Jen Stafford, Author at Discovery Education
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5 Principles of a Successful Digital Transition

All across the country, school districts are adapting to digital curriculum to give their students the competitive edge they will need once they leave the classroom. Making this transition to digital learning can be fraught with fresh challenges, but there are a few best practices that will help newcomers navigate their way to success.

Here are five principles to help guide your digital transition.

1. Good instruction trumps everything.

A great number of digital transitions get derailed when they are solely focused on devices. If you begin with the supposition that good instruction drives meaningful change, form will rightfully follow function.

2. Students and teachers need help navigating the oceans of digital content.

Content that engages students online must be deemed a priority since a significant amount of available content is superficial and dependent on sources that can’t be easily verified.

When it comes to digital content it’s usually feast or famine. There’s either too much for students to meaningfully interpret or not enough of the right type of content. This is where districts turn to trusted services to vet and organize content for them. Getting the content aligned with district curriculum also saves teachers a little bit of their most precious commodity: time.

3. Effective digital transitions are thoughtfully planned, executed, and measured.

The success of a digital transition is directly related to the clarity of its goals and vision, the sustainability of its plans, and the thoroughness of its reporting measures.

Presenting a clear and detailed explanation to all stakeholders of the educational goals behind a digital transition should be your first priority. It is also important to acknowledge that new methodology may initially impact workload.

What’s needed most is a realistic approach that employs reporting measures that reflect how predetermined educational targets are being met. For the short term feedback (that is essential to win funding), plan on collecting anecdotal reports that show early success.

4. People will only buy into a change they believe adds value.

Teachers and parents alike want to understand why their school has opted to refocus classroom instruction to take advantage of technology. Visit schools or search the web for stories of successful digital implementation to show the benefits of a digital transition.

5. Digital transition is a major culture shift. Ignore this at your own peril.

Digital transition is about the people involved more than the technology. Schools and districts that ignore this often wonder why their expensive tech investment collects dust in most classrooms or is used for occasional entertainment.

Take the time up front to help teachers learn the expected instructional change. The first year of a successful tech rollout should include demonstration classrooms that allow other teachers, parents, and community members to see the change expected, while teachers have access to the anticipated technology. This ensures that year two, which may include wider scale transition, is built on a firm foundation of in-district experience.

This type of attention to the human-cultural aspects of digital transition dramatically increases the likelihood of an instructional return on investment.

With over 26 years experience as an educator, Marty Creel leads Discovery Education’s innovative curriculum and instruction team. Marty began his career as an engaging social studies teacher known for creative use of technology to deepen learning. As a district-wide curriculum, instruction, and professional development leader in a large urban/suburban school system he was the architect for a thoughtful transition to instructional standards that empower teachers and principals as instructional leaders.

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Teacher Leaders: The (Not So) Secret Catalyst for Change

While teacher leaders have always been an important part of a school’s culture, this type of leadership continues to gain much needed attention and momentum in school systems nationwide. There is such a strong need for this type of leadership that a group of educators met in 2008 to form what we know today as the Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium. This consortium, comprised of a variety of stakeholders, formed to discuss how to best foster teacher leadership so that it brings about change in student learning and achievement.   In 2011, this group released the Teacher Leader Model Standards, which help teachers and school leaders foster leadership within their schools.

The Difference Between an Effective Teacher and a Teacher Leader

In our current work, we facilitate an abundance of professional learning around teacher leadership. What we’ve coined Digital Leader Corps takes groups of teachers on a journey toward digital transformation in their classrooms. The program, however, intends for teachers’ influence to spread well beyond the walls of their classrooms and aims to develop these educators as leaders among their peers. Teachers who participate in Digital Leader Corps learn about leadership through the Teacher Leader Model Standards—they learn how to facilitate the learning of their peers’, work collaboratively with their principals to elicit meaningful change, and gain strategies for creating safe and trusting environments where others aren’t afraid to take risks.

This sounds amazing, right? It is, when it works effectively. The biggest challenge of cultivating and growing a group of teacher leaders is recognizing the difference between an effective teacher and a teacher leader. Too often, school administrators don’t know how to discern the qualities and characteristics of a potential teacher leader. Similarly, many teachers don’t truly understand what it means to lead among peers.

Effective Teacher Teacher Leader
Implements best practices routinely in the classroom Readily shares and models best practices and/or resources with colleagues
Works to improve his/her own practice Works to improve the practice of others
Seeks opportunities for continuous improvement Models an attitude of continuous improvement in order to combat complacency
Maintains professional relationships with others Works to build relationships with others through active listening, facilitation, and mediation
Collaborates with colleagues and school teams Encourages and facilitates collaboration among colleagues and school teams
Implements solutions to challenges that promote the best interest of his/her students Provides solutions to challenges that promote the best interest of all stakeholders
Creates an environment where students are comfortable asking questions, initiating topics, and challenging their peers’ thinking. Creates an environment in which colleagues are comfortable asking questions, initiating topics, and challenging their peers’ thinking.
Welcomes feedback from supervisors and colleagues Actively seeks feedback from supervisors and colleagues
Danielson, C. (1996). Enhancing professional practice: A framework for teaching. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium. (2011). Model Standards Advance the Profession. JSD, 32(3), 16-24.

The Power of Teacher Leadership

Teacher leadership has the potential to bring about positive systemic change that influences a variety of factors within a school. When teacher leaders fully understand their impact on colleagues, observable changes in student learning can occur. A 2005 study concluded that the professionalism teacher leadership has the potential to build—one that is based on trust, recognition, empowerment, and support—can improve teaching and learning in schools (Harris and Muijs, 2005). While the Teacher Leader Model Standards provide the framework for fostering such leadership, the process for equipping teacher leaders with the ability and confidence to carry out what the Standards call for is much more complex.

The Teacher Leader Model Standards

The Standards are comprised of seven domains of leadership (Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium, 2011). These domains are not meant to serve as an exhaustive checklist or job description of teacher leaders; rather, they’re meant to guide those who want to lead and support them in doing so. Each domain further contains a list of functions that provides a deeper, more granular look at what teacher leaders who excel in this domain might do.

But reading and internalizing the Standards is only the first step in developing teacher leaders. Just as our grade level standards act as the blueprint for our curriculum, our lesson plans, and our assessments, the Teacher Leader Model Standards should serve to inform the work we do with our potential teacher leaders. Very few teachers will come to us with the skills and self-assurance needed to lead their peers. Therefore, it is our responsibility to create and mentor them through learning experiences that will develop them into strong teacher leaders.

Let’s take a look at the first Standard and its functions:

Fostering a Collaborative Culture to Support Educator Development and Student Learning


  1. Utilizes group processes to help colleagues work collaboratively to solve problems, make decisions, manage conflict, and promote meaningful change;
  2. Models effective skills in listening, presenting ideas, leading discussions, clarifying, mediating, and identifying the needs of self and others in order to advance shared goals and professional learning;
  3. Employs facilitation skills to create trust among colleagues, develop collective wisdom, build ownership and action that supports student learning;
  4. Strives to create an inclusive culture where diverse perspectives are welcomed in addressing challenges; and
  5. Uses knowledge and understanding of different backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, and languages to promote effective interactions among colleagues.

Unpacking this Standard and its functions tells us how important knowledge of adult learning theory is to a teacher leader’s success in this domain. In addition, a teacher leader needs to possess excellent active listening skills, be able to facilitate difficult conversations among various stakeholders, and have the emotional intelligence to bring different groups together to work toward a common goal. Simply telling teacher leaders they “should” be doing these things won’t bring about change; we must work diligently to create opportunities for practice and feedback in these areas.

The Importance of Administrative Support

Throughout our experience in both facilitating and designing the professional learning of teacher leaders, those who have the support and backing of their administration have been most successful in promoting a school culture that supports continuous improvement in teaching and learning. Teacher leaders who feel supported are equipped with the confidence needed to lead the learning in their schools. Effective teacher leaders have the power to reinforce the existing leadership in a school, and there are a variety of ways we can support them:

  • Provide Space to Lead. Teacher leaders lead well beyond the four walls of their classrooms. They’re consistently seeking to become better at their craft and want others to do the same. They can’t model this attitude of continuous improvement without a strong administrator leading them from behind. Involve teacher leaders in the planning and implementation of professional learning. Ask them to take an active role in faculty meetings. Teacher leaders are not simply those we can count on to volunteer their time and go that extra mile; they are our future instructional leaders. Mentor them.
  • Encourage Risk Taking. Most effective teachers will, by nature, willingly take instructional risks in their classrooms. Teacher leaders, however, won’t be afraid to take these risks in front of their colleagues as well. Encourage teacher leaders to open their classroom doors to others. These types of collegial walkthroughs will help create and sustain a culture in which teachers support one another by celebrating successes and embracing failures. Instill fortitude in teacher leaders and help them become courageous learners who consistently see opportunities for growth in all they do.
  • Model Vulnerability. Teacher leaders have the potential to create a school culture in which vulnerability is accepted and encouraged. But it’s not easy to air these insecurities. Through modeling your own vulnerability, teacher leaders become more comfortable admitting what they don’t know to peers and are then able to gain confidence in sharing what they do.
  • Champion Collective Leadership. A recent study commissioned by the Wallace Foundation found that high student achievement is directly connected to collective leadership in a school (Samuels, 2010). This type of shared leadership does not cause school leaders to lose influence. On the contrary, a principal’s role in establishing optimal conditions for student and teacher learning is crucial. As instructional leaders, it is unrealistic to believe we can simultaneously run the operations of our schools, maintain a pulse on the curriculum, and provide routine coaching for our teachers. With the help of our teacher leaders, however, these tasks become manageable. This can’t be done, however, without our leadership; create the time and space for good things to happen.

Leading from Behind – A Practical Tableaux:

John Davis, an elementary principal, had been working all year to create the environment and culture in which a shared vision could be realized in hopes of unifying his staff around a common goal that would impact teaching and learning in the building. Through increased collaboration time, more frequent professional learning, and informal opportunities for teacher leadership, John slowly built the ideal conditions in which a shared vision could thrive. However, he continuously struggled with helping the teachers he deemed leaders build and refine the skills needed to make an impact outside the walls of their classrooms.

Jenna, a master teacher who volunteered to lead her grade level PLC, had a great deal of untapped leadership potential. While she eagerly jumped at the opportunity to lead the learning of her peers, John knew Jenna had much to learn about facilitating the learning of her colleagues. After visiting Jenna’s PLC, John made some important observations about her leadership but continuously returned to this one:

  • Jenna always remained positive and took a solutions-based approach to challenges and problems raised by her peers.
  • However, the solutions always came from Jenna with little input from the group.
  • Rather than facilitating a collaborative discussion that would result in solutions, Jenna often provided “answers” for her colleagues.

While this approach was well received by the other members of Jenna’s PLC, John saw it as an opportunity for helping her grow into a leader who enrolls all stakeholders into important discussions.

John began scheduling monthly meetings with Jenna so he could coach and mentor her. What follows is a vignette from their first conversation:

Mr. Davis: Hey, Jenna. Thanks for coming in. And thanks so much giving me the opportunity to observe your PLC in action earlier this week.

Jenna: No problem. Your presence and support was really appreciated by my group.

Mr. Davis: How did you feel about the meeting?

Jenna: Overall, I felt it went well. Our goal was to figure out how to increase the expectations of our high achieving students. While a few challenges were certainly voiced, we walked away with some actionable steps we’re all going to take in our classrooms.

Mr. Davis: I made note of some of those challenges as well. Can you tell me more about how the group worked through those?

Jenna: Well, Janet and Shawn were the most vocal ones about some of the roadblocks they’d encounter as we attempt to increase achievement of this group. I tried to help guide those waters by providing possible workarounds.

Mr. Davis: So what I’m hearing you say is that you were readily able to provide some of the solutions to the perceived challenges?

Jenna: Yes.

Mr. Davis: I really love your solutions-based approach and attitude. I’d like to talk through this some more. Facing opposition from colleagues is a consistent challenge whenever you’re trying to lead. How we handle this resistance helps define who we are as leaders. So let me ask you: What could you have done differently to help the group—especially Janet and Shawn—solve some of those challenges on their own?

Jenna: I never really thought about it like that. I guess it’s in my nature to want to help, so I’m constantly giving, trying to solve problems, keeping everyone happy and positive. Now that I think about it, I was the one who quickly interjected what I thought would work best. I wanted to keep the peace within the group. And I’m their PLC leader, so I figured it was my “job” to face the challenges head on and offer solutions. Are you saying this may not have been the best approach?

Mr. Davis: I’m not saying it wasn’t the best approach; you certainly know your team. But it’s definitely not the only approach, and I’d love to explore some additional strategies you could use for facing challenges in the future. Would that be OK with you?

Jenna: Of course! I’m willing to take all of your feedback so I can become better at this. It’s all pretty new to me, and I want to do it well.

John: Of course you do. So let’s think about the first domain in the Teacher Leader Model Standards we discussed when you agreed to lead your PLC. Remember that your goal is to build a collaborative culture. So how did the group benefit from your willingness to solves its problems so quickly?

Jenna: Well, I guess it moved the conversation along. We didn’t get stuck and were able to leave with some next steps for helping these students.

Mr. Davis: How much buy in do you feel the group had in those steps?

Jenna: (pause) Not very much. I felt like we all just politely agreed to try the next steps.

Mr. Davis: I got that impression as well. It sounds like you are working very hard to create a very cooperative environment for your PLC, which is great. But think about how you can increase the group’s investment by making the meetings more collaborative.  How could you go about moving from cooperation to collaboration?

Jenna: I’m not really sure. Because I’m the PLC leader, the group trusts me to guide them. I guess that’s a good thing, but in retrospect, I dominated the conversation. I shouldn’t be the sole decision maker or the sole problem solver. I think I need to listen more and work harder in making sure everyone has input.

Mr. Davis: I think that’s a really reflective and insightful observation. Let’s talk about some strategies for helping you do this.

Mr. Davis is clearly dedicated to helping Jenna become an effective leader in the school. He observed her facilitating a meeting, identified an area of need, and followed up in a very deliberate and meaningful conversation that helped Jenna reflect on her own challenges as a teacher leader. He did this with the reticent skill of a leader who truly understands how to lead others from behind. While it’s unrealistic for John to meet with Jenna after every PLC meeting she facilitates, he followed up with her periodically, offering additional guidance, support, and feedback grounded in the Teacher Leader Model Standards.

Fostering Teacher Leaders

We all have great teachers who live within our schools—those who consistently strive to be better for their students, who seek out learning opportunities whenever possible, and who willingly collaborate with others. These teachers have the potential to share the leadership within your building. With the right opportunities and under the right mentorship, we can turn these “great” teachers into leaders who are catalysts for meaningful change.


Danielson, C. (1996). Enhancing professional practice: A framework for teaching.
Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Harris, A., & Muijs, D. (2005). Improving schools through teacher leadership.
Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Samuels, C. A. (2010, July 23). Study: Effective Principals Embrace Collective
Leadership. Retrieved February 21, 2016, from
Teacher Leadership Exploratory Consortium. (2011). Model Standards Advance the
Profession. JSD, 32(3), 16-24.

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3 Things Teachers and Leaders Do to Personalize Learning

The students in Sarah Johnson’s third period Algebra hunch over their desks working through the mysteries of Pythagoras. The room quietly echoes the sound of pencils on paper and the occasional desk squeak. From her perch in the back Mrs. Johnson reflects on how similar they all seem when testing. But having dealt with adolescents for longer than most of them have been alive, she knows this is an illusion.

Twelve are boys and thirteen are girls. Each one is different. Even the “identical” Franklin twins are very different. Ali Franklin loves mathematics and is excited about what he will learn this year in Algebra. Abram is an excellent student, but he’s really nervous about how he’ll do in Algebra because mathematics has never been his best subject.

Mrs. Johnson’s superintendent has been telling parents that the district is working to personalize learning and she knows that her students could really benefit from instruction that meets them where they are. She’s been through differentiated instruction workshops and has tried her hand at a number of learning apps, but in the hush of 25 students working, who, by the way represent only one-fifth of her total students, she wonders: What exactly is personalized learning?

What is personalized learning?

Like many terms in education, personalized learning suffers from ambiguous definitions. Some proponents of personalized learning go to great lengths to distinguish among differentiated instruction, individualized instruction, and personalized learning. Others view personalized learning as an umbrella term that includes differentiation and individualization of instruction. For some schools and districts, personalized learning refers to what others call blended learning (combining some form of online instruction with more traditional classroom instruction).

In most cases, personalized learning is a three-part process:
• Instructional planning that promotes deeper student learning
• Understanding of each student’s learning needs and interests
• Provisioning of appropriate learning experiences that match each student’s unique learning profile

The 2016 National Education Technology Plan states, “personalized learning refers to instruction in which the pace of learning and the instructional approach are optimized for the needs of each learner. Learning objectives, instructional approaches, and instructional content (and its sequencing) all may vary based on learner needs. In addition, learning activities are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests, and often self-initiated.”

While different educators mean slightly different things when they refer to personalized learning, most seek to leverage technology to manage the learning needs of all students and to engage students as active participants in setting goals, identifying learning pathways, tracking progress, and determining how learning will be demonstrated.

From the teacher’s perspective, there are three guideposts that mark out the road to personalized learning:

1. Redefined roles for students and teachers

In traditional classrooms, teachers make most of the important decisions about learning. They select instructional materials, decide which assignments students will complete, and determine when the assignments are due. On occasion, teachers will build some aspect of student choice into their lessons, but even then the teacher is usually seen as making the important decisions while giving students some limited choices.

In personalized learning, teachers help students know how they learn best and where they are in a progression of learning goals and objectives. Teachers then work with students to determine specific learning targets and suggest a variety of learning activities that match the mutually agreed-upon targets. Begin by encouraging your students to choose the activities in which they have the greatest interest and to design a plan for how they will complete agreed-upon assignments. Build ongoing assessment into the plan so that students will be empowered to adjust and modify the learning plan. Research2 has shown that empowering students to make more decisions about how and what they learn is associated with higher student achievement. In a personalized learning environment, teachers facilitate learning and work as partners to maximize the learning of each student.

2. Flexible learning environments

A very consistent characteristic of personalized learning is expanding where and when students learn and making greater use of digital resources. If students have mobile technology, they can watch the video clip at home and come to class with a list of questions that they wish to discuss with their learning teammates. Students with mobile technology can complete practice exercises on their device while they are sitting on the school bus and going home. The goal is for students to learn everywhere and anytime. When learning is personalized, students can pursue their interests and continue to learn well beyond the traditional school day.

3. Competency-based learning progressions and personal learning paths

Okay, this is probably the hardest part of personalized learning. Historically in education, we have held time constant and allowed learning to vary. In competency-based learning, students continue to work on a given learning target until they are able to demonstrate mastery. The curriculum will have to be carefully rearranged into competency-based learning progressions. This will allow students to work on some topics in different order and still master expected standards within each unit. In fully rearranged curriculum materials, students may even be able to develop proficiency with the same set of skills using very different resources. It’s best to go down this part of the road with several partners – either find comrades to share the load of developing learning progressions for a unit or two or purchase a service that has already built curricula based on learning progressions. The Instruction team at Discovery Education has begun this work for middle school math.

Fully realized, personalized learning seeks to use different contexts to help students develop the knowledge and skills they are responsible for learning. Students, in consultation with the teacher, may select learning resources that match their interests, current skill level, and preferred learning modality. And at the end of the unit, students have choice as to how they demonstrate what they have learned. One student may demonstrate mastery by creating a new learning resource and another may write a more traditional paper.

From the educational leader’s perspective, here are three ways to facilitate and support the movement to personalized learning:

1. Begin with a vision

Collaborate with community stakeholders to create a shared vision for what our school/district means by personalized learning. Given the broad definition of personalized learning, it is essential that your district set clear goals to work towards. What strategies should be used to support personalized learning? How heavily does this vision rely on technology and what needs to transpire to ensure that we have the infrastructure to support these technology needs? With limited access to technology, what strategies should be used to support the use of digital content in the classroom? Do we have adequate digital content resources accessible in our schools? If not, what are we doing to enrich our bank of resources?

2. Cultivate a Learning Community

Support the development of a learning community on personalized learning. While there are a lot of questions related to technology, the heart and soul of a personalized learning initiative is about teaching and learning. It is essential to bring school-based and central office leaders together with teachers to learn about 21st century approaches to teaching. The learning community members will need to decide how personalized learning aligns with other initiatives within the district. The learning community provides the perfect opportunity for district leaders to demonstrate the power of “walking the talk.” Partner with other stakeholders and decide together what you need to learn. Get to know the staff members as learners. Give learning community members clear targets for what they are expected to know and be able to do and then give them lots of choice about how they move toward those expectations. Give them choice as to how they will demonstrate their knowledge. Explicitly show staff members how leaders are using the principles of personalized learning within the learning community model.

3. Develop a plan

Encourage learning community members to develop an action plan for implementation. Implementing a personalized learning initiative is a major task. Lots of activities need to happen and the team needs a plan to guide the implementation. Instructional leaders must communicate the vision and be prepared to support the acquisition of resources, while giving stakeholders primary responsibility for making decisions about a lot of the specific details.

Those closest to the students are the ones who need to understand in detail what this will involve and they need to see how it will benefit their students. Every teacher understands how different the students in her classes are and every teacher in her heart understands that personalized learning has the potential to improve learning for the students she works with every day. But teachers also need to understand how this will impact them and the work they do. They deserve the opportunity to be a part of the design of the initiative from the beginning. Now is not the time for classroom teachers to feel that those who work in the central office are forcing another major change on them.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina underwent a careful process of defining and planning for personalized learning. You can see the plan and definitions they created here:

It’s an exciting time to be in education. Finally, the digital resources exist to make personalized learning a reality. Our students use digital resources all the time and they already know how to use them to learn more about their personal interests. Our job is to bring together their natural curiosity, their interests, and natural learning preferences to empower them into realizing their full potential. That’s an awesome charge.

With over 26 years experience as an educator, Marty Creel leads Discovery Education’s innovative curriculum and instruction team. Marty began his career as an engaging social studies teacher known for creative use of technology to deepen learning. As a district-wide curriculum, instruction, and professional development leader in a large urban/suburban school system he was the architect for a thoughtful transition to instructional standards that empower teachers and principals as instructional leaders.

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9 Steps for Superintendents Guiding a Districtwide Digital Transition

Laying the foundation for a modern, digital learning environment can be thrilling — and terrifying.

School administrators may be excited by the prospect of students learning at their own pace on devices loaded with interactive, customized lesson plans; or envisioning teachers as facilitators in classrooms where students are empowered to lead their own learning. But the step-by-step process of transitioning to a digital curriculum can be daunting. It requires much more than simply providing devices to students. A digital transition is a multi-faceted, multi-year process that must be carefully considered, planned and communicated.

We are three superintendents with 16 years of superintendent experience and 20 years of K-12 teaching experience among us. As heads of school districts — one small, one medium and one large — we have steered the transition to digital learning. We know first-hand what works and what doesn’t. We’ve experienced setbacks and successes. Sometimes we moved too fast, other times we wished we had been bolder. We’ve learned a lot along the way, and we’ve brought our experiences together to provide helpful steps as others consider making the transition to digital.

Digital transition is the shift from physical textbooks and paper handouts to digital, interactive learning tools.


    In our experience, this crucial first step is the foundation for a successful digital transition. Consider how digital learning will align with standards, add value for teachers, and enhance the student learning experience. Then make sure you broadcast this message clearly and frequently. Begin by involving all stakeholders — principals, teachers, parents, students, the Board of Education, local businesses and community residents. Is the goal of digital learning to provide education for all levels of learners? Is it to prepare students for the workplaces they will encounter? Is it to engage and challenge students with inquiry-based lessons? Your answers will be tailored to your community and school.

    Why we took the digital leap:

    “We wanted to level the playing field and make sure all students have access to the technology that prepares them for the future.” — Susan Allen, superintendent of East Irondequoit Central School District, N.Y.

    “We knew the future of our students was going to change, and we wanted to make sure we could provide our students with the best learning tools that were available.” — Christine Johns, superintendent of Utica Community Schools District in Michigan

    “In Las Vegas, teachers had a lot of learning levels in their classrooms. Technology allowed teachers to bring more differentiation into their instruction.” — Dwight Jones, former superintendent for Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nev.


    Spend time building broad-based understanding and support through meetings with the board of education, principals, teachers, parent teacher associations, and other local stakeholders. Develop and communicate a roll-out plan that takes into account which schools in your district are most ready for digital transition as well as which schools are most in need of digital investment. Some school districts will start with a particular grade or subject, while others will begin with the teachers who are most eager to learn about and use digital learning tools.


    Just like printed materials, digital materials must deliver on the standards that students are expected to know and be able to do. There are many great resources – both print and digital – that generate highly engaging classroom experiences, but have nothing to do with the curriculum. Invest in digital resources that enhance your teachers’ abilities to deliver the learning objectives they’re expected to teach.


    As you embark on a digital transition, use the communication tools you already have to provide a framework, and make answers to questions easily available to all stakeholders. There is no such thing as over-communication. Your district must be relentless in its effort to explain the importance of the digital transition you are planning. Do not expect anyone in the district, not even teachers or principals, to automatically know the value of digital tools.

    In addition to proactive communications describing the goals and benefits of the initiative, it is important to keep lines of communication open throughout the process. Be transparent about challenges, setbacks, and promises with all stakeholders. Listen to concerns, and address them as they arise. For example, a common concern about digital transition is that students will be distracted by devices in the learning environment. Anticipate this concern, acknowledge it, address it and then let stakeholders know exactly how it was addressed. An effective strategy for handling this type of concern would be to provide professional development around it for teachers, and a book study for parents, and then write a blog post about it to share what has transpired with your community.


    Purchasing digital content without someone who deeply understands the nuances of different providers truly is flying blind. Dedicate knowledgeable staff to guide the purchasing process, for both hardware and digital curriculum, and to help steer and encourage professional development opportunities. These navigators will become the champions to help your district move this project forward and to provide answers throughout the process. Before they begin their work, encourage them to reach out to colleagues in other school districts to learn about their experiences.


    Ask teachers who are enthusiastic about the transition to opt-in to the process, and allow them to pilot the transition. Those teachers can then serve as resources who can share their insights and experiences with other teachers preparing for digital learning. Honor this learning by celebrating teacher leaders who are risk-takers, leading every day by example.


    Professional development should be embedded and ongoing so that teachers and other system staff gain a real facility with utilizing technology and digital content to create self-directed student learners. Administrators must become versed in digital learning so they can observe and evaluate teachers. Much of the professional development should focus on nurturing digital learners. Provide professional development beginning the spring before roll out, and continue through the summer. Once the school year begins, bring a curriculum mentor into the classroom to work with students and teachers. Professional development can be offered in person, online and through webinars. Teachers can be pulled out of their classrooms for instruction, or instructor/mentors can provide digital learning guidance during the instructional day. Make sure teachers have access to resources throughout the school year so they always have a place to turn with questions or when seeking lesson ideas. Be prepared to provide professional development that meets teachers on all different levels. Some teachers are going to be skilled and eager digital instructors, while others will be wary of change to their established lesson plans. Full-scale professional learning should be based on the content that will be taught, not on grade levels or familiarity with the intricacies of the devices. Teachers want to know how to teach content effectively and with ease. Show them how.


    Demonstrate to teachers how technology can be used to support a variety of teaching styles, including small-group collaboration, rotating through technology stations, student presentations and teacher-led instruction. The goal is to create classroom environments where students are directing their own learning and teachers are guides, not dispensers of information.


    Ensure students learn digital citizenship and sourcing skills. Devote classroom instruction time to teaching students how to be good digital citizens. That includes knowing how to interact online without bullying, how to advocate responsibly and how to evaluate the trustworthiness of sources. Students also need to learn how to resist the siren call of a device. One student said a digital learning environment helped him learn how to resist distraction: “I had a choice to make. I could remain distracted and my grades could go down, or I could use this tool to get better grades.”

About the Authors:

Dr. Christine Johns —
 superintendent of Utica Community Schools District in Michigan

Susan K. Allen —
 superintendent of East Irondequoit Central School District, N.Y.
Dwight Jones — 
former superintendent for Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nev.


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STEM for All: How to Create a Healthy STEM Ecosystem

Many of the most valuable jobs of tomorrow depend on the STEM education happening in today’s classrooms.

The US Bureau of Labor and Statistics projects that by 2020, there will be 1.4 million IT jobs available but only 400,000 computer science graduates with the required skills to fill the positions. Companies continue to report their STEM jobs aren’t being filled, and HR departments are not finding applicants with the necessary skills for success. STEM Connector data shows there will soon be 3 million vacant jobs because students entering the workforce are lacking STEM skills. The good news is that STEM education initiatives are on the rise across the country to meet this growing demand in the workforce.

To satisfy this appetite for STEM, educators are feeling the pressure to make curriculum changes, but many are not sure how to begin. School districts respond to this pressure by providing courses for gifted students and STEM-focused after-school clubs. However, this selective approach is failing to provide adequate STEM experiences for all Pre-K-12 students.

Timing is crucial for sparking the curiosity necessary for placing students on the path toward a STEM career. By the time students reach high school, they have already developed strong perceptions about themselves and future STEM careers, leaving educators playing catch-up.

Spreading STEM Far and Wide

The idea that STEM education is only for the most gifted students on track for graduate degrees is now a falsehood. Roughly 35 percent of the 8.6 million STEM jobs needed nationwide will require sub-baccalaureate degrees by the year 2020. Apple recently shared that 28 percent of their workforce does not have a 4-year degree. Armed with this data, what is the appropriate path forward for educators to ensure the next generation possesses a proper amount of STEM knowledge?

Educating all students in STEM practices will level the playing field and provide pathways to future success for all no matter your zip-code, skin color, cultural background, or gender.

Something needs to change, but it is unfair to expect educators to institute foundational changes without extensive support. A study conducted by Horizon Research could light the way for districts looking to make changes.

In the NSF Urban Systemic Initiative, $1 billion was dedicated across 10 years to encourage middle and high school math and science teachers to conduct more hands-on inquiry and use technology. After 10 years, Horizon researchers found that teachers needed 80 hours of professional development (PD) focused on a defined set of strategies to change their practice and 160 hours of PD focused on a defined set of strategies to change the culture.

As a result of this research, we now have a better understanding of what it will take to truly change the culture and practices in a school. The onus will not fall only on teachers, but administrators, leaders, communities, and the broader education community. Professional development will be the key to this transformation. Horizon researchers further determined the most effective PD was not just direct pull-out training, but a combination of pull out in-person training combined with job-embedded coaching.

The beauty of STEM in all Pre-K-12 classes is that all students love to find solutions for real-world problems. Asking students to create solutions to these problems respects their unique thinking and invites them to use their abilities to generate innovations that can make the world a better place.

When students and teachers develop 21st-century skills like collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity, all types of learners become engaged. Asking students to work together to find solutions in authentic situations further develops their communication skills and character, both vital to joining the STEM workforce of the future.

How STEM for All Students Can Make an Impact

While I was serving as Director of PreK-12 STEM for the 145,000 students in the Charlotte Mecklenburg School District, my colleagues and I began STEM work with students in our struggling Title 1 schools. Many of these students were several years below grade level in reading and math. We discovered, however, that these economically disadvantaged students were excellent problem solvers, constantly engaged in repurposing items to entertain themselves at home and were accustomed to outside-the-box thinking.

By providing professional development to teachers to support hands-on inquiry using real world problems, we engaged students who were not typically excited to be in school. Though we began the process struggling to reach students who had discipline problems, were below grade level in reading and math, and did not come from families that had graduated from college, we soon witnessed rapid changes.

After one year of providing STEM teaching and learning, our state test data indicated the average student experienced up to two years of growth in classes utilizing STEM practices, while special education and English Language Learners were experiencing four to five years of growth. Teachers experienced more job satisfaction and the attrition rates at these Title 1 schools decreased swiftly as a result of the support and success.

Following the success of the first year of STEM with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Title 1 schools, other schools in the district were eager to get involved. After three years, our fifth and eighth grade science test scores improved by 44 points, while the state scores increased by six points. Our math teachers dipped their toes in the STEM waters and added a short digital asset to their curriculum to make math relevant to students. This simple addition, coupled with a few non-threatening STEM practices integrated into their lessons, improved third through eighth grade math scores by 35 points, while the state scores increased by seven points.

When we began this work, there was a 37-point gap between economically disadvantaged students and their peers. After three years of STEM, the gap decreased to seven points. It’s rare for a school district to reduce the achievement gap so significantly, and so quickly. These results speak for themselves.

As educators, it is our moral obligation to ensure that all of our students have the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to become part of the STEM ecosystem of today and tomorrow.

As Yoda says, “Do or do not; there is no try.”

Dr. Cindy Moss is currently the Senior Director of Global STEM Initiatives for Discovery Education, and travels the world helping companies, nonprofits, Ministries of Education and school districts understand the importance of STEM education and how to implement it successfully.  Previously Dr. Moss served 10 years as the PreK-12 Director of STEM for the 145,000 students and 10,000 students in the Charlotte Mecklenburg School system.

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Scientific Explanation: Providing a Framework for Understanding Science

On almost a daily basis, there are articles in the news that seek to provide a scientific explanation for how or why a given natural phenomenon occurred. The topic may be climate change, nuclear energy, genetically modified food or something else that impacts the everyday lives of middle school students. Students need to be able to evaluate the evidence and reasoning presented in the article. In addition, they also need to grow in the ability to develop well-reasoned scientific explanations of their own.

Critical skills that all students should develop through their study of science are the ability to develop and critique a scientific explanation. Two of the practices identified as essential for all students in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) are:

  • Constructing explanations (for science) and designing solutions (for engineering).
  • Engaging in argument from evidence.

Katherine McNeill and Joseph Krajcik[1] developed a framework for teaching students how to develop and critique scientific explanations. The framework indicates that a scientific explanation includes four parts:

  • A claim that answers the question being studied.
  • Evidence to support the claim.
  • Scientific reasoning that explains how the evidence supports the claim.
  • A rebuttal that considers and rules out alternative explanations.

Middle school teachers can begin the year by focusing on the first three components of the explanation. When students have developed enough experience with the concepts of claim, evidence, and reasoning, then teachers can introduce the rebuttal, which is the most complex component of the scientific explanation.

McNeill and Krajcik also recommend five instructional strategies that teachers can use to support students in developing scientific explanations.

1. Make the framework explicit.

Before asking students to develop a scientific explanation, middle school teachers should talk about what an explanation is. Teachers can then discuss what a scientific explanation is and share the framework. Many teachers find that it is best to work with students on the claim, evidence, and reasoning first. When students really understand these three components, teachers can introduce the concept of alternative claims and how to present why they were ruled out as part of a fourth component, namely the rebuttal.

2. Model and critique explanations.

When beginning work on scientific explanations early in the school year, middle school teachers may model the development of a scientific explanation for students. As students begin to work on developing their own scientific explanations, it is helpful to have students work together in collaborative groups and to critique one another’s explanations. One strategy that may prove helpful in critiquing explanations is Praise, Question, Polish. In this strategy, students comment on something they like and ask a question. The author of the explanation is then given an opportunity to polish or improve the explanation before submitting it.

3. Provide a rationale for creating explanations.

McNeill and Krajcik identified two rationales that teachers used for having students create scientific explanations. Some teachers emphasized that scientists spend much of their time developing, presenting, and critiquing scientific explanations. Because students were learning to think and act like scientists, it was important for them to spend time engaging in similar activities. Other teachers emphasized the persuasive power of well- developed scientific explanations. They emphasized the value of being able to identify and present evidence in a way that will encourage others to stand in agreement with the explanation one is presenting. Either way, teachers found that middle school students worked harder on scientific explanations when they had a rationale for why they needed to learn to create effective explanations.

4. Connect scientific explanations to everyday explanations.

Teachers found value in helping middle school students see how a scientific explanation was similar to explanations they might develop in other classes. Teachers also found it helpful to have students understand that the word “explain” is used differently in different contexts. For example, when students are asked to explain a procedure, they are really being asked to describe what is to be done. They are not really being asked to do the same thing when they are asked to explain a scientific phenomenon.

5. Assess and provide feedback to students.

Finally, McNeill and Krajcik recommend giving students a rubric that they can use to self-assess a scientific explanation. The teacher can then use the same rubric to give feedback on student-developed scientific explanations. The criteria assessed should become more sophisticated as students grow in their understanding of the components of the explanation.


The ability to prepare a well-developed scientific explanation is an important skill that deserves focused attention across the middle grades. Research[2][3] has shown that focusing on this skill across the middle school grades helps students develop a deeper and more complete understanding of the scientific phenomena students study in middle school. What teachers expect students to be able to produce in the way of a scientific explanation should become more sophisticated as students have more experience with developing and critiquing them.

Amy has 16 years of educational experience in Science, Technology, and Engineering as a high school classroom teacher, department chair, district curriculum specialist and most recently supervisor for Science, Technology, and Engineering for the largest school system in Maryland. Prior to her supervisor position, she designed and delivered Professional development at that national level and has authored national STEM curriculum products.


[1] McNeill, K., & Krajcik, J. (2012). Supporting grade 5-8 students in constructing explanations in science: The claim, evidence, and reasoning framework for talk and writing. Boston: Pearson.

[2] Instructional Strategies to Support Students Writing Scientific Explanations. (2007). Retrieved from p 20

[3] Krajcik, J. (2011). Supporting students in constructing evidence-based scientific explanations. Presentation. Retrieved February 1, 2017, from

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7 Steps to Build Math Assessments Into Your Classroom

In the last decade, there has been a growing movement toward integrating assessment in instruction and learning. Research has shown that embedding assessment opportunities for teachers and students provides insights into student progress in the moments of learning, maximizes learning, and moves learning forward.

Here are just a few suggestions for integrating assessments into mathematics instruction and learning.

1. Embed Assessment

Teachers are constantly embedding assessment opportunities every day in their classrooms even when they may not realize it. They observe students in many different environments -playing games, working with their friends, completing assignments, and learning through digital resources. Teachers can learn how their students learn, how they think, how they participate in groups. These informal assessment opportunities provide nuggets of information that can be powerful in helping teachers make decisions about how to individualize, differentiate, and personalize instruction and organize mathematics and other classes.

2. Blend Informal and Formal Assessments

Both informal and formal assessments can provide key insights throughout learning. Teachers, as well as students, can observe and evaluate understanding during the learning process informally, such as through discussion, peer reviews and self-reflections, to ensure learning and instruction are on target. More formal assessments towards the end of the learning cycle can provide confirmation of what students have learned or what mathematics concepts and skills require remediation and even enrichment. Together, formal and informal assessments can provide educators a clearer, richer picture of a student’s progress toward their learning goals.

3. Use the Right Tools for the Task

Selecting the right tools to solve a problem is an indicator of more advanced understanding. Experts know how to use the right tools for the right problem in a strategic way. Use and mastery of digital, interactive tools such as graphing calculators and geometry software in assessment is good practice. Knowing what the tools are, when a tool is needed and how to choose the right tool is critical to preparing our students for college and beyond. Teachers can observe and assess if students are using the tools in the right way –or even an interesting way –to solve a real-world problem, and technology can help capture the data for teachers.

4. Take Play Seriously

Students can learn in all kinds of situations, including play. When play is situated purposefully in learning, students can learn applications more quickly and can transfer the skills more readily. They can more freely make mistakes, try again, and persevere to find solutions. There is value in each.

5. Put Students in the Driver’s Seat

Research has shown that when students self-assess, reflect, and engage in progress monitoring, they become more engaged in and responsible for their own learning and do better. Students of all ages should be involved in the goal-setting process and in seeing how they are doing against those goals. The visualization of this information is critical: they must be able to clearly see progress for themselves to become engaged in their own success. They learn from their mistakes and benefit from seeing where they are headed.

6. Let the Data tell the Story

Just as students can benefit from seeing their progress, teachers need ways to track student progress for each student. With the demands of teaching and with many teachers having multiple classes and large class sizes, teachers need tools to quickly see where they are in their understanding, and to answer questions such as:

  • How is my class doing overall?
  • Where is each of my students on the spectrum of the goals I have for them?
  • Do I see a pattern of misconceptions and mistakes?
  • What students need small group or peer-collaborations?
  • What motivates them and engages them in their own learning?
  • What do they need next?

The most effective instructional decisions are driven from answers to these questions. Research shows that teachers don’t have always have the time, tools, and training to answer these questions completely.

7. Support Teachers with Professional Development

Teachers need the skills and tools to employ successful informal and formal assessment techniques in their classroom. In addition, teachers need the skills and the autonomy to create assessment opportunities throughout learning, particularly with informal assessment, to really understand how to get to the bottom of what students know and don’t know in the moments of learning where it is most critical. Teachers also need to be comfortable with a balance of instructional approaches, including inquiry-based models. Just as we teach students, teaching teachers to develop the skills to ask questions effectively, gather data and take action will help them prepare students in a way that they will be ready for deeper learning, as well as various high-stakes assessments.

Administrators play a huge role in creating a culture that values informal assessment, a shift in paradigm for many schools. Many teachers may fall back on a quiz or drills, when there is rich, instructionally useful information that can be made simply through observation and engaging activities.

More closely integrating assessments into mathematics instruction and learning is one of one of the ways educators nationwide are working to improve mathematics achievement.

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5 Strategies for Using Primary Source Documents in Social Studies Classrooms

Use of primary sources was once remarkably scarce, both during in-class instruction and in textbooks. The availability and accessibility of primary sources on the Internet has revolutionized social studies instruction. But how are primary sources used in the classroom? Are students working with primary sources to make their own claims supported by self-selected evidence?

Those questions are becoming increasingly relevant as historical thinking skills are embedded in Common Core literacy standards, Advanced Placement exams, International Baccalaureate courses, and so on. It is not enough to include primary source images in teacher PowerPoints or include primary sources sporadically on assessments. Students should be conditioning their historical thinking skills with primary sources, daily, as active learners in a 21st century social studies classroom.

Looking back some 60 years, the progression of social studies instruction becomes clear. A 1950’s textbook was generally a static, authoritative source that left little room for multiple perspectives and primary source analysis.

Consider this excerpt from the 1st edition of the “American Pageant” textbook in 1956:

The average ex-slave, freed by the war and the 13th Amendment, was essentially a child. Life under the lash had unfortunately left him immature—socially, politically, emotionally. To turn him loose upon the cold world was like opening the door of an orphanage and telling the children they were free to go where they liked and do as they wished. One of the cruelest calamities ever to be visited upon the much-abused Negro was jerking him overnight from bondage to freedom, without any intermediate stages of preparation… The hapless Negro was in some ways even more of a menace to himself.

This simplistic, false, condescending narrative was presented as fact, with no quotes from African Americans living through Reconstruction. This, unfortunately, was not an anomaly, even 40 years later. James Loewen, author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” reached this conclusion when he first surveyed 12 U.S. history textbooks for the first edition of his book in 1995.

He wrote, “No book can convey the depths of the black experience without including material from the oppressed group. Yet not one textbook in my original sample let African Americans speak for themselves about the conditions they faced.”

Fast forward another 20 years, and textbooks are increasingly digital, with rich primary and secondary sources in a variety of multimedia formats to enrich the classic textbook narrative. Modern students, in a student-centered classroom focused on content inquiry and literacy skills, can now corroborate secondary accounts with primary source material. The teacher, no longer the “sage on the stage,” can provide these sources and tasks and guide and facilitate inquiry.

Inquiry-based, student centered instruction requires extensive lesson planning. Locating primary sources can be a cumbersome and time consuming process. But once located, providing these resources to students alone is not enough. Sources may need adaptation for different reading levels, and scaffolds to make the sources accessible for all students.

This underscores the need for collaboration, both within course teams at the school level and digitally across the Internet. Many teachers are now forming Professional Learning Networks (PLN’s) to share resources and ideas digitally. Teaching on an island is becoming increasingly difficult.

Here are some suggestions for using primary sources for learning.

Use primary sources to corroborate secondary sources.

Provide students with a secondary interpretation—a recent newspaper article, an encyclopedic narrative, a passage from a book—and provide primary sources for students to corroborate the claims. If the textbook provides an overly simplistic narrative, students can examine primary sources on the subject and re-write the narrative. This conditions corroboration and historical interpretation skills.

Brainstorm dialogue of historical figures based on primary source analysis.

One way to foster student-centered instruction is to have students brainstorm dialogue based on primary source analysis. This forces students to synthesize multiple viewpoints to draw conclusions.

For example, if students read Alexander Hamilton’s economic writings from the 1790’s, in which he advocated for an industrial America and a government that amassed debt, alongside Thomas Jefferson’s words on agriculture and fiscal restraint, students could construct a debate between the men. They could insert speech bubbles on images of the men, act out a skit, or participate in a mock debate. The primary sources are the catalyst for creativity and to contextualize a time period.

Move past the “main idea.”

Teachers should instruct students to think past the “main idea” or “summary.” These instructions are fine, but alone can allow students to skim a source and not really read it closely for historical thinking. Focusing in on vocabulary in context, asking students to corroborate multiple sources, analyzing the point of view of the source, among others, are ways to condition historical thinking with rigor.

Let all people in history speak for themselves

Teachers should think about who is speaking in their history class. If all the primary sources focus on politicians and notable figures, the everyday folks driving history, making history, are left out. Analyzing the words of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln are important, but so too is hearing from those not so famous and those often marginalized in society.

If using a source from Frederick Douglass, also use Kale’s letter to John Quincy Adams, an 11-year old captive on the Amistad. If using Abigail Adams’ words on gender equality in the founding era, also use excerpts of diaries and letters from lesser-known women to help contextualize a time period. Students need to see themselves in the curriculum.

If sources used in instruction are overwhelmingly from white men in positions of power, students are less likely to engage with the content and feel empathy for the foot soldiers of history.

Consider multiple formats of primary sources.

Primary sources are not always text-based. Common Core, C3, and other skills standards that guide social studies instruction require students to examine a variety of multimedia sources to draw conclusions. Rather than read a speech, students can listen or view a speech.

Teachers can present students with old newsreels from the days before television. Students can analyze images, posters, photographs, cartoons, and many other visual primary sources to learn content and build skills.

Primary source analysis is increasingly the cornerstone of social studies instruction in the 21st century classroom. The Internet makes these sources much more accessible than ever before. Teachers are responsible for crafting inquiry-based, student-centered lessons so these sources are used in meaningful ways to achieve various learning outcomes.

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4 Go-To Strategies for Engaging Digital Learners

Today’s students live in a world of constant stimulation. Whether it’s Xbox, social media, or television, students have continuous access to highly enticing visual information, entertainment, and connectivity with friends.

How do your teachers capture students’ attention and engage them amid all the distractions? The era of the teacher as the sage on the stage is over. Students thrive on problem-based, interactive, authentic learning. Classrooms must be just as engaging, interactive, and exciting as all of the competing stimuli in students’ lives. Putting technology in students’ hands is not enough to engage today’s digital learner in a meaningful way.

Student engagement models differ, but research and practical experience tell us that high levels of student engagement occur when the following are present:

1. Well-planned lessons with memorable beginnings and endings

Most of us are familiar with the work of David Sousa related to how the brain learns. Sousa reminds us that during a learning episode, students tend to remember best that which comes first and they remember that which comes last. They are least likely to remember what is presented during the middle of the learning episode.

Sousa refers to the time at the beginning of the lesson as Prime Time 1 and the time at the end of the lesson as Prime Time 2. He refers to the time in the middle of the learning episode as Down Time. His work goes on to examine the percentage of time for prime learning in learning episodes of different lengths. His recommendation is for teachers to present lessons in well-planned, twenty-minute segments that maximize learning by capturing student interest at the beginning of a twenty-minute segment, presenting new information in the first ten minutes to twelve minutes of a segment, allowing students to apply the information during down time, and then having students summarize the big ideas presented during Prime Time 2. Teachers can then have students switch activities and repeat the pattern to take advantage of a second round of Prime Time 1, Down Time, and Prime Time 2.

Planning lessons in this way maximizes engagement because it takes advantage of how the brain learns and it takes into consideration that twenty minutes matches the attention span of many adolescents. Shorter, well-planned learning episodes are probably best for younger learners.

2. Collaboration and interaction with peers

Today’s digital learner places a great deal of value on interacting with peers and employers tell us that they want future employees to have the ability to work well with others in collaborative teams. Therefore as educators, we encourage and support collaborative learning.

Collaborative learning requires students to work together to construct knowledge. It acknowledges that students learn best when they are actively involved in working with others in a social setting to deepen their understanding of core concepts and develop both discipline-specific skills and the skills needed to interact effectively as a member of a group.

When they set up collaborative teams, effective teachers explicitly teach the skills involved in working as a member of a team. These skills include:

  • Leadership skills such as goal setting, time management, and organizing the team to complete the task
  • Collaborative decision-making skills such as generating alternatives, collecting and sharing information, and agreeing on a choice
  • Communication skills including both verbal and non verbal communication skills, as well as active listening skills
  • Conflict management skills such as being aware of and respectful of differences, clarifying issues, resolving concerns within the group or seeking the teacher’s help to resolve the concern.

Perhaps students and teachers value well-designed and implemented collaborative learning assignments because of the emphasis on teaching and using these valuable skills.

3. Relevant, Problem-Based Teaching and Learning

Well-designed collaborative learning assignments often also involve problem-based teaching and learning. The energy and time needed for effective collaborative learning makes sense when students are involved in studying the type of real-world problems that are at the center of problem-based learning units. Good problem-based learning units are built around open-ended problems that have multiple solutions and require students to consider many variables before developing how they would solve the problem. These units give students the opportunity to use problem-solving skills and strategies that are specific to the discipline and spend concentrated time developing these skills. Upon completion of the study phase of the unit, students are usually required to develop a way to share what they have learned with classmates and/or with an authentic audience interested in the area of study.

Students value the opportunity to develop skills used by professionals in the field, and they value the opportunity to consider and study problems that genuinely need solutions.

4. Routine Access to Varied Digital Tools

Our students view technology as a natural and required component of their world. They naturally use smartphones, tablets, laptops, digital cameras, and other devices to gather, organize, and share information.

According to Project Tomorrow’s Speak Up survey, 40 percent of K-12 students tell us that they find online videos to help them better understand concepts that they are learning in school. More and more students are spending time creating digital content (YouTube videos, slideshows, interactive games, etc.) and they expect to use these kind of multimedia resources to learn. In fact, 42 percent of the 6-8th graders completing the survey say taking an online class should be a graduation requirement. Students see the skills they develop while using digital tools as excellent preparation for college, career, and life success.

The National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies was established to improve the opportunity to learn for all Americans through technology and research. They have identified a number of ways that digital resources can support the use of key research-backed principles that have a positive correlation with improved student learning. In the hands of well-trained and knowledgeable teachers, digital tools have the potential to support the following:

  • Personalized, differentiated, and self-paced learning
  • A positive emotional climate, and social and emotional learning
  • Authentic real-world learning
  • Collaborative learning
  • Data gathering, analysis, and timely feedback

Education in 2017 is an exciting world that is juggling new standards, new assessments, new curricula, new instructional delivery models, and new requirements for teacher evaluation. While much is changing, the heart of the matter when it comes to engaging learners remains unchanged: effective teachers know their learners, they know the content and the curriculum, and they know good pedagogy.

Karen Beerer, Ed.D. has 28 years of experience in public education as a teacher, reading specialist, principal, supervisor of curriculum and professional development, and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment. She received her Ed.D. from Lehigh University in Curriculum and Instruction. Dr. Beerer has a passion for professional development, specifically, helping educators utilize research-based practices in instruction to help all students achieve.

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Disciplinary Literacy: Helping Students Develop Insider Knowledge

If we want students to learn biology, why not teach them to think, read and write like biologists? If we want them to learn history, shouldn’t they learn to think, read and write like historians?

Approaching core subjects from this perspective is at the heart of disciplinary literacy. Now more than ever, it’s become vital that educators instill literacy skills grounded in real careers, creating students with an expert’s eye for real-world materials, regardless of the medium.

Content-area reading uses generic reading strategies, regardless of the text that’s being read. But disciplinary literacy is a way of approaching text with the reading strategies employed by experts in a given field — experts have specialized ways of thinking, talking, and writing.

Historians require the lens of multiple perspectives, reading between the lines of several writers to arrive at their conclusions. Mathematicians seek absolute answers, first and foremost, using abstract reasoning and pattern recognition to make their findings. Scientists employ analytical skills to parse the validity of data in research reports, finding logical links between various findings before formulating their hypotheses.

These experts don’t just rely on one resource. Their expertise is contingent on their own observations, along with the perspectives of others, expressed across several media types. Likewise, the days of using a single textbook as a teaching resource are over. Educators must begin using new types of resources in the classroom, including digital content and media to immerse students in real-world reading, writing and thinking.

The disciplinary literacy approach to reading reinforces the new era of teaching, which welcomes multiple resources and multiple media types, to help students form a grounded understanding of a subject that even experts would respect. Just recently, a superintendent said, “the combination of media integrated into the informational text makes students want to read.”

The hallmark of any focus on literacy — disciplinary or otherwise — is instilling the need and the desire to want to read.

Each discipline has unique ways of asking questions and solving problems. Similarly, each discipline has unique expectations for the types of claims that are made and the way those claims are supported. These differences play out in the ways that texts are written and in the demands those texts place on the readers. For these reasons, we can say that each discipline has its own discourse community, a shared way of using language and constructing knowledge.” [1]

Although there is much debate about the purpose or primary job of schools, most who work in education would agree that an important purpose of a school is to develop literate individuals. The Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts[1] identify the capacities of a literate individual as follows:

  1. They demonstrate independence.
  2. They build strong content knowledge.
  3. They respond to the varying demands of audience, task, purpose, and discipline.
  4. They comprehend as well as critique.
  5. They value evidence.
  6. They use technology and digital media strategically and capably.
  7. They come to understand other perspectives and cultures.

These broad statements about what it means to be literate led the standards’ authors to decide that developing literacy in students is a joint responsibility that English Language Arts (ELA) teachers share with content area teachers. And while the foundational skills associated with literacy are infused in the K-5 ELA standards, the more specialized disciplinary literacy skills are listed in the Grades 6-12 Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects[2]. The standards that ELA teachers are responsible for teaching are listed under the following headings:

  • Reading: Literature
  • Reading: Informational Text
  • Writing
  • Speaking and Listening
  • Language

Content area teachers are also expected to teach standards related to reading informational text and standards related to writing. Because research has shown that experts in a field have specialized ways of thinking, talking, and writing about information that separate insiders within the field from the general public, the authors of the standards want content area teachers to teach students the specialized knowledge and skills that readers and writers use within the content area or discipline. In an article in the Harvard Educational Review[1], Cynthia and Timothy Shanahan present a model of literacy development that includes three stages.

  • Basic Literacy: literacy skills such as decoding and knowledge of high-frequency words that underlie virtually all reading tasks.
  • Intermediate Literacy: literacy skills common to many tasks, including generic comprehension strategies, common word meanings, and basic fluency.
  • Disciplinary Literacy: literacy skills specialized to history, science, mathematics, literature, or other subject matter.

They argue that until recently, secondary (grades 6-12) educators have not focused enough attention on helping students master the discipline-specific ways of reading and writing that are characteristic of the content area that the teacher is teaching. Instead the literacy focus in secondary classrooms remained on the intermediate literacy skills that are common to many disciplines, such as previewing the text, activating prior knowledge, using graphic organizers, and summarizing the text. While these skills are necessary and have a definite place in the secondary classroom, literacy instruction that fully prepares students for college, careers, and adult life also includes a focus on the more specialized literacy skills of each discipline. When students are asked to think, read, write, speak, and listen like an expert in the field, they develop the insider knowledge needed to succeed with intellectually challenging tasks.

By studying professionals working within a discipline, researchers recognized that the way historians read, write, and think is different from the way scientists or mathematicians use literacy skills within their work. A broad body of research on adolescent literacy development[2] suggests that while the literacy demands of school and the workplace have increased over time, the way we approach teaching literacy skills has not changed enough. The thinking and reasoning skills that individuals need to thrive in 21st century daily life and professional careers are developed as content area teachers focus on teaching both the content of the field of study and the specialized literacy skills associated with the discipline.

The standards for Grades 6-12 Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects do not replace subject area standards, but instead complement them. These standards require teachers to use their content area expertise to help students master the challenges of thinking, reading, writing, speaking, and listening in the various subject areas.

In keeping with the standards, the focus of disciplinary reading should be on the following:

  • Key Ideas and Details
    • Citing Evidence from Text
    • Central Ideas, Details, and Summary
  • Craft and Structure
    • Vocabulary
    • Text Structure
  • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
    • Text Features
    • Author’s Point of View, Fact or Opinion
    • Comparison
  • Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity

Disciplinary writing should focus on:

  • Text Types and Purposes
    • Argument Writing
    • Informational/Explanatory Writing
  • Production and Distribution of Writing
    • Clarity and Coherence; Attention to Task, Purpose, and Audience
    • Writing Process and Revision
    • Use of Technology
  • Research to Build and Present Knowledge
    • Generating Questions and Conducting Research
    • Gathering Relevant Information
    • Drawing Evidence
  • Range of Writing

Let’s take a brief look at the literacy demands of selected subject areas outside of English Language Arts and think about how teachers develop students’ thinking, reasoning, and communication skills by emphasizing the specialized way that experts in that subject area approach some of the focus areas listed above.

Thinking, Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening in Social Studies

Extensive work has been done on elucidating the skills historians and other social scientists use to do their work. Broadly speaking, historians study documents and other artifacts from the past to develop and communicate an understanding of what was occurring at a particular time in history. They are keenly aware that documents…

  • present an incomplete picture of an actual event
  • represent a particular point of view, and
  • reflect the thinking and perspective of the author.

Historians want to know more than what happened in the past. They also want to understand why certain events happened. Why did people do what they did? How does what happened in the past connect to and inform the present? What does the past tell us about what might happen in the future?

Key ideas in the Grades 6-12 Literacy in History/Social Studies standards for reading include:

  • Analysis and Summary of Primary and Secondary Sources
  • Meaning of History/Social Studies Words and Phrases
  • Description and Analysis of Text Structure
  • Identification, Comparison, and Evaluation of Aspects of Text that Reveal Author’s Point of View
  • Integration of Visual Information, Quantitative and Qualitative Information, and Multiple Sources
  • Analysis of Author’s Claims
  • Comparison of Treatment of Topic in Primary and Secondary Sources

The writing standards do not differ by content area, but assume that the writing will be specific to the content of the discipline. The following is a sample of expectations from the writing standards. These examples are for students in grades 6 to 8.

  • Introduce claim(s) about a topic or issue, acknowledge and distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and organize the reasons and evidence logically.
  • Develop a topic with relevant, well-chosen facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples.
  • Conduct short research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) drawing on several sources and generating related, focused questions that allow for multiple avenues of exploration.

Many social studies teachers address the literacy standards as they teach social studies content by structuring their classes with a focus on social science inquiry and asking questions. They present students with primary source materials and guide students to ask important questions related to the documents they are reading. The Stanford History Education Group has developed a free online curriculum entitled, “Reading Like a Historian.”[3] Each lesson in the curriculum is focused on a central question and includes a set of primary source documents. Students are expected to investigate the set of documents using the following historical thinking skills:

  • Sourcing – Who wrote this? What is the author’s point of view? Why was it written? When was it written (a long or short time after the event)? Is this source believable? Why? Why Not?
  • Contextualizing – What else was going on at the time this was written? What was it like to be alive at this time? What things were different back then? What things were the same? What would it look like to see this event through the eyes of someone who lived back then?
  • Close Reading – What claims does the author make? What evidence does the author use? What language (words, phrases, images, symbols) does the author use to persuade the document’s audience? How does the document’s language indicate the author’s perspective?
  • Corroboration – What do other documents say? Do the documents agree? If not, why? What are other possible documents? What documents are most reliable?

Students using the Stanford materials improved their reading comprehension, historical reasoning skills, and factual recall.[4] A major strength of the Stanford materials is that they provide a model that school districts and individual teachers are using to develop additional instructional materials. The historical thinking skills listed above certainly help students who wish to become historians, but they also provide students with reasoning skills that serve them well in a wide range of situations.

Thinking, Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening in Science

The traditional science class has included a number of assignments that appear on the surface to replicate the kinds of reading and writing that scientists do. Students read laboratory investigations to prepare for labs. They develop lab reports to tell about laboratory experiments they conducted in class. However, in the past, many science educators have worked to eliminate the need for students to struggle with the literacy demands of science laboratory work because they wanted to focus on laboratory skills and the science content.

Well-taught science classes have always emphasized collecting and analyzing data. Students have been taught that scientists respect data; they spend time developing powerful representations of data such as graphs and charts; and they value being able to replicate an experiment and get data that is similar to the data collected by other scientists who did the same experiment. However, science classrooms have not always emphasized the literacy skills that are an integral part of the work of scientists.

In their professional work, scientists…

  • Read research reports that include abstracts, section headings, figures, tables, diagrams, drawings, photographs, reference lists, and endnotes. Often scientists do not read the entire document, but only the parts of the report that are of special interest.
  • Use technical vocabulary which often contain Latin or Greek roots. The vocabulary terms sometimes have one meaning in everyday discourse and a different and highly specialized meaning in science.
  • Use categories and taxonomies that represent abstract ways of thinking that are not typically captured in everyday thinking.
  • Analyze research reports of scientific findings through the lens of scientific reasoning. Key questions they consider include the following:
    • What are the functions of the investigation—to explore, check previous results, test the explanatory power of a theory? The functions of the investigation will influence how the reader evaluates the evidence presented.
    • What data has been collected and how has it been analyzed? Is the data appropriate to the questions and conclusions reached?
    • What are the trade-offs of the research design, weighing what we can learn from experiments with controlled conditions versus what we can learn from naturalistic or direct observations?
    • What are the logical links between data, findings, previously related research and widely accepted theory?
    • What are potential sources of bias that may influence the findings and recommendations?[5]

Key ideas in the Grades 6-12 Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects standards for reading include the following:

  • Analysis and Summary of Science and Technical Texts
  • Following a Multistep Procedure
  • Understanding Symbols and Key Terms
  • Analysis of Text Structure
  • Purpose of Explanations and Procedures
  • Integration of Information Presented in Diverse Formats
  • Analysis and Evaluation of Reasoning and Evidence Presented in Text
  • Comparison of Findings from Varied Sources

Although the writing standards are the same as for history/social studies, they assume that the writing will be specific to science and technical content. The following is a sample of expectations from the writing standards. These examples are for students in grades 9 to 10.

  • Develop claim(s) and counterclaims fairly supplying data and evidence for each while pointing out the strengths and limitations of both claim(s) and counterclaims in a discipline-appropriate form and in a manner that anticipates the audience’s knowledge level and concerns.
  • Introduce a topic and organize ideas, concepts, and information to make important connections and distinctions; include formatting (e.g., headings), graphics (e.g., figures, tables), and multimedia when useful to aiding comprehension.
  • Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to manage the complexity of the topic and convey a style appropriate to the discipline and context as well as to the expertise of likely readers.
  • Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the usefulness of each source in answering the research question; integrate information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.

Engaging students in well-designed scientific inquiry in the classroom, including developing scientific explanations after completing experiments, allows them to develop the skills and the habits and thought processes of scientists. Helping students identify areas of interest within science and then working with them to conduct in-depth research over time allows them to gain detailed insight into how knowledge within the sciences develops. Teaching students how to question evidence and the logic of others helps them develop a set of skills that serve them well in any number of settings. For example, these same reasoning skills can be used in making personal health decisions, in making financial decisions, as well as in making decisions related to civic and political issues.

Thinking, Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening in Mathematics

During the first year of their Carnegie-sponsored research on disciplinary literacy, the Shanahans (see footnote on page 1) worked with experts in history, mathematics, and chemistry to understand more about the specialized literacy skills of each discipline. The mathematicians in the study emphasized the importance of reading and re-reading text. They spoke to the importance of specialized vocabulary and understanding that the meaning of symbols may change depending on the context. Mathematicians also spend much of their professional time reading and interpreting graphs, charts, and tables.

A major goal of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics is to ensure that students spend time thinking about and solving worthwhile mathematics problems. The goal is to have students develop the habits of mind of the mathematician. The Standards for Mathematical Practice[6] identify eight skills that teachers at all levels should seek to develop in students. The standards are as follows:

Mathematically proficient students

  1. Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them
  2. Reason abstractly and quantitatively
  3. Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others
  4. Model with mathematics
  5. Use appropriate tools strategically
  6. Attend to precision
  7. Look for and make use of structure
  8. Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning

In the mathematics classroom, students should have opportunities to address the standards for Grades 6-12 Literacy in Science and Technical Subjects, but the emphasis should be on the mathematics practices. Mathematics educators see practices 1 and 6 as reflecting overarching habits of mind of the mathematician. Many see practices 2 and 3 as practices that all contributing members of the mathematics community use on a regular basis as they communicate with others. They see practices 4 and 5 as being particularly relevant to how people use mathematics in many work settings, while practices 7 and 8 relate more closely to the work of theoretical mathematicians.

When students work with rich, real-world problems, they have the opportunity to use and develop many of the mathematics practices. The modern mathematics class requires students to collaborate and work with others to solve problems. Teachers give students opportunities to discuss different approaches to the same problem and ask them to think and talk about whether the answer makes sense in a real-world setting. Students also discuss whether or not their approach yielded a correct answer. Was the approach efficient? Can it be generalized, and will it work for all numbers? Why or why not? Through rich discussion, students develop mathematical thinking and reasoning skills as well as the ability to critique their own reasoning and the reasoning of others. Again, the reasoning and thinking skills serve students well in a wide range of settings and situations.

Thinking, Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening in Other Subject Areas

Although researchers have not shared in-depth studies related to the disciplinary literacy skills of artists, musicians, athletes, chefs, and a variety of other professionals, educators in many places are working to apply the principles of disciplinary literacy to the secondary subject areas that they teach. Teachers of art, music, physical education, career and technology education, and other subject area classes recognize the applicability of the general concepts of disciplinary literacy to the work they do with students and they also recognize that they have a role to play in developing literate graduates.

When asked what disciplinary literacy looks like in music, Tim Shanahan replied

Some fields draw from one or more disciplines and that means their reading and writing experience will be similar to the reading and writing routines, language, and insights of those related to those fields. I think that is something to be candid about with students: musical scholarship requires the ability to handle technical materials like a scientist, historical materials like a historian, and criticism in the fashion of a music critic; and students would necessarily have to recognize the diversity of those demands and adjust accordingly.[7]

Some educators working within the arts, however, feel strongly that there are ways of thinking and communicating that are specialized to their subject areas and feel that articulating these specialized skills and developing them within students will enrich how students approach problem solving. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction suggests the following eight steps to building knowledge in the arts through literacy:

  • Build prior knowledge.
  • Build specialized vocabulary.
  • Learn to deconstruct complex visual representation of ideas.
  • Use knowledge of artistic elements and genres to identify main and subordinate ideas within the piece.
  • Articulate what the graphic representations mean within a work or ideas to support its main components.
  • Pose discipline-relevant questions.
  • Compare artistic elements of the work to other artwork.
  • Use reasoning within the discipline (What counts as evidence to evaluation claims?)[8]

Karen Beerer, Ed.D. has 28 years of experience in public education as a teacher, reading specialist, principal, supervisor of curriculum and professional development, and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment. She received her Ed.D. from Lehigh University in Curriculum and Instruction. Dr. Beerer has a passion for professional development, specifically, helping educators utilize research-based practices in instruction to help all students achieve.


[1] Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching Disciplinary Literacy to Adolescents: Rethinking Content- Area Literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78(1), 40-59. Retrieved January 29, 2016, from

[2] Lee, C. D., & Spratley, A. (2010). Reading in the Disciplines: The Challenges of Adolescent Literacy | Carnegie Corporation of New York. Retrieved February 1, 2016, from

[3] Intro to Historical Thinking | Stanford History Education Group. (n.d.). Retrieved February 1, 2016, from

[4] Reisman, A. (2012). Reading like a historian: Document-based history curriculum intervention in urban high schools. Cognition and Instruction, 30(1), 86–112.

[5] Lee, C.D., Spratley, A. (2010). Reading in the disciplines: The challenges of adolescent literacy. New York, NY: Carnegie Corporation of New York.

[6] Standards for Mathematical Practice. (2010, June). Retrieved February 04, 2016, from

[7] Shanahan, T. (2014, December 15). Shanahan on Literacy. Retrieved February 10, 2016, from

[8] Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. (n.d.). Disciplinary Literacy in Art & Design. Retrieved February 11, 2016, from

[1] English Language Arts Standards. (2010, June). p. 7. Retrieved February 1, 2016, from

[2] English Language Arts Standards. (2010, June). Retrieved February 1, 2016, from

[1] Rainey, E., & Moje, E. B. (2012). Building Insider Knowledge: Teaching Students to Read, Write, and Think within ELA and across the Disciplines. English Education, 45(1). Retrieved February 1, 2016, from

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