6 Factors Of Classroom Gamification

6 Factors Of Classroom Gamification

contributed by Nellie Mitchell

I was 11 the year my summer camp director transformed the regular schedule, procedures, and lingo that we were used to—into the most memorable, enriching experience I had ever encountered at that point in my life.

I had no idea that he had ‘gamified’ the week; I just knew that it was the best summer ever. Instead of grouping us by numbers, we were named after the Greek alphabet. We competed daily against the other groups in volleyball, softball, kickball, and on the final night —a chariot and Olympic flame opened an epic Olympic Game contest at midnight.

The director, or ‘game master’ as we were inclined to call him, even made everyone reset the clocks and watches—so we never knew what the real time was, the entire schedule was set on some sort of crazy alternate schedule. Now I realize that it probably allowed him to sleep in and us to stay up later, but we were none the wiser. Daily we played games, wrote skits, went swimming, and competed for cleanest cabins. We did all the regular stuff, but it was more fun because there were rules and boundaries and points and collaboration and competition and a clear, mutual understanding of goals and performance and criteria for success.

As a student, I got to learn more about the power of ‘gamifying’ something, and what effect it had on learners.

Gamification is about transforming the environment and regular activities into a kind of game. It is about creating a game out of things that are not normally thought of that way.

Gamification reinforces content but also has the potential to profoundly impact classroom management.

Gamification is about collaboration and teamwork. Sometimes students are battling each other, and sometimes they are working together, but they are always learning!

Gamification is a long-term, consistent series of events that require quite a bit of prep work by the teacher but has the potential to reinforce content and engage all learners in new ways.

Getting Started With Gamification

I have no doubt that the camp director spent hours analyzing the schedule, creating the concept, and modifying our basic procedures to meet the needs of the game. I hope he knows how valuable his effort was. That camp experience has been in the back of my mind ever since I started teaching middle school. I teach art and I’m always looking for ways to make it more relevant, current and enriching for every student, not just the gifted artists.

When the technology integration coach in my school district handed me a copy of ‘The Multiplayer Classroom: Designing Coursework as a Game’ by Lee Sheldon, I was enthralled. The book was an easy read— cover to cover in just a few days. Lee Sheldon’s students are learning content through gameplay. College-level coursework with students enrolled in a class devoted to designing video games.

In the book, Lee initiates game play in the syllabus. He analyzes how he made changes to the game through trial and error over the course of many semesters. Most of the ‘gaming’ was fantasy, special terminology used to jazz up regular coursework, with plenty of buy-in from students who were interested in gaming of all kinds, from athletic competition to board games to mobile, PC, and console-based video games.

After reading the book fairly quickly, and taking lots of notes, I developed some ideas for how to transform my own classroom into a gamified space in order to develop cross-curricular learning. I realized that my old game master was onto something brilliant—but it was no easy feat. (As a preface, you can read more about the difference between gamification and game-based learning here.)

6 Factors Of Success In Gamification

1. Learning Spaces

Think about how to transform your learning space into something that is conducive to collaboration. In my classroom, I created special zones and rearranged the tables. Lee Sheldon suggests moving each team or group of students each week if your classroom is set up in rows instead of tables. Simple signage and clever names can help with this transformation.

2. Processes & Routines

Think about classroom jobs, procedures for tardies, restroom, library, drinking fountain, pencil sharpener, etc. Figure out how to inject those basic procedures into the game. Award ‘health points’ or take them away for tardies. Rotate roles. Make them characters. Make them good or evil, or steeped in historical or mythical lore, or give them creative backstories.

3. Learning Goals

No matter how engaging things are or transformative your approach, learning still matters. In fact, it is the habits students form while internalizing content that can create the most enduring change. What will they learn, and how?

You don’t have to start with learning goals, but you’ll obviously need to have them to keep curricular priorities straight, and to guide any assessment processes you depend on. This is obviously a key theme of any kind of instructional design process, including the following three driving questions:

  1. What content or standards will be targeted?
  2. How they can be assessed, ideally within the gamification framework?
  3. How can you create flexible learning goals that strive to meet the needs of students of varying “content readiness,” literacy levels, and background knowledge?

4. Play

Instead of using research, send your students on quests. Make it competitive. Students love to compete against each other. Look at your content from a new perspective—could two or four groups ‘battle’ over the information by presenting and quizzing each other? You can also group students for cooperative competition, or simply cooperative learning journeys.

Leave no stone unturned. Create random events that impact XP or HP (experience or health points) in order to keep your students on their toes. You are the game master and you can change the rules at any time.

5. Roles

Plan to have your students develop some part of the gamification, or have clear and accessible roles within the framework you’ve designed–roles that have credibility with the student. They must buy into it, or else they will never fully commit. Allow them to choose their own team names or help establish some of the random events so that they have ownership over the game.

6. Badges & Rewards

There is no single way to gamify something. ‘Gamify’ just means to apply game-like mechanics to non-game ‘things.’

Certainly, however, the concept of some kind of reward to a playful barrier is a key theme of gamification–and the concept of documenting those ‘achievements’ with learning badges or ‘achievements’ of some kind.

Tip: Gamification works because everything fits together in a way that makes sense. Use a theme related to your content, or a use a theme has terminology that reinforces vocabulary. The game master in my summer camp used Greek mythology and it was brilliant. Unforgettable!

One Tool To Consider

Once I had the basic idea for what I wanted to do, I realized that I would need a little help. I went in search of an online or app-based system to help me manage all of my ideas in order to implement them in a streamlined, successful, organized way.

When I found Class Craft, I was thrilled. Class Craft is an incredible program that helped me transform my summer school art enrichment program into an action-packed game. 5th and 6th-grade boys were begging me to do more research at home—-because it was part of the battle quests I had designed.

Class Craft allowed me to turn basic learning tasks into a real-world role-playing adventure. My students loved seeing their warrior or healer Avatar change as they unlocked new powers throughout the course. And they really, really loved having a pet!

In a few weeks, summer school will be over and I plan to reflect on the pros and cons of the system that I designed so that I can tweak the things that worked or did not work in my classroom. This is definitely something that could work for me during the regular school year, but thankfully, I had the chance to try it out in a short-term, smaller-scale program. Reflection and modification are a big part of the gamification process.

If you are considering implementing gamification into your classroom, but you do not know where to start, you might grab the book I mentioned above, or check out Class Craft. As the game master, you have the power to transform the regular schedule, procedures, and lingo that your students are used to—into a memorable, enriching experience, which just might be their best year ever.

6 Factors Of Classroom Gamification

Critical Thinking

How 21st Century Thinking Is Just Different

How 21st Century Thinking Is Just Different

by Terry Heick

This post was one of our earliest posts from Terry Heick in very early 2012. It has now been updated and republished.

In an era dominated by constant information and the desire to be social, should the tone of thinking for students be different?

After all, this is the world of Google. In this world full of information abundance, our minds are constantly challenged to react to data, and often in a way that doesn’t just observe, but interprets. Subsequently, we unknowingly spin everything to avoid any degree of dissonance.

As a result, the tone of thinking can end up uncertain or whimsical, timid or arrogant, sycophant or idolizing–and so, devoid of connections and interdependence. The internet and social media are designed to connect, and with brilliant efficiency, they do indeed connect—words and phrases, images and video, color and light, but not always to the net effect they might.

The nature of social media rests on identity as much as anything else—forcing subjectivity on everything through likes, retweets, shares, and pins. Instead, we might consider constant reflection guided by important questions as a new way to learn in the presence of information abundance.

But this takes new habits.

Information Abundance

There is more information available to any student with a smartphone than an entire empire would have had access to three thousand years ago.

In one form or another, that idea has been repeated quite a bit since the “Shift Happens” videos were making their rounds on YouTube a few years ago, but it’s easy to miss how incredible this is. Truth may not change but information does–and in the age of social media, it divides and duplicates in a frenzied kind of digital mitosis.

New contexts—digital environments that function as humanity-in-your-pocket—demand new approaches and new habits. Specifically, new habits of mind.


Managing impulsivity.

Responding with awe.



Thinking interdependently.

And in an era of distinct academic standards and increasingly brazen technology, they are increasingly relevant.

Habits of Mind

Art Costa developed the 16 Habits of Mind as a response.

Bena Kallick, who worked with Costa on their development, explained, “It was the focus on dispositions–although students were often able to think analytically, for example, were they willing to do so? What is the attitude or disposition a person has for lending their mental activity to the question at hand. Those sorts of questions drove the development of HOM.”

This hints at the concept not so much of student motivation, but student impetus.

Why learn?

It is curious why we continue to take this question for granted or to respond to it with adultisms—well-intentioned (and often accurate) notions of citizenship and ‘knowledge is power’ that can fail to resonate with learners in an era of like.

20thCentury Models In a 21st Century Environment

If the 20th-century model was to measure the accuracy and ownership of information, the 21st century’s model is form and interdependence. The close thinking needed to grasp this is not beyond the reach of a typical middle school student, but it may be beyond their thinking habits.

Facing the barrage of information, task, and procedure they tend to on a daily basis in the classroom, and on their video games and YouTube videos and social media and text messages, students form digital habits as natural as a reflex. And like reflexes, these habits are a matter of protection and survival, especially as they seek out currencies and value in learning. Instinct kicks in, and they quickly establish what’s most important in a given context.

Messaging with friends, empathy and identity matter. And the timing of messages. Minor gestures with seemingly large meaning. In the classroom, other things are prioritized–including adherence, compliance, and impersonal, external evaluation. This worked when there were no other options, but learning options today don’t just abound, they dwarf formal learning institutions in every way but clout with the power-holders—parents, teachers, deans, and curriculum designers.

How the Habits of Mind develop is not as simple as merely naming them. It is one thing to remind little Johnny to persist in the face of adversity. It is another to create consistent reasons and opportunities for him to do so, and nurturing it all with modeling, resources, and visible relevance.

If Johnny is to be rewarded, rather than label him right or wrong, good or bad, novice or distinguished, we can instead nurture the development of thinking habits.

Habits, by nature, are reflexive, accessible, and adaptable–not unlike knowledge. This is a can’t-miss point. Internalized and reflexive cognitive patterns that are called upon intrinsically, and transfer seamlessly.

Above all else, the 21st-century learner needs for self-knowledge and authentic local placement, two very broad ideas that come from patient thinking. Persistence. Managing Impulsivity. Responding with awe.


The shift towards the fluid, formless nature of information—thinking of information as a kind of perpetually oozing honey that holds variable value rather than static silhouettes and typesets that is right or wrong—is a not a small one.

But in the face of media abundance, it’s increasingly urgent that we consider such a shift.

Old learning forms focused on the thinker rather than the thoughts, the source rather than the information, and correctly citing that source over understanding what made that information worth extracting. It was also critical for thinking in centuries past to ‘participate’ in a larger conversation. For Immanuel Kant to know what to add to Philosophy, he had to know what had already been said. Same with Albert Einstein and Science, Flannery O’Connor and Literature, Google and data, Mark Zuckerberg and Social Media.

The greater the abundance of accessible media, the greater the need to embed thought in important, enduring, and collaborative conversations that flash across the internet, then out into non-digital realms of universities, businesses, books, and coffee shop conversations.

The idea of constant reflection guided by important questions likely sounds too hippie for the data-driven generation that wants to see a bar graph for everything. Data is imperative, as is accuracy, but when we seek reductionist notions of “proficiency” over the habits of a person’s mind, we’ve kind of missed the point, yes?

The tone of thinking in the 21st century should not be hushed nor gushing, defiant nor assimilating, but simply interdependent, conjured to function on a relevant scale within a much larger human and intellectual ecology, one that exposes itself daily across instagram, YouTube, Netflix, twitter, facebook, and a billion smartphone screens.

How 21st-Century Thinking Is Just Different


How The Memory Works In Learning

How The Memory Works In Learning

contributed by Dr. Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed.

Teachers are the caretakers of the development of students’ highest brain during the years of its most extensive changes. As such, they have the privilege and opportunity to influence the quality and quantity of neuronal and connective pathways so all children leave school with their brains optimized for future success.

This introduction to the basics of the neuroscience of learning includes information that should be included in all teacher education programs. It is intentionally brief such that it can be taught in a single day of instruction. Ideally, there would be additional opportunities for future teachers to pursue further inquiry into the science of how the brain learns, retrieves, and applies information.

Teaching Grows Brain Cells

IQ is not fixed at birth and brain development and intelligence are ‘plastic’ in that internal and environmental stimuli constantly change the structure and function of neurons and their connections. Teachers have the opportunity to help all children build their brains beyond what was previously believed to be fixed limits based on learning disabilities or the predictions of test scores or achievements.

It was once believed that brain cell growth stops after age twenty. We now know that through neuroplasticity, interneuron connections (dendrites, synapses, and myelin coating) continue to be pruned or constructed in response to learning and experiences throughout our lives.

These physical changes of brain self-reconstruction in response to experiences including sensory input, emotions, conscious and unconscious thoughts are so responsive that human potential for increased knowledge, physical skills, and ‘talent’ in the arts is essentially limitless. There are conditions associated with the most successful strengthening of neural networks, such as guided instruction and practice with frequent corrective feedback.

As neuroscience research continues more information will be available to guide teachers providing the brain with the experiences best suited to maximize its learning and proficiency.

High Stress Restricts Brain Processing to the Survival State

The prefrontal cortex, where the higher thinking processes of executive functions (judgment, critical analysis, prioritizing) is also the CEO that can manage and control our emotions. Like the rest of the PFC it is still undergoing maturation throughout the school years. Students do not have the adult brain’s developed circuits of reflection, judgment, and gratification delay to overcome the lower brain’s strong influence.

Neuroimaging research reveals that a structure in the emotion sensitive limbic system is a switching-station that determines which part of the brain will receive input and determine response output. Brain-based research has demonstrated that new information cannot pass through the amygdala (part of the limbic system) to enter the frontal lobe if the amygdala is in the state of high metabolism or overactivity provoked by anxiety. It is important for teachers to know that when stress cuts off flow to and from the PFC, behavior is involuntary.

It is not students’ choice in the reactive state when they ‘act out’ and ‘zone out.’

Through interventions to go beyond differentiation to individualization, it is possible to decrease the stressors of frustration from work perceived as too difficult or boredom from repeated instruction after mastery is achieved. Further information from neuroscience research reveals other causes of the high-stress state in school and suggests interventions to reduce the stress-blocking response in the amygdala.

Memory is Constructed and Stored by Patterning

The brain turns data from the senses into learned information in the hippocampus. This encoding process requires activation or prior knowledge with a similar “pattern” to physically link with the new input if a short-term memory is to be constructed. The neuroimaging research supported by cognitive testing reveals that the most successful construction of working (short-term) memory takes place when there has been activation of the brain’s related prior knowledge before new information is taught.

When teachers work to clearly demonstrate the patterns, connections, and relationships that exist between new and old learning (e.g. cross-curricular studies, graphic organizers, spiraled curriculum) the probability of encoding increases.

Teachers can help students increase working memory efficiency through a variety of interventions correlated with neuroimaging responses. For example, with opportunities to make predictions, receive timely feedback, and reflect on those experiences. These experiences appear to increase executive function facilitation of working memory, such as guiding the selection of the most important information held in working memory.

Memory is Sustained by Use

Once an encoded short-term memory is constructed it still needs to be activated multiple times and ideally in response to a variety of prompts for neuroplasticity to increase its durability. Each time students participate in any endeavor, a certain number of neurons are activated.  When they repeat the action, the same neurons respond again.  The more times they repeat an action, the more dendrites grow and interconnect, resulting in greater memory storage and recall efficiency.

Retention is further promoted when new memories are connected to other stored memories based on commonalities, such as similarities/differences, especially when students use graphic organizers and derive their own connections. Multisensory instruction, practice, and review promote memory storage in multiple regions of the cortex, based on the type of sensory input by which they were learned and practiced.

These are distant storage centers are linked to each other such that triggering one sensory memory activates the others.  This duplication results increases the efficiency of subsequent retrieval as a variety of cues prompt activation of different access points to the extended memory map.

The construction of concept memory networks requires opportunities for students to transfer learning beyond the contexts in which it is learned and practiced. When information learned and stored in its own isolated circuit it is only accessible by the same stimuli through which it was obtained. These transfer activities activate memories to new stimuli and with other knowledge to solve novel problems. These simultaneous activations promote extended connections among memories that are the larger concept memory networks most applicable to future use.

Pattern recognition facilitation and opportunities for knowledge transfer extends the brain’s processing efficiency for greater access to an application of its accumulated learning. These teaching interventions will prepare graduates for future incorporation and extension of new information as it becomes available. Students who have the guided learning experiences needed to construct concept memory networks will have the best preparation for their futures. As the information pool expands, these students will continue to comprehend new information, consolidate it into their neural networks, and recognize, develop, and globally disseminate its new applications.

The Future

As the research continues to build, it will be the obligation of those who prepare our future teachers to ensure they understand and can apply the best current and future teaching strategies. This includes ensuring that the teachers who graduate from their programs have the foundational neuroscience knowledge to use the fruits of the expanding pool of research to the betterment of all their own future students. That is a fascinating and exciting challenge to meet at a pivotal time in the evolution of education.


Andreasen, E (1999) Human Brain Mapping, 8(4), 226-234. Wiley-Liss, Inc. Iowa City,   Iowa.

Ashby, C. R., Thanos, P. K., Katana, J. M., Michaelides, E. L., Gardner, C. A., Heidbreder, N. D. (1999) The selective dopamine antagonist. Pharmacology, Biochemistry and Behavior. 

Christianson, S.A. (1992). Emotional stress and eyewitness memory: A critical review. Psychological Bulletin, 112(2), 284-309).

Chugani H (1998) Biological Basis of Emotions: Brain Systems and Brain Development. Pediatrics 102:1225-1229

Dulay, H. and M. Burt. 1977: “Remarks on creativity in language acquisition”. In Viewpoints on English as a second Language. (Ed.) M. Burt , H. Dulay and M. Finocchiaro. New York. Regents.

Introini-Collision, I.Bl, Miyazaki, B., & McGaugh, J.L. (1991). Involvement of the amygdala in the memory-enhancing effects of clenbuterol. Psychopharmacology, 104(4) 541-544.

Kato, N. and McEwen, B. (2003). Neuromechanisms of emotions and memory. Neuroendocrinology. 11,03. 54-58.

Kohn, A., (2004). The Cult of Rigor and the Loss of Joy. Education Week 9/15/04.

Image attribution flickr user edyourdon


50 Challenging Activities To Promote Digital Media Literacy In Students


50 Challenging Activities To Promote Digital Media Literacy In Students

by Terry Heick

Literacy is changing–not at its core necessarily, but certainly at its edges as it expands to include new kinds of “reading.”

Digital media is quickly replacing traditional media forms as those most accessible to most 21st century learners. The impact of this change is extraordinarily broad, but for now we’ll narrow it down to changes in how learners respond to the media they consume.

The most fundamental pattern of formal academia is to read something and then write about it. Sometimes this writing comes in the form of responding to questions, while other time it’s in the form of an essay. And sometimes the reading is watching, playing with, or otherwise interacting with a digital media. So I thought it might make sense to compile a list of “things” learners can do as the result of “consuming” a digital media.

Some of these tasks will look familiar, especially to English teachers. But it needn’t be only for them.The Common Core standards call for literacy efforts across content areas, and while much of the list below is indeed English Teacher oriented, it might help all educators see the fundamental ways media are changing.

Also, I know that medium is the singular form and media the plural, but to me the connotation of the word medium hints at the form (e.g., film, text, video), whereas the media seems more apt to refer to a specific example of a media form (Schindler’s List, The Odyssey, Charlie Bit Me). Hopefully this grammatical “error” isn’t too confusing.

You also might notice that many of them apply to both traditional and digital media. That is by design.

I’ll be updating this list, revising it to add better examples, alter clunky phrasing, and so on. So, below are 50 ways teachers across content areas–and homeschooled learners too–can promote digital media literacy. I may even categorize them roughly by Bloom’s Taxonomy. Overall, these are specific, practical, and rigorous tasks that will place a cognitive demand on the student, and can be used as a go-to list for teachers to bridge formal academic study with the new demands of digital media.

50 Activities To Promote Digital Media Literacy In Students

  1. Infer the author’s purpose.
  2. Distinguish between primary and secondary audiences.
  3. Summarize the media by identifying its 3-5 most important ideas or events.
  4. Identify and diagram the literary elements (e.g., setting, characters, conflict, etc.)
  5. Identify and analyze characters as major or minor; flat or round; static or dynamic; symbolic or non; protagonist, antagonist, or neither.
  6. Analyze the relationship between character and plot development.
  7. Identify obvious and non-obvious literary devices.
  8. Infer what an author’s position on issue X might be after consuming an otherwise unrelated media (Infer what Emily Dickinson’s position on social media might be given only a reading of her poetry—or the themes of a single poem).
  9. Revise and repackage a given media so that it is optimized for another platform (e.g., an essay to a YouTube video to a blog post to a image to an infographic, etc.)
  10. Debate the author’s choice in publishing platform.
  11. Analyze the structure of the media, and determine its impact on its purpose.
  12. Evaluate the medium for relevant ideas that were left unsaid.
  13. Revise the media for a new audience.
  14. Create a graphical representation of the relationship between the text and subtext of the media, and include evidence from the text to support any response.
  15. Anticipate the cause-effect relationship between various self-selected media elements by altering them (e.g., revising the diction would impact the audience this way, revising the structure would impact the available publishing platforms this way, etc.)
  16. Evaluate the impact of the publishing platform (e.g., blog, storify, YouTube, etc.) on the purpose and tone.
  17. Experiment with new chronological styles of narrative or argument sequence, and analyze the effect of each.
  18. Recreate the media from another perspective (another character, a different narrator, etc.)
  19. Design a “modal antithesis,” where some or all of a medium’s given modalities are revised to their opposites (e.g., identify the basic structure and tone of “Southern Man” by Neil Young, and revise it to create their respective opposites).
  20. Estimate the stage of the writing process that was most crucial to the media’s success.
  21. Design or outline an app to supplement a given media’s purpose.
  22. Based on some important and self-selected element of this text, what does it make sense to consume next?
  23. Critique or defend the sequence of ideas (idea organization).
  24. Judge where supporting details are inadequate to support the thesis or theme.
  25. Identify the ways making a selected media social impacts its use of the writing process.
  26. Interpret the themes, tone, or other media component through a given critical position (e.g., Predict what John Locke would’ve said about the possibility of mobile learning given his stance on human consciousness).
  27. Experiment with various syntactical styles, and analyze the effect of any changes in a basic diagram.
  28. Analyze the ratio of pathos, ethos, and logos in the media.
  29. Evaluate only the credibility of a piece, and identify three ways it might be improved.
  30. Alter the ratio of pathos/ethos/logos in the media, and analyze the impact of any changes.
  31. Analyze the relationship between the sound, color, text features, and text.
  32. Critique or defend the author’s choice in diction.
  33. Prioritize the implicit and explicit ideas for their immediate relevance for a given context.
  34. Analyze the media to extract the theme.
  35. Criticize or defend a given media’s form (e.g., this book would’ve been better as an app for this reason)
  36. Criticize or defend the media’s balance of substance and whimsy.
  37. Separate the information the media offers that’s new and what’s been heard before.
  38. Concept-map the thesis and primary and secondary supporting details.
  39. Propose sources that would improve over stated sources cited (e.g., these three sources would’ve improved the overall credibility of the media).
  40. Identify the three modalities most critical to the media’s purpose.
  41. Question the media’s brevity, intensity, or duration.
  42. Analyze the tone, and identify the primary contributors to that tone.
  43. Identify the most visual, most useful, and most natural methods of sharing a given media, and analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each.
  44. Determine the most elegant, most useful, and most natural methods of curating a given media, and analyze the impact of each.
  45. Discuss the relationship between the media’s style, the author’s style, and the apparent audience.
  46. Describe the relationship between the tone and mood.
  47. Analyze the relationship and/or tension between implicit and explicit themes.
  48. Image the most logical follow-up media creation based on a self-selected and stated purpose or goal. (e.g., based on the author’s goal of increasing awareness of pancreatic cancer, a natural follow up to this blog post would be…)
  49. Design an innovative diagram that analyzes the media in concept map form.
  50. Collect and categorize convergent elements of divergent media (e.g., a tweet, poem, video game, and folk song with similar tone but clearly divergent structures).

Image attribution flickr user flickeringbrad; 50 Challenging Activities To Promote Digital Media Literacy In Students


It’s Time To Think Differently About Writing In The Classroom

It’s Time To Think Differently About Writing In The Classroom

by Terry Heick

Among the biggest changes of modern academic standards is the shift in the burden of general literacy. Rather than only “writing teachers,” teaching reading and writing, now all teachers across all content areas are being asked to do so (something we’ve talked about before).

In the past, literacy—the ability to read, write, and understand—has been the domain of the English-Language Arts teachers (and elsewhere in the world, Literature and Composition teachers).

And this has levied untold damage on student academic progress.

Limiting the craft of writing to a single content area has altered the landscape of students’ minds in ways that are only now being revealed as math teachers are told to teach writing. Students are now used to flinging rudimentary understandings on exit slips in broken sentence fragments, taking notes that neatly curate other people’s ideas, and otherwise ducking the responsibility to craft compelling arguments that synthesize multiple perspectives on a daily basis.

So we—English-Language Arts teachers—respond by handing them fill-in-the-blank graphic organizers that coax them to give reason 1 reason 2 and reason 3 in clear sentences that shun complexity or intellectual endurance, provided their ‘writing’ adheres to an expected form.

And handing those same graphic organizers out when other content area teachers ask for resources.

Now, generations later, the idea of writing about math or science seems not just challenging, but forced and awkward. Science and Math, properly taught, are more akin to philosophies and ways of making sense of the world than “content areas,” offering an infinite number of prompts to spur students to write.

Are patterns important in the world today?

How do we create, test, and validate a model?

How do spatial relationships change over time? 

In any learning, writing is a seamless fit.

The Erosion Of Content Areas

In our pursuit of efficiency, we have reduced math to a series of equation-solving steps and extended arithmetic. Science has become a perhaps overly-micro study of stuff rather than a system for acquiring knowledge and moving from theory to data.

And here we are, and new standards and expectations are asking all teachers to teach writing. (Perhaps we could make ELA teachers teach Social Studies, and Science teachers teach Math and sufficiently confuse the situation once and for all.)

But worried math and science (or STEM at large) teachers struggling to cover their own academic standards are missing the incredible learning potential that writing has. Few things place the cognitive load on a student that the process of crafting a piece of writing can. And you might notice the idea of craft has shown up a couple of times already—a mix of art and science that’s (not coincidentally) perfectly parallel to the learning process itself.

Dirt and metal.

Color and shape.

Culture and industry.

Learning and education.


Writing is simply thinking with that idea of craft.

It needn’t be some blank, sterile, and academic form that makes students wail and teachers squirm. It’s just a commitment of what you think to paper.

While writing, students are required to put their fingers in their ears and try to wrap their heads around something in a way that not even close-reading can demand. It also has built-in personalization; done well, in writing students make their own hills to climb. 

The Problem of Appearance

Sadly, the poor essay has been abused in classrooms for generations, to the point where students think they hate to write.

Which is among the most significant barriers to true academic progress schools will have to make in the digital age: Convincing students accustomed to streaming YouTube while texting about an instagram thread on reddit and snarking later about it all on twitter while only burdening themselves with coming up with the most clever of #hashtags that sitting and dwelling with a single media is worth their time.

While English-Language Arts and general writing teachers will still be tasked with the teaching of the parts itself–including the writing process and grammar–spreading the burden of teaching writing across content areas will do a lot of things: increase formal and informal PD resources for all teachers and decrease the jargon that can obscure the teaching of quality writing as it becomes more commonplace.

But more than anything else, by spreading the practice of writing-to-learn and writing-to-demonstrate learning activities across content areas, there will now be the opportunity to reconsider the essay, re-frame the idea of authorship, and re-contextualize what it means to think and write deeply about something.

This is the 21st-century, and 21st-century thinking is different.

While it is full of connectivity and collaboration and stunning possibility, the 21st-century learning era is one of infatuation with image, visual spectacle, flashing alerts, endlessly accessible whimsy, and cognitively stunted communication patterns.

And in capable response, writing could be the answer we’ve been looking for, right beneath our noses the whole time.


Grade Differently: 7 Categories To Create Learning Badges

Grade Differently: 7 Categories To Create Learning Badges

by Terry Heick

How can you help students see their own progress? And use that to motivate them?

Encouragement mechanics–a kind of gamification–is one approach. And note, you needn’t make that lesson or unit feel like a ‘video game.’ That’s not gamification. Gamification is simply the application of game-like mechanics to ‘non-games.’

So here, we’d be taking a lesson from games and applying them to student progress. One of the most obvious ways to do this would be to create learning badges are pretty cool.

On the surface, they seem a bit like the gold stars of yesteryear, and they are–but they’re better. A badge is simply a visual icon that represents something–a talent, skill, achievement, etc. Kind of like Scout badges, but digital, and completely customizable per student, teacher, or classroom.

Like encouragement mechanics, learning badges often get confused with gamification as well when in fact they are just strategies that can be used to realize gamification. Gamification–making a “game” out of something that’s not–is different. The effect is a kind of encouragement mechanic that helps students see their own progress. Put another way, seeing one’s progress is a strategy for encouragement.

Put another way, seeing one’s progress is a strategy for encouragement.


But they don’t have to be used to encouraged; they can be used to uncover, reveal, and emphasize. In How Gamification Uncovers Nuance In The Learning Process, I explained the benefit.

“A digital trophy system–if well-designed–offers the ability to make transparent not just success and failure, accolades and demerits, but every single step in the learning process that the gamification designer chooses to highlight. Every due date missed, peer-collaborated with, sentence revised, story revisited, every step of the scientific process and long-division, every original analogy, tightly-designed thesis statement, or exploration of push-pull factors–every single time these ideas and more can be highlighted for the purposes of assessment, accountability, and student self-awareness.”

This is all oversimplified, of course. How to actually manage this on a daily basis in your classroom is an altogether different beast. But I thought it might be helpful to consider themes and categories as innovative strategies to begin thinking out how they might work for you.

And to be clear–they don’t have to be digital badges. Think of a letter grade as the most crude and misleading and basic learning badge ever created, then work up from there. What else could you create to help students publish their skills, see their own progress, and grow in your classroom?

7 Categories For Creating Learning Badges For Students

1. Quantity (e.g., solved this many equations in this amount of time, read this many books over this window of time)

2. Quality (e.g., demonstrated this criteria of quality in this project-based learning activity)

3. Collaboration (improved this product in this specific way using collaboration)

4. Diversity (e.g., published on these sites or in these genres across these audiences)

5. Depth (e.g., demonstrated understanding at this level of Bloom’s Taxonomy in this activity)

6. Mastery (e.g., demonstrated mastery of this standard via this kind of assessment)

7. Personal Habits (e.g., demonstrated use of this Habit of Mind)


As you can see, the possibilities are endless. And with free resources like badgestack, all that’s left is pick a way to get started.

I’d start small—maybe 3 badges in a single unit students can earn—a very ‘whole class,’ carrot stick approach.

But as you build an understanding of how it can work, instead of using them as encouragement mechanics, you can instead use them to amplify the performance of the students to all stakeholders, blowing away the letter grade as the crude, impotent, singular badge that it is.

Image attribution flickr user pseudogil and bengrey; Encouragement Mechanics In The Classroom

Learning Models

A Quick Summary Of The Theory Of Learning Curves

A Quick Summary Of The Theory Of Learning Curves

contributed by Steve Wheeler, Associate Professor, Plymouth Institute of Education

This is number 9 in my series on learning theories.

My intention is to work through the alphabet of psychologists and provide a brief overview of each theory, and how it can be applied in education. In the last post we examined Yrjö Engeström’s Second Generation Activity Theory and its applications to education. In this post, we explore the work of Hermann Ebbinghaus on memory and learning. This is a simplified interpretation of the theory, so if you wish to learn more, please read the associated literature.

The Theory Of Learning Curves

It should be noted that the work of Ebbinghaus is not regarded as a ‘theory’ of learning, but borrows quite heavily from behaviourist theory, as evidenced through the ‘drill and practice’ and reinforcement schedules he recommends. His studies can be considered to represent a ‘model’ or explanation of how memory functions.

We often hear people say they are ‘on a steep learning curve’. What they usually mean is that they have a lot to learn, not enough time to learn it in, or that they are finding it difficult. The term ‘learning curve‘ actually derives from the work of German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, who studied memory and recall. In fact, he was probably the first psychologist to conduct experimental research into human memory. Ebbinghaus was interested in discovering why when we learn new information, it tends to fade away over a period of time. He referred to this as the forgetting curve and mapped it using graphs.

What he also discovered was that over time, if learning is rehearsed and repeated at regular intervals, we actually forget less. He also found that there is a spacing effect that influences how much we can recall over a period of time. The frequency of repetition and rehearsal, if spaced at intervals, promotes better recall of memory than if the information is presented in one long burst. When expressed statistically, the learning curve, if steep, represents a quick accumulation of knowledge, and rapid progress in learning expressed through recall from memory.

How It Can Be Applied To Education

Teachers know that content can be presented in a variety of sequences, but that some sequences are more effective than others. The reason for this is that some kinds of content are easier to remember than others, depending on their difficulty levels as well as their juxtaposition. Teachers should know that primacy-recency effects are often present in the forgetting curve. This means that the first content that is presented in a lesson (primacy) and the most recent content that is presented (recency) are the most readily recalled by learners.

According to Ebbinghaus, difficult concepts should thus be presented first and then reiterated at the end of the lesson. For the more difficult content, regular revision over time can be more effective than a single mass delivery. What is even more effective is when the content is applied in authentic contexts, and where learners have the chance to rehearse and strengthen their recall.  These opportunities can be built into a scheme of work and applied during lessons.

When it comes to revising for an exam, the spacing effect comes into play. It is better to revise content over a longer period of time in the run up to an exam than it is to do last minute ‘cramming’. Memory of information is more resilient if it is made meaningful by the learner.


Cherry, K. (2014) Forgetting: When memory fails. Psychology. Available online at this link.

Previous posts in this series:

Anderson ACT-R Cognitive Architecture
Argyris Double Loop Learning
Bandura Social Learning Theory
Bruner Scaffolding Theory
Craik and Lockhart Levels of Processing
Csíkszentmihályi Flow Theory
Dewey Experiential Learning
Engeström Activity Theory

A Quick Summary Of The Theory Of Learning Curves by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

This post first appeared on Steve’s personal blog; A Quick Summary Of The Theory Of Learning Curves


Learning Theories: Adaptive Control Of Thought

image attribution Steve Wheeler

Learning Theories: Adaptive Control Of Thought

by Terry Heick

With any knowledge comes underlying assumptions. In the case of cognitive architectures and other theories and models that seek to distill and unify, one assumption is that knowledge is reducible but only to a point, and once we reach that point, what we’re left with is the basis for that architecture, theory, or model.

Which brings us to the Adaptive Control of Thought, or ACT-R. The Adaptive Control of Thought is a learning theory created by Canadian Psychologist John Anderson and explored, among other places, in his 2007 publication, ‘How Can the Human Mind Occur in the Physical Universe?’

(The ‘R’ stands for ‘Rational’–see Anderson, J. R. (1993). Rules of the mind. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.)

In short, the Adaptive Control of Thought is a ‘theory’ more on that below) that attempts to explain how the brain works when learning. In Is The Cognitive Load Theory The Most Important Thing A Teacher Should Know?, I looked at the potential negative impact of overlooking the physical limitations of the human brain, explaining “If you ask a student to apply problem-solving skills when they are learning new and critical information, you’re asking the brain to do two things at once. This limits both processes. The task is ‘complex’ but not in a way that benefits the student.”

The limitations of short and long-term memory should characterize not just what teachers learning in ‘teaching school,’ but how curriculum is developed and how instruction and assessment are planned. Underpinning the Adaptive Control of Thought (or ACTR/ACT-R) is the premise that all human knowledge can be separated into one of two (irreducible) categories: declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge.

Steve Wheeler, Associate Professor, Plymouth Institute of Education summarizes the theory and its implications for teachers:

“The ACT-R model of memory could be applied in education in a number of ways. Teachers should be aware that there are different kinds of memory, and that these associate with each other through the limited Working Memory. Overloading WM with too much information at once will not be conducive to good knowledge making….At the same time, encouraging students to combine their knowledge with actions can have the effect of reinforcing learning in both procedural and declarative memory. A combination of thinking and doing can be a powerful mix of activity to deepen learning in just about any subject area.”

A lot of this has to do with architecture, which is a metaphor worth understanding: the physical architecture yields a neurological architecture which yields a cognitive architecture. And that’s what the model is about; it’s a theory for cognitive architecture. Wheeler goes on to explain why the architecture and its inherent limitations matter:

“Working memory is the active buffer between the sensory register (the senses) and Long Term Memory (LTM).  In LTM there are at least two forms of memory storage, concerned with Declarative (what something is – facts) and Procedural (how to do something). According to Anderson, procedural memory consists of sequences of actions based on pattern matching that is similar to computing instructions such as if-then – if this happens, then do that. Declarative memory on the other hand, holds factual knowledge, and any relevant association and context.

And finally, Oxford University Press defines the Adaptive Control of Thought in terms of the types of knowledge:

“The entire cerebral cortex projects down to the basal ganglia that plays an important role in coordinating cognition. These structures serve as the repository for our procedural knowledge. They have the ability to recognize appropriate cortical patterns and take actions directly without further deliberation. In contrast to declarative memory, procedural memory is a slow-learning system in which new capacities only gradually emerge.”

These are a lot of words that basically say, “the brain works a certain way and thus yields certain types of knowledge.”

The Background For The Adaptive Control of Thought Learning Theory

So how was the ACT-R developed? explains:

“ACT-R is described as a way of specifying how the brain itself is organized in a way that enables individual processing modules to produce cognition. Using the ACT-R model, Anderson’s studies have looked at neural processes of people while they are solving complex problems such as algebraic equations. He and colleagues generated a cognitive model that predicted that while students were solving algebraic equations, neuroimages would show increased activation in a number of predefined regions. They further predicted and confirmed that this increase in activation would diminish as students acquired proficiency in solving these problems.”

Learning Models The Future Of Learning

Envisioning The Future Of Technology In Education


Envisioning The Future Of Technology In Education

by TeachThought Staff

Ed note: We recently got in touch with Michell again and hope to have some updated thinking around this idea in the very near future. With that in mind, we decided to republish this post because its simultaneous deep thinking and easy skimmability.

Predicting the growth of technology is impossible–in both rate and direction. The same likely applies to learning.

Combine them and you’ve got even greater uncertainty, but that’s what Michell Zappa and the folks over at Envisioningtech did in creating the following massive concept map. In the visual there are three distinct domains/learning spaces: Classroom, Studio, and Virtual. Within these domains are 6 sub-domains that represent both areas of growth and characteristics of how learning might change when fused with emerging technologies.

6 Sub-Domains Of Education Technology

1. Digitized Classrooms: Rather than considering IT a standalone tool or skill, digitization tends to disperse throughout every facet of the classroom.
Examples: tablets, electronic screens, interactive whiteboards, data projectors, 

2. Tangible Computing: Embedding computation to the physical via intelligent objects, the internet of things, and connectivity with a profound impact on learning mechanisms.

Examples: reactive materials, reactive furniture, 3D printers, digitally intermediated field trips

3. Gamification: Billed as an evolution in grading mechanisms, gamification brings instant feedback to acquired knowledge through achievements and points systems.

Examples: student developed apps, educational games, educational programming tools, achievement badges, self-paced learning

4. Virtual/Physical Studios: Bridging the online–offline gap, these future technologies offer a potential future where embodiment is secondary to information access.

Examples: eyewear/HUDs, retinal screens, holography, neuroinfomatics, immersive virtual reality

5. Disintermediation: Undoing the traditional teacher-student model, these technologies offer a scenario where AI handles personalization while teachers focus on teaching

Examples: telepresence, algo-generated lessons, mobile learning platforms, task-assignment algorithms, S2S teaching platforms, assessment algorithms, student-designed learning mechanics

6. Opening of Information: Dissemination of information outside the physical silos of schools and classrooms, offering feedback and assessment to students anywhere.

Examples: portable academic histories, flipped classrooms, inter-school teaching platforms, digitization of books, open courseware, education app stores, online school communities, video lessons, formal communication #backchannels

From the graphic:

“Education lies at a peculiar crossroad in society. On one hand it has the responsibility of anticipating real-life skills by preparing us for an increasingly complex world – but education methodologies can only be formalized after practices have been defined. This dichotomy is particularly aggravated when it comes to technology, where fast-paced innovation and perpetual change is the only constant.

This visualization attempts to organize a series of emerging technologies that are likely to influence education in the upcoming decades. Despite its inherently speculative nature, the driving trends behind the technologies can already be observed, meaning it’s a matter of time before these scenarios start panning out in learning environments around the world.”

Envisioning The Future Of Technology In Education


Image attribution flickr user radarcommunication; Envisioning The Future Of Technology In Education

Learning Models

How To Make Learning Visible: A Spectrum

How To Make Learning Visible: A Spectrum

by Terry Heick 

What students say and do and create are products of thought processes that, more or less, are predictable–and of significant potential if we can make those processes visible.

The idea of making learning visible isn’t new. This is an idea as old as conversation or writing–show me what you know. It comes in many forms, from essays, quizzes, and exams, to the lifeless What’d you learn in school today?” conversation after school.

Playing an automotive racing video game recently, I unlocked a badge for accruing a certain number of miles on a specific track. As I was driving–or rather, pushing buttons on a controller that simulated a lot of the visuals and some of the sensations of racing a car–a little badge popped up at the bottom of the screen, along with a title reflecting what I’d accomplished. Learning badges and trophies are usually seen as a reward for an accomplishment, but they’re not very good at it. They flash on the screen, create an all-too-brief dopamine response, and are gone. 

On modern video game platforms like The Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Steam, no one really cares about these collections because everyone has them. They might be quantified, as in “I have more points or trophies than you,” but as individual episodes of achievement, they’re mostly anonymous, which means they fail to signify something actually worth signifying.

In a learning ecology–as we use them now–digital badges usually cause little excitement and mean nothing. As levers of gamification, however, they have the potential to uncover the nuance of performance, as I explained in that post.

“A digital trophy system–if well-designed–offers the ability to make transparent not just success and failure, accolades and demerits, but every single step in the learning process that the gamification designer chooses to highlight. Every due date missed, peer collaborated with, sentence revised, story revisited, every step of the scientific process and long-division, every original analogy, tightly-designed thesis statement, or exploration of push-pull factors–every single time these ideas and more can be highlighted for the purposes of assessment, accountability, and student self-awareness.”

So, in the best of cases, these icons can be gathered into a personal collection to act as an uber-report card. Imagine the icons on your phone or tablet as symbols of something important attempted or accomplished by a student. That’d be a great starting point for learning badge and gamification “2.0,” but merely updating a broken system doesn’t seem like the best use of our time. It’s much more fun to speculate what might be possible if we’re willing to squint a little to maybe find something we haven’t found before.


The shift from proving understanding of externally-driven content (i.e., curriculum maps and pacing guides created from a universal set of standards) to turning inward and learning to ask questions that sustain learning isn’t simply a matter of process, but purpose and human outcome. See John Dewey explain.

“From the standpoint of the child (Ed note: this is the only standpoint that matters, right?), the great waste in the school comes from his inability to utilize the experiences he gets outside the school in any complete and free way within the school itself; while, on the other hand, he is unable to apply in daily life what he is learning at school. That is the isolation of the school — its isolation from life. When the child gets into the schoolroom he has to put out of his mind a large part of the ideas, interests, and activities that predominate in his home and neighborhood. So the school, being unable to utilize this everyday experience, sets painfully to work, on another tack and by a variety of means, to arouse in the child an interest in school studies. While I was visiting in the city of Moline a few years ago, the superintendent told me that they found many children every year, who were surprised to learn that the Mississippi river in the textbook had anything to do with the stream of water flowing past their homes.” (Dewey 1916)

In focusing on narrow data from a fixed curriculum using universal assessments, it might be that we’ve gotten the learning process itself all knotted up. Curiously, there haven’t been very many attempts to make learning, in and of itself, visible. Letter grades and paper certificates make up the bulk of these efforts, and digital portfolios and project-based learning artifacts are about as exotic as it gets.

Badges are a more recent entry into this field, but we’re falling far short of what’s possible. In short, badges as evidence of achievement are interesting, but insufficient because they are residual. Leftover. Effects. Artifacts. Fin. But if we use them as simply the first “stage” of a growing idea, then we can both illuminate and catalyze learning as a process while it’s happening–and in the process, connect students with someone other than the teacher.

The question becomes then, what should we make visible, how, and to whom?

How To Make Learning Visible: A Spectrum

Below is a kind of model to think about this. It is set up here as a spectrum. Stage 1 represents early thinking about the idea–essentially, where many classrooms are today, while Stage 4 represents more developed thinking–what “classrooms” might seek to become as we move beyond “I’m done with this assignment” thinking.

The big idea, then, is to evolve the thinking behind letter grades, certificates, and badges in pursuit of a genuine ecology of learning–pushing past simply sharing evidence of “mastery” (which is perishable), toward a focus on the students as they ask questions, seek information, apply their own thinking, and see learning as a fluid–and entirely personal–process.

Big Idea: A shift from emphasizing the products of learning to the process of learning

Stage 1: Product (The Artifacts Of Learning)

At the first stage of this “spectrum” of making learning visible, there is emphasis on the finished products students create. This can provide evidence of understanding, and allows other stakeholders in education an opportunity to infer what’s happening in the classroom. This is also where most classrooms are today.


Physical projects and models, essays, posters, blog posts, badges of completion, ribbons, letter grades, diplomas, certificates, PowerPoints, project-based learning artifacts, photographs

Driving Question(s):

What compelling evidence of performance and understanding can be shared with others? What is the most authentic way to publish student work in affectionate and attentive communities?

Stage 2: Process (The Patterns & Sequence Of Learning)

As we make learning visible during this second stage, the process and sequence of learning is illuminated. This may include ongoing or even finished projects shared, but only insofar as student habits, decisions, developing understanding, and ongoing performance are concerned. This helps students see understanding as alive–and thus capable of growth or decay–and always evolving.

This also helps schools and teachers see student performance as an extraordinarily individual and often chaotic–even Rhizomatic–journey, and design curriculum, assessment, learning feedback, and other systems around that idea.


Any practices that encourage metacognition, journaling about the Habits of Mind, making room for failure, revisiting old work for reflection or improvement, entrepreneurship projects (including community projects and businesses), visual data that shows change over time, returning to “places” (physical or digital) of learning, the iteration of digital portfolios (rather than the artifacts themselves), reflecting on what students felt emotionally during the process of learning

Driving Question(s):

What does “personalized learning” mean? How do students learn differently–both in a standardized curriculum, and in a model where each student learns something different? How can the nature of learning as a process be made visible–and in a way that serves the student as much as those around them?

Stage 3 : Need To Know (The Reason For Learning)

At this advanced stage of making learning visible, knowledge demands and curiosity are the focus. Here, what students need to know is supplemented–and empowered–by why they need to know it. These two concepts work together to bolster both curiosity and the utility of knowledge.

Driving Question(s):

How can the need to know be communicated, emphasized, and published? What role does curiosity play? What is the difference between “engaged academic” and “authentic learning”?


Informal learning, demonstrated curiosity, problem-based learning, challenge-based learning, visible transfer of knowledge, communal constructivism, self-directed learning as a classroom model

Stage 4: The Self (The Context For Learning)

The last of these so-called “stages” of making learning visible finishes with the student themselves. A continuum that began with the idea of students proving themselves to others by what they “do” has now transformed into one that focuses on the students themselves as a context for learning–what they learn, why the learn it, and what they do with what they know.

Some of these kinds of questions can be found in our self-directed learning model, including:

  1. What problems or opportunities are within my reach?
  2. What important problems & solutions have others before me created?
  3. What legacies am I a part of & what does that suggest that I understand?
  4. For me, in this light, what’s worth understanding?


Self-directed learning as a classroom model, place-based education, learning through play

Driving Question(s):

How is each child different? How are each child’s knowledge demands unique? In what contexts do students both need to know and then–unprompted–use what they know?

The next question to address, which I’ll do in a follow-up, is whom are we sharing the above with, and how?

For professional development around this idea or others you read about on TeachThought, contact us.

How To Make Learning Visible: A Spectrum; image attribution flickr user woodleywonderworks

The Future Of Learning

7 Shifts To Create A Classroom Of The Future

Learning Shifts-fi-1

Tomorrow’s Learning Today: 7 Shifts To Create A Classroom Of The Future

by Terry Heick

For professional development around this idea or others you read about on TeachThought, contact us.

Let’s take a look at this vague idea of the ‘classroom of the future.’ This is all subjective, but it’s worth talking about. So let’s talk.

Below are some ideas that are truly transformational–not that they haven’t been said before. It’s not this article that’s transformational, but the ideas themselves. These ideas aren’t just buzzwords or trendy edu-jargon but the kind of substance with the potential for lasting change.

And the best part? This is stuff that’s available not tomorrow with ten grand in classroom funding and 12 hours of summer PD, but today. Utopian visions of learning are tempting, if for no other reason than they absolve us of accountability to create it right now, leading to nebulous romanticizing about how powerful learning could be if we just did more of X and Y.

But therein lies the rub: Tomorrow’s learning is already available, and below are seven of the most compelling and powerful trends, concepts, and resources that represent its promise.

The Challenge of Implementation

It’s challenging enough to manage a traditional learning environment where the curriculum is handed to you, and meetings are set, and you’re simply there to manage; adding more ingredients to the mix seems like asking for trouble. But the truth is, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to educate children in the face of such radical technological and pedagogical progression.

The good news is, many of the elements of a progressive learning environment—e.g., digital literacy, connectivism, and play—conveniently, and not coincidentally, work together. And better yet, collectively they can reduce the burden on those managing the learning because they place the learner at the center.

While it’s possible to tack these ideas on to a traditional classroom, and then sit back and wait for the clouds to part and the sun to shine brilliantly, you’ll likely be waiting a while. These aren’t single tools to try but news ways to think about how learners access media, how educators define success, and what the roles of immense digital communities should be in popularizing new learning models.

None of it is really complicated—it just requires new thinking.

Tomorrow’s Learning Today: 7 Shifts Of Future Learning

1. Digital & Research Literacy

It’s not so much that physical is ‘out’ and digital is ‘in’ but that the sheer scale and accessibility of digital resources, connections, and spaces are overwhelming; if in no other place other than the mindscape of the student, when it comes to reading, writing, communicating, saving, creating, and sharing, digital is everything.

Even ‘school’ ideas like literacy are all different now. Digital literacy is a trend that involves the consumption, comprehension, and curation of digital media. This is directly tied to research literacy, as both digital and digitized data sources serve as primary research resources.

2. Shift From Standards To Habits

We’ve talked about this one quite a bit–most recently in Changing What We Teach, for example. This is among the biggest and most powerful ideas in ‘future learning,’ and should be central to any meaningful discussion therein. What are students learning, why are they learning it, and what are they doing with what they know? In short, the shift from purely academic standards to critical thinking habits supports personalized, 21st-century learning through a preceding shift from institution to learner.

3. Game-Based Learning & Gamification

Game-Based Learning aggregates the power of learning simulations, social gaming, emotional immersion, and digital literacy to produce a net effect of transparency and participation on the learner.

4. Connectivism

Through social media, mobile learning, blended learning, eLearning, and other inherently connected learning experiences, it is possible to leverage the potential of interdependence and crowds. This occurs simply through crowdsourced knowledge (e.g., Quora, Wikipedia), visually through curation (e.g., scoopit, pinterest), and long-term through digital communities (e.g., YouTube, DIY, etc.)

5. Transparency

A natural consequence of digital and social media, transparency is the opposite of closed, traditional schooling, where the walls of the classroom are tick and the local teachers and policies govern, judge, and process everything.

6. Place 

Spaces and places matter. What are they learning, and why? Add to that, where are they taking that knowledge to use?

Place-Based Education complements digital platforms that tend towards globalization. While it is tempting for learners to constantly connect with exotic ideas in equally exotic locations, authentic learning experiences allow learners to self-direct personal change in pursuit of social change–and that starts small, at home and surrounding intimate communities.

7. Self-Directed Learning & Play

Self-Directed Learning is almost certainly at the core of the future of learning. To not allow learners to ‘play’ with information, platforms, and ideas is to ignore the access, tools, and patterns of 21st-century life.


12 Curriculum Planning Tips For Any Grade Level Or Content Area

12 Curriculum Planning Tips For Any Grade Level Or Content Area

by Terry Heick

Learning is really just a growth in awareness.

From not knowing to knowing is part of it, but that’s really too simple because it misses all the degrees of knowing and not knowing. One can’t ever really truly understand something any more than a shrub can stay trimmed. There’s always growth or decay, changing contexts or conditions.

Understanding is the same way: it’s fluid.

Yes, this sounds silly and esoteric, but think about it. While morsels of information–math theorems, for example–may not change, the context students use them in do. Which in turn changes how we consider and use that morsel.

In fact, so little of the learning process is unchanging. Even facts–significant historical dates, labels for ethnic groups, causes and effects of cultural movements–all change endlessly, if not in form (how they’re discussed) than in meaning and connotation (what we think of them).

Design. Engineering. Religion. Media. Literacy. Human Rights. Geography. Technology. Science. All of these have changed both in form and connotation in the last decade, with changes in one (e.g., technology) changing how we think of another (e.g., design). And so how students use this skill or understanding.

And further how we, as teachers, ‘teach it.’

Making Learning A Process That Honors Change

The implications of awareness reach even further than that, however.

It’s more than merely ‘understanding’ or not, and grasping changing contexts for that understanding. It’s also about becoming more aware of one’s own degrees of not and not knowing.

This could be thought of as ‘depth of understanding,’ a term that produced a DOK framework for measuring understanding that’s still used in many districts. Bloom’s Taxonomy or even the TeachThought Learning Taxonomy are all tools to help evaluate understanding–how well a student ‘gets it.’

See also 10 Team-Building Games That Promote Critical Thinking

But learning is as much about knowing what you don’t know as it is proving what you do. An assessment can offer a guess how much–and how deeply–a student understands, but that’s all that it is–a guess based on a given assessment form, taken as a quick snapshot of student understanding at any given moment, marred by reading level, academic vocabulary, student self-efficacy, the wording of the question, or even their mood that morning.

So, takeaways for busy teachers in public schools for whom the above sounds like a bunch of time-wasting, pie-in-the-sky malarky?

12 Curriculum Planning Tips For Any Grade Level Or Content Area

1. Start with the student

Learning should start with the student–their personalized learning needs, their ‘place,’ and their self-initiated application of knowledge on a daily basis. This includes what they’re curious about, what builds on their strengths, and what agitates their thinking and forces them to reconsider what they think they know.

Who has time for that? Have them do the leg work and shift to a facilitator’s role.

2. End with the student

As stated above, learning starts and ends with people and emotions, not standards and data. Somehow, some way, everything a student learns should start and end with them–their misconceptions, affections, ideas, creativity, or reflections.

3.  Build-in metacognition into units

Speaking of reflection, prime the pump with quick writing prompts about their own thinking. Model what metacognition looks/sounds/feels like. Have students share their thinking. Allow them to express themselves and their thinking away from the pressure of the classroom and the burden of eloquent verbal expression.

Add it to rubrics.

4. Use spiraling

In short, spiraling is the practice of designing curriculum which requires students to revisit content over and over again throughout their education career. This can mean their entire K-12 career, but also their freshmen year of high school, or even a single unit in a single content area.

Though the research proving its effectiveness is scant, the same could be said for mobile learning, critical thinking, inquiry, and other even-though-we-lack-a-strong-research-basis-it’s-clear-students-benefit-from-this instructional practices. By exposing students to critical content over and over again in increasingly complex ways, spiraling is a flexible and potent curriculum mapping strategy useful to educators in a range of applications, from curriculum and instructional design to test-prep or planning for project-based learning.

5. Use learning taxonomies to guide your instructional design–including assessment

Use learning taxonomies–and not just one–to illuminate understanding more clearly. Move way past ‘pass or ‘fail,’ or even A-F, to “Can define and apply, but has trouble analyzing.”

6. Integrate idea maps to promote conceptual thinking

Use idea maps–or concept maps, as we usually refer to them–in lessons early and often. Assessments, journal entries, scaffolding, lesson extensions, write-arounds, bell-ringers, and more. Have students map, chart, diagram, or otherwise visually represent their own learning pathways, and changes in their own understanding. What they do and don’t understand. Where they started, where they are, and where they might be going.

Have students map, chart, diagram, or otherwise visually represent their own learning pathways, and changes in their own understanding. What they do and don’t understand. Where they started, where they are, and where they might be going.

Concept maps show the relationship between ideas–how disparate ‘things’ fit together. Knowledge is about connections and interdependence, and concept maps and related graphic organizers are excellent ways to demonstrate that. Really want to push their thinking? Have students create their own concept maps before, during, and after a unit–or just once as a kind of assessment.

7. Design the curriculum to be ‘data-friendly’

Design data-friendly curriculum–that is, curriculum designed to’usefully absorb’ data. Such a curriculum would fail to function without data at key points that require the teacher to revise planned curriculum and instruction based on that data. That is, have a plan for the data before you give the assessment.

8. Making progress visible

Use gamification, XP, unlocking, colorful bar graphs, leveling, or some other way to says to the student, “you started there, and you’ve made it all the way to here.”

Of course, making learning progress visible doesn’t have to only be for the students. While teachers have focused on data for years now, designing curriculum that is both data-friendly (see #7) and capable of commmunicating progress ‘through’ that curriculum

Imagine taking a road trip and having no idea how many hours or miles were left before you arrived or downloading a large file and having no progress bar to indicate if you were making progress, or when, based on that current level of progress, you might expect the download to be complete. Without this kind of data, it’s hard to know whether or not to consider your current progress ‘adequate.’

This gets dangerously close to the ‘AYP/Annual Yearly Progress’ metric that is purely test-based, standardized, and not at all what I’m suggesting. Here, I’m only saying that curriculum should ideally communicate progress to both the teacher and student–as much in ‘real-time’ as possible.

9. Use a variety of assessment forms

If this is the only way you personalize learning, give this one a shot. Performances. Writing. Concept Maps. Drawings. Interviews. Quick Instagram videos followed by short written responses. Projects. Even allow students to choose their own assessment–challenge them to prove not just ‘if’ they get it, but how.

10. Use–and frequently review–artifacts of learning

Analyze changes in student work, including content knowledge, and have them do the same alone and in thoughtful groups.

11. Connect students to networks

As students connect to networks, the learning process will plug them in not just to one teacher, or 25 classmates, or 8 texts, but something much larger–and more able to interact with students organically.

12. Help students ask their own great questions

Help students direct their own learning–through inquiry-based learning, for example–and then let those questions guide learning, change the plans you had, or otherwise impact the student, their peers, and the learning environment itself.

There is no quicker way than to have the reality of the process of learning set in, and there is little evidence of understanding more powerful than a learner asking the right question at the right time to the right audience.

12 Curriculum Planning Tips For Any Grade Level Or Content Area; image attribution flickr user woodleywonderworks


Data-Driven Teaching? The Unit Isn’t Doing You Any Favors

data-driven-teachingData-Driven Teaching? The Unit Isn’t Doing You Any Favors

by Terry Heick

It’s been a great run.

We’ve had some great times, and done some cool things we’ll never forget. Like that time in the summer PD where all the department teachers got together and sketched out their idea of a perfect unit, and made it happen.

And it was glorious—backwards-planning was used from the beginning. Understanding was pre-assessed, data drove revision of planned instruction. Parents showed up for presentation of the final project, and the kids showed real grit and progress getting through it all. The unit functioned as a kind of metaphor for life—requiring planning, collaboration, and good old-fashioned perseverance to navigate. And in the end, the Yoga is about the journey.

But then things started to feel funny. When it came time for testing, students were being assessed on standards they focused on six months ago in the second unit of the school year. To mitigate any ill effects here, we used instructional design and curriculum mapping tricks. We did reviews via bell-ringers, and used year-long testing to keep them sharp and remind us what they still needed help with.

We even did pre-testing “blitzes” of content, but then the state shut that down too. Said it was cheating. So we figured out other ways to help—charts on the wall, special class periods of remediation and review. Still, it didn’t feel like enough. Some units took twice as long as planned to finish, and even then the triumph was often in that finish rather than the understanding. Pacing guides were issued to help mitigate this, and an array of curriculum maps and scope-and-sequences to ensure everyone was on the same page, learning the same thing, sharing the same “data-driven” and “research-based” ways.

But then the data—my word, the data. So much data, pouring in from everywhere. ACT testing, Explore testing, PSAT testing, reading level testing, in-class assessment testing, all screaming the same thing: The kids have trouble reading, the kids have trouble thinking critically, the kids have trouble planning their writing. (As if you didn’t know.)

So you dutifully wagged the manila folders with you to data team meetings, and stared at the bar graphs your local instructional coach keeps emailing you trying to figure out how to get all of this data to actually do something besides berate you. So you start attempting to personalize the learning via the data. You make some adjustments—front-load this student with more thinking strategies, group students more intentionally, and see a bit of progress.

But it’s oddly hollow, because the unit isn’t built for this.

Where The Unit Fails

The unit is a structure, like a circuit of roadways through a city, with the beginning on one side (where each student is), and the ending on the other (what we want them to understand). Just like in a real city, those pathways are necessarily complex and even chaotic viewed from Google Earth. Trying to funnel the users down pre-determined pathways will ensure you get from here to there—that is, get through the city—but it limits what the data can do.

The data can’t properly function because it means moving backwards and forwards, stopping and starting slowing down and speeding up–all things that happen in learning, and all things units aren’t good at.

And perhaps worse, it puts the weight of the world on the shoulders of a classroom teacher doing their best to soothe so many seemingly divergent efforts. A teacher try to consistently—and substantively–incorporate data into planned instruction is like trying to fill a drinking glass with rain. Or trying to herd millions of people through a city’s strangled concrete infrastructure.

It’s time to replace the unit with something smarter. In the 21st century, there are alternatives. Existing popular trends like project-based learning, blended learning, and even informal learning all offer the skeleton of far more manageable solutions that, by design, can support teachers in absorbing the data they are being asked to use.

If we insist on an outcomes-based, research-based, data-driven ed reform, the traditional unit—at least in its current guise—has no business in our classrooms. Teachers are sentimental folk—we’ve grown weary of buzz and trends, and the unit feels comfortable. Like an old friend. Something we could count on when we’re told everything we’ve ever done has been wrong.

But we’ll get through this together. There are solutions, and we’ll talk about those. And new apps. And new thinking. And we can hang the unit in the educational hall of fame beside the abacus, textbook, and chalkboard where it can function forever as a symbol of how far we’ve come.

This post has been updated from a 2013 post; Adapted image attribution flickr user andymaguire; Data-Driven Teaching? The Unit Isn’t Doing You Any Favors


20 Classroom Setups That Promote Thinking

20 Classroom Setups That Promote Thinking

by TeachThought Staff

Can how you set up your classroom impact how students think?

If you design learning with physical space and interaction in mind, it absolutely can.

Desks are a staple of the ‘modern’ classroom as we know it. Usually, these learning spaces are simple, and simply arranged: places for students to sit and read and write, lined up neatly in rows. While progress has been in the design of schools and classrooms, it’s usually only in pockets of well-funded ‘future schools’ with very little application for the rest of us.

So what can we do? That’s the point of this post. If you think of the following ideas as exactly that–ideas–then you’ll realize that none of these are either good nor bad. They’re ideas. If they are used well to solve a problem or promote a characteristic, they are being used well; if they don’t, they’re not. Many of these aren’t immediately reproducible in your own classroom. They may not work for your grade level or furniture or budget or content area. But you can take it as an idea, learn from it, and use it (or not) accordingly.

So, the bit about ‘classroom setups impacting thinking.’ Learning is an ecology. Classroom design impacts classroom management impacts curriculum needs impacts lesson and unit design impacts teacher personality impacts technology needs impacts literacy strategies and teaching strategies, and so on. Each one of these possibilities will only work as well as you are able to adapt the way you plan instruction and design learning experiences. Yes, you can design a classroom using a Fishbowl approach–and not just to host a Fishbowl discussion, but for longer periods of time.

You can also set up a ‘Google Room’ or ‘Maker Space’ and not promote thinking at all, or have students performing stunning cognitive acrobatics sitting by themselves on a cold floor. The idea here is that new ways to set up your classroom can help you think differently about how and why you use certain arrangements, and then design more intentionally moving forward (even if you just stick to plain ol’ rows).

In fact, if you think of rows and rows of desks as having pros and cons, causes and effects, you’ll see that these rows lend themselves well to certain things (organization, paper passing, etc.), while not so well to others (collaboration, movement). You’ve already (perhaps unwittingly) adapted your instruction to whatever design you normally use. You plan with it in mind. If you take a new approach, you’ll need to design with that in mind as well. And that’s where the actions and behaviors that promote thinking–interaction, movement, study, making, collaboration, thinking alone, and so on–become a factor.

Note, we’ve placed an asterisk* beside those approaches that are more strongly suited to ‘thought’ than others. With that preface, on to some of the possibilities (there are many more!).

20 Ways To Setup A Classroom To Help Your Students Think

1. Maker Spaces

makerfestivaltoronto-fiHow this is structured depends on your space, content area, grade level, etc. But any content area can use “making” as a primary teaching and learning strategy, and to do so, you’ll need to create the spaces for that to happen. A mix of the “Learning Labs” approach and the “Google Room” may work well.

2. Geometric Mix


This approach takes a mix of forms–rows, groups, semi-circled tables. While the furniture in the pic above may be beyond your reach, you can produce a similar effect with a combination of tables and desks.

3. Differentiation Stations*

This is physical grouping, but based on areas of differentiation–background knowledge, reading level, an individual skill, etc. If instruction is tailored for a student in this way–with their Zone of Proximal development–there is more opportunity for thinking, teaching, and learning that “fits.”

4. Fishbowl*

Also a teaching strategy, Fishbowls sees a group of students in the middle, and a group on the outside in a circle facing the group in the middle. You can also arrange your classroom this way permanently–or at least for an extended period of time. The “fish” in the middle have one function (e.g., reading roles from a play, solving a problem, analyzing art, etc.) while the group on the outside participates in a #backchannel twitter chat with a love running log on a screen. Here, everyone can have a voice–and an opportunity for thought.

5. One Group + 4 Rows

This one is what it sounds like it’d be–one group complemented by 4 rows. This setup could be useful if the majority of the class is often working on one activity–or part of an activity, while the bulk of the class works on something else. It obviously can be used collaboratively as well. 

6. 2 Groups + 2 Rows


Same as above, but more of the class is in a group this time, so the class is split more evenly.

7. Function Pods*

This one is similar to Differentiation Stations, only the idea here is less about differentiation and more about a task. Think literature circles, for example, where everyone has a role. The difference here is that the whole classroom is set up that way.

8. A ‘Google Room’*


Think colors. Lots of colors. Shapes and textures, too. Diverse lighting sources. A lot of natural light, if possible. Areas to work alone, in pairs, or in groups. Sitting. Standing. Openness. Collaboration. May not be possible to realize completely, but you could use it as inspiration.

9. Two Sides*

You can also split the classroom into “two sides.” This may be comprised of rows, but the room is set up in halves oftentimes facing one another. This can be especially effective for Social Studies classes, or other content areas that use Accountable Talk as a teaching strategy.

You can also have the two sides comprised of angled rows. This isn’t a huge change from traditional rows, but it does offer a few advantages if you’ve got the room, namely that students are in the line of sight of one another more naturally.

10. Giant Oval

Usually, this is used for team-building activities, but it’s possible to run a classroom this way for a full unit if you plan for it effectively. Maybe a steady diet of agree/disagree, debate, Socratic Seminars, and Accountable Talk, for example.

11. Teacher In The Middle

Picture a “regular classroom,” but with the teacher (and their desk, if they have one) in the middle. Changes the dynamic of the classroom quite a bit. Whether that’s an effective teaching tool or not depends on how you use it (the same goes with all of these, I suppose).

12. Standing Desks


They’re out there. Write a grant proposal, put your desk in the middle, and make it work.

13. Horseshoe

An oval with one end missing. Kind of. Not sure this would be very effective long-term, but for a reading activity or a write-around (which are terribly underrated as teaching strategies), it’d work swimmingly.

14. Two Circles

Circles allow students to face one another and encourage conversation. It’s not ideal for small group work, but fordirectn instruction and literacy activities, it has potential. One giant circle may not work well for a daily setup, but two circles might. With two circles, the size is obviously reduced compared to one, giving you a bit more flexibility for classroom management.

15. Rotating Groups*

This is less about the shape of the desks, and more about the workflow and lesson design. The idea here is to plan lessons and units that require students to work together with different groups for different reasons, and to keep them moving, whether within one class, one week, or the unit overall.

16. Middle Circle, Outer Square

Putting a square on the outside and circle on the inside–or even vice-versa–is really just a ‘geometric variation’ of the fishbowl, but the size of the circle can be adapted for daily use by a large cluster of students.

17. Learning Labs*

If you can recall back to the high school science lab–high desks, “things” to tinker with, students standing and moving around small areas of collaborative learning space–that’s the idea of learning labs. This can be used in any content area and any grade level, and doesn’t even necessarily require hands-on manipulatives. Students standing around a high desk solving physics or geometry problems while “mixing” isn’t a management nightmare if you’ve planned a lesson with this approach in mind.

18. A Learning Studio*

This is a non-traditional learning environment–imagine a Starbucks mixed with a library mixed with a classroom mixed with a maker space mixed with a design studio. Probably wouldn’t work if you have 35 students, but if you have less than 20, this kind of approach could change the culture of learning in your classroom.

19. Open Square

Similar to #10, this one came on twitter from , “I do an open square with the open side facing the board & I put a table in the middle for my materials.”

20. Fluid

Change it up weekly. Let the learning goals dictate how you use your space–and how students use their individual spaces. A fixed learning space reflects a fixed mindset. It’s not “a lot of work,” it’s adapting.

20 Ways To Setup A Classroom; 20 Classroom Setups That Promote Thinking; adapted image attribution Google, flickr user makerfestivaltoronto, bsfinhull 

The Future Of Learning

12 Things That Will Disappear From Classrooms In The Next 12 Years


12 Things That Will Disappear From Classrooms In The Next 12 Years

by Terry Heick

The classroom is changing because the world is changing.

That may not be as true as we’d like it to be–the pace of the change in education lags awkwardly behind what we see in the consumer markets. It could be argued that there’s been more innovation in churches and taxis than there’s been in libraries and schools, which is a special kind of crazy, but logical: “fields” that are dependent on consumer habits are far more vulnerable to disruption. Education, being more or less perma-funded by governments and misunderstood by the public, is more built to resist change.

But that doesn’t mean change isn’t happening (e.g., flipped classrooms, BYOD, maker movement), and that more isn’t on the way. So below I’ve collected a list of those ‘things’ most likely to see disappear from the classroom over the next 12 years, with technology, and technology-based thinking being the catalysts for change. 12 years isn’t really very long, but the pace of change isn’t linear. The difference between twelve years ago and today will likely be surpassed by today and twelve years from now.

Change is

Whole Class Instruction/Direct Instruction

In what universe does standing up in front of 30 people to “teach” something make any sense? Are they all learning the same thing? Who thinks that is a good idea? Are they all ready for the same content in the same way? Is their genius going to shine through that whole class instruction, or is that simply the easiest way to express stuff. To “cover” it. (You might hear yourself say: “We went over this last week. You should remember.”) 

Personalized learning and whole class instruction are enemies. This change has been long over-due. Technology isn’t even necessary for this.

Letter Grades

Of all the ‘movements’ in education recently, the get-rid-of-the-letter-grade seems to be both the least ambitious and most-likely-to-succeed. And the merits of getting rid of letter grades altogether seem clear: By removing the iconic carrot stick, the whole climate of learning has a chance to change.

In the meantime, grade backwards form zero if you have to, and consider these  alternatives to letter grades if you’re ready to make some real noise in your district. (Remember, the last two districts I worked in wanted me gone. Proceed with caution.)


Tests, as we know them, will likely disappear within the next decade+. That’s not to say that assessments won’t exist. Formal education has always been dominated by outcomes and outcomes are measured by assessments. Little of this will change in the next twelve years. But what can (and likely will change is the current form, structure, and duration of standardized tests. There are many ways to measure understanding. Let’s start there.


Not sure how technology is going to work this one out, especially in a classroom, but iris scanners are a kind of metaphor for new thinking.

Traditional Schedules

One-size-fits all instruction makes about as much sense as one size fits all schedules. Or having X number of classes for Y number of minutes. New interactions = new thinking.

Computer Labs

20 years from now, computer labs may be replaced by Maker Labs and classrooms will become more like Google Rooms/computer labs. (See: 20 Classroom Setups That Promote Thinking.) For now, the idea of one or two rooms full of computers is slowly being replaced by laptop carts and Google Chromebooks.

Fundamental tenets about student identity

Clearly, millennials and generation Z think differently about gender than boomers and generation X, but it’s less clear how that change ‘sticks’ as they begin having families and switching jobs and dealing–as a culture–with social change, increasing globalization, and so on. It may be a bit premature to say gender labels will outright disappear, for example–or that ‘people will become color-blind to race’–but some kind of change seems to be happening.

Common Core Standards

Knowledge and information are being increasingly organized in new ways. Organic search, social referrals, blogs, RSS-based ‘digital magazines’ like feedly, apps like Flipgrid), and other technologies are becoming the new normal for content organization. Books (still seem to be) by far the standard for organizing ideas, but as even what we think of as a ‘book’ changes, the new for a

How about an uncommon curriculum with uncommon standards? But how can we know what they’re learning and how will we know what to teach?

Teachers’ Desks

As long as the teacher is the front of the room–or the center–content is secondary, and students ancillary. Technology allows students to directly interact with ‘filtered’ (e.g., textbooks and handpicked essays and librarian-selected picture books) and ‘unfiltered’ content (e.g., YouTube, Google, etc.) social networks, peer groups, digital archives of their own work, experts in the community, mentors, and more.

Students’ Desks

And as the daily interactions students have shifted from teachers and ‘elbow partners’ to the world itself, rows of desks no longer do the trick.

Filing Cabinets

These may already be disappearing in your school. ‘Good riddance’ I say, but sometimes I wonder if things weren’t easier to find in filing cabinets than on Evernote.


This one should’ve placed higher. Textbooks really aren’t the evil they’re portrayed to be–they’re compilations of content that students need to master from a skills and basic knowledge perspective. The problem is that schools for too long have pursued skills and basic knowledge, and one-size-fits-all books–like whole class instruction–are the opposite of the critical-thinking based and personalized learning environment students need to thrive.

12 Things That Will Disappear From Classrooms In The Next 12 Years; image attribution flickr user poptech.

Critical Thinking

60 Ways To Help Students Think For Themselves

60 Ways To Help Students Think For Themselves

by Terry Heick

Motivating and engaging students is the goal of most teachers–priming them to receive instruction, or otherwise align themselves to a pre-set process you’ve sketched out that you hope will yield a learning goal you selected beforehand.

But I’ve also been thinking recently of how learning actually happens–the causes of learning. Learning events, maybe? Eh.

So I came up with 60 (of millions) of these “learning events” (for lack of a better term)–circumstances in which students seem to learn effortlessly. They can learn when they are coerced–to start, to increase the pace, to finish, to revisit. But what kind of conditions or contexts promote effortless learning? Learning when they don’t even know it’s happening? When they’re (essentially) tricked into deep understanding?

How does this happen–especially when you have a very specific daily learning target you’re trying to meet in pursuit of an academic standard? That’s where curriculum mapping, learning models, and lesson design come in. For now, consider the following events as examples. Templates. They may not lead to the precise mastery of the standard or objective in your Carnegie unit or Hunter’s lesson plan, but they’re thinking. And in these cases, rather than following your trails of breadcrumbs, they’re actually thinking for themselves.

That’s a critical shift in the learning process. The more common approach is to ask a question in hopes of perhaps causing thought, or eliciting an accurate response. There may also be projects, where students–over time–combine skills and both concrete and procedural knowledge to create and or fulfill the requirements of a project. These all require thought, but it’s all within the framework or under the scrutiny of the teacher and the planning. It’s a matter of sequence.

A more accurate approach is the essay, where students have to take a position and defend it carefully. (And is part of #10 on the list below.) In the essay, students have to think about what they think, and then clarify why they think it. That’s definitely a student “thinking for themselves.” But it also depends on the craft of writing–another kind of knowledge in and of itself–which can both reveal and obscure the thinking.

What about something more precise? Tidier? Something that can be done moment by moment in any classroom? Used in almost any lesson? Those are the ideas below.  We’ll do a model for this idea soon. Below are some examples of what it might look like on the ground.

60 Ways To Help Students Think For Themselves

  1. Let them watch their predictions play out
  2. Let them form theories, and immediately test and revise those theories based on observation
  3. Give them the right collaboration with the right “mind” at the right time
  4. Allow them to read with choice–without guidelines or external pressure
  5. Let them play with content or dynamic learning tools–no goals or prompting or rules (other than basic common sense, safety, etc.)
  6. Let them see the parts of the whole, and the whole of the parts
  7. Help them realize the interdependence between content and themselves
  8. Make sure they are motivated to know themselves
  9. Help them serve others, and learn to value themselves and their own human utility in the process
  10. Help guide them to write about something complex, personal, emotional, meaningful, or seemingly trite
  11. Teach them to meditate (seeing without thinking during, thinking about thinking after)
  12. Help them start with what they don’t know–this will guarantee that they think for themselves, as it provides each student with their own launching pad
  13. Allow them to navigate “unfiltered” sources of information
  14. Encourage them to begin to separate basic epistemology–the differences between information, knowledge, and wisdom, for example
  15. Help them attempt to transfer understanding (prompted)
  16. Allow them to attempt to transfer understanding on their own
  17. Encourage them to believe they can, and make the choice to not be denied
  18. Allow them to practice, practice, practice in the company of some kind of feedback loop
  19. Teach them to make mistakes without blame
  20. Help them explore something they see as mysterious, untamed, or socially “disallowed”
  21. Allow them to receive learning feedback from someone just beyond their own “level”
  22. Teach them to try to find the common ground between seemingly disparate positions
  23. Encourage them to think critically about the what others perceive as mundane
  24. Make sure they think frequently about complex ideas or situations
  25. Help them to realize everything is infinitely complex when you see information as a matter of perspective (this causes an endless chain of other realizations if they’re willing to consider it long enough)
  26. Encourage them to be bored and allow that boredom to “sit”
  27. Allow their mind to wander
  28. Encourage them to play video games or learning simulations
  29. Teach them to set goals with extrinsic or intrinsic rewards
  30. Help them sense an authentic need to know or understand
  31. Ask them what they stand for, and why
  32. Leave them alone
  33. Make sure they hear “something” in multiple times in multiple ways from multiple perspectives and voices
  34. Help guide them to recognize the nuance in other people’s thinking
  35. Help them to honor the limits of human knowledge
  36. Encourage them to operate within their Zone of Proximal Development–the ZPD of that student for that standard (which is really, really difficult to promote consistently)
  37. Make sure they have meaningful choices at every step
  38. Make sure they are given the support to self-direct their own learning
  39. Encourage them to make things
  40. Help them to see the value of their own performance
  41. Give them personalized direct instruction
  42. Allow them to hear a well-written lecture
  43. Help guide them to think about their own thinking
  44. Encourage theirs passions to lead them into spaces where learning can occur on its own
  45. Help them honor uncertainty
  46. Make sure they are able to establish their own relevancy for content
  47. Encourage them to ask their own questions–and then ask better questions
  48. Encourage opportunities for inquiry to meet a motivated mind
  49. Guide them to dynamic spaces characterized by people, thought, and creativity (rather than intricate policies, rules, and standards)
  50. Expose them to something worth doing, and is expertly gamified
  51. Help them to confront and internalize diversity and divergence
  52. Encourage them to revisit their past mistakes, thinking patterns, and moments of genius
  53. Guide them to seek self-awareness not content-awareness
  54. Help them to not take anything too seriously beyond playful curiosity
  55. Encourage them trust themselves to fail
  56. Allow them to see their own progress
  57. Guide them in studying patterns
  58. Make sure they can explain the significance of an idea, skill, or other academic topic
  59. Allow them to see or experience affectionate modeling
  60. Make sure they are mentored with love
Project-Based Learning

8 Needs For Project-Based Learning In The 21st Century

8 Needs For Project-Based Learning In The 21st-Century

by Terry Heick

We recently offered a definition of project-based learning and looked at keys to designing Project-Based Learning.

We also have looked at the difference between ‘doing projects’ and project-based learning, various project-based learning resources, project-based learning apps, and offered ways for using an iPad in Project-Based Learning.

And have shared some practical ideas for better teaching through project-based learning as well.

What might be missing from these posts, however, are simply the characteristics of project-based learning in the 21st-century. What does it look like? What might be evidence that it’s happening consistently? What needs to be built into every project–or the design of the required curriculum–so that students can shift from a mere ‘project’ to a thoroughly modern learning experience that runs parallel with the connected world they live in?

We tend to think of project-based learning as focused on research, planning problem-solving, authenticity, and inquiry. Further, collaboration, resourcefulness, and networking matter too–dozens of characteristics ‘fit’ into project-based learning. Its popularity comes from, among other characteristics, its general flexibility as a curriculum framework. You can do, teach, assess, and connect almost anything within the context of a well-designed project.

But what if we had to settle on a handful (or two) of itemized characteristics for modern, connected, possibly place-based, and often digital project-based learning? Well, then the following might be useful.

8 Needs For Project-Based Learning In The 21st-Century

1. Connectedness

Or connectivity. Interdependence–however you want to phrase it. The idea is, what does this project connect to? A community? A hope? An app? An existing project already in place? A social challenge? Some kind of conflict? Something downright unsolvable?

Through connectedness, students can then identify a proper to scale to work within. (In fact, ‘Scale’ could well be an item of its own.)

2. Meaning

‘Meaning’ is always first personal, and then academic (if it becomes academic). This kind of meaning requires authentic audiences, purposes, and collaboration occur in real, intimate communities that share history, space, and meaning with learners.

3. Diversity

Diversity of purpose, scale, audience, digital media, potential resources, existing models, related projects, and so on require first an analysis of these kinds of diversities on the part of the project manager–that is, the student.

This can also be a matter of differentiation–less diversity and inherent complexity for students struggling with certain strands of project-based learning as a kind of set of training wheels until they get their balance. And when they do? Add it right back in.

4. Research

This one’s not sexy or compelling–this is a big part of the “work” of any project.

Researching the history of an issue or problem. Understanding the subtleties of given demographic data. Analyzing the credibility of information. Seeing how technology can serve or distract you (or rather, them) from the meat of the issue. This kind of knowledge helps you turn a problem into an opportunity.

5. A Necessity For Creativity & Innovation

Among other themes, the 21st-century is about niches, innovation, and scale–seeing an opportunity, and designing something that works on a given–and clear–scale.

Too often, however, creativity is encouraged without being required. Points are given and a column is added to the rubric and teachers ask for it explicitly but designing a project–or helping students design their own project–that fails without creativity is another thing altogether.

Lateral thinking, outside the box thinking, and taking the best from existing models are all part of 21st-century learning.

6. Pivot Points

Perhaps the most modern of characteristics is the ability to be agile–to pivot as circumstances, data, and needs change. The world changes quickly, and the ability to adapt is an extraordinary sign of strength. Pivoting to a new digital media, audience, programming language, timeframe, purpose, or other parameter is crucial for 21st-century survival.

Designing a kit that helps test water quality for third-world communities, but find instead a way to use Google Maps to help certain communities share water cleaning technology instead? Pivot.

Building an app to help people find restaurants, but find out people use it more to set up lunch dates with friends? Pivot.

Trying to build an art museum, and find an incredible source of collectible books instead? Pivot.

When students can ‘pivot’ within the development of a project, it shows they’re able to see both the micro details and the macro context–which is a pretty remarkable assessment in and of itself.

7. Socialization

The socialization of thinking by connecting, collaborating, publishing, and socially curating (see more on that below). Ideally, this would be done in multiple media forms and in multiple languages if possible. The English and Angle-centric image of education–and of edtech especially–is rapidly coming to a close.

Not all aspects of all projects need to be socialized, but for the sake of transparency and shared journeys in education, choosing something to share, socialize, and perhaps even collaborate on in the future can be powerful.

8. Elegant Curation

Crude curation is saving an email, favoriting a tweet, or pinning randomly to a board no one reads that students will never reference again in the future for anything.

Elegant curation is about saving a ‘thing’ while honoring the thing itself. Showcasing it without losing its meaning or fullness. Somehow capturing both that which is being saved and its context as well–and doing so in a way that makes it accessible to yourself and others as technology continues to change.

8 Needs For Project-Based Learning In The 21st Century

The Future Of Learning

Using The SAMR Model To Frame How To Teach With Apps

how-to-teach-with-apps-fi-mediumUsing The SAMR Model To Frame How To Teach With Apps

by TeachThought Staff

Not all apps are created equal.

Not all teacher planning and instructional design are created equal.

Mash the two, and we’re beginning to see the opportunity for some real disparity.

In response, we’ve taken the popular SAMR model and use it as a framework to understand how to better teach with apps.

This post started as a look at “app workflow”–the patterns of student and teacher interaction, the movement of learning artifacts, the visibility of quality criteria, assessment results, and so on, but we thought it might be better to start with some concrete examples of the movement from basic technology integration–in this case, apps–to that which redefines the learning process entirely.

Below, then, are 21 ways apps can be used to teach–and learn–with varying degrees of ambition, from mere substitution of existing teaching practices, all the way to full-on redefinition of what’s possible. (This post also presumes you’re familiar with the SAMR model–if not, here’s a good primer.)


Use apps to…

1. Automate skills practice

2. Create True/False and other basic assessments using Google Forms

3. Create self-grading tests

4. Read digital textbooks and respond to multiple choice or short-answer questions

5. Type essays, report, or PowerPoint (using Microsoft Word or Apple Pages, for example)



Use apps to…

6. Streamline data collection by using simple tools like spreadsheets

7. Leverage learning algorithms (like Knowji)

8. Google responses to answerable questions

9. Maintain a digital portfolio of academic work

10. Have students crowdsource their own study and subsequent self-assessments (every test is a digital social gathering or wiki)



Use apps to…

11. Establish a need to be creative

12. Start–and end–with a connection. Connect student to student, teacher to student, student to teacher, teacher to parent, or student to parent

13. Create a dialogue with communities to grapple with unanswerable questions, then curate the results (through a community like reddit or Quora)

14. Elegantly design a digital portfolio of authentic work students have affection for

15. Socialize thinking through social media

16. Help students gather spontaneously for mobile and self-sustained study groups



Use apps to…

17. Help students design and self-direct their own learning pathways

18. Embed students in authentic local—physical and digital–communities

19. Connect students with experts through Google Hangouts or Skype (here’s a handy framework for that as well)

20. Use mobile, scenario-based or project-based learning

21. Establish school think-tanks catalyzed by digital connectivity and justified by a persistent need to know, connect, and act

Using The SAMR Model To Frame How To Teach With Apps