Tag: teachers and teaching

Memorization is Still Important, Even in Deeper Learning

October 31, 2017 by

This is the 2nd article in a periodic series on aligning competency-based schools with the learning sciences.

In an earlier post, I described my effort to understand the cognitive learning sciences and begin to make connections with our work in competency-based education. This post, and part of what may become a series, is another effort to ground our work in the learning sciences. And like the earlier post, I will turn to the Deans for Impact Science of Learning. They’ve organized their summary into six questions:

  • How do students understand new ideas?
  • How do students learn and retain new information?
  • How do students solve problems?
  • How does learning transfer to new situations in or outside of the classroom?
  • What motivates students to learn?
  • What are common misconceptions about how students think and learn?

I realized that I have been making a bit of an error in how I talk about the efforts to engage students in the higher level skills, usually level 3 and higher in the different taxonomies such as Webb or Bloom. I’ve tended to judge those schools that have stayed focused on memorization and comprehension without creating opportunity for more analysis and evaluation or applied or deeper learning. I’ve tended to see them as underserving their students, out of touch with the demands of the skills young adults need in today’s world, and even holding low expectations for students. Perhaps they are all those things, but my mistake has been in undervaluing memorization.

Memorization must not, of course, be the end-all of the school experience. However, it must be appreciated and valued in the role it plays in learning and the application of learning. In fact, as we think about helping students develop the skills to be lifelong learners, perhaps we should lift the knowledge about how to memorize in the long-term into that set of skills every student should know. From Science of Learning:

Cognitive Principle: Each subject area has some set of facts that, if committed to long-term memory, aids problem-solving by freeing working memory resources and illuminating contexts in which existing knowledge and skills can be applied. The size and content of this set varies by subject matter.

Practical Implications for the Classroom: Teachers will need to teach different sets of facts at different ages. For example, the most obvious (and most thoroughly studied) sets of facts are math facts and letter-sound pairings in early elementary grades. For math, memory is much more reliable than calculation. Math facts (e.g., 8 x 6 = ?) are embedded in other topics (e.g., long division). A child who stops to calculate may make an error or lose track of the larger problem. Additionally, the advantages of learning to read by phonics are well established. (more…)

Learner-Centered Tip of the Week: Making Space for Learners to Wonder

October 27, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at the Learner Centered Practices Blog on October 16, 2017. Belolan is the instructional coach for RSU2 in Maine.

Socrates said “wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” This quote is incredibly powerful because it reminds us that in order for any kind of learning to happen, we first have to be curious about something. The desire to know something, the question, is what sparks learning. In a learner centered proficiency based environment, we must make as much space as possible for learners to be curious and wonder.

One of the tenets of personalized learning, is that learners build and demonstrate proficiency through their own passions and interests. Another philosophical underpinning is that there is a culture that cultivates learner agency. Providing opportunities for learners to ask their own questions in any learning opportunity supports both these tenets. When learners ask their own questions, and then follow through with exploring the answers to those questions, they have much more investment and ownership of their learning. Here are some ways to make space for learner to ask questions in any social grade level or content:

1. Wonder Walls and Community Curiosity: Make being curious a public practice. I have always loved the idea of a giant mural-like display in a hallway where learners post their questions. Of course, there are many other ways to make wondering a regular part of any learning environment. In younger social grades, this can be part of the morning meeting. In addition to sharing what is going on in their lives, they then also share something they have a question about. Older learners might do this as part of an advisory group, or informal thinking exercises at the start or end of class. While this type of wondering might not tie directly to any content it certainly provides space and time for practicing asking questions, which is something our learners are not necessarily used to doing in school. (more…)

Making Sense of the Learning Sciences

October 24, 2017 by

I’ve been spending a year reading about the cognitive learning sciences and also about John Hattie’s work to review the effect of different strategies. Even with Bror Saxberg’s coaching (for which I’m deeply grateful), it’s been slow going for me, as I started with a pretty blank slate. I was also simply stuck. I was learning and my familiarity with the high level findings was growing, but I couldn’t figure out how to apply it. I was simply having difficulty making meaning for my work at CompetencyWorks because so much of the power of the cognitive learning sciences impacts practices of the teacher at a much more granular level than I encounter on my three- to five-hour school visits.

I had two breakthroughs recently, and now connections are being easily made. First, when reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, I realized that his exploration of different systems of thinking, with System 1 operating automatically and involuntarily and System 2 operating with deliberation and reasoning, opens a door for us to challenge the bias that we bring into our work and our relationships. It opens the door for us to be more cognizant of the types of bias and how they impact the learning lives of children in our schools. Perhaps we can use the learning sciences to cleanse ourselves and our schools of bias.

Second, as we think about the competency-based cultures, structures, and pedagogical philosophy (one of which is that teaching should be grounded in the learning sciences), it’s important for us to test out how districts and schools are supporting teachers to use the cognitive learning sciences as well as those that influence engagement and motivation. In other words, what are the structures and reinforcements that make it easy for teachers to use the learning sciences, and are there ways in which districts and schools are creating obstacles that we should address?

To get started, I’ll turn to the Deans for Impact Science of Learning, by far the easiest summary out there. Let’s look at one of the three principles under How Do Students Understand New Ideas?

Cognitive Principle: Cognitive development does not progress through a fixed sequence of age-related stages. The mastery of new concepts happens in fits and starts.

Practical Implications for the Classroom: Content should not be kept from students because it is “developmentally inappropriate.” The term implies there is a biologically inevitable course of development, and that this course is predictable by age. To answer the question “is the student ready?” it’s best to consider “has the student mastered the prerequisites?” (more…)

Personalized PD and Collaborative Teams: A Symbiotic Approach to Professional Learning, Part 1

October 19, 2017 by

Diana Lebeaux, Senior Associate, Personalized Learning Network

This post originally appeared at the Center for Collaborative Education on September 5, 2017.

Those of us who consider ourselves progressive and who regularly coach schools tend to focus our support on either collaboration or personalization. Schools that worry about the isolation of the traditional teacher, and teachers who yearn to share ideas, tend to focus on establishing Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), also known as Critical Friends Groups (CFGs). These groups become the mechanism of choice for propagating best practices, distributing leadership, and building collective buy-in for school reform or redesign initiatives. On the other hand, schools that fear teacher disengagement or who weary of professional development that never gains traction with teachers to foster improved student results tend to experiment with the newer approach, personalized professional development. This offshoot of personalized learning provides a structured way for teachers to share—or own—decision-making about the professional development with which they will engage, granted that it aligns with the school’s overall goals and the district’s other logistical parameters.

Both practices have promise individually, and because both represent a significant shift away from typical “sit and get” district- or school-wide professional development (PD), school leaders tend to invest their reform efforts around one or the other. After all, both approaches are ambitious and require capacity building, effective systems, and buy-in, which require time and effort. Both can result in improved teacher empowerment and even save districts money. However, unless these reforms are strategically bundled in tandem, I would argue that neither can meet its full potential to open up, and dramatically improve, classroom practice.

I have seen schools that institute PLCs begin to encounter a dreaded implementation gap when teachers mistrust (sometimes with good reason) the intention of the initiative, viewing the PLCs as a top-down, forced experience, or an attempt to further standardize practice to the detriment of teachers’ individual agency. At times, there are situations in which the PLCs are an overt means of prescribing professional development, in which principals mask top-down mandates under the guise of collaborative teamwork: arguably, these instances are poor or inauthentic implementation of PLCs. However, there are also many instances in which PLCs themselves are created with the authentic intention to build a safe community in which teachers can de-privatize practice, but the PLCs do not meet their potential to be revolutionary because they occur in isolation, providing a single outlet for teacher voice in a school that otherwise silences it.

Similarly, otherwise traditionally-structured schools that make a foray into the realm of personalized professional learning find a number of logistical hurdles that can hamper implementation. While personalized professional development plans and teacher micro-credentials, two means of personalizing PD, can provide incentives and structures that will inspire and guide teachers to learn, neither is a panacea. When poorly instituted—or done in isolation—these innovations can overly rely on educators’ knowledge of their own skills and their inevitably limited awareness of the opportunities for PD available to them. Schools may include data analysis, self-assessments and selected catalogues to mitigate some of these problems—or principals may build learning plans in tandem with their staff—but these can still result in ad hoc, sporadic instances of professional learning that may not align with the school’s overall goals or plans.  (more…)

What’s New in K-12 Competency-Based Education?

October 18, 2017 by

What's new! star graphicNew Books in Competency Education

Grant Opportunities

The Nellie Mae Education Foundation released three new requests for proposals:

Social Emotional Learning


Food for Thought


Behavior Management Tools Might Not Be Best for Student-Centered Learning

October 12, 2017 by

This post originally appeared at Students at the Center on September 14, 2017. It is the first in a series on the practical side of cultivating student ownership of learning, produced by JFF’s Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative.

High-quality learning is often messy. It can be noisy and nonlinear and full of surprises. That may be why many of us seek to control it. We establish rules, plans, and procedures to contain the unpredictable outcomes of our students’ learning. And we distinguish behavior from academics as if the way learners are expected to accomplish their learning teaches them nothing about how to behave as learners.

The trouble is, many educators were taught to think about classroom management and behavior management as activities of control. Classroom management is seen as organizing and structuring the flow of activities and expectations to maximize efficiency and task accomplishment, while behavior management is framed as the teacher’s efforts to manage and respond to disruptions.

But what if control was the wrong impulse? What if our efforts to control behavior sometimes worked against our loftiest educational goals regarding college/career readiness, critical thinking, social-emotional health, and civic preparedness? What if there was another way to achieve our objectives besides control?

There is! With the explicit goal of fostering learner independence, student-centered learning calls for a different set of approaches, ones that are more akin to learner facilitation than learner control. Rather than prioritizing efficiency, order, and compliance, student-centered approaches draw from a wide variety of educational research (see the Students at the Center Research Portal) to create learning environments that inspire students’ academic, social-emotional, and metacognitive development. Recognizing that emotion is an integral component of all learning, facilitators of student-centered learning seek to personalize an optimal mix of risk-taking, disequilibrium, accomplishment, and confidence in each individual student. By intentionally modeling and coaching empathy, cultivating relationships with and among learners, and establishing a culture of partnership, trust, and support, learner facilitators move past merely controlling behaviors to cultivating motivations and inspiring engagement. And in the busy, messy, nonlinear world of high-quality student-centered learning, these approaches are used to drive the goal setting, self-regulation, and success that lead to social behaviors and mature thinking processes.

Here’s an example for one learner facilitator’s opening activities, well-timed for the beginning of the school year. After introductions, first-year teacher Nate Gray launches his classes by engaging students in collaboratively creating a T-Chart with the headings “Expectations of Me” and “Expectations of Each Other”: (more…)

Redesigning the Syllabus to Reflect the Learning Journey

October 9, 2017 by

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

This post originally appeared at EdSurge on September 10, 2017.

Personalized learning is still in its infancy—as are the curricular tools and resources available to support teachers in implementing it.

Currently, there is no shortage of articles offering a high-level look at how and why personalized learning will impact student growth, and conference sessions where teachers are encouraged to change the way they teach, but not given the tools to modify their instructional practices. There are plenty of resources with step-by-step guides and blueprints designed to walk teachers through a process to personalize learning. Additionally, there is a growing number of online platforms and prepackaged curricular products (both free and at cost)—not to mention the new stamp on existing tools—you know, the sticker that says “personalize learning with (insert product name.)”

But, for personalized learning to be personal—it must be less formal and formulaic. We need to design student-centered learning experiences and that takes time, practice and support.

The Syllabus Gets a Facelift

If we think about learning as a journey that gets compartmentalized in formal education, then the first experience for middle and high school students is often the syllabus. In many ways, the traditional syllabus places restrictions on when, what and how students will learn. It sets expectations for how growth will be measured and what penalties will be enforced for late work or missing class. Most syllabi lack flexibility and aren’t very engaging; which contradicts everything we know about high quality teaching and learning.

I currently work at Allen Academy in Bryan, Texas, as the Head of Middle and Upper School and I teach one 8th grade geography class. Back in 2011, I was getting my feet wet with blended learning and experimenting with new pedagogical practices in my geography class. As a result of my recent transition to a blended learning environment and my desire to turn control of learning over to my students, I decided the traditional syllabus needed to be turned on its head.

Redesigning the Syllabus Starting With Student Experience

Conventional syllabi are developed from the perspective of the teacher—designed to present what he or she plans to include in a course. I wanted to develop an alternative version that looked through the lens of the student, and my vision was to tailor each one to reflect what a particular learner would be doing every step of the way throughout the course. This was not simply a more visually appealing version of a classic syllabus, it was a radical overhaul of the student experience with the primary goal of changing their perception of their role as a learner.

This drastic class redesign demanded that I ask myself some big questions: what content was required, what elements of learning could students control and what traditional and new measures I could use to gauge progress? Almost every question led to another. How much control could I give students over their modalities of learning, what would the challenges and successes of self-paced learning be, and if students had more control over how they demonstrated mastery, then what would rubrics look like?

Seven years ago, that first course redesign was a big shift for me. I had been teaching eighth grade geography for four years at that point, and historically, I had used a textbook and pacing chart to cover the curriculum. I used traditional grading practices, assessing student progress through quizzes, tests, project, midterms and finals each year. I was confident that students were learning and their grades supported that. There was little urgency for change—certainly not from my administration or peers. But I had this nagging feeling that my students deserved better. I knew they could make more progress if they had more flexibility to make decisions—but that couldn’t happen within the rigid structure that existed.

The heaviest lift for that first redesign was figuring out how to parcel out the course in a way that would give students more flexibility and choice. Abandoning traditional units and chapters and coming up with new potential segments of learning was a strenuous process. For that first one, I divided my class into three segments: Foundation, Content and Skills, and Assessment. I worked tirelessly to gather old and new resources, align them to each segment, and upload them to a website so that my students could access them at their own pace. (more…)

Learner-Centered Tip of the Week: Teaching Targets in Authentic Contexts

October 6, 2017 by

This week’s tip comes from Seth Mitchell, a technology integration coach in the Monmouth schools in RSU 2. This post originally appeared at the Learner Centered Practices Blog on September 25, 2017.

Last year, second graders at HLC – ably guided by Brittany Brady, Winona Prince, and Katie Torrington – embarked on a year-long journey to apply their learning in a real-world context. Their combined efforts culminated in learners becoming trail guides and offering guided tours of a local hiking path. As students worked their way along the one-mile trail, they shared their knowledge about the flora and fauna of Whittier Woods, explaining how plants, trees, and various classes of wildlife have adapted to this particular environment. Trail visitors stopped at eight different locations to read student-created informational signs that not only synthesize what the students learned, but also display original, digitally produced artwork. QR codes on the signs provide access to videos featuring student experts, who explain what hikers might see at each location on the trail. It was a proud moment for learners, for the expert educators who guided them through the process, and for the parents who expressed admiration for what these young people have accomplished. The project began the previous school year with some important questions: How can we situate target learning within an authentic context? How can we bundle standards to provide greater relevance for new knowledge? How can we tap the valuable resources of the community as we design learning experiences?

There were several important factors that led to the project’s eventual success: (more…)

What’s New in K-12 Competency Education?

September 27, 2017 by

What's new! star graphicSummit Public Schools published The Science of Summit, which describes the research and design choices made in Summit Public Schools. Chris Sturgis considers this a must-read. Someday every school will have a paper on the science of their school that describes the research, beliefs and values that are the foundation of their school design and instruction.

Social Emotional Learning

  • CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, is leading an effort to improve measurement of social emotional learning.
  • Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development is releasing its first case study today, Putting It All Together, which discusses showing how schools and school districts across the country are enhancing learning when they teach a curriculum that simultaneously build students’ social, emotional, and academic skills.

Thought Leadership

Personalized Learning

  • In the blog “Let’s Put Personalized Learning in its Proper Place,” Andy Calkins explores personalized learning as part of a larger whole.
  • This article shows how personalized, competency-based education allows for deeper learning and gives students the freedom to follow their passions.
  • Atlanta educators reflect on lessons from their personalized learning initiative.


  • George Couros wrote an article advocating for a greater focus on mastery over grades, holding the same high standards for all students.
  • Kristy Louden, a teacher, wrote this blog on ways to get students to read and reflect on feedback through delayed grading.
  • A Parents website article says mastery-based learning could become the new standard, and that A-F grading could be eliminated.


  • Tom Vander Ark outlines a proposal for an Innovation Diploma in this Education Week article.
  • Learn about the Mastery Transcript Consortium, which is 54 independent schools that have banned together to rethink the high school transcript and change the college admissions process.


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