The vintage photo shows the author, wearing a crown and hoping to create learning magic with the wave of a wand. I threw the wand away but am still working to improve learning for all children.

No One Is Reinventing Education, But We Can Make It Better

We are sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.

Hatip to John of Salisbury whose metaphor from 1159 beautifully articulates the credit today’s education reformers owe to our predecessors, especially constructivists, progressives, and Montessori. For over twenty years I have been involved in initiatives that promised to re-image or reinvent education. But no one is reinventing education. Instead, successful innovators are building on well-developed theories and practices. As more and more schools embrace personalization, inquiry, and project-based learning teachers need a complex set of understandings and skills largely ignored in teacher education and professional development. Engaging educators in the process of change is critical, but not enough. Supporting them to understand learning theories, apply cognitive science, and acquire new skills is essential if we want innovation that will take hold and flourish.

If you or your school is launching personalization, one of the most touted forms of innovation, start by examining how learning theories and proven practices inform student voice, mastery-based learning, student agency and customizing instruction.

Student Voice

Constructivist theory emphasizes that learning is active and knowledge is built on top of the individual’s experience. Constructivism’s roots reach back to Socrates’s dialogues with his followers, in which he asked questions that led his students to uncover weaknesses in their thinking. Teachers who value student voice should study Socratic dialogue, and related practices like the Harkness method, and the Padiea model. Socratic dialogue is not the only way to give students an authentic voice, but like play, it should be a part of every classroom, regardless of the subject or age level.

Visible Thinking practices from Harvard’s Project Zero guide students to make sense of new information. These routines improve classroom conversations and collaboration because they guide students to observe, analyze, and question.

Mastery-Based or Competency-Based Education

Mastery learning or CBE, a key feature of personalization, first proposed by Benjamen Bloom in the 1960s, is a natural outgrowth of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development theory. Les Vygotsky and researchers who furthered his work posited that instruction and support must align with each learner’s ZPD, the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance. Unfortunately, many educators who have adopted mastery-based learning rely solely on screen based curriculum to deliver targeted instruction. There are excellent adaptive, online curricula but teachers must observe to scaffold children’s thinking. Scaffolding is a process through which a teacher supports the learner in the ZPD, tapering off the aid as the learner masters the concept or skill. Scaffolding is the antithesis of the transmission’ model of teaching and is founded on the conviction that children’s learning is a long, drawn-out process that requires multiple occasions to manipulate materials, test concepts and practice newly-learned skills. Jerome Bruner, a Harvard psychologist, who was influenced by Vygotsky and by Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, wrote, any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development. Scaffolding is preparing the environment and responding in a way that allows learners to build their understanding of any task or topic. Bruner observed that learning abstract concepts occurs in stages as students of any age pass through modes of representation. In the enactive mode, learners encode and store information through manipulation of real objects. In the iconic mode, visual representations support the development of mental images which help learners recall and understand concepts. The bar model is an example of the iconic mode of representation. In the symbolic mode, learners are ready to use symbols, numbers or letters. Bruner’s sequence of modes is similar to the progression of Montessori materials and is invaluable for designing learning experiences that guide students to explore and discover concepts. It is especially useful in math instruction and is embedded in Singapore Math where it referred to as CPA, concrete, pictorial and abstract. When teachers understand and use the modes of representation, they gain insight into children’s thinking and are better equipped to design learning experiences, observe learners, and scaffold appropriately.

Motivation: The Key To Student Agency

Engaged learners initiate and follow through on their interests. They take responsibility for their learning. Building student motivation is part of a teacher’s job. The expectancy-value theory of motivation is an excellent lens for understanding motivation. Expectancy is a student’s belief about how well he or she will do on a task. Expectancy is the “I can” part of motivation. Value refers to a student’s overall desire to complete a task or engage in an activity with academic content. Value is the “I want” part of student motivation. When teachers understand student expectations and values, they are better able to craft clear, attainable goals and build interests into learning experiences. Sanford Inspire has an excellent module for learning more about the theory. They offer downloadable resources teachers can quickly adapt to gain insights about their students’ motivations.

Motivation occurs when learners feel safe and well know. Responsive Classroom has excellent books, articles, videos, and workshops, for building healthy, caring communities. Valor Schools, a network of charter schools, employs a well-designed program for the development of character and learning habits for students in fifth grade through high school. Their Circle practices are especially valuable.

When teachers know their students well, respect and understand their lives outside of school, they gain crucial insights into what drives the learner forward and what might be holding them back. Awareness of affinities can help teachers create positive connections with and among students. Feel free to copy, customize and use this affinity checklist.

Customizing Instruction To Address Learner Variability

True student-driven, personalized learning will only happen when educators expect variability among learners and diagnose the learning experience instead of the learner. In their excellent book ABC’s of How We Learn, Daniel Schwartz, Jessica Tsang, and Kristen Blair, emphasize the importance of understanding how learning works.

Learning is not one thing…….The brain has many learning systems each of which has a different neural structure and a unique appetite. Effective instruction depends on choosing pedagogical moves that nourish the right learning system for the desired outcomes.

Yes! Learning is complex. We make use of different clusters of neural structures to learn specific skills and to produce particular behaviors or products. The combinations of neural structures called upon to accomplish academic tasks are mind-boggling. These learning systems are sometimes called cognition factors, or neurodevelopmental constructs. Digital Promises’ Learner Variability Project calls them cognition factors, the term I will use going forward.

An educator’s capacity to develop multiple learning pathways for students begins with in-depth knowledge of the ten cognition factors identified by research in cognitive science and used in the Learner Variability Project.

  1. Attention is the ability to regulate emotions and behaviors (see inhibition) to initiate and sustain focus on a specific task or tasks.
  2. Cognitive Flexibility is a component of executive functioning that allows the individual to switch behaviors to adapt to changing situations; frequently refers to the ability to toggle between thinking about two different concepts, and to think about multiple concepts simultaneously.
  3. Inhibition is the ability to suppress attention to irrelevant input and to focus on pertinent stimuli or information.
  4. Long-Term Memory is the ability to consolidate and store informative knowledge indefinitely.
  5. Sensory Integration is the ability to process multiple sources of sensory input and respond appropriately.
  6. Short-Term Memory is the ability to store a limited amount of information for a short time.
  7. Spatial Skill is the ability to conceptualize, reason and remember the relations among objects or space.
  8. Processing Speed is the rate at which we take in, organize and use information
  9. Visual Processing is the ability to make sense of information taken in through sight. Visual Processing is complex. Eight visual processing skills that help students perceive organize and fluently make use of visual information.
  10. Working memory is the ability to temporarily hold and manipulate information.

Teachers must become adept at content analysis, discovering how learning experiences draw on particular sets cognition factors. Working together, using samples of student work and, if possible, videos of students working, teachers must dissect standards, curriculum, and methods, identifying the specific cognition factors assignments require students to deploy. Through collaborative analysis, educators will understand how, among other things, working memory is related to factoring equations and how processing speed influences retrieval of math facts.

Resources and Recommendations

Throughout this essay, I have linked to resources I have used and successfully introduced to colleagues. Through pilots, collaboration and reflection individuals and faculties will identify which practices and resources are best suited to their learning community. Below are recommendations and resources to support schools in continuous improvement.

  1. Value multiple forms of assessment: If we want teachers to make substantial changes to instructional practices we must educate stakeholders about the flaws and dangers of standardized tests. We must also employ a variety of methods that demonstrate what students have accomplished. Begin the conversation with a discussion of Beyond Testing: Seven Assessment of Students and Schools More Effective Than Standardized Tests. Understand the work of Mastery Transcript Consortium and explore ways to improve the school’s reporting systems and transcript. Join with other schools to define best practices in reporting and sharing student learning. Consider working with reDesign or other consultants who have expertise in mastery learning and the shift from standards to competencies. Even if your school is not ready to launch mastery-based learning educators should understand performance-based assessment.
  2. Prioritize professional learning: Embed time for professional learning in every educator’s daily routine. We can no longer consider teaching as a ten month a year job where 90% of the teacher’s time is spent supervising groups of students. Ideally, 20% of educator time would be devoted to individual and group professional study. To achieve this audacious goal schools and districts must iterate on antiquated school schedules. Doing so will necessitate building community support for change. Adding time alone will not be sufficient. Schools must create new roles for educators and improve paths for professional growth. Ignite thinking about this process with The Christiensen Institute’s excellent white paper on innovative staffing. At AltSchool I quickly discovered that human support for personalization was far more important than technology. For three years we embedded personalization leads, trained in learning differences and child-centered pedagogy, in each school. They mentored classroom teachers to understand and address learner variability. One member of the team, a Montessori teacher with over 25 years of experience, was highly successful in guiding teachers to observe and scaffold learning. Because Montessori training prepares educators to understand children’s thinking, and to model, and scaffold I recommend hiring an experienced Montessori teacher as a staff mentor. Alternatively, consider partnering with a Montessori school so educators can shadow and interview teachers. Montessori Guide, created by Association Montessori International, is an excellent collection of short videos depicting student explorations and teacher guidance in a Montessori classroom.
  3. Connect cognitive science to classroom practices: The goal of professional learning should be to understand how children learn and to identify which teaching practices have the most significant positive impact on student growth. The ABC’s of How We Learn, referenced above, is an easy to read compendium of learning theories and an extremely useful collection of strategies and techniques, based on substantial evidence. If I could only purchase one resource for a professional development library this book would be my choice. The Science of Learning is another invaluable resource for helping teachers connect research to classroom practice.
  4. Equip educators to reach all kinds of minds: The Learning Variability Project, referenced above, is currently the best tool for understanding the interplay of cognition factors, social contexts and content requirements in academic learning. It is not fully developed, and the interface is a bit clunky but the concept is sound, and the research resources are excellent. Education leaders should use it to curate faculty study and inform pilots. Case studies would enhance the LVP tool but, for now, will have to be developed by school-based experts in learning differences. is another excellent resource for understanding learning. It was designed for parents but because it is easy to navigate and has a wealth of useful information teachers are using it to better understand how to support all learners.

Unless teachers have a deep understanding of how learning works and are prepared to offer students a range of ways to demonstrate their knowledge current initiatives will join their predecessors in the crowded dustbin of failed reform efforts. The good news is there are a growing number of resources available to support educators in the new roles they must fulfill in a learner-centered, student-driven classroom. There are no simple formulas for improving learning and technology is not a magic wand. Innovation is messy but deepening understanding of how people learn will produce positive results for teachers and students.

Educator, entrepreneur, boundary crosser, community builder, advocate for learners of all ages.

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