Category Archives: Everyday Innovation

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.


Coaches for the Classroom

When you think of coaches, an image of a sports figure may come to mind—Tom Landry, Bobby Knight, or Bear Bryant. But in education, coach may be a part of your everyday vernacular as well.

As schools are looking for ways help teachers implement the Common Core and reach No Child Left Behind (NCLB) goals, traditional professional development (PD) programs, sometimes referred to as “one-day wonders,” have proven ineffective in sustained growth and improvement for teachers. Researchers Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers (2002) found that PD that consisted of demonstration, feedback, and practice did not have a noticeable effect size on classroom transfer (effect size + 0.0). Even research-based models of learning and the most thoughtful day of PD have no impact on student learning if the teacher cannot internalize or sustain their learning over time and with fidelity. In order to make deep, lasting changes in teacher practices, more and more school districts and states are using instructional coaches to support teachers in implementing best practices for increased student achievement.

What is an instructional coach? While there are many variations, in general, an instructional coach teaches educators how to use proven teaching methods and uses a variety of PD practices to encourage the implementation of these methods. Often, instructional coaches meet with teachers individually or in small groups, collaboratively plan with teachers, model instructional practices, or observe teachers using instructional strategies (Knight, 2004). Instructional coaches are meant to help teachers transfer their training to the classroom and implement what they’ve learned with fidelity.

And there’s research to back that up. Two programs, Pathways to Success from the University of Kansas (which includes six middle schools and three high schools), and Passport to Success by the Maryland Department of Education (which includes five middles schools), showed that instructional coaching programs generated implementation rates of at least 85 percent (Knight, 2005), which means teachers were using what they learned in PD. Joyce and Showers (2002) also analyzed implementation rates and found that when coaching is added after PD, “a large and dramatic increase in transfer of training—effect size of 1.42—occurs”.

McREL staff has seen firsthand how instructional coaching helps teachers transfer what they’ve learned in training. In October and November 2012, McREL staff trained a diverse group of English, French and Cree-speaking consultants from Northern Quebec in instructional coaching strategies. These consultants learned best practices in coaching and practiced through role-playing and other interactive scenarios. A month later, when Bj Stone, McREL principal consultant and co-author of Classroom Instruction that Works (2012), presented two days of instructional training to the Cree teachers, the coaches were prepared to support and reinforce the new learning with a “toolbox” of strategies, including setting goals with teachers, modeling classroom lessons, and checking for the fidelity of implementation. Many teachers, in Cree and elsewhere, report that not only does instructional coaching increase their confidence, it also increases their willingness to try new evidence-based best practices. Teachers and coaches begin to share a vision—to increase achievement for students.

How is your district using instructional coaches? How is it benefiting the school? The teachers? Have you experienced any challenges?

Patti Davis is a lead consultant at McREL in the Center for Systems Transformation.



Joyce, B. & Showers, B. (2002). Student achievement through staff development (3rd ed.). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Knight, J. (2004, Spring). Instructional coaches make progress through partnership: Intensive support can improve teaching. Journal of Staff Development 25(2), 32–37. Retrieved from

Knight, J. (2005, Winter). Instructional Coaching. StrateNotes 13(3). Retrieved from

International student performance: Are the data what they seem?

GlobeResults from the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) show what educators have come to expect about U.S. students: Compared to their counterparts in many Asian and some Western European countries, their test scores lag in math and science—the fields of study often equated with innovation, technology, and healthy, competitive economies.

Do these data, as an education task force sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations warned in a March 2012 report, put the United States’ “future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk”?

Certainly, many would agree, as Eric Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, and Ludger Woessman say in an article for Education Next, that the U.S. position is “problematic.” In a 2010 analysis, the trio of experts in education reform and economics in education found only 6 percent of U.S. students performing at the advanced level in mathematics, which is a percentage lower than that attained by 30 other countries. In 2011, just 32 percent of 8th graders in the U.S. were proficient in math, placing the United States 32nd in the world. Further, the rate of improvement among U.S. students is underwhelming: In a study of 49 countries, it was right in the middle, with 24 countries improving faster. Eight countries made gains at twice the rate of U.S. students.

Hanushek, a renowned expert in educational policy and education economics at Stanford University, believes that these results have “enormous implications” for the future of the U.S. economy in the future.

Others, however, look at the data quite differently. Yong Zhao, author of Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization, whose scholarly work focuses on the impact of globalization and technology on education, contends the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

According to the data, Zhao says in a blog on his website, America’s national security, jobs, and economy have been “resting upon a base that has been crumbing and cracking for over half a century,” and the United States should have “fallen through the cracks and hit rock bottom by now.” But other facts suggest otherwise: The United States remains the dominant military power in the world; its economy is still the largest in the world; it is the 6th wealthiest country in the world; and it ranks 5th, 2nd, and 1st, respectively, in Global Competitiveness, Global Creativity, and in the number of international patents filled or granted.

Why? Because, Zhao says, “high test scores of a nation can come at the cost of entrepreneurial and creative capacity.” The American system produces more creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial-minded people. In fact, PISA data show that countries with higher scores have fewer people confident in their entrepreneurial abilities.

What do you think the data says about the American education system? You can hear Hanushek, Zhao, and other experts in education and high reliability present their perspectives at McREL’s Summit for Innovative Education February 4–5 in Denver. 

If we don’t do standards right, will we have time to do them over?

In previous blogs, I’ve noted that while standards-based reform efforts appear to have “raised the floor” on student performance, they’ve been less successful in “raising the ceiling” or unleashing the talent of our students at the upper-end of the spectrum. In fact, Harvard education professor Martin West noted that far greater percentages of students in other developed nations perform at the same levels demonstrated by the top six percent of students in the United States.

Students also appear to be detached from the system of standards-based assessments and accountability that we’ve so carefully constructed over the past two decades—as evidenced by the fact that surprising students prior to taking a standardized test with a mere $10 bribe for good performance is enough to make them do significantly better on the tests.

So what’s the answer? More bribes for students so they’ll play along with our accountability systems? While bribes may work to some extent, as I noted in a recent column in Educational Leadership, external rewards tend to have diminished results over time, requiring greater dosages (or payouts) to be effective. Moreover, the presence of external rewards can serve to undermine intrinsic motivation, which researchers have found can have a powerful influence on student success.

In the video below, education author and speaker Sir Ken Robinson notes that raising standards is fine—indeed, there’s no sensible argument to be made for lowering them. However, if we only focus on what we want students to learn and not why we want them to learn it, we may be doing them a great disserve.


Robinson speculates that it may be more than just coincidence that “incidences of ADHD have risen in parallel with the growth of standardized testing” and points out that “our children are living in the  most intensely stimulating period in the history of the earth.” And yet, we penalize “them for getting distracted and from what? Boring stuff … at school.”

He points to studies that show that the longer students stay in school, the less creative they become. Similarly, other researchers have found that the longer students stay in school, the less intrinsically motivated they become.

However, standards need not come at the expense of student engagement. The Edutopia web site, for example, provides many vivid examples of learning environments, such as The Build San Francisco Institute, where standards-based learning opportunities are incredibly engaging for students, many of whom were previously at-risk for dropping out of school.

In Tulsa, a team of curriculum developers and researchers from McREL designed a pilot summer program, Cosmic Chemistry, in the Union School District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Cosmic Chemistry gave teenagers, many of whom had been identified as unlikely to enroll in upper-level high school chemistry courses, an opportunity to interact with NASA scientists and experience the thrill of inquiry and discovery of true applied science. The program resulted in excited students who are now intrigued by science— so much so that 80 percent of students who participated in the course enrolled in Advanced Placement chemistry courses at their high schools.

This suggests that when we consider student motivation and help students understand what’s in standards-based learning for them, we create relevance in their learning, and it becomes possible to not only raise the floor with standards, but also the ceiling on student performance.

Sure, it takes a bit more planning, creativity, and effort. But the results—and the expression on these students’ faces—would suggest that it’s worth it.

As 46 states move to adopt Common Core State Standards, the opportunity may never be better to not only rethink the standards themselves, but how we might go about creating a standards-based system of education that truly engages student interest and motivation.

While some educators might feel weary or overwhelmed with the enormity of transitioning to new standards and say, “I agree with you. But right now we just need to take care of adopting the standards. We can worry about that other stuff later.”

However, we might do well to recall the words of the late, great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who famously remarked, “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?”

What are your thoughts? Is it possible to make standards-based learning engaging for students?

Written by Bryan Goodwin, Vice President of Communications, Marketing, and New Business Development.

Do our students care about higher standards?

With this in mind, have we spent the past 20 years fretting over raising standards, creating related assessments, and designing accountability systems to improve student performance, but neglecting to help students understand why any of this should be meaningful to them?

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Trend Spotting: The Evolving Role of Museums in Education

On the Horizon, an international journal that explores emerging issues as technology changes the nature of education and learning, has released a concept paper titled, Museums and the Future of Education. Co-authored by Scott Kratz, vice president for education at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., and Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, the paper explores the vibrant role that museums could play should education experience a profound shift from traditional teacher- and school-centered models to more informal, personalized, “passion-based” models.

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Quiet in the classroom

Vicki quiet in classroom blogImagine being 13 years old and having a social studies class in which you and your classmates learn cooperatively 100 percent of the time, and no one ever works alone… ever. Depending on your personality, this could be your favorite class or your worst nightmare.

This was the learning environment one teacher created for his students after attending a professional development seminar on the benefits of cooperative learning. Upon returning to the school, he physically made over his classroom, creating stations for small groups of students to work together every single day.

Perhaps he was so inspired by a dynamic instructor that he couldn’t resist converting to a new teaching approach; perhaps he viewed it as a way not to have to deal with the time-consuming planning that good teaching often requires; or he may have viewed it simply as a fail-proof way for students to learn. Whatever his instructional motivations, it most likely was the way he himself preferred to learn. However, it was not the preference of at least one of his students, who began to dread attending his class and, as a result, learned very little social studies that year.

An insight as to why and how some students choose to opt out of cooperative learning is revealed in Susan Cain’s book Quiet, which posits that our culture, in general, and our schools, in particular, undervalue certain types of individuals, specifically, introverts. She contends that the focus on group learning in schools ignores the needs of students who not only dislike working in group settings but actually don’t learn in them. Instead, they learn best when they work individually, usually through reading, writing, and reflecting.

In McREL’s Classroom Instruction That Works, Second Edition, the authors write that learning to collaborate and cooperate is a good foundation for future success in a world that demands high levels of social interaction. When used consistently (but not daily) and systematically (but not rigidly), cooperative learning structures provide opportunities for students to interact, take on specific roles, and listen actively to others’ ideas. But cooperative learning is not necessarily the basis for thinking or problem solving; that level of understanding often occurs when students are allowed to think and wonder on their own.

Cain writes that introverts represent one-third to one-half of all Americans; naturally, the same percentage exists in classrooms. For students possessing this personality trait, a steady stream of external stimuli is exactly the opposite of their ideal learning environment. And taken to the extreme—where students even take tests with a partner, possibly because teachers think it will reduce student anxiety (and new brain research suggests it sometimes does)—the practice gets in the way of learning.

More than two years ago, McREL Senior Researcher Charles Igel wrote on this blog that, while group learning had become as ubiquitous to modern instruction as rote recitation was during the last century,  many teachers were still confused about how to use it effectively. In a recent article, he explains that the early researchers of cooperative learning realized that just putting people into groups and having them learn together was not enough to improve learning. Cooperative learning is a subset of collaborative learning, and is different because it is highly structured and contains certain identifiable elements to foster the upside of social learning (i.e., engagement and high achievement) while avoiding the downside (i.e., uneven effort and outcomes). The research supports that when teachers use cooperative learning properly, they are more likely to reengage students who have become marginalized while preparing all students to be successful in their future endeavors.

Which brings us back to the over-zealous middle-school teacher, who, had he not taken his efforts to the extreme, might have created an environment where students learn to think on their own. We must acknowledge the possibility that when students seek solitude to “do their own thing,” they aren’t necessarily refusing to play well with others; rather, they may be following their natural tendencies to seek out an environment that frees them to learn their way.

Listen to Susan Cain’s TED Talk, “The Power of Introverts.

Learning uninterrupted

A growing trend in education over the last two decades has been exploring ways to use educational technology to maximize classroom time and extend learning opportunities beyond the classroom. The idea of a “ubiquitous learning environment,” where students can learn at any time and in any place, has long been a dream of many educators and goes back over one hundred years—correspondence courses, phonographs, radio, filmstrips, and television have all been re-purposed for learning.

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Unearthing secrets to student success

In Expeditionary Learning schools (students engage in team-based, interdisciplinary “learning expeditions,” including fieldwork, case studies, projects, and service learning—all with an underlying focus on culture and character.

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