In Defense(ish) of Lectures

Lecture Hall

If I’d been smart, I would have started an archive when I started prepping to be a teacher. It would document each of the teaching practices to come en vogue during my career and the approximate date when each became the villain in the stories we tell young teachers about learning and teaching.

The tool/practice with the most checkered past is the lecture.

Everything in my undergraduate preparation was a warning (direct or tacit) against the lecture. Workshops were the state of the art. Like the NCAA organizing a bracketed tournament, we were to match students with each other, have them pass their work around and then comment, defense, revise, edit, repeat. But, no lectures. The students wouldn’t learn from whatever ramblings we threw at their ears we were told.

The cognitive dissonance came as I considered the lectures I enjoyed in other courses I was taking. Pre-eminent scholars in their fields who knew how to craft stories of Hemingway, the history of the English language, remedial chemistry were regularly holding my rapt attention, while I was being told not only were they doing it wrong, but that I wasn’t likely learning form them.

It hurt my brain.

Things only got worse as I entered the classroom and the Internet made it possible to spread, embed, and mobilize lectures. Kahn, TED, and classroom flippers were putting bows on exactly the tools I was told and had come to believe were antithetical to learning. Teachers were spending time recording their lectures and telling students they were worth taking time at home to watch. Universities were making lectures freely available for anyone outside their admissions shield to learn from top professors. And big thinkers were taking to standing on a big red dot to inspire through nothing more than lecture.

Meanwhile, I was refining what it meant to operationalize a constructivist, constructionist pedagogy in an English classroom. I’d started identifying myself as a teacher whose pedagogy was inquiry-driven and project-based. This all stood opposed to the lecuturephilia I was hearing and reading about.

Except it didn’t. Because, even inside my classroom where students were asking questions that drove there creation of myriad projects, I was still lecturing from time to time. When I wanted to introduce the ideas of literary theory and literary analysis to a class of juniors, it was through a lecture that I modeled a close feminist reading of Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance“.

I did it, and I didn’t feel badly about it because it was the right tool for the moment. And, it only lasted a moment. I lectured through a narrative that helped to construct a framework of understanding of literary analysis and then told a story that exemplified putting that framework to use. After that and some discussion, I put the work in the students’ hands. I never again lectured on the topic. Instead, I gave mini practice sessions, prodded students to ask each other (and the internet) for help, and then asked them to do something similar to what I had done with my model text. (They may even have workshopped.)

This is the place of the lecture. With a few exceptions, it’s the place of most every practice, theory, and tool that’ve made their way into popular edu-parlance. As trope-ish as it may be, each of these pieces is a tool in a toolbox of teaching. The key will always be determining when telling a story is the most appropriate tool or letting students write their own stories of experience.

From Theory to Practice:

  • Keep a running list of the tools in your own teacher toolbox along with your own current thinking on the affordances and limitations of each tool.
  • Seek feedback from peers and students on your plans for teaching with a given tool before you put it into practice. Many times students are the best voices to tell you when an exemplifying lecture might be more helpful than throwing them into the deep end and asking them to swim.
  • Watch masters. No matter how good I ever felt about a well-deployed lecture, I could always learn something by walking next door or across the hall to watch a colleague. Oftentimes, my learning was best when watching teachers of another subject area where my expertise was limited.

This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

Practicing the Practice of Practice


Last year was a year of running and a year of writing for formal publication. In a twelve month span, I ran more than 1,100 miles. Similarly, I co-wrote prepared for publication three different texts. If I wasn’t reading/writing/editing/revising, then it felt I was running or recovering from a run (and getting ready for something to do with writing).

At the end of the year, I had publications and miles. I also dreaded sitting down to write or putting on my shoes to head out for a run. I’d forgotten what it meant to have myself as an audience and I had a right IT band threatening revolt.

The resolution for this year was simple – practice better practice.

For my life and for my teaching, that means listening to what’s necessary, what’s out of balance and making whatever moves best bring balance and meet the most pressing needs.

This has meant more yoga in my life this year. Learning and refining my goal-setting practice from last year, means I don’t hold myself to daily yoga sessions. Instead, I do what I did this afternoon and say, “Some yoga would be nice here.”

That’s best practice – knowing what’s needed in the moment and adjusting to meet those needs.

I haven’t headed out for a run yet in 2016. I’m listening to that IT band and trusting it will tell me when we’re ready.

Writing is getting a similar treatment. These blog posts back and forth with you come from daily questions, and I listen to my brain before I sit down to write. If it’s still full from the day or worn out, then I allow myself to write today’s post tomorrow (or the day after that). The standard is writing, the practice is knowing when I have something to say.

That’s best practice – knowing what’s needed in the moment and adjusting to meet those needs.

This past week, I was in Orlando for FETC. I was part of no fewer than 4 conference presentations over the course of two days. In each one, I paid attention to the audience who had decided what was going on in our room was more worthy of their time than what was going on in other rooms.

As such, I tried to adjust the planned presentations to offer room for questions, discussion, and exploration. Tellingly, the reaction was often silence. Conferences are still conferences, as it turns out – our worst versions of school. I worry the practice we’re utilizing in these spaces is one of subjugation of the assembled audience to the belief that whoever’s wearing the presenter’s badge will decide the needs of the room. When given the chance at self-determination of their learning, the audience doesn’t know what to do.

I most worry this is how we’re running classrooms.


This post is part of a daily conversation between Ben Wilkoff and me. Each day Ben and I post a question to each other and then respond to one another. You can follow the questions and respond via Twitter at #LifeWideLearning16.

Common Classroom Punctuation Errors You’re Probably Making – Question Marks


At the risk of becoming a pedant, this is the first in a series of posts about the punctuation errors you’re making in the classrooms. Pay attention and you’re speaking and writing as a teacher will improve. You’re welcome.

First up, the question mark. Here, we find two separate errors of classroom usage.

The first, underuse. Despite the sexy, exploratory curiosity the question mark can bring to learning, many teachers settle, instead, for that old standby, the period. Stop.

We’ve all been there, we’re introducing a new topic of study to the class and it’s well within the wheelhouse of that fancy college education we spent so much on. So, we pick up a bucket of periods and affix them to every sentence that streams from our mouth. Time, oxygen, and student interest are drastically diminished, and the question marks sit in our professional toolboxes – or whatever metaphor teachers are hauling around with them these days.

If, instead, we’d picked up only a handful of question marks, stuck them tightly to the end of a few choice sentences, and deployed them succinctly – oh, the possibilities.

This brings us to our second error in classroom usage of the question mark – misuse.

Maybe your commute was longer than expected. Maybe you forgot your reading glasses. Maybe you thought question marks expired if not used in time. Whatever the reason, you know you’ve used question marks at the end of statements that weren’t really questions. You knew the answer, your students knew the answer, no one was fooled.

If you’re going to step up your question mark usage game (and I suggest that you do), make sure you’re attaching them to actual questions worth answers. Preferably, these are question to which you do not know the answers and are excited about exploring alongside your students.

Question marks know when they’re being misused, and they don’t like it.

145/365 Early Adopters Don’t Wear Name Tags

Adoption Timeline Graph

I’ve had the graph above (or some iteration thereof) in my head for the last few weeks.

As our district preps for rolling out a massive infusion of technology into the hands of teachers and students over the next four years, I find myself wondering if each person I sit down with at a meeting is an innovator or a laggard or somewhere in between.

We are developing plans for helping first the teachers and then the students become used to having these new devices become the way of doing business. Part of my job in all of this has been developing the foundational course we’ll be asking all teachers to complete before they receive their first devices. It will include the rudimentary explanations of functionality – power, synching, applications, etc. It will include new guidelines outlining expectations and commitments for the teachers for and from our department and the amazing team that handles the wires and switches in the district.

Building the course, I’ve started to consider the early adopters, the early majority, and the other segments of the population, and I find myself wishing they would identify themselves not by their approaches to the machines, but to how they approach what these machines can do.

When planning the course, our team wanted to make clear that the basic operational instructions were optional so that those folks who knew where the power buttons were could move on to the new equipment.

Now that I’m building the thing, I am becoming aware of the differences in adoption. A teacher can be the earliest adopter of a device or technology. They can know the scripts, the codes, and the apps that make the thing do all the whiz-bang things it does.

This doesn’t mean, though, that they know how do adopt the device (whatever it may be) as a portal for shifting the practices of learning and teaching within our schools.

Those people are out there. Our district, and any other, has its own population of early thought adopters who see not only the devices but the possibilities. These people would likely see the possibilities without the devices, it’s just happy serendipity that both are arriving at the same time.

It’s likely these early adopters of practice find themselves in a distribution similar to the one pictured above. What I’m striving to remember is they will not wear name tags. Nor will they necessarily be the ones first in line to pick up their new tech. They find themselves stationed throughout the district.

What will make the difference, what is most important as we introduce this new technology across time and the district will be recognizing when the innovators and early adopters of ideas and practices also happen to be the innovators and early adopters of stuff. Those are the people to whom we will be able to turn to improve education for all children and adults in the district.

131/365 Trust the Start

My new job has me thinking quite a bit about the flow of systems. For the majority of my career, I’ve been at one end of the educational system – in the classroom – working directly with students and other teachers to make learning and formal education better.

Now, I find myself somewhere in the middle of the system. I’m not in charge of anything, per se, at either end of the system. I support teachers and students and I support the leadership of the district. Sometimes (not often) that support looks drastically different.

I’ve found myself realizing and hoping for a specific string of trust to be enacted and embodied by the district.

It starts like this – Trust that teachers are doing all they can to support students’ growth and learning.

From there, direct interactions should be set up in such a way to give them support they need to do what they feel they need to do to help kids. This would be at the principal level. From there, outside the schools, intermediate district personnel should move to support principals based on the assumption that they trust that teachers are doing all they can to support students’ growth and learning.

If I believe that’s what principals believe, I’m going to be better at my job.

The same assumption is what I hope for those to whom I report. As I move through schools, help teachers and administrators learn and consider new practices, I hope that those in charge of me assume that I trust that teachers are doing all they can to support students growth and learning.

I want others to assume it in the system, and I want those others to assume that I believe it as well.

If we all operate from this believe, if we all trust that teachers are doing all they can to support students’ growth and learning, a foundation is established on which we can build, improve and design pathways to even greater capacity.

Assuming teachers are doing all they can is not assuming that they are doing the absolute best, it is assuming that they are doing their absolute best in the moment, and that it can always be augmented.

If I work with a group of teachers to build capacity around some new tool or practice, approaching our time together from the assumption that they are doing all they can will result in conversations much more replete with respect, listening, and care than conversations based on the assumption they are slacking, skating, or faking their way through the school year.

I want the best for anyone who endeavors to add to the learning, understanding, and choices of students. The best way I can think of to support and work alongside these folks is to trust they are doing the best they can and move from there.

118/365 Mission Hill is What Theory Looks Like in Practice #YearAtMH

I’ve been asked by Sam Chaltain to contribute to the conversation over at EdWeek around the series A Year at Mission Hill. I’ll be offering a take on each episode and interpreting some of the research that might be relevant and trying to make it practical. This piece was originally posted at EdWeek.

One of the great joys of A Year at Mission Hill is the glimpse it provides of the entirety of the teaching and learning experience. In Chapter 5, we are provided continued access to both the planning and implementation sides of teaching as we see and hear teachers planning lessons around a school-wide investigation of Chinese culture.

We find 2nd/3rd Grade Teacher Jenerra Williams (1:40) discussing the needs of her students in a planning meeting that draws a connection between both her professional expertise and the place of educational theory in the classroom, as she explains to her colleagues that they must take into consideration the cognitive development of their students while planning the introduction of new concepts.

There is beauty in Williams’ informal connection to Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development and its application to the “concrete” thinking Williams and her colleagues notice as prominent in their group of students.

While this episode is primarily concerned with the artistry and learning of the students, it’s worth pausing to appreciate the artistry and learning of the teachers as well. Williams weaves formal and informal assessments of students into her knowledge of cognitive theory to make sure the team is pacing the learning in such a way as to provide access for everyone.

So too, is there beauty in Kindergarten and 1st Grade Teacher Kathy Clunis D’Andrea’s interaction with a student (3:09) who has a “great idea.” Not only has D’Andrea created a space where her students continue to feel the safety and freedom to share such ideas, but her response shows a dedication to letting students play such ideas out in their own heads. D’Andrea’s reaction to the student is not to judge, criticize, or question the idea, but merely to repeat it back to him as a literal sounding board and then keep the space open for him to build on it publicly from there.

Such moments are excellent embodiments of Eleanor Duckworth’s ideas of “messing about” as described in her book The Having of Wonderful Ideas. They are also spoken to in Art Teacher Jeanne Rachko’s description of how she sees her role in the classroom.

Rachko’s dedication to letting students “discover who they are as artists,” and “empowering them in their own choices,” is revealed not as some soft bohemian philosophy, but one borne out in research and educational theory.

In a sense, Rachko is co-discovering who her students are alongside them. Such practice answers the call made by Dave Rose in his book Why School?, when he wrote that “teaching carries with it the obligation to understand the people in one’s charge, to teach subject matter and skills, but also to inquire, to nurture, to have a sense of who a student is.”

Such an obligation is fulfilled in each of the considerations Mission Hill makes because the school attends to both the needs and the curiosities of its students. It motivates by creating situations that invite students to play and include the four key tenets of situated motivation as described by Scott Paris and Julianne Turner: choice, challenge, collaboration, and control.

Making room for each of these components, co-discovering who their students are, and applying educational theory to what they discover allows Mission Hill’s teachers, and others like them, to make practical decisions that are artfully executed.

91/365 What if Teachers Acted Like Students? #YearAtMH

I’ve been asked by Sam Chaltain to contribute to the conversation over at EdWeek around the series A Year at Mission Hill. I’ll be offering a take on each episode and interpreting some of the research that might be relevant and trying to make it practical. This piece was originally posted at EdWeek.

To many progressive educators, answering the opening question to Chapter 3 of A Year at Mission Hill is as easy as turning to the father of progressive education, John Dewey.

To Dewey, the mind is brought to life through experiences, and more specifically, experiences that foster continued curiosity.

“There is an intimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience and education,” Dewey wrote in his 1938 work Experience & Education, and this has been the guiding principle of progressive education efforts ever since.

Just as important to curating actual experiences for students, teaching and learning must focus on building on the curiosity of students as they move forward.

We see this in the work of Mission Hill teachers as they introduce their students to the natural sciences and the study of the world around them.

Sometimes, it can be as simple as looking, and asking a question.

In his book Making Learning Whole, David Perkins describes a kindergarten teacher who plays the “explanation game” with her students. As they examine an abstract painting, the teacher asks her students, “What do you notice?” and follows those answers with “What makes you say that?”

To many, this approach will bear a remarkable resemblance to the opening steps of the scientific method – and it should. Curating learning experiences that augment students’ curiosities about the world is as simple as asking them to take note of the world around them, explain why they said what they said, and then taking it a step further to develop and work to answer the new questions these observations raise.

In Place-Based Education, David Sobel urges teachers to “make your students’ experiences so good that parents won’t tolerate boring textbooks.”

This is a worthy goal, and I’d suggest it can be done one better, by making teachers’ and students’ experiences so good that they won’t tolerate anything less.

We see this as part of the embedded process at Mission Hill when its teachers begin their work for the year off-site and working collaboratively. As they plan to help their students experience the natural sciences, they themselves are surrounded by nature. As they plan ways for their students to work collaboratively and cross-disciplinarily, they themselves are working together and across disciplines.

Perkins writes that this type of engagement of teachers as learners and members of the learning community is key. “Remembering that the instructor is part of the team too,” he explains, “the instructor circulates all the time providing individualized guidance, a far cry from the sage on the stage model.”

All of this – building experiences, inviting curiosity, noticing the world, working beyond boring – help Mission Hill Teacher Jacob Wheeler achieve the goal he has for every one of his students.

“Knowing how to find the information and how to solve the problem is what’s most important for me,” Wheeler says — and Dewey would agree.

One final benefit flows from this approach. The language describing it embodies the work of Carol Dweck and her theories of fixed vs. growth mindsets. By asking students and teachers to notice problems, ask questions, and then take the freedom to work to find those answers, teachers help their students and themselves to develop mindsets of growth as learners.

Constructed in deep and vibrant ways, these experiences can have all members of a learning community asking Dweck’s question: “Why waste time worrying about looking smart or dumb, when you could be becoming smarter?”

Learning Grounds Ep. 010: In which The JLV talks math, wrong answers, and how he found his way to the classroom

In this episode, Zac talks with José Vilson about how he shapes his practice in the math classroom, why he hates “wrong answers,” and how education became his life. You can find José at


30/365 Vision Must Live in Practice

Many schools have mission and vision statements. Some of those schools also have a listing of core values. Within this subset, we might even find a collection of schools who have drafted essential questions.

What is painfully, distressingly and alarmingly true about many of these schools is the proportion of them that draft these well-meaning documents, file them, and never ever return to them again – until it’s time to craft some sort of improvement plan. This is only slightly better than those who print these driving statements on banners for all who visit to take note as the actions they observe are in stark contrast with the values literally hanging over their heads.

Vision must live in practice.

The same is true of mission, values, and driving questions.

At SLA, we worked to constantly ask how the school’s core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation, and reflection can be seen in the learning experiences designed for our students. While not every piece of work the students complete speaks to each of the core values, asking the question over and over again helps to ensure we are constantly practicing those things we proport to value most.

The vision of a school can only live in practice if it is shared by all within the community. We have seen many schools where teachers arrive for their first professional development day of the new school year, sip coffee from industrial-sized mugs and listen as the school’s principal stands before them and explains the vision for the new school year. Often, too often, this is a vision devoid of any remanants of the vision of the previous school year.

While it is understandable for a principal to endevour to energize his or her faculty at the start of the new year, shifting course dramatically and often will only lead teachers to pay lip service to the “new” vision while resorting to those goals and values they find most comfortable when they return to their classrooms.

Any principal would be better off to find a vision in which he or she can truly root the desired practice of a school and then seek ways to embody that vision in every action of every individual on the campus. Then, when that has happened, the next step is not to find a new way of saying what you believe, but to deepen the expressions of those beliefs and values key to your institution’s identity.

It is easy to attempt to be what we repeatedly say, but it is always better to do than to merely say.

Coming to terms with what a school believes and is about as a learning organization is a strong first step. As with so many journeys, it is the steps that follow that determine what you will become.

When vision is put to practice, when who we want to be is a constant reflection in practice, then we are able to move closer to the better versions of ourselves and our institutions.

9/365 We Must Blend Theory and Practice


A movement is afoot in some parts of the country to prepare future classroom teachers without regard to those educational thinkers who have come before. In order to build the schools we need, that regard is paramount. Only through the blending of theory and practice can we move toward teachers who are both thoughtfully reflective about their practice as well as adept at developing new practices based on their students’ needs. Graduate education programs that focus primarily on practice and turn a blind eye to the study of pedagogical theory cite the needs of beginning teachers to enter their classrooms with tools to help their students learn. Yes, this is important.

What, though, when the novice teacher has tried each of the 49 techniques offered in Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion and finds himself in need of a fiftieth? It is possible this teacher will begin to look more deeply at the 49 practices in his repertoire and then begin to suss out the underlying theories of learning guiding those practices. This should not be left to chance.

The study of great and deep thinkers like Dewey, Piaget, Papert, Lampert, Sizer, Lawrence-Lightfoot, and Dweck alongside the learning of a collection of beginning practices will prepare beginning novice teachers to enter the classroom feeling prepared as well as prepare them to think critically about their own practice when the tools with which they left their graduate programs are found lacking. These teachers who might otherwise feel they are discovering the practice of teaching and learning in a vacuum would do well to carry with them reminders that wise minds have spent their careers thinking and writing on those very dilemmas facing teachers in modern classroom.

Such a reminder would do well to help with the psychological health of teachers, but a reason stands for such historical understanding that is greater still than letting teachers know they are not going it alone when they enter their classrooms. Understanding the theories of learning, the theorists who developed them, and then working to synthesize that knowledge into a coherent personal philosophy and teaching practice asks teachers to be more thoughtful about their practice, to make choices through critical analysis of evidence, and to back their practice in reasoned arguments. In short, they will engage in the type of thinking we would hope they seek to elicit from their students.

By asking how children learn, how others have suggested children learn, and how teaching might assist in that learning, teachers are driven to train their minds to think critically and putting a premium on the asking of questions and the seeking of answers. This is different than a practice built around the largely unthinking deployment of a set of pre-packaged “tools” delivered absent any question of why they are being deployed.

Teaching is complex; so do not take this to be an argument that teachers well-versed in the study of the history of learning theory and various pedagogies would be able to enter a classroom, develop a curriculum, and implement that curriculum such that all students in the class are enthralled, enlightened, and driven to answer questions. Quite the opposite. This is an argument that teachers should learn the pedagogy of those who have come before concurrently with their learning of those practices thought to be most basic and effective in the hands of beginning teachers.

With such an approach, novice teachers will feel prepared to take on their first days and weeks of teaching and be prepared to meet the critical challenges guaranteed to arise later in their careers. What’s more, it is likely that the critical thinking required to blend pedagogy and practice in whatever context a teacher finds himself will lead to an inquiry-driven practice. While such inquiry within teachers does not assure that those teachers will include such inquiry and critical thought in their classrooms, it does make such an overflow more likely than the plug ‘n’ chug method of practice without theory.