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Designing effective learning environments, principles of action.

January 7, 2017

What are core principles that go into designing effective student learning environments?

  1. Design exercises that put students in situations where they have to express their thinking, receiving feedback from peers (think-pair-share) or from the teacher in larger group discussions.  Use techniques that help student make their thinking visible to themselves and others.
  2. Design feedback so that it guides improvement in learning or mastery of the learning goals.  Feedback can come from teachers, peers or self.  It can be most powerful when it comes in small doses, is specific and timely, leads towards growth, and is not graded.
  3. Design exercises that rely on collaboration so that all voices are at the table.  For this principle to be effective teachers must allocate time to instruct students on how to work in teams, share space and be respectful to others.
  4. Design learning environments so that all students are active participants.  You have heard the expression: the person doing the speaking is doing the learning.  Participation should not be dependent on “right answer” contributions, but it should facilitate risk-taking and expression of one’s understanding.

Designing with these principles in mind will likely lead to learning environments that engage students in the work at hand.  All teachers are designers at heart, but most teachers need design protocols to create effective, interesting, and meaningful lessons.

@BrainPicker an interview with Maria Popova on @OnBeing

January 5, 2017

Krista Tippett interviewed Maria Popova (@brainpicker), founder, creator and inspiring designer behind Brain Pickings, an ad-free, online compilation of inspiring writings by Popova. (click her for a link to the interview)  She describes herself this way:

Hey there. My name is Maria Popova and I’m a reader, writer, interestingness hunter-gatherer, and curious mind at large. I’ve previously written for Wired UK, The AtlanticThe New York Times, and Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, among others, and am an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow. (

I would describe her work as the embodiment of interconnectedness.  She explores interesting ideas and finds clever, insightful and intricate ways to connect them to other ideas, weaving a story that is often visual and captivating.  She is a wonderful example of a systems thinker.

Tippett’s interview with Popova reveals her sensitivity, intelligence, command of language, and the complexity of her thinking.  She makes visible to the listener, in a clear and poetic fashion, how her mind constructs patterns that become source of writings.

I have been a fan of Popova’s work with Brain Pickings for at least five years.  While I don’t read every entry, I do subscribe to her feed and find ample opportunities to sit with her work, reveling in the beautiful pieces of art she weaves into her wonderful stories.

If you have 50 minutes to spare, which we all do, I would highly recommend listening to Tippett’s interview of Popova.  You will not be disappointed.  Here are a few quotes from the interview that I found particularly compelling.

You know, culture needs stewardship, not disruption.

As a culture — you’re right. We seem somehow bored with thinking. We want to instantly know. And there’s this epidemic of listicles. Why think about what constitutes a great work of art when you can skim the “20 Most Expensive Paintings in History?” And I’m very guided by this desire to counter that in myself because I am, like everybody else, a product of my time and my culture. And I remember, there’s a really beautiful commencement address that Adrienne Rich gave in 1977 in which she said that an education is not something that you get but something that you claim.

And I think that’s very much true of knowledge itself. The reason we’re so increasingly intolerant of long articles and why we skim them, why we skip forward even in a short video that reduces a 300-page book into a three-minute animation — even in that we skip forward — is that we’ve been infected with this kind of pathological impatience that makes us want to have the knowledge but not do the work of claiming it. I mean, the true material of knowledge is meaning. And the meaningful is the opposite of the trivial. And the only thing that we should have gleaned by skimming and skipping forward is really trivia. And the only way to glean knowledge is contemplation. And the road to that is time. There’s nothing else. It’s just time. There is no shortcut for the conquest of meaning. And ultimately, it is meaning that we seek to give to our lives.  (emphasis is mine)

Well, I think identity for all of us is this perpetual process. And it’s somewhat like constantly clearing out and rearranging an attic. And it’s as much about throwing out all the furniture and trinkets that no longer serve us as bringing in new ones. And in that sense, it’s just as important to continue defining who we are as to continue eliminating who we are not. And for me, it kind of feeds on itself.

There is much, much more in the interview so take time, put on the headphones and enjoy the experience listening to Popova’s philosophical musings.

May we please begin with a moment of #silence!

January 3, 2017

2016-11-14-15-40-54-hdrThese were the words we used at our kitchen table almost every night when my daughter was growing up.  The practice started from our experience at a Quaker school in Rhode Island where I was the Upper School Division Director.  In a Quaker school, we regularly experienced and practiced silence.  Starting a faculty meeting with a moment of silence or weekly ‘meetings for worship’ with 450 Upper School faculty and students, in which the silence was intermittently punctuated by a voice sharing a query or a thought, helped me appreciate the power and significance of silence in community with others.  In these quiet moments, you could hear the sounds of people breathing, and learn to listen for the subtle sounds that dance through a room of thinking people.

Silence, time to listen to sounds we don’t know exist, is a rare experience in our fast-paced, hectic and chaotic world.  What would school be like if we taught children to listen in silence to the world they inhabit?  As they became sensitized to the myriad of sounds would they learn to filter out the penetrating noise and distractions, paying closer attention to their natural surroundings?  Would they learn to listen more actively or pay attention to the thoughts and ideas of others?  In a sense, would they rediscover the virtue of patience.  I wonder.

Krista Tippett interviewed Gordon Hempton (@ghempton), author, researcher and founder of The One Square Inch of Silence Foundation (click here for the link to the interview).  He studies acoustic ecology, which is the study of the relationship, mediated through sound, between human beings and their environment.  He has spent his life documenting places in the world where natural sounds intermix to create a world of beauty, the beauty of sound.

Tippett asks: I want to talk about the language of silence and sound, natural silence. You sometimes use it when you talk about these very few places

Hempton replies: Natural silence, natural quiet.

Tippett elaborate on her question: ..quiet places where natural silence reigns over many miles. And as you said a minute ago — you say this a lot — it’s not absence. It’s not a vacuum or an emptiness. This kind of silence is presence and it includes sound, right?

Hampton replies: Oh, yeah. It’s not the absence of sound. I think a physicist will tell you that true silence does not exist, not on planet Earth with an atmosphere and oceans. When I speak of silence, I often use it synonymously with quiet. I mean silence from modern life, silence from all these sounds that have nothing to do with the natural acoustic system, which is busy communicating. Wildlife are as busy communicating as we are, but it’s not just messages coming from wildlife. I can name some that have been really transformative in my personal life. But it’s also the experience of place, what it means to be in a place. (emphasis is mine)

Silence is not the absence of sound, it is an experience in which the listener becomes attune to a place.  So attuned or aligned that the “natural acoustic system” becomes alive.  How might we teach our students to experience this kind of silence?  If we found ways to teach it or have them experience it, might they become more aware and sensitive to their natural surroundings.  Learning to listen and be comfortable with silence is a gift.

In response to a question about a place where he experiences his “center of gravity,”

Hempton replies: But I found the sound that I enjoyed most was the sound of the silence in the volcano. The measurement of decibels actually goes into the minus point, but there still is a sense of presence, of where you are. Then once you get over the rim of the volcano, you begin to pick up what I call the mantra of the islands, and that’s the distant beating of that drum called the Pacific Ocean.

What a beautiful reflection on the meaning and power of place!

When my daughter was growing up, not only did we begin dinner with a moment of silence, but we also introduced this idea of “quiet time.”  Quiet time in our family was when we all engaged in our work or play in silence.  Sometimes it would last for 15 minutes, while other times it would go on for what seemed like hours.  What I realize as I reflect on my daughter’s need for and comfort with silence as an adult is that she learned early on that silence could be her friend.  She learned not to be afraid of silence.  I wonder if her finely honed skills of listening to others is related to her early experiences with silence as a friend.

Quietness is a gift!  Let’s learn to befriend it, understand it and incorporate it into our daily lives and our work with students in school.  I believe we can support the work of Hampton to preserve our natural acoustic systems if we learn to value silence.


Joy of Quiet, by Pico Iyer, New York Times, December 29, 2011

Brain Pickings: my favorite site for #wisdom @brainpicker

December 31, 2016


Maria Popova is a wonderful writer, synthesizer of knowledge and ideas, and a great digital communicator.  She offers Brain Pickings 10 learnings from 10 years of Brain Pickings.  Check out her learnings (click here) and immerse yourself in her insights.  This would be a good way to start the New Year if you don’t know her work.

Review of relevant education research for 2016 @edutopia

December 29, 2016

Edutopia aggregated some of the important education research for 2016.  A good site to bookmark if you want to scan their list for relevant research to read.  One interesting study looks at teachers’ stress in the workplace.  Nearly 50% of teachers report being “stressed” during the typical school year.  As educators, it is worth understranding the research on stress in the workplace and reflecting on its significance.  How we manage our stress in the classroom can shape the way a student learns to manage their emotional response to stressful situations.   Clearly, some stress is useful to being a productive professional or successful student.  Robert Sanders reports in his article, Researchers find out why some stress is good for you, in Berkeley News.

You always think about stress as a really bad thing, but it’s not,” said Daniela Kaufer, associate professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley. “Some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral and cognitive performance.

More acute levels of stress help the brain remain alert to learning.   Sanders shares the following quote from the Berkeley study conducted by Dr. Daniela Kaufer.

Intermittent stressful events are probably what keeps the brain more alert, and you perform better when you are alert.

From a neuroscience perspective, acute (short-lived), intermittent stressful events release hormones that help us adapt to new situations, remembering important information associated with the event.  Adaptation is behavioral response that supports learning.

When stressful events become chronic the impact on learning drops off and survival becomes the main focus.   The American Psychological Association reports on the difference between acute and chronic stress.  They write:

When stress starts interfering with your ability to live a normal life for an extended period, it becomes even more dangerous. The longer the stress lasts, the worse it is for both your mind and body. You might feel fatigued, unable to concentrate or irritable for no good reason, for example. But chronic stress causes wear and tear on your body, too.

Chronic stress can make small challenges or obstacles hard to overcome.  In these situations, we become immobilIzed because the physiological reaction diminishes our ability to learn, respond, and use information in memory to adapt.  Our primary response in chronically stressful situations is to protect ourselves, the “flight or fight response.”

The Berkeley study points out that intense periods of acute stress can be harmful in some situations.  For example, in post-traumatic stress disorder, patients can experience a dramatic event that leads to “permanent” neurological disruptions.   Sanders shares the following quote from Kaufer’s study. 

I think the ultimate message is an optimistic one, she concluded.  Stress can be something that makes you better, but it is a question of how much, how long and how you interpret or perceive it.

As educators, it is our responsibility to understand the neurological impact of stressful situations on students’ school lives.  How can we leverage the learning environment to produce the right balance of intermittent levels of stressful events to facilitate learning, while not contributing to longer episodes of stress that might negatively impact student learning?  This is a question worth reflecting on.

Top 10 most viewed education articles on EdWeek’s Teacher @edweek

December 28, 2016

Education Week’s Teacher posted their Top 10 articles for 2016.  There are some interesting articles in the list, especially Building Empathy in Classrooms and Schools.

For an idea of what piqued our readers’ interests in 2016, the editors at Education Week Teacher compiled a list of the 10 most-viewed articles. Do you have a favorite article that wasn’t included? Feel free to let us know in the comments section below.

Check out the list of articles and see if any should be added to your reading list for 2017.

McKinsey&Company, Top 10 articles for 2016, @mckinsey

December 28, 2016

Here are McKinsey&Company’s list of the top 10 articles that viewers reference or enjoyed for 2016.  You might want to add these, or some of these, to your reading list.

This year we published more than 400 articles and reports on And while we’re not obsessed with clicks and eyeballs, it’s interesting to see what resonated. Listed below are the year’s ten most popular pieces of original McKinsey thinking, based on visits to this website and the McKinsey Insights app.

(click here for the link)

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