Category Archives: Classroom Instruction that Works

Reinforcing effort: A parent’s perspective

I want my child to be a confident learner who understands the importance of effort and wants to do his best. I believe reinforcing effort early is tied directly to development of lifelong motivation and achievement. Throughout his young life, I’ve helped my son connect with the good feeling that arises from belief in himself and hard work directed at a goal. Having read about the detrimental effects of praise about being smart or having natural talent, I try to reinforce practice and effort with him, even in areas where he appears be naturally gifted, such as baseball.

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Teach your students how to fail

Failure is not the undesirable end to learning; it is really just the beginning. Acknowledging our mistakes and learning from them is how we improve. Does a toddler who is learning to walk see himself as a failure after that first tumble? When an elementary student falls 20 times while learning to ride a two-wheel bike, has she failed or is she just practicing?

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Ending the “fire hose” model of PD learning

As educators, we’ve all experienced sitting through a two- or three-day workshop and, at the end of it, being overwhelmed with information, tired of sitting and listening, and wondering how we’re going to even begin incorporating what we’ve learned into our daily practice at school. We get back to work, and there’s no feedback from anyone and no time to try what we’ve learned. Time slips by, and we make little to no changes in our instructional practices.

This style of “learning via fire hose” is one of the least effective, yet all-too-commonly-used formats of professional development in education.

A much more effective PD model is to allow teachers to absorb information in small bites, giving teachers time to think about what they’ve learned and to methodically integrate new practices into their existing instruction, and providing them with feedback on their efforts.

We saw how well this worked last year when we were working with the staff at a mid-sized intermediate school on research-based instructional practices.

Instead of conducting three back-to-back days of PD, we spread the face-to-face sessions out over the course of the year.

Day 1 focused on the Classroom Instruction That Works strategies that create the environment for learning: setting objectives, providing feedback, reinforcing effort, providing recognition, and cooperative learning.

Day 2 focused on strategies that help students develop understanding: cues & questions, advance organizers, nonlinguistic representation, summarizing, and note taking.

Day 3 focused on homework, practice, and the two strategies that help students extend and apply knowledge: identifying similarities & differences and generating & testing hypotheses.

Each of these sessions was followed by an implementation assignment. We were able to track how well the implementation was going by reviewing real-time data (see chart) collected with our Power Walkthrough classroom observation system.

As we looked over the data, we saw that teachers’ instructional practices were changing over the course of the year. They were implementing what they were learning in the PD sessions.

Among the changes, we were pleased to see a drop in the predominant use of “practice” as a primary instructional strategy. While providing practice is an excellent strategy that allows students to review and refine what they have learned, we find that it is often over-used in classrooms, leaving little room for deeper learning and developing higher-order thinking skills.

We were happy to see growth in the teachers’ use of “note taking” strategies, which helps students summarize and remember what they learned, as well as growth in the use of “generating and testing hypotheses,” one of the highest-order thinking skills in which we can engage students.

While use of “nonlinguistic representation” as a primary instructional strategy appears low, we did see a definite uptick in nonlinguistic representation being used as a supporting strategy.

The data also helped us show teachers that “providing feedback” to their students was an area they could focus on in future PD and coaching.

By spreading out the PD content over the course of the year, by giving staff time to understand and integrate new learning into their practice, and by providing data and feedback along the way, the school’s teachers were able to see the impact of their hard work and newfound knowledge, and they now have the data they need to set future goals as a professional learning community.

If you’ve tried other strategies for stopping the PD “fire hose,” use the Comments section to let us know what worked well.

2011_Hubbell_WEBElizabeth Ross Hubbell is a consultant in McREL’s Center for Educator Effectiveness, and co-author of Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching.



Sarah Gopalani is a researcher in the Center for Educator Effectiveness, where she conducts quantitative and qualitative analyses in support of research and evaluation team projects.

Non-core classrooms: Are you observing them?

Imagine you’re conducting classroom walkthroughs and, as you walk by a music classroom, you hear the sound of student voices singing beautifully. “They are all busy practicing together again,” you think as you continue on toward a U.S. history classroom down the hall.

Wait a minute—did you just skip the music teacher’s classroom?

The music teacher needs to feel valued as a teacher as much as the history teacher does. Stopping in her classroom, and other “non-core” classrooms, to observe is just as important as seeing what happens in math, science, social studies, and language arts.

To get a clear picture of the instruction happening in all of your classrooms, McREL recommends that every teacher, core and non-core, be observed twice a week. While this may seem daunting, walkthroughs can be conducted by principals, coaches, other administrators, or fellow teachers as long as they have been through sufficient training on the “look-fors.” The benefit of conducting walkthroughs and providing formative feedback to teachers is two-fold: It improves communication and helps with goal setting, and the data gathered during walkthroughs can be used to make informed decisions about professional development and coaching opportunities.

In just a couple of months of walkthroughs, you will collect enough data to identify what instruction looks like in your school (as well as in specific content areas), what teachers are doing well, and areas where they need support. As you conduct more walkthroughs, you’ll also get valuable information about how often and how well particular instructional strategies are being used. PWT data chart

As an example, look at the data in this graph, taken from a sample of more than 150,000 walkthroughs recently conducted by Power Walkthrough® users around the world. Notice that there are some differences in strategies being used in core versus non-core classrooms. How does this compare to what you think you’d find in your own school?

Lisa Maxfield is a managing consultant at McREL International, where she provides information and support for McREL’s Power Walkthrough informal observation software.

The power of social learning: Can working with peers improve outcomes?

In 2005, I made a video called “1990” about how surprisingly little high schools had changed in the years since I graduated. In spite of everything I had come to know about the importance of active, student-centered learning using modern tools, in most high schools I visited, students were still, 15 years later, sitting at desks in rows and listening to their teachers, who were standing at the front of the room, the dry erase boards behind them a jarring compilation of messy, hand-written notes.

But humans weren’t designed to learn by sitting and listening for long periods of time. We are social creatures (even the most introverted of us) who need to move around and bounce ideas off one another in order to cement new concepts. Students, in other words, need to talk about their learning. Often. (For more on this concept, I highly recommend Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From and Chai Woodham’s article on how we are sitting ourselves to death.)

When I work with teachers and school leaders on Classroom Instruction That Works and Power Walkthrough, they commonly ask, “Where should we start?” Many people are surprised when I tell them they should pay attention to how students are grouped. How is instruction primarily accessed by students? Is it by listening to a teacher give a lesson, then working alone to practice what was learned? Is it by watching a video and completing exercises? Or is it working through problems and discussions with a small group of students? Or brainstorming with a partner? The answers to these questions can tell a school much about where their instruction is in terms of meeting the needs of learners.

Last year, I had the pleasure of working with an intermediate school in Texas that needed to achieve many challenging goals in order to avoid having to take more drastic measures. The school worked hard—my work with them was just one of many initiatives implemented that year—and it truly paid off. By the end of the year, the school had met every one of their objectives.

Out of curiosity, I looked at this school’s walkthrough data and compared it to “typical” walkthrough data. One thing that jumped out was their grouping data. Most schools have ~50-75% whole-class instruction followed by ~20% individual work, but this school had much higher rates of pairs and informal small group work—and it was higher than the rates of other schools in their district.

What do you do to make learning more engaging, active, and student-centered? Do you gather data on how often students sit through whole-class instruction, work individually, or work with others? You may be surprised by the results.

ERHstaffPhoto2011Elizabeth Ross Hubbell is a principal consultant in the Center for Educator Effectiveness, and co-author of Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), Using Technology with Classroom Instruction That Works (2nd ed.), and The 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching


The answers are in the room

12 Touchstones

Often, schools mired in low performance feel as if they could just hit upon
some new insight, strategy, or approach that has been eluding them, they could
be more successful. Yet when my McREL colleagues and I visit schools, we often
find ourselves telling them something quite different:  “The answers are in the room.”

Most schools don’t need someone to parachute in with a bold new idea or
insight; the things that research says works are usually already being done by
someone, somewhere in the building. What schools really need to do is simply
find their own bright spots, share them, and encourage others to do what great
educators know works well.

I was reminded of that when earlier this month when I had the privilege of speaking to teachers from Madison City Schools in Alabama. My talk was preceded (and admittedly, upstaged) by presentations from the district’s teachers of the year, Cindy Rhodes and Amy Thaxton.

Ms. Rhodes, a 25-year veteran teacher, offered a top 10 list of tips for new teachers, which included such sage advice as “Always have a plan – and just in case that plan doesn’t work, have a backup,” “Greet your kids every day at the door,” and “Tell [your students] you have faith in them and they will learn to have faith in themselves.”

Ms. Thaxton was introduced by a former student who praised her ability to connect with students. She showed a short excerpt from a TED talk given recently by teacher Rita Pierson, who told her audience, “One of the things we never discuss, or we rarely discuss, is the value and importance of human connections” in learning. In some teachers’ eyes, she said, worrying about student-teacher relationships is just a “bunch of

As she recounts, “A colleague said to me one time, ‘They don’t pay me to like the kids. They pay me to teach a lesson, the kids should learn it. I should teach it. They should learn it. Case closed.’” Ms. Pierson responded, “Kids
don’t learn from people they don’t like.’”

These teachers are spot on in sizing up what educators can do to help kids learn. Decades of research point to the importance of setting a high bar for them (having faith in them), connecting with kids (as Ms. Thaxton clearly
does), and being intentional about what we do in the classroom (as Ms.Rhodes does with her plans and back-up plans).

In our new book, 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching, my co-author Elizabeth Ross Hubbell and I call out a dozen big ideas that, when employed every day, hold the promise of helping teachers and their students succeed. While we found these ideas in research journals, we know their true source: passionate, insightful, and dedicated teachers who found better ways to teach. At some point, a researcher came along and studied them to prove what teachers already knew: that these things really work.

What really works in your classrooms? What big ideas or bright spots should researchers be paying attention to now?

Goodwin_200x200Bryan Goodwin is chief operating officer at McREL. In addition to co-authoring The 12
Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day
, he
wrote Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student Success.


Don’t work harder than your students

Teachers across the U.S. are either back in school or preparing for that first day of school. I recently read a post by Julie Harris Stern on her blog, Education to Save the World, titled “Stop working so hard…that’s the student’s job!” that provides some teacher-friendly and easy-to-implement ideas that can help new and veteran teachers alike get the year off to a positive and productive start.

When I read her suggestions, it was clear to me that they’re supported by our research and related book, Classroom Instruction That Works, 2nd ed.

As you begin the 2013-14 school year, think of ways you can intentionally plan your instruction so that your students go home more tired than you do—and learn more in the process.

Enjoy Julie’s post and have a great school year!

Authentic, Personalized Learning: Pre- and Post-Technology (A Case Study)

McREL has long maintained that technology, when used thoughtfully and intentionally, enhances good instruction. But it’s not about the technology itself; it’s about technology working together with a well-designed lesson or project focused on clear learning targets and differentiated by student needs and learning styles.

I just read a blog post by Krista Moroder, an educator in Wisconsin, and it really resonated with me. Krista’s reflections, posted at EdTechCoaching,  help us remember that good teaching isn’t something new, created by modern technology tools. Many of us got into education because of great teachers in our own past. Technology can, however, make good instruction even better.

With her permission, I’ve reposted Krista’s column below.

-Howard Pitler

Authentic, Personalized Learning: Pre- and Post-Technology (A Case Study)

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What do you do with classroom observation data?

At their core, classroom observations should be about coaching, building up professional practice, and supporting better outcomes for students. Principals should use classroom observation data to enrich conversations during professional learning community meetings, individual teacher coaching conferences, and staff meetings. When large samples of student data are available, school leaders can disaggregate the data by age, content area, or other categories to enable powerful analysis of the data’s meaning and uses. This, combined with other evidence, can be used to support school improvement goals, collaborative planning, professional development planning, and a common understanding of what quality pedagogy looks like. Principals who do this well can help their teachers
make great gains in teaching and learning.

We’re sometimes asked by principals and district leaders who are interested in Power Walkthrough® for more information about how the system ties in with research-informed instructional practices and good classroom observation protocols and purposes.

The Power Walkthrough system supports best practice by using a carefully designed template of observable elements based on the best understanding of modern pedagogy, with indicators of research-informed classroom environmental factors, instructional strategies, learning taxonomies, technology applications, evidence of learning, and student interview responses. The template is customizable, so that if a school wants to focus on formative assessment or collaborative learning, they can do so by adding or substituting observation elements. We recommend not adding too much to the observation template, so that it doesn’t turn into a teacher evaluation tool and take too long to conduct. If individual observations take more than 3-5 minutes to conduct, principals won’t
be able to visit enough classrooms for the data to be valid and reliable.

Validity and reliability of data relies not only on a sufficient sample size, but also on the skill of the observer. Becoming an efficient, skilled, and astute observer of teaching and learning takes quality training, practice, and collaborative reflection between observers. School leaders don’t have to be experts in all content areas to conduct good observations, but they do have to be highly knowledgeable in pedagogy and be a keen observer of student learning evidence. The Power Walkthrough templates help principals by providing cues, “look-fors,” and a common nomenclature.

Templates and lists provide structure and allow for statistical analysis, but they don’t preclude the principal from observing other factors in the classroom, interviewing students, or recording descriptive notes. In fact, Power
observations are designed to end with student interviews to gather student perspectives on what they’re trying to learn and why they’re learning it, to see if they fully comprehend the objectives of the lesson. Answers such as “we’re learning math because we have a test on Friday” aren’t good enough. A great
answer would be something like, “we’re learning how to graph polynomials because they can be used to model how some things work in nature like the shape a stream of water takes when it’s shot out of a fountain or the path of a
basketball when you shoot a free throw.”

In the end it’s not about the instrument itself, but how it’s applied. Depending on the goals of school leadership, Power Walkthrough can be used either for typical data collection purposes or innovative change. We encourage instructional leaders to collaborate with each other and their teachers to learn from the data together. Teachers will take ownership of the data’s meaning if they are allowed to find it themselves rather than using a top-down approach of dictating to them what the data means. If used regularly and collaboratively, Power Walkthrough data can provide a wealth of professional development experiences for all educators, both on a daily basis and as part of a whole school improvement effort.

We hope this explains a little more about how Power Walkthrough supports good classroom observation practices and instructional improvement.

Matt Kuhn is a principal consultant at McREL, where he designs and delivers professional development and provides technical assistance to school and districts in instructional technology, STEM, and leadership.