Category Archives: Everyday Innovation

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. 

My trip through Universal Design

At first, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) may sound like just another tall order for today’s educators to fill. Instead, it’s more “everyday” than one might think.

Originally coined by designers and architects, Universal Design is “the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design” (Center for Universal Design). In education, UDL is the design of “instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone—not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs” (CAST).

How does Universal Design play out in our daily lives? While I was traveling to Edinboro, Pennsylvania, for a meeting with some teachers in our Adapted Curriculum Enhancement (ACE) program, I experienced several examples of Universal Design that we take for granted (almost) every day.

For example, after maneuvering through airport security, I stood at my gate and watched, with others, the latest news on TV. The volume was muted, and we were all reading the closed-captioning—an example of technology designed for the deaf and hard of hearing but which benefits everyone without adaption.

After arriving in Pittsburgh, I found my rental car and plugged in the GPS.  Even though I didn’t know the zip code for my destination, the system was still able to find the location. Before I got on my way, though, the GPS asked whether I wanted the shortest route, the fastest route, or to avoid highways. It also told me which gas stations and restaurants were along the way. With all of these options, I thought, this GPS could meet everyone’s needs, from the business traveler to the hungry sightseer.

Can we apply this concept to the classroom just as easily as we do in real life? The DO-IT Center at the University of Washington has developed a checklist for incorporating Universal Design into instructional practices, including multiple items under each of these main categories:

  • Class Climate: Adopt practices that reflect high values with respect to both diversity and inclusiveness.
  • Interaction: Encourage regular and effective interactions between students and the instructor and ensure that communication methods are accessible to all participants.
  • Physical Environments: Ensure that facilities, activities, materials, and equipment are physically accessible to and usable by all students, and that all potential student characteristics are addressed in safety considerations.
  • Delivery Methods: Use multiple, accessible instructional methods that are accessible to all learners.
  • Information Resources and Technology: Ensure that course materials, notes, and other information resources are engaging, flexible, and accessible for all students.
  • Feedback: Provide specific feedback on a regular basis.
  • Assessment: Regularly assess student progress using multiple accessible methods and tools, and adjust instruction accordingly.
  • Accommodation: Plan for accommodations for students whose needs are not met by the instructional design.

McREL’s ACE program also uses principles of UDL to help teachers assist students in visualizing complex science concepts through tactile graphics with written descriptions and 3-D models. The overarching principle is to develop course material, curriculum, and instruction with UDL in mind from the beginning, so that educators don’t have to “retro-fit” their teaching when they have diverse learners in their classrooms.

How have you included the principles of Universal Design in your classroom (maybe without even knowing it)?

John Ristvey is a director for McREL. 

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.