How To Add Rigor To Anything

how-to-add-rigor-to-anything-assessmentHow To Add Rigor To Any Lesson, Unit, Or Assessment

by Terry Heick

Rigor is a fundamental piece of any learning experience.

It is also among the most troublesome due to its subjectivity. What does it mean? What are its characteristics? Rigorous for whom? And more importantly, how can you use to promote understanding?

Barbara Blackburn, author of “Rigor is not a 4-Letter Word,” shared 5 ‘myths’ concerning rigor, and they are indicative of the common misconceptions: that difficult, dry, academic, sink-or-swim learning is inherently rigorous.

Myth #1: Lots of Homework is a Sign of Rigor
Myth #2: Rigor Means Doing More
Myth #3: Rigor is Not For Everyone
Myth #4: Providing Support Means Lessening Rigor
Myth #5: Resources Do Not Equal Rigor

Why Rigor Matters

Rigor matters because it imposes cognitive load on students, forcing them to confront misconceptions, reconsider positions, separate the implicit from the explicit, and other critical thinking practices that distinguish shaky familiarity from true understanding.

As such, it’s different for every student. If students can’t consistently negotiate rigorous tasks, either understanding or thinking habits should be more closely examined. But if work is beyond their Zone of Proximal Development, students are only being setup for disengagement, frustration, and ultimately failure.

rigor-rubric-fi10 Strategies To Add Rigor To Any Lesson, Unit, or Assessment

Several common classroom tasks are inherently rigorous, including reading idea-dense literature, taking notes, and using the writing process itself, but these are rarely engaging, and don’t always fit with a given academic standard or task. But the following 10 strategies can be used to add rigor to almost anything.

1. Necessitate a transfer of understanding

By definition, transfer requires a student to apply knowledge in new and unfamiliar situations, an inherently rigorous process. If you can encourage self-initiated transfer (unprompted or coached), all the better.

2. Require students to synthesize multiple sources

In rigorous tasks, learners will often need to synthesize data, positions, or theories from multiple sources or perspectives. Whether these are literary perspectives, scientific viewpoints, religious ideas, mathematical theories, or any other fundamentally subjective content, when learners have to analyze, internalize, and reconcile multiple perspectives to create a new position or perspective, rigor is a safe bet.

3. Design tasks with multiple steps that build cognitively

Not all tasks that require multiple steps are inherently rigorous (fill out the worksheet, turn it in, read the book, answer the questions, talk to your partner about your answers and turn them in is neither a unique or rigorous approach to learning).

If the tasks build (somewhat parallel to Bloom’s Taxonomy), rigor is more likely. In this approach, a student might define “conflict,” analyze cause-effect of a specific conflict, research the sources of said conflict, then design some kind of short-term solution to one critical cause of said conflict. This approach starts simple, becomes more complex, and is likely to challenge any student no matter how “proficient” their understanding.

4. Use divergent perspectives

Use authors, philosophers, artists, content experts, or other thinkers who make authentic cases of their own that offer contrasting perspectives. Not only does this encourage argument analysis, credibility, etc., but also models how elusive and illusory “truth is,” a rigorous idea of its own.

5. Use divergent media forms

Rather than two (or more) texts, require students to analyze a conversation, a poem, and a tweet; a YouTube video, an encyclopedia resource, and an interview with an expert. The more (seemingly) awkward and divergent, the more learners are challenged to develop new strategies to find solutions.

6. Break away from content-area convention

Use literature to frame math. Use science to promote political discussions. Extract the philosophy from cartoons. Find poetry in the stars. Use Google Earth to make sociological observations. These approaches force students to revise schema for new situations, a key characteristics of rigor.

7. Require design thinking (often in project-based learning)

Build design thinking into rubrics or scoring criteria, supply exemplars, or model their use, but whatever you do, be sure that elements of design thinking, creativity, and the “tinker culture” aren’t just “encouraged” but required for the student to find success.

8. Require long-term observation or analysis

Another potential use of project-based learning or learning simulations, when students are required to observe long-term, cognitive actions such as identifying patterns, cause-effect analysis, and problem-solution thinking are natural by-products.

9. Study nuance

Nuance is often overlooked, and offers a world of rigor due to the unique thinking habits it requires.

10. Require students to take and defend positions

This can be done first in small groups, then socialized to larger groups (hopefully outside the classroom). A “position” requires a kind of cognitive ownership that is not only indirectly engaging, but also intellectually stimulating and even emotionally demanding, requiring students to think “Why?” as much as “What?,” “When?,” and “Where?”

Rigor is Always Accessible

As Strong, Silver, and Perini explain in “Teaching What Matters,” rigor is a “quality of content, not a measure of the quantity of the content we cover.” Certain content areas may be more inherently rigorous than others (Astrophysics comes to mind), but rigor can be added to anything.

Watch an episode of Spongebob, have students reconcile Patrick’s presumptions about friendship with Whitman’s ideas on the rugged individual, ask students to study the nuance of Spongebob’s body language and speech patterns over the course of several episode to reveal patterns, then require them to socialize their thinking in small groups to present a new theory on interpersonal relationships from America’s inception to today. You’ve used #s 2, 4, 5, and 10.

The above is a purposefully absurd idea, but the premise is clear: Rigor is always accessible.

Image attribution North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and flickr user woodleywonderworks

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The Future Of Learning

Why Should I Go To School? 20 Reasons To Learn In A Changing World

Why Should I Go To School? 20 Reasons To Learn In A Changing World

by Terry Heick

“Why should I go to school?”

That’s a frequently asked question that’s rarely given serious attention, much less a credible answer that makes sense to children. I’m going to talk about possible answers, though not in a way that will likely resonate much with students–but maybe some will.

This is partly about the purpose of school in its current form and partly about what sorts of purposes might be in-demand in a quickly-changing world. For many students, reasons to go to school might look something like this:

To learn

To learn to read and write

To be able to count and ‘balance a checkbook’

To get good grades

To make friends

To play sports

To get into ‘college’

To learn a skill or trade

To get a job

Sometimes, students may get philosophical and answer:

To learn about and improve myself

To find out who I am

To prepare for the future

But none of these responses are nearly accurate or robust enough to meet the requirements of a quickly-changing world grappling with new challenges in technology, sociocultural values, climate change, and the threat of ‘places’ in the face of ‘globalization.’

Before I delve into the abstractions below, let’s get a simple answer in student-friendly language for why students should go to school (assuming that they’re not ‘homeschooled’ or are otherwise directing their own learning somehow and assuming such a school is their only choice).

Why should you go to school? You should go to school to learn all the things you don’t know. Then, by learning some of them, you can learn which of the rest you suspect might value for you considering your place, path, and experience.

That is, what’s worth knowing for you.  

What’s The Point Of Learning?

The world has always been connected–by climate and language and culture and war and resource-sharing and travel and so on. Technology isn’t new here but, alongside climate change and the growing prevalence of propaganda and disinformation, has changed the urgency and scale radically.

I’ve also written before about the characteristics of a good school as well as the purpose of school. I’ve also written about the concept of a ‘global curriculum.’ Scale and change matter, of course. Ideally, I’d think, learning should result in personal change and personal change should yield, in relative increments, social change. Some possible formulas to describe this idea:

Critical literacy x time = personal change

Personal change ‘squared’ (or x time) = social change

That’s not quite right but you get the idea. The capacity for change plus the need and or tendency to change, over time, ‘should’ yield that change. But what’s worth changing and why? Who gets to decide our collective direction as a culture and species–especially in an increasingly ‘global’ world (that’s also not at all truly ‘global’).

(This is all going to get more philosophical and nonsensical from here, so be prepared.)

Thinking carefully about the concept of ‘place’–especially in light of a connected planet–reveals some takeaways for learning that might be worth thinking about. The modern terms of education seem to be, on the surface, global–or at least borderless and ‘post-national.’ It is also more technology-based (and thus dehumanized in form but maybe not in effect) than ever before.

Public education is now, at least in form, post-racial and is certainly post-theological. It even hints at one day becoming post-gender as well. The days of the United States being dominated by Anglo-American, upper-class, heterosexual, cisgender, English-speaking human aesthetics are already firmly in the past–but they’re still fresh enough to be the social archetypes we look to as the norm in norm-reference.

In a post-local society–one where all ‘places’ aren’t necessarily anchored to a geographical location–other considerations matter: linguistics, social etiquette, cultural norms, and more. Travel is about movement and experience. At its best, it’s about coming to know another place. This is a kind of learning literacy–learning how to travel is learning how to learn.

Traveling to make things is one step closer to authentic contexts and understanding–requiring us to know another place while we create things for purposes hopefully human and real. Critical pedagogy–the process of teaching and learning that results in the ability and tendency to improve one’s place–takes us even closer to the fullest form of a modern education.

By working well in one’s place–wherever that may be–we’re using your knowledge free from the constraints of strangeness. You know all the shortcuts because you’ve lived there your whole life.

A hierarchy for the purposes of education, then, might look something like this, starting at the least ambitious form and progressing from there. Note, while it is my opinion that the reasons to learn given at the end of the list are better than the reasons to learn given at the beginning, all are ‘good reasons to learn’ and more or less adequate ‘purposes of school.’

Note, many of these depend on a curriculum based itself on a place–meaning this student in this place that needs to understand this in order to do this. A curriculum that’s void of place is void of context and empty of meaning.

Why Should I Go To School? A Continuum For The Purpose Of A Modern School

  1. Developing the ability to read and write well
  2. Developing the tendency to read and write well
  3. Developing academic knowledge to become ‘good at school’
  4. Entirely mastering a given curriculum of study
  5. Mastering and then applying academic and non-academic knowledge to live (e.g., to ‘get a job’–which is different than ‘doing good work’)
  6. Gaining and using academic knowledge to do good work
  7. The ability to expertly create your own ‘curriculum’–learning literacy–this being hugely superior to mastering a given curriculumDeveloping and nurturing your creative capacities
  8. Developing the ability to think rationally and critically (to evaluate what you see and hear and read and separate truth from non-truths, for example)
  9. Developing the tendency to think critically
  10. Developing critical literacy (which requires both academic knowledge, creative expression, and critical thinking) in non-native places and developing critical literacy in one’s native place (e.g., protecting resources or rebalancing inequalities)
  11. Developing the ability to think and feel with and alongside others
  12. Developing and applying critical literacy (i.e., to do good work–helping people, restoring places, promoting equitable well-being, etc., which requires the ability to think and feel with and alongside others) in service of a given place and its people
  13. Developing the ability to ask and think about ‘great questions’ through sustained inquiry and curiosity
  14. Developing the ability to think (which requires critical literacy as well as the ability to ask great questions) and work with the people and places of a connected world
  15. Developing the tendency to work well (which requires critical literacy, empathy, and affection) with the people and places of a connected world
  16. Developing the cognitive capacity and thinking frameworks and mindsets (which requires wisdom) to wield all the available tools (including technology) and knowledge (including academic, vocational, technological, agrarian, cultural, etc.) to work well in any place with any people in a way that serves the sustainability, quality, and history, and affections of those people and places
  17. Learning what’s worth learning (for you, in your chosen place) by thinking critically and rationally
  18. Knowing what to do with what you decided was worth learning
  19. Developing and applying the critical capacity and tendency for doing what you decide is worth doing with what you decided was worth learning and knowing

Why Should I Go To School? 20 Reasons To Learn In A Changing World


Why Teachers Need One Another


Why Teachers Need One Another: An Argument For Affection And Collaboration In Pedagogy

by Terry Heick

During summer evenings here in Kentucky, it’s never all the way dark.

Stars pierce the sky, etching the jagged canopies of Oak, Maple, and Sycamore trees against what we forget is literally the universe itself. 

It’s also never all the way quiet; the air is thick and wet and alive, vibrating with sound. Crickets rub bone to bone, making a kind of electric purring that sits at the back edge of your mindscape, only ever recognizable if you’re able to stop your own thinking. Cicadas can’t help themselves, droning on in the dark madly, endlessly; one tree will rise in sound, starting low and pushing itself to a soft frenzy, only to grow quiet again, panting, while the tree next to it fills the quiet with its own version of summer lust. 

Every now and then, two trees will start their sound in parallel (it’s unclear if this is some kind of selfishness or agreement), and the sound is mesmerizing–a gentle crash of sound that’s strangely fluid. And contrasting the chaos above and around is the slow dance of lightning bugs mingling in the evening air moving soundlessly, their blinking a kind of vulnerability that reaches out in every direction.

Somewhere in all of this–or behind it–there’s a lesson for me.

About five years ago, I took a job in, what for me was, an unhealthy work environment. It just wasn’t a good fit. I was, in a way that’s hard to explain, alone as a professional. Not independent, but standing stark and pale against my environment. Ego, social expectations, professional accountability, and money forced me to stick it out longer than I should’ve. The cost for me was a pervasive sense of anxiety that I had never felt before in my life (I was 35 at the time), and that I continue to confront and understand today.

Or at least I think that’s the way it went. It’s not always easy to separate cause from effect, and ultimately it all goes both ways anyway. One thing touches everything. As far as anxiety goes, I’ve never been overly nervous or worried. I played a lot of very competitive sports and never felt anything more than butterflies. I’ve always been a very sensitive person, which can be exhausting. I don’t get way up and way down, but when I feel things I feel them. I’m frustratingly sentimental. Love listening and being heard. Prone to nostalgia.

Being in love as a teenager was terrible. I can still hear the first few notes of certain songs, and I’m there all over again. You know. There. That first time you reached out for their hand and they took it in and the sky arched itself parallel with the shape of the universe, which also felt–vaguely–like the shape of your soul and everything–for a moment–felt whole. Ugh. It was terrible.

I tend to be overly transparent in an attempt, I think, to feel connected to other people because I think people are meant to love one another, and connecting and mutual understanding is a decent first step. I’ve always had this compelling instinct that human beings are amazing and the natural world is overwhelming beautiful, and we all walk around with our eyes closed to it all. Or even when we can open them, they just can’t open wide enough to take it all in, like sticking your head out of the window of a car on the interstate and not being able to breath.  

Right, so, the anxiety. After five years of having it under control, about two months ago, it came back. Yay. Not sure why (working on that part) but it’s not been fun, and has impacted my work–writing, productivity, etc. Created both discomfort and fatigue. This time, I took a multi-faceted approach: I changed my diet, doubled an already active exercise routine, started hot yoga, began practice with both moment-by-moment mindfulness, and meditation. I went to the doctor to see if medication made sense, clarified and bolstered my own support system, and reduced my workload.

So far, so good. These are all steps in my journey–one being an educator is a part of. Separating one’s self from one’s work is a problematic illusion. I know none of this is especially compelling or insightful; I wanted to use this post not as some viral contribution to the conversation of modern teaching and learning, or even as a dumping ground for my heart, but rather as encouragement to take care of yourself. 

Especially as an educator. 

This is a high-pressure game with a lot of moving parts, and a lot of collective misunderstanding. There is no misunderstanding what Kohl’s is, or Honda, or the American Cancer Society, or a library. But a school? What’s that, exactly? What’s a ‘good schoolThere’s very little confusion about whether a tree trimmer is succeeding, or a salesperson excelling. What about a teacher? Who gets to say you’re doing a good job? And above all of the formal metrics and growth plans and walk-throughs, when you go to bed at night, whose approval are you really looking for? What do you look for to let you know, deep in your own heart, that you’re doing this thing ‘right’?

And what happens if you’re not sure? Do you change what you’re looking for? Rationalize the mediocrity? Mute that voice? This internal conversation is part of what separates “a person doing their job” from “a human being doing good work.” This field can eat you alive. Think for a moment about how the best teachers are the ones that “learn to survive.” That’s a stunning indictment of where we are as an industry.

I guess my point is, take care of yourselves and the people around you. That might mean to buy each other chocolate or send one another inspiring quotes on pinterest, but that’s kind of simply coping, isn’t it? Just surviving? Sometimes that’s all you can do, but when that’s the tone of your day-to-day existence, you may want to think again.

We can do better. Maybe you help rethink and redesign and retool something that’s collectively unsustainable. That’s one way to describe the work I do here at TeachThought. It could mean taking steps in a new direction and doing something not from the spirit of retreat, but the unique momentum of your life. It could mean to humble yourself and really, truly serve others–to stop that inward-out thinking pattern that’s created so much suffering for you. Don’t be afraid to start over–to reinvent yourself on the shoulders of everything you’ve learned to this point.

There are many ways to be a teacher.

There may be a time where will and expertise and credibility and grit aren’t enough, and you’re vulnerable. What results could just be a bad day, or a lot of bad days. Or anxiety. Or depression. Or addiction. In spite of all of our growth as a culture and planet, mental health continues to be stigmatized. And so we whisper, or pretend, or stop listening to ourselves. I guess. I dunno. Some people may read this post and sympathetically think “Awww, good for you!” but what I’m trying to say is “No, good for you.” You’re beautiful and capable beyond your wildest dreams.

The adage ‘If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together’ is staggeringly, painfully true, no matter how hard it can be.  This doesn’t imply that you have to assimilate your thinking, or that other people should change theirs for you. It means being together matters. There is love around you, but you have to open yourself to it. Be light for others, but look for their glow as well.

You need it, and they need yours, like lightning bugs hanging in the purple ether.

What Happened When I Tried To Teach Alone; image attribution flickr user mikelewinski


Tone In Teaching: 20 Words That Can Change How Students Think

Tone In Teaching: 20 Words That Change How Students Think

by Terry Heick

While I often talk about ‘scale’ as one of the primary challenges in education–and have also wondered about curriculum, too–a more subversive concept constantly at play throughout education is tone.

As an ‘English’ teacher, I always explained tone to students as a kind of  ‘attitude’ that can be expressed in a variety of implicit and explicit ways–from words (said and unsaid) and body language to voice tone, timing, irony, and any other modality used to communicate ideas.

Tone As A Cause & Effect

A few key ideas and underlying assumptions about tone in learning:

I. Tone matters. It affects human beings and students are human beings.

II. Tone can be notable in its ‘tenor’ and value as well as in its abundance or absence. That is, tone can be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and there can be a ‘lot’ or a ‘little’ of it.

III. Tone can be both a cause and an effect. That is to say, tone can cause ‘something’ or be caused by something. For example, a lack of confidence can create an uncertain tone while another tone might create a distinct lack of confidence.

IV. As a factor in ‘climate,’ tone is closely related to mood and together they contribute greatly to that climate.

VI. Any climate created either is or is not intentionally conducive to creativity, collaboration, and learning.

VII. Every interaction students experience some kind of tone (even if that tone seems more or less unremarkable–that’s a ‘clinical’ tone). That is, almost everything a student experiences in the learning process has ‘tone.’

VIII. Having established that tone affects students and is (through our word choice, among other factors) adjustable, that means that as teachers, we can adjust something that affects students.

IX. To make these adjustments, we have to know what tone is and how it’s adjustable.

X. Tone is complex and is explicitly and implicitly created through countless sources above and beyond our words but because our words are so easily adjustable, it makes sense to make that simple adjustment while we sort out the other factors that affect tone in the learning process.

How Students See Themselves Matters

Tone affects how students see themselves and their role in the learning process. In fact, a student’s own ongoing internal dialogue and thoughts about themselves and their self-identity as learners isn’t just a ‘factor’ in learning but one of the single most important factors.

Imagine you were preparing to go on stage to dance in front of some kind of an audience. Consider the possible scenarios:

Scenario 1: You can’t dance and you know you can’t dance

Scenario 2: You can’t dance but believe that you can

Scenario 3: You can dance but believe that you can’t

Scenario 4: You can dance and you know you can dance

How many of these scenarios are likely to yield a ‘good’ dancing performance? In addition to being honest with one’s self, internal ‘self-talk’ and your own perception about yourself matters, too. Without the right tone during the ‘interactions of learning described above, everything feels–and often functions–all wrong.

An Example Of Tone In An Interaction With A Student

Our underlying assumptions (about everything) impact tone greatly and come across plainly in our phrasing and language choice during our interactions with students.

Think about the difference between saying, ‘Tyler, what answer did you have for #3?’ and ‘What are some possible responses for #3 that might make sense?’ Suddenly it’s not a matter of ‘Tyler’ and what he ‘has’ as an answer. Nor does he feel as put on the spot. He still may not feel empowered to answer freely and may not have a clue how to answer. But the tone in the latter is completely different, shifting from a matter of accuracy to a matter of possibility.

Part of this is about using a growth mindset with students so that they are more likely to do so themselves. But while tone is generally a cause, as we stated above, it can also be an effect; that is, the tone of the classroom is created by–in part–the tone and underlying implications of the language used within it. With that in mind, below are some words and phrases that can greatly impact the tone of learning in your classroom.

To have the desired effect (i.e., establishing a tone to the learning process where students feel supported, empowered, safe, and absolutely integral to their own success), context matters, of course. How this does or doesn’t work varies wildly on everything from the age of the students to your own personality and teaching style and so on. The collection below is only meant to introduce you, as a teacher, to the possibility of language that empowers learners.

Further, note that these words aren’t necessarily ‘good’ or ‘bad.’  The point is that tone matters and is hugely adjustable through words and phrases, and some of those words and phrases appear below.

Tone In Teaching And Interactions With Students: 20 Words That Change How Students Think


This one was one of the most useful words I use as a teacher. By disarming the question of outright students and only asking students to surmise, ‘might’ can create a tone of accessibility for many questions.

Consider the difference:

“Why does so much literature depend on symbolism for effect?”

“What might literature depend on symbolism for effect?”

In the latter, you’re not asking for an answer, you’re asking for a hunch.


“I need…” or “You need…” can express a kind of sympathy and utility, but often are used instead to make a specific declaration or even accusation “You need to be…” or “I need you to…” Overall, need is an urgent word that, if overused or imprecisely applied, can create a negative tone that decenters actual learning and inquiry in favor of procedure and compliance.

Obviously, that doesn’t mean that using the word ‘need’ is bad. Like any word, its semantic effect varies wildly depending on application. The point here is to be as intentional (not necessarily as ‘careful’) as possible–to use language by design to promote student growth.


If you shift from ‘you’ to ‘we,’ the burden and possibility and work of learning also shift, from singular to ‘all of us.’


By talking about yourself–or encouraging students to talk about themselves and their role in the learning process–students are better to see those roles while also hearing others discuss how they see their own role, performance, anxieties, goals, habits, preferences, etc. For example, a teacher saying “For me, being on time gives me extra time to organize myself and settle in to new environments” can help students see the teacher reflecting on themselves, their choices, and their preferences.

In short, the word ‘me’ personalizes thinking–for better or for worse.


The word ‘you’ immediately centers the student and their role, responsibility, etc. It is not ambiguous or unclear, it creates a tone of specificity and accountability.


‘What if we…’ vs ‘What if you…’ vs ‘What if (no pronoun)…’?

Whether you use a singular or personal pronoun–or personal or indefinite pronoun–affects tone. Even choosing to use no pronoun at all matters.

Consider a situation where you’re discussing an upcoming unit and say “We are going to learn how the environment is impacted by…” Saying, “You are going to learn how the environment is impacted by…” is a bit different–more immediate. If you choose no personal pronoun at all by saying, “How the environment is impacted by…is going to be learned,” it sounds funny and likely wouldn’t be used that way, but it’s clear how pronouns affect tone.


Why is a great probing, clarifying, and critical thinking question useful in almost any assessment or line of questioning. Why asks the students to consider macro ideas like purpose and function–not just “When was immigration…” but “Why was immigration…”

Even prefacing the word ‘Why’ with the word ‘But’ creates a slightly more playful tone. “But why?” is a bit more playful than the blank “Why?” If you want that playfulness depends on the desired effect of the question.

The tone established by the word ‘Why’ is one of inquiry and understanding and also makes room for much of the subjectivity inherent in knowledge. ‘When’ is, more or less, objective; ‘Why’ is, more or less, subjective.

Cause and Effect

Using the words ’cause’ and ‘effect’ can impose objectivity and analysis on a situation that’s otherwise emotionally charged. If a student is anxious or overly-confident or confused, by focusing on the cause and effect of a context, it’s easier to remove the emotion and see what’s going on and why. In that why, ’cause’ and ‘effect’ can create a tone that leads to clinical (and sometimes ‘cold’) analysis.

An example? “The project running six days behind schedules was, in part, caused by…”

Also, “The effect of your keeping up with your reading journal was…”

Both emphasize process, while creating an analytical tone, can be useful in helping students develop an understanding of process and procedure.


Discussing ‘love’ and affections don’t always have a place in academic learning. They’re also overused (“I love your writing!”) and so become emptied of meaning. But if students are able to talk about what they genuinely love, the classroom, at worst, becomes a warmer place.


The shift from ‘know’ to ‘think’ is similar to the shift from ‘Why did…?” to “why might…?”

It doesn’t ask students to ‘know’ but rather to simply ‘think’: “Why do you think that might have happened?”

As with many other words on this list, it makes the learning–and any answers, for example–feel more accessible.


‘If…then…’ phrasing can help students see the conditional circumstances–cause and effect, for example. You might say, “If you ask for help and work hard, then you’ll have a greater chance of doing well during this course,” or “If you assume the best in others, then you’ll have a better chance of making friends.”

‘If you had to guess, what would you say?’

‘What’s your hunch?’


What’s possible in this class? What’s possible with gifts like yours? What’s possible with your project?

‘What’s possible’ asks students to imagine and dream and think forward–ideally with hope and positive presuppositions. It’s different than ‘What are…’ and ‘What will…’ and other more concrete phrasing that asks students to know rather than speculate or wonder.

Might can also work together with possible to great effect: “What’s possible…” might works to help the student wonder: “What might happen if…”

An extreme example of this? “I’m not sure but if I had to guess I might say that…”

Though uncertain, this approach provides a kind of rope or ladder to a student willing to try in lieu of confidence or certainty. Model this throughout the year and you just might find students using it as well–thus coming to see knowledge as inherently uncertain.


As with all of the words on this list, the tone established by the word ‘tomorrow’ depends greatly on timing and context–and even the tone of voice used to vocalize the word. Ideally, the word ‘tomorrow’ is used to frame today’s learning and tomorrow’s possibility. It asks students to consider what may come and what their role may be in that, not to mention the further-off ‘tomorrow’ of the future.


This one’s pretty obvious. If you want a certain and unambiguous tone, use the word ‘no’ firmly. There are times where boundaries need to be set and clarity is necessary. This isn’t ‘bad’–just be aware that a tone is being established with all of your language and use it as mindfully as possible.

Other common words that contribute greatly to tone in learning: Improvement, But, Because, Need, Hello, Good, Bad, Always, Never, Stop, Interesting, Maybe, I wonder…, Next time, Trouble, Help, Believe.

Tone In Teaching: 20 Words That Change How Students Think


The Problem With Most School Mission Statements

The Problem With Most School Mission Statements

by Terry Heick

Read your school mission statement, and tell me what you think.

Respond in the comments if you can. Tell me who it seems written by, and for. Well, first come up with some idea in your head what a school mission statement should do, then read yours and see what you think. Because from this vantage point, they’ve gotten out of hand.

I get what they’re there for—to publicly declare a school’s intentions. A vision. They reflect a brand, a philosophy about learning, and an approach. And increasingly, ambition.

A lot is asked of missions statements. They have to sell the school, please the superintendent, and rally the community. Only they read like inscriptions on national monuments or the elegies of fallen heroes.

Take the following statement, with the name removed so that we can consider the statement and not the school.

(Our mission) is to seek exceptionally promising students of all backgrounds from across the nation and around the world and to educate them, through mental discipline and social experience, to develop their intellectual, moral, civic, and creative capacities to the fullest. The aim of this education is the cultivation of citizens with a rich awareness of our heritage to lead and serve in every sphere of human activity.

What on earth–every sphere of human activity That’s not just ambitious, it’s delusional.

Isn’t the core of all learning self-knowledge—a learned modesty about scale and purpose and propriety? That we are all connected and hopelessly dependent on one another’s gifts and choices and humility?

Isn’t ‘work’ about working well with intimate knowledge and affection for one’s place?

…to develop their intellectual, moral, civic, and creative capacities to the fullest.

This sounds fantastic–it’s also absurd.

Imagine a restaurant whose mission is to ‘feed every person with food grown in a field with zero erosion loss and then prepared in a building with zero carbon footprint and cooked and portioned and arranged so as to be the exact amount of the specific protein and nutrient for every single person while never triggering a food allergy ever but while also offering those food that sometimes trigger food allergies because people love peanut butter?’

It’s impossible, right? Or, at best, so incredibly ambitious that it’s not close to sustainable for the people expected to provide and produce it?

So why do we allow the same in education? Yes, I know children are worth our very best efforts. That’s not the point. Why do we–year after year after decade–create goals and mission statements among the planets and stars, then insist on data and strategies grounded in research and reality?

And in doing so, ‘market’ ourselves wrong to the ‘public’ and set everyone up for an awkward sort of pseudo-success and perma-failure?

kengaerdotcomCrazy Talk In Education

Does it happen? Do students who attend this school push themselves and every fiber of their being to new limits that will sustain them for the rest of their lives? What is it about education that encourages crazy talk?

Meeting the needs of every single child, every single day.

No, you’re not. You try and it’s a noble goal as long as you’re okay with impossible goals that are well-intentioned but absurd.

There will not be a single child in the entire school that will be left behind.

Yes, there will be. You’ll try and everyone will do their best but this mission statement is literally impossible–but it sure feels good to try, right?

How about this one?

We will graduate students who are accomplished in the academic skills one would expect; at ease beyond their borders; truly fluent in a second language; good writers and speakers one and all; confident because they excel in a particular passion; artists no matter their field; practical in the ways of the world; emotionally unafraid and physically fit; humble about their gifts and generous of spirit; trustworthy; aware that their behavior makes a difference in our ecosystem; great leaders when they can be, good followers when they should be; on their way to well-chosen higher education; and, most importantly, architects of lives that transcend the ordinary.

This sounds interesting to me as an educator. It’s a great read. It’s humble in spots (great leaders when they can be), and philosophical in others (artists no matter their field). But whose goals are these? Where did they come from?

Can–or should–incredibly important and abstract goals be handed down from school committees? Not saying they shouldn’t–just asking. Seems iffy. The big issue here, however, isn’t arrogance, but precision. We’re missing the purpose of school and consequently the purpose of school mission statements.

A mission statement should act like a mirror, clarifying for everyone where the school is, and where it’s going. And for that to happen, it has to be dynamic and organic. Changing endlessly—responding to changing tones, values, and social needs.

Its tenets should be reflected in curriculum, assessment, and instruction, projects, technology, and learning artifacts.

It should reflect not the latest educational jargon, but the intellectual and cultural memory and will of the local place and people.

It should speak to them, and then change as they do. (And if they don’t, well, we’ve got a problem, yes?)

Ideally it’d be different for every student. At worst, they should be a common statement of mutual understanding.

The first mission statement from the beginning? It’s from Yale, and the second longer one from Avenues School.

I say get rid of them all and replace them with something that parents might say and children might believe in–or even say themselves. Play a running documentary on the walls of the school’s hallways that reflects the challenges and possibility in the local community, and the affection and natural curiosity and creativity of each and every student.

That reflects both local habits, place, and legacy—something that acts as both cultural memory, and hope for our shared future together.

That will tell anyone paying attention all they need to know.

Image attribution flickr user hammersmithandfulham and kenfagerdotcom; Rethinking The School Mission Statement


The Two Minds Of An Educator


The Two Minds Of An Educator

by Terry Heick

In his essay Two Minds, Wendell Berry, unsurprisingly enough, offers up two tones of thought produced by two kinds of ‘mind’—Rational, and Sympathetic.

One is driven by logic, deduction, data, and measurement, the other by affection and other wasteful abstractions—instinct, reverence, joy, and faith. These minds struggle for to manifest in our collective behavior. That is, they both seek to control our actions–what we say and do.

Berry explains their distinctions:

“The Rational Mind of is motivated by the fear of being misled, of being wrong. Its purpose is to exclude everything that cannot empirically or experimentally be proven by fact.

The Sympathetic Mind is motivated by fear of error of a very different kind: the error of carelessness, of being unloving. Its purpose is to be considerate of whatever is present, to leave nothing out.”

It’s no surprise that these two minds exist in education as well. These are instincts you’ve likely had as an educator—a teacher, administrator, developer, or designer. Probably as a parent too if you have children. The need to be rational and deductive and strategic colliding with the enormous complexity and scale of the circumstances you face.

You’re told to be data-based—that is, to design learning experience with ‘strategies’ that are suggested by some measurement you’ve taken.

You might plan lessons and units by asking yourself, why this instructional strategy? Why this assessment form? Why group at this point in the lesson rather than that point? Why this standard with this novel?

This is your Rational Mind.

But your Rational Mind is servant to another kind of thinking—in fact, is roused and spurred by a kind of insecurity that realizes that unmistakable importance and coinciding impossibility of what you’ve made it your life’s work to do: Teach dozens and dozens of other human beings what they need to know to about (insert your content area here).

The Rational Mind (the same mind that drives policies and standards) wants to parse that task–to respond with logic. Preemptively, strategically, and analytically.

So rather than freak out that this student can’t read and this student is a brilliant artist ready for a professional mentor to foster his gift and this student needs both a hug and self-knowledge more than content knowledge, you respond analytically. Your Rational Mind takes over.

You stare at standards and bar graphs and skim books by Marzano and Hattie that list the instructional strategies that their Rational Minds say will work. You listen to your colleagues, your instructional coach, and anyone else willing to offer advice. Then you teach, assess, reteach, re-assess, remediate, extend, and move on.

You’re keenly aware, though, of the tearing that has taken place by acting with logic. You’ve separated a learner from their very human circumstances—their interests, past experience, insecurities, and affections.

Academic content from their native schema.

Proficiency from curiosity.

Scientific concepts from the application of science.

Reading level from love of reading.

The Rational Mind necessarily excludes curiosity, love, affection, and joy because they are inherently irrational, and that word gives intellectuals the willies. We live in an age of information that itself proceeds an Age of Enlightenment. By design, data and rationality can’t tolerate abstraction and humanity or they’d shake themselves apart in confusion.

But this requires an adjustment on our part. We have to stop being obstinate to what we increasingly see in our students. Apathy. Distraction. Superficiality.

As an industry, we are currently not just driven but dangerously preoccupied by research and science and that which is measurable and observable, having ridded our profession of superstitions like ‘patience,’ ‘self-knowledge,’ and ‘community.’

We leave it up to teachers to buffer the collision between students from policies, or sterile academic standards with communities that need more than proficiency from students. But if we are “considerate of whatever is present” and want to “to leave nothing out,” we can now see that pure Rationality isn’t fully a ‘mind,’ but an instinctive reaction to the scale of our task.

A challenge for you and I then may be to elevate teaching beyond singularities through a kind of marriage–joining our Rational and Sympathetic mind into something inclusive and awake and whole.

Always insisting, no matter what, that we don’t resort to Rationality or even Sympathy, but rather act as ‘whole teachers’ in every single one of our interactions with and analyses of students, and in doing so model for them the significant practice of being human.

Image attribution flickr user NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; Becoming A “Whole Teacher”


Why Worrying About Screen Time Might Be The Wrong Approach


Why Worrying About Screen Time Might Be The Wrong Approach

by Terry Heick

Screen time.

Just the phrase tightens the chests of well-intentioned (and helicoptering) parents everywhere. Concerns range from our children becoming anti-social to developing addictions to certain games (I’m looking at you Fortnite), to screens preventing them from connecting with the physical spaces and people and opportunities around them.

As parents, we want balance, not necessarily because we know balance is best, but because we know that even if something is ultimately discovered to be terrible for the kids, we’ll be able to rest easy knowing they only had so much exposure. Balance is a kind of crude form of future-proofing –– we aren’t required to intricately understand the cause and effect of every factor; we can just recommend ‘balance’ and hope the factors we balance produce a healthy ecology.

The concept of ‘screen time’ exists in a world where screens are tools of identity, stages of curiosity and a constant need for information. Today, instead of each home having a single screen, it has five, and they’re mobile and do way, way more than televisions ever did. They blink and whir and update and multi-task and otherwise act as a user’s portal to the world.

Televisions were never this cool. In my home growing up, the primary screen time concern was sitting too close to the one television whose knobs you had to turn just to get Good Times or Knight Rider to come in properly. Do you want to be blind like your Uncle Dale? Scoot back, Mr Magoo. 

The telephone was the dominant form of interpersonal communication, and VCRs were kind of forward-thinking. If someone had handed you a tablet or smartphone when you were 8, it would have blown your mind. For children today, though, stunning mobile technology is the new normal. Yet how, and how much, children should be engaging with this new normal are questions that have not, until now, been addressed with any nuance.

Back in 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics released its recommendations for media use by children. The big idea, of course, is protecting children. In those earlier recommendations, AAP discouraged media use by any child younger than two years old. It said no to televisions in bedrooms. It warned about potential language delays in children watching television before their first birthday. It explained the need for ‘unstructured play time’ and learning ‘learning through play.’

And that was pretty much that. In 2013, AAP re-released the same guidelines, despite the fact that the iPad had been released three years earlier, and together with the smartphone revolution, had completely altered how users interact with digital media. Still, no changes.

Recently, something finally got the AAP’s attention and pushed the group to take a longer look at its recommendations in the face of a culture increasingly fascinated with digital screens. As the organization rightly notes, “our policies must evolve or become obsolete.” But what requires evolving may, in the end, be less about time constraints for screens, and more about our perspective on how they help children learn.


What Is Play?

One of the mainstays in AAP’s recommendations over the years has been a call for ‘unstructured playtime,’ based on the idea that, “unstructured playtime stimulates creativity.” According to the group, parents should “prioritize daily unplugged playtime, especially for the very young.”

Fair enough–but it is also worth acknowledging that play comes in many forms. Play is a tone more than it is a specific activity. It centers the player, either as participant in a set of rules they agree to (like sport), or as the rule maker (kids inventing a game on a playground). Play is play because meaning is made in the mind of the player. And technology can provide endless opportunity for play, in part because of the characteristics of digital media.

Digital media have created a remix culture among users, where whimsy and idea sharing and memes and aliases and experimentation characterize every process and event. One of the greatest talents of digital media is to allow for unstructured play. The Sandbox, Minecraft, The Powder Game, The Sims, and dozens of other videos games and apps are designed as playspaces.

These are called ‘sandbox’ games, so named because they’re like a playground sandbox — a space for players to bring their own ideas. As in a real sandbox, there is less structure, and more possibility. Sandbox video games are filled with tools and possibilities, but leave the player to create their own experience. Any structure is there to promote creativity and experimentation. This is, undoubtedly, play.

Consider poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman’s definition of play in her wonderful book Deep Play. Ackerman explains:

“…play requires freedom. One chooses to play. Play’s rules may be enforced, but play is not like life’s other dramas. It happens outside ordinary life, and it requires freedom. But freedom alone doesn’t ensure a playful result…Players like to invent substitute worlds, more advantageous outcomes of events, supplemental versions of reality, other selves. Make-believe is at the heart of play, and also at the heart of much of what passes for work. Let’s make-believe we can shoot a rocket to the moon.”

While one doesn’t need a screen to imagine the moon, there is zero scientific evidence that suggests that screens mute one’s desire to go to the moon. Ackerman offers that when playing, “hallowed ground is usually outlined, so that it’s clearly set off from the rest of reality.” What could be more detached from the rest of reality than a colorful, digital facsimile–a blocky Minecraft world based only loosely on the rules and characteristics of the world around them, but close enough to make the user distinguish the rules between the two, and master each to their own advantage?

Our collective schema, as a culture, tends to see play as innocent, and technology as, at times, corrupting. We tend to visualize play as a child alone with blocks, mumbling as they talk themselves through a pretend event. Or maybe as a group of kids running in a field, or playing hide-and-seek. We’re a bit sentimental that way, and perhaps appropriately distrustful of the effect of anything new and poorly understood on our children—like technology. But all play events have built in rules and structure: A child “plays” hide-and-seek by participating in the rules. Same with tag, or blocks. They are both inspired and limited by the legacy of the game.

This is true of digital spaces as well; technology can be play.

The Transfer From Digital to Physical Spaces

Still, worrying about screen time is a legitimate concern. If children’s noses are pressed against little rectangular screens all day, their mindscape will be flooded with artifacts from the media consumed on those screens. They aren’t outside, connecting with their local community in the form of people or nature. They’re narrowing themselves, honing themselves for participation in a digital world, rather than the physical one that represents a fuller reality.

But as AAP seems to better understand today, the real question we should be asking is not just, how long are they watching? But also, what are they seeing? How is it affecting them? How does what they see challenge their existing beliefs? What sort of cognitive loads and higher order thinking skills do they volunteer themselves for with their online behavior? Do we want them being told a story from a book, or creating their own story in an digital universe where they’re in control? Which one more naturally creates thinking habits and behavioral shifts and skill acquisition that they can transfer to the real world?

These kinds of questions are notoriously difficult to understand and measure; it’s much easier to reduce our metrics to the most convenient one we can find: the ticking of a clock. But ultimately, the central issue regarding screens and children is less about the time they spend with them and more about the purpose and nuance of their digital interactions. I have a nephew who would rather play Fortnite than speak to any member of his family, exert himself physically, or create something with his hands. That worries me. This, though, has less to do with digital media, and more to do with the addictive nature of a single media form. Video games are designed to please. Not all media works that way.

As a means of addressing these issues, many educators have already called for a shift from consumption to production in the digital space–i.e., watch less, create more, starting in classrooms. Helping children understand how to transfer thinking and ideas from digital to physical spaces might also be a useful development. The more users can take ideas gained from idea expression (that is to say, a medium) into their physical context (IRL, or ‘in real life’), the more rational all the screen time seems.

But the best test we might have to evaluate the ‘appropriateness’ for any child in any situation might be, with a book, an app, a poem or a video game: “What are you doing, and why?” Citizenship is citizenship; digital citizenship can be considered a template for IRL Citizenship. While screen time certainly matters, focusing only on time is like developing a literacy program that focuses only on ‘minutes read.’

What about:

“What are you reading, and why?”

“What will you do with this reading experience?”

“What is reading doing to and for you?”

“What should you read or do next as a result?”

By modeling how and why people use digital media (e.g., to express ideas and connect with others), adults—parents, teachers and family members alike—can help students think about the purpose of their behavior and the possibilities within their reach, and then consider those little glass interfaces in a more robust and authentic context. Then screen time becomes less of a problem, and more of a consumption strategy for a human being trying to understand the world.

image attribution flickr user woodleywonderworks vancouverfilmschool; the cute kid in the picture in the middle is the author’s son


Developing Confident Students Using Gradual Release Of Responsibility

How To Use The Gradual Release Of Responsibility Model To Grow More Confident Students

by Terry Heick

Learning is a culture.

It starts there—with the students first as human beings needing to understand their environment. And it ends there—with students using what we give them back at home, in those physical and digital environments.

Even the practices that promote or undermine the learning process itself come are first and foremost human and cultural artifacts. Literacy, curiosity, self-efficacy, ambition, and other important agents of learning are born in the native environments of home.

Further, learning is ongoing, perishable, and alive–just like culture.

But what about your classroom? Can you promote a certain culture there strategically, or does it just happen, the seemingly random product of the student roster assignments mixed with your personality as a teacher?

And further, what is a ‘culture of learning,’ and can you create one yourself? The short answer is that a culture of learning is “a collection of thinking habits, beliefs about self, and collaborative workflows that result in sustained critical learning.” Or that’s how I think of it anyway.

Can you cause this to happen? Of course you can. Almost anything can be learned—and unlearned. It is simply a matter of identifying desired characteristics, and then using the gradual release of responsibility model, intentionally letting it happen.

Intentionally letting may seem like an oxymoron—well, it is an oxymoron. The idea here is to create the conditions conducive to some result—here, a culture of learning—and then getting out of the way. You can’t cause curiosity, enthusiasm, or affection.

But you can let them happen.

How To Use The Gradual Release Of Responsibility Model To Grow More Confident Students

1. Show them

Model the “thinking habits, beliefs about self, and collaborative workflows that result in sustained critical learning.” Demonstrate the think-alouds, reflective writing, metacognitive conversations, and other human practices and habits that lead to learning, and then reflect again on their impact. How they were successful. Where they fell short. What you might do next time.

To use the Gradual Release of Responsibility model, students need to see others using it and who better to model it but you?

2. Help them

The next step of the gradual release of responsibility model is to help students do what you showed them on their own. Put them in groups. Have them publish their thinking in writing or on a podcast. There are many ways students can make learning visible.

And in doing so, try to provide them soft cushions to land on when they fail. Offer strategies, coaching, and general support. Help them publish their thinking–the right bits at the right time with the right audience. Help them self-assess their performance. Help them create their own standards for their own work.

Require them to revisit old ideas, old writing, and old projects. At this stage, the big idea is to simply help them develop the autonomy you modeled in the first step. Autonomy is both a cause and effect of confidence and both are necessary in creating a culture of learning.

3. Let them

The final stage of promoting a culture of learning in your classroom is to simply get out of the way. Give them only just enough for them to take off on their own. A topic. A community. A project idea. An app. A problem (in their eyes) worth solving.

Consider the Combination Learning model–then let them show what they can do. And if they just sit there like bumps on a log, go back to step #1.

Developing confident students using the Gradual Release of Responsibility model requires, after showing and helping them, that you ‘let’ them. What you’re actually ‘letting’ them do depends, of course. A math problem, maker project, formal debate, reading test–whatever you’ve modeled for them and then helped them do. To create confidence in students, you have to show them that you trust them.

If they ‘fail,’ it’s fine. Failure is a critical part of learning; just go back to the previous step and ‘help’ them again. 


If we consider the definition of culture as ‘the customs and beliefs of a community of human beings,’ then the fact that culture both precedes and proceeds learning makes sense. There is an ecology to the learning process that can’t be extracted, unpacked, or tightly-sequenced to fit into some edu-box the way you hoped it might.

I mean, you can squeeze it into a box, but at the risk of losing the kind of sustainable culture of learning that’s the whole point of it all.


20 Things You Can Learn In 10 Minutes To Become A Better Teacher


20 Things You Can Learn In 10 Minutes To Become A Better Teacher

by Terry Heick

Becoming a better teacher is likely a big part of why you’re here.

Based on reader feedback, surveys, comments, and other observations we’ve noticed over the years, the vast majority of you are already ‘good’ at what you do.

Few incompetent professionals that consistently seek to improve remain incompetent. Whether knee-deep in a book or here on TeachThought reading and skimming and sharing and responding to ideas, it’ll be difficult for you to resist growing.

A lot of what we discuss here at TeachThought, however, is very macro stuff–broad looks as the possibilities inherent in modern pedagogy, and the dangers we risk by not understanding them. While we try to balance that with use tomorrow in your classroom tools and strategies, we can always be better there, I think.

In response, below I’ve collected 20 (mostly) simple things you can do (relatively) quickly to become a better teacher. The list is purposely diverse because I wrote it and can’t stay focused on anything for longer than 4 minutes, it seems.

Most are based on resources we’ve already created here, so where relevant I’ve linked to said resources.

20 Things You Can Learn In 10 Minutes To Become A Better Teacher

1. The purpose of an assessment. (Also, simple assessment strategies may not be a bad idea either.)

2. How to create and share files via Google Drive.

3. Four alternatives to letter grades.

4. How to quickly estimate the reading level of any student.

5. One writing strategy universal enough to improve the writing of most students in most circumstances no matter the content area or assignment. TAP is a decent approach–here’s a prezi explaining more.

6. The difference between doing projects and project-based learning.

7. Three differentiation strategies.

8. Five ways to quiet a noisy classroom.

9. One new way to use Bloom’s Taxonomy (or any other thinking framework) in your classroom.

10. The favorite ‘thing’ of your most challenging student.

11. How to use a hashtag to allow your students to ask questions (anonymously or otherwise).

12. Three team-building games you can use at any time to break the monotony, pickup the energy level in the classroom, facilitate teamwork, help students get to know one another, etc.

13. How to use question/answer stems to promote stronger discussion with and between students.

14. Three grouping strategies.

15. How to setup a feed (RSS or social news reader) of some kind to skim new ideas in education.

16. Why giving homework is probably doing more harm than good–so maybe alternatives to homework for a quick read?

17. How to use a choice board (a great differentiation strategy–see #7).

18. A decent/mostly accurate/usable definition for critical thinking.

19. A working handle on the gradual release of responsibility model.

20. One way to promote digital citizenship in your next unit of instruction/project/lesson, etc.


20 Things You Can Learn In 10 Minutes To Become A Better Teacher

Critical Thinking

Critical Reading: 50 Sentence Stems To Help Students Talk About What They Read

Critical Reading: 50 Sentence Stems To Help Students Talk About What They Read

by TeachThought Staff

I love sentence stems for many reasons, not the least of which is their ability to function as cognitive ‘training wheels’ for developing minds.

As in journal response prompts to respond to text, the stems below are created to help students better understand what they’re reading. Because the focus is on critical thinking and critical reading rather than mere ‘talking,’ I left out more obvious stems like ‘I agree…’ or ‘I disagree…’ or ‘I like…’ or ‘I dislike…’ because–well, because opinions are useful primarily in discussing affections and preferences but less useful in critical thinking and critical reading.

That’s not to say that they don’t serve a purpose but rather that they’re not to mention obvious and are a fairly natural reflex for even early readers who will either like or dislike or love or be bored by texts. This implies, of course, that the point of reading is recreational. While it certainly can and generally should be enjoyable, there are as many reasons to read as there are to know and do.

Liking and disliking and agreeing and disagreeing, of course, matter. Emotion can be a cause and effect of understanding. But ultimately. critical reading is a matter of gather knowledge to better understand contexts, seeing ideas from multiple perspectives, is avoiding logical fallacies and other failures of reason in order to make sense of a text.

I separated them into categories. Note that there’s obviously overlap between the categories (e.g., some of the stems that help students ‘talk about themselves as readers’ are similar to some of the stems that help students ‘talk about the topic.’

Critical Reading: 50 Sentence Stems To Help Students Talk About What They Read

Stems that help students talk about themselves as readers

Here, I noticed that…

This reminds me of…

When reading I noticed that my thoughts/emotions …

While reading this, it’s helping me to … so that … (think reading strategies, etc.)

This text has change me by …

If I … then the text could …

… stood out to me because …

My experience about or knowledge of … affected my reading by …

I might be biased about … so …

I’m generally pretty good about … when reading things like this.

Stems that help students talk about the topic

I wasn’t aware that …

I knew that … but didn’t know that …

Recently, this (the topic) has…

The most important part about … is …

It’s important to see that …

This makes me want to read or learn more about …

This topic is important/doesn’t seem to be important in light of …

Stems that help students talk about the author & author purpose

The overall purpose of this text seems to be to …

The author has also written … which helps me understand that …

The audience of this text is likely … but could also include …

… would agree/disagree with …

The author is saying…

The author is implying…

The author seems to be trying to …

And underlying assumption of … is . …

The author is comparing … to …

The author is using … to …

The author is emphasizing …

The author is implying that …

The author seems to believe that …

Here, the author is beginning to …

It sounds like the author is saying …

The author is returns to the idea of …

The author seems to want the reader to notice, see, or believe that …

The author doesn’t seem to realize or know that …

Talking About The Text

The title helps me see that …

The overall mood of the text is …

I’d describe the tone of the text as … because …

… is fact and … is opinion …

Themes I’ve noticed so far include …

The front and rear cover suggest that …

The ideas are organized by … which has the effect of …

The overall structure of the text suggests …

The most important information or ideas in this text seem to be … and I know this because …

The problem with this line of reasoning or argument is …

The author’s writing style is … which …

Overall, the text seems to be saying that …

There is sufficient/insufficient reasoning/evidence to support …

If the text were … then …

Critical Reading: 50 Sentence Stems To Help Students Talk About What They Read

Project-Based Learning

25 Questions To Guide Teaching With Project-Based Learning


25 Questions To Guide Teaching With Project-Based Learning

by Terry Heick

I’ve been thinking of the kinds of questions I consider when planning a project–or planning a unit when students plan a project on their own.

There’s a lot to consider here–so much so that 12 isn’t even close to enough, but that’s because I tend to over-complicate things (so my kids tell me). I”ll stick to a ‘primary’ set for the first dozen, and then add a secondary set you can take a gander at below.

I’ve more or less organized them into a kind of spectrum, from the simplest questions to consider, to the most complex. I focused more on creating compelling and student-centered projects, rather than creating a list of questions to use as a checklist for pure academic planning.

For related reading, you might check out the difference between doing projects and project-based learning, as well as our project-based learning cheat sheet that provides some examples to jumpstart your thinking.

A Project-Based Learning Spectrum: 25 Questions To Guide Your PBL Planning


  1. What role is the learner assuming? Designer? Engineer? Brother? Artist? Cultural Critic? Naturalist?
  2. What is their purpose? What are they doing, and what should the project itself ‘do’?
  3. Who is their audience? Who is the audience of the project’s design, impact, or effect?
  4. How can different learning spaces (e.g., classroom, home, digital) work together? To promote meaningful interaction? An authentic audience? Personalized workflow to meet each student’s needs?
  5. What kind of support does each student need individually? Who can provide it? How much structure is enough for that student? (Scoring Guide, Teacher-Provided Tools, Rubric, etc.)
  6. What’s the ‘need to know’? Is there one? Where did it come from? Is it authentic? Teacher-based, school-based, curriculum-based, or student-based? What are the consequences of each?
  7. Which academic standards are the focus of the unit? How will data from formative assessment (that target these standards) help teachers and students respond within the project?
  8. Who will provide learning feedback? When? How? And feedback for what–the quality of the project? Progress towards mastery of academic standards? Will it be ‘graded’ with letters, numbers, as a matter of standards-mastery, or some other way? Which way best supports student understanding?
  9. How should the product be paced to maintain student momentum? What ‘check-in with the teacher’ markers make sense?
  10. How can assessment, iteration, and metacognition improve student understanding?
  11. How can the student bring themselves (affections, experience, voice, choice, talent, curiosity) to the project? Also, what is the teacher’s role in the process? Is it the same for every student?
  12. What sort of quality criteria make sense? How will we know if the project ‘works’? Was effective? Performed? Who designs this quality criteria?
  13. What kind of project would the student never forget? 
  14. What’s most critical to the success of the project? Creativity? Critical thinking? Organization? Grit? All may apply, but how might the project be designed to focus on the factors you or the student value most?
  15. How can students work within their local community to solve authentic problems, or celebrate meaningful opportunities?
  16. Is technology use distracting, useful, or critical to the success of the project?
  17. Does it make sense for the project to also be Inquiry-focused? Problem-based?
  18. How can students build on their unique schema and background knowledge to produce something special?
  19. What role might iteration play in the project?
  20. Is the project research-based? Product-based? Service-based? 
  21. Can mindfulness be embedded into the project to help students see their own thinking, identify barriers and opportunities, and respond in a self-directed way?
  22. What filtered (e.g., a teacher-selected book, an encyclopedia) and unfiltered information sources (e.g., a Google search, a social media stream) might they use cooperatively?
  23. What learning taxonomies or cognitive actions might guide students to think best? We covered some of these in a recent post, many of which are shown in the graphic below.
  24. What scale makes the most sense for the student to work best?
  25. Is the project designed to build on student strengths (rather than trying to ‘correct deficiencies’)?


Looking to grow Project-Based Learning at your school? Contact TeachThought PD >>

A Project-Based Learning Spectrum: 25 Questions To Guide Your PBL Planning; image attribution wikimedia commons (the spectrum to the right)


From Procedural Knowledge To Self Knowledge: The 4 Stages Of Curiosity

From Procedural Knowledge To Self Knowledge: The 4 Stages Of Curiosity

by Terry Heick

Where curiosity comes from isn’t entirely clear.

In fact, it isn’t even easy to define. That’s probably because there is no single source for it any more than there is a single source for entertainment, anxiety, or confidence.

There are strategies to promote curiosity in the classroom—even those that consider how the brain works. Ideally, teaching and learning wouldn’t benefit from having curiosity ‘added in,’ but rather would fail completely without it.

There is also no single ‘look’ for curiosity, much less four clear and universal stages of curiosity. The things teachers often look for as indicators of student engagement—waving hands in the air, locked eye contact, or good grades on tests—may not be the result of curiosity at all.

What are the stages of curiosity? Below we take a look at the idea. Also, note that these indicators don’t always represent curiosity and engagement—they could be thoughtless habit or external coercion. In the same way, behaviors indicating lower levels of curiosity don’t necessarily mean the student is disengaged and uncurious. The lesson design could be confusing, or the materials used could be poorly-written, above their reading level, or otherwise misleading.

For this reason (and others), teachers are always encouraged to take a broad and holistic view of each student that incorporates habits over time, personality, and the ebbs and flow of growing up! Also, certain learner ‘need’ at one stage may also exist at another. These are merely suggestions that can characterize most closely a student’s ‘need to know.’

4 Stages Of Curiosity

Stage 1: Process

Stage 2: Content

Stage 3: Transfer

Stage 4: Self

From Procedural Knowledge To Self Knowledge: The 4 Stages Of Curiosity

Stage 1: Process

Student mindset: “Tell me what to do.”

This is the first level of curiosity and engagement, where students are primarily concerned with procedural knowledge—teacher expectations, their role, interaction with peers, task sequence, etc. Included here is their own survey of the activity to highlight areas they may like or dislike, or be prepared or unprepared to complete.

All learners typically begin here as they try to make sense of a given task or activity. Ideally they’d start here and quickly graduate to the next level, but for some this may be their first and last stage without your intervention.

Learner needs at this stage: Prompting, repeating instructions more than once, clarifying instructions with paraphrasing, instructions in multiple forms (verbal, on screen or board, on a handout, etc.)

Stage 2: Content

Student mindset: “This is interesting. I’d like to learn more.”

Following the Process Stage is the Content Stage of curiosity and engagement.

This stage unsurprisingly has content at its core. In traditional academic environments this could be topics of study, conversation, research, or related opportunities. Students no longer have the compelling big ideas of content obscured by instructions, activity design, or confusing–or well-intentioned but unnecessary in the face of budding curiosity–teacher directions.

In fact, the teacher’s role could be significantly reduced compared to Stage 1, which allows the interaction between the learner and content to be perhaps less neat and efficient, but more authentic and direct.

Learner needs at this stage: Content at appropriate reading level, compelling content, tasks that balance of consumption and production, choice and voice in their work (which is true at any stage)

Stage 3: Transfer

Student mindset: “Move out of my way–but not too far.”

At this stage of curiosity, students begin to seamlessly connect knowledge, assimilating what they’re learning into what they already know. This can lead to transfer, where they—unprompted and without any cueing—transfer what they know from heavily-scaffolded and supported situations, to new and unfamiliar situations.

Learners at this level of curiosity may demand both direction and freedom at the same time as they seek to direct their own learning in new contexts, while sometimes lacking the frameworks, ideas, or strategies to do so.

Learner needs at this stage: Flexible rubrics, scoring guides that promote creativity, open-ended learning models (e.g., project-based learning), self-directed learning strategies

Stage 4: “Self”

Student mindset: “This has changed me.”

At the ‘Self’ Stage of curiosity and engagement, students move past mere transfer to make sense of changes—and possible opportunities–in themselves as the result of learning. This is closely related to the Transfer Level, which makes sense as students will naturally transition knowledge to familiar schema—circumstances or situations they have experience with.

This is the most powerful level of curiosity not simply because of knowledge assimilations and transfer, but how it can change the student’s reasons for learning, and their own role in the learning process. At this level, students ask questions unprompted, can imagine learning pathways that aren’t suggested to them, and constantly seek to reconcile what they do and don’t know without prompting and prodding.

In fact, a learner at this level will benefit from support, tools, models, and collaboration more than they might with direct instruction, rigid rubrics

Learner needs at this stage: Exemplar models, dynamic tools, strategic collaboration, cognitive and emotional coaching, space

From Procedural Knowledge To Self Knowledge: The 4 Stages Of Curiosity


Does Your Teaching Suppress Genius–Or Require It?

Does Your Teaching Suppress Genius–Or Require It?

by Terry Heick

By design, most modern classrooms push students toward very clear and specific learning objectives.

This is what we’re learning, and when you can do this, I’ll know that you’ve learned it.

In this outcomes-based environment, ‘success’ is determined by attainment–reaching a certain level’ or being able to provide evidence of understanding. Everyone in the classroom is reaching towards the same target, often with the same way of demonstrating their understanding.

Remediation is usually very similar, as are rubrics and scoring guides. Who has time to create 35 authentically personalized and unique scoring guides that address individual learning needs on every assignment? Besides, that’d fly in the face of the goal–a similar level of mastery (i.e., proficiency) of identical academic standards. The goal of education is not personalized learning; personalized learning strategies are strategies just as personalized learning itself is a strategy in pursuit of the very public goal of proficiency of a given set of standards. Creativity, choice, curiosity, and personalization may play roles in the learning process but stop short of reaching the content itself.

This is a long-winded way of saying that all students learn the same content via very similar pathways using almost identical resources and technology. Understanding is usually measured in exactly the same way whether the assessment is criterion-based or norm-referenced.

This isn’t a teacher problem, but rather a curriculum and learning model problem–if we believe it is a problem at all. Teachers cannot be given a goal of daily mastery of documented learning targets, and oh by the way make sure the content is elegantly personalized and authentic for each student. If the curriculum is shared school or district wide, and the learning model is primarily direct instruction (or even collaborative or project-based learning), the teacher’s role is narrowly defined at that point: Deliver content, measure progress, and intervene as best you can.

What Is Exceptional?

By definition, most people are average at most things. We’d like to all think our children are exceptional, but if everyone is exceptional, no one is exceptional. In most ways on most days, you and I are just like everybody else. We are both are probably average teachers, average drivers, average cooks, and average parents.

To translate this to letter grades, most students should be ‘C’ students. ‘B’ represents above average performance, and ‘A’ represents exceptional performance. If most students get As and Bs, something somewhere is off. (See here.) Even if the grading is Criterion-based and every student absolutely excels on every assignment, well then we have a rigor problem, or a ZPD problem.

But there is something we do–as teachers–exceptionally well, and that thing makes all the difference. It is probably something we love. Adds to our identity as teachers. Critical thinking. Relationships. Charisma. Literacy. It’s who you are as a teacher.

And without it, you may not be teaching at all because you’d have blended in with everyone else.

One Big Comfort Zone

Between shared national standards and common daily learning targets delivered via very similar learning models, along with the the reality that most students are by definition ‘average,’ we’re in a bit of a sticky situation. Even if semantics are obscuring the truth a bit here, the reality is that we’ve got ourselves a model of education that by its very design encourages repeatable and similar performance.

We’re in one big, industrial comfort zone. Similar thinking, similar strategies; same content, same classrooms. Similar teachers in similar rooms with more or less similar styles. Year in, year out.

Every now and then students–or teachers–manage to shatter the mold, but these are very literally the exceptions. This is not so much a plea for creativity in teaching and learning as it is a kind of backdrop. Life is about self-knowledge, interdependence, and affection: Who am I, how am I connected to the things and people around me, and how can I show those relationships love over a lifetime through my work? This is a very particular question that will never be the same for any two people even from the same family. 

What happens when students, after demonstrating mastery of every standard on every assessment form we can think of, are exceptional at absolutely nothing? And how should we respond when that happens by design? When that was the big idea the whole time?

So now, consider your own classroom–what you teach (the content) and how you teach it (the learning models and teaching and learning and literacy strategies you employ). Does the design you use suppress the natural genius in every child? Does it stifle it, only using it occasionally and rewarding it briefly when it happens to emerge?

Or does that design necessitate and require students find and nurture and apply their genius in new ways they couldn’t ever have anticipated without your help?

Does Your Teaching Suppress Genius–Or Require It?


SRE And CEI: Easy To Use Writing Strategies For The Classroom

SRE And CEI: Easy To Use Writing Strategies For The Classroom

by TeachThought Staff

As a teacher, I learned quickly how important writing was and as a teacher who used writing to teach, I quickly learned how important writing strategies were.

Besides clarifying audience and purpose (who you’re writing to and why), SRE and CEI were two of the best writing strategies I was able to offer my students (I taught ELA, grades 8-12), providing students with a basic template or structure to guide their writing–and in a pinch, their reading as well.

SRE: A Simple Writing Strategy For The Classroom

SRE is initialism representing three central tenets of arguing and argument making (and thus writing): Statement, Reason, Evidence (or Example, Explain, or Expand)

Writing strategies are critical for writers of all abilities during every stage of the writing process and SRE is one strategy that is useful in several places and ways. In brief, ‘SRE’ suggests students structure their writing around the science and philosophy-friendly ‘claim–>support’ format. Growing writers can use this during pre-writing to formulate and clarify their claims and reasons supporting those claims, or it can be used to literally structure the paragraphs themselves wherein the ‘Statement’ is the topic sentence, which is followed up by the ‘Reason’ and expanded upon in the ‘Evidence, Explain, Expand.’ 

Statement: A clear and important claim about a relevant idea

This can be simple, such as “Strawberry is better ice cream than vanilla’ or more complex, such as “The effect of social media on human discourse is worthy of our collective scrutiny,” etc. A few statement stems include ‘It is clear…’, ‘The data shows…,’ and ‘I believe….’

Reason: The reason you believe that/believe that claim is valid

Like the Statement, the Reason doesn’t have to be overly-complex, either. In fact, when teaching developing writers, it can be useful to simplify the argument in order to focus on the structure of the argument (SRE being an example of one kind of argument structure). Even in the highly-subjective ice cream example above, SRE can help student writers learn to defend their thinking with rational explanations of even the most trivial topics.

Some ‘Reason’ stems include ‘This is because…,’ or ‘Due to….’

Evidence/Example/Explain/Expand: A compelling example to support the above claim or an explanation and expansion of the claim that increases the chance that the reader will accept it logically

The ‘E’ part is where, depending on what’s being written and why, the writer can provide evidence or example to support a claim, or simply further ‘explain’ the claim itself.

Note, some writers like the separation between the ‘R’ and the ‘E’ but I found that it confused others. In this case, I’d simplify it again, often to something like “Statement & Support” or ‘State and Defend’ or ‘State and Prove’ where students would simply make a statement and support, defend, and/or ‘prove’ their statement to an imagined willing but skeptical audience.

You can find more critical thinking stems here and here’s an example of SRE being used as a writing strategy–and a kind of broad ‘reading strategy’ as well.

SRE can also be used to guide ‘short answer’ and ‘open response’ items. One example is given below:

An example of using SRE to construct ORQ and short-answer responses.

CEI As A Writing Strategy

‘C.E.I.’ is an initialism referring to ‘Claim, Evidence, Interpretation,’ and like its simpler cousin SRE, CEI can be used in a variety of ways, from paragraph structure to the process of pre-writing. This can apply to formal or informal writing, and is helpful for writers of all levels, an organizer that basically asks the writer “What are you claiming, how are you proving it, and how might you see things differently than others?”

I always considered it more difficult to use for some writers because of the ‘Interpret’ part. That’s a scary word for some students as it demands a lot, cognitively (much in the same way the writing process itself does). However, for many students, the ‘Interpret’ was the ‘part’ where their writing really took off because it required them to analyze and explain and defend and relate and connect ideas–which all moves well simply giving an opinion and giving data to support the opinion.

Claim: A clear and important claim about a relevant idea

Evidence: Data, textual evidence, or examples that support the claim

Interpret: An thoughtful analysis of the evidence that clarifies and strengthens its support of the claim

Like SRE or SS, CEI can be used to as pre-writing to guide the general idea development of a paper where students clarify what they believe and how they intend to prove it. It also can be used as a paragraph structure strategy where the ‘Claim’ is the topic sentence, and the Evidence and Interpretation make up the balance of the pragraph.

There’s a lot more to be said about these strategies, I know. More examples across content areas, graphic organizers, sentence stems, and more. I’ll try to get to that soon. In the meantime, I hope that what’s here is useful and that SRE, SS, and CEI prove to be helpful writing strategies in your classroom.


Exactly Where To Start With School Improvement


Exactly Where To Start With School Improvement

by Terry Heick

Education is a series of learning experiences informed by policy, and actuated by teachers.

Policy, by its very nature, is sweeping and ambitious. It is designed to work on various scales, is well-intentioned, and often difficult to fault on paper. The teachers aren’t really much different. They are ambitious, designed to work on various scales, and are commissioned (quite literally) to enact the policies that govern the institutions (schools) they work in.

The wrinkles arise however as teachers strive to realize a vision for education that is, as things are, entirely impossible: For every student to master every academic standard.

No matter the starting literacy level, emotional intelligence, goals in life, family history, socioeconomic background, learning and thinking habits, or academic ambition, the same result is expected of all students–and increasingly troublesome word stuffed full of connotation and implication.


And perhaps worst of all, this inclusive scale of proficiency is regarded not as a necessary evil, but the noblest of goals–equality manifest as democracy itself.

Equality In Learning

Equality in learning can mean anything. Same spending. Same resources–or rather, same fulfillment of relative needs. Same expectations.

Fair doesn’t always mean equal, as many will correctly reason, but as we seek to democratize the learning process, we end up with scripted responses to unscripted circumstances, and as a result the homogenization of something that has no business being homogenized.

But equality in learning is a dangerous chase to give, full of dead-ends, rhetoric, and, at times, waste.

Learning is messy and personal–messy because it’s personal, in fact. And it’s wasteful for many of the same reasons. Not because people learn differently, but because education often tries to impose ‘sameness’ on it all. And when that approach doesn’t work, gobs (and gobs) of resources are spent troubleshooting, ‘remediating,’ and erstwhile tail-chasing.

Learning can be frustrating for the same reasons it’s compelling–because it’s instinctive and primal. It starts out as play, and then quickly turns more formal as self-directed experimentation turns into sterile academia. Schools–well-intentioned–care so much for the learning that they pull out every stop: sirens, meters, and relief valves to let us know what’s going on at all times.

This, however, is a (small) part of the problem, like checking a rubric and data during your first date to see how things are going. That doesn’t mean there is no place for data and rubrics, but it just might be that, in pursuit of proficiency we’ve found dull edges.

And in pursuit of excellence we’ve found mediocrity.

Not An Argument For Learning Models

At this point, this is usually where the conversation turns to learning models–entrepreneurial learning, self-directed learning, mobile learning, play-based learning, project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, blended learning.

And so on.

And this is all pertinent and felicitous–all screaming for thinking, integration, and revision. But instead, a more immediate focus of our scope might be the way teachers and teacher systems push back on one another in the vast majority of public schools today.

The Systems

So what are these ‘systems’?

District walkthroughs and their ‘non-negotiables.’

Professional growth plans.

Professional learning communities.

Data teams.

District and school-sponsored professional development.

News media publishing of test scores.

Actually, let’s stop and look at that one for a moment.

Public Reporting Of Test Scores

The publishing of test scores isn’t the problem–it’s the void of context most people have for internalizing those data. The public sees in more binary terms–failing school and performing school. Maybe improving school. That’s it.

Never failing test, performing attention to literacy, or on the rise community support. Schools are not seen as completely interdependent with society, but rather widget factories, and are thus judged by their widgets. And perhaps worst of all, these widgets are children.

Why this is a problem has to do with connotation and loaded language–old-guard advertising tricks to get people to care. A widget is cold, but a child is a living, breathing, blinking thing that deserves the best possible future–and the best from us today to help make that happen.

And of course that’s true.

Vague & Emotionally Loaded Language

So when we talk, our language can be empty and generalized. We talk about the future, the learning, of our collective and unyielding intent to ‘do right by these kids.’ We make decisions that ‘are best for the kids,’ rather than the adults, because what adult would propose the opposite?

But it’s exactly through this selfless ambition and pathos-based grandstanding that we get ourselves in trouble. We simply cannot consistently fulfill what we promise, and, puzzled, turn to professional development to solve our woes.

If school is an analogue of post-modern industrialism–and it shouldn’t be but it currently operates as exactly that–then teachers and administrators are the ones that operate the levers and the presses. We create the molds, fill the conveyors with widgets, fill the pallets, operate the forklifts, and take very serious notes on our clipboards as we watch with equally serious eyes.

But it’s the teachers and administrators, tirelessly planning and revising while the entire operation teeters, that are wheezing and chuffing. We promise and swear in both creed and policy to help every single child meet their potential as human beings. The pressure–and hubris–of that promise!

We add empowering signatures on our email, ‘Failure is not an option,’ or ‘Preparing children for the future,’ and then ‘recharge our batteries’ during weekends and holidays so that on Monday afternoons we can sit erect in two hour staff meetings that rob us of any bit of innovative spirit we had managed to restore.

We invite the parents into school every quarter with the promise of bake sales or a school play and other extracurricular events, pretending not to notice how awkward it all is—how we both are raising different parts of their children but barely know one another.

How we stubbornly continue to teach children as an industry produces goods.

How we fail to connect organizations with families and schools and universities and cultural programs and community centers in any compelling way because, as schools, we insist on going alone, only opening the doors on our schedule and our terms to help us do what we want to do because we wrote the book on what needs to be done.

We use language and processes of education that are completely alien to most families. And in the process, we create a completely unsustainable–and morbidly private–system of learning that reduces the capacity of families and communities while we toil away in proud martyrdom, never realizing that our ambition is costing us everything.

If schools serve students, and students are deeply embedded in the fabric of communities, how can we serve those students without knowing those communities? Let’s open our school and classroom doors for meaningful interaction with families and communities on equal terms not at an extracurricular level, but a curricular level.

School improvement conversations could do worse than start there.

Image attribution flickr user woodleywonderworks; Exactly Where To Start With School Improvement

The Future Of Learning

The Impact Of Technology On Curiosity

The Impact Of Technology On Curiosity

by Terry Heick

Curiosity is the “complex feeling and cognition that accompanies a desire to learn what is unknown,” according to Min Jeong Kang and fellow researchers in a 2009 study. Neurological research here focused on, among other areas, the difference in neural activity when answers are presented, and when questions are presented for both high-curiosity and low-curiosity questions.

What they found (in addition to dilated pupils when answers to questions with high curiosity levels were revealed), was revealing: the “desired level of knowledge increases sharply with a small increase in knowledge, so that the gap between this desired level and the actual knowledge grows.” (Kang, et. al 2009). And conversely, once one is ‘sufficiently knowledgeable,’ the desire for new information decreases. This suggests that a little learning should, neurologically, cause the desire for more learning.

This idea—the proportional relationship between knowing and wanting to know–is the foundation of what is known as the information-gap theory. Of course, most teachers can tell you that it’s not that simple.

How Much Knowledge Is Enough?

Admittedly, this all begs the question: how does a student—especially a younger student taking in content and ‘essential questions’ and standards they’ve never heard of and thus incapable of natural curiosity about—know when they’ve learned enough? The research never went into this sociological question, but it likely has something to do with norm-referencing with chosen social groups.

When learners look around, what knowledge level do they see? And what markers do they have to measure knowledge in others? This awareness on the part of learners, coupled with extrinsic motivation and pressure from parents, teachers, etc., together likely form a sort of baseline of what is ‘enough knowledge.’

Of course, technology and social media create a thousand potential communities where before there may have been five. So the internal ‘measuring up’ by students is relentless. Instead of home, school, a few groups of friends, sports teams, and perhaps religious affiliation, technology has offered up an almost infinite number of potential social groups for students to plug-in to, making the ‘measurement of wisdom’–which isn’t as crazy as it sounds–frantic, absolutely secondary, and nearly impossible.

And when you factor in that, via technology, rather than six ‘content areas,’ students see a dizzying digital kaleidoscope of data and stimuli at any given moment, things can unravel–or at least accelerate–very quickly.

3 Different Types of Curiosity

The study noted multiple types of curiosity, including sensory and knowledge-based (epistemic). The latter involves desiring data or discovery, while the former involves the desire to “avoid boredom or sensory deprivation.”

Visual Stimuli: Wanting to see something

Semantic Narratives: e.g., Television shows, literary drama

Social information: e.g., Gossip, social media and other ‘semantic narratives’

Here, researchers in the study were careful to (briefly) note the impact of technology on curiosity. In the information age, (connected) students are constantly in the presence of extraordinary–by definition, unnatural—amounts of data and potential experience that have existed at no time in human history. Which has changed when, why, and how curiosity happens.

The Impact Of Technology On Curiosity

Curiosity, likely an evolutionary adaptive, was a raw appetite for information that helped us survive. But that same aggressive appetite for information and experience changes in the face of information abundance.

The simple swipe of a finger can invoke a literal flood of information, new faces and communities, digital simulations, and other Visual, Semantic, and Social stimuli. In fact, it even attacks them passively through a barrage of messages and push notifications that interrupt any opportunity for reflection. And it’s not just about social media, apps, and video games. The blinking, streaming, always-on digital landscape threatens even the most single-minded approach to research.

Even an ‘on-task’ student must navigate media, communities, and social rules that churn endlessly. This creates, among other things, a dynamic digital—and thus cognitive—environment in which users have to constantly be aware of what they do and do not know, which sounds interesting until you realize that the technology is designed for engagement. So then, designed to pull you rather than let you, muting the need to be self-aware.

Gamification, notifications, content titles, click-throughs, likes, suggested videos, and other modern realities seek to, perhaps unwittingly, replace curiosity with artificial pathways that don’t just challenge a student to ‘stay on task,’ but can seemingly discredit traditional research–and the work behind it–and study as stodgy, staid, or irrelevant.

The impact on curiosity here is certainly predictable.

Further at work here is the atmosphere of most outcomes-based instructional design. When the learning topics, methods, tools, and patterns are chosen for the student, there is little need for curiosity. Instead, it is ‘encouraged’ by verbal pleadings, awkward incentives (money for ‘good grades’), or weak admonishments to ‘predict’ what might happen in the book they didn’t choose based on the knowledge level they were unaware of in the class they didn’t sign up for.

In these cases, curiosity is reduced to intermittent engagement, true rigor becomes awkward, and students constantly seek the comfort of social reinforcement, admittedly entertaining diversions, and a magical search engine that they pray identifies for them the macro relevance of entirely human perspective that technology is blind to.  

The Blind Spots Of Technology

Technology is designed to create pleasing stimuli that manufacture curiosity for the student. If the headline or user interface don’t reach right out and grab you by the throat, it doesn’t stand a chance in the modern digital landscape.

Further, with the natural churn of social groups, social networks, and habits of those groups on those networks, users have trouble ever finding stable ground to measure what they know against those around them, keeping the information-gap theory constantly off-balance, and ultimately stifling enduring curiosity.

None of this means that technology is bad. Nor is this simply a cautionary tale warning of technology’s silent design elements and related talents. Rather, this is an argument for curiosity in its natural ecology. The media form—book or YouTube video, twitter stream or mathematical treatise in extended prose—matters less than the health and balance of that ecology.

For many teachers, giving students ‘a little’ information doesn’t necessarily lead to students ‘begging for more.’ Instead, that ‘little bit’ of stimuli chokes or bores them, leading to a kind of apparent apathy. This was likely the case way before iPads and smartphones were dropped in the laps of so many at critical stages of brain development. But unlike the days of disconnected teachers and mind-numbing textbooks, technology has afforded keys to the universe.

So when students still exhibit apathy in the face of that universe, panic may be appropriate.

But perhaps, technology has created an awful, terrible illusion of knowledge, where users equate access with possession. If curiosity is indeed the “complex feeling and cognition that accompanies a desire to learn what is unknown,” what happens when students don’t know what they don’t know?

When they are no longer able to judge when they’re ‘sufficiently knowledgeable’? When their digital landscape dances with only vacant metaphors of understanding and wisdom? When they think they can ‘Google it’ at anytime? And when they look around them, everyone else is doing all of the same things? What then?

Perhaps then as educators we should start there by creating compelling visualizations, narratives, and dialogues about what there is to know–what’s worth understanding, and why. 

About the iterative nature of wisdom, and the limitations of technology.

About the interdependence of family and community, and the crucial and uniquely human ability to ask the right question at the right time.

Image attribution flickr user servephotography and flickeringbrad; The Impact Of Technology On Curiosity; The Impact Of Technology On Learning

Learning Models

The Sync Teaching Method: A Blended Approach To Self-Directed Learning


The Sync Teaching Method: A Blended Approach To Self-Directed Learning

by Terry Heick

The definition of second screen learning is roughly what it sounds like it might be–learning through a second screen. This doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that students are on their own, nor even that every student has to have their own device. Let’s back up for a moment and take a look at the big picture of learning.

Learning is about students interacting with and creating new ideas. For decades, the ‘create’ part has been mostly mute, saved for end-of-the-unit projects or writing prompts. And the interaction part was often missing as well. Interaction is possible with teachers and textbooks as well as it is with apps and tablets, but not on the same scale, with the same degree of personalization, or the same engaging form-factors.

The Difference Between 1:1 & Second Screen Learning

In a 1:1 environment, every student has their own device–which opens things up considerably. Second screen learning environments can also see every student having their own device–or even one per group. The difference is a matter of syncing. In second screen learning classrooms, the teachers and students are ‘sync’d’ content-wise with one another, while still having the tools, learning strategies, freedom, and space to clarify, extend, create, or connect the learning.

Take the metaphor of the teacher as a conductor, and the students as members of the symphony. Roughly, that’s what second screen learning implies–a group of students creating their own music, but still following the teacher as a guide. The difference is that here, the teacher is the ‘first screen’–the Sync Point. In this role, they choose what, when, and how the students sync with the primary screen, or the teacher themselves.

A Clarifying Image Of The Sync Teaching Method

The image below hints at this, where the teacher is delivering ‘Content 1,’ and each student or group of students are then accessing 1A, 1B, 1C, and so on, respectively. Whether this is done in 4 groups with 4 tablets, or 28 individual students in 1:1 or BYOD classrooms, the big idea is the same: students accessing (or creating) personalized content while the teacher guides and facilitates the core of the lesson.

A neat middle ground between self-directed learning and sage-on-stage, yes? So what are some of the benefits for you as a teacher?

4 Ways Sync Teaching & Second Screen Learning Can Support Teachers & Students

1. You can differentiate more creatively

In the Sync Teaching approach, teachers have the ability to differentiate due to the sheer abundance of engaging and flexible learning resources, from learning simulations to YouTube channels, blogs, social media platforms and more.

If you think of differentiation as offering different content, processes, products, or learning environment based on readiness or interest for example, the more diverse those processes, products, environment, or that content, the more creative you can get as a teacher. Here, students are only required to ‘sync’ with your standard, or topic, essential question, or whatever.

As the teacher, you choose the central theme, and they make their own pathways in pursuit.

2. Students can use social apps more naturally

Using social apps in sync teaching, students can interact with one another using their ‘digital voice.’ They can also ping relevant networks and communities, peers in other schools. community and organization leaders, or even content experts.

They can also curate their thinking and mingle using backchannel discussions on twitter or instagram. Could the get off-task and distracted? Of course, but that’s not new. And it’s also more easy to track by those same networks, peer groups, and even families. Yay for digital footprints!

3. You can follow curriculum documents more closely

This is probably the biggest draw of syn teaching/second screen learning for many teachers: the ability to stick to necessary curriculum documents. While many teachers want to let students innovate and direct their own learning, this is often at odds with the demands of assessment requirements, and local school and district concerns.

How can second screen learning help here? By allowing the teachers to choose the central theme–or Sync Point–while still offering students room to create, find their own resources, clarify their understanding, etc.

In this way, it’s a kind of blended approach to tablets–that is, a blend of find-your-own-pathway-to-whatever-you-find-interest and do-this-then-this-then-this-because-I-said-so. Students can have their learning extended by teachers, or extend and create it themselves parallel to the teacher. They can follow their curiosity while the teacher remediates, or add their own voice and choice to the lesson with their ‘digital voice.’

4. It promote students interacting directly with content

As opposed to traditional 1:1 classrooms, sync teaching/second screen learning is less ‘open’; compared to traditional classrooms, it’s more so. Somewhere in the middle, second screens allow students to access instead of watch; respond instead of listen; create instead of watch others create. It also puts every student on the clock to produce something.

In a second screen classroom, every student has a digital instrument to make sound, but they most due so with some kind of pace, rhythm, or pattern set by the teacher–who, for all the technology in the world, is almost always the most powerful learning resource a student has access to.

The Sync Teaching Method: What You Can Do With Second Screen Learning; image attribution flickr user flickeringbrad

The Future Of Learning

A Disruption Model: How Innovation In Education Causes Change


The Learning Innovation Cycle: How Disruption Creates Lasting Change

by Terry Heick

Disruption is an interesting topic for the same reason that cowboys, gangsters, and villains are interesting: It’s unpredictable, challenges the status quo, can be problematic and almost always, by definition, goes against the grain.

It’s kind of aging as a buzzword in the ‘education space,’ but it’s other-worldly powerful, and there are few things education needs more. How exactly it produces change is less clear, but I thought I’d create a model to think about.

First, a quick preface. The iconic vision of disruptive innovation comes from Clayton Christensen, who uses the term to “describe a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.”

“Companies pursue these “sustaining innovations” at the higher tiers of their markets because this is what has historically helped them succeed: by charging the highest prices to their most demanding and sophisticated customers at the top of the market, companies will achieve the greatest profitability. However, by doing so, companies unwittingly open the door to “disruptive innovations” at the bottom of the market. An innovation that is disruptive allows a whole new population of consumers at the bottom of a market access to a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money or a lot of skill.”

I usually think of disruption as any change that forces itself substantially on existing power sets. This force causes transfer–a redistribution of something–market share, money, credibility, knowledge, or something we collectively value. Here, in this literal re-vision (seeing again) and neo-vision (seeing new), is where enduring learning innovation can be born.

In education, most of the talk around disruptive innovation revolves around education technology, owing to the potential scale of these technologies, and desperation of education to revise itself. But innovation doesn’t necessarily have to be a matter of economics, as Christensen originally thought of the term, nor of technology, which is the most tempting angle. It can, but there are other disruptors that can lead to innovation that have little to do with either. What might be more interesting than the disruptors, then, might be the process itself. (See also, trends in education.)

Consider the following:

the-economist-fiDisruptive Innovations In The Classroom

Disruptive innovations in the classroom should, ideally, obliterate the classroom. Make the classroom ‘be’ something else entirely–a physical gathering space in preparation for something else, for example. I’ve written about in the past, mostly in terms of teaching forms, trends, technology, or teaching disruptively. By design (as I see it anyway), education should be inherently disruptive. That is, the ability to think critically should theoretically change both the systems and its parts.

Education and disruption share many connections. One relationship is cause-effect. Education should cause disruption of existing social paradigms, for example. And disruption of existing social paradigms should both need and create opportunity for new forms of education. It’s also a symptom. When there’s continuous disruption downstream–a classroom, for example–it can be traced upstream to something else. One goal for disruption in education should be the persistent emergence of new ideas–new learning models, new content, new strategies and thinking.

Okay, enough context. To visualize this cycle below, at each stage I’ll use the idea of electricity to better illustrate what’s (theoretically) happening.

A Disruption Model: The Learning Innovation Cycle

1. Emergnce of DIsruption

So, the electricity analogue–electricity has changed significantly over the last several hundred years, with many important developments–from DC power and batteries and generators and transformers, etc.–changing it in both form and function. To better understand how disruptive innovations in the classroom occur at this early ‘Emergence’ stage, consider how ineffective and inaccessible electricity was from its early forms in the 1800s until as recently as the 1920s and 1930s. While exciting, only a very narrow minority saw its enormous potential, because really, how could you? Seeing the way electricity would change the world required you to reenvision the world in light of electricity (as opposed to simply shoe-horning it in to one’s existing perception of things).

The big idea here is that, while potent, electricity didn’t change much for the average person from Alessandro Volta’s first battery in 1800, to 1920s and 1930s. Consider that the electric refrigerator was created in 1913, and it wasn’t until 1935 that the first nighttime baseball game was played in the United States.

The initial emergence of the disruptive innovation (you could think of it simply as the ‘thing that causes change’) is usually quiet and has its ultimate scale obscured (which is why, in the graphic, the circle is small and grey). Not everyone notices the disruption, or its significance. The duration of this stage of the process is inherently short because we’re talking about the initial emergence, not the full reality of.

This stage is characterized by relative stability, a fixed mindset of majority, and disruptive thinking by few. It is the inattention, inaction, or misunderstanding of the disruption by the majority that begins to lead to a shift in power, as those that respond (and respond ‘correctly’) to the disruption can grow. For a company, this could mean rapidly increasing market share. For a school district, this could mean anything from confused parents to national significance as other schools and districts look to you for leadership.

At this stage, very little changes for most, and the ultimate success of any ‘innovation’ is uncertain. As an additional analogue, you can consider mutations in the evolutionary process. The ‘success’ of a mutation isn’t in its outward appearance, but whether it leads to a biological advantage that can be passed on. That takes time to play itself out.

2. Impact

The electricity analogue: Furthering the analogy of electricity consider how, after an initial period of relatively quiet emergence, there was soon to be some noise. While the impact really begins occurring right away, noise is the theme of this stage of the cycle of innovation. Almost every known every industry was deeply changed by electricity, including manufacturing, urban planning, medical care, transportation, and architecture. Each of these industries had to either adjust to new circumstances, or face obsolescence.

If you’re a candle maker, and you just saw your first light bulb, how do you respond?

In general, the ‘Impact’ stage of the learning innovation cycle is a bit more chaotic and exciting. At this stage, the disruption has created a mess of things–shifted perspectives, advantages, applications, resources, etc. A few examples in a school or district?

Effectiveness of Existing Tools

Learner & Teacher Roles

Credibility of Curriculum

Stability of Infrastructure

Emotion of Users

Pattern & Rhythm of Learning Ecologies

This stage is characterized by increased emotion–excitement, hyperbole, fear, uncertainty, and binary thinking. Because of the rapidly changing circumstances, the disruption is hard to understand. It’s not clear the way that iPads will change a classroom, or adaptive learning apps should change a curriculum–or the idea of a curriculum, for example. This uncertainty can be polarizing, creating a sense of enthusiasm and new possibility in some, while others see cause for concern.

This stage can also be characterized by reduced efficiency and overall stability of contexts (assessments, data, classrooms, etc.) The learning innovations that endure aren’t simply “born,” but rather evolve over time as they are understood, reach tipping points, pivot themselves, or connect with other innovations to find new energy and application.

3. Recalibration

After Emergence and Impact, Recalibration occurs for those left standing. Those that invested in (and around the possibility of) electricity would begin to see payoff here, but this stage is less about precise design and more about broad shifting. (See 7 Shifts To Create A Classroom Of The Future, for example.) While this stage has many possible indicators, progress and potential may be its defining examples.

Most significantly, the weaknesses of old thinking and tools and systems and approaches have been emphasized. It is in this part of the cycle that the innovations and their potential become more visible than ever. As the circumstances around the innovation adapt to it, and vice-versa, any progress made can provide credibility, which encourages additional resources to be added, which can create more progress and credibility, and so on.

So what might this mean for your classroom? What kinds of recalibrations? Those related to:

Learning Models

Curriculum Forms

Assessment & Data Design

Related Infrastructure (e.g., budget, school design, learning spaces, learning feedback, function of education technology)

Teacher Planning & Instructional Design Process

Shared Concept Of for ‘What School Is’

4. Evolution

At the final stage of learning innovation comes a period marked by intense evolution. This occurs not only as existing technologies enable subsequent discoveries, but also a growth mindset from individuals who, after seeing what’s now possible, can’t see the world any other way and insist on something different. Notice that in the model above, this circle is the biggest not only because of the length of time this stage in the cycle requires, but because the evolution is the most critical for innovation to endure.

This stage might be thought of as the payoff for all of the shifting and revision and angst. It is from these previous stages that broader vision can develop, which ultimately leads to more innovation. What exactly ‘evolves’? A few ideas are below. Note the shift from the initial Emergence and Impact stages, from tools and individuals and emotions to systems and vision and purpose.

How, Where, & Why People Learn

Vision & Self-Criticism as an Industry

Capacity for Imagination

Human Knowledge Demands

Expectation for Innovation

Purpose of Education

A Disruption Model: The Learning Innovation Cycle; The Learning Innovation Cycle: How Disruption Creates Lasting Change