Category Archives: Everyday Innovation

Some schools say no to homework: Is that a good idea?

Homework is, once again, in the hot seat. A recent Education Week blog post described a new homework policy in an elementary school in Quebec that is giving its students a year off from homework. Just last year, reported that French President Francois Hollande proposed eliminating homework in all French elementary and junior high schools. And, according to the NY Daily News, Townsend Harris High School, a high performing school in Queens, has mandated no homework nights. What does the research tell us about homework and what are the implications for schools?

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A “fresh eyes” perspective on school climate change

As the summer winds down and thoughts of the new school year begin to surface, what changes are you considering to improve your school’s climate? One component of your school’s overall climate that should not be overlooked, literally, is the visual appearance of your facility, inside and out. The physical appearance of your school sends implicit and explicit messages to your parents, students, staff, and visitors about the quality of the learning environment and care to be found inside.

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Use a personal learning network to keep up with instructional technology

Given the pace and breadth of technology innovation these days, keeping up with the latest in instructional technology is difficult to do alone, especially if you’re not sure where to begin. Establishing a personal learning network (PLN) can keep you on the cutting edge of instructional technology, creating many layers of support that you can access when necessary.

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When the light bulb goes on: Transforming education with small science

There’s something special about being there when “the light bulb goes on,” when students who have been wrestling with a concept finally get it, seeing the world in a different way that allows them to understand it more fully. This is one of the primary reasons I was excited to join McREL’s science, engineering, technology, and mathematics (STEM) team, which brings emerging STEM content, specifically nanoscience and technology (NS&T), to classrooms in a way that helps students truly grasp it.

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The emerging role of creativity in the classroom

If I were to create a word cloud of emerging concepts that I find most exciting in education today, it would include “creativity,” “design thinking,” and “maker spaces.” It seems that a grass-roots movement celebrating art and design, partnered with practical problem-solving, has taken hold in nearly every aspect of our culture.

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Coaching takes informal observations to a new level

McREL’s Power Walkthrough Coach, available July 1, builds upon our successful informal walkthrough platform for school leaders, providing tools and protocols to help coaches more specifically address instructional needs with the teachers they serve. This is in line with emerging trends we’ve seen in schools and districts, where coaches or peers give feedback to one another, yet don’t often have a vehicle for doing so in way that captures look-fors and progress without being evaluative.

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What does “You 2.0” look like in the classroom?

For too long, though, education has been marked not so much by a pattern of incremental improvement, but rather by a swinging pendulum. We’ve lurched from one untested idea to the next—explicit instruction, inquiry-based instruction, whole language, phonics only—the list goes on and on. The point of research is to sift through various approaches to identify what has worked and what hasn’t, so we can lock in what we know works most of the time. Only then should we explore those edges where further improvements in professional practice are necessary.

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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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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


UDL: Common access to personalized learning

After reading my previous blogpost on Universal Design for Learning, a reader, Jackie, posted a comment asking if implementing Universal Design in instruction might potentially lead to “advanced learners not being able to excel in the classroom because everyone is working on the same thing at the same time.”

Jackie’s concern is understandable, and I thought it was worth further exploration here as a follow-up post.

Universal Design for Learning ensures that all students have meaningful access to course curricula, instructional activities, and assessments. But this doesn’t mean that advanced learners won’t be able to excel or that everyone in the class is working on the same thing at the same time. The important point is access.

To expand on the example from my original post, think about an advanced user of a GPS device who would be able to excel in locating multiple restaurants, gas stations, and interesting locations on a trip, using the device in a way that maximizes the benefit for his or her needs. Another person may use the same device for a single, straightforward purpose: to get from point A to point B.

The universal design of the GPS device allowed both persons to access the information needed for their specific, personal needs.

Universal Design in Learning allows students with diverse abilities and backgrounds to learn and demonstrate knowledge through multiple means. It doesn’t require instructors to abandon their teaching/learning philosophies, theories, or models, but it does require that they rethink their use of a diverse set of instructional strategies in order for learning to be accessible to everyone.

If you’re interested in further exploring UDL concepts, here are a couple of resources I’ve found to be helpful. For an overview of Universal Design and how it can be applied in education, take a look at this online Prezi presentation on Universal Design for Learning by Stephanie Richardson. And a good book on the subject is Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice by Sheryl Burgstahler and Rebecca Cory.

Jackie, thanks for the question. For everyone, are there other questions about, or aspects of, Universal Design for Learning that we should explore further together?

John Ristvey is a director for McREL.