DA op-ed: Deeper learning through the power of protocols

How districts are using a new protocol to better leverage technology-infused instruction and modernize the student learning experience

Faced with rapidly changing demands related to demographics, technology, globalization, citizenship and workforce preparation, many schools are rethinking what they’re all about.
Mendon-Upton Regional School District in Massachusetts and Jeffco Public Schools in Colorado are two districts that have leaned into the challenge.

At first glance, these districts seem to have little in common: They are far apart, and while Mendon-Upton has four schools, Jeffco has more than 150. However, both school districts are using a new protocol to better leverage technology-infused instruction. These school systems may give us a glimpse of the possibilities ahead for American education.

Developing new visions and strategic plans

Mendon-Upton’s journey began several years ago when the district began issuing iPads to students. The district had been using the SAMR (substitution, augmentation, modification, redefinition) technology-integration framework to help teachers use digital learning tools in their classrooms. However, district leaders were looking for a framework that more closely aligned with a new push for future-ready instruction.

Last summer, the Mendon-Upton community came together to construct a new five-year strategic plan emphasizing what Superintendent Joseph Maruszczak calls the four nonnegotiable shifts of deeper learning, greater student agency, more authentic work and rich technology infusion.

District leaders used those four shifts to inform the new mission statement and the accompanying profile of a graduate and the graduate competencies.

Under the new plan, Mendon-Upton’s organizational focus has expanded to include outcomes for students, such as mindful learning, inspired innovation, solution seeking and global citizenship. As Director of Technology Integration David Quinn says: “The ‘why’ of modern learning resonates with educators because as we reflect on our most meaningful learning experiences, we see the themes of authenticity, relevance, interest and passion pop up again and again.”

Many teachers continue to use technology in ways that replicate what instruction looked like before their schools invested in digital learning tools.

A similar movement is underway at Jeffco. The arrival of Superintendent Jason Glass was a catalyst for an initiative called “Generations,” which transforms learning through responsive teaching, customized pathways and technology usage.

At Jeffco, students’ skills now include civic and global engagement, critical and creative thinking, and agility and adaptability. Along with the “Generations” learning initiative, district leaders have invested in a districtwide 1-to-1 program to ensure that students have access to computing devices, digital learning environments and other modern learning tools.

As districts remake their mission and vision statements and begin the work of instructional redesign, they are finding that translating these visions into day-to-day classroom practice can be challenging. Both Mendon-Upton and Jeffco are using a new protocol to help them with this work.

What is ‘The 4 Shifts Protocol’?

Released last summer after five years of pilot work with schools and educators, “The 4 Shifts Protocol” emphasizes deep learning, student agency and authentic work, and recognizes the power of digital learning tools to help leverage those activities.

The protocol asks educators to think about technology through the lens of instructional intent, and it provides concrete “look fors” and “think abouts” to help teachers and curriculum designers diagnose and design or redesign their lessons and instructional units. The protocol helps educators critically review their instructional practices, but it is intended to help them talk in nonjudgmental ways about whether they are accomplishing desired outcomes.

For example, if teachers are using learning technologies to enhance personalization or enable greater student choice, they may ask themselves some questions from the protocol to see if they are accomplishing their instructional goals.
Questions could include:

  • Who decides how the content is learned?
  • Who is the primary user of the technology?
  • Can students be entrepreneurial or self-directed, or go beyond the given parameters of the learning task?

Similarly, educators attempting to use digital learning tools to enable students to do more authentic, real-world work could ask themselves questions from the protocol, including such as:

  • Does student work make a contribution to an audience beyond the classroom walls?
  • Are students using authentic, discipline-specific practices and processes?

The same questions that are used for diagnostic purposes are even more powerful when used as redesign pivot points. If educators’ answers to protocol questions aren’t what they want them to be, the questions can help them think about how to redesign their lessons or units to get to different answers.

For example, if the primary user of a digital device or learning app in a particular lesson is the teacher, educators and principals can discuss and brainstorm how to redesign the activity so that ultimately students are the ones accomplishing desired technology fluencies.

Similarly, if the use of digital learning tools masks the lack of substantive lesson content, instructional coaches can help teachers better integrate the technologies in ways that reinforce state and local curricular goals.

“The 4 Shifts Protocol” is already being used by classroom educators, instructional coaches, principals and technology integrationists around the world. It is flexible enough to accommodate a variety of teacher starting points, skill sets and comfort levels, and it seems to be occupying a critically important space between more traditional instructional practices and full-blown “gold standard,” multiple-week, and project- and inquiry-based learning.

The protocol helps educators approach future-ready education incrementally and builds their capacity for the more complex (and wonderful) project-based learning work.

Implementing the protocol

Mendon-Upton leaders began working on a district visiona couple of years ago. After being introduced to the four shifts of deeper learning, greater student agency, more authentic work and rich technology infusion, content-area specialists discussed elements of the framework that aligned with current practice and elements that needed more emphasis.

Teachers and administrators were introduced to “The 4 Shifts Protocol” during professional development meetings. They watched several videos about lesson plans from external sources, and then used the protocol to spark conversations about redesigning the plans. Analyzing external lesson plans helped put teachers at ease and allowed them to concentrate on evidence-based instructional conversations.

In time, educators at Mendon-Upton took the protocol one step further. For example, department chairs at Miscoe Hill Middle School worked to model the protocol’s use for colleagues. At monthly meetings for their departments, the chairs analyzed instructional activities —both external lessons and their own—in order to strengthen their department’s usage of the protocol. The chairs decided to focus on the student agency components of “The 4 Shifts Protocol” and devised simple changes to classroom practice that began to increase students’ ownership of their learning.

Another support for Mendon-Upton educators is the new Inspired Learning Convention, a daylong, district-hosted event that draws educators from across New England to discuss instructional redesign, innovative assessment and meaningful student learning experiences.

Maureen Cohen, Mendon-Upton’s assistant superintendent of schools, has given many conference presentations on teachers’ success with the protocol.

“When I’m asked by colleagues outside of our district how we are able to be effective in enacting positive change in instructional practice across multiple classrooms and schools, I quickly share our experience with ‘The 4 Shifts Protocol,’” she says. “It is a highly effective approach because the protocol is easily accessible for teachers to reexamine their practice in a safe way. Our conversations involving lesson redesign—broken into five-minute, 50-minute, or five-day increments—help to move our practice in a meaningful way.”

Over in Colorado, Jeffco has followed a similar path. Much of the past 18 months has been spent familiarizing educators, parents and community members with the “Generations” initiative and its various components.

During the rollout, district- and building-level leaders have emphasized the importance of creating authentic tasks for students that go beyond factual recall and procedural regurgitation. Educators across the district are engaged in a variety of activities related to this work, and many of them have been trained in project-based learning by the Buck Institute for Education.

“The 4 Shifts Protocol” has been a critical component of the “Generations” work. A year ago, over 80 district instructional coaches learned how to use the protocol in their conversations with classroom teachers.

This past summer, nearly every principal in the district also learned how to foster instructional conversations with the protocol at Jeffco’s annual Summer Leadership Academy. And this year, individual schools have begun to integrate the protocol into their lesson planning and instruction or are receiving school-based professional learning so that they may do so. “The 4 Shifts Protocol” affirms elements of existing practice for a few teachers, while the shifts represent a major realignment of instruction for other teachers.

The importance of protocols

It is no secret that schools typically struggle with their technology integration efforts despite large investments in student and staff computers, bandwidth upgrades and technology coaches. Although most schools have a few rock-star educators who are using digital learning tools in powerful ways, many teachers continue to use technology in ways that generally replicate what instruction looked like before their schools invested in digital learning tools.

For example, they show YouTube videos instead of DVD videos, use interactive whiteboards instead of chalkboards, or create electronic Google Docs that resemble paper worksheets. While all of these practices are both defensible and occasionally desirable, none of them represents transformative technology integration.

A solution may be the greater use of protocols. Research affirms the power of checklists and protocols to guide professional practice in industries as diverse as medicine, food preparation and transportation.

Education is no exception. As Jeffco’s Chief Academic Officer Matt Flores notes: “‘The 4 Shifts Protocol’ invites educators to examine common practices for instruction to determine entry points for deeper learning. This process is both simple and brilliant. Too often, we are quick to jump to an example that is far removed from the current instructional practices we see in our classrooms. The protocol provides the right amount of scaffolding to invite any of our classroom colleagues to begin to transform their practices to support a deeper learning for our students.”

Similarly, Mendon-Upton’s’s Quinn says: “The protocol has been useful to stimulate conversations around modernizing our student learning experience. The new strategic plan only increases the protocol’s importance, since it will help foster the thinking that will transition us from conversation to implementation. The challenging part is really the ‘how,’ and that’s why the protocol is a critical tool for changing practice.”

As Mendon-Upton, Jeffco and other school districts recognize the need to reshape and modernize student learning experiences, they need tools and support systems that help them operationalize new, lofty vision statements and graduate competencies. Teachers, coaches and administrators at Mendon-Upton and Jeffco have found “The 4 Shifts Protocol” to be an essential tool for facilitating different instructional conversations and the redesign of teaching practices. Over time, these changes should increase the cognitive complexity, student ownership and real-world connection of their students’ work.

That’s a win in anyone’s educational playbook.

Scott McLeod is an associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Colorado Denver and the founding director of CASTLE, the nation’s only university center dedicated to the technology needs of school administrators. He blogs regularly and shares resources at dangerouslyirrelevant.org and on Twitter (@mcleod).

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