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.