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To Learn, Students Need to DO Something


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I first became aware that there might be a problem a few years ago, when one of my kids was studying weather systems: high- and low-pressure systems, cold fronts and warm fronts. We were trying to help her prepare for a test and also do some sort of homework, and she didn’t get it at all.

We were really frustrated, my husband and I, because all we really had as a reference was the top half of this worksheet that explained the concept. So we were having trouble explaining it to her, and at one point I finally said to her, “You know, in your class, didn’t your teacher ever draw a diagram on the board?”

She said, “No.”

I said, “Did you guys ever do anything like where the teacher would grab a small group of kids and say, ‘OK, you three, you’re going to be a cold front, and then you three, you’re going to be a warm front. Come up to the front of the room, OK. And I want this group here, I want you to wiggle around really fast because you are, I don’t know, high pressure. And this group, I want you to move really, really slowly.'”

I was trying to figure out if there had ever been some kind of physical demonstration of these concepts. It seemed like even a three-minute re-enactment of how these systems work would help the kids get it right away.

“Did your teacher ever do anything like that?” I asked.

She looked at me like I was crazy and said no.

I said, “Well how did you learn this? How did you actually learn this for the first time?”

“Well,” she said, “we just read the book.”

“What do you mean ‘we read the book’?” I asked. “Did everybody sit down quietly and read it and then the teacher talked to you?”

“No. We just opened it up to page 36, and then she would read a little bit to us, and then explain something, and then we would read a little bit more, and then she would say something else, and that was it.”

“Is it like that all the time?” I asked, hoping for a no.

She shrugged and said, “Basically.”


This was a couple of years ago, when my kids were all still in elementary school, but since that time, I’ve seen this pattern more and more as they’ve gotten older: Every day, for the most part, information is delivered to them in some really basic way—usually PowerPoint—and the kids copy down what the teacher tells them to from the slides. Then they have some sort of worksheet where they’re basically regurgitating what was on those slides. After this cycle repeats four or five times, they have some kind of test. And that’s it.

This is not good. If we want our students to actually learn the facts and concepts and ideas we’re trying to teach them, they have to experience those things in some way that rises above abstract words on paper. They have to process them. Manipulate them.

To really learn in a way that will stick, they have to DO something.

I realize I’m probably preaching to the choir here—that people who read these posts are probably doing a lot more in class than this information-in, information-out model—and if that’s true for you, then great. But I listen to teachers talk all the time: in schools, on social media, in private messages, and I know that things are not going well for you all of the time. I hear teachers talk about “covering” concepts in class and even reviewing them with games, only to end up with half the class failing an exam. This is incredibly frustrating; I know. But the truth is, just because you covered it, it doesn’t mean they learned it.

And I know that this is going to upset some people, but if you have a lot of students failing your tests, and those students are in class and they’re showing up, then the problem is not them. The problem is you. It’s something you’re doing, or maybe something you’re not doing.

The Problem: A Gap in the Lesson Plan

First, let me say that authentic, project-based learning is probably the best way to have students experience meaningful learning. But many schools and classrooms aren’t quite there yet: They deliver instruction in a more traditional way. That model can still result in solid learning, if it’s implemented correctly. And that’s where I’m seeing a problem. I think we’re skipping over one of the most important steps in our lesson plans.

Let’s consider the classic lesson plan format:

  1. Anticipatory set: This is where we get students interested in the lesson and set objectives for the day.
  2. Direct instruction: Facts, concepts, and skills are delivered via lecture, video, reading—some way of getting the information into students’ heads.
  3. Guided practice and application: With the support of the teacher, students apply what they have just been taught.
  4. Independent practice and application: Students apply the learning on their own.
  5. Assessment: The teacher measures how well students have met the objectives.

I think what’s happening is that we’re skipping over the third step. We’re going right to independent practice (often at the lowest levels—basic regurgitation), but students aren’t being given any kind of task to actually process or apply the material in a meaningful way. We go straight from direct instruction to independent practice to assessment.

In some cases, we may even be skipping both steps 3 and 4. Not too long ago I had to help another of my kids study for a social studies test. All we had to work with were notes copied from a PowerPoint. I didn’t understand the meaning of half of them, because they were just bulleted phrases, so it was nearly impossible to review the material. When I pointed at individual items and asked my kid to tell me what they meant, that turned out to be too difficult. The teacher had just told them to write down that bullet point, but my kid left class that day not really knowing what it meant.

Because I was a teacher myself, I know there’s got to be more to the story. I remember how students could misrepresent or oversimplify the things we did in class. I would bet that this teacher took time to explain these concepts before having students copy down bullet points. But it wasn’t enough. My kid was in class, paying attention, writing down the notes, but still didn’t learn a whole lot.

Apart from the poor quality learning, this gap in our teaching is a problem for two more reasons.

For one, it doesn’t align with the standards. Look at any social studies standards for middle school, in pretty much any state. Do any of them say that kids need to be able to identify names of significant people in historical periods, or be able to regurgitate facts about certain cultures or regions?

No. They want students to be able to understand the relationships between social movements and changes and other influences. They want students to be able to explain and analyze things. I just randomly pulled up Wisconsin’s standards for grade 7 social studies. Here’s an example of what these students should be doing when they learn history (from page 10):

  1. Use historical evidence for determining cause and effect.
  2. Analyze, recognize, and evaluate patterns of continuity and change over time and contextualization of historical events.
  3. Connect past events, people, and ideas to the present, use different perspectives to draw conclusions, and suggest current implications.
  4. Evaluate a variety of primary and secondary sources to interpret the historical context, intended audience, purpose, and/or author’s point of view.

These standards are GORGEOUS. If students are actually doing these things in Wisconsin middle schools, that would be amazing. But if Wisconsin is like a lot of other places, my guess is that students are sitting through PowerPoint lectures, copying notes from the PowerPoints, and transferring that information to worksheets and tests.

I know it seems like I’m picking on social studies here, but that’s just because social studies is such an information-driven subject area. The same could be said for science, health, and other content-heavy classes. Even in English language arts, which really should be driven more by practicing reading and writing, there are some teachers who manage to run mostly lecture-worksheet-test-based classes.

The other problem with this kind of teaching is that it makes kids hate school. I already dealt with this extensively in this post about excessive use of worksheets, but it’s worth repeating: When we do little more than have students copy down information or fill out worksheets, we are making school an awful place to be.

In a 2014 article, instructional coach Alexis Wiggins reported on her findings after shadowing two high school students through a typical school day. She was horrified by the amount of sitting and passive learning these students were subjected to. Friends of mine who work as instructional consultants and coaches, who visit hundreds of classrooms every year, say they see more low-level seatwork than anything else.

My own kids hate school more and more the older they get. And they rarely bring home anything lower than an A. The other parents I talk to—who live all around the country—report a similar pattern more often than not. This is not an isolated issue.

Why Is This Happening?

I think this epidemic of passive learning has come about for a couple of reasons:

High-Stakes Testing Mania

We’re in an environment right now that is so driven by high-stakes testing and data that teachers have no choice but to only do things that produce data. Teachers say that they would like to be doing more engaging activities, but they end up in this cycle of information in, information out, assess, get a score, move to the next step again, repeat.

Death by Documentation

I’m hearing more and more from teachers who are required to document the crap out of their day—super detailed lesson plans, all the way down to having to indicate what font size they’re using on something. When you have to do that much documentation, it squeezes teachers’ time so much that they go to this default setting of get the content out there, cover it, test it, and move to the next thing.

Holes in Teacher Preparation

A friend who consults with schools tells me she believes teachers do not have sufficient tools in their toolbox for teaching. They literally don’t know enough strategies for actively engaging students in the content, and that teacher prep programs may not be equipping teachers with enough strategies. Many teachers don’t necessarily know how to go beyond direct instruction, worksheets, and tests, so they just go with the default. With teacher turnover at such a high rate and the number of emergency certifications growing in some states, it may be that teacher prep programs may not even be involved: There may not be much preparation at all.

The first two reasons need to be addressed at an administrative, policy level. But the last one we can deal with right now.

How Do We Fix It?

Now comes the good news. This problem can be solved in so many ways, and the solutions don’t have to be complicated, time-consuming, or fancy. Simply add activities into your instruction that will help students build more pathways in their brains, see patterns, connect to previous knowledge, and experience some novelty so they remember the material better.

In between the direct instruction step and the assessment step of your planning, start adding in some of these activities:

1. Sorting

Organize the material by similarities and differences, categorize it, label it, do something that requires students to activate schema and create connections. An inductive learning lesson would be great for this.

2. Kinesthetic Work

Doing short role-plays and simulations can really help students visualize relationships and processes. This can also be done by creating models with Play-Doh or cardboard, or doing some kind of a maker project that connects to your standard.

3. Discussion

Even giving students a few minutes to discuss a topic—especially if they are taking some kind of a stance on the content and backing it up with evidence—can do so much to help them process and learn the content. But make sure all students are participating! Check out this big list of discussion strategies for tons of ideas.

4. Graphic Representations

Having students put the material into any kind of visual form will help them remember it better and understand how concepts are related. Graphic organizers and sketchnotes are two ways to accomplish this. Students can do these on their own or they can be constructed as a class with your support—for especially challenging concepts, this may be most effective.

5. Write to Learn

When students process ideas in writing, they are forced to synthesize the information that has only entered their brains passively, so stopping instruction every now and then to have students write short summaries or give their opinions on the things they’re learning is a really effective, efficient way to cement their learning. This video from the Teaching Channel shows just how simple this can be to implement.

6. Mini-Projects

For learning to be active, it doesn’t have to be a super complicated, long-term project. Students can do mini-projects that take just a day or two. This poster project, where students have to rank leaders of early America, then back up their choices with evidence, is a perfect example of a project that could be done in a short period of time.

7. Anticipation Guides

Anticipation guides are simple forms where students state their opinions on key statements before a learning activity. This primes them for the learning that is about to come. Once the direct instruction is done, they revisit the guides to see if their opinions have changed. This would be a really simple way to boost engagement and give students a bigger stake in a lesson.

8. Quality Note-taking

Although students seem to be taking a lot of “notes” in class, it’s not clear that this is being done in a way that results in high-quality learning. If your classroom practices are aligned with the research on note-taking, this activity can be a powerful processing tool.

9. Retrieval Practice

Asking students to recall information is a great way to help them learn it better, but I’m not exactly talking about the kind of recall they do on worksheets. Whether it’s stuff that just needs to be memorized or concepts that require more complex processing, building periods of retrieval practice into your instruction will boost learning.

Bonus: Collaboration

Most of these activities would be enhanced by some kind of collaboration: Have students share their write-to-learn responses with a partner. Do sorting tasks with small groups. Any time they work together, they’re engaging with the content in a different way, which introduces more novelty and more opportunities to process it differently.


This is not an exact science, and no teacher designs instruction perfectly all the time. But if you’re not getting the results you want, try to do more of this: When planning your lessons, ask yourself if students are doing anything with the material, or if you’re just setting things up so it’s information in, information out. If it’s the latter, start adding in ways to have students engage with the stuff they’re learning. There are a lot of different ways to do it. Even though it adds a little bit more time, you’re going to see such big benefits. Not only are your students going to learn better, you will all—both your students and you—like coming to school a whole lot more. ♦


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  1. I used to teach pre-service teachers and have said and taught all of the above at one time or another. The only thing I would add is this: high stakes testing doesn’t have to govern what we do in a negative way. I was a curriculum director for several years and our district (and most of the others in the region) did not use the tests as a club to beat students and teachers into submission. We kept the tests low key and actually worked with the data to inform our teaching. When I hear teachers or others talking about how they have to teach this for the test and then they can get back to “real” teaching, I know they are in a district and/or state that does not use the data for its intended purpose: information and a tool. It also often informs me that the state or district did not invest in criterion referenced tests that were actually created in reference to their state standards.

    • Barbara says:

      Totally agree! I’d also argue that strong teachers learn how to create an environment of rich learning no matter what professional pressures they feel from their school and district leadership. The idea that “teachers have no choice but to only do things that produce data” is really oversimplifying the profession and takes away the potential of being a leader in your own classroom.

    • Mr. C says:

      That is wonderful

      • Lorraine Anthony says:

        But here’s the thing,:
        Project-based learning often takes,:
        1. Extra time to plan -on top of all the other unpaid planning time
        2. Supplies teacher has to buy on top of all the other things teachers buy for the classroom
        3. Deciding what you won’t have time to teach because my experience shows PBL takes more class time than more traditional approaches.
        I’m a huge fan of PBL,; however, this always has to weigh into my planning.
        For instance, on Pi Day, my adult education students proved Pi by blowing bubbles. It took 75 minutes of class time, and buying supplies out of pocket. In that time I could have taught 2-3 other concepts which now I won’t have classroom time for, and will have to skip, give short shrift to, or assign as homework.

    • Ann says:

      I just wanted to add one thing…and it’s very dangerous for this author to write it, because she is short-sighted…She wrote this:

      “And I know that this is going to upset some people, but if you have a lot of students failing your tests, and those students are in class and they’re showing up, then the problem is not them. The problem is you. It’s something you’re doing, or maybe something you’re not doing.”

      I am sorry, but you are wrong. It is not always, and I would say, not typically the teacher. What about the responsibility of the parents in the home to get kids to school ready to learn and able to do the work? Of a culture that values victim mentality. To continue to foster the idea that teachers are responsible to make up for crappy parenting, crappy cultures, lazy or intellectually unable students, and a host of other things is really responsible – especially coming from a teacher. Let’s be realistic and nuanced in our discussions of why students do not succeed please.

      • Andrea Castellano says:

        Hi Ann,

        I’m a member of Jenn’s team and also a teacher myself. I feel it’s our responsibility as teachers to support students in meeting their goals. We know that students often deal with forces beyond their control, and that their needs may vary depending on their situation. One possible approach is to develop a student-centered teaching philosophy that assumes good intent, avoids internalized biases, and always seeks to meet our students where they are. The following post might be a useful tool for reflection: 5 Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Unmotivated Students
        Thanks for reading.

    • Michelle Kelley says:

      Wait. Are you saying that there are tests that are not made to our specific standards? If you are that would explain a lot but every time I question a test, which we are not supposed to do, I am treated as if I’m the enemy.

  2. Laurie says:


  3. Christopher Miller says:

    As usual, you are dead on. The other day I told a friend I don’t like using the term “teaching” to describe what I do. She looked confused and asked why. Your post nails why! Many many students, parents, administrators, and teachers think that what your daughter describes is teaching. I’ve been called out many times by all of the above for “not teaching.” That’s because I try to get kids curious so that they will become relentless about learning something. About taking charge of their own learning. And it has nothing to do with PowerPoint, lecture, and fricken packets! Some students, parents, administrators, teachers get it. But I need another term to describe what I do because “teaching” implies PowerPoint, lecture, and fricken packets, and that’s not what I do.

    • Susan James says:

      You are facilitating learning!

    • How about “inspiring” or “engaging” since that seems to be what you are doing?

    • Rebecca says:

      Yes! I switched to PBL in HS PE last year and it was a breath of fresh air. I watched the students grow, learn, critically think and problem solve, which I facilitated. The students that “play school well” are the ones that struggle the most with this I have found. My planning up front was more but during once the framework was in place my question would be, what are your plans for the day? What are you focusing on learning? They already had plans but this was my check in when I saw them. So many fewer off task students. I would have five different activities going on at one time and every student was on task and having fun. It freed me up to help students that needed more support as well. This is with classes of students combined 9-12. This year with COVID had been harder with the restrictions but I can see the foundation I built with the students last year using this has helped them plan for their goals and activities more easily this year. I hope to get back to normal soon..

  4. Ellen Werner says:

    I love my job, and love your rant. I love to teach science with Hot Wheels cars and exploration (4th grade). One thought about your comment about lesson plans: I have 1/2 hour of lesson planning time during the school day, 4 days a week….Obviously, science alone takes this amount of time and then some. And then there are all the other subjects. To be a good teacher and do all the things I can and should, I have to work constantly. Giving teachers time to develop great lessons would help teachers show the true potential of teaching done right. I know what to do, I just need time to do it right!

    • You are correct, it is hard to plan well for everything in one year. I gave myself a subject on which to focus for improvement each year. It made it possible for me to become a better teacher without feeling overwhelmed.

    • Jasmine says:

      This is absolutely correct. I am a new high school teacher and I feel like engaging lessons and activities take so much time to plan, time that I don’t have, so sometimes I have to go with reading with comprehension questions
      -_-. If teachers were given more time for planning the needle would move a little more, instead we are buried in paperwork and useless professional development.

  5. I agree with everything you say. Students learn by doing, not passively listening. I think most teachers know this and want to do what is best for their students. I also think that teaching has gotten difficult- incredibly difficult. Teachers are required to teach too many content classes, and there is not enough time built into the workday to adequately prepare. So teachers must take work home and end up working overtime for pay that almost qualifies for public assistance, despite years of experience or advanced degrees. Add to this increasingly larger class sizes, apathetic students with hard to manage behavioral issues, and pressure from school administrators to improve test scores or adopt the latest/most popular educational approach. I think teachers are stretched too far, too thin. I wonder – why don’t you teach in a classroom anymore? My guess would be that you became burned out – as most normal people would- after years of trying to stay on top of an unmanageable situation. And you were lucky because you found a way to stay in the education field without having to actually get your hands dirty by doing the hard work on the front lines with the children. How convenient for you. And how easy it must be for you to point a finger and chastise teachers for not being creative or clever enough to create hands-on lessons. Why don’t you go back to the classroom? It’s so easy for administrators and consultants like you to preach from the pulpit because you don’t actually have to carry out any of your own directives in a real classroom. And if your reply is that you did work in a classroom and were able to do all the things you recommend, then GO BACK TO TEACHING. Please go back to the classroom. We need good teachers, as you’ve probably already noticed. You’ve got lots of wonderful, inspiring ideas. Your blog would be a lot more authentic too!

    • Hi Name Withheld,

      I left teaching to stay home with my three children when they were babies. The plan was to go back to teaching full-time after they were in school, but I had the opportunity to work with pre-service teachers in the interim, and I loved it. After taking a course in educational technology, I learned how to run a simple website and decided I wanted to help more teachers on a larger scale. While I strive to be as authentic as possible, I realize that being out of the classroom puts me out of the loop in some ways. On the other hand, I have a lot more time to do the research and learning that I never had time to do when I was in the classroom, so I do my best to fill that need for teachers. If I were to go back to the classroom, this website would come to a screeching halt, so for the foreseeable future, I’m going to keep doing this as well, and as authentically, as I’m capable of.

      Thanks for the feedback, though.

      • Jenny says:

        I love your website and and content. I also have to agree with the comments posted about getting back into the classroom. As teachers, we could work 24 hours a day and never feel we are doing enough. I do the best that I can to create authentic learning experiences for my students, knowing that most likely I am failing them at some level. Also, I arrive to work everyday at 6:30 am and quite often sub on my prep. There are limitations to what we can feasibly accomplish. And the on top of that, my students are high risk and school is not their top priority. While I agree with what you are saying that it the students are failing to learn the fault mainly lies with me. But, as a middle and high school teacher, students also need to take responsibility for their learning as well. Missing assignments, phones in class, and behavior interruptions are daily. I can only do so much. I also have a husband, children, friends, and personal interests. Teaching is an important job and my personal life should also be meaningful. You left teaching when your children were born, therefore you know how hard it is to balance work and home life. We can only do so much and believe me, I am trying.

        • Suman Bala Singh says:

          Yes there is a big hole but for patching we need help from each stakeholder. But in Delhi education system we have joined our hands.

      • Tasha McFarland says:

        One of the best things that I have found and been working on is The Learning Cycle, which completely flips lesson plans and leads students to come up with the concepts rather than teachers telling them what they should know. We studied The Learning Cycle: Elementary school science and beyond by Edmund A. Marek and Ann Cavallo. It has completely changed my outlook on teaching. I highly recommend it!

      • Marjon Daane says:

        Dear Jennifer,

        Until now I did not feel the urge to react, now I have to.
        Do not go back to the classroom. We, teachers/coaches need you and your team to do all those things FOR US and OUR STUDENTS, since we do not have the time after school to do all that ourselves!!! We need your research, results, inspiration, good advice etc. We can choose from this rich input and we are allowed to use it!! You can do a lot more for a lot of people now, instead of going back to the classroom. And about being authentic? In every post you send I feel the real teacher behind the information and topics, a passion for teachers and students and education. Keep the good work going!

        • Thanks so much, Marjon.

          • Heather Muhonen says:

            This is spot on!!! We just moved back from two years of living in New Zealand!! They were using every one of these teaching concepts every week and had such and integrated learning program across the school! It was amazing…my children loved school…I loved their school!
            Now we are back in the US system and I am appalled! We only had a brief experience with the public system before we left (1 year in first grade), but I can definitely say that I have found very little of these concepts being used in my children’s classrooms here in the US (5th, 3rd, Kindergarten). (Don’t even get me started on the excessive use of iPads in the classroom!!!)
            I am not an educator but having experienced the difference between the two systems I can see how using these concepts can only enhance learning. And for those of you complaining about it being too hard, not having enough time or support…you don’t have to do it all at once! Start by incorporating a few things at a time, find some parent helpers (I am sure that there are some lurking out there) or even some retired people to come in to support your efforts. Let me tell you…you will have more fun teaching and your students will have more fun learning with the added benefit that they will have greater retention!!

          • Education Professor says:

            Hi, Jennifer. I teach pre-service teachers as well at a major university. Just want to say how great your blog is. This post is the first assignment I have my students read actually.

          • Andrea Castellano says:

            Thanks so much! Jenn will be happy to hear!

        • Megann says:

          I can’t say it any better than Marjon, so I will just second it!

      • Veteran Teacher says:

        Students have changed. I assign formative material explain why we need it is important see a lack of response from students (ie 75% did not complete the reading assignment and hand a response) now it is time to work on the project (I teach art) and the students don’t have the vocabulary they needed from the reading or the understanding that would have gotten from the reading, so I need to reexplain to the 75% that choose to stream video on their phone or school issued ipad. Then I find that maybe 50% know how and understand the material because other 50% were still checked out and not paying attentions to my demonstration. So in the end I have to go around and check and maybe get another 10 or 20 percent on board now that they are doing the project for a summative grade. In the end maybe 70% are able to turn in a completed project showing that they understood the skills and the concept being taught. 20 years ago when I started teaching this was not the case. I have changed some of my teaching techniques its rare that I ask students to do an in class reading most our work in hands on but the one or two times in a three week unit I ask this of my students the majority just check out. I am wondering what your solution is for this?

    • Thomas says:

      I appreciated your reply so much. I agree with it all as well and am so happy you encouraged Jennifer to go back to the classroom. Recently, two awesome instructional coaches and content area specialists in my district have re-entered the classroom. I am so curious to know if they are feeling the insurmountable pressure I feel daily and if that is what they expected going back into the classroom. Nothing equates to running a classroom as the actual teacher day in day out getting our hands “dirty” as you pit it. At the same time, I am also grateful for Cult Of Pedagogy. I love it. I hope to get better as a teacher over time, but am struggling to do so and live a family life as well. At least I get to do these things with my own children all the time if not my students.

    • I really like your blog and ideas, but I must agree with “Name Withheld’s” reply. Teachers want to do all those things you suggest, but the students’ needs are from A to Z. Some kids need that visual powerpoint slide to be up as they collaborate in groups and/or work independently! I spend hours at home planning, prepping, and assessing because NONE of that can be done at school. Pulling small groups doesn’t always work as you suggest in spite of the best classroom management strategies in place. Students come to the table with very different beliefs, behaviors, and manners and their parents support them over our expectations! If you haven’t taught in the classroom for at least one week in the last five years, you really don’t know what is going on in there and the stamina it takes to keep it up as you suggest causes burnout (or at least exhaustion). My homelife definitely suffers in order to do my job well. Sorry, but it must be said and it would be great for you to reflect on it to improve your own practice. Criticizing teachers who work so hard to do what they do every single day against so many challenges does not promote your amazing ideas in a positive manner. Teachers get ranted on enough…

    • J Brown says:

      For those who follow these podcasts, I would suggest that anger can be toxic for teachers. I suggest the podcast, to boost your resilience. Pointing fingers with blame is to know that there are always three fingers pointing back at the accuser.

    • Leslie Seaton says:

      I’m probably 2 years too late for Name Withheld to actually get this, so I’m writing this for other teachers who react this way. I’ve been there. We are seriously overworked, underpaid, and often unappreciated. There are serious obstacles to creating the brilliant, research based lessons that we want to give our students so our jobs often feel impossible. And in many places, we don’t feel safe asking for help, either. For those teachers who are in this place right now, Stop. Breathe. Know that there are people who know how hard you work and that you feel like you are banging your head against a wall. Now, push away all the stupid “adult issues” in your building and focus on your kids. Look for one thing you can do to make your practice better. For me, I actually had to find a new subject, age level, and building to teach in. Best decision I ever made!
      If your response to this site is that people are pointing fingers at you and you want to point back at them, then that is your stress talking. I’m not blaming you. I’m telling you from experience that this is not you! Step away and take care of yourself. When you are ready to enter problem-solving mode, come back here and I think you will really appreciate finding so many research-based strategies with simple advice on how to implement them.

  6. Michael Palmer says:

    Preaching to the choir, but I keep singing this song and its getting old. As a school leader I am frustrated with the ‘how’ to get teachers to do less of what you have described and more of the hands on/minds on learning that we, the choir, know to be effective. I work in a private international school in which I see the worksheet driven learning next door to the inquiry driven learning. Each in their own silo. These teachers mingle at lunch and after hours but for some reason that I cannot yet figure, the high impact learning and teaching approach of one teacher does not rub off on the low impact learning environment in the class next door. Are the stakes not high enuff for teachers in my school? Am I failing as a leader because I cannot get the worksheet driven teacher to allow the students voice to emerge amongst the reams of paper? How to dismantle the silos? How to challenge teachers beliefs about learning so they begin to “see” more of what is possible? Thanks for the post.

    • Michael, your comment struck a chord with me. And you are putting your finger on a little mission that I am on myself. I almost don’t want to put this online just in case a colleague may run across it, but it must be said.

      For 8 years I chaired two separate ELA departments (I changed schools, a new school in my district opened, and while one site steadily increased, the other decreased). I worked tirelessly to bring impactful instructional practices to my department, things that worked really well. I convinced the admin to throw money at my departments’ development. And there were a few who applied some of the learning with various levels of efficacy. But people with good intentions, and a desire to be great teachers, just did not do the work that needed to be done for their own professional growth. All kinds of excuses were made. And on my end, the investment I put in did not return to me with any level of reciprocity. All I got for my effort was gray hairs, a receding hairline, and terrible distaste for PLCs.

      Here’s the most puzzling part. I quit being department chair and joy returned to my professional life. I have had the best two years of my career since leaving the position. And as my desire to help teachers was pent up, I released in the form of a blog and a book. And guess what? Some of the very same people who wouldn’t take a suggestion from their department chair will now spend time reading long-winded posts about practices that work and will spend money and time reading a book I wrote… AND THEN APPLY IT IN THEIR CLASSROOM!!! I have way more influence now with the very people I had been trying to help all along. The cool part now is that I can help others who are really looking for a hand. It all just blows my mind, and I wish I had started putting myself out there earlier.

      Want to help your colleagues pick themselves up a little, apparently you need to start a website and then they will listen! ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    • Veteran Teacher says:

      Michael do you allow your teachers to observe other teachers in the school teach? Do you ask teachers that you see with a really exciting lesson do an inservice training with the rest of the staff at a staff meeting instead of the usual boring business? Teachers are busy we don’t always want to talk shop with our colleagues. If you see something you like recognize and give the teacher time with in the paid school day to learn what you want to teach them. You are still a teacher for your staff.

  7. The issue that you identify is real. There is a lack of authentic applications in lesson plans throughout the system, in particular in the academic classes.

    This is not an issue in classes where students produce authentic deliverables such as woodworking (birdhouse), band (performances), cooking (meals), etc.

    We can learn from these teachers of applied skills because they have to produce a tangible result and they need to prepare their students to create on their own. This is done safely and efficiently through strong lesson design and can be replicated in more academic settings.

  8. Bob Feurer says:

    My son, now 34, and I were discussing his day and week in elementary school. As a science teacher I was interested in what they were doing in science class. His response, “Dad, I’m not sure we even do science”!

    In Nebraska science has become a poor step child in the elementary curriculum because it is not one of the subjects that is tested by our state assessments as were reading and mathematics; what gets tested gets done. And, science is messy and takes extra time, a commodity of which no teacher has enough. Teaching kids using science as the tool was my job for 37 years. It was time consuming and messy to do it as well as it needed to be done.

    I tried to teach science as a verb not a noun; you “do” science as you indicated in your writing. I remember an article in the Hawkhill Science Newsletter that spoke to me. It had a few comments that directly influenced how I thought about the discipline and how I tried to teach kids with it. It went something like this, “A collection of facts is no more science than a pile of stones is a house”.

  9. Your rant needed to be said and you were eloquent! Principals, coaches, coordinators all need to expect this from their teachers and find time (I don’t know maybe at 11 pm like the rest of us) to give feedback and brainstorm ideas with teachers. Then visit the class and support the students who are working hard. Also, help out by removing that child that refuses to work and helping them find a solution to their lack of energy or interest. Let the teacher have the space to teach those who are on task! Give them a chance to succeed.

  10. My principal just got back from NY attending a leadership symposium at Teachers College. She reported that according to Lucy Calkins 40% of new teachers are coming out of online course/credential programs. They (Teaching College) write their curriculum in a script format because so many teachers have not had time in the classroom to develop skills or toolboxes. Maybe an insight into why many teachers do not have a strong set of skills.

  11. Lynn Braden says:

    In my school system, we have both CFAs and learning blueprints that require so many quizzes, tests, and retakes over so many standards, that it is hard to cram in much more than basic instruction. Most of my time outside class is spent writing tests, quizzes, and other assessments, so there is no time left in my day to plan any kind of well-developed lessons. In addition, the expectations of parent contact, learning new technologies, and other time consuming requirements, make being a good teacher almost impossible unless every waking moment is spent on planning and grading. It is unfortunate.

  12. Christine says:

    This is so spot on. I am a new teacher and we spent virtually zero time in our teacher-training program talking about specific teaching strategies. And this is from a major, well-renowned Canadian institution. Luckily I had a great advisor who encouraged me to limit teacher talking to 10 minutes, then have the students do “stuff” for the majority of the rest of the block. This blog is my go-to for filling in all the blanks from my university training.

    Over-documentation is a real struggle too. My Catholic school is being evaluated this year by the ministry and the Catholic school board. We are required to have detailed unit and day plans for EVERYTHING, with all the curriculum, religious ed and aboriginal perspectives links. Our consultant actually recommends teachers front-load all their lesson-planning at the beginning of the year. Saves on planning later, but how do we keep it flexible and responsive enough to student needs and interests in real-time? It feels like paperwork for the sake of paperwork sometimes.

  13. Rhonda says:

    This is exactly what I see as well. I am preparing teacher candidates, and when they go out into the schools, they come back and say, “Dr. M., my teacher isn’t doing what you taught us to do.”. I am worried about our children not being able to solve real life problems, among other things. I am sharing this!!!!

  14. Cindy says:

    I agree with so much of what you said. I’m a newbie teacher (4th year teaching 4th grade), but at 55 years old, I have a lot of life experience that has shown me we need to be teaching just as you have outlined. However, I see two main issues that hinder teachers from following that model. One – students today do not come to school willing, or even able, to fully engage. Many of them have had childhoods that revolved around engaging in electronic devices rather than climbing trees and using their imaginations. Capturing and holding their attention is an incredible challenge. Two – the teaching resources we’re provided with (if we are even given any), rarely include lesson outlines that include those elements of highly-effective instruction. There are simply not enough hours in a regular school day to keep up on teaching, dealing with behaviors, grading work, inputting grades, meeting for IEPs, etc., etc., to then devote time to seeking out those quality lesson plans. So, if teaching resources aren’t provided, teachers have to spend their off hours searching for tested and approved, hands-on lessons that meet standards and will pass any drop-in evaluation visit criteria. Then they have to prepare the materials needed to teach that lesson so each student is fully engaged and participating, and most likely have to purchase the necessary supplies with their own money. Yikes! No wonder we have so many new teachers in the profession – because teachers are retiring early, not going into the profession, or quitting shortly after they start. I actually am one of hte teachers who gives up my time and money to search for good lessons, but I have a very patient husband (also a teacher) and no children at home to care for. My heart goes out to teachers who strive to have quality home lives outside of their classrooms, because teachers today are expected to do all of that, even if it means giving up their personal time outside of school to get it done. What I believe we need is a free database of teaching ideas that are not worksheets. If we could provide teachers with a resource list of ideas that they could easily search through, and not have to pay for out of their own pocket, I believe they would be able to provide those quality lessons, and would do it willingly.

    • Lyndsey says:

      I agree with you completely. I am in my 2nd year teaching high school computer science. I unfortunately do a lot of talking with students just sitting there, but I don’t WANT to be that teacher. I came from the business world, and I am so amazed about how little teachers share with each other. Collaboration is awful within education. Everyone says – well, you get to decide HOW to teach. Why can’t everyone share their ideas, which would save everyone so much time? We don’t get enough time to plan, so why not divide and conquer?

      • Claudette Guy says:

        Hi Lyndsey,
        I, too, came from a business background and teach intro CS at a high school. I know that feeling of “how am I supposed to teach this?”, especially with CS, since we are such a young field in the K-12 arena. Here are a few ideas that I’ve found over the last 5/6 years and I thought might be useful for you! I’m not sure what concepts/grade/language you are teaching, but has some great activities in the CS Discoveries and CS Principles curriculum. I particularly like the CSP Unit 1 lessons on number systems and binary numbers. CS-Unplugged also would be worth looking into. For teaching a specific language or coding concept, perhaps check out the CS-POGIL website. I have been using these activities to teach Python for the last two years. They are, at their core, guided worksheets (eek!), but students are “doing something” rather than passively listening to me lecture. In fact, I rarely ever lecture any more – I end up running around the room helping with individual questions and giving feedback on students’ code (class time goes very quickly!) Are you a member of any CS facebook groups? There are several very active ones for courses such as AP CS and AP CSP, or languages such as Python, and a general “CS Educators” one. Last, but not least, have you joined your local Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) chapter? It is a great way to get connected to other CS teachers and find additional PD opportunities. I went to the annual conference two years ago in Baltimore; the information sessions were fantastic, but the informal conversations and collaboration with other CS teachers made the conference worth it for me!

  15. Jill says:

    As a newly retired elementary teacher (science was my favorite) I can tell you teachers are completely overwhelmed right now in many districts and are exiting in alarming numbers. The number of children facing significant daily adversity has made teaching in high need schools a marathon event. Just getting through the day is a challenge for teachers, let alone having the time, energy, or confidence to experiment, create, or implement anything unfamiliar. The kids who need the very best instruction are often taught by teachers hanging by a thread. Luckily for me, in my district, these extreme challenges came after my own kids were grown so I was able to devote practically ALL of my non-teaching time to reading, researching (including your podcasts:), and becoming a certified trauma practitioner. Unfortunately most teachers are unable to devote that much time to their own learning and are not getting the support, feedback, and encouragement they need to meet the needs of their students. Teaching is the most rewarding job there is, but even though I just left the classroom myself, just like childbirth, I’ve already forgotten how incredibly hard it is.
    All your ideas to engage students are spot on. Now we need to give teachers the time and support to learn, collaborate, and practice them. When we are in survival mode ourselves, it’s hard to try anything new.
    Thank you for your podcasts. Keep up the great work!

  16. Hi!
    I was so happy to read this because you perfectly frame what I just argued for when talking about physical learning environments (in an interview by the french architecture firm EGA see Link below). This passive learning tradition that you explain so accurately is also reflected in the physical learning environment. Look around the classroom and you’ll see chairs and tables directed toward the screen/white board. However, from what we know from experience and research, that setting is just about the first and last 10 minutes of the lesson (phase 1 & 6 in the lesson plan). Where are the spaces for all the really interesting stuff going on in between?… that’s where learning happens, so that’s what we should design for!

    If you have some soare 10 minutes, please listen to the interview here:

  17. Luise says:

    I was ready to give up Powerpoints / Slides Presentations completely but was surprised to find that my high school science students weren’t comfortable without that almost traditional time of passive listening. So now I limit time of ‘exposure by Powerpoint’ and work on many different ways to process the information (before the lecture, after the lecture, and throughout the year). I think of it as being like weaving -getting the thread out has to happen before the fabric comes together.

    • Enthusiastic and human says:

      Hi! I have had my students get up and “be” the part of the sentence or the clause, throw the stuffed animal direct object, model the sunglasses direct object, sing, work collaboratively, engage in debates and Socratic Seminars, create poems as a class in the moment, “read” art, and engage in so many student-centered learning experiences, but sometimes they just want me to explain the concept clearly. No matter what, once is not enough. Kids will always be absent and many will not fully grasp or retain even the best-illustrated concept with follow-up questions, pair-shares, analogies, manipulatives, inquiry, and all of the best teaching strategies. I always have the students draw on or mark up examples and create their own. I create analogies or metaphors for concepts and ask students to create their own. Students create memes and write down and analyze examples of what we’ve learned that they encounter outside of class (songs, books, movies, TV shows, etc.), but, again, sometimes practicing with pencil to paper, writing an essay, or taking an assessment is an effective way to learn or show learning. Also, time is limited and students sometimes actually tire of the hands-on activities or don’t even know (though I told them) what their acting out scenes, parading around the room in a singular collective noun litter of puppies, or hooking together as independent and subordinate clauses meant. They still might not understand the concept or gain the basic knowledge despite the drawings, manipulatives, examples, and actions. Finally, no matter how much I prepare them or how solid classroom management is, some students sometimes don’t care to make sure they meet objectives when working together; they just get silly when they would understand better working alone. I do use collaborative work and testing with debating of answers after students have tried independently, but only for certain concepts. When I do use active, hands-on, student-centered instruction, it’s usually great, though nothing works wonderfully for everyone. Most of my students do get it and very few to none fail assessments and essays (but students very seldom meet focus areas despite whole-class revisions of peer work). I do have to choose when and how to do this. I still don’t have enough time at all for instruction or planning and assessing. I think I am not alone. Thank you!

  18. Nicole says:

    I love this idea and whole-heartedly agree with you! As a middle school math teacher, the one thing I struggle with is how to apply this to my content of math though. Any advice on how to apply this to teaching math?

    • Miranda says:

      Hi there, YES, you can do this with math!
      The teachers development group is one of many using a math studio model. I don’t represent this group in any way, but I have seen the math studio model in action. Often, students begin work on a thought provoking prompt at the beginning of class. The teacher circulates and notes students who have used different strategies or ideas to solve the problem (even if the final answer is not correct). Students sit in a circle and discuss the possible strategies. The teacher may then give direct instruction about the strategies being developed (or grow the strategies a bit beyond what students have produced). Students practice one or more of the strategies, and check work as a group. Then they reflect. It is a beautiful, beautiful thing. If you don’t want to purchase anything from this group, you can find many resources referencing them.

  19. Tawnia king says:

    Awesome! Spot on!!

  20. Thank you for the refresher. It’s always good to be reminded of best practices. Keep up the good work!

  21. Your post captures the essence of the active vs. passive learning. The scenario you describe in your daughter’s science class is typical of many schools today. Sitting-and-getting is equated with learning. Passive learners use lower-level thinking strategies, such as recall and rote memorization. Active learners, according to research, use higher-level thought processes such as analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing. While active learning should be the goal of educators, it’s not as simple as planning fun activities. The surest way of bringing students to a high level of engagement (which leads to active learning) is to design instruction that leverages the five facets of student motivation: competence, relationships, autonomy, value, and emotions.

  22. Thank you for this post. I’m an 8th Grade History teacher and happy to report that many of us in my district are working hard to make our classrooms student-centered and learning social studies relevant and dynamic for our students!

  23. Thomas Boynton says:

    I was so excitied to hear a rant from you because they are usually extremely insightful and point me in the right directions to make learning happen effectively in my classroom. I am in my 9th year of teaching middle school science in Magna, Utah. However, I felt destroyed as a teacher as I read through this post. Now, I understand that you mean no harm to us teachers, and I have gained a thick skin as a teacher over the years so I am not actually harmed, just shocked that I actually feel so bad after one of your posts. Not much of what you shared I don’t already know or attempt on a daily basis. I will continue to attempt and try to use more of your advice and come back to post about it if anything changes and I remember. At the same time, let me explain why I am not meeting these in my classroom because I have a feeling it is why MANY teachers are not meeting these in our classrooms. These things take time to prepare and execute with students. I would not be able to walk into my classroom 15 minutes before class starts and prepare adequately enough to use an anticipation guide or get out and prepare enough materials for kinisthetic learning. I occasionally have time enough to write a few good discussion questions specific to that day’s learning but usually come up with them on the fly in my head during class. The 50 minutes of prep time I have each day are spent cleaning up whatever hands on activity I actually had my students try, or more realistically that I demonstrated, and most likely the stuff from a few weeks ago that I still haven’t taken the time to clean up because I was in meaningful (and sometimes not so meaningful) meetings or following up with students and their families one by one. I also collaborate with my English and social studies team teachers but we spend almost all our time sharing strategies and documenting our use of those strategies for behavior problems of our shared students that demonstrate these behaviors (that reflect the same behaviors their parents show, i.e. yelling, arguing unreasonably for what they want even if it is a ridiculous request, or hanging up the phone on us.). We would LOVE to use our collaboration to design effective DO’ing, but are simply struggling to keep up with the basic expectations of being a team and providing support to individual students. After students have left my classroom at the end of the day, I have another 15 minutes to grade and give feedback, plan the next days lesson, contact parents, answer emails, meet for IEP meetings, and the list goes on. I am proud to say that my teaching career has not monopolized my time for the past two years as I let it the years previous. Not only did I have more engaging and “doing” lessons during those previous years, but I earned a MS degree and my ESL and EdTech endorsements and have prepared several trainings for local and national education conferences as well as volunteered for my association on a social justice committee. My point is, there is simply not enough time to make these things happen consistently with all the changes that I am to keep up with and only work a 40 hour work week (yes, I do know about your friends course and other posts about streamlining work for a manageable schedule and have applied some of your time saving techniques.) I now have two children that I am investing my time in as well as the most beautiful wife in the world who takes care of them each day and appreciates when I come home from work committed to being a dad and husband not a live-in teacher like my colleagues who spend a majority of time at home preparing lessons and generally working. I have another colleague who now works a second job to get her family by. We both struggle to have classrooms that are even occassionally doing these things because we are throwing things together too quickly and unfortunately, that comes down to worksheets and lectures or individual research on computers that is not guided or just focused on content rather than good research skills. I am the teacher with too many failing students because I am not having them DO enough, but frankly, I can do no more than working through my lunch everyday to keep up with teaching’s demands when I have committed also to my family and I haven’t even mentioned being a boy scout scoutmaster for the past year doing camping, and the general scouting program (also probably less effectively than I should). Anyway, I hope my post will help others not feel so bad if their classrooms are similar to those your children have been experiencing and like I keep trying to dig myself out of a rut of for the past several years, albeit only 15 minutes at a time.

    • Hi Thomas,

      You sound so overwhelmed, and I feel terrible that my post made you feel destroyed.

      One of the things I tried to do in this post was provide quick, easy ways to build more active processing into a lesson. I hope that after your initial reaction has softened, you might be able to come back and see that there are a few things here that wouldn’t be time-consuming to plan. The write to learn video from Teaching Channel is one example of that. It’s a really simple strategy, and you wouldn’t even need to collect it or grade it — if you needed some accountability, you could walk around the room with a clipboard and just give participation points for everyone who is doing it with fidelity. The kinesthetic science activity I described (with the weather systems) could be done completely on the fly, with no props whatsoever, just to give students some concrete way of picturing how those systems work. It really doesn’t have to be complicated and improvements can be made in small steps. Even the worksheets you are currently using could be made more interactive by breaking up the questions (literally, you could do this with scissors and tape in 2 minutes), taping them around the room, and turning them into Chat Stations.

      Despite being out of the classroom, I am well aware of all the demands placed on teachers in 2018, and I’m still trying to find ways to change that. So many teachers are in situations that make good teaching all but impossible, and I’m looking for examples of schools where the leadership has made decisions to protect and prioritize teacher time so that you can do what you were trained to do. When I find them, I will do everything I can do shine a spotlight on them so that other schools might follow their lead.

      Finally, I’m so glad to hear that you haven’t let teaching take over your home life. That’s not easy to do, and if your teaching has to take a hit, then so be it; family is more important, and years down the road you’ll be glad you made that choice.

      • Thomas Boynton says:

        It has been a couple weeks and I just thought to check back on this post only to find your reply. THANK YOU! It sounds like you actually took the time to read my entire (unorganized) post and extend your hand of patience to me.

        I did a kinesthetic density example with one of my classes last week and will be returning to report on more of what I try, even if it is on the fly. Until then, ALL the BEST to you and your family!

    • Lisa says:

      Yes, Thomas Boynton… Exactly what you said! ^

  24. Hi Jennifer,

    I’m beginning to think you’re psychic. I REALLY need to rant with you/to you/but I am leery of doing this publicly because I may be recognized by my colleagues by the level of detail. It feels selfish because I almost feel like you’ll be my psycho therapist.
    Can I email you directly which I believe I have done a long time ago?

    Why? Because…I’m at risk of quitting my job this week because I’m tired of the darn meetings every week and intrusion of my time. They claim we need to meet about the “data”. Data. Data. Data. Insane. It’s the instructional Coaches and administrators that are preventing the innovation and creativity. They shame those of us that know more and use technology tools to showcase student work and products. So it’s the mid career professionals that are shamed for speaking up. I’ve got stories stories stories….

    Can I email you directly? You’ve got my email obviously… So I can just reply?

    Signed, Disillusioned Educator

    • Glenetta Krause says:

      We had a meeting this week that (actually!!) helped me see that I am collecting data every day. When I do writing conferences, I’m seeing the patterns emerge across my class. When I listen in to the conversations that are going on in group work, I’m collecting data and seeing the commonalities across groups. When I conduct a Socratic Seminar, I see immediately the misunderstandings students had about the text.

      I don’t know your whole situation, but if your school doesn’t recognize all the data you’re collecting as a competent professional, don’t the profession. Quit that school and find a place where you can work with people who encourage the kind of teaching you know FROM THE DATA that impacts learning.

  25. Alta Eggeron says:

    Sounds like back in late 1960’s. 3 big realities though about why did not take hold 50 years ago.

    1. Like everything else – not all kids learn all things the same way all times.
    2. Kids do need some content knowledge and easy to slip through cracks. Colleges got after us because too many kids had inadaquate content background. Had lots of other great skills, though.
    3. The schools pay lip service and do not fund, staff, schedule, atrain appropriately. They dont listen to teachers about realities in the classroom. Our school system actually set up science curriculum this way. But there is no real support for it. Curriculum left out major scientific concepts the students needed to understand later concepts. Curriculum not completed when school started and constant changes and “updates”. Time lines completely off. Our school has not had one full week of uninterrupted schedule and here it is early November, the end of the first quarter. They make us work in teams that are not really functional. There has been no training, even though the curriculum has had major changes every year for the past 6 years. And on and on…… oh, and by the way, they pride themselves as one of the best school systems in the country.

  26. Teri says:

    I teach electives, and do a lot of teaching that goes beyond worksheets. The problem I run in to is that we have a very high incidence of students not attending class, often because of in-school suspension. I am required to provide materials that for ISS students to do on paper, because they are not allowed computers. School policy is also that students who are on field trips are required to make up the work. How do I package up 90 minutes of hands-on stuff for an absent student to get the same content? Do I plan two separate lessons? It’s overwhelming.

  27. iolanda says:

    Thank you for sharing your insights and for inspiring us, your readers, to be the kind of teachers we really want to be and know we can be! I love the title of this post: “To Learn, Students Need to DO Something” because in one line you say all we need to know to address student engagement, collaborative learning, higher order thinking and most of the effective practices that help student learn and make teachers feel professionally fulfilled. I have been teaching at the secondary level for 25 years and I agree with the three reasons you give for the lack of true student engagement and often difficulty mastering a topic or specific content.
    However, I feel that if we do not address the third reason you mention, “Holes in Teacher Preparation”, those teachers who enter the profession with emergency certifications and a lack of proper preparation, will continue to significantly impact teaching and student learning in a negative way.
    Teachers need a solid, comprehensive preparation because the nature of the teaching profession is labor intensive, and it is a profession that benefits from research based practices, a passion for learning and sharing that learning as well as consistent efforts to understand how students learn. Teacher preparation needs more of the steps you outline in your lesson plan: “guided practice and application;Independent practice and application and teacher assessment.” To these steps I would add ongoing, deliberate mentoring and explicit support by veteran teachers. In addition, teachers need to understand and implement a very effective and valuable tool: student feedback. Teachers need to be able to skillfully ask for, and acknowledge, student feedback so they can implement it to adjust their practices.
    The growing constraints and demands on teachers’ time need to be addressed also. Thanks for the opportunity to share my two cents.

  28. OMG 😮 yes! I’m a parent and I have been grumbling about this for a decade! You are much nicer about as I called it lazy teaching. Crappy photocopied hard to read worksheet after worksheet pulled right from the Net with my kids in tears frustrated insisting it wasn’t covered in class. Kids now in college and still frustrated because so much “teaching” delivered via software. Questions formulated using terms that were not mentioned anywhere in the text. Does anyone read this stuff? It all ticks me off.

  29. Debbie Homan says:

    Jennifer, thank you so much for ranting. I recently retired after being a district supervisor. How many classes have I walked into and seen what you described that was occurring in your daughter’s class on a regular basis? In today’s world, education is so important that we cannot afford to not effectively get into kids’ brains what they need to know to think and act effectively in the future.

  30. Tasha McFarland says:

    Please check out this book
    The Learning Cycle: Elementary school science and beyond by Edmund A. Marek and Ann Cavallo. It completely changed my outlook on teaching. We shouldn’t tell students what/how to think, but lead them to developthe correct concepts on their own.
    You are such a great resource for those of us out the field. Please keep doing what you are doing. I love having a research assistant in my corner and in my inbox each week!

  31. Jennie says:

    I agree with your approach to teaching 100%. I also agree with the obstacles to good teaching that you listed. But there is another element to this equation that must be included in the discussion. That is the buy-in from students. In any project there are certain skills necessary. There is also a needed level of commitment on the part of the participants to make the project feasible, let alone successful. This means cooperation and effort on the part of the students. If you have 2 or 3 students who are a management challenge or who lack the basic skills needed, that is doable. But there is a threshold, that once crossed, make a project impossible.

    I am a librarian and I run a project based library curriculum. I spend hours of my time, hundreds of dollars of my own money to organize meaningful, standard based, project centered lessons. Every year this has become more difficult. Children are less and less able to engage enough listening skills, concentration, self-control, and motivation for the project to be deemed feasible. So projects that some years ago were exciting, fun and educational are no longer manageable. Even for the most dedicated of us there are limits to what we are capable of doing.

  32. Kevin Lute says:

    Here’s my question: how do you do those things mentioned when the content you teach isn’t concrete? As a Language Arts teacher I want my students to learn the skills – the processes – of reading and writing. How do you do a word sort for theme? What physical movement goes with making connections between nonfiction texts? When we read an article about the environment the goal isn’t to learn about the environment, as it might be in a science class. The goal is to determine central idea and validity of the arguments. I’m struggling with how to teach processes without the “content” getting in the way.

    • Hey Kevin! Some of the suggested “active learning” ideas here may not be immediately applicable to language arts in the same way that they could be used in more content-driven subject areas, but many of them can be, depending on what you’re teaching at the moment.

      In language arts, the “doing” is primarily in the reading and writing, so ideally, students are “doing” all the time. I would advise using the workshop model most of the time, where students are actively working on writing pieces of their own. So instead of teaching grammar out of context, for example, those concepts are delivered in mini-lessons (or in a blended learning format, so that each student gets the instruction he or she needs at just the right time), and then students apply that learning right away in their own writing.

      OK, let’s talk about the example you gave about determining the central idea and validity of arguments in a piece on the environment. In a more passive model, students would read a passage and answer a few questions about the central idea and whether the arguments were valid. They might have to identify textual evidence for the arguments. Too often, this is done in isolation, on paper. Instead, you might have students read the piece, then do a quick, informal, philosophical chairs-style discussion about it. They would be answering the same types of questions, but by turning it into a discussion, their ideas will be expanded and refined by interacting with their peers, who will notice things that they didn’t. Plus, it will be a lot more lively.

      With that said, there is still “content” in language arts that can be taught more interactively. For example, if I want students to understand ethos, logos, and pathos, I might start by putting short excerpts on cards that show these techniques being used in writing pieces, but without labels. Maybe 18 cards total? Then have students work in groups to sort them into piles where they think the writer is doing something similar. This is an inductive learning activity, where students would eventually reach the conclusion that some of the examples appeal to the emotions, some appeal to their sense of right and wrong, and others are more logical in nature. Then we give them their “proper” labels and students can then identify those concepts in their reading and use them in their writing.

      So these are just a few examples — hoping this helps clear it up!

  33. Kassia Lusty says:

    I have been a teacher for 8 years but I am currently not in the classroom because we moved to a new state. This has given me a lot of time to listen to your podcast which I love and am truly inspired by. In this episode and several others, you have mentioned your frustration with the education that your own children are receiving. I am a parent of 3 boys and have of course had those same frustrations. I am really hoping to see a revolution in education in the coming years and I was wondering what your thoughts are on that and if you have looked into other options for your own children’s education? I am having a hard time deciding whether to substitute teach and get back into the traditional classroom in our new state because I just have this urge to do something different and exciting and something that will help change the course of education. We have choices in so many areas of our daily lives and I think we need more choice in the education for our children. Have you thought about starting a school of your own?

    • Wow, starting a school of my own would be a HUGE endeavor! I don’t really think I’d want to stop the work I’m doing to take on a project like that, as wonderful as it sounds. On top of that, I want to make sure that ALL kids are getting an excellent education, so I’m going to keep trying to improve things in the larger system. While the idea of school choice sounds good in theory, the way that’s playing out in too many states is that it sucks resources out of public schools and puts them in the hands of (sometimes for-profit) charters, and it creates incredible imbalances everywhere. I would much rather see policy-level changes in how schools are being run so that every school is a good option.

  34. Dena says:

    Last year I was a teacher. This year I am a substitute teacher and doing my own research on this same subject. I too would ask my own kids these same questions. Even today when there is so much research on how students learn best. Teachers are not making changes. Students sit and listen to a lecture, then do worksheets, then go home and do more worksheets. Even in middle school. I am not sure what I am going to do with my research, but we need to do more if we are to ever going to increase student learning.

  35. This video from the Teaching Channel demonstrates Fisher & Frey’s Gradual Release of Responsibility model, which shows how we can hand students more of the active learning in a lesson.

  36. carie DeBaca says:

    I am curious how this notion plays out with intensive learning students (all grades) and would love your thoughts. I think all students are completely capable of grappling with learning through activation strategies, organizers and collaborative opportunities, but is there anything you would add or change for this population of students? I am working on a workshop plan now for this idea and would appreciate your thoughts!!

    • Hi Carie,

      I don’t think you really need to do anything different. Regardless of a student’s entry point, they all just need to be doing something with the concepts they are learning.

  37. Glenetta Krause says:

    Heck to the yeah! Keep it coming. My ELL and Special Needs students need as many pathways in their brains as we can build. My advanced students crave connection with their real life (and they can make that connection when the discuss their material with same-age peers). And the social aspects of these methods help students develop socially and emotionally. #winwinwinwin

  38. Andrea says:

    All of the above comments refer to teachers being overwhelmed with the numerous demands put upon them. As a former teacher, and now teacher educator, I try to be realistic with my student teachers and provide them with the necessary resources to help them work within the system, attend to their students’ needs and keep their sanity. Until we recognize teachers as professionals, our society will continue to place unrealistic demands on them. There will always be teachers that don’t do their job well and will use any excuse to get out of their work, but I’ve found 98% are dedicated and committed to helping students learn. We can’t beat each other up! Jennifer’s work is providing us with the support and development we need. Constructive criticism is necessary to grow, so listen and help each other. Thanks for doing this post, Jennifer and for the podcast. You are providing a valuable resource and support network for all of us. I am a better teacher in part because of you.

  39. Jessica says:

    It is sad to read some of the negative comments that have been left. I’m wondering why many are so offended? Especially those of you attacking Jennifer and questioning her authenticity. Why are you here?

    When I was done listening to the podcast, I felt inspired to try a few new things, and some of the things I already do in my classroom that I feel are successful were confirmed. It’s interesting that many are complaining that they don’t have time for these types of activities when it is specifically mentioned and evident with the examples that most are little to no prep. In fact, often the most engaging and meaningful activities are implemented “on the fly” with few or no resources.

    We are all in this together and we are all aware, including Jennifer, of the many factors that impact our students’ learning (background, socio-economic status, etc.) that are not always in our control. Jennifer is not saying that the learning environment for our students needs to be perfect all of the time–we all know that this is not possible. If you use Powerpoint sometimes, that doesn’t mean you are a bad teacher. Take her words with a grain of salt and reflect honestly on your teaching practice. That is why we are all here.

    Jennifer–thank you. I appreciate all of your hard work.

  40. Actually, this is an exact science or really a research-based methodology call Andragogy!! Great to see others are starting to realize that Andragogy (the art & science of adult learning) simply is a competency-based self-directed learning (which is parallel to IEPs & special education) is extremely beneficial for all ages and all ability levels!

  41. Arjan Harjani says:

    Hi Jennifer, Thank you. In fact, your rant is inspirational and a driving force! It reminds us all, as learners and classroom facilitators, to encourage and motivate our students to dive into areas of learning that make a difference in their lives. As always, I have enjoyed your podcasts- they’ve helped me look back at the last 30+ years that I have been teaching and how vital it is to make changes in the classroom and among students to bring value, meaning and purpose to learning and not just a way to move the clock hands from 8 AM to 3 PM…
    Thanks for all your expert collection of anecdotes, thoughts, perspectives and opinions, and presenting data from research. Cult of Pedagogy has certainly lived up to its reputation and worth!

  42. PhDscienceteacher says:

    I agree with nearly everything in this article except that it is always the teacher’s fault if students aren’t learning. You said “if you have a lot of students failing your tests, and those students are in class and they’re showing up, then the problem is not them. The problem is you. It’s something you’re doing, or maybe something you’re not doing.”

    The idea that just because students show up they will learn contradicts your main point that learning requires doing something. The truth is that teachers can provide quality learning opportunities, but that students will only learn if they choose to participate fully and put forth the effort required to learn.

    I taught at a private high school for six years and then left for 4 years to get a PhD in curriculum and instruction. This is my 2nd year back in the classroom, but I am now in a much different context (a large very diverse public school with many high needs students). Although I am a much better teacher than I was before and I am using all the best research-based strategies for engaging students, many students fail my tests. A large portion are reading below grade level and many have emotional and behavioral issues. Even “good” students often refuse to participate in the active learning strategies that I offer and instead want to passively write down someone else’s ideas.

    I have realized that the vast majority of teachers are doing their absolute best, but that even the best curriculum and instruction often falls short for high needs students. I think that is why many teachers were offended by this post. They don’t disagree that active learning is better than passive learning, they just don’t want to be blamed for things that are out of their control.

    • Hi!

      It sounds like you are already planning engaging lessons that require students to “do something.” Even with the most engaging lessons, some students will still struggle. In the post, Jenn is talking about situations when lots of students are struggling — this may even be a teacher who sees a trend among classes where students consistently aren’t learning the material even though the teacher went over it. I think the article is really about teachers just checking to see if their lessons include some kind of application component. If not, this is a change that is within their control and here are some easy ways to start. I’m also kinda curious … where in the post did you feel teachers were being blamed for things out of their control?

  43. Manny says:

    First, please don’t blame the teacher if most kids failed a test even if the students are physically present. Yes the teacher has something to do with it, but blanket blaming them is disrespectful to the many teachers who have to put up with a lot of things everyday in their job.

    If it’s the teacher’s fault then none of your suggested remedies will fix the problem. The remedies you gave are no different from what teachers learned from their education courses and countless trainings they get every summer.

    So what’s preventing the teachers from using these teaching strategies in a regular manner?
    I believe it’s because teachers are not set up for success in many classrooms. You already mentioned about lack of planning time, test driven curriculum, unmaneagable class size, and kids being put outside they’re current skill level (I.e. a student in an honors class but really belong in non honors class).

    • Hi Manny,

      I’d be hard-pressed to find a teacher, including myself, who hasn’t had a handful of struggling students or been in situations when it seemed that no matter what I tried, those students continued to struggle. Regardless of the class, I think we’re always going to have situations in which there are factors out of our control interferring with student learning.

      In the post Jenn mentions that if a lot of students are failing then it’s on us to examine what we’re doing or not doing. I can’t control some things that are going on, but when students are in my classroom, I agree that it’s on me to make sure I am asking students to do something with the content they’re learning. That’s just good research-based practice. Unfortunately, there are teachers who aren’t doing this, their students aren’t succeeding, and they are blaming the students. My biggest takeaway was that if I have a lot of students not succeeding and I’m not asking them to apply anything, then this is something I can start doing. This is my responsibility. Jenn shared some very practical strategies that teachers can use in place of other things — it’s not about adding more work to a teacher’s plate — it’s about getting rid of the less effective strategies and doing more engaging things. All kids struggle for all kinds of reasons and I think the intent behind this post was to just do a check -in … if you have a lot of kids in your class who aren’t “getting it,” one thing you can do if you aren’t already, is plan more engaging lessons — engaging lessons that students can do with success.

  44. Manny says:

    Everyone can do these in private schools and high income area public schools, but teachers who teach a class of 35( with kids from ESOL, ESE, ADHD, Honors mixed together) in a public school from low income high crime area would know that 90% of the teacher’s energy is spent maintaining order and anticipating what “Johnny” would do next so that nobody gets hurt.

  45. O Jennifer, you are so right on here. This is the core of learning — where students own their learning by exploring, innovating, collaborating, questioning, and discovering. We have spent the past seven years developing the guided and independent practice and application parts of the lesson we call Embody Learning. It covers the standards and wraps Blooms and the Depth of Knowledge in every lesson, every day and pulls in every student in an active learning experience. Thanks for your insightful podcast… this pedagogy is transformational for learners and educators and becomes EASIER for everyone in the long run.

  46. Julia Lippold says:

    This is great! I’d love to get some ideas about kinaesthetic learning for students who have English as an Additional Language. Making kids “active” in the learning process is so valuable. I always say “the person who is doing the thinking is doing the learning”.

  47. I just wanted to let you know how much I value your podcast. I homeschool my two children who are 7 and 14 years old. Your podcast has been awesome on so many levels. My first listen was to Podcast 58, 6 Strategies You Must Share with your Students. After that I was hooked. There are several that deal with classroom technology or management that just don’t apply to us, but so much about learning and education really do. It has helped me to teach better, choose better curriculum , and helps remind me why I homeschool. This podcast was the most recent listen for me and was like a touchstone for me. This is why I homeschool!! Education should be whole child with movement, music, the arts and play!-all of it. It prompted me to include more movement, activities, and integration in our studies. It’s been a little more challenging for me to keep this us in middle school, but you had some really good ideas. I’m pumped now to start the new year with my oldest to try some of these things out. I was feeling like I was just pumping info in without any processing. Perfect timing. I love the sorting idea, which we just happened upon right before the podcast. My youngest and I sorted the planets in all kinds of ways-size, temp, number of moons, distance from sun, etc. I love the amount of research you do and that you site them. Next year I plan to do a entire unit on “How to study” with notes, memory recall exercises, and the like for my oldest. Your podcasts will definitely be included in the material. Thanks again for doing them. <3

  48. I like what you said about kinesthetic work and how kids need to do something with their hands to really help them visualize a new thing or process. I imagine it helps to have something that is consistently effective for children, like play-doh. If my child were having difficulty staying on task, this might help with his education!

  49. Hi. Will you please describe the high pressure and low pressure experiment in detail? I would like to do that with my students!


    • Eric Wenninger says:

      Hey Amy, while Jenn mentions high and low pressure weather systems in the post, I don’t believe she had a specific experiment in mind. Her main emphasis is that teaching these types of concepts should involve students actually “doing” something. You might check out this website for some ideas on experiments you could do to help students actively learn about air pressure.

  50. I have to say, though I love your ideas, I question the ability to apply these practically (at least at the schools that I have taught at). In places where classroom management is 90% of the job, I believe that worksheets actually allow more students to learn SOMETHING instead of continually being distracted. I feel I should add here that, unfortunately, having an engaging lesson (even when such things have been prepped for over the year) doesn’t simply fix the issue (I think that sometimes we like to believe that if the lesson is engaging enough, or the class is designed to engage in these types of lessons, classroom management issues disappear).

    Of course, being asked to do all of this for below the living wage ( doesn’t really help!

    🙂 This negative view aside, I do hope that we get to a place where methods like what you’re speaking of can be reasonably implemented in classes around the country!

  51. Valerie Neuharth says:

    My thoughts on what Jennifer is trying to say. Think about your teaching. Reflect on your skill set.

    How can you tweet your lessons little by little?

    I’ve taught for 14 years and each summer. I sit down with one subject and reflect upon how I can make that one subject better. And I do it.

    I’ve recently switched jobs. I know I cannot make every subject amazing the 1st year. But I can make one subject amazing! The next year it’ll be two. The year after that it’ll be three. Pretty soon I’ll have a worksheet free classroom with authentic learning.

  52. Daryle says:

    “Not doing” is the norm in secondary school. I had a girl angry at me because I told students that the bullet points serve as anchors to help students follow the lecture; they are not the be-all and end-all of the lecture. She thought all she had to do was copy the bullets, that she had no responsibility to listen or complete the reflective notes and practice embedded in the lecture. She resented the additional effort required to grasp the material.

    I often overhear students talking about other teacher’s classes when they’re absent or pulled out for another activity. When one student asks another what happened in class that day, the response, all too often, is “Nothing. Mr. so-and-so lectured.”

    Why is cheating so prevalent in high schools? Because the assigned practice (usually worksheets/bookwork) is meaningless either because (1) no authentic feedback is given and/or (2) not doing it has no negative bearing on exam scores.

    When you ask your actual children what they learned in school that day and they say, “Nothing,” you should believe them. What incentive do they have to lie to you?

    This has to change, but the incentive structure in schools is upside-down. Until that changes, the quality of public education in the U.S. will remain the same.

    Jennifer, I appreciate your work. I am the teacher that comes in and kicks her ass every day. I never do the same thing twice because it can always be better, it can always help more kids, it can always ask for a little more of me and of them. Though I may win battles on a daily basis, only 20% of the kids at my school will have me as a teacher and I piss a lot of them off because my class is “hard”.

    The race away from public schools to charters and homeschooling is telling. For every teacher who reads blogs like yours, listens to podcasts like Angela Watson’s, buys and reads work by Esquith and Marzano and Jago, scours the internet for neurocognitive and/or research-validated pedagogical strategies, there are 99 who don’t and will blame the students for “not learning”.

    If the frontline soldiers don’t have to do what it takes to execute the mission or don’t *really* care about executing it (because the incentives aren’t there to make that happen), how can we expect the natives to buy into it?

    That’s delusional.

    Karma is real, and it explains why teachers, as a group, are so unhappy in their work.

    And here I am, in my cognitive dissonance, posting here after school and wondering if my work here, while it benefits some kids, is legitimizing a system that does more harm than good. In the age of the internet, the student can find the best teachers available. For free. They can follow their passions and maximize their passions.

    Schools better figure this out. They’re running out of time and average daily attendance money.

  53. I feel as though this is well-tread conversation. Not only here but in staff rooms and corridors, pubs, etc.

    Personally in my classes I spend a lot of time trying to encourage a ‘safe’ learning environment to try to encourage students to develop an interest that we can follow.

    People happy to talk, ask questions and have a conversation about design (what I teach).

    It sounds great but we as a society do want to measure education, and you can’t really do that this way. But you can with tests and direct instruction.

    It will take a massive shift to stop trying to rank students. I don’t think I will see it in my career (I’m still relatively young).

    Teachers in my staff meetings still go on about uniform and behaviour and kids attitudes…


  54. Jisoc Noyb says:

    You are so ON point. And NO your kids are not under-reporting. You are so gracious in giving the benefit of doubt to teachers who blame accountability, state testing, and their administrators. So why are there teachers who figure out how to get around those things in order to develop the types of classrooms that you describe. I call BS on those educators who use testing and common core standards as their excuses for allowing mediocrity in their schools and classrooms. I learned early on that as a teacher my biggest sin would be “to be boring.” And if one is interested in the career they have chosen then he finds ways to make his classroom a true learning center. I held myself accountable for the learning that took place in my classroom. Any teacher who does not should retire. It is very personal to me when a child fails. In reality, she hasn’t failed. I have.

  55. Shea says:

    Hi Jennifer! I am a college student in Denver and I am becoming an elementary education teacher. Right now I am writing a paper on why problem-based learning/hands-on learning should be used in the classroom. I am using you as one of the resources for this paper because I think that it is very important for all future teachers to see this! You are a great resource for this paper and I believe that I will be using this technique in my future classroom!! Thank you for putting this out for the world to see so more teachers can understand why hands-on learning is a key ingredient in the success of students!!

  56. Michelle Kelley says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    I’m so happy with this podcast. I have already made it my yearly goal to make my own summer professional development and podcast 108 will be at the top of the list.
    With that being said, I want to thank you for what you said in this podcast. I felt your frustration for what is not happening in the classroom and the fact that some of the comments report that “all teachers know this” is a big problem in school systems. Some teachers know this. That’s obvious. A lot of us don’t.
    I went to Title 1 schools as a child. I attended a small college where the education program I was enrolled in was extremely small. Now, I teach in a Title 1 school. As a teacher of 10 years I wanted to break out of the boring pattern of take notes, regurgitate, repeat. You have laid out a solid foundational plan to do that and I thank you.
    You provide a much needed service for Title 1 teachers. We receive very little relevant information in PDs and the fact that you sounded a little frustrated helped me identify with you on this issue and will probably be one of the main reasons I remember this information.
    Teaching is overwhelming. I could go into why but I think we already know that. The main thing is I was taught this way. In elementary school all the way through college and now in our “professional developments.” Even my ‘Best Practices’ class in college that I had so looked forward to, the professor walked us to the library and we looked in a set of books for best practices. Really?
    Thank you for taking the time to talk through a practice that teachers should know but that sometimes falls by the wayside because it wasn’t taught to the teacher in a profound way.

    • Hi Michelle,

      It makes me sad to hear that you aren’t receiving good stuff during PD…UGH! That’s disheartening. Teaching is overwhelming on so many levels. Thanks for letting us know you’re finding value – and validation – in Cult of Pedagogy resources. I’ll make sure Jenn sees this. Thanks!

  57. I am a student in high school three words WOW!Your amazing I sent this site to my principal today it’s great that there is a woman and really just a person like you talking about the struggles and the real problems we have at hand.Thank you very much for caring.

  58. Steve Donnison says:

    Hi I’ve just come across this site and found the blog on students ‘doing not sitting’ a great read. I have just had the same conversation with a teacher new to our college.

    Q. What are your students doing, producing, making, drawing, writing, calculating etc. with the information (content) you give them?

    Unfortunately her SOW / lesson plan had none of this information in (very teacher focused) and they could not tell me. Its not the teachers fault (to some degree) its the way teachers are ‘taught’ to plan.

    We have removed the need for over complicated SOW and lessons plans in favour of focusing on a very short indication of what the learners will do/make /create as a result of their learning and access to content.

    Happy to discuss and share this strategy with like minded professional educators.

  59. Edgard Flores says:

    Very useful information. I will be using it with my students.


  60. Eric Adams says:

    This is the first time I have listened to this podcast and read the transcripts as well. This was inciteful and informative. I have felt this same frustration as a parent and as a teacher. I have found that telling a funny story or including a musical tie in helps students remember information. I am fortunate to be instructing at a Technical College where hands on application of the material taught is not only encouraged it is required.
    I try to follow the mantra of know the science and you can work the problem. We teach the science behind the mechanical and the students get the opportunity to apply the science they have learned. It is a great moment when you see the students eyes light up having that realization of this really works. I knew how to do this.
    Learning by doing makes it something you want to continue doing throughout the rest of your life.
    This is one of my favorite quotes.
    “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” ― Mahatma Gandhi.

  61. Lots of good information, some I already do but will definetly include the others you discussed

  62. Ed Weeks says:

    I have felt this frustration as a student and instructor.
    I remember in high school and college death by power point, or in high school it was death by transparency. I fight everyday to avoid this. When listening to podcast, I found I use some sort of this just to keep the students engaged. Now I know how to do it better.

    Thank You, Thank You, Thank You

  63. Jacob Horovsky says:

    Thanks for the information good stuff, Its very rewarding to educate students, and when you can see them participate in what they just learned you can go home with satisfaction that they learned something that day. I can learn something from this and reapply this to the students. Thanks Jacob Horovsky

  64. Theresa Kaiser says:

    The video was very true about how students need to be taught, tested, and handled. I always make sure my tests are fair and 95% of my students usually pass. I am not one of those teacher who just teach and move to the next topic. I check for understanding and knowledge with a Do Now Quiz or check independent problems.

    • Andrea Castellano says:

      All important points! Thank you for sharing, Theresa, and we’re glad the post resonated with you.

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