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.

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. 

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Empowerment Through Choice

Agency in the classroom is about giving students more control over their learning through greater autonomy and purpose. It is driven by many factors, one of which is choice.  The underlying premise is to move learners from a state of engagement to empowerment so that they exert more ownership over their learning.  Consider the following in the context of the professional world of work and employee success.

One of the simplest ways of employee empowerment is to give them the choice to approach their work. The underlying idea in this approach is that choice gives employees a sense of personal control, which can enhance their intrinsic motivation towards their work, resulting in higher morale, creativity and innovation, better performance, more significant organizational commitment, and lower turnover (Chua and Iyengar, 2006).

It is essential to understand just how critical choice can be when thinking about lesson design and pedagogy.  It might be one of the most uncomplicated components to integrate daily, whether you are face-to-face, remote, or hybrid. In Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms (chapter 5), I go into detail on strategies such as choice boards, must-do/may-do activities, and playlists while sharing an array of practical examples by grade level.  Each provides students with greater control over their learning while also freeing up the teacher for targeted instruction or support. Best of all, there are unlimited possibilities on how to create these activities.  

Case in point.  Recently I received a text message from Nathan Hall, the principal of Corinth Middle School, where I have been coaching for the past two years.  He shared with me an image during a walk-through of a choice activity that Betty Graham, one of his 8th-grade teachers, implemented with a great deal of success. I loved the image so much that I asked him to send me some more context. Below is what Betty sent as well as the choice activity that she created. 

During intercession, some of my students asked if I could bring back the board they could click on as they enjoyed it so much. They said it was easier to follow. So, after spring break, I worked on making a board for my students. They wanted the links so they would not have to click different places. With this board, they know what they have to do daily, weekly, and what to do when they are finished. One thing I do like about the board, I do not hear, "What do I do now?" They are working. Today I asked my first period what they liked about the board, and they said it was easy to follow, plus they love the links.

It has been incredible watching Betty, and her colleagues at Corinth Middle School grow over the past couple of years.  As I think about what she created, I can't help but reflect on all the many different choice activities I have seen in classrooms or those shared virtually.  Below are some tips to consider as you either develop, refine, or provide feedback on your own options.

  • Use pre-made templates
  • Organize tasks into squares or columns
  • Integrate a timer for pacing
  • Pull learners for targeted support
  • Make available through your learning management system (LMS)
  • Build in rigorous and relevant options
  • Monitor regularly to ensure on-task behavior.
  • Integrate technology
  • Use adaptative learning tools for differentiation 
  • Create a scaffolded formative assessment 

Choice is the great differentiator that helps to meet the needs of ALL learners. Don't think that you need to always utilize the strategies discussed in this post.  It can be as simple as choosing the right tool for a task, topic to write a research paper about, or how to create a product to demonstrate learning.  The key is to always look for opportunities to include choice, as well as voice, during each lesson.  

Chua, Roy Y.J., and S Iyengar. "Empowerment through Choice? A Critical Analysis of the Effects of Choice in Organizations." Research in Organizational Behavior 27 (2006): 41–79.

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Student Success Relies on Future-Proofing Learning

Imagine if we all had a crystal ball? It sure would have come in handy prior to the pandemic. What if I told you that we might have actually had one in the form of a retro animated series that aired over fifty years ago that predicted some modern technological innovations? Below is how I opened Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms:

One of my favorite shows as a kid was The Jetsons. Even though it only aired for one season in the 1960s, I got my fill thanks to non-stop reruns throughout my childhood. For those who have not seen the show, it focuses on a futuristic family residing in Orbit City, whose architecture looks like it was invented by Google with all the living residences and businesses raised on adjustable col­umns high above the ground. The entire series revolved around the family’s life one hundred years into the future assisted by labor-saving technologies that often broke down in humorous ways. 
The Jetsons provided us with a glimpse into what society could look like one day and inspired people young and old to dream about the future. Some of the show’s bold predictions actually came true, includ­ing video conferencing, robots, smartwatches, drones, jetpacks, holo­grams, and automated homes. Other inventions are within our grasp such as flying cars, driverless vehicles, and computers so powerful they have the operating capacity of the human brain.  Things are moving fast in our world. In the words of the wise Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while you could miss it.” This is spot-on advice to keep in mind as we enter further into our own Jetsons moment.

Life sure does move fast. Even before the pandemic, it was difficult, if not near impossible, to keep up with all the exponential change as a result of the 4th Industrial Revolution. The “Jetsons moment” has become engrained in our lives no matter where we live or work. In a short period of time, we have seen innovative companies such as Uber, Lyft, Vrbo, DoorDash, and Robinhood disrupt many traditional service areas.  While there might be a consistent focus on disruption now, the fact remains that it is not new and has been impacting the world since the beginning of time.  A ride through Epcot’s Spaceship Earth shows how papyrus paper, the printing press, television, and the first home computer not only disrupted but revolutionized the world.  

Exponential change is the new normal. To adequately prepare students, the key is to future-proof learning, so they are always ready for whatever faces them. While this might seem like a stretch or even impossible, I assure you it’s not. Here is how to begin:

  • Develop higher-order thinking through scaffolded questions and tasks
  • Authentic application of knowledge and concepts in connection with real-world problems.
  • Purposeful use of tech-driven by the learner
  • Equity and cognitive flexibility through personalization
  • Learning environments that reflect current (and future) contexts

Creating a classroom culture that empowers students to replace conventional ideas with innovative solutions to authentic problems can lead to prosperity in a bold new world. Disruption is here to stay, thus the need to future-proof learning. Disruptive thinking is the way to get there. To learn more, get your copy of my new book on Amazon.