Skip to content

Redefining the relationship between teachers and students leading to mastery learning

December 10, 2017

Slide1In Visible Learning for Teacher: Maximizing Impact on Learning, John Hattie describes the conditions that lead to identifying learning intentions and success criteria.  He describes the learning equation as five variables that a teachers needs to understand and design around.

Mastery Learning equation

Challenge represents a design criteria that every teacher faces: designing a learning experience that is appropriately challenging for each student.  Instead of designing a lesson that targets one level of challenge, differentiate the lesson to meet the readiness represented by the diverse learners in the classroom.  The challenge has to be developmentally appropriate so that each learner stays engaged.  Hattie writes about the challenge creating dissonance for the student such that errors occur in a supportive environment where the teacher is side-by-side with the student, providing guidance, support, and effective feedback.

Commitment is the second criteria required for mastery.  Are students sufficiently attached to their goal(s) such that they are determined to fulfill their goal(s)?  More importantly, has the teacher built into his or her structure, helping students identifying their learning goals?   If the challenge is appropriately designed, students understand what is required to master the learning, and they are committed to achieving their goals, then learning will take place at a high level.

Confidence is the third criteria for mastery.  Learning is a social enterprise.  A teacher who understands and recognizes the importance of the social nature of learning will design learning experiences that facilitate peer-to-peer interactions.  Hattie writes about building confidence in learners helps them develop resilience in the face of appropriately challenging tasks.

With respect to student expectations, Hattie writes:

The message is that teachers need to provide opportunities for students to be involved in predicting their performance; clearly making the learning intentions and success criteria transparent, having high, but appropriate, expectations, and providing effective feedback. (page 53)

His research has demonstrated that students, when encouraged to be partners in the assessment process, will accelerate their learning.  Do we believe students have a reasonably accurate sense of what they know, such that including them in the assessment process is a viable option?  This is a question all teachers need to take on.

Finally, conceptual understanding is the last criteria in the design for mastery learning.  Hattie has discovered that most test items that teachers use in assessments are “surface-level” items.  That is, they are not designed to build deeper learning or conceptual understanding on the student’s part.  Hattie references the SOLO (structure of observed learning outcomes) model of Biggs and Collis (1982).  In this model, they break down conceptual understanding into four levels: (1) an idea; (2) many ideas; (3) relating ideas; and (4) extending ideas.  It is clear that in designing great lessons that lead students to a deeper conceptual understanding of content, teachers need to scaffold a lesson to help students move from learning ‘an idea’ to extending their understanding to connecting seemingly unrelated ideas.  Transfer of knowledge and understanding from the simple to the complex should be a design criteria for constructing high-quality learning environments.



#Education is a team sport!

November 19, 2017

If “all-means-all,” that is if we intend for schools to be places where all students thrive and realize their full potential, then we have to focus our attention on moving education from a group of teachers working independently to a team of teachers working interdependently. Education should be a team sport. The focus for all teachers should be on the success of the school, as well as their students. If the school thrives, then it will likely be a place for all students to thrive provided each student sees himself or herself as a member of the team or community. The saying goes, “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” To realize the goal of all-means-all, we have to start with teachers being members of strong teams.

All-means-all is a phrase used by Paul Reville, a Harvard Graduate School of Education professor who researches and writes about educational policy and practice, to build support for a new way of thinking about schooling in America.  In all-means-all, he writes about eight bold steps we need to take if we are to educate all students to their fullest potential.  He defines one of his steps this way:

Our current system of schooling is outmoded, he continued, citing short school days and a one-size-fits-all approach. We have a batch-processing, mass-production model of education that served us very well if we wanted to achieve a society in which we were sending a lot of people into low-skill, low-knowledge jobs.  But for high-skill, high-knowledge jobs in a post-industrial information age, we need a very different system.

Research substantiates that teachers involved in peer-to-peer learning in small groups has substantial impact on improving student learning.  So why don’t all schools design their curriculum, schedules, and professional development to support communities of practice, where teachers design, plan and evaluate learning environments so all students master what needs to be learned?  Professional learning communities, one model that provides a structure for teacher collaboration focused on learning not teaching, has gained traction in some schools.  DATA WISE, another model for teachers collaborating to assure that students master learning targets, has been used in some circles.  Here is a quote from a piece published by Learning Forward:

When teachers engage in high-quality collaboration that they perceive as extensive and helpful, there is both an individual and collective benefit. High-quality collaboration in general and about assessment in particular among teachers is associated with increases in their students’ achievement, their performance, and their peers’ students’ achievement. (Learning Forward, Joellen Killion, High-quality Collaboration Benefits Teachers and Students, page 62, October 2015)

So we know when teachers collaborate, focusing on learning and not teaching, students experience higher levels of success overall.  Yet most schools have not changed their practices, schedules and professional development framework to embrace these ideas on behalf of their students. Why?

We seem to be stuck in our old model of schooling that promotes teachers working in isolation, in separate classrooms with doors closed.  We embrace the “star-teacher” model which rewards a person for their exemplary work. While there is nothing wrong with affirming the good work of a star teacher, the star teacher most likely arrived at a place of excellence having learned from many people along their journey.  Learning is a team sport, so education must be a team sport.  If the star teacher doesn’t openly share what makes him or her exemplary with colleagues, then the school loses, even if his or her students enjoy their classroom experience.  All students aren’t learning from the star teacher, all students learn from the collective excellence of a team of teachers.

What if we shifted our practices in schools from evaluating the individual based on how well his or her students score on tests to evaluating teams of teachers on how well their grade-level performs, their department performs, or how well the school performs? Instead of rewarding individuals, we reward teams. When a sports team wins a championship, the whole team celebrates because they realize that no single team member is responsible for their success. There might be an MVP (most valuable player), but the team’s win is everyone’s win. Questions for me are: (1) how does this team mindset get designed and implemented in a school community and practiced daily;  (2) what is the school leader’s role to promote this work consistently; and (3) what is the evidence schools collect to verify success, other than test score performance?

Achieving all-means-all is no small task for struggling or successful schools.  Even at the most successful schools in the country, public or private, I question whether we know all students learn to their fullest extent.  I believe we leave students behind at all schools: behind meaning students do not become fully actualized through their school experience because that isn’t our goal.  It’s common for students to say, “I am not good at math,” or “I’m not a good writer.”  Is this because students are unable to learn math or how to write or is it because they didn’t have the “right teacher?”  What if that “not right teacher” was part of a strong team that held every team member accountable?  What if the whole team was responsible for the learning of all students, not just the students in his or her classroom.  Maybe students wouldn’t say, “I’m not good at math,” or “I’m not a good writer.”

As educators, I think we have to look in the mirror when students do not learn to their fullest.  We would be wise to reach out to colleagues for support, embracing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s belief:

One person can be a crucial ingredient on a team, but one person cannot make a team. (click here)

Read on a digital device or read in print, which is preferable?

November 15, 2017

computer readingNaomi Baron wrote an interesting article in Phi Delta Kappan, Reading in a digital age.  She has also written a book on the topic, Words On Screen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World.

In her article she summarizes a research study of over 400 university students from various countries on their preferences for reading from print or a digital device.  They were asked a series of questions that covered issues related to cost, length of the text, and many more.  Here is a brief summary of what she found (page 17-18).



  • Time spent reading: whether for school work or pleasure, 66% of students preferred reading in print versus a digital device.  There was some variation from country to country.
  • Cost: 80% of participants said that if cost were the same they would prefer to read from print.  The cost of textbooks and books can make reading from print more challenging so many people turn to digital sources.
  • Rereading: 60% of participants were more likely to reread for better understanding if they were reading from print.
  • Text Length: Over 75% of participants prefer print when the length of the text is longer.
  • Multitasking: Most participants reported preferring digital devices when they want to multitask.  In the US, 85% of respondents reported multitasking when reading on digital devices.
  • Concentration: 92% of participants felt that it was easier to concentrate when reading from print.

What does this mean for teachers, designing lessons and curriculum, for K-12 classrooms?  While Baron’s participants were university students, we could extrapolate that the similar findings would probably be found with younger students.  Certainly, we know that using digital devices can be very distracting for students (see my blog post, Technology and the distracted mind).  If digital devices are distracting, it might important for teachers to think seriously about how frequently and when they assign reading from digital devices, whether articles, books, or essays.  If we want students to interact with their reading, understanding at a deeper level what they read, we may want to think about assigning it in a print version.

What’s up with #STEM or #STEAM?

November 8, 2017

A recent article in New York Times, Education Life, has an article entitled, Where the STEAM Jobs Are/Aren’t?  The author, Steve Lohr, missed the opportunity to focus his research and writing on the value of integrated studies in K-12 education.  Instead he focused on the availability of jobs in these markets.  Sure that’s important, but it’s an end not the means for getting there.
Most educators I know in the STEM/STEAM movements are looking for ways to integrate these curricula in school, rather than have a child’s studies siloed into academic disciplines.   While the reality and availability of jobs are important aspects of the STEM/STEAM conversation, preparing students to think across the boundaries of the disciplines is much more important.  STEM/STEAM programs designed well teach students how to use their math in understanding science concepts, apply engineering principles when addressing a science or technical challenge, and learn the value of artistic expression to illustrate how cells function.  In STEM/STEAM studies, students are expected to collaborate, write, and communicate their understanding of the concepts  they study.  The incorporation 21st Century skills with important content knowledge is the focus of well-designed STEM/STEAM curricula.  When students engage in this type of work, they become more invested in their learning.  They see the connections that serve as the framework for understanding complex problems.  As a result they are better prepared to take on the challenging jobs in the STEM/STEAM fields.  Systems thinking is what we should be designing for.

Whether the jobs are there for them is of concern, but their effective preparation for those jobs is the work of school.  Effective preparation requires that we are thoughtful designers of STEM/STEAM curricula that integrates the disciplines.  In order to be successful designers, educators need to be well versed in the connections between disciplines.  We have to understand how scientists, mathematicians, engineers, computer scientists, writers, artists and other professionals think, problem solve, create, and use their knowledge of different disciplines to understand the task at hand.  In my experience working with educators on STEM/STEAM curriculum development, we have our work cut out for us.  We have learning to do.

The challenge we face as educators is that most of integrated curricula has to be written by us because publishers of curricula have not innovated sufficiently around the integration of content.  They still write and publish math textbooks, science textbooks, social studies textbooks.  This requires us to think about the design, write the materials, and test them in the classroom.  We need to create networks to share ideas.  Hopefully, our design of curricula is for the daily classroom experience and not merely for after-school programs.  It would be unfortunate if students sat in siloed classrooms all day and then had interesting STEM/STEAM experiences outside their normal classes.  I don’t think that should be our vision for STEM/STEAM education in America.

Technology and the distracted mind, how to support #engagement

October 21, 2017
distracted mind

Distracted Mind, a story on NPR

In Phi Delta Kappan, Larry Rosen, a research psychologist from Cal State University, writes about the distracted student in today’s world.  The article, The Distracted Student: enhancing its focus and attention, outlines some of the research that suggests students’ pervasive use of technology leads to significant levels of distraction.  The impact can be great enough to negatively influence a student’s ability to learn.  These statistics are certainly worth paying attention to if you teach secondary or higher education (page 8 & 9).

  • college students unlock their phones 50 times a day, using them for close to 4.5 hours out of every 24-hour cycle.
  • Teenagers are almost always attempting to multitask, even when they know full well that they cannot do so effectively.
  • When teenagers have their phones taken away, they become highly anxious.
  • The average adolescent or young adult finds it difficult to study for 15 minutes at a time; when forced to do so, they will spend at least five  of those minutes in a state of distraction.

In summary, students, and probably adults, are so addicted to their technology that they become distracted from focusing on a task at least 25% of the time.

This is an interesting finding from the research:

Compared to their predecessors, today’s students are likely take significantly longer to complete school work and to feel much more stressed as they do so. (page 10)

Most of the interruptions, which are common with adults as well, are due to texts, phone calls, IMs, and notifications.  These technology events interrupt people every 3-5 minutes on average.  Recovery to get back on task can take on average 15-20 minutes.  While technology has added positively to our ability to learn 24-7, it isn’t hard to see how technology negatively impacts our focus and productivity.

The authors report on another study devoted to understanding how students engage in work.  They found that on average students spend about 10 minutes out of every 15 minutes actually focused on doing work.  The other 5 minutes were spent being distracted by their technology.  They cycle repeats itself over and over resulting in it taking much longer to complete a task.  All of this distraction, loss of focus, and longer times to complete tasks creates significant amounts of distraction in our young people.

The technology addiction leads to greater levels of anxiety and inability to sleep restfully.  They recommend the following:

  1. Make sure students understand that their brains need an occasional “reset” (time away from the influence technology has on their neurochemistry)
  2. Help students build stamina for studying with tech breaks.
  3. Advise students to treat sleep as sacred (time away from technology an hour before sleep and during sleep)
  4. Advise students to turn off their notifications and alerts so the phone doesn’t continuously interfere with attention.

As educators, we need to integrate technology into our teaching and learning in meaningful and useful ways, but we also have a responsibility to help students learn and use strategies to disconnect from technology, thereby preventing addiction to its influence.

In the same issue of Phi Delta Kappan, Frieda Parker and her colleagues wrote about ways to engage students in the classroom.  Their article, To engage students, give them meaningful choices in the classroom, explores two teachers who use two different approaches to giving students choice.  One approach successfully engages students, while the other doesn’t.  The authors write:

Giving students real choices in the classroom–having to do with the material they study, the assignments they complete, the peers with whom they work, and so on–can boost their engagement and motivation.  (page 37)

They suggest that good lesson design keeps the following three things in mind: (1) autonomy; (2) competence; and (3) relatedness.  Autonomy has to do with structuring lessons that have specific meaning and relevance for students.  When successfully designed, these types of lessons are much easier for students to make personal connections to.  Competence is about designing lessons in which students have a really good understanding of what to do to be successful.  The choices have to be narrow enough that students understand how to make choices that support effective learning.  Relatedness ties to our human need to connect with others.  Designing lessons that support peer-to-peer learning are more likely to engage students.  Giving them choices to work in different configurations can positively influence their ability to engage and learn.

So while technology can be distracting and diminish a student’s ability to focus, there are non-technological strategies teachers can use to design for a higher level of student engagement.  Lesson design needs to be mindful of our understanding of neuroscience of learning.


Teachers as designers @westminsteratl while making learning visible

October 19, 2017

At Westminster School in Atlanta, GA, teachers are learning together, taking risks in the service of their students, and creating classroom environments where the learning is being made visible.  Heather Widness, a first grade teacher, received a curriculum development grant this past summer to redesign her classroom.  In the process of redesigning the space, using some Reggio Emilia inspiring thinking, she came upon the work of Project Zero and Visible Learners.  Having originally come from St. Anne’s School in Atlanta, which is designed around a Reggio Emilia philosophy, Heather was comfortable integrating these ideas into her planning.  In addition, she taught for a number of years in Westminster’s pre-1st program, which was redesigned a few years back to integrate Reggio Emilia inspiring ideas into classroom and program design.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Heather and her colleagues, two cohorts composed of eight teachers, are in the throes of Project Zero’s, Making Learning Visible, a semester online course that exposes them to the theories and practices of “making learning visible.”   As part of the course, there are readings, discussions, and projects that focus on learning and integrating visible learning techniques into classroom design and instruction.  On the classroom’s “learning wall,” Heather is using a technique of sharing student learning with photos and student quotes that illustrate student mastery of learning targets.  For example, there is one young girl that as a result of her mastery and making learning visible has been recognized by her classmates as an expert in odd and even numbers.  She is now the go-to student consultant when another student needs support understanding these critical math learning targets.

What I find fascinating about the work of Heather and her colleagues is that they are engaged in ongoing, job-embedded learning!  They are taking risks as learners, shaping their understanding of key pedagogical techniques, integrating them into their classroom practice, and discussing ways to use these techniques to support students in Westminster’s Lower School.  These teachers see themselves as generating new knowledge and applications, rather than just delivering content through standard practices.  These are likely to be exciting places for students to grow as learners.

In education, teachers need to see themselves as designers, rather than implementors of curricula.  In the most recent issue of Phi Delta Kappan, Danah Henriksen and Carmen Richardson, wrote an interesting article, Teachers as Designers: Addressing Problems of Practice in Education.   While their article addresses the use of design thinking as a process for retooling teaching and learning environments, they touch on the larger issue of teachers as designers.  They write:

We’ve found that, initially, most teachers think of themselves as “doers” and “implementors,” not designers of solutions or experiences.

They go on to share some comments of teachers with whom they have worked:

Many of our teachers noted how, through the process of using design to address classroom and school issues, they began to see themselves as creative individuals who had tools to enact change in their context.

I love the way this is expressed.  As I spoke with Heather about her work in first grade, I could see that she thought of herself as a designer of the teaching and learning experience.  Her creative energies are being put to use in the service of her students.

Note:  The Center for Teaching sponsors teachers at Westminster School and Drew Charter School to apply for curriculum development grants during the year and the summer.  These grants are designed to support teachers as designers of teaching and learning.  We support individual teachers, as well as teacher teams, with grants ranging from $1,000 to $7,000.  Generally, individuals are awarded $1,000 grants and teams can be awarded grants up to $7,000 depending on the number of team members and the scope of work.  In 2016-2017, we supported grants totaling $103,000 for Westminster and Drew Charter teachers.  We had around 90 teachers involved in designing new experiences for their students.


A summary of unleashing problem solvers, students at the center of the learning

October 12, 2017

This most recent issue of Educational Leadership, a publication of ASCD, contains a series of articles under the title, Unleashing Problem Solvers.  The basic premise of many of the articles is that school is more interesting for students when their interests and learning profiles are integrated into program design and a teacher’s pedagogy aligns to the diverse learners in the classroom.  The challenge for the teacher is to adapt his or her teaching style to students’ needs.  Of course, this does call upon teachers to collect empathy data so they can identify what those needs, readiness, learning profile and interests are before the design is complete.

Here are some of my takeaways from a set of interesting articles (you may only see the abstract unless you are an ASCD member):

Middle Schoolers Go Global

The Global Challenge program at a middle school featured in the article uses the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals to present problems that students choose to solve as part of their weeklong interdisciplinary project.  The beauty of this program is that it allows students to “follow their passion” and engage in learning that relies on their initiative and a high degree of agency.  Over a period of 8 years, they have found that (on page 17):

  1. students can be motivated to learn without grades
  2. students’ freedom needs to be coupled with clearly identified outcomes and expectations
  3. transfer tasks, in the spirit of Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design, provide evidence of students’ deeper understanding
  4. rubrics to guide the learning need to focus on impact of the project, not just compliance to expectations
  5. assessment can drive improved instruction

They point out that:

it makes sense of a contemporary education to prepare students to transfer their learning to confront unpredictable challenges and opportunities.

The world our students will enter is more complex and unpredictable than in years past.  Therefore, it is our job as educators to not deliver an overly scripted and predictable curricula that asks them to merely plug-and-play.  Our job is to design a learning experience that expects them to think outside the box, using their creative talents and problem-solving skills to wrestle with complex and challenging problems.

Inviting Uncertainty Into the Classroom

Ronald Beghetto makes a compelling argument for introducing uncertainty into our curricular design process.  He writes:

We go to great lengths to clearly define the problems out students will solve, how they should solve them, and desired outcomes.

He points out that benefits can be derived from scripted learning; however, it doesn’t prepare students grapple with uncertainty, which they will find in most ‘real-life’ learning situations in the workplace.  He suggests five strategies that teachers can use to embrace uncertainty and integrate it into lesson design.

  1. View uncertainty as an opportunity
  2. Try lesson unplanning, a process by which teachers trade out predictable elements in a lesson with unpredictable elements that require students to think for themselves.
  3. Assign complex challenges to be solved as part of a lesson
  4. Explore the backstory of famous solutions
  5. Launch never-ending projects

Beghettto explains that:

If we want to prepare students to respond productively to uncertainty, we need to have them tackle a full range of challenges, including those addressing ill-defined problems and big issues.

I find the idea of “unplanning the lesson” to be quite interesting.  The challenge for most of us would be to embrace the uncertainty that would come with unpacking a lesson to make room for uncertainty, exploration, and problem-finding.  It would be a different type of learning experience for students, but one that might bring with it more engagement.

From Answer Getters to Problem Solvers

I fell in love with this instructional strategy, Three-Acts of a Mathematical Story,  as I was reading the article.  The strategy was first introduced by Dan Meyer in his blog post by the same name.  The author of the article, Mike Flynn, explores the strategy using an example from his work at a K-8 school in Massachusetts.  In the three-act strategy, the teacher designs a lesson using the following structure:

  • Act 1: introduce the topic by heightening the students’ curiosity about the problem before them (video, image, story, etc.)
  • Act 2: design a focal question that drives the learning.  It should be sufficiently open-ended such that students have the space to work creatively on the problem.  The question should draw students into a problem finding and solving space.  In Act 2, students are engaged in researching and assembling the resources they need to solve the problem.
  • Act 3: a time and space for students to engage in conversations about their Act 2 work.  In this space, they discuss and revise their work.

Flynn provides links and resources in his article for teachers who are interested in designing a Three-Act lesson.  While his example ties to the teaching of math, I wonder how teachers from other disciplines might incorporate the strategy into their toolbox.

Thinking Inside the Box

In this article, the author, John Spencer, explains how he used the design thinking process to help students collaborate on solving a challenging problem their school faced.  He writes:

Instead of thinking outside the box, innovation often involves thinking differently about the box.

I found myself fascinated by this rather simple way of thinking about innovation.  Learn to think differently about the thing you think you know.  He references an article by Stephen Johnson where he uses the phrase, the “adjacent possible.”  The adjacent possible is defined as: “a kind of shadow future, hovering on. the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.”  In design thinking, we talk about the importance of iterating a prototype to meet the needs of our user.  Tinkering around the edges to improve an idea can result in innovation.

The other idea I enjoyed reading about in this article is the value of helping students develop their divergent thinking ability.  Traditional, sequential curricula that is ladened with content acquisition, allows little space for students to think in non-linear ways.  We tend to not let them explore.   How might we insert into our lessons more opportunities that require divergent thinking.  For example, integrating brainstorming protocols, chalk talks, and other strategies that encourage students to think creatively.

A final point that Spencer makes is to integrate more opportunities for students to work with their mistakes, revise their work, and reflect on their learning.

Hopefully, these brief summaries stimulate your curiosity enough to dig a little deeper into one or all of them.   The EL edition contains a series of other articles all centered around the question of how we help students become problem finders, problem solvers, and creative thinkers.

%d bloggers like this: