Category Archives: School Improvement

Why we love to hear a common instructional language

Frequently after working with a school district, we hear teachers and leaders say that one of the most valuable things they learned from their time with McREL was “a common language” to use with one another and with students. You might be wondering: What exactly does this mean? And why would educators ever have felt they were deficient in their professional vocabulary?

Every profession has its terms of art (“jargon” is a less-nice way to put it) and the widespread use of such terms across entire industries can help to assure efficiency, even save lives. An aileron is an aileron regardless of what plane you’re piloting; a syringe is a syringe at any hospital. Sometimes variations in professional terminology can lead to momentary confusion, but it’s usually sorted out quickly.

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A balanced leader isn’t necessarily a superhero

Principals are super humans, but they’re being asked to perform a superhuman range of responsibilities, and that’s not fair—not to them, not to teachers, and not to students. In the March edition of ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine, McREL CEO Bryan Goodwin asks how school leadership got so overly complex and demanding. He believes the phenomenon dates to the 1970s when researchers first started describing principals as “instructional leaders”—a catchall phrase that had unintended consequences.

As the body of research around effective school leadership traits grew over the decades that followed, so did the understanding that specific leadership traits showed more promise than others in their effects on achievement. Further, the role of collaboration in shared leadership gained new importance and we began to seek “transformational” leaders who might usher in a new era of educational effectiveness.

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The Science of Learning: What’s memory got to do with it?

Imagine a student who is well adjusted socially but . . .

• Is reserved in group activities; rarely contributes to classroom discussions or activities.
• Has difficulty completing tasks.
• Appears to not follow instructions.
• Is reported as not paying attention, having a short attention span, or “zoning out.”
• Makes poor academic progress.

What could be causing these problems?

One might not initially consider memory, particularly working memory, as the mechanism at work in these types of young learners’ struggles. However, research has shown that working memory problems, even in the absence of diagnosed developmental disabilities, can result in learning challenges for students (Dehn, 2008; Gathercole, Lamont, & Alloway, 2006; Gathercole & Alloway, 2007; Holmes, Gathercole, and Dunning, 2010; Willingham, 2009).

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The complexity of memory

As deeply committed as we are to curiosity here at McREL, we recognize that in the absence of knowledge, curiosity wouldn’t do anybody much good. That’s why we’ve also been doing some digging into the nature of memory, hoping to guide teachers toward practices that maximize the acquisition and retention of knowledge.

As explored more deeply in our recent white paper, Student Learning That Works: How Brain Science Informs a Student Learning Model, the human brain works quite hard to help us filter out and forget extraneous information. This probably made good sense in the hunt-or-be-hunted days, but in the information age, forgetting is not a recipe for success.

Fortunately, once teachers know the stages of memory—and what happens between them—they can use some clever workarounds to help students strengthen recall. Essentially, we need to trick our brains into forgetting to forget.

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What happens in North Melbourne better not stay in North Melbourne

In 2011, the school region (what Americans call a district) of North Melbourne, Australia, launched an improvement initiative that stood out for being based on positivity, curiosity, and “inside-out” leadership rather than yet another series of top-down mandates. The North Melbourne experience soon became a source of inspiration for McREL, which has been advocating for more schools and districts to take a similarly upbeat approach to improvement and innovation.

I was the assistant principal of an elementary school in North Melbourne at the time, and, looking back, I feel like I participated in something historic. With that in mind, I thought I’d share with you our story about how it all began.

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Curiosity can’t go it alone

As we visit schools and speak with educators all over the world, my colleagues and I are always on the lookout for attitudes toward curiosity. Is it encouraged or quashed? Is it treated as a necessity, an impractical luxury, or—conversely, as a nuisance or a distraction?

While doing research for McREL’s newest book, Out of Curiosity: Restoring the Power of Hungry Minds for Better Schools, Workplaces, and Lives, I was struck by the fact that we’re all born with curiosity, but some of us, in effect, lose access to it. Over time, this loss often pervades many aspects of our lives, not just schooling; without guidance, such as from a talented teacher or inspiring leader, natural curiosity can wither to the point of near uselessness.

“Childhood curiosity is a collaboration between child and adult,” writes Ian Leslie in Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It (2015). It’s the availability and effectiveness of that collaboration, perhaps more than any other resource gap, that may separate the haves and have-nots of the future.

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How can teachers tap into the power of curiosity right now?

Intrigued by what we’ve been saying about curiosity and want to build it into your teaching practice right away? Here are some classroom-ready ideas, drawn from our Unleashing Curiosity quick reference guides.

Idea 1: Be choosy about choice. Offering your students choices is an excellent technique for building their curiosity, interest, and engagement, but offering too many choices can sap students’ motivation as they expend mental energy agonizing over options, worried they’ll make the wrong choice. Usually, 3–5 choices suffice, and they’re more effective if you tailor the options to an individual student’s needs and interests. (Source: Unleashing Curiosity with Challenging Learning Tasks)

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Curious minds are inquiring: How does curiosity add to McREL’s body of work?

Have you noticed the word “curiosity” appearing in the titles of more and more McREL publications, resources, and services? We have a good reason for that. We’ve been excited to share our Curiosity Works™ approach to school improvement and innovation with teachers and school leaders, many of whom are already familiar with our other bodies of research-based knowledge, such as Classroom Instruction That Works® and Balanced Leadership®. Some of these educators have asked if Curiosity Works supplants these resources. It doesn’t. To the contrary, Curiosity Works brings a new degree of focus, and perhaps some new vocabulary, to McREL’s existing resources that are still as relevant and effective as ever.

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Why not creativity?

As we talk with more and more educators about the importance and power of curiosity in teaching and learning, a question we often hear is: How does curiosity differ from creativity? Creativity is on many teachers’ minds as they prepare their students for real-world experiences. It consistently shows up as a desirable attribute many employers seek in the modern workforce. Check out any airport bookstore and you’re almost sure to find books and magazine articles upholding creativity as an ideal way to transform everyday interactions into sources of both joy and profit.

McREL’s focus on curiosity doesn’t preclude creativity—far from it! It’s just that we agree with Erik Shonstrom, in Wild Curiosity: How to Unleash Creativity and Encourage Lifelong Wondering, when he says that “to be creative one must first be curious. Being in an environment that fosters curiosity is vital to the creative process.” In other words, curiosity is the precursor to creativity.

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