3 common practices that can transform teaching and learning

How principals can have an immediate impact on their schools
By: , and | September 16, 2019
Photo by Nicole Honeywill

Karen Beerer is the senior vice president of teaching and learning at Discovery Education.

As we head into the 20th year of the 21st century, many of the changes we talked about in 1999 will be a reality. While we may not yet be living the life the Jetsons envisioned for us, teaching and learning have been transformed.

We’ve adapted to teaching today’s students the communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking skills they need for future success. We’ve empowered educators with the digital tools they need to create modern learning environments that mirror life outside the classroom.

We’ve realized the need to educate the “whole child” and are identifying ways to close the gaps that exist in educational equity. The list of what educators are doing to bring education into the 21st century is long, and we should be proud of our tremendous work.

But—and if you know me, there is always a but—in my travels around the country helping school districts transition to digital teaching and learning, I’ve seen a number of practices that we as educators, and specifically principals, can implement with fidelity to drive instructional improvement and innovative “next” practices.

Principals play a key role in guiding instructional practice in a school system, and during my career in public education, I saw firsthand how savvy principals can successfully drive change in their schools.

Here are three changes I’ve seen principals make that have had an immediate impact on teaching and learning in their schools:

Replace packets of worksheets with dynamic digital exercises

Boring packets of worksheets have been a part of education almost as long as the Pledge of Allegiance. Principals looking to continue changing education can mandate that dynamic digital learning activities replace packets of worksheets—today.

Recently, I visited a district where the students were studying photosynthesis. As part of the lesson, students were tasked with generating questions from their research that could be used to help inform their peers. Now, the principal in that school had asked educators to limit the use of worksheets in the classroom, so teachers had students use curated digital content consisting of videos, podcasts, and even images to learn more about their photosynthesis and share their questions with their peers through digital boards.

Projects are well-worth the instructional time—if they are good ones.

There are many reasons to make this shift—it promotes student choice, enhances learner agency, promotes the development of the 4Cs, and so forth. But the number one reason to shift from worksheet packets to digital projects is that going digital mirrors students’ use of media outside the classroom and is more engaging to them. By shifting to digital, we are playing on our students’ turf, and making learning more fun and interesting.

Take project-based learning to a new level

Many districts have adopted project-based learning as a focal point of instruction. Some of the core tenets of project-based learning necessitate a challenging problem or question, sustained inquiry, and a public project. Together these qualities make for a compelling pedagogical tool, right?

Well, the answer is sometimes. Let me share an example. A first-grade science class I visited was reading various informational texts about different kinds of animals and their habitats. Following the readings, students were assigned a project which involved selecting an animal about which they read and creating a diorama of the animal’s habitat. Sounds good—it’s hands-on, it supports the NGSS (in fact, the standards explicitly list dioramas as a model) and it is a form of student content creation.

However, when you dig into the actual learning derived from creating a diorama, this project becomes, well, weak. Students read about habitats, then build the habitat they just read about. In the reading, the students have explicit pictures of the habitats in front of them in the book, so what they build is just a replica of what they see. Does this diorama project elicit the type of deep learning we want our students to experience? I believe it does not.

Projects are well-worth the instructional time—if they are good ones. As a principal, you need to ensure that deep student learning is coming from the many projects underway in your school. Think about generating a project rubric in partnership with your teachers; that is, a rubric that will determine the exemplary qualities of a project that make it worth doing. In many cases, a project just needs some tweaks to make it truly worthwhile. For example, what if those first-grade students had to create their own animal, and then make a diorama of their animal’s ideal habitat to reflect the unique characteristics of their invention? Now, that’s a project. I encourage you to ensure that the projects your students are doing are both time-worthy and results-driven.

Expand professional learning

If a principal has a teacher model an instructional strategy at a faculty meeting, is that professional learning? If a teacher signs up for online professional learning that provides them access to 20-minute modules, is that professional learning? The answer to these questions is yes.

However, a principal needs to ask: Does this kind of professional learning result in effective instruction that promotes improved academic instruction? I would argue it does not. These types of events are great additions to a professional learning plan. They serve as catalysts for change or reflections on current practice and present possible ways of doing things differently. In my experience, however, effective professional learning–the kind that results in changes to teacher knowledge and practices and improves student learning–is built on a foundation of sustained support along with reflection, immersive practice, and feedback.

In fact, consider these 5 tenets of high-quality professional learning and answer the questions about professional learning in your school:

  1. Immersive learning experiences that create engagement: Are participants experiencing the learning as students would?
  2. Explicit modeling of a new concept or strategy: Is the thinking and learning of the strategy visible to the participants?
  3. Opportunities to debrief new learning: Can participants envision and apply their new learning?
  4. Time to Internalize and Reflect on New Learnings: Do participants have time to acknowledge their existing experience and connect it to new learning?
  5. A specific focus on transfer to practice: Is there tangible evidence of participants’ applications of their learning into their classroom?

I encourage you to inventory your professional learning initiative. If your school lacks a systemic approach to professional learning that does not include the above tenets, you may be offering your teachers professional learning lookalikes and missing a tremendous opportunity to improve the capacity of your teachers.

I believe we have the tools, technology, and leadership to continue improving the instruction our students receive. However, there are always places to improve, and worksheet packets, student projects and professional learning are great places to start.

Karen Beerer is the senior vice president of teaching and learning at Discovery Education. A former classroom teacher, she also served as a reading specialist, an elementary school principal, and as a supervisor of curriculum and professional development. Beerer also served as the assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment in the Boyertown Area School District (PA) for 8 years.