Category Archives: Learning

Defining Rigor and Busting Myths


This week over 70 staff completed day 2 of the  “Units of Study” workshop at the District Training Room. Participants continued their work around unit planning and the Understanding by Design backwards planning model they started a couple of weeks ago.

Part of the discussion was around designing for the level of rigor required by the standards and reflected in your assessments and learning activities. But what is rigor, exactly? During the workshop conversation around assessment, rigor includes selecting the “right” kind of tasks/assessment, and the “right” scoring of those tasks.

Those interested in reading more about the concept of rigor, here are a few resources collected by the Pennsylvania Dept of Education:

The Beginner’s Guide to Understanding Rigor, Barbara Blackburn, 2012

4 Myths About Rigor in the Classroom, Eye On Education, 2010

The Characteristics of a Rigorous Classroom, Instructional Leader, 2009


Guest Post: Beyond Rote Learning

rotelearningHere is another example proving the work we are doing in 27J around instruction and student thinking will lead the way.

A blog post by @HeatherHiles, titled Moving Beyond Rote Learning appeared in the “Twitterverse” that seems to describe a vision very similar to our own work on Thinking Classrooms. Here’s a few excerpts:

…a national consensus is forming around the idea that in order to fix education in America, we’ve got to move beyond the bubble test. Learning by rote must be replaced by something more effective. Memorization must be thrown out in favor of deeper learning – cognition and metacognition.

Such changes begin when teachers are allowed to move beyond teaching to the test and toward more effective learn-by-doing methods. Change is also possible when we start to understand that each child is unique and learns in his or her own way and time.

She references an example public school system from Union City, New Jersey. Her additional comment rings true:

Helping students to not only hear and memorize concepts, but to actually apply them in the real world—that’s where the magic happens. When students bring the evidence of having applied what they learn into the classroom, something deeper than memorization has occurred. Knowledge has been acquired.

NOTE: She does use the blog post to promote her company, and just for clarification, we are not endorsing the product or company in any way. Simply liked her words and viewpoint on classroom work and wanted to share!

At a Student Achievement meeting today, there were lots of celebrations around the room of great work and transformations happening in classrooms in our district, from Preschool all the way to high school. We feel humbled and honored to be part of such a great movement and wave of meaningful change. It is happening every day because the work YOU DO to make our kids think and grow.

Carry on!!

More Wisdom from Grant Wiggins

In a post from last March, Grant Wiggins published a blog post titled “Everything you know about curriculum may be wrong. Really.” It seems here is another connection to our philosophy of Thinking Classrooms. We’ve added an excerpt of his post here, but be sure to check out the full post. Grant Wiggins is the co-author of Understanding By Design, along with many other books, articles and other published works.

So, suppose knowledge is not the goal of education. Rather, suppose today’s content knowledge is an offshoot of successful ongoing learning in a changing world – in which ‘learning’ means ‘learning to perform in the world.’

As odd as that might sound for academics, it makes perfect sense in our everyday lives. The point of child-rearing, cooking, teaching, soccer, music, business, or architecture is not ‘knowledge’; rather, knowledge is the growing (and ever-changing) residue of the main activity of trying to perform well for real.

In athletics this is very clear: the game is the curriculum; the game is the teacher. And each game is different (even as helpful patterns emerge). Knowledge about the game is secondary, an offshoot of learning to play the game well. As I learn to play, knowledge – about rules, strategy, and technique – accrues, but it is not the point.

So, it would be very foolish to learn soccer (or child-rearing or music or how to cook) in lectures. This reverses cause and effect, and loses sight of purpose. Could it be the same for history, math, and science learning? Only blind habit keeps us from exploring this obvious logic. The point is to do new things with content, not simply know what others know – in any field.

Video games are especially startling from the perspective of conventional views of curriculum and instruction. According to the standard view, I should never be able to learn and greatly improve at the games since there is no formal and explicit curriculum framed by knowledge, and – even more puzzling – no one teaches me anything! I shouldn’t learn but I do. In games (and in life), I begin with performance challenges, not technical knowledge. I receive no upfront teaching (or even manuals any more in games and other software!) but I learn based on the attempts to perform and feedback from trying – just as I did when learning to walk or hold a spoon. How is that possible? Conventional views of curriculum and instruction have no good explanation for it.

  • If curriculum is a tour through what is known, how is knowledge ever advanced?
  • If learning requires a didactic march through content, why are movies and stories so memorable – often, more memorable than classes we once took?
  • If a primary goal of education is high-level performance in the world going forward, how can marching through old knowledge out of context optimally prepare us to perform?
  • If education is about having core knowledge, and we are more and more teaching and testing all this knowledge, why are results on tests like NAEP so universally poor, showing that over decades American students have not progressed much beyond basic “plug and chug”?

photo credit: politikill via photopin cc

A Day with Planning, Standards and Thinking Classrooms

This week the Student Achievement team met with a cohort of district teachers, literacy coaches and administrators to continue the work they started last year. The work centered around the three “stages” of backward unit planning–The Big Idea, Assessment Evidence, and Daily Instruction–based on the Understanding By Design principles.

The question of the day was “Why the Thinking Classroom?” Attendees had several opportunities to answer this question within the frame of one of the three stages. Here are some of the responses and comments –

“…to teach the skills and processes to access the content”

“…to instill inquisitiveness in our students”

“…It hurts to think, especially when you are asked to do things you haven’t been asked before”

“…innovation needs space to breathe”

“…why wouldn’t we want thinking classrooms?”

To facilitate our work and our thinking about this question, we used several videos as “thought jump-starts”. Check them out and then share your answer to the question.

Above and Beyond
Above & Beyond is a story about what is possible when communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creativity take center stage in schools and transform learning opportunities for all kids.

Tedx Talk: How to Learn from Mistakes
Diana Laufenberg, a teacher in Philadelphia, shares surprising things she has learned about teaching — including a key insight about learning from mistakes and the history around where knowledge is stored.

The Formative Principles of the Common Core Standards
Phil Daro, a mathematics expert who helped author the national Common Core Standards, talks about what the new standards are, and what they are not. Our work is starting with instruction in the classroom, and we will be spending more time in the upcoming year delving more into standards, including Common Core, Colorado Academic, WIDA and others.

Seinfeld Teaches History
In this classic Saturday Night Live skit, Jerry Seinfeld plays a teacher trying to get his students to “Think History”. It is an entertaining reminder that the mindshift of teaching in a Thinking Classroom is not only hard for teachers, but hard for students as well.

Add you Comments and share your answer to the question: “Why the Thinking Classroom?”
photo credit: Krissy.Venosdale via photopin cc

Taft Elementary in Wisconsin Shares Thinking Strategies

So you want to make your classroom a “Thinking Classroom”, but need ideas to find a place to start? Here’s a video posted by Taft Elementary School in Neenan, WI about how they identified Thinking Strategies and incorporated them across their school. Their thinking strategies are:

  • Monitoring
  • Using Schema
  • Making Connections
  • Visualizing
  • Predicting
  • Questioning
  • Inferring
  • Determining Importance
  • Summarizing

Do you use any of these strategies? What did that look like? What strategies would you add to this list? What do you think shouldn’t make the list? What is your school doing or working on?

See the Video Here

How Do We Get Kids to Learn?

As educators in School District 27J,  we have incredible capacity to think, teach, and adjust our practice for the greater purpose of helping all kids learn.  We give an extraordinary number of hours every day, week, month, school year toward the betterment of kids.  We show up every day with the greatest intent on influencing the faces sitting before us.   Yet with all this capacity, and all this energy given to aid our students, we remain stuck on one very difficult challenge… How do we get kids to learn?

The question sounds simple enough, but there are so many various perspectives to this question.

An external frame:   How do we get kids to learn…

  • with the economy bearing down on our working conditions, with increased work load, and increased class sizes?
  • with the societal problems we face, with declining values, shootings at movie theaters  and crimes in our hallways?
  • when students have parents who are facing many challenges that prevent them from being the most active influence on their child?

A work load frame:  How do we get kids to learn…

  • when we have way too much content to teach, and too little time to adequately teach it?
  • when there are so many varied levels of students sitting in from of us?
  • when there are so many other things that I have to do that take me away from obsessing on this question?
  • with the diversity of today’s learner, within this digital era, and a lack of motivation for my class or school in general?

A teacher preparation frame:  How do we get kids to learn…

  • when the “Educational Machine” has modeled for us unproductive habits of teaching that didn’t help us learn to be teachers (Tell and Test, sit and get, plug and chug, drill and kill; grade instead of assess; judge and rank instead of providing feedback; mandate compliance instead of inspire engagement; hoop jumping instead of true learning)?
  • when my district, my evaluator, my colleagues, and parents have asked for, encouraged, and reinforced traditional teaching practices?

A personal frame:  How do we get kids to learn…

  • when our own practices are filled with unproductive habits of practice (as described above)?
  • when we don’t know how to narrow the content?
  • when we don’t have  the strategies to engage our students in rigorous thinking?
  • when we don’t know what else we could do besides follow the curricular program, do the worksheets, assign the homework, and give the test?
  • when we feel like we must grade everything to justify the grade book?
  • when we don’t know what learning would really look like, or what my kids would do to demonstrate it?

It should be obvious to the reader, that this list is far from complete and wrought with variables outside of our control.  And yet we do have some control.  We have control to take on what we can, and deliver on what we know in order to better our practice.  We can begin a journey of actualization.   We can think about the learning our students are doing and our evidence that proves that they understand it.  We can think about our teaching and its influences on our students and their learning.  We can play with our habits, and try to produce new ones that give more ownership and responsibility to the learner.  We can control ourselves, we can encourage more thinking in our classrooms, and we can obsess over the unanswered question..  How do we get kids to learn?

We are thrilled to have you join our thinking in this blog space.  We look forward to continuing conversation, reflection, and hearing from you as we challenge what has been, and what can be in our classrooms.

photo credit: makeitgreat via photopin cc

%d bloggers like this: