Category Archives: Classroom Instruction that Works

Online Instruction that Works: The environment is different, but the strategies still deliver

Learning with computers isn’t what it used to be. Most of us knew them as a classroom tool; now, they are the classroom. A total of 1,500,000 K−12 students enrolled in online courses in 2009, almost double the number in 2006, according to the International Association for K−12 Online Learning. Alabama, Michigan, and Florida require online learning for students to graduate, and others, like Idaho and Utah, are considering similar changes. Students, parents, and teachers alike appear to be embracing online learning. In a fall 2011 EducationNext article, students report better engagement when learning is differentiated and accessible through multiple venues, and teachers often report better relationships with students and the ability to provide one-on-one guidance that face-to-face classrooms cannot afford (“The Highs and Lows of Virtual School: One Teacher’s View”).

But knowing how to instruct online effectively is not automatic. The first time I delivered professional development virtually, in spite of knowing better, I lectured more, used fewer multimedia resources, and did not provide ample time for participants to interact with one another. It seemed that all the lessons I had mastered in face-to-face instruction suddenly had to be relearned in an online environment. I didn’t have the physical cues (e.g., eye contact, facial expressions, off-task conversations) to help me adjust my lessons accordingly.

So I went back to the nine research-based strategies of Classroom Instruction that Works (CITW) that I know so well and realized that, tweaked for virtual application, they still provide the framework I need for effective instruction. They reminded me to do the following in an online classroom:

  • State explicit objectives for each session and make them accessible to all.
  • Provide feedback to each participant and allow them opportunities to give their peers feedback and self-reflect.
  • Offer multiple avenues to help participants develop understanding of new concepts.
  • Provide ample opportunities for participants to interact in groups.
  • Provide opportunities for participants to apply what they learned in real-world situations.

6a010536aec25c970b015437bd01db970cTime and again, we have received feedback from readers and workshop participants that the CITW strategies provide clarity and purpose for how to create an environment conducive to learning and how to scaffold student learning from initial understanding to deep knowledge (see figure below)—whether they’re teaching science or social studies, in an urban or rural setting, or in an ELL or mainstream classroom. Though the delivery method of online learning is different, we have every reason to believe the CITW strategies will deliver for teachers in virtual classrooms like they do for teachers everywhere who want to be the most effective they can be.

Elizabeth Ross Hubbell is an educational technology consultant at McREL

Turning classroom instruction on its head

The classroom lecture. It’s been criticized, despised, even lampooned. An entire generation  can probably recite the lines to Ben Stein’s dead-pan, droning lecture in the 1986 film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. (“Anyone?… Anyone?”)

But lectures aren’t necessarily bad. In fact , they can be an efficient way to help students acquire new knowledge. The problem with lectures, though, is often a matter of pacing. For some students, the information may come too slowly or repeat information they already know. Result: boredom.

For others, a lecture may provide too much information too rapidly or presume prior knowledge students don’t have. If students zone out for a moment, they may miss important content and be lost for the rest of the lecture. Result: confusion.

After a hit-or-miss lecture, teachers often give homework assignments, which students perform in what may be a private hell of frustration and confusion. What did my teacher said about cross-multiplying? Comma use in compound sentences? The Laffer Curve?

A new generation of enterprising teachers is beginning to turn this classroom model on its head, creating what are called “flipped” or “inverted” classrooms. Using simple web software, they record and post their lectures online, creating mini-lectures similar to what Salman Khan has created with his Khan Academy collection of more than 2,000 online lessons. (Click here to view Khan’s recent TED talk).

In these inverted classrooms, students watch the lectures at home, where they’re able to speed up content they already understand or stop and review content they don’t get the first time around (and might be too embarrassed to ask their teachers to repeat in class). The online lecture also incorporates visual representation, such as animated graphs or photos of important historical events.

Now, when students come to class, they can ask their teachers clarifying questions about the previous night’s lesson and engage in guided practice on problems they might otherwise have struggled with at home in tormented isolation. During class time, teachers can provide students with real-time feedback and correct misperceptions before they become deeply ingrained.

Jamie Yoos, last year’s teacher of the year in Washington state has created his own “inverted classroom” (see below).

Click here to view some of Yoos’ lectures on TeacherTube.

Similarly, two Colorado teachers, Jonathan Bergman and Aaron Sams, have also “flipped” their classrooms with vodcasting (i.e., online broadcasting of videos).

Students of these innovative teachers say they love the new format and are more engaged in class. Sure, there may be a few students out there who still delight in a 50-minute lecture, but for the rest, inverted classrooms just seem to make … anyone? … anyone? … perfect sense.

Putting a little mystery in teaching

Want to hear a simple, surefire way to get kids interested in what you’re teaching?

First, think back to your childhood. For kids, the world can be a wonderful, mysterious place. That’s why, as any parent knows, children are naturally full of questions. Why is the sky blue? Why do I dream? Why do birds fly south for the winter? The list goes on and on.

As we grow up, we solve these mysteries and fill our heads with facts. Over time, we start to forget what made things so interesting to us in the first place. As teachers, it’s easy for us to take a Joe Friday “just-the-facts, ma’am” approach to teaching. As a result, we blow the suspense for children. We come right out and tell them the answers to the mystery, rather than building their interest by posing questions such as, “Have you ever seen a shooting star? What do you suppose that is?”

A few years ago, Robert Cialdini,  a psychologist at Arizona State University, wrote an article titled, “What’s the secret device for engaging student interest? Hint: The answer is in the title.” After sifting through dozens of dry science articles, Cialdini found that engaging science writers take a different approach: they pose a question, for example, “What are the rings of Saturn made of? Rock or ice?” Then they build suspense and mystery before finally resolving the mystery. The answer, in this case (spoiler alert!), is both.

Teachers, can, of course, do the same thing in their classrooms. Instead of coming right out and providing kids with the answers, they can build suspense in all kinds of subject areas, not just science. For example, in social studies, a teacher might offer this mystery: How could a rag tag army of volunteers (the American revolutionaries) defeat the world’s greatest superpower at the time (the British empire)? In math, a teacher might get kids wondering how to calculate the area of a circle. Gee … wouldn’t it be great if there were some kind of “magic” formula for that?

At two upcoming events—a lecture here in Colorado on Jan. 15 and a free, national, NASA-sponsored webcast on Jan. 20—McREL staff members will offer up some big space science mysteries (and their answers), helping teachers think about how to design their lessons around these mysteries.

So as you plan your next lesson, you might ask yourself, what’s the mystery here?

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s Vice President of Communications and Marketing.

How do you teach science to students with visual impairments?

Imagine a big ball of rock and ice hurtling through space that grows a tail as it approaches the sun. Can you picture that?

Well, maybe not. You might wonder, what kind of tail? Is it long like a monkey’s, curled like a pig’s, or bobbed like a poodle’s?

Well, none of those, I might tell you. It’s more like a jet condensation trail, only a little wider and not as long—relatively speaking, that is.

But what if you’d never actually seen a con trail—or a monkey or poodle tail for that matter. We could go on like this forever, playing a sort of 20 questions game, each of us becoming more exasperated.

Obviously, if I could just show you the image of a comet, you would quickly understand what I’m describing. That’s the challenge science teachers face, though, when trying to help students with visual impairments grasp difficult science concepts: They can’t rely on simple images from textbooks. They must help students use manipulative and tactile tools to “see” what they’re learning.

For the past three years, McREL has been working with Edinboro University, Tactile Learning Adventures, and the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind to develop an intervention to help teachers create tactile graphics and written descriptions for visually impaired students.

The project, titled ACE (for Adapted Curriculum Enhancements) and funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, has created and studied the effectiveness of materials and lessons designed to help grades 6–12 mainstream teachers adapt lessons for students with visual impairments.

So how do you help a student with visual impairments visualize a comet? Here’s a hint: it involves a Styrofoam ball, some ribbons, and a hair dryer.

View this lesson and download other free lessons and materials from the ACE website at

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s Vice President of Communications and Marketing.

Summit School District finds “secret” to narrowing achievement gaps

In the popular mind, Summit County, Colorado, in the heart of Colorado ski country, might seem worlds apart from the usual challenges many other school districts face—a place where perhaps privileged, ski sweater-clad youngsters gather ’round roaring fireplaces to sing John Denver songs.

The reality, however, is until recently, Summit School District had one of the largest achievement gaps in the state—with the English language learning children of the county’s influx of immigrant workers achieving at much lower rates than its nonminority students.

Over the past two years, McREL has worked extensively with teachers and administrators in the district to help them narrow their achievement gaps while increasing overall student performance.

So what’s the secret to these initial successes? A bold new program? A whiz bang technology? A new silver bullet?


The “secret” has simply been to focus on delivering consistent, high-quality instruction in every classroom.

Teachers across the distict have been working hard to adapt the effective instructional practices they already know to the needs of English language learners. In keeping with some of the key ideas of McREL’s Changing the Odds for Student Success: What Matters Most report, they’ve been adopting “growth mindsets” for students, delivering challenging instruction, and providing students with the support they need to meet high expectations.

In the words of Superintendent Millie Hamner, the district has been simply “focusing on keeping best instructional practices and student learning first on our minds, in our agendas, and in our hearts.”

Read the entire Summit School District story here.

Download the free Changing the Odds report here.

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s Vice President of Communications & Marketing.

Three simple steps for adapting lessons for English language learners

At some time or another, we’ve all probably all had the frustrating experience of trying to converse with someone in a foreign language. We may catch snippets and phrases here and there, generally getting the gist of what’s being said to us. But when it comes time to open our mouths and speak, we’re tongue tied. Our vocabulary (“I don’t know how to say sprint; I’ll just say run instead”), conjugation (“Let’s see … what’s the third-person plural of correr?”), and dialect fail us (“Shoot. I still can’t roll my r’s.).

At this point, a fear begins to grip us. We worry that our conversation partners may judge by our underdeveloped language skills that our intellect is similarly on par with a toddler.

That judgment would be wrong, of course. Just because we’re not yet conversant in a second language, doesn’t mean we can’t grasp difficult concepts.

Teachers face a similar challenge when they have English language learners in their classrooms. While those students’ language skills may not yet be fully developed, they are still very much capable of grasping complex content. And all learning can’t stop while students acquire their language skills—if it does, students’ will find themselves well behind their peers once their language acquisition catches up to their intellect.

In a new article for, Jane Hill and Cynthia Bjork, authors of training-of-trainer materials that support the book, Classroom Instruction that Works for English Language Learners, identify three simple steps for adapting lessons for English language learners students to ensure they continue learning content while learning English:

Step 1: Know the stages of second-language acquisition. All learners progress through five stages of language acquisition, write Hill and Bjork: pre-production, early production, speech emergence, intermediate fluency, and advanced fluency. Knowing where their students are in this continuum helps teachers to plan their assignments accordingly.

Step. 2: Tier student thinking across the stages of second-language acquisition. Hill and Bjork’s article provides a matrix that overlays the levels of thinking from Bloom’s (new) Taxonomy to the stages of language acquisition. They recommend teachers use this matrix to plan homework and class assignments accordingly.

Step 3. Set expectations. In this stage, teachers combine stage one and two, identifying their students’ level of language acquisition and assignment at-home and in-class practice assignments accordingly.

By knowing where students are on this continuum and scaffolding their learning to the next stage of the continuum, teachers can ensure their students are gaining valuable knowledge while at the same time advancing in their language acquisition.

Read the whole article here.

Follow these links to learn more about McREL’s English language learners instructional leadership academies and books.

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s Vice President of Communications & Marketing.

How to make staff development stick

Educators have probably all grown wary of drive-by staff development—the one- or two-day workshop that momentarily energizes staff, getting everyone excited about doing something new, but then, like a photograph left too long in the sun, fades over time.

So who are we to blame when this happens? Teachers? Is it their fault when guidance from a workshop doesn’t take root in classrooms?

Not so fast, according to McREL staff members Jane Hill and Anne Lundquist in an article that’s now online at the site.

School leaders actually hold the keys to making staff development stick.

Hill and Lundquist lay out several strategies that they have used effectively in the English Language Learner Instructional Leadership Academies they have led in Colorado, Nebraska, Virginia, Iowa and other states to turn drive-by workshops into something lasting in schools.

These strategies include identifying, up front, a leadership team, consisting of school administrators, district staff, and teachers, who take responsibility for helping teachers to implement what they learn in staff development sessions in their classrooms.

Leaders also need to recognize that any change worth making is difficult and takes people out of their comfort zones. To loosen folded arms or “this too shall pass attitudes,” leaders must work on getting everyone on the same page (something at McREL we call creating a “purposeful community”) so they see the need for change and believe doing something different will make a difference. They also need to take steps to overcome the anxiety and pushback that comes with any difficult, meaningful change (which we call “second order” change).

Hill and Lundquist’s article offers practical steps for how leadership teams can accomplish both of these objectives. While their article focuses on staff development related to improving the achievement of English language learners, their practical tips and advice for making professional development stick translates well to all kinds of teacher learning.

Read the entire article online.

Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s Vice President of Communications.

Financial literacy with generating and testing hypotheses

While I am a curriculum and instruction consultant at McREL, I am also a father. Today I chaperoned my fifth grade son’s class trip to Ameritowne. These experts in financial education develop the financial literacy of young people through real-life experiences and hands-on programs. They use simulated communities such as Ameritowne, International Towne, and others. They also use the Classroom Instruction that Works strategy category of Generating and Testing Hypotheses. Specifically, students problem solve, make decisions, and analyze systems as they try to run simulated businesses, governments, nonprofits, and other institutions found in a community. Each “store front” is sponsored by a real organization in the actual community. More information can be found at

This was a great example of how dynamic experiences can build student background knowledge and thinking skills. The students governed the town, produced television news coverage, bought and sold goods, ran charities, produced products, and more. They had to analyze conditions within the community (system) and decide what to do. They then tested their plans as they ran the community. The adults were there just to advise and assist. It was wonderful to see how well the students did in their work. Do you have any examples of real-world simulations that use Generation and Testing Hypotheses in other content areas? If so, share it with us in a comment to this posting.


By Matt Kuhn – McREL Lead Consultant

Using BrainPOP with summarizing and notetaking

Think back to your K-12 years. Did someone actually teach you how to take notes? If so, in which grade were you?My earliest memory of actually being taught how to take useful notes (formal outlining aside) was in my biology class in high school. Our teacher had her trusty overhead projector and would stop during her lecture to capture key points of what she had just said. She didn’t use Roman numerals or capital letters, but rather a series of bullet points, arrows, stars, etc. She would ask us to jot down these items along with her and to draw small sketches out to the side to help us remember processes and concepts.

I remember her stating at the end of the lecture, “By the end of this unit, I don’t want your notes to look just as they do now. I want to see underlines, highlights, arrows…I want to know that you actually used them to help you study.”

Little did she realize that she was following the classroom recommendations that would eventually be published in Classroom Instruction that Works:

  1. Give students teacher-prepared notes.
  2. Teach students a variety of note-taking formats. (She demonstrated informal outlining, webbing, and using pictures, knowing that different students would prefer different styles of notetaking.)
  3. Use combination notes. (She combined linguistic and non-linguistic representation of what we were learning.)

Students even as young as kindergarten learn to draw pictures to help them remember what they’ve studied. By upper elementary, students can, and should, have opportunities to see what good notes look like, for example, how to indent to show subordinate details.

BrainPOP movies and features include great resources to teach notetaking. They provide introductions to a wide variety of subjects and explain key vocabulary terms for students (using images, animations, audio, and print). They can also serve to review a topic already covered. All of BrainPOP’s movies have closed captioning. This feature, with any student, is an excellent literacy and visual reinforcement. Pausing at a key concept during a movie and inviting students to put the concept in their own words, or drawing a quick sketch to represent the concept, gives students the support they need to successfully learn and remember concepts. Each of BrainPOP’s short, animated videos offers ample opportunities to pause for discussions and time for students to take notes.

For example, a teacher may wish for her students to watch the movie on Franklin D. Roosevelt as they begin their unit on the Great Depression. Before watching the movie, she provides her students with a skeletal outline (see below). She may also choose to model notetaking on the typeable BrainPOP Vocabulary page, or do some shared writing with the class before handing out copies. Teachers may pick and choose notetaking tools provided on BrainPOP (closed captioninggraphic organizersvocabulary) and use these to scaffold student learning during the movie.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt

  • Which number president? _________
  • Served 19__ – 19__
  • served ______ terms
  • The Great __________ was happening when FDR took office
  • “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” What do you think this means?
  • Four key points of the New Deal in the movie
    • Unemployed ____________
    • Farmers _____________________
    • The stock market ________________
    • The banking system ____________
  • Vocabulary terms to know
    • Social Security ____________
    • fireside chats ____________
    • Eleanor Roosevelt ____________
    • isolationism ____________
    • United Nations ____________


By using a resource such as BrainPOP, students can watch a segment as often as they need in order to capture the main ideas. BrainPOP provides graphic organizers and activities that can serve to scaffold the process of summarizing, paraphrasing, and notetaking. Eventually, students will not need these scaffolding tools, but will be able to capture key ideas on their own. Instilling strong notetaking skills is a lifelong gift we can give to students.

Are you a BrainPOP Educator? Sign up today for BrainPOP Educators, our free professional community, where teachers can find and share innovative lesson plans, graphic organizers, video tutorials, and best classroom practices. You may contact Allisyn Levy at allisynl [at] brainpop [dot] com

by Elizabeth Hubbell, Educational Technology Consultant at McREL, and Allisyn Levy, Director of BrainPOP Educators
(*Note: this post is the second of a series of collaborative posts between BrainPOP Educators and McREL’s Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works. These articles will be cross-posted on the McREL Blog and on BrainPOP Educators Blog.)