is how the learning experience develops a student’s ability to think and do in relation to the current and future workforce.

In Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms, I identified six dimensions of disruptive thinking. Now I didn’t refer to them as these in the book, but the purpose of my blogging is to share my reflections and expand on ideas. Maybe dimensions aren’t the proper term, but to create a culture of disruptive thinking in a classroom or school, learning should result in students developing into:

Creative scholars generate and explore ideas and make original con­nections. They try different ways to tackle a problem, working with others to find imaginative solutions and outcomes that are of value.

Reflective learners evaluate their strengths and limitations, setting realistic goals with criteria for success. They monitor their performance and progress, inviting feedback from others and making changes to fur­ther their learning.

Collaborative workers engage confidently with others, adapting to different contexts and taking responsibility for their own role on the team. They listen to and take into account different perspectives. They form collaborative relationships, resolving issues to reach agreed-upon outcomes.

Active engagers readily explore issues that affect them and those around them. They actively engage in the life of their school, college, workplace, or wider community by taking responsible action to improve others as well as themselves.

Self-directed managers organize themselves, showing personal responsibility, initiative, creativity, and enterprise with a commitment to learning and self-improvement. They actively embrace change, respond positively to new priorities, cope with challenges and look for growth opportunities.

Autonomous inquirers process and evaluate information in their investigations, planning what to do and how to go about it. They make informed and well-reasoned decisions while recognizing that others may have different beliefs and attitudes.

Preparation just for promotion, graduation, or an exam doesn’t serve the best interests of kids. Each of the dimensions above allows for students to explore the curriculum in relevant and authentic ways while more than adequately preparing them for any standardized test they are forced to take. Each plays a critical component in fostering a disruptive thinking mindset. More importantly, they empower learners to develop essential competencies that will serve them well no matter the chosen path in life.

Incorporating these are not as difficult as you think as they naturally result when sound pedagogical strategies are employed, such as cooperative, personalized, problem-based, blended, and project-based learning, just to name a few. Many can also be developed or amplified through extracurricular programs, virtual courses, independent study, and work-study options.  Disruptive thinkers are what the world will always need. Let’s make sure they are readily available.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

No Act of Kindness is a Wasted Effort

I fly a lot. Even during the heart of the pandemic, I was on the road coaching in numerous school districts as part of long-term projects.  Now things are absolutely crazy but in a good way. Job-embedded and ongoing professional learning is being prioritized in schools, which means my travel is back to pre-pandemic levels.  As much as I love what I do, being away from the comforts of home is stressful.  Any little perk I can get is well received as it makes it a tad bit easier to be away from home.  Herein lies the reason why I am loyal to one airline.

From my lens, loyalty has its benefits.  Thus, I tend to fly United no matter what. The only time a different airline is selected is because I have no other choice if I want to get to that location without having to drive a long distance once I land. On a recent Sunday, I headed from Houston, TX to Omaha, NE to kick off the year for Papillion La Vista Community Schools. Usually, I head out earlier in the day, but on this occasion, I opted to take a late flight out so I could spend time with my family.  Once on the plane, I did what I usually do – sleep. Work also manages to get done at some point, but for some reason, I am out cold taxiing to the runway.

I must have been extremely exhausted as I slept the entire flight.  As the plane landed, I quickly drank some water and gathered my belongings. A flight attendant named David handed me a postcard with a handwritten note and thanked me for my loyalty on the way out.  I can’t begin to express how much this meant to me. The life of a road warrior isn’t for the faint of heart.  It can actually get quite depressing at times as well as tiring.  David’s random act of kindness did not go unnoticed. In fact, it has been on my mind each time I board a United plane.  Below is a picture of the note.

Technology sometimes removes the human element from kind gestures.  The note David wrote would not have had the same impact or value if it had been in the form of an email or text.  Now I am not saying these gestures aren’t effective, but if you can go with a more traditional option the act of kindness can be amplified.  In our busy lives, we often overlook the little things. David took a few minutes out of his day to be kind, and it mattered.

Never miss an opportunity to show gratitude or bestow kindness on another person. Small, selfless acts like these don’t take much effort but can totally change the trajectory of other people and maybe even yours.

Whether you are a teacher or an administrator, the little time it takes to bestow kindness on a student, colleague, or parent could be the best few minutes of their day and possibly yours.  Even though texting and email are the convenient approaches, consider these options:

  • Handwritten note or Post It
  • Card with a personal message
  • Food, especially sweets
  • A small, inexpensive gift that has meaning
  • Phone or video call
  • Drop by a classroom, office, home, or anywhere else physically
  • Cover a class for a teacher or colleague

No act of kindness is a wasted effort. With the pandemic still negatively impacting the lives of so many, going the extra mile to be nice and show gratitude is worth its weight in gold. While the business of life often gets in the way, making consistent efforts to show kindness is what the world can always use a little bit more of, especially right now.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Disruptive Thinking: Making it a Reality

It has been a wild and bumpy ride during the pandemic, but through it all, we have witnessed firsthand the resilience of educators across the world. While COVID-19 represented the most disruptive force ever to impact the field of education, educators did what they always do – go above and beyond for kids and each other.  They have and continue to make lemonade out of a never-ending supply of lemons.  Challenges were once viewed as obstacles. Now they are seen as opportunities to innovate.

A golden age of transformation is upon us and the time to act is now.  By leveraging the lessons learned during the pandemic as well as from recent disruptors such as Amazon, Netflix, Uber, DoorDash, and Airbnb, educators can plan and work to future-proof learning for all kids. To do so, the right mindset and strategies are needed to create classroom cultures where learners are empowered to replace conventional ideas with innovative solutions to authentic solutions.  This is the essence of preparation for now and the unknown, something that is woven throughout Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms. As I have said for years and emphasized in the book, “Don’t prepare learners for something. Prepare them for anything!”

When it comes to change, there is always a dominant focus on the why.  At this point, I think every teacher and administrator has some context, especially in light of the pandemic, as to the need to rethink practice. Many people get hung up on how to effectively implement innovative strategies that lead to new and improved results aligned to research and based on actual evidence. Herein lies the driving force that compelled me to write the book.  

Below are some of the ways the book can help you make disruptive thinking a reality in your classroom, school, district, or organization.


Broken into four parts, this book combines stories, insight from thousands of school visits, practical strategies, research, lessons from the pandemic, and examples from classrooms to assist educators in transforming their practice. The parts are:

  1. Rethinking “normal”
  2. Rethinking learning
  3. Rethinking the learner
  4. Rethinking our mindset

Each chapter ends with a “disruptive challenge” designed to do just that: challenge educators to disrupt in some way their current thinking or professional practices.

Supplemental resources

Over time things change. Knowing this compelled me to reflect on how to create a relevant resource that would evolve over time. I have been blogging since the book was published to align updated content, ideas, and strategies to each chapter to deliver on this goal. I have also developed new graphics to support educators as they work to help their learners become disruptive thinkers.  To this end, a Pinterest board materialized that is updated regularly. As I learn and reflect through my work in schools, my goal is to keep this link fresh with innovative content.

Study guide

I can’t speak highly enough about ConnectEDD as they have been a true partner as a publisher. Not only do they support their authors, but they are building a vibrant community. To that end, a comprehensive study guide can be found on their site.  If you are looking to grow individually or collectively as part of a book study, be sure to have this resource on hand. Impressive bulk discounts are also available. For more information, email


Trying to develop a short, catchy hashtag (#) that no one else is using extensively is a challenge these days. In the end, we came up with #DisruptiveThink.  The overall purpose is for educators to share their questions, reflections, and innovative practices they have implemented on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn.  It also represents a convenient way for me to interact with readers at any time, even if my social media handle isn’t included.

Disruption represents a continuous call to action as forces that radically change society will always be in play. We have the ultimate antidote: employing a mindset and strategies that equip learners with needed competencies and the ability always to be prepared. The solution is disruptive thinking.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

RTI and Personalization: A Dynamic Duo

Recently I was working with the leadership team at Moanalua Middle School (MMS) in Hawaii.  One of the coaching topics that came up was how to improve the Response to Intervention (RTI) process as a means to support learners.  It represents a multi-tiered process to identify the behavior and learning needs of struggling students early on and then provide specific support in the form of interventions.  Below is a quick summary of the RTI components:

  • Tier 1 – Teacher provides research-based instruction to the entire class using extensive checks for understanding as a means of formative assessment. This data and that collected through routine benchmarking are utilized to determine what supports are needed in Tier 2.  Behavior screenings are implemented as well.
  • Tier 2 – Targeted supports using the data collected from the Tier 1 interventions are used to provide small group instruction that focuses on specific learning and behavioral needs. 
  • Tier 3 – At this level, the most at-risk students are provided individualized support, typically in a one-on-one setting. 

In the past, Chris Weber provided a series of guest posts on the topic that I encourage you to take a look at as each contains a host of ideas and resources.  I can’t overstate the wealth of information Chris shared. He is my go-to thought leader on anything related to RTI and emphasizes the need for scaffolding, differentiation, and collaboration throughout the process.  

As we dove into the different tiers of support at MMS, I quickly made a connection to the essential elements and strategies inherent in personalization.  In Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms I emphasized that the driving premise of personalized learning is a focus on student needs and interests to develop a greater sense of ownership of learning.  Core elements include making instruction, pedagogy, and curriculum personal for students, which aids in alleviating many behavioral issues that arise.  The use of data is also prevalent as a means to address individual weaknesses as well as build upon strengths.  Successful personalization hinges on the use of high-agency strategies such as voice, choice, path, pace, and place throughout a lesson or unit of study.  

Below I have taken the traditional RTI pyramid of supports and added how personalized learning strategies could be implemented to ensure better learners are getting what they need.

Tier 1 (Large group instruction with voice and choice)

While emphasizing the critical elements outlined at the beginning of this post, the teacher makes learning more personal through student voice. Digital tools or individual whiteboards are used so that each child can respond to various checks for understanding, which can also screen students to begin to determine Tier 2 supports.  Choice is provided by allowing students different ways to respond to questions to amplify strengths.  Benchmark assessments are provided at routine intervals to collect data for further screening. This can be done with or without technology.

Tier 2 (Targeted instruction, differentiation, and pacing via station rotation)

Data collected during Tier 1 is used to group students accordingly so the teacher can maximize available time to address both learning gaps and behavior issues in a station rotation model.  While the tasks in the other rotations can vary, in an RTI model, an adaptive learning tool should be used in one of them to address weaknesses while allowing other students to move ahead at their own pace and path.  If there is in-class support, a targeted support rotation could be established to either provide greater assistance or screening.

Tier 3 (1:1 intensive support while rest of students work on differentiated choice activities or playlists)

The use of choice boards, must-do/may-do activities, and playlists free up valuable time for the teacher to work with individual students. Data collected and the subsequent screening during Tiers 1 and 2 help identify the learners who need the most support.  As the teacher works with one student, the rest of the class progresses through activities at their own pace along a path that is aligned to both ability and interests.  

RTI has long been embraced as a strategy for students who either learn differently or have behavioral challenges that are stymying growth.  By taking a more personalized approach, empowerment, and ownership of learning help to alleviate many behavioral issues.  Additionally, a more pragmatic approach is taken to collect, analyze, and use data in ways to better screen and establish needed interventions.  Consistent check-ins on behavioral patterns and learner progress help to ensure no student falls through the cracks while personalization enhances and amplifies interventions.  Hence, RTI and personalized learning are a dynamic duo.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Sparking Inquiry in the Classroom

As a kid, I loved nature.  Growing up in a rural part of New Jersey and spending summers at the beach probably played a significant role in developing this interest. My parents would buy me and my brother all sorts of field guides to help support our curiosity and genuine interest in living creatures.  We would venture out on routine quests to either observe or collect specimens for further study.  Each expedition was driven by both observations and questions.  While we loved looking at various creatures, especially those that were hard to find, such as certain salamanders and snakes, questions kept driving us to want to learn more.  

The short walk down memory lane depicted above is a reminder of one of many driving forces that compelled me to become a science teacher.  It also captures vital components of the scientific method, of which inquiry is the most critical component.  While making observations is the first step, it is the questions that are developed during the initial stages of the process that are the most important, in my opinion.  Without these, it is challenging to establish a working hypothesis to test out.  

No matter the subject taught or concepts explored, questions are more important than answers if inquiry is the goal. The reason being is that the process of developing them on behalf of the learner is typically driven by relevance.  Or a teacher can use a scaffolded approach to spark deeper exploration of a topic through knowledge construction and application.  No matter the chosen path, an inquiry-based approach can be used to cultivate ownership of learning through disruptive thinking.  I define this as replacing conventional ideas with innovative solutions to authentic problems.  

While creating tasks that empower learners to develop their own questions is the ultimate goal, teachers can use scaffolded stems to get the ball rolling.  Below is a version of a resource that can be found in Chapter 4 of Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms

Each level has numerous question stems that can assist teachers in developing checks for understanding, performance tasks, projects, and assessments.  The overall goal is to work from the base level 4 as this is where authentic inquiry resides.  In a disruptive world, preparing students for the present and future relies on fostering inquiry in the classroom. Every problem throughout history that has been solved with an innovative solution began with some sort of question that probably morphed over time as an inquiry-based approach was applied. Thus, educators can leverage this powerful catalyst to future-proof learning for all kids.  

Sunday, July 25, 2021

The Change Leader

Everyone seems to want change. While this, in essence, is a good thing, the reality is that many people don't want to actually go through the complex process.  If this wasn't challenging enough, the individuals needed to lead it is even less.  Thus, there must be a combination of willingness, planning, and action that results in improvement when any idea is put forth.  There are many pathways to initiate and sustain change, but efficacy must be the goal no matter the chosen path.  Change for the sake of change is rarely successful. Hence the need for clarity when time and resources are put forth to move a system in ways that produce better learning outcomes for all students.  

Leadership isn't telling people what to do. That is a dictatorship that often results in frayed relationships, animosity, and the cultivation of those who constantly try to undermine any new initiative.  Leadership is taking people where they need to be by empowering them to want to be part of the solution. What I mean here is that if people see and understand the value that the change will have on their professional practice, they are more prone to embrace what the leader is setting out to achieve collaboratively.  Did you catch the pivotal component here?  As the saying goes, there is no 'I" in team. The change leader understands that they might be the initial catalyst, but staff need to play an active role for any new idea or initiative to take hold. 

To better understand the intricacies of being a change leader, I created the following graphic. Keep in mind that this image is meant to align with any specific path (transformational, instructional, pedagogical, managerial, inspirational) that you decide to take. 

Vision and Purpose

Clarity begins with a well-defined vision and an over-reaching sense of purpose that helps others understand why change is needed. Consider this a roadmap of sorts where the destination is outlined in a way that people want to go on the journey.  The seeds for change will only germinate if a coherent vision is established that instills a sense of purpose.  Before going full steam ahead, gather key stakeholders to develop a shared vision that includes rationale, goals, expected outcomes, expectations, and means to assess the initiative's effectiveness.  


The real work and testament to outstanding leadership is moving past the visioning process by developing a strategic plan to turn vision into reality. Begin by aligning to research that will help to validate why the change is needed. I found this particularly useful as a principal when we worked to transform grading in my school. The planning process should also involve some consensus from key stakeholders as this will increase embracement of the change being pursued. The planning process should lead to the development of goals, preferred outcomes, and success measures.  Efficacy can only be achieved if these are in place.  A great strategy empowers people to take action.


You won't find an effective leader who is not a masterful communicator. It's about getting the right information out at the right time using the right means. Communication is vital in accomplishing tasks and getting things done, passing on important information, acquiring information, developing a shared vision, reaching decisions through consensus, building relationships, and moving people to embrace change. The use of body language, multi-faceted means of delivery, and listening intently are also essential when it comes to communication. Change leaders understand this and use each strategically.

Professional Learning 

Change will only succeed if the right supports are in place.  Vision, purpose, and strategy become wasted efforts if job-embedded and ongoing professional learning is not in place. Establishing this is crucial, but change leaders also learn side-by-side with their staff to illustrate a team commitment to the process.  When appropriate, they also jump at the chance to lead the professional learning or bring in outside experts to help build capacity.  Learning is the fuel of leadership. 


While this might be intertwined with the previous elements listed, there are some points worth fleshing out.  Change leaders don't aspire to reinvent the wheel outright.  They are keen to ensure what's working remains in place while simultaneously identifying other aspects that need to be addressed. As change takes hold, they have fun celebrating the successes of staff and students.  Nothing moves change along better than showing people how proud you are of their hard work.  This will also assist in motivating others to embrace the change effort while creating an environment people want to be part of and help to contribute to its success. 


The most precious resource a change leader has are the people who will implement the changes being championed. Without them on board and taking action, the status quo will reign supreme. Successful change initiatives rest on moving the masses, but you must begin at a foundational level. Hence, this is the reason why this group is the foundation of the pyramid image above. This can best be accomplished by building positive relationships at the individual level.  Empower staff to embrace change by putting them in a position to experience the value firsthand for themselves.  Provide autonomy to those who are already on board while focusing more time and effort supporting staff who are not yet willing to change.

Those who step up to the plate to lead change understand it is a process, not an event.  They also realize that many different styles need to be embraced, such as transformational, managerial, instructional, inspirational, and pedagogical.  No matter the path taken, success relies on clarity and commitment to the process as well as empowering the masses to work together to achieve shared goals. Are you a change leader? Where is there an opportunity to grow and improve?

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Blending with the Station Rotation Model

Blended learning is something that is near and dear to my heart. For me, the journey began back in 2011 when we first introduced the flipped approach at New Milford High School, where I was principal, with resounding success. As I transitioned from the principalship to supporting districts and schools, I learned that blended learning was a powerful pedagogical strategy that could unleash students' potential while meeting their diverse needs.  Over the course of many years, my work with Wells Elementary School provided a foundation that I pull from to this very day. It's one thing to talk about blended learning, but another to actually illustrate the many ways it can be implemented effectively and at scale. Wells did the latter exceptionally well.

Technology is a significant component, but not every activity has to incorporate some type of tool. The key is to find strategic ways to use it as a means to improve learning, something that is emphasized in Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms. There are many ways to blend, but it is vital to have a firm understanding of the underlying premise of this strategy. Hence, the definition I created a few years back:

Blended instruction is what the teacher does with technology. Blended learning is where students use tech to have control over path, place, and pace. 

In the past, I have penned detailed posts on choice boards, playlists, and the flipped classroom while only touching on the station rotation model. Thus, I thought it might be appropriate to dedicate a post just to this strategy.  With station rotation or centers as it is often referred to at the elementary level, the overreaching goal is to use valuable class time more effectively.  Following a short period of direct instruction with the entire class, the teacher breaks students into groups using data where the class engages in a series of activities during a set period of time.  Each learner will visit all the stations, and a timer is used to let them know how long they have to engage in the activity.  Typical stations include the following:

  • Targeted instruction or support
  • Collaborative experience
  • Personalization through the use of adaptive tools
  • Independent work

There is no set number of activities that a teacher can develop for this model.  However, I most commonly see three or four.  A modified two-station model could be used at the secondary level, where half the class works with the teacher while the other completes independent work using technology.  We need to get past the perception that this is just an "elementary" strategy. To assist in setting up station rotation, I have created a pedagogical framework, which you can view below.  What you will see are traditional elements of effective instruction at the front and back end.  It is essential to use a good data source for groupings so the learners get the most out of the targeted instruction or support rotation.  It is here where achievement gaps are closed, and the kids who are already at or beyond standard attainment can be pushed. 

The image above can be adapted based on the length of the class period. In addition to the use of data for groupings, a timer for pacing is also essential as it aids in self-regulation and time management.  An important aspect is to build in activities that promote collaboration. Here is where an interactive whiteboard (IWB) can be used to unlock its true potential.  Below you will see two examples from Corinth Elementary School that meet all the requirements for an effective station rotation.

Keep in mind that there are many ways to set up this model.  Overall efficacy relies on data being used to continuously group and re-group students, strategic use of adaptive learning tools, independent work that is rigorous and relevant, and the opportunity to collaborate actively. There is only one thing educators can control: the time with students in the classroom.  Station rotation, when used strategically, can be used to differentiate while also building essential competencies such as time management and self-regulation. It's a win-win at any level.  

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Pedagogical Leadership

Leadership is leadership. The same essential qualities and characteristics that exemplify what great leaders do have pretty much stayed the same. What has changed are the tools, research, and societal shifts that impact the work. Leadership is both an art and science with the goal of moving the masses towards achieving a common goal. Leading is not easy, and being effective at it is easier said than done. You don’t have to be perfect nor always on your game. You do, however, have to help others achieve a common goal that gets results. There is no more important goal than to improve learning for kids. Hence the need to look at different aspects or styles to improve outcomes.  

Pedagogical leadership encompasses all the many ways to support effective teaching and learning. Instructional design is a significant component as teachers need continuous feedback on how to implement the curriculum in innovative ways that result in improved outcomes. While instruction is important, it is only one of many aspects that need attention.  Instruction is what the teacher does, whereas learning is what the student does.  Here is where a sole emphasis on instructional leadership might not lead to efficacy at scale. Pedagogical leadership focuses on numerous responsibilities and roles that work to ensure a vibrant learning culture that helps to meet the needs of all students.

The main differentiator here is a broader view that includes more attention to what the learner is doing and the supports needed for success. The pedagogical leader works to create collaborative benchmarks that lead to continuous improvement across the system.  It requires a deeper understanding of how the brain works and research-based strategies that teachers can readily implement in their classrooms. Observations, both evaluative and non-evaluative, still have immense value. However, the pedagogical leader doesn’t stop here. The use of data is extremely important. Efforts are made to help teachers analyze and use it effectively while the pedagogical leader is doing the same to find ways to close achievement gaps, scale differentiation, and create an equitable culture.  

The work doesn’t stop with the above. Investments in time and resources are made to establish ongoing and job-embedded professional learning for staff.  One-and-done, drive-by, the flavor of the month, or substanceless sessions are seen, not entertained.  Pedagogical leaders are constantly trying to ensure learner success by employing effective strategies to improve family engagement.  While working directly with teachers is of utmost importance, empowering parents and guardians to assist in the process is vital. 

The pedagogical leader…..

  • Develops relationships based on trust and mutual respect through mentoring and modeling
  • Provides research and resources to support sound pedagogy
  • Makes time to consistently be in classrooms while providing timely, practical, and specific feedback in collaboration with teachers
  • Learns alongside teachers and administrators
  • Collects and analyzes evidence to improve implementation of effective strategies

Talking the talk must be accompanied by walking the walk. It’s relatively easy for people to tell others what they should do. However, true pedagogical leaders go through the challenging work of showing how it can be done. Here is some sage advice that I learned long ago as a new principal – “Don’t ask others to do what you are not willing or have not done yourself.” If you want to improve pedagogy - and outcomes – it all starts with you.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Your Lasting Legacy

No one goes into the education profession for accolades or to make big bucks, although I wish the latter were a reality.  The choice one makes to teach and lead is almost always grounded in the innate desire to make a positive difference in a child's life.  On some days, this might seem like an impossible task as a myriad of challenges makes it difficult. While these may vary, the result can lead to questioning the chosen career path. However, when the dust settles, educators can take solace in the fact that the actions they do take to help kids learn do make a difference in both the short and long terms. 

Culture, in a classroom or school, is built on a strong relational foundation.  Without trust, there are not relationships. Without relationships, no real learning occurs. While achievement often gets the most attention or scrutiny, it's the interactions with kids that set them up for success and often have the most impact well after they have left a classroom. In the final chapter of Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms, I highlight the following areas to make this a reality:

  • Show you care
  • Believe in ALL kids
  • Work to unlock potential 
  • Impart trust
  • Focus on "what if" instead of "yeah but"

If the goal is to get students to think disruptively, then the right culture has to be in place.  Hence, the importance of developing powerful relationships that have the potential to withstand the test of time. Steve Goodier shared a brief story titled "A Teacher's Hand," which speaks to the immense impact educators have when they embrace the tenets above:

Thanksgiving Day was near. The first-grade teacher gave her class a fun assignment—to draw a picture of something for which they were thankful. Most of the class might be considered economically disadvantaged, but still, many would celebrate the holiday with turkey and other traditional goodies of the season. These, the teacher thought, would be the subjects of most of her student's art. And they were.

But Douglas made a different kind of picture. Douglas was a different kind of boy. He was the teacher's true child of misery, frail and unhappy. As other children played at recess, Douglas was likely to stand close by her side. One could only guess at the pain Douglas felt behind those sad eyes. Yes, his picture was different. When asked to draw a picture of something for which he was thankful, he drew a hand. Nothing else. Just an empty hand.

His abstract image captured the imagination of his peers. Whose hand could it be? One child guessed it was the hand of a farmer because farmers raise turkeys. Another suggested a police officer because the police protect and care for people. Still, others guessed it was the hand of God, for God feeds us. And so, the discussion went—until the teacher almost forgot the young artist himself.

When the children had gone on to other assignments, she paused at Douglas' desk, bent down, and asked him whose hand it was. The little boy looked away and murmured, "It's yours, teacher." She recalled the times she had taken his hand and walked with him here or there, as she had the other students. How often had she said, "Take my hand, Douglas, we'll go outside." Or "Let me show you how to hold your pencil." Or "Let's do this together." Douglas was most thankful for his teacher's hand. Brushing aside a tear, she went on with her work.

The story speaks of more than thankfulness. It says something about teachers teaching and parents parenting and friends showing friendship, and how much it means to the Douglas's of the world. They might not always say thanks. But they'll remember the hand that reaches out.

Never underestimate your vital role in impacting the life of a child. Students might not realize it now, but later in life, many will thank you in their own way for your belief in and commitment to them. To fully prepare all learners for their future, we must create classrooms in which disruptive thinking is a major component of the learning pro¬cess. However, disruptive thinking in the classroom will only become a reality when priceless relationships are in place. With these in place, your impact will be felt for generations as the learners you influence today disrupt the bold new world in ways that change it—and us—for the better. This is your lasting legacy. 

Sunday, June 27, 2021

The Many Faces of Student Voice

There are many ways to both engage and empower students that lead to ownership of learning.  Creating what I call a “free-range” experience that replicates real-world contexts and develops critical competencies while tapping into passions might be the holy grail, in my humble opinion. While there is a slew of strategies a teacher can use to accomplish this, a focus on high-agency elements is both powerful and realistic.  These include voice, choice, path, pace, and place.  They can be integrated into a holistic experience or leveraged individually to personalize learning.  Of them all, voice might be the easiest to implement every day. 

Student voice.....

  • Involves all kids in the learning process 
  • Fosters active participation
  • Builds confidence leading to self-efficacy, especially when students can respond under cover of anonymity
  • Promotes open reflection and collaboration
  • Sets the stage for instant feedback
  • Develops a sense of community

As you look above at all the many powerful outcomes of this high agency strategy, it is crucial to understand that there is no one right way to foster student voice.  It could be as simple as all kids using an individual whiteboard or dry-erase surface to respond. Technology also provides an ever-growing selection of tools that involve kids in the learning process in ways that lead to greater empowerment.  Think about how audio, video, or the ability to draw can help a child find their voice. At a macro level, open forums and surveys can be used to elicit ideas for improving school culture.  The point is that voice takes on many faces, each with positive outcomes.  

During my longitudinal work with the Corinth School District over the past couple of years, I have seen many teachers embrace student voice. For the most part, technology has been their pathway of choice where tools such as Blooket, Gimkit, Mentimeter, Padlet, Edpuzzle, and Kahoot have been integrated.  During a recent visit, I saw something that completely blew my mind as it was simple yet highly effective.  You will see this in the video below, as well as a textbook personalized classroom using sound blended pedagogies.  The opening frame shows a choice board that students were able to access in Canvas along with standards-aligned learning targets.  As the video progresses, see if you are able to identify the voice strategy this teacher developed. 

Were you able to identify the strategy?  At first, I didn’t catch it as I was so impressed with the choice board and observable evidence of how empowered the learners were.  If you look closely, though, you will see that some computers had a green clothespin while the group at the end of the clip had red.  

When a question or challenge arose, the students would clip the red one to their laptops. This signified to the teacher that a group needed help. At the end of the video, you see where some students were getting needed support. If everything was good, the green clip remained on the computer.  Not only was this a fantastic way to foster student voice, but it also allowed the teacher to focus her time on the learners that needed it the most. 

As you look to include or improve student voice in your classroom (or school), keep in mind the intended outcomes listed at the beginning of this post.  Work backward from here and find the strategy that works best for your learners, and don’t be afraid to mix it up now and again. In the end, it is difficult for kids to own their learning if they don’t have a say. 

I am always on the lookout for great ideas that educators around the world have implemented with fidelity. How have you effectively implemented voice in your classroom or school? 

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Outlier Practices Make or Break the Learning Experience

We learn, and remember for that matter, from experience.  Thus, it is critical that the culture in your classroom and school positively impacts learners while adequately preparing them for their future, not our past.  I shared the following in Chapter 7 of Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms:

Almost all of us have heard the phrase, “Experience is the best teacher.” Growing up, I heard it a great deal. At the time, I didn’t appre¬ciate it or fully understand its meaning, but now I wholeheartedly con¬cur. Of course, there are some experiences I wish I could have avoided that resulted in negative outcomes, but they are still a significant com¬ponent of my story. The driving force behind the decisions we make is the innate beliefs we have about ourselves. Our experiences, positive and negative, shape who we are. They become an integral part of us and create our story.

Think about why you went into the field of education.  For many of us, the answer lies in the relationships that were forged by amazing teachers, administrators, coaches, custodians, bus drivers, or other support staff.  It was the experience that each provided that helped shape us into who we are today.  For me, there were several standout teachers that impacted me in ways that I am forever grateful for. Here is what I shared in Disrutive Thinking:

These teachers—and a handful of others throughout my own K-12 educational journey—engaged in practices that were memorable and perhaps even outside the norm. They did not focus on grades and homework; instead, they focused on learning and creating experiences designed to enhance students’ learning and push our thinking. In many ways, they were “outlier” educators who engaged in “outlier” practices which resulted in outside-the-box thinking and learning on the part of the students with whom they interacted. Pockets of excellence such as these examples are no longer good enough.

Many practices in education can fall into the outlier category. For the intents of this post, I want to focus on those that are either overused, underused, or ineffective, and that can either make or break a student’s experience.  They are as follows:

  • Grades
  • Zeros
  • Homework
  • Feedback
  • Reflection 


Numbers and letters are synonymous with education. While I am not opposed to grades, I do feel that they often lack true clarity in terms of what a student has learned but are still an overused element in a traditional classroom.  The key is to make them as meaningful as possible through the use of multiple means of assessment, including rubrics and scaffolded tasks aligned to relevant application.  Assigning arbitrary points for participation and behavior as a part of scoring guides or on research papers should be avoided. These do not reflect what has been learned.  


The practice of assigning a zero is ineffective as the only role it serves is to punish kids. Once given, it will completely distort a student’s grade, which will no longer represent what has been learned.  It is essential to determine first and foremost why the task is not being completed in the first place. In almost all cases, the assignment should be marked as incomplete until it is done. In my opinion, a zero should only be considered in the cases of cheating or if all other strategies have been exhausted. 


Rarely does a child come home excited to complete homework, yet it represents another overused outlier strategy. It tends to diminish excitement and appreciation for learning.  Many times, it is assigned because that’s the way it has always been.  In moderation, homework can be an effective strategy if it allows for the authentic application of key concepts learned in a timely manner.  You also can’t go wrong with reading. It should not be graded as there are equity issues or take hours of time to complete. Kids need to be kids. 


While a grade might be the final indicator of what has been learned, it’s the feedback that helps students along the way.  This is an underused strategy where there is always room for growth.  Effective feedback is delivered promptly, involves learners in the process, and articulates how to advance towards a goal in relation to standards or concepts. 


John Dewey said, “We don’t learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” Reflective learning allows kids to step back from their learning experience to help them develop disruptive thinking and improve future performance by analyzing their experience. It assists them in moving from surface to deep learning. Writing, video, peer interaction, and closure questions are a great way to incorporate reflection regularly. 

Outlier practices, depending on how they are implemented, can either promote or inhibit disruptive thinking. As you reflect on the outlier practices above where do you see an opportunity to grow or improve? What action steps will you take? The main takeaway is how they are implemented in ways that support or enhance learning while helping to build powerful relationships in the process. 

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Re-Thinking the Learning Environment

There is always a great deal of focus on the why, how, and what in relation to standards, curriculum, and essential concepts when it comes to learning.  While these are definitely important, a rapidly changing world requires the cultivation of disruptive thinkers who have the competence to replace conventional ideas with innovative solutions to authentic problems. Accomplishing this feat also requires educators to take into account when and where students learn.  The former was addressed in a previous post that looked at achieving equity through personalization.  Blended strategies such as station rotation, choice boards, playlists, and the flipped classroom shift how time is used both in and out of the classroom, thus having an impact on when learning occurs.  In this post, I am going to focus on where learning can and should happen. 

As society grapples with exponential change, schools need to take notice and evolve accordingly.  In the lead-up to a curation of a vast amount of research, UNESCO stated the following:

In today’s world, education systems must constantly evolve in order to effectively respond to the rapidly changing demands of the societies they serve. Innovations in curricula, methodologies, materials, and technologies may require major changes in the design and organization of the environments in which they are housed. Innovations can be relatively simple and inexpensive, such as re-arranging schedules and seating patterns to allow additional time and space for guided group practice or collaborative problem solving. 

The big takeaway is as simple as it is blunt.  As the world changes, so does the environment in which students learn.  If we are to adequately prepare future generations for a bold new world of work, then the spaces, both physical and virtual, must authentically replicate where this will happen.  UNESCO defines the learning environment as follows:

The complete physical, social and pedagogical context in which learning is intended to occur. The term most often refers to school classrooms but may include any designated place of learning such as science laboratories, distance learning contexts, libraries, tutoring centers, teachers’ lounges, gymnasiums and non-formal learning spaces. The components and attributes of a learning environment are conceptualized in relation to their impact on learning processes and outcomes in both cognitive and affective domains. This term may also refer to the natural environment surrounding school buildings when they are used as a learning space.

Before the pandemic, a great deal of emphasis was placed on redesigning physical spaces in ways that took into account flexible seating (furniture and layout), temperature, lighting, acoustics, and color. A shift to remote learning and social distancing forced schools to revert back to more traditional arrangements, but new opportunities came in the form of virtual environments consisting of vibrant bitmoji classrooms, breakout rooms, purposeful use of technology, and the effective use of learning management systems. Thus, the aspect of where kids can learn was expanded and is something that I address in detail in Chapter 6 of Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms

When creating impactful learning environments, both physical and virtual, consider the following:

  • Avoid overstimulation as this can detract from learning. For example, having too much stuff on walls or posting a lot of material in the LMS can cause distractions. 
  • Use gender-neutral colors to create a culture of respect and understanding.
  • Emphasize natural elements such as sunlight, fresh air, and the outdoors as much as possible. These are hardwired into our brains. Humans have the basic need for light, air, and safety. In this area, the impact of lighting, sound, temperature, and air quality are prevalent.
  • Provide choice in seating, tasks, programs of study, and virtual courses. As individuals, each of our brains is uniquely organized, and we perceive the world in different ways. Because of this, different people respond to stimuli in various ways. Therefore, the opportunity for some level of choice affects success.
  • Create a virtual option as many students flourished in this environment 
  • Utilize blended pedagogies that focus on path, pace, and place while developing a more equitable culture.

What works for one learner doesn’t necessarily translate to others. Hence the need to create learning environments that not only challenge all learners to think but also meet individual needs.  They must also better reflect real-world working conditions and emphasize the development of critical competencies needed for success. So, where will you either begin or take the next step in the evolution of your learning environment(s)?

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.

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.