Rethinking Rubrics: Rubrics that Make You Think

In 2010, my colleague (and mentor) Dr. Sharon Harsh was presiding over a meeting with staff from the Appalachia Regional Comprehensive Center (ARCC—our organization) and the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), with whom we had collaborated for five years. She was summarizing the trends in education from the past decade or so and going out on a limb by making predictions of trends that were soon to influence education. She hit them right on the head, especially with one prediction: learning progressions will become prevalent and guide the work educators do at all levels.

Simply put, learning progressions describe the most likely steps people will take when developing new knowledge and skills. For example, before students can combine fractions with different denominators, they have to recognize what fractions are and understand what they represent. They have to know that a larger number in the denominator doesn’t mean it’s a larger fraction. Later they come to understand how different fractions are related—focusing on how to express two fractions with equivalent denominators, then unlike denominators. There’s more, but that’s a portion of the idea of how some concepts related to fractions progress.

Sharon got this so right! Learning progressions strongly influenced the way new standards were developed. And state departments of education, including VDOE staff in the present, are developing and sharing the learning progressions behind their standards so teachers can better understand how students master standards within and across a grade level. Teachers, too, are developing learning progressions at a finer grain that help them understand how students develop skills and knowledge within a single standard (like the idea of combining fractions above). I find learning progressions really intriguing, but I’m a little geeky like that.

Applying Learning Progressions

I’ve long used rubrics to support my instruction and to score student work. In the graduate class I taught, every activity used a rubric, and the students got all of the rubrics on day one and were encouraged to use them as they worked through activities. I’ve never really given multiple-choice tests. Ever. I’ve also helped a lot of teachers develop rubrics, especially when they need to assign some sort of score or grade to complex problems or projects. In many cases, a multiple-choice question isn’t the best option.

Below is an example of a rubric I created in the past. It’s typical of many I’ve seen. If you’re a student who wants to score well, you don’t make mistakes. As you make more mistakes, your score is lower. It seems logical, at first.


Learning Outcomes

Novice Developing Approaching


Grammar and mechanics of language The product contains numerous (7 or more) errors in grammar, punctuation, and/or capitalization of written text, or 3 or more errors in spoken language. The product contains several (4-6) errors in grammar, punctuation, and/or capitalization of written text, or 1 or 2 errors in spoken language. The product contains a few (1-3) errors in grammar, punctuation, and/or capitalization of written text, or no more than 1 error in spoken language. The product contains no errors in grammar, punctuation, or capitalization of written text, or no errors in spoken language.
Solve multistep problems with fractions The student does not show his/her work, presents incomplete work, or inaccurately presents work in regard to the guidelines. The student designs a solution that has more than one error in calculation. The student designs a solution that has no more than one error in calculation. The student designs a solution that meets the guidelines with no errors.

While this is a pretty typical rubric, it isn’t really very helpful for promoting learning. Why? It’s not the number of errors that’s important, it’s the kind of errors that students make that’s most important. If a student makes two or three errors, but there’s no clear pattern to them, it may just be a mistake because of a lack of time or sloppiness. That doesn’t tell me anything about what they do or don’t understand or how I need to re-teach them. But when a student makes consistent errors, like using “its/it’s” incorrectly over and over, or writing too many run-on sentences, or confusing larger denominators with larger fractions, then I know what to focus on. I needed something that showed me common errors, as well as that progression of how learners move from being a novice to mastering the standard.

Improved Rubrics

I’ve finally been able to connect that sage prediction that Sharon Harsh made with my own practice. Since standards are based on learning progressions, we should be monitoring where our kids are along those progressions. This helps not just teachers, but students too! Both can see what skills and knowledge they’ve mastered, where they need to go, and even suggestions as to what steps they might take to get there. Some might recognize that this is also a critical component of using formative assessment strategies to support learning, especially as proposed by Margaret Heritage (e.g., Where am I going? Where am I now? How do I get there?).

So over the past couple of years, I’ve been pushing myself to improve my rubrics. Instead of just counting errors, which tells me little about what my students truly know or can do, I’m now designing rubrics that describe the progression of learning students go through when mastering a content standard.

Please note: In the examples, the scoring categories are labeled as Learning Outcomes, but many teachers will recognize that the language used is drawn from actual standards, in these examples, the Virginia Standards of Learning, Common Core State Standards, and a WIDA ELD standard. So, in this way, the rubrics are actually standards-based. In fact, they’re probably more standards-based than any forced-choice assessment can be, at least for sophisticated learning outcomes.

Now when I work with teachers on complex problems or performance tasks, we co-develop rubrics that describe learning progressions. See the examples below created recently with some great teachers from the Crestwood School District in Dearborn, Michigan. These are rough drafts, but even at this stage I can see the progression learners go through for each of these learning outcomes. I learned this from these teachers, but every time I do this, the discussion we have about learning progressions is great.


Learning Outcomes

Novice Developing Approaching


Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons and information.  The student’s product does not contain a clearly stated opinion or goes off topic and there’s no evidence. Possibly no reasons. The student’s product does include a clearly stated opinion, but lacks support through reasons that are expanded or supported by evidence from the texts. The student’s product does include a clearly stated opinion with some evidence, but the reasons lack coherence, may not be clearly sequenced or organized. The student’s product contains a clearly stated argument (or point of view) with reasons supported by evidence drawn from the texts and is clearly organized and coherent.
Students read informational articles on globalization to consider its impact on their lives (e.g., Internet, mass media, food and beverage distributors, retail stores).   The student’s product includes an opinion but does not include information from the articles. There’s no indication the student has or can read the articles. The student’s product contains phrases or some keywords from the articles but may not be explained or connected to a position related to their lives. The student’s product includes some examples from the articles but they may not support their position as it relates to their lives. The student’s product includes citations of examples from the articles that support their position and relates those citations to their lives.
Make a line plot to display a data set of measurements in fractions of a unit (1/2, 1/4, 1/8).  The student’s product does not create a line plot or creates something different from a line plot. The student’s product contains a line plot with simple fractions (e.g. ½ and ¼), with fractions out of order (because of denominator). Something’s out of order. The student’s product contains a line plot with points inaccurately plotted, so it does not match the data, though the fractions are in order. The student’s product contains an accurate line plot that displays the appropriate data and the fractions are in order.


Summative assessment is just one use of this type of rubric. Now that we’ve described learning progressions for these standards, these rubrics have multiple uses. Teachers can hand them out at the beginning of any unit, lesson, or activity that uses these learning outcomes so students know what they can do to get the grade they want. It saves teachers time because they don’t need to create rubrics for every activity, just for each standard. More importantly, students can use the rubrics to monitor their own progress. Schools wanting to move towards mastery learning or standards-based report cards can also use these types of learning progressions to truly describe what the difference between an A or a B (or other two grading categories) really means. It’s not just a score, it’s a point along mastery. Finally, this type of rubric is helpful when talking with parents. When parents want to know, “Why didn’t my kid get an A?” teachers can show parents exactly where their child’s current performance is along the progression and where they need to get to master the outcome (and get that A!). Maybe in the future, parents will ask, “How can I help my kid master the standards?” Maybe.

Why Audience Matters

In the past week I’ve had reminders from two great educators in different parts of the country who remind me why audience matters. This is something that comes up often in my work but not something I believe many classroom teachers routinely think much about. For a long time, there were only a few things classroom teachers could do to expand the audience for student work. But the audience for student work is now unlimited thanks to the many safe ways that teachers and students can share work beyond the school walls. And that can be a game changer.

Let’s begin with this quote from David Dulberger, a dynamic fifth-grade teacher at Emma K. Doub School in Hagerstown, MD. His review of Piktochart actually prompted this post. In his review (which you should read if you’re interested in creating infographics, but you should probably bookmark his blog for ongoing great ideas), he makes this statement,

“I have found that my students are inclined to work harder on projects that will be showcased to an audience greater than their parents and me. By simply clicking the publish button, my students know that their work can, and often will be, viewed with more than just our classroom community. The concept of having a 5th grade student publish an infographic to the web may sound outrageous to most people, but my students, and many others around the world are more than capable. “

This is a simple, yet powerful statement. When student see value for their work outside of the classroom–when the audience is greater than just the teacher or their peers–they often feel the pressure to do a better job. That’s the power of audience. Simply by changing the audience for student work, students will want to do better.

The importance of audience is underscored by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their popular instructional design model, Understanding by Design. I use UbD when working with teachers on curriculum design, especially designing performance tasks. A key component of their framework for performance tasks is identifying a relevant audience, and as often as possible, I encourage teachers to design tasks with an audience that goes beyond the classroom to make the tasks more relevant to their students.

Need more convincing? Consider this e-mail from Becki Price, another fifth-grade teacher (just coincidence), but she’s in Round Rock, TX, where I had the privilege of working with a cohort of teachers using Chromebooks. Teachers in the cohort were trying new ideas for student projects, and Becki reflected on a science project. I didn’t get to see it in action but was able to chat with her about it during my last visit. Here’s what she says,

“I wanted to share with you that we wrapped up our first project for the second semester. I took the ideas you shared with me and the student’s projects are posted on my webpage for the world to see! The kids are really excited about this, and some are suddenly not pleased with their final product since it’s out there for everyone to see and compare.”

The Audience Continuum

Perhaps because I taught music, I had the concept of audience drilled into my head all of my career. Everything we did was ultimately for some audience outside of the classroom. We prepared concerts and shows for parents, the community, and competitions across the country. Many school music groups now have their own Facebook or websites with videos of performances that make it even easier to share their work.

But what about a regular classroom? What can those teachers in other content areas do? Digital technologies, as illustrated by these two great teachers, make that easy. Whether using a secure website, a blogging service just for kids, or allowing older students to use social media or other means to promote their work, there’s no reason any teachers shouldn’t be able to “break down the classroom walls” an expand the audience for student work.

As a final example, I use a portion of The Continuum from the Dubuque Community Public Schools (see below). This portion of The Continuum provides guidance for teachers to plan for and implement lessons and activities that promote student communication and collaboration. In terms of audience, my standard story is as you move up The Continuum and you’re trying to promote student communication, the level of audience for student work should increase.

That interprets to moving from an audience of one–just the teacher–to the rest of the classroom. From there, that middle line is really important. It represents the break between inside and outside of the classroom. Moving beyond the classroom means that student work is viewed first in the larger school or family-centric community, but ultimately by the world. In the two fifth-grade examples, note the impact of making the audience the world: same content standards and same learning goals + largest audience possible = increased student interest, engagement, and desire to succeed.

The Continuum

Expanding audiences for student work

Now it’s your turn. Take a lesson you’re working on (or that a teacher you know is working on) and explore ways of expanding the audience. Very often it takes very little work. You may have to explore a new tool, like these teachers did, but chances are most teachers have access to a range of free and easy tools they can use to expand the audience for their students’ work.


Supporting Formative Assessment with Technology

A few strands of my work have come together recently, and they focus on using technology to support formative assessment. This has been one of the most common requests recently from teachers/schools I’ve been working with and is the focus of two additional projects I’ve been working on. (You can skip directly to the tools here. Updated with two new tools on March 2.)

Through my work with the Appalachia Regional Comprehensive Center (ARCC), I’m collaborating with staff from the Virginia Department of Education to pilot a statewide cadre of teachers exploring formative assessment. Teachers from six schools across the state are working through training materials developed by Dr. Margaret Heritage and the Center for Standards and Assessment Implementation (formerly the Assessment and Accountability Center).

Margaret Heritage's book

Formative Assessment by Margaret Heritage

Dr. Heritage is probably the nation’s foremost expert on formative assessment and has been implementing and studying formative assessment strategies in multiple districts for years. (Check out her book on the topic!)


What Dr. Heritage does is provide concrete steps teachers can follow to embed formative assessment in their teaching. I agree with Heritage when she notes that formative assessment is not a single “thing” or event. It’s not a quiz. It’s not a test. It’s an ongoing dialog between teachers and students that ids designed to collect evidence of where students are in their journey of mastering skills and knowledge.

From my perspective, I overlay this idea of formative assessment being a process to the selection of relevant technology resources. An online quiz or a classroom responder (clicker) is itself not a formative assessment tool, unless used that way. For that reason, I’ve grouped a range of digital resources that can be used formatively, but you have to first identify the way you want to use it. That’s the trick to picking any technology for classroom use, actually. Figure out what you need to accomplish, then find a resource to match.

Check out the resources here

This is not an exhaustive list, and it was just updated this past week after my visit to Dubuque where I learned Infused Learning is on the way out and is a new resource to be considered. I’d appreciate hearing from you about the digital resources you use and how you use them to support formative assessment so I can update this over time.

10+ Popular Digital Resources for Teachers from 2014

10+ Popular Digital Resources for Teachers from 2014

I actually look forward to “Top 10” lists that sum up educational trends of the year. They always have new things I’ve missed or resources I need to investigate further. They’re much better than those stupid year-end predictions that never seem to come true, like “This will be the year of…(fill in the flavor-of-the-moment resource)!!”

This year I decided to create my own list. There’s no empirical research behind it; no data to prove their popularity. These are just a few digital resources for teachers that I’ve observed in classrooms across the country. This year I truly made it “coast-to-cast” by working in districts from Pawley’s Island on the coast of South Carolina, to Redlands, California—just shy of the Pacific—and many in-between. These are resources I see teachers using or ones that teachers have introduced to me presented in no particular order. It was hard to keep it to 10, so I didn’t.

  1. Socrative. If I had the data, I bet Socrative would be the most popular digital resource I’ve seen in schools this year. It showed up a few years ago as a polling tool, but the updated version and new data reporting tools make it even more useful. I know some teachers like Today’s Meet, but Socrative is far more powerful. Whether used as a quick formative assessment or for actual quizzes or tests, Socrative provides teachers with a range of data—some that can be represented visually on the fly—that can confidentially be tied to individual student records for monitoring purposes. I’d be really surprised if someone in your school isn’t already using Socrative.
  1. Blendspace. This media-blending tool seemed to find a larger audience this year, probably due to the addition of assessment and data monitoring functions. I’ve used Blendspace in the past because it’s just so easy to find and link resources, but the additional functionality takes this resource beyond just a fun curation site to a powerful classroom tool.
Performance task presented in Blendspace

Performance task presented in Blendspace

  1. Kahoot! is really a hoot! O.K., it’s just a quiz game, but kids love it. I thought the gaming nature would only appeal to younger students, but I’ve seen Kahoot! even enjoyed by high school students. The concept is simple, but the graphics and music seem to make forced-choice quiz review or actual quizzing more engaging. Turn it around and have your kids come up with the questions to raise the cognitive demand.
  1. WeVideo. It’s about time video editing was free, easy, and online so we can get to our files from anywhere. There are others out there, but I have probably seen teachers and students using WeVideo more often this year than other video-editing tools, even MovieMaker and iMovie. With WeVideo, platform doesn’t matter, and you can use what you know from these older video tools to create your own videos for flipping your lessons, or have your kids create video-based digital stories, lab reports, documentaries, and on and on.
  1. Tackk. No one’s had to use HTML to create web pages for a while now, and sites like Weebly and Google Sites have made it easy for students and teachers to create attractive sites for assignments and projects. Tackk is a new entry in this market and shines above most others simply because it’s just so darn easy! Kids can focus on the content and quickly get an attractive web page up to share their work. Commenting and chat are built in, so the usual monitoring of social networking components is necessary, but we teachers should be already doing that with our students instead of avoiding these powerful tools.
  1. Thinglink. How quickly things change. Yes, we can all easily create, edit, and post video from devices like our phones—something that used to take expensive tools and software. Thanks to Thinglink, we can also now annotate videos and images with the click of a button. How cool is that? I’ve seen some interesting biographies and book reports using Thinglink, but there are many possibilities. Think of the exploration of primary source documents in multiple formats—very interesting possibilities. There’s a public and an education version.

Seven through 10 are some Google Tools you may or may not know about. I find a mixed bag of teachers who do or don’t know about these free, powerful tools that can add to their classroom. Very often, I seem to be in districts where teachers don’t realize the district has their own Google Apps for Education (GAFE) domain. This alone provides a wide range of security and functionality if your GAFE administrator sets it up correctly, so I’ll focus on some things you can use within your own GAFE domain or externally. I’m saving Google Class, possibly for next year. It’s still a little new to make the Top 10.

  1. Usage rights. Let your kids search the Web for images and what do they do? Almost every kid I see goes to Google Image search and copies and pastes directly from the found set—no concern for attribution or whether the image is even legally available for use. Most don’t even visit the site where the image is actually located. I even see watermarks and copyright symbols printed on images in student projects. Google’s made it easy to find images students can use in their projects through their Search Tools. Complete the image search as you usually would, then select Search Tools, and pick one of the Usage Rights. I suggest “Labeled for noncommercial reuse with modification” to get the maximum number of options, unless kids are just going to copy and paste, in which case they can use “Labeled for noncommercial reuse,” which implies no modification. You choose what’s best for your purpose.
Finding images you can use in a Google Image search

Finding images you can use in a Google Image search

  1. Research Tools. Open any Google doc or presentation, select the Tools menu and click on Research: Up pops the research pane that allows you or your students to do a full search of text, images, or other from within your document—including filtering by usage rights (see #7). You can add links to primary sources on the Web directly in your document, and auto-generate a list of citations following MLA, APA, or Chicago style. Why isn’t every teacher using this?
Using Google Research Tools

Using Google Research Tools

  1. Google is connecting everything, even people. Google Hangouts are basically multi-point videoconferences that can be supported by computers, tablets, or phones. There’s no need for expensive web- or videoconferencing services. Google does it for free. And just like email (or Gmail), Twitter, or other social tools, you can share images, text, and links.
  1. I personally haven’t used Moderator, but since I work in several districts with GAFE, teachers report to me it’s an easy way to support a class discussion if you’re not using a learning management system (e.g., Edmodo, Canvas, or even Google Class). It’s a discussion forum. Simple. Easy.

And the +! It really was hard to narrow down the choices. In addition to my top 10, this year I’m going to spend more time with two presentation tools that teachers tell me are easy to use and highly engaging. eMaze was described to me by a teacher as a cross between PowerPoint and Prezi but easier to use. It sure looks it. Powerpoint is so abused in classrooms and Prezis often make me queasy, so I’m interested to see how eMaze stacks up. PowToon is another presentation tool that I’ve heard of for a couple of years but I haven’t really seen any students using it in the schools I visit. It looks like it might take the place of xtranormal (not sure what’s going on there!) that was popular several years ago. The learning curves looks a little steeper for PowToon than eMaze, but I’m old and kids will probably figure it out far faster than me.

There you have it. Just a smattering of fun and helpful resources I see in classrooms across the country. I know there are plenty more, but many teaches often tell me, “I don’t need to know everything. Just give me 1 or 2 good tools that work.” Pick one and let me know how it goes.

Tech-tonic Shifts: What can school leaders do to support change?

Please note: This is the fourth and last in a series of posts in response to a request from Susan Swift, a language arts teacher at Hempstead High School in Dubuque, IA, who is writing a book on technology integration. 

So, now you’ve gotten started. You’ve bought some new materials, perhaps some technology devices or new curricular materials, or you’ve brought in some trainer to help spread the word. Boxes have been opened, people have been trained…now what?

Unfortunately, this is when a lot of initiatives fall short. They’re frontloaded with planning and training, but the resources aren’t put into place to nurture and sustain the effort. I can tell when I visit a school or district with a follow through problem when teachers (or other staff) talk about “what we did last year,” or even the year before and there’s no clear connection from year to year or initiative to initiative.

This also happens in those districts or schools with implementation overload. Every year someone introduces new materials, new methods, new devices with no clear long-range plan that ties them all together. I was visiting one school where the faculty complained they had “too much” training. They were introduced to so many things, they said it was like a buffet. But in the end, as one overwhelmed teacher told me, “Just show me 1 or 2 things that works and give me time to really learn how to use it.”

I developed the following guidance for school leaders implementing technology initiatives in their schools, but they could help anyone charged with implementing change. You’ll see some advice repeated from earlier, but that just highlights the importance of some of these strategies. This list began with advice from Margaret Heritage (2010) but I’ve combined some items and school it down to be a little more manageable.

  1. Communicate. This bears repeating. School leaders articulate, and constantly communicate, the value of any change effort. This begins with and returns to the vision, but it has to be relevant. If it’s not important to school leadership, it’s not important to teachers. Administrators who don’t buy in to a change effort can actually derail it. School leaders help everyone–teachers, other staff, parents, students–understand the importance of the initiative and reinforce it through multiple and varied communications.
  2. Support. School leaders provide explicit support to their teachers and staff related to the effort. People participating in and impacted by the change will need different kinds of support. Often, this implies new kinds of support. Determine what kind of support is needed. Be specific. Avoid platitudes or overgeneralizing. Yes, teachers need professional development, but what kind? Lesson study, observations, time to collaborate? Yes people will need time, but what kind of time specifically? Time to collaborate, to plan, to experiment? Identify the types of support and prioritize those needs.
  3. Dedicate time: School leaders find and protect time to engage in real work around the change initiative. Change efforts require ongoing time for meeting, reflection, and discussion. If these times succumb to other meetings or duties, the change won’t occur. Many schools have professional learning communities (PLCs), some just in name only. Any change effort, if worth doing, should be incorporated into existing PLC efforts. Every PLC meeting should result in some tangible outcome related to the change effort.
  4. Embed and connect: School leaders make connections to other initiatives. Teachers don’t have a lot of time, so even the best intended initiative won’t be effective if they don’t understand how new initiatives support existing initiatives or processes. School leaders should make these connections explicit, communicate them often, and tie them together. If a new technology initiative is implemented, school leaders help teachers understand how it will impact or support lesson planning, instruction, classroom observations, communications with students and parents–everything.
  5. Allocate resources: School leaders make strategic decisions about the allocation of resources that support the initiative. Not all resources require new funding. New initiatives should be implemented as an effort to addressing an existing need. Is literacy an issue? How will the change initiative support literacy? Conduct an analysis of what does and doesn’t work and get rid of those that don’t! Too many schools hand on to legacy programs that are ineffective just because “that’s the way we do it around here.” It can also help to get staff from different departments, along with the budgets they oversee, to get together and see how a new effort can support their work. Very often, technology initiatives can support multiple programs (e.g., Title programs, special education, literacy, and technology programs) and can be made affordable when budgets are combined across programs, something that may not be attainable by a single program’s budget.
  6. Take risks: School leaders establish and nurture an atmosphere of risk taking and learning from mistakes. School leaders will have to consider how they deal with taking risks and making mistakes. Teachers are not the only ones who will be trying new things or having to learn new skills. School leaders should be sure to learn alongside teachers by determining which trainings and meetings they’ll participate in with teachers. They may also want to consider which meetings they won’t participate in, in case teachers want some time to practice and work on their own.
  7. Acknowledge and celebrate! School leaders comment on, encourage, and celebrate teachers who demonstrate positive aspects of the initiative. Whenever a school leader visits a classroom, they should be sure to recognize aspects of the initiative (catch teachers doing good things drawn from the initiative) and comment on and encourage teachers who are doing so. And plan for and implement celebration! What celebrations are already in place where teachers and others can be acknowledge for the work their doing? Can they be acknowledged at staff meetings, daily announcements, with letters or cards, in newsletters, or on digital media like the school website, Facebook page, or other means? Celebration is fun and encouraging but often overlooked.

I encourage school or change leaders to do an analysis of existing strategies and processes that support each of these seven strategies. Include people responsible for them, such as the school secretary that puts together the school newsletter where you’re going to acknowledge the good work of your teachers, or the department heads that are going to carry your message back to their colleagues on a daily basis. Determine what works and whom to involve.

You may also need to develop or implement new strategies. For example, some schools may have department meetings but not really PLCs. If you plan to support the change effort with teachers from multiple departments, schools may need to find and adopt a PLC model to help organize those meetings and make them more effective.

In summary, I suggest that we, as an education community, know a lot about implementing and sustaining successful change initaitives. Unfortunately, we, as individual educators, may not always know about this body of knowledge nor about the strategies necessary to successfully implement change. Hopefully this brief overview provides some concrete ideas and strategies for those either leading or succumbing to change efforts and will find it helpful to make those change efforts more successful.


Heritage, M. (2010). Formative assessment. Making it happen in the classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Tech-tonic shift: Basic needs of capacity building

Please note: This is the third in a series of posts in response to a request from Susan Swift, a language arts teacher at Hempstead High School in Dubuque, IA, who is writing a book on technology integration. It’s taken many months to get back on track with this, but I’m done and have part four on the way.

In 2013, I helped the Appalachia Regional Comprehensive Center (ARCC, 2013) put together a two-day regional seminar on systemic change. Presenters came from several states along with the U.S. Department of Education and the Council of Chief State School Officers. At the opening session, Erick Oetjen, a senior vice president for ICF International, the organization that holds the ARCC contract, opened the seminar with a few experiences from his own work supporting large-scale, capacity-building efforts, especially in areas related to social change.

Eric eloquently and quickly laid the groundwork for the seminar by outlining four key components that anyone implementing a capacity building change effort should consider. (He was so good, that he was later featured in a one-hour webinar in which he was given more time to expand on these ideas. You can find the webinar archive here.) Eric gave these four guidelines that I believe represent some key basic needs for supporting capacity building change. I elaborate on each briefly in relation to technology initiatives, specifically, which is where I most often see these coming into play.

  1. Think broadly about the stakeholders and engage them early. Too often technology initiatives are seen as external to the day-to-day work of the school, which is promoting student learning. Technology initiatives are often isolated, sometimes stigmatized, so it’s difficult to get widespread buy-in. Sometimes we think it’s only the IT staff or the technology coach that needs to buy-in, but any successful school initiative will include all stakeholders, from administrators, teachers, and other staff to parents and–most importantly–the students. Eric notes that if you don’t engage all stakeholders early, you’re going to have to at some point in order to be successful. I add that if you don’t plan to engage them early, you may not like how some of them get involved and the negative impact some stakeholders can have on even the most worthwhile initiative.
  2. Move towards a common language. I sometimes think that educators are the worst in terms of jargon–what I call “educationese.” I’m sure every industry has their own, but in education we use so many common words (e.g., authentic, engaged, problem, project, assessment) that often end up meaning very different things in an educational setting. Eric warns that if change leaders don’t help everyone come to a common understanding of key terms, concepts, and process, people end up “talking past each other.” Common language, of course, starts with a clear vision and constantly referring to that vision to make sure your initiative is on track. I’ve gone so far as to creating “word walls” or glossaries of key terms to help everyone get on the same page.
  3. Develop a communication strategy. Eric suggests having a clear communication strategy that is implemented early and regularly can make or break a change effort. This really can’t be overemphasized. When I work with organizations and ask about communication, it’s often sloughed off as if “been there, done that.” People will cite organizational newsletters, websites, meetings, without ever determining if anyone actually reads or pays attention to these things. Don’t take communication for granted. I led a team of about two dozen educators through an audit-type visit of a large school district in my state. The superintendent told me we should look for innovative use of technology. That he had been pushing for innovation since he got there. What we found was that communication–from the central office to the schools to the classrooms and back up that chain–was lacking and the top priority we encouraged this superintendent to consider in order to reach his goals. It turned out no one had the same idea of what innovation was and so any use of technology, from using an overhead projector on up, ended up being considered innovative. Not exactly what the superintendent had in mind.
  4. Design for early results. This was a unique suggestion Eric made that I would not have included, but makes perfect sense upon reflection. As an instructional designer, I incorporate strategies to motivate the learner based on the work of John Keller who developed the ARCS motivational design model (A = get the learners Attention, R = make the material Relevant, C = build the learner’s Confidence, S = ensure the learner is Successful.) I use this model often and try to be sure that the materials I develop allow the learner to be successful early. Start with small success to build motivation and increase complexity over time. Eric suggested a similar philosophy, noting that even if you can accomplish small or even temporary results early, they will build momentum for the initiative and help it keep moving forward. Same idea. I’m glad he applied it to capacity building.
Learning from Los AngelesUnfortunately, the Los Angeles Unified School District suffered through one of the least successful technology integration efforts perhaps in the history of schools–at least since personal computers were introduced into schools in the 80s. Costing more than a billion dollars and a much reported dismal failure–one that cost the superintendent his job–the one good thing that came out of the effort are some lessons learned. These five lessons were posted in Edutopia (Gliksman, 2014) and should serve as the basis for anyone planning any technology initiative in the future.

  1. Change starts with a vision.
  2. Top-down strategies rarely work without communication and consensus.
  3. Training requires more than an introductory “how-to” workshop.
  4. Technology should empower students.
  5. It’s not about the device.



ARCC. (July 18-19, 2013). Exploring the parameters of systemic change and capacity. Regional Systemic Capacity Seminar, Crystal City, VA.

Gliksman, S. (2014). The LAUSD iPad initiative: 5 critical technology integration lessons. Edutopia. Available from:

Use these Performance Tasks

The time has come for performance tasks, or performance-based tasks. They’re not a new idea, but I think the time has come for actually getting them right. And that’s what I’ve been working on with teachers across the country for the past several years. I think it’s also one intention of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). Students in states that belong to these two consortium will be completing performance tasks as part of their standards-based tests at the end of this academic year. But performance tasks are something teachers can develop on their own—and they should, especially if they’re preparing students for these tasks on high-stakes assessments.

I’ve been working with teachers in districts and schools across the country on developing performance-based tasks, and now I’ve posted some of those on my site (you can check them out here). Begun with my work in Henrico County, Virginia, this work has become so extensive thanks to my collaboration with Advanced Learning Partnerships, a consulting group that provides professional development services to Dell Learning Services. Dell clients who receive professional learning credits can ask to work with me through Advanced Learning Partnerships so their own teachers can learn how to develop and implement performance tasks.

The process I use is grounded in the instructional design model Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. That’s why I say they’re not a new idea, because UbD has been around for a while. And many teachers have been incorporating assessments that include performance for as long as there have been schools, whether intentional or not. The advantage of using a process like UbD is that it places them within the larger context of curriculum design—making curriculum design and delivery purposeful. The tasks become a jumping off point for discussing curriculum design, and a “guaranteed and viable curriculum” is the one factor that Bob Marzano and colleagues suggest has more impact on student achievement at the school level than any other factor. Win-win.

And while they’re not a new idea, the rich assortment of digital tools and online resources now available in most schools is the reason why I think their time has come. These tools have helped students and teachers make the shift to creating rich content rather than just being consumers of content others have developed. Common digital devices actually allow students “to do” the work of experts in a field of study, which is the crux of a performance task.

The process I use also includes the addition of a document library, an idea which comes from CLA in the Classroom. They develop the Classroom Readiness Workforce Assessment, and their process is heavily influenced by UbD, as well. I don’t follow their guidelines for the document library strictly, but as many of the teachers I’ve worked with will tell you, providing all the relevant resources to the students to complete the task makes it much more manageable and keeps the kids focused on the task—not searching the Internet. So if you’re not assessing Internet research skills, use a document library.

One key aspect about these tasks is that they are based on standards. The entire process is driven by standards, and so these tasks are very specifically and intentionally standards-based assessments. Just not in a multiple-choice format. Because most current standards-based assessments rely heavily on multiple-choice questions, it can be a challenge for some to think a standards-based assessment can be in a different format. But remember that high-stakes tests don’t assess all content standards, and some can’t be assessed by multiple-choice questions. Not true for performance tasks, however. They can assess any of your standards, if you design them that way.

Please check out the tasks and let me know what you think. Feel free to use any of them in your own classroom. Some, like The Cell Phone Challenge, may be a little outdated already (in just a few years!), but provide a good example that can be applied to a myriad number of topics, and some of my clients have done just that. A couple do not include complete rubrics, but in all cases the standards addressed are listed. I also have some more in various states of completion. I’ll get “my team” (aka me) to work on completing them. If you do use one, please let me know, and let me know how you improved it. I’d love to get feedback and even post your improved versions for others to use.

For more about the process, check out this video.

Tech-tonic shift: What type of change do you want?

Please note: This is the second in a series of posts in response to a request from Susan Swift, a language arts teacher at Hempstead High School in Dubuque, IA, who is writing a book on technology integration.

I have the great privilege of working with one of my professional mentors. Dr. Sharon Harsh is an exemplary educator who is also an acknowledged national leader in the field of organizational change, especially as it relates to education. She has studied the organizational change literature across many industries and has used that knowledge to craft strategies and procedures to support systemic change at the statewide level to much success. For this, she is acknowledged by the U.S. Department of Education, and I get to pick her brain often and learn from her. How cool is that?

Early in the change process, those in charge really should sit down and determine what kind of change they’re really seeking. Harsh (2012) summarizes that there are three levels of change, and using strategies for one type to address another can not only be ineffective but can frustrate those involved and hamper the ability to implement future change initiatives. She describes three types of change:

  1. Incremental or first-order change occurs when a change initiative is localized to an individual or small group of individuals within an organization. In schools, this can occur when a group of teachers take a class or attend a training together and attempt to implement a strategy they’ve learned. Or perhaps a grade-level team may work on adopting a new technology resource together. In this type of change, an individual may build capacity, but the organization as a whole stays very much the same.

  2. Transitional or second-order change ramps things up a bit. This type of change focuses at a larger group of people, a well-defined group, such as a workgroup or a team in an organization. In schools, this could be a group like all counselors, all algebra teachers, or all technology coaches (to use a Dubuque example). The goal of second-order change is to help an entire subgroup of the organization build their capacity to meet the goals of the organization, but whole-scale organizational change is still not occurring.

  3. Transformational change or third-order change is true systemic change in which all of the players in an organization are impacted, some profoundly. This type of change is, obviously, the most challenging type of change to undergo and see to a successful conclusion, because it can impact the entire culture of the organization. It may require people to reflect and modify their philosophy of their role in the organization and what they want to get out of being in the organization. Some may leave the organization. In a successful effort, everyone changes to some degree.


Again, more great lessons, but what does this mean for schools? Especially those in the midst of a tech-tonic shift? In my experience, the most obvious answer rests in the mismatch between intentions of a change initiative and the strategies used to get there. Transformational change is hard. It’s complex and requires a great deal of preparation and forethought. As Harsh is fond of quoting, “complex problems require complex solutions.” Simplistic approaches won’t lead to successful change in complex situations, like whole-organization change. Transformational change is truly a contact sport. It requires rallying the troops and getting everyone on the same page. It can even involve thinning the troops or finding those more sympatico to the change vision.

In my experience, too many education organizations attempt to implement transformational change through incremental strategies–using simplistic strategies that can’t address a complex problem. In most cases, those I work with are seeking transformational change whether they originally intend to or not. Also in most of these cases, the strategies used are limited to individuals or a small group or do not tackle the larger and more complex issues related to revising personal philosophies, developing a shared vision, or changing organizational culture. Yes, those are challenging aspects, which may be why so many people want to avoid them, but you have to be true to yourselves and those with whom you work. If you want transformational change, roll up your sleeves and get ready to do some heavy lifting. If you’re not ready for the long-term investment required for transformational change, change your sites. Focus on incremental change, and select strategies that will support it.


Harsh, S. (2012). Taking successful change initiatives beyond capacity: A multiple-dimension approach to capacity building. Fairfax, VA: ICF International.


Tech-tonic Shifts

Please note: Susan Swift, a dynamic language arts teacher at Hempstead High School in Dubuque, IA, asked me to contribute some thoughts on a book she’s writing about technology integration. This and the next three posts (at least) are in response to Susan’s request.

I’m not sure whether she realized it or not, but Susan has selected an ironically appropriate topic and title for my chapter. As a former music teacher, I’m pretty well versed in the idea of tonics as they relates to sound. That combined with my current status of helping educators plan for, integrate, and evaluate technology-based initiatives can truly be summed up as approaching the idea of “tech-tonic” shifts from many perspectives. In music, tonic shifts (some might say modulations) follow certain rules or guidelines. They are usually prepared for, some quite eloquently so. Sure, some day an Arnold Schoenberg will come along and bend those rules completely, but in all reality he and his contemporaries were also working from some very strict rules of their own. Every domain has some accepted ways of doing things, and we can all learn by knowing some of those rules or guidelines.

Unlike musical composition, there may not be hard-and-fast “rules” for technology integration (or any other change effort), but there are certainly lessons learned–both in education and from the larger field of organizational change. After leaving the classroom, a fortuitous accident led me to further study in instructional design for both general education and corporate training. Adventures in this field include product and program evaluation as well as providing technical assistance to a wide range of folks. Some of this has been official, such as serving in leadership roles for a Regional Education Laboratory and two Comprehensive Centers, both of which are programs funded by the U.S. Department of Education. The latter, the Comprehensive Center, is specifically charged with “building the capacity” of state education agencies (SEA). A daunting task, if you think about it. And not one to take lightly. Show up on the front step of any SEA and say, “I’m here to build your capacity,” and you won’t make it past the door.

So, with a few well-earned battle scars and even a few checkmarks in the win column, with those in the other column probably providing stronger evidence for what not to do, I hope to share a few ideas. I’ve culled these from my experiences from working with educators from across the country in terms of supporting organizational change–from single schools to entire states. Whether wanting to focus on isolated integration in a single classroom or school or working on whole-scale organizational change, these are some of the rules I’ve learned.

Continuum Theory

While I often work with schools and districts that are beginning their journey of technology integration, we’ve been using digital technologies in classrooms for quite a while. I didn’t use a personal computer in my own education until working on my Master’s degree, but computers have been in classrooms for almost half a century! That means lots of years of experiences and lessons learned. One of the most important lessons learned that I keep returning to time and time again is one that comes from those early days of integration, and that is, as teachers (and school leaders) integrate technology, they do so across a continuum. This lesson was first (and perhaps best) presented by researchers for the Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow (ACOT) project in the 1980s (Dwyer, Sandholtz, & Ringstaff, 1991). Yes, the 1980s. We’ve been doing this “tech stuff” that long.

The basic lesson from that time is that educators adopt technology along a continuum. This is a foundational truth I find holds true in every technology initiative I’ve worked with, with mentions found repeatedly in the literature since that time in various reincarnations, such as the National Educational Technology Standards for Teachers (NETS-T) from ISTE and the (what’s old is new again) SAMR model. Maybe I need to recycle some decades old idea with a new label?

The ACOT researchers described their continuum with 5 stages, from Entry to Innovation. Along the way, teachers build their skills and knowledge and learn how technology provides support to create learning opportunities that just can’t be done without the technology. Yes, I went there. Things you can’t do without technology. It’s not just about efficiency. It’s about creating new learning environments. Need proof?

In Virginia, students can access and control the same telescopes astronomers and other space scientists do to explore the night sky (the catch is the Virginia telescope is in Australia because it’s night there when our kids are in school). There are other probes students can interact with, from the bottom of the Puget Sound to a rover on Mars. Students are also interacting with their favorite authors and others through telecommunications that bring them into their classrooms in real time or through asynchronous blogs or chats. And kids are running their own businesses, filming their own documentaries, and writing their own apps. Do that with paper and pencil.

It takes some time to get to that stage, however, whether you think of the continuum as having 3, 4, or 5 stages. ACOT says 5. ISTE says 4. I sum it up in 3:

  1. Replication. Teachers begin by using technology to replicate what they are familiar with. If they are familiar with a lecture followed by students working independently on handouts, they might support a lecture with presentation software and print out (or post digital) handouts for students to complete. If they like collaborative groups and problem-based learning, they incorporate technologies that allow students to work together in and outside of classroom and solve problems.

  2. Adoption. Teachers start to see the value of technology, become more efficient at what they do, and even try some new things that the technology makes it easier or more effective. Gradebooks and lesson planning tools are ones that many teachers first see increased benefit from using. Not only do they make grading easier and save time in terms of creating, storing, and sharing lessons, but these tools also have added benefits like securely sharing grades with students, sending out notifications, running reports, and even providing communication opportunities with parents.

  3. Transformation. This is where teachers create activities or entire learning environments that just can’t be done without the technology. I’ve given some examples, but what might be considered transformative is continuing to change. We’ve seen this recently with the widespread emphasis of personalized learning, blended learning, mobile learning, competency-based learning and the impact these trends are having on well-worn (and some would say outdated) educational stalwarts, such as seat-time and Carnegie units.

Continuum of Adoption

Continuum of Adoption

All of this may be interesting, but what does this mean for supporting change? How does this promote technology integration? For me, the golden rule of the continuum is: you have to meet the teacher where s/he is. A teacher at any stage can use technology effectively and promote student learning. If the teacher is at the replication stage, a change agent (often a technology coach) can focus efforts at supporting that teacher as s/he learns to use technology to replicate what they feel comfortable with. When they’re ready to move up the continuum, they will, if given the support they need. Transformation, while fun, can also be challenging. And if you’re not there, don’t expect to get there immediately. Maybe not even in a year. And some teachers never will.

My hope is that all teachers first feel comfortable in the stage they naturally find themselves and occasionally push themselves beyond. Those who may not believe transformation is their goal might benefit from working with someone who is at that stage, because it is possible for all teachers. But it doesn’t have to happen every day or every lesson. The first goal for all teachers is promoting student learning, and change agents can help teachers reach this goal every stage of the continuum.


Dwyer, D. C, Ringstaff, C, & Sandholtz, J. H. (1991). Changes in teachers’ beliefs and practices in technology-rich classrooms. Educational Leadership, 48(8), 45-52.

Helping Put Fun Back into Learning

Time to resurrect the blog. New year, new resolution, all that. I had the best intentions for 2013 but really got quite busy. But busy is good, because it means that work is going well. But with the new year I thought I’d opt for a new tag line. I’ve been saying it much of 2013 and have pronounced it as my mission more than once, and that is, “Learning should be fun.”

We’ve gotten far from fun in learning these days. I visit hundreds of classrooms a year, perhaps a thousand or more, and the prevailing constant across those classrooms is that kids are bored. I’m not the first to notice this. Perhaps some remember the findings of the Gates Foundation published in The Silent Epidemic (2006) about high school dropouts. In that report, the authors found that 47 percent of the dropouts in the study left school because their classes weren’t interesting and 69 percent said they were not motivated or inspired to work hard. Two-thirds of the dropouts in the study would have stayed in school “if more was demanded of them.” Sorry, folks, but much of school has gotten boring, and these numbers help support that. I want to change that, and I think many of the educators I work with do too.

The notion of a pendulum in education that swings at one end to a zenith of high control to the other of great flexibility is a common one. There has been no greater point of high control in terms of accountability than what our schools are currently facing. As well meaning as the last reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was (what is commonly referred to as “No Child Left Behind”), the result has been higher levels of anxiety and even fear among teachers, and ample amounts of boredom for students. But there are signs of rebellion, and so the pendulum—I hope—is on a shift.

Why New Standards Can Make Learning Fun

This may be an ironic position to many in education, but I really like the idea of standards. Standards are a vision for what my students should know and be able to do. As a teacher, they give me guidance and help me plan what I need to do with my students. But a prevailing part of that equation would be the students themselves. While the standards help me determine what students need to know and be able to do, not all of my students are at the same place in their learning. It’s like solving a puzzle. How do I get a range of students to the point I need them to be? To me, that kind of puzzle is fun. That’s the fun part of teaching.

Another reason why I think the new standards that teachers are dealing with across the country is that they are a step up from past iterations of standards. They are much more focused on “doing” the subject rather than learning facts and figures out of context. Many of them are based in the idea of providing authentic experiences for students. I was always the kid who asked, “why do I need to know this?” New standards emphasize that context.

How to Put Fun Back Into Learning

The pressures of accountability are real and there’s a direct correlation, at least to me, between the perceived negative consequences of poor test scores to the boring instruction that prevails in classrooms today. Luckily, this doesn’t have to be the case. The overwhelming result of pushing information at students through worksheets and multiple-choice tests is a somewhat misguided interpretation of what standards as students to do. The key word is do. Not just know, but do. In my work with teachers, many focus on the knowing to the detriment of the skill level to which they need to get their students to perform—to do something with the knowledge they’ve acquired.

I’ve been lucky to work with teachers across the country on several initiatives that raise the level of instruction to match the intent of standards and—very often—increase the fun factor in learning. Here are a few examples that give me hope that we can return fun to learning.

Keep it real. The reason our students go to school ultimately is to do something in the real world. They might work in healthcare, start their own business, become an artist, or design the next greatest technology. Besides getting your driver’s license, when did you last take multiple-choice test? How about fill out a worksheet? The new standards encourage much greater real-world connection, at all grade levels, and some of the most enjoyable projects I’ve done with teachers, not to mention their students, is when their students tackle problems that are relevant to them in the real world.

Address a complex problem. Problem-based learning is a phrase that has different meanings to different people, but to me, the use of the word “problem” is essential. Some folks like to talk about project-based learning, but this opens up the opportunity to conduct an activity in which no real work is completed beyond simply being active, often physically and not mentally. When students have to address a complex problem, through a project or not, they’re immediately charged with challenges that can involve analysis, evaluation, and creation. They have to analyze the situation, evaluate—sometimes conflicting—information, and create a unique solution. The real world is messy, and complex problems are too. Believe it or not, that challenge can be stimulating, and fun!

I recall the experience of one young teacher I have worked with over the past two years. Entrenched in the current pressures of accountability, I can only describe her original reaction to a problem-based approach as rebellion. As is often noted, teachers will tell me, “this is all well and good, but I have to get back to my standards-based lessons.” Meaning which handout? But with a little coaxing and nurturing, this teacher approached me this academic year with the story of a successful problem-based unit she designed on her own and presented to her students. “I didn’t know how it was going to go,” she confided, “but the kids were amazing! We were studying the Civil War, and one group of students seemed to be off task and roughhousing around their table. But when I asked them what they were doing, they noted they were trying to figure out how to illustrate a power struggle by tugging and pulling at each other.” In the end, she reported, the kids all learned far more than classes in the past and they had a lot of fun doing it. It took courage for her to take that approach, but it’s visibly recharged her career.

Use real student tools. The proliferation of devices in our schools, whether provided by schools or families, is at an all-time high. And just as our students use these devices in every other part of their lives—and will be required to use them in most occupations we’d want our kids to pursue—using them in school can be a lot of fun. Across the country, when I ask teachers to describe “their most memorable learning experience,” they often use the words “engaging” and “interactive.” The powerful digital devices populating classrooms today, whether tablets, laptops, smartphones, or other devices, provide immediate entry into engaging and interactive learning—if it is designed that way.

I’ll use as an example of a fun project (for me, at least) I’ve just completed with my friend and colleague Anita Deck. We were charged with developing an astronomy course for ninth graders that leverages the iTunes U platform. The platform allowed us to leverage the ease of incorporating a wealth of high-quality resources, many developed by the most respected STEM organizations in the world (think NASA), through a variety of media. Videos, images, real-world data, news stories, and interviews with scientists were all incorporated in what is explicitly designed to address current science standards. This was also done with the philosophy of giving students choice, making the content relevant to students, and allowing them to follow their own passions and interest to create products of their choosing that would help them demonstrate their learning. There are no multiple choice tests or worksheets in the course, but there are some guides for some of the more complex resources. This amount of flexibility, both in terms of collecting the most current information from some of the world’s most respected authorities and then giving students the opportunity to select the way they want to demonstrate their learning is unique in most classrooms I visit. But popular digital technologies make this possible, and that possibility will hopefully lead to more fun in learning.

Fun, Here we Come!

I hope so, anyway. There are more examples, but since I’m going to take this on for the year, I hope to share some of those later. I do hope that educational pendulum has maxed out and is winding its way back to fun—teaching that is fun and learning that is fun. Learning should be enjoyable, and the teachers I’ve worked with (and their students) have shown me that if we lift our sights above low-level compliance instruction, not only is learning fun but students learn more! This instruction is standards-based instruction, not completing handout 125b.5-2. And as more of that happens in our schools, perhaps more of our students will see the relevance of our education system and will meet the challenge of succeeding in school.