It Is Rocket Science

New theories about the science of learning from the Deans for Impact. Interesting findings include:

  • The idea that we each have different learning styles? Unsupported by research.
  • "Research shows that taking a quiz or forcing oneself to recall information is a better practice" than, say, rereading a book chapter or completing a study guide.
  • Peer tutoring? "When we want a student to learn something, have the learners recall what they know and teach someone else instead of sitting with a few peer who already gets it."
  • "Teachers [should] alternate practice with different kinds of content rather than practicing one type of problem several times before moving on."

My sense of this: The better able students are at being agents of their own learning, and the better teachers are at supporting that type of learning, the more students learn.

Breadth vs. Depth: The Deeper Learning Dilemma

Dr. David T Conley, writing for Education Week:

A classroom well balanced between breadth and depth might introduce new concepts on a regular basis and practice them to ensure basic understanding while at the same time have students always working on one project or task that goes deeper in a keystone area. While the majority of class might still be used to introduce, explain, and practice new content, a significant portion of class time might be devoted to projects and tasks focused on keystone concepts, which students would spend considerable out-of-class time on as well.

The key word above is "balanced."

How I Started (circa 2007)

I stumbled upon an archive of documents I created in 2007, my third year of teaching. Nested six folders deep inside a directory labeled “School,” I found a document called AP Lesson Plan - Introduction - Day 1. In 2007, I taught two sections of AP Psychology to 11th and 12th graders. This was the document I used to draft my ideas for starting that class. Looking at it, two things stand out to me.

First, I was much more intentional than I remember. In this lesson plan, I listed goals, materials, action steps, and student deliverables. The plan reads like something I intended to hand to someone else down the road, yet that was never my goal. I remember spending a lot of time writing plans like this thinking it would save so much time later in my career. It did.

Second, I didn’t review my syllabus on the first day of class. Instead, I performed a magic trick to get them thinking about the need for control in psychological experimentation. Along with the trick, I shared a long, obviously ficticious, story about hitting my head over the summer and awakening a clairvoyant; I could see the future. The trick backed up my far-fetched claim with some fairly convincing (or at least entertaining) data.

Their task was to identify aspects of my demonstration (variables) that would disprove my claim. I would collect their ideas on the board. When all ideas appeared to be exhausted, I would have them prioritize the ideas down to the one (independent) variable they think would be most likely to disprove my clairvoyance.

I remember being hung up on the difference between psychology, the science, and the kind of psychology my students see and hear about on television. I wanted to make an early impression that, by controlling variables, we can make educated predictions that test psychological phenomenon, and that this was the type of psychology we would be studying in my class: the kind that is testable and scientific.

I never assessed their understanding of experimental design; it wasn’t yet my goal. I simply wanted to demonstrate that clear, nerdy thinking about something as silly as a magic trick, could lead to deeper understanding. And, I wanted to have fun. This was, after all, my students’ first introduction to me, their teacher, and psychology, the subject they would be studying with me over the next year. I didn’t want this day to be about rules, processes, or my pet peeves. I wanted it to be about fun and science!

My first homework assignment for them was to do three things:

  1. Read and understand the entire syllabus.
  2. Give their parents my introduction letter.
  3. Return their signed parent statement by the end of the week.

The very next class started with a quiz over the syllabus. In hindsight, it was pretty nitpicky, but remember this was an AP class and I was trying to instill a high expectation. For most students, it worked. They came in with a firm understanding of my syllabus. For all, it sent the message that I would hold them accountable to the work I asked them to complete.

After quizzing them on the syllabus and answering questions on the second day of class, we’d get to know each other, employing a series of cognitive strategies until everyone knew each others’ names.

We’d start content on the third day, which because of block scheduling didn’t come until the second week of school.

That’s how I started my year as a teacher in 2007.

Creating College & Career Readiness

Two years ago, I had the opportunity to start a new high school designed to prepare all learners for college and career. My first task: to define what "being prepared for college and career" actually means.

With a clean slate and support from the New Tech Network, a team of teachers and I set out to reduce college and career readiness down to what we believed were five essential skills that all graduates should have before leaving high school. Then, we created rubrics for each skill and agreed to measuring them all school-wide.

We thought we were on fire.

This past year, I've had the opportunity to do the same thing with a second group of teachers engaged in full-school reform. While the exact skills this second group identified were unique, the essential outcomes were not.

Having gone through this process twice now, I have some reflections and next steps I think are worth sharing. If you're part of the New Tech Network, what follows are my thoughts on developing school-wide learning outcomes in two separate communities with different design models. If you're not in the network, the reflections below will still be helpful assuming the additional burden of deciding how to measure your outcomes school-wide.

Let's all agree that we'd like to graduate students who are productive, life-long learners who collaborate locally and globally to communicate critical change in their world.

While I find great value in teams working together to define and thereby "own" their particular set of lofty outcomes, I sometimes wonder if we're all unnecessarily working on something that's already been done. Let's stop re-inventing the wheel.

Take the first step and ask your team to draft their vision for a college and career ready graduate. The shared experience here will pay off, but don't get carried away. Rely heavily on the work of others and steal everything that fits your vision. Otherwise, you're just going to create what's already been created several times before.

After all, this is only step zero on the long path to ensuring these outcomes actually make it into your school curriculum.

Start with the end in mind, but don't forget to begin.

Once your team has defined their set of outcomes and have agreed to measure them school-wide, it's logical (and necessary) to create rubrics that define how each outcome will be measured. Is "collaboration" on your list? If so, what does your ideal collaborator look like? What does a poor collaborator look like? Can collaboration be measured that simply or will there need to be sub-skills or outcomes? If you skip this step or stop here, you'll have little more than a fancy statement on your website.

For this, I recommend dividing the outcomes amongst individuals or pairs of individuals to research existing rubrics (they're out there). Don't even dream of writing these outcome rubrics as a large group. The conversations you'll have about wording alone will kill your momentum and waste time.

Provide a template. If your team isn't already trained in rubric-writing, do that first. You want to have already decided whether to use a 2, 3, 4, or 10 column rubric, how many points (if set) each column will be worth, and what each column should be called. In short, ask yourself how you'd like your team's time to be used: discussing rubric formats or drafting outcomes?

Designate two individuals, preferably an idealist (probably you) and a wordsmith, to rewrite each team's outcome rubric in a single voice. The goal is to ensure a consistent language and format throughout each outcome rubric.

While rewriting, think critically about whether the criteria measured will actually assess whether the outcome has been reached. If the assessment seems insufficient, send it back to the drafter(s) with feedback for revision. Whatever you do, don't settle for incomplete or poorly written rubrics.

Having school-wide outcomes & rubrics is great, but it's not enough.

The work of creating college and career ready graduates only begins with the creation of school-wide outcomes and rubrics. Armed only with these two tools, you'll end up with a whole lot of assessment of skills that were never explicitly taught.

This is the equivalent of a college professor who provides study guides yet does't teach the class any of the content that will be on the test. It feels unfair and it doesn't lead students in any particular direction.

Particularly skilled students will figure things out on their own; students who struggle will fail.

To ensure that all students graduate with the knowledge and skills needed for success after high school, it's important for teams to scaffold the learning of school-wide outcomes across time and contexts. Skills that we believe students need to be successful must be viewed as a curriculum to be aligned horizontally and vertically throughout the school.

Here's an example: three weeks ago, I started meeting with a group of teachers from various subjects and levels in my high school. We call this group the "College and Career Readiness Curriuclum Committee (CCRCC)". It's not pretty or easy to say, but it's an important step toward the goals we're trying to accomplish.

Using Conley's 2010 book College and Career Ready and our previously created school-wide learning outcomes as a foundation, we're taking the next step of determining when and where our outcomes should be taught.

For example, if we believe that metacognition is an important lifeskill that young adults should master, where might be the best place to have students start journalling? Should this be the focus of just one class or all classes? Across all grades or just the first year? If all grades, then should our expectations be lower in earlier years and increase over time?

These are all great questions that must be answered as part of the conversation that creating a curriculum will generate.

Getting from outcomes to a curriculum is a big step, but there's one last step.

Even with outcomes, rubrics, and a curriculum, you still need a plan for establishing and sharing best practices on how they will be taught. For example, we all want our learners to graduate with a repertoire or note-taking methods and to apply them appropriately in different learning contexts.

Let's say that your team determines that students should learn to outline first. Once outlining is mastered, perhaps they learn mind-mapping, and then onto Cornell. Can you be certain that your entire staff is on the same page about how to teach outlining to reasonably assure that all students will have mastered outlining before moving onto mind-mapping? What does research say is the most effective method of outlining?

Without explicitly sharing the best known instructional practices for teaching your college and career readiness curriculum, your school-wide outcomes will only be met haphazardly and your vision will be tougher to reach.


What I've done here is not exactly unique. Anyone engaged in designing courses around content standards have followed similar steps. That's the point. If your goal is for students to be successful in college and career, then the same care and intentionality given to content planning should be given to the scaffolding of skills.

Creating Engaging Classrooms

"Everyone please stop what you're doing, close your computers, and give me your fullest attention. This work we're doing is very important and we all want to do our best. I'm noticing that several of you are off-task now and that's not good. Let's stay mindful of our work and try to remain on task. Thank you."

If you've ever taught, I'm sure you've said this or something similar to students. I know I have.

Let's stop.

The truth is that statements like the one above aren't effective. They distract the students who are on-task without actually addressing the reasons that some are off-task in the first place.

We continue to say things like this because the immediate response is short-term compliance. Students appear to be more engaged after we say something so we feel better about ourselves. This makes us more likely to say things like this in the future.

I'm not suggesting that we stop addressing off-task behavior; I'm actually suggesting that we start.

The next time you're planning produces less engagement than desired, take time to reflect upon why before taking action. Then, take action.

Here are a few ideas, as examples:

1. Involve your students in the planning process.

Form a student academic advisory board in your school or class. Before launching a new project or unit, ask them to convene to tune your ideas. Take their feedback seriously and use it to improve your practice.

Include a broad range of learners. You'll want input from multiple perspectives; asking only the top ten for feedback won't solve your engagement issues.

2. Observe disengaged students and ask them why they're struggling to stay on task.

If your question is sincere, they'll be quite honest. Write their responses down as if you were a researcher collecting data on student behavior. Taking this step will pay off immensely during future planning.

Over time, analyzing this data will reveal patterns of student disengagement. Are the same students always disengaged? Is there a particular activity that disengages more students than others? Are students in some classes or at different times of day more likely to disengage than others?

By analyzing data, you'll be better able plan for and prevent disengagement in the future. To do this, however, you have to first collect the data!

3. Ask an outsider to do the observing for you.

A trusted administrator might be a good place to start. Lacking that (or additionally), ask a colleague to sit in during one of your classes to collect data. Be specific about what data you want them to collect. Help them help you by providing the data collection format and tool.

Do you want to know when or how often a particular group of students disengages? Do you want to know what your proximity in the classroom does to engagement? An outside observer can see things that you never will in your own class.

4. Make peer accountability a celebrated part of your school or classroom culture.

It should not be the teacher's sole responsibility to keep everyone on task. In too many schools, though, we teach our students to be passive bystanders to their peer's disengagement and misbehavior. Make this unacceptable by addressing it explicitly and regularly when it occurs.

When one member of a group does significantly better or worse on an assessment than the the rest, there's a teachable moment that shouldn't be skipped. When one member of the group is distracting the others, what steps can that group take to address that distraction in a non-threatening way?

By taking class time to teach students to hold one another accountable to their work, you'll not only decrease disengagement, but you'll be teaching them an essential 21st-century skill.

5. End every project or unit with a day of student reflection.

Divide the day into three parts.

  1. Start with a review of the work they did and ask them to provide feedback on how you could improve upon it the next time around.
  2. Ask them to reflect upon how the class functioned as a group. What went well? What didn't? What might they be able to do next time to make the class better.
  3. Ask them each to reflect upon how they functioned, individually. What study habits or activities worked particularly well for them? What worked the least? What should they work to improve personally in the future?

Take notes throughout the day and store them with your lesson plans or project resources.

6. End every class with five minutes of honest reflection.

Choose a reflection format, as appropriate, to get student feedback on what they learned, what questions they have, or what needs to be covered more thoroughly the next day.

Whether it be through a journal, an exit slip, a discussion, or a any other format, the point is to increase communication from your students about what they need to learn to be successful.

7. Identify school and district resources for the most disengaged students.

Let's face it, we can't solve every problem ourselves. When we can't, it's important to acknowledge that we can't and to ask for help from someone who can. Regardless whether these students need academic, social, psychological, or behavioral support, remember that no classroom is an island. Use every resource available for this small segment of every school population.

8. Leverage parent relationships to help increase student productivity.

This is especially helpful when students are not engaging in homework. Calls and emails to parents for feedback and support are typically greeted more positively when delivered sincerely and without emotion.

Ask parents what their kids say about your class at home. What work do they see their kids doing at home? How much homework are their kids getting? Is it too much? Are other commitments getting in the way? What do they think could help you engage their kid in learning?


By taking time to collect and analyze data before deciding to act, and then acting intentionally to address the actual challenges of student engagement, we will start to realize a world with increased student engagement and achievement.

Moreover, you can stop giving the whole-class lectures on the importance of staying on-task.