What do teaching and learning look like?

The most important innovations are the ones that touch learning directly. At the end of the day, all the changes you make in your school or district should come back to this question: is this making teaching and learning better for all our kids in all our classrooms? As you navigate change, it is helpful to keep this question at the forefront. Learning data will help you know if you are moving in the right direction, but it may not be enough. You will also want a picture in your head about what learning can look like. If we do away with desks in rows and a teacher at the front of a classroom, what do we create in their place?

  • Meaningful, transferable knowledge and skills. First off, learning and teaching will be organized around a meaningful set of competencies; the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that students need to be successful. These will include academic competency, but they will not be solely academic; they will include non-cognitive, social, and emotional competencies as well. And, academic competencies will balance breadth with depth. Students will have opportunities to go deep and build enduring understanding of key concepts and engage in higher-order thinking: applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. In many cases, learning will be interdisciplinary and applied.
  • Student agency and cognitive lift. If you walk into a traditional classroom, you will see the teacher doing most of the work. If you walk into a modern classroom, you will see students doing most of the work: making choices about what they learn, how they learn, and how they demonstrate learning. Monitoring their own progress, and seeking help when they need it.. And, doing most of the cognitive lift: making connections, asking questions, and solving problems to overcome barriers.
  • Meeting students where they are. In any given classroom, students are at very different places in their learning in different areas for different reasons. Teaching to the middle is not a solution. Modern classrooms meet students where they are. This does NOT mean assuming that kids who are ahead will stay ahead and kids who are behind stay behind. Meeting student where they are means knowing where they are, knowing what kind of progress and pace they need to make, identifying the right level of challenge for each student, providing scaffolds that let students rise to that challenge, and continuously monitoring progress and pace to help kids advance. So, if you walk into a modern classroom, you will probably see kids working on different things. That’s ok. That’s good! They key questions are: are they working at the right level of challenge, do they know what they are doing and why, and are they making progress?
  • Timely, differentiated supports. The key to meeting students where they are is providing timely differentiated supports. This is different from traditional practice. In traditional classrooms, students get remedial supports when they are behind. In modern classrooms, students get supports to help them advance in their learning before they get behind. Timely means they are provided when students need them. Differentiated means they are the right supports for that student.
  • Personal and flexible learning environments. You can’t provide timely, differentiated supports in a classroom where all the variables – time, technology, materials, learning modalities – are fixed. There’s just no way to do it. So, in a modern classroom, these variables are flexible. Students can access, engage, and demonstrate learning in different ways. They can get support in different forms. They don’t have to move on when “time is up,’ and they don’t have to sit and wait for time to be up if they are ready to move on. Flexible, personalized classrooms look and sound different than traditional classrooms. Students are working in large groups, small groups or tucked away working individually. There is a hum as students collaborate around tasks. The teacher is likely working with a few students at a table or walking around checking in. Some think it feels confusing….and it can be the first time you see it. But after you understand the expectations, patterns and dynamics you will realize it has its very own order.

Here are a few things to think about. First,  teachers can make the transition to a flexible classroom gradually. Some will want to introduce one practice at a time. Create schoolwide rituals so students know what to expect. Help students understand how to use resources and manage their learning. Second, check your assumptions about “messiness!” Sometimes, the worry about messiness is really a worry about losing control. So, self reflect and engage with your peers to work on these assumptions.

  • Formative feedback. Learning relies on feedback. But, in traditional classrooms students get very little of this. They get grades on papers and tests that tell them how much they learned or how well they did, but this information is not useful. It doesn’t help them know what they could do better or correct misconceptions. It does not give them a chance to try again or improve. In modern classrooms, students get lots of feedback. From lots of different places. They get feedback through their own self-evaluation, from their peers, from their teachers, from diagnostic quizzes, and from performance tasks. And, most importantly, they can use this information to get better.  They can always revise. Feedback helps students improve over time.

Questions to Consider

  • What do learning and teaching look like in your classrooms today? Where is there variability between classrooms? Where are there patterns? What does this tell you about expectations for teaching and learning?
  • Reflect on the six features of learning and teaching described here. Where do you see these in your school or district today? Where are there gaps? Why?
  • What could these features of learning and teaching look like in your school  or district?
  • Where can you start? What might be entry points for shifting teaching and learning?
  • What supports will students, teachers, and families need to make these shifts? How can you support them?
  • What structures or systems will support the changes you want to make? Which will get in the way? How can you ensure that systems and structures align to the changes you want to make?