Tag Archives: teaching

Podcast – Moving from digital substitution to deeper learning

Harnessing Technology for Deeper LearningBetsy Corcoran, CEO of EdSurge, asked me to do two podcast interviews with her while I was at the EdSurge Fusion conference in San Francisco in October. The second recording is now available. Betsy asked me to discuss the 4 Shifts Protocol; my new book, Harnessing Technology for Deeper Learning; and how we should be thinking about instructional redesign for deeper learning, greater student agency, more authentic work, and rich technology infusion.

Happy listening!

If you want deeper learning…

Deep eye… you must have deeper teaching.

You can’t get to deeper learning with worksheets and end-of-chapter review questions.

You can’t get to deeper learning with self-paced adaptive learning modules that emphasize facts and procedures.

You can’t get to deeper learning with multiple-choice software and apps.

You can’t get to deeper learning without actually changing day-to-day lessons and units.

You can’t get to deeper learning without shifting toward critical thinking, problem-solving, student agency, and authentic work.

You can’t get to deeper learning without changing your teacher observation and evaluation rubrics.

You can’t get to deeper learning without changing your classroom walkthrough templates.

You can’t get to deeper learning without changing your hiring criteria and interview protocols.

You can’t get to deeper learning without changing what you ask PLCs to focus on.

You can’t get to deeper learning without changing your professional learning structures.

You can’t get to deeper learning without changing your budget.

You can’t get to deeper learning without changing the types of concrete ‘look fors’ and ‘think abouts’ that you prioritize as a school leadership team.

You can’t get to deeper learning with replicative, shallow instruction and status quo leadership behaviors.

You can’t get to deeper learning without taking risks.

Your new 21st century learning framework is awesome. How are you going to ensure it’s more than just lip service?

Image credit: deep eye, carlosdiazwa

Why we don’t recommend using the 4 Shifts Protocol as a classroom observation tool

Harnessing Technology for Deeper LearningJulie Graber and I often get asked if the 4 Shifts Protocol can be used as a comprehensive walkthrough or observation tool. While the protocol is open source and people can do whatever they want with it, we do NOT recommend using it in this manner. Here’s why…

The protocol is made up of numerous sections and discussion items. Unless a teacher is creating a many-week, interdisciplinary, group project for her students, it’s nearly impossible for her to address all of the items on the protocol in a short lesson or unit. If the protocol is used as an observation or walkthrough instrument, the teacher inevitably will not be doing many of the items. It seems unfair to penalize the teacher for not doing the impossible. The last thing we want is for principals, coaches, or mentors to walk into a teacher’s classroom with a big list from the protocol saying ‘nope, nope, nope!’

The protocol is designed to honor instructor purpose. In our workshops and new book – and as the #1 suggestion on the protocol itself – we emphasize that it’s much better if a teacher identifies a protocol section or a few bullet points to focus on. The goal of the protocol is to help educators gradually shift their instructional practice and build new skill sets, mindsets, and competencies. If we force teachers to work on areas that they’re not ready for or comfortable with yet because it’s on a walkthrough template, we risk alienating them from the important work that we want them to do. We encourage giving teachers as much choice as possible regarding which sections to work on, which items to work on within a section, and how deep to go on any particular item. If we use the protocol in this manner, it can be very accommodating of teachers’ different instructional orientations, skill sets, and comfort levels.

The protocol is designed to be as nonjudgmental as possible. One of the problems with SAMR and the Arizona / Florida Technology Integration Matrices, for instance, is that there is inherent judgment when we place teachers’ instructional practice into levels. As soon as we tell a teacher that she’s at the Substitution level on SAMR, for example, she’s going to feel at least a little bit judged and perhaps a lot defensive. That is not the stance with which we want to approach instructional redesign conversations. We frame the protocol as a discussion tool that hopefully can help us accomplish the goals that we set for a particular instructional activity. We’re not interested in judging anyone. We ARE interested in helping educators identify what they want to work on and then using the protocol to help them get there.

As we say in the book, we encourage educators to think about the protocol sections as sets of experiences that we want students to have multiple times each school year. Do we want students to have multiple opportunities for deeper learning this year? To have multiple opportunities for agency over their own learning this year? To have multiple opportunities to engage in authentic, real world work this year? To have multiple opportunities to use technology in meaningful ways and boost their communication and collaboration skills this year? A big YES to all of those. But today or this week – for this particular lesson or unit – we’re just hitting a few bullet points. Don’t bug us about the other ones – those happen at other times during the year. It would be okay to ask us about our plans to cover each of the sections multiple times over the course of this year. But please don’t mark us down for only focusing on one section or a few items in this lesson or unit. That’s exactly what we should be doing. Give us some feedback and suggestions in a pre- and post-conversation about what you see regarding the few questions that we’re focusing on, but please honor our intentionality.

I hope all of this makes sense. The only way I might be comfortable using the protocol as a walkthrough or observation device was if it was used occasionally as an environmental scan, just to take a pulse of what’s happening – or not – within a school across classrooms. Otherwise, we encourage everyone to use the protocol as a conversation sparker and redesign tool, not a mechanism for judgment.

Thanks. Let me know your thoughts!

Our new book, Harnessing Technology for Deeper Learning, was released today!

Harnessing Technology for Deeper LearningAfter 4+ years of piloting our 4 Shifts discussion protocol with thousands of educators, I am delighted to announce that our new book, Harnessing Technology for Deeper Learning, is now available!

Over the past few years the protocol has really started to take off. In schools and districts all around the world, we have teachers, principals, instructional coaches, and technology integrationists who are integrating the protocol into their instructional (re)design work. We are finding that the protocol accommodates a variety of educator starting points, skill sets, and comfort levels. It’s a great complement to SAMR because it’s an instructional discussion tool, not just a technology usage continuum. And it’s occupying a wonderful design space between more traditional practice and full blown, ‘gold standard,’ multiple-week PBL projects.

To celebrate the book’s release, Julie Graber and I are inviting educators to participate in the #4Shifts Challenge and publicly (re)design a lesson, unit, or instructional activity using several of the sections or bullet points in the protocol as levers for (re)design. If we want deeper learning, greater student agency, more authentic work, and rich technology infusion to happen, we have to design for them. We hope that you will join us in sharing what powerful instructional redesign can look like. We need examples that we can point educators to for inspiration! If you’re game, simply post your redesign and share it using the #4Shifts hashtag, which will help us find your post and drive some traffic to your site! Thanks!

Why buy the book when the protocol is free?!

The protocol is open source and always will be, as will numerous other resources on the 4 Shifts Protocol resource page. Feel free to use and/or modify those resources as desired. The new book, however, takes a deeper dive with the protocol. In the book we provide eight concrete examples of lesson and unit (re)design so that you can see the protocol in practice across various grade levels and subject areas. The book is aimed squarely at practitioners and their day-to-day instructional (re)design needs. We also explain in the book why we think the protocol is a great complement to SAMR, TPACK, RAT, PIC-RAT, and the Arizona and Florida Technology Integration Matrices. And we include numerous tips and suggestions for using the protocol in your school(s)!

Let Julie and I know what you think. Please reach out if you have questions or if there are ways that we can be of support to you. We are happy to set up a chat to address questions or concerns and share how we are using the protocol with educators. And if you feel like leaving us an Amazon review, we’d love that too! 

A great big thank you to the thousands of educators who have helped make the protocol better!

Inspiring… or not

Stop stealing dreams, by Seth GodinLearning math by building bridges or designing aircraft wings is inspiring. Chugging through the odd-numbered practice problems at the end of the chapter is not.

Improving our community by collecting data and investigating the causes of local environmental challenges is inspiring. Participating in artificial, recipe-like science ‘experiments’ from a publishing company is not.

Wrestling with controversial but important political issues is inspiring. Regurgitating decontextualized historical names, dates, and places is not.

Writing for and advocating to authentic audiences around societal issues that we’re passionate about is inspiring. Writing 5-paragraph essays about books that we don’t care about is not.

Investigating our own questions about the world and how it works is inspiring. Spitting back the ‘right answer’ to someone else’s low-level questions is not.

Finding areas of interest and passion is inspiring. Slogging through a lifeless textbook is not.

Active, energetic, enthusiastic, maybe messy, and probably noisy collaboration is inspiring. Working in isolation and sitting quietly in rows and columns are not.

Using technology to learn with and from students in other parts of the world is inspiring. Using technology to complete digital worksheets is not.

Interdisciplinary learning that is seen by students as meaningful, authentic, and connected to the real world is inspiring. Subject-siloed, isolated, disconnected learning is not.

Internships and community partnerships and impactful service learning opportunities are inspiring. Pretend word problems and scenarios are not.

Learning spaces that honor children’s dignity and value their worth are inspiring. Learning spaces that are overwhelmingly focused on compliance are not.

And so on…

Inspiring… or not. What vision are we selling to our students, parents, and communities?

And, no, we don’t have to do the uninspiring before we can get to the inspiring, particularly if we rarely get beyond the former…

Image credit: Stop Stealing Dreams, Seth Godin

The benefits of active learning

Science summer camp 2011

In an article lamenting the reduction in kindergarten of teacher autonomy and child-directed activities, Washington Post columnist Valerie Strauss quoted early childhood development expert Nancy Carlsson-Paige:

We have decades of research in child development and neuroscience that tell us that young children learn actively – they have to move, use their senses, get their hands on things, interact with other kids and teachers, create, invent. But in this twisted time, young children starting public pre-K at the age of 4 are expected to learn through “rigorous instruction.”

Strauss noted in her article that researcher R. Clarke Fowler found that 

about half the teachers who responded said their [Massachusetts] districts had adopted scripted programs in math and writing – and 60 percent in phonics and spelling – which reduce a teacher’s autonomy in instruction. Seventy-four percent of teachers from high-SES districts and 64 percent from low-SES districts reported their schools had cut the amount of time scheduled for child-directed activities in recent years. 

Given what we know about teacher retention and/or the cognitive development of young children, this is incredibly dismaying (and not limited to Massachusetts). It also seems to be a harsh indictment of school leaders’ inability to enact research-based (or even common sense) best practices.

Of course the benefits of active learning are apparent beyond the kindergarten sector. For instance, the Hewlett Foundation and the American Institutes for Research have been studying ‘deeper learning schools’ in project- and inquiry-based learning networks such as High Tech High, the New Tech Network, Big Picture Learning, and the EL Schools. That research indicates that students in these schools generally have higher scores on both traditional state tests and international assessments. They also tend to report greater collaboration skills, greater feelings of belongingness, higher levels of academic engagement, greater motivation to learn, and higher levels of self-efficacy. They also are more likely to graduate high school on time, are more likely to enroll in 4-year colleges and universities (particularly true for 9th grade low achievers), and persist and graduate from college at higher rates. In other words, compared to more traditional schools, these schools ROCK IT on many of the outcomes that we say that we are trying to achieve for our students. Plus there’s a ton of research confirming the power of project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, student agency, and so on.

Unsurprisingly, these findings hold true at the university level as well. For example, when MIT changed its freshman physics class from a model of hundreds of students listening passively to lectures in an auditorium to a model of smaller, interactive classes that emphasized hands-on, collaborative learning, it found that attendance increased and that the failure rate dropped more than 50 percent. Research has shown that “most students learn fundamental concepts more successfully, and are better able to apply them, through interactive, collaborative, student-centered learning.” Similarly, the 10 or so universities participating in the Student Engagement in Mathematics through an Institutional Network for Active Learning (SEMINAL) project have begun to initiate active learning methods and collaborative problem-solving into their math courses. They are seeing increases in average test scores, decreases in students earning less than a C, and numerous other benefits. These postsecondary examples confirm research by the National Academy of Sciences that students in active learning environments are “33 percent less likely to fail in undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses.”

It’s pretty clear that active learning techniques seem to have multiple payoffs compared to more traditional instructional methods. The question isn’t whether active learning techniques work. The question is why we’re not doing more of them given the rich research supporting their effectiveness.

Image credit: 2011 Science Summer Camp 138, thewomensmuseum

Why are we teaching the stuff we’re teaching?

Will Richardson said:

More than, what, 90% of what we currently teach and talk about … is quickly forgotten once the next topic in the pacing guide comes up. Climate change, literacy, fake news, #metoo, what it means to be a citizen in a democracy, racism, income gaps, privacy, future jobs, AI, cryptocurrency… We can make that list of things that really matter today (or probably will matter in the future) a mile long.

And after we do, we have to own up to the fact that, by and large, even though we know that’s the stuff of modern life, we in schools say to kids “Good luck with all of that. Hope you figure it all out. We can’t really deal with that stuff because we have to teach you Geometry, which, btw, we know most of you will NEVER use, but hey, it’s in the curriculum and we’ve been teaching it forever.”

This is one of the many existential questions we need to be grappling with: Why are we teaching the stuff we’re teaching?

via the Change.School community

New Year Leadership Challenge 2: Curiosity

Question Mark Cookies

[Instead of just challenge-based learning, how about challenge-based leadership?]

Sir Ken Robinson said in Creative Schools:

Human achievement in every field is driven by the desire to explore, to test and prod, to see what happens, to question how things work, and to wonder why and ask, what if?

Young children have a ready appetite to explore whatever draws their interest. When their curiosity is engaged, they will learn for themselves, from each other, and from any source they can lay their hands on. Knowing how to nurture and guide students’ curiosity is the gift of all great teachers. They do that by encouraging students to investigate and inquire for themselves, by posing questions rather than only giving answers, and by challenging them to push their thinking deeper by looking further. (p. 135)

Others have noted the power of students’ asking their own questions – not just answering those of others – and using those inquiries to drive meaningful learning:

When students know how to ask their own questions, they take greater ownership of their learning, deepen comprehension, and make new connections and discoveries on their own. However, this skill is rarely, if ever, deliberately taught to students from kindergarten through high school. Typically, questions are seen as the province of teachers, who spend years figuring out how to craft questions and fine-tune them to stimulate students’ curiosity or engage them more effectively. We have found that teaching students to ask their own questions can accomplish these same goals while teaching a critical lifelong skill. (Rothstein, D., & Santana, L. (2011). Harvard Education Letter, 27(5))

Unfortunately, as Postman and Weingartner noted long ago in Teaching as a Subversive Activity:

What students do in the classroom is what they learn (as Dewey would say) . . . Now, what is it that students do in the classroom? Well, mostly, they sit and listen to the teacher. . . . Mostly, they are required to remember. . . . It is practically unheard of for students to play any role in determining what problems are worth studying or what procedures of inquiry ought to be used. . . . Here is the point: Once you have learned how to ask questions – relevant and appropriate and substantial questions – you have learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know . . . [However,] what students are restricted to (solely and even vengefully) is the process of memorizing . . . somebody else’s answers to somebody else’s questions. It is staggering to consider the implications of this fact. The most important intellectual ability man has yet developed – the art and science of asking questions – is not taught in school! Moreover, it is not “taught” in the most devastating way possible: by arranging the environment so that significant question asking is not valued. It is doubtful if you can think of many schools that include question-asking, or methods of inquiry, as part of their curriculum. 

New Year Leadership Challenge 2: Curiosity

What could you do as a school leader to hack at some new possibilities for curiosity- and inquiry-driven student learning…

  • in the next two weeks?
  • in a one- or two-month spring pilot?
  • in full-force implementation next school year?

[HINT: think some students, not all; some teachers, not all; some blocks of time, not all; some locations, not all; etc.]

New Year Leadership Challenge 1: Same-age grouping

Bluegrass Stockyards

[Instead of just challenge-based learning, how about challenge-based leadership?]

Sir Ken Robinson said in Creative Schools:

The principle of linearity works well for manufacturing; it doesn’t for people. Educating children by age group assumes that the most important thing they have in common is their date of manufacture. In practice, different students learn at different rates in different disciplines. A child with natural ability in one area may struggle in another. One may be equal to older children in some activities and behind younger ones in others. We don’t apply this batching principle outside of schools. We don’t keep all the ten-year-olds away from the nine-year-olds, in separate facilities. This form of segregation mainly happens in schools. (p. 37)

New Year Leadership Challenge 1: Same-age grouping

What could you do as a school leader to hack at the deficiencies of same-age grouping…

  • in the next two weeks?
  • in a one- or two-month spring pilot?
  • in full-force implementation next school year?

[HINT: think some students, not all; some teachers, not all; some blocks of time, not all; some locations, not all; etc.]

Image credit: Bluegrass Stockyards gates, pens, and corrals in black and white; Anthony

Transmit, regurgitate. Transmit, regurgitate. Transmit, regurgitate…

Radio tower

The teacher transmits information to the student.

The textbook transmits information to the student.

The online tutorial or learning software or YouTube video transmits information to the student.


The student’s role is to be the recipient of what is transmitted.

The student’s role is to regurgitate what was transmitted with enough fidelity that the teacher or software system can check off that the student ‘knows’ it.

The student’s role is to be obedient and compliant.


It doesn’t matter if what is transmitted and regurgitated is of interest to the student. 

It doesn’t matter if what is transmitted and regurgitated is meaningful or relevant to the student.

It doesn’t matter if what is transmitted and regurgitated can be found with a quick Google or Siri search.

It doesn’t matter if what is transmitted and regurgitated can’t be applied beyond the narrowly-conscribed classroom setting.

It doesn’t matter if what is transmitted and regurgitated is forgotten by the student just a few weeks later.


What matters is that the student holds in her brain what was transmitted and regurgitated long enough to get the grade. We need to check the box. We need to move on. We have things to cover. Hopefully, enough of what is transmitted and regurgitated will stick – individually and collectively, across all students and all buildings – for those end-of-year assessments of factual and procedural regurgitation that we use to determine educator and school ’success.’


Transmit, regurgitate. Transmit, regurgitate. Transmit, regurgitate… Why do we believe that this model is adequate for the demands of a complex, global innovation society?


Image credit: Transmitting, Tim Haynes