Incremental improvement


If you were to draw a path to success, what do you think it might look like?  I recently saw this visual, and it made a lot of sense to me:3dd260bf-ecde-4bdd-b88d-ebdcd9bbc539

I think we all would agree that the path to success is not a straight line.  We’ve all had bumps in the road on our own path to where we are.  In the version of success that appears on the right, there are some ups, some downs, and some times in the totally opposite direction of where you want to go. When you understand that this is what the path to success looks like, you also understand the concept of incremental growth.  These are the small steps we take to get closer to our goals.  When we focus on incremental growth, we don’t care as much about the external factors, and instead focus on the things that we can control.  Hopefully you will see the benefit of the rest of this post if you hear questions like this in your classroom:

  • How many points is this worth?
  • Can I earn extra credit?
  • Did you grade the tests yet?

Questions like these are a sign that students care only for an extrinsic motivator – the grade.  The problem with our students having this mindset is that when students are motivated solely by a grade, they will find ways to get the work done and earn the credit, but they will completely miss the educational value of the lesson, and will not retain anything.  The best way to get them past these extrinsic motivators is to shift the mindset of your students.  Work to get them to focus less on the external motivation, and more on the internal motivators.

The first step – make sure that students understand that grades are just another data point, nothing more or less, that tells teachers and parents a little about where students are right now.  When you attach rewards or consequences to a grade, you train the students who do well to expect an external motivator, and you completely miss that kid who might be doing everything in their power just to keep their head above water, and never getting anything for it.  When you talk about report card grades, make sure students know that you are much more concerned with their day to day efforts than you are with their overall grade.

So what are some of the ways that you can give this message to your students?  Check out the points below:

Improving through effective feedback

If you want your students to value growth, you have to give them feedback that shows you recognize their growth.  Normally this can’t be shown just in the grade on a paper, but rather through the words you speak to a student.  During work time, be walking around, observing what students are doing, ask questions of them, and sharing your thoughts.  Since we all know that our students have a jagged learning profile (see the last post on “Average” students), we should also be aware that every child is at a different place, with different goals and different needs.  Our feedback should focus on what’s most important to THIS child at THIS time.

One of the other keys to effective feedback – focus on the future, not the past.  Instead of saying “You shouldn’t have done it this way; you should do it this way…” you might want to try saying “Next time, I’d like you to do it this way because…”  Our words totally change the feedback and focus on incremental growth moving forward.

Improving Results

One of the best ways for students to be able to see their improvement is to have a way to reflect on their learning process easily.  A great way to do this is through portfolios.  In this day and age, the portfolio can be totally digital, and easily viewed, shared, and managed.  Apps like SeeSaw, or a blog, can allow students to share their work and create a reflection in writing, audio, or video of what they have learned in their work.

Depending on the task, what you might ask students to include in their portfolio may vary, but some of the things that would probably be valuable to include would be:

  • A title that describes the Big Idea or concept
  • A picture or video of the process or final product from the activity
  • Answers to reflection and synthesis questions that guide each child to successfully demonstrate their understanding of the concept.

The reflection questions should vary depending on the activity and be based on your learning goals, but the idea is to get students to reflect on their learning.  If nothing else, ask them “What did you learn?”  If they can reflect and articulate that, their retention will be that much stronger.

If you feel that students are lacking in their answers to the reflection questions, there is a simple solution.  Follow up their answer with “Tell me more.”  This simple statement gets students to think a bit deeper, and if you model this enough, your students will eventually begin answering your questions in a more complete way without you having to ask.

Critical Peer Feedback

If you are the only person in the classroom who is able to provide feedback, some things might get missed.  We all know there’s only so much time in the day!  The key is to get students to understand that when they are looking at each others work, they are not being judgmental, rather they are looking for specific things that could be improved.  In order to help students understand how to do this, here are some steps you could introduce to them:

  1. Tell your peer that you have an idea of where they might improve. This way they know that you are just trying to help them make their work better.
  2. Start or end with a specific compliment! Let them know what you like and why you like it – when they know you appreciate something they have done, it’s easier to take some critical feedback.
  3. Give your suggestion as a question rather than a statement. Instead of telling your peer what to say, you could ask “have you thought about doing this…” or “I wonder if others might understand it better if you…”

Hopefully you see a couple of ideas here that you could implement in your classroom to help your students move towards an attitude of incremental improvement.  Maybe you noticed that a big key to incremental growth for students is feedback.  Meaningful feedback is the key to incremental growth for all of us!

If you decide to try out any of these strategies in your class, I’d love to hear how it goes!  If you’ve tried anything like this, tell us about it in the comments below.  What worked well?  What were your sticking points?

What is the “average” student? (Part II)

Last week I shared with you a little bit about the idea of averages.  From astronomers in the 16th century, to the work of Quételet in the 1800s, to Lincoln’s efforts to standardize the military during the Civil War, averages have a long history of being used to understand humans both physically and mentally.  During World War II, the research of Gilbert Daniels showed that averages were not a great idea for design of the cockpits of airplanes because no pilot fit the mold of the average man.  As a result, the Air Force banned the use of average for design, and began demanding design to the jagged edges.  This led to adjustable foot pedals, helmet straps, flight suits, and seats (things that seem like a no-brainer today).

airforce-dimensionsThrough the choice to move to flexible design, our Air Force was able to move forward in ways that they were not able to do when design was based on the average.  Now I know that some of you probably read last week’s post and may not have seen an immediate connection to education.  If you recall, in last week’s post I mentioned Todd Rose, a Harvard professor and a high school dropout, who is doing some interesting research in the science of individuality.

During a TEDx Talk titled The Myth of Average (if you have a chance, this is a really good TED Talk with some real implications for the education of all students), Rose talked about the educational repercussions of using average to design learning.  Sometimes our classrooms are like the airplane cockpits at the beginning of World War II.  There aren’t a lot of options for adjustments, and because of that, there are students who struggle.  Here’s the dirty little secret though – it’s not just the kids at the bottom who struggle in school.  When you look at dropout rates, a significant portion of high school and college dropouts aren’t leaving because it’s too hard, they’re leaving because it’s too easy and they aren’t challenged or engaged.

Over the summer I had a video post to the blog titled “An Open Letter to Educators.”  More recently I have been reading the book The Boy Who Played with Fusion, the story of Taylor Wilson, a 22-year-old who built a fusion reactor at the age of 14.  Both talked about a need to embrace new formats of education in an effort to be more individualized and prepare our students for the real world.  The implication I saw was that this individualization isn’t just for the kids that we identify on the low end of the spectrum, or those on the high end of the spectrum, but also for the kids we identify as the “typical” student.

No matter how we might identify our students (typical, below average, above average), our students come to us with jaggedaverage-student learning profiles.  Some are strong in math, but struggle in ELA.  Others have a talent for memorizing facts in social studies or science, but when you try to get them to think deeper, and solve the problems of our scientific world, they just can’t do it.  What if our education system was designed to adapt to the jaggedness of our students instead of expecting our students to adapt to the school setting?

The HSE21 Best Practice Model is a great method to get there.  Through student-centered approaches, transfer of learning, cognitive curriculum, and fundamental classroom conditions, we can develop an environment that accepts students where they are, and helps to move them further.

As you continue to design your classroom conditions for your students, be thinking about their jagged profile of learning.  How are you making the learning environment more flexible?  What are you doing for that science genius who struggles with the reading?  They may be awesome with the hands-on portion of science, but when it comes time to read and learn about theories, they just don’t get there because the textbook is too challenging for them.  Our goal has to be one of constant incremental growth, both for the kids who are struggling in a lot of areas, as well as those who seem to have it all together.  Remember, we’re all jagged!

Technology can help us to get there.  With an iPad, each of your students has the ability to translate text, look up vocabulary, or even have text read aloud to them.  With programs like NEWSELA or Achieve 3000, we are able to have our students read materials that are at the appropriate level for them, be able to understand what they have read, and in turn have an opportunity to grow.

Flexible design in learning is the school equivalent to adjustable seats!  These adaptations will nurture the potential of each individual in your classroom.  And remember, adaptations aren’t just for those on either end of the spectrum.  That kid that you think of as average probably has a jagged profile of learning too, with strengths that we can tap into, and weaknesses that we can target for growth.  The adaptations that we’d make for anyone with a label can work for those without any specific label too – and as the teacher, you are allowed to make the choices of what is best for your students!

What might flexible design in education look like in practice?  Here are a few ideas:

  • Get rid of specific numbers on assignments (3 pages, 5 paragraphs, 4 signposts, etc.) and shift to requiring quality work instead.
  • Allow modifications on assignments.
  • Create a loose structure for projects to allow more student autonomy in what they are creating and how they are making it.
  • De-emphasize standardized test scores or other systems where averages are used to judge students.
  • Let students select the strategies that work best for their own learning (that student who struggles with reading might be able to listen to a podcast or watch a video on YouTube and think just as deeply as that star reader who can learn from the text).
  • Change the pace so that certain students can finish earlier and have enrichment opportunities and others who are behind can have more time to work and not feel like all they are doing is to catch up.

Now, I know some of these ideas sound crazy, or scary, or hard to put into practice.  We can’t change everything at once, but we can move incrementally to try to develop an environment that our students will be able to have more success.  Just like setting goals for students to grow, we have to set goals for our own growth, and then take steps to get there.

But isn’t it worth it?  Who knows, that kid who is struggling in your class right now might be on the path to dropping out, but they may have the potential to be a professor at Harvard – or any one of millions of other successful paths.  They just need to have the opportunity to embrace their individuality!

So what are your thoughts?  What successes have you had when adapting to be better suited to the individuality of your students?  What challenges do you see in this way of thinking?  Let us know in the comments below!

What is the “average” student? (Part I)

99piI’m not sure how many of you listen to podcasts, but for me, it’s almost all that I listen to – in the car, on a run, working on the yard – if my earbuds are in, I’m probably listening to a podcast.  I used to love to listen to talk radio, but the commercials drove me crazy, not to mention that I had to put up with topics that didn’t interest me to get to the interesting stuff.  One of the great things about podcasts – you only have to download the ones you find interesting.  If you don’t like a topic, don’t download it.  There are a couple of podcasts that I listen to no matter what the topic is.  The other day I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, 99% Invisible.  It’s a show all about design, but looks at it from all kinds of perspectives – sometimes architecture and infrastructure, sometimes history, sometimes visuals, even a series on vexillology, which is the study of flags (I know, I’m a geek!).

the-end-of-averageOne of the most recent episodes was titled “On Average.”  Much of this episode is based on the work of Todd Rose, author of The End of Average.  One of the things that I found most interesting was that Rose, who is a professor at Harvard, is also a high school dropout.  His research on the science of individuality is based on his learning that nobody truly fits the average – more on that later.

So where does the idea of average come from?  While there are some mathematical references that go back to ancient history, the first scientific documentation of the idea of averages comes from astronomers in the 16th century.  In tracking the orbits of planets, astronomers would scratch the lens of a telescope in 2 spots and keep track of the amount of time it took the planet to move.  Astronomers realized that individual measurements could be highly inaccurate based on who was taking them, and other factors.  However, by taking many measurements and finding the average, the data seemed more accurate among multiple astronomers.

Fast forward to the 1800s, and a Belgian mathematician named Adolphe Quételet.  He decided to take a tool primarily used by astronomers and apply it to people.  He started with a data set of thousands of Scottish soldiers, and found that the average chest size of the soldiers was 39 and three-quarters inches.  He considered this to be the “true” size of a soldier.  Quételet extrapolated this data to say that if all lived in optimal conditions, they would be average.  Over time Quételet’s ideas expanded to find the normal rates based on all kinds of data sets – marriages, murders, suicides, etc.  Quételet went so far as to say that the individual person was synonymous with error, while the average person represented the true human being.

One of Quételet’s fans was none other than Abraham Lincoln.  During the Civil War, Lincoln had the army take data on soldiers to assess them both physically and mentally.  The data sets were then used to decide on appropriate food rations, design of weapons, even the size of uniforms.  Prior to the Civil War, every soldier received a uniform that was custom made.  With the number of uniforms necessary, this was no longer feasible, so the soldiers were broken into average sizes (small, medium, and large) so that uniforms could be mass produced.  Today we buy clothes based on sizes that relate back to these measurements from the armed forces.

Average based design became the way for the military, and from the time of the Civil War until World War II, everything built for the military was designed based on the average size of the soldiers.  Whether we’re talking about uniforms, bedding, food rations, weapons, vehicles, and as they came into use, airplanes, all were built to specifications that matched the average size data.

During World War II, the Air Force noticed a huge decline in the performance of pilots.  As the first air based war, this was a problem.  Initially blame was placed on the pilots, then on the trainers.  In time, the Air Force realized the issue was the size of the cockpit.  The cockpit didn’t fit the pilots.  As a fighter pilot, when split second decisions can make a difference between survival, the Air Force saw that they needed to find a new average.

Researchers at Wright Air Force base in Ohio were tasked with finding new averages.  Members of the team traveled from base to base taking measurements of pilots on 140 dimensions (some were the obvious – height and weight – while others were much more unique – length of the thumb or the distance from a pilot’s eye to his ear).  One of the members of the team was Gilbert Daniels, a recent graduate from Harvard in the field of anthropology.  As he was taking the measurements, Daniels started to wonder how many of the pilots truly were average.

Daniels took the data from a set of just over 4,000 pilots.  He found averages on the 10 measurements that would be considered the most important in terms of the design of an airplane cockpit and set up norms based on a 30 percent range (the average height in the study was 5-9, so the range was 5-7 to 5-11).  He then he went back to the individual data.  The assumption going in was that most pilots would fit the definition of the average pilot.  When he compared the individual measurements of all the pilots in the data set, he was stunned to find that not one of the pilots fell within the average range on all 10 dimensions.  When they narrowed the study to only 3 dimensions, less than 4% of the pilots met all 3.

The research showed that there was no such thing as the average pilot.  Instead the data looked a little like this:

Rose describes the variation that shows in these measurements as Jaggedness – which represents that fact that everyone has variations from the norm or average.

In response, the Air Force made significant changes to their design process.  No longer would they buy airplanes that had cockpits that were designed to the average.  The Air Force banned the average for design of airplanes!  Instead they needed planes to be designed to the edges.  Prior to World War II, the pedals, seats, helmets, controls, and anything else in a plane was static, it could not be adjusted.  Following the results of this study, the Air Force demanded adjustable seats, foot pedals, helmet straps, and more.

When the change was made, guess what happened?  Pilots got better!  No longer did they have to adapt to the size of the plane.  Now all planes can be adapted to the size of the pilot.  Think about it, how many of you would purchase a car that did not have adjustable seats, mirrors, or steering wheel?  These adjustable features came about thanks to the Air Force’s research on averages.

I know that this post hasn’t gotten into the education implications yet – I promise that’s where I’m going next week.  To help next week’s post make more sense, we needed some background information about averages.  Next week we’ll get into how the research on the science of the individual translates into the classroom, and what we can do to design education to the edges, not just to the average.

What thoughts do you have?  Do you already see a connection between this backstory and your students today?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Active learning


The HSE21 Best Practice Model is such a great tool because it reminds us of the fundamental classroom conditions that will help our students be ready for their future.  I was recently reading the book Learn Like a Pirate by Paul Solarz and he spent a lot of time talking about active learning.  In active learning, we see differentiation, authenticity, relevancy, choice, and collaboration – all important pieces of the best practice model.  Think back to your favorite moments when you were in school.  What stands out?  It’s probably an example of active learning.

When I was in elementary school, both of the 6th grade classes in our building collaborated to write, produce, and perform a musical.  I vividly remember working with classmates to write the script, to advertise the show, and to plan the costumes and props for the show.  The skills and strategies that I developed in activities like this were ones that I believe helped set me up for success in middle school, high school, and beyond.  While I remember moments of passive learning when I was in sixth grade (one of my teachers was the queen of having us copy notes from her beloved transparencies), I can’t recall any details that I may have learned in that format of lesson.

So, how can we integrate more active learning into our classrooms?  Here are just a few ideas based on Learn Like a Pirate book:

  • Simulations – What’s a better way to learn about the Boston Tea Party?  Read about it, or take your classroom back to 1773 and have your students simulate the circumstances that led the Sons of Liberty to throw cases of tea into the Boston Harbor?  Or you could integrate some science into your social studies by having your students set up a colony in outer space.  They can experience creating a government for their colony while also learning about the needs for their planet.
  • Debates – The collaboration that goes with a debate can be amazing. If you pick a topic that would have more than 2 sides, you can break your class up into several different groups with different topics, keeping the groups small enough that all play a role, while also large enough that you can put mixed ability students together.  Solarz does alternative energy debates with his students.  He plays the role of President, while his students are the advisors trying to convince him that their energy plan is the best.  While this topic may not resonate with you or your curriculum, there are many other debatable topics that could tie to your standards.
  • Science Fair – This is something that has gone out of style, but why? In a time where we are shifting to STEM classes, and at a period in time when so many of our kids don’t do hands on science projects like previous generations, this seems like a no brainer.  The issue I had with the science fair’s old style was that it was typically done as homework.  The last time I had my students do a science fair, we did everything at school.  Students were asked to bring in poster boards, but I tried to provide most of the other resources they needed (sometimes we had to get creative).  Kids assisted one another on their projects, and were truly excited to share their findings at the end.  I was able to provide feedback, help with data collection, and teach mini-lessons as necessary.  The best part – I knew it was all done by the student on a relevant topic of their own choosing.  A variation on this could be an invention fair, or a coding fair, or anything else you might imagine that lets students be actively involved in inquiry.
  • Project-Based Learning – A trend in education, and one that I was guilty of when I was still in my classroom, is that we teach a unit, and then at the end of the unit students complete a project to show their learning. What PBL asks is that we teach through the project.  Once you have your basic idea planned, students choose their more specific project and dig in.  Throughout the unit, mini-lessons can be taught on content, procedures, or skills that students need to go further in the process.  As a teacher, you are continuously checking in with students, seeing where they are and where they are going next, providing feedback, and deciding if there are topics that you need to build a mini-lesson around.  While we’re giving students choice and freedom, you are allowed to set some parameters up front.  PBL doesn’t mean setting the students free to do whatever they want, there have to be some class norms and expectations in place first.  Think of these expectations as the guardrails to keep your students in the right lane, and heading in the correct direction!  If you’re looking for good PBL resources, the Buck Institute for Education ( is a great resource!
  • Technology – Sometimes integrating some tech into a passive lesson is just what it takes to up the level into an active learning opportunity. Don’t just use technology for the sake of saying that you’re using technology.  Use technology when it is the best tool for the job.  Remember, HSE21 is not, and has never been, about technology, the iPad, OneDrive, or any of the many apps that are used around school.  However, when we find technology that truly improves or transforms what we’ve been doing, don’t hesitate to add it to your lessons.
  • Reader’s Theater – This is such a great way to work on oral reading fluency.  Students get to practice their part several times with their group.  During that time they can practice pronouncing difficult words, learn to project their voice, add inflection, and enunciate.  Depending on your goals, it could be a single day activity, although students don’t have as many opportunities to practice and they may not be able to create props to go with their performance.  On the other hand, you could do a multi-day activity where students are put into groups and roles one day, have time for rehearsals and planning for the performance (props, costumes, etc.) on a second day, dress rehearsals where you can give feedback on props and costumes that aren’t appropriate or necessary on a third day, and then performance day on the last day.  If you’re really brave, you could record the performances to put on a YouTube page so that parents can see what their kids are up to at school.

This is not intended to be an all-inclusive list of active learning activities, but is meant to give you some ideas of how to create more active learning opportunities for your students.  What am I missing?  Are there active learning examples that you use that I didn’t mention?  Have you tried (or are you thinking about trying) any of the ideas above?  Tell us about your experiences, your thoughts, or your plans in the comments below!

Defining inquiry

Earlier this year the staff in our school created a chart that described what we could all expect to see more of, and what we could expect to see less of for this school year.  In the more of column, several groups listed inquiry-based learning.  For some of us, that term can bring on some anxiety.  If you Google “Inquiry-Based Learning”, you often find links to amazing long term projects that students have done.  For some, the immediate response to this concept is “I don’t have the time for that.”

So what is inquiry?  Merriam-Webster defines inquiry as the act of asking questions in order to gather or collect information.  So really, that means that simply asking a question is a form of inquiry.  For those of you who immediately say there isn’t time for that, I hope that you can take some solace that anytime you ask a question in your class, or anytime a student asks a question, you are engaging in the base level of inquiry.

Depth of KnowledgeIf you’re looking for a starting point for integrating inquiry-based learning, it can begin with intentional thought about the kinds of questions you are asking, and some time teaching students how they might be able to ask higher quality questions.  The depth of knowledge chart to the right can be an excellent tool to help us think about inquiry driven study in our classrooms.  If you pay attention to the questions that you and your students ask in your classroom, you can start to gauge the level of inquiry for your classroom.  If you want a quick assessment of where you and your students fall, create a simple chart on an index card – have 4 sections and keep a tally of the level of every question for a portion of a class, or a whole class, or maybe even a whole day.  What do you notice when you reflect on that data you collected?  If most of your marks are appearing in the Recall or Skill/Concept area, you need to up your game a bit (or help your students up their game).  If you want to make this basic assessment even more meaningful, separate the questions you ask from the questions the students ask.  Who is asking the better questions?

Now, while I said that asking questions was the starting point, that by itself doesn’t get you to true inquiry.  This summer I read the book The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros.  I loved the definition that he shares for Inquiry-Based Learning:

Effective inquiry is more than just asking questions.  Inquiry-based learning is a complex process where learners formulate questions, investigate to find answers, build new understandings, meanings and knowledge, and then communicate their learning to others.  In classrooms where teachers emphasize inquiry-based learning, students are actively involved in solving authentic (real-life) problems within the context of the curriculum and/or community.  These powerful learning experiences engage students deeply. (pg. 192)

Now, I’m sure that some of you read that definition and immediately go back to thinking that inquiry leads to some massive project that eats up tons of time and resources, and while that is what inquiry may sometimes lead to, it doesn’t always have to be that way.  The most important piece of inquiry is to start with the Inquiryquestions of the learners.  Inquiry happens when a baby picks up one object and hits it against another object – the noise makes them curious, so they test it out.  Inquiry starts when a child notices one single giant tree in the middle of an empty field and they wonder how it got there.  Inquiry starts when a student sees a picture of an unusual animal or a unique environment and it makes them wonder.

Giving students the opportunity to wonder from time to time, and then allowing them to share the things they wonder about, is a next step in the Inquiry-Based Learning process.  In recent posts to this blog, I’ve shared a lot about nonfiction reading skills.  One of the posts focused on the 3 big questions that Kylene Beers and Bob Probst share in Reading Nonfiction.  If you’d like to review those questions, check out this post: How do we take them further?  Using the nonfiction reading strategies and these 3 questions are a great form of inquiry.  I would also say that we could probably add one more question to the list of the 3 that Beers and Probst shared, and that question would be “What does this make me wonder about?”  Then, asking students to turn and talk to their neighbors about the things they noticed in the text is an opportunity for the students to communicate their learning. 

If you don’t want a long term project, but you’d like to give your students the opportunity to try out some Inquiry-Based Learning, you could start with a series of pictures, or bring some interesting or unique objects to your classroom, or maybe some things from nature (if you’re looking for a digital resource to start with, you can check out the website  Give students a few minutes to look at these things and encourage them to jot some notes on the things they wonder about.  Next, allow them some time to investigate their wonders.  With their iPad they should be able to do some quick research – no more than 10 minutes.  Let them know that as they wrap up, they need to think about how they would like to share TheCycleofInquirybasedlearningwith others what they wondered about, as well as what they learned.  Allow them another 10 minutes to create some way to share their learning – a simple Prezi, a PowerPoint, a short video, etc. (the key is to let them choose their method for sharing).  Then have them get into pairs or triads to share their wonder and what they created.  Finally, have the groups split up, and have the students do an exit ticket to reflect on their initial question, what they learned, and maybe new things that they wonder about based on their learning.  All of this can take place in one class period, and you have gone through the complete cycle of inquiry.  If you try this, force yourself to take a step back and just watch what happens for a short time.  What you will notice is that the vast majority of students will be completely engaged in an activity like this.

My hope is that after reading this post, you are inspired to try something new in your classroom.  Hopefully there are a few little nuggets here that you can bring back into your class to create new and different learning experiences for your students.  I’m curious though, what have been your experiences with Inquiry-Based Learning?  What went well?  What struggles did you face?  Do you have resources you’d like to share?  Keep the conversation going in the comments below.