December 2018
Volume XV Issue XII


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Addressing Hard Questions… Considering New Directions



Bruce Oliver

Bruce Oliver, the author of Just for the ASKing!, lives in Burke, Virginia. He uses the knowledge, skills, and experience he acquired as a teacher, professional developer, mentor, and middle school principal as he works with school districts across the nation. Bruce has written more than 150 issues of Just for the ASKing!  He is the author of Points to Ponder and co-author of Creating a Culture for Learning: Your Guide to PLCs and More.

Educators are continually inundated with information, opinions, and research about what they should do to make sure their practices are worth the investment of time as well as the best approaches to meet the needs of their students. Quite frankly it can be overwhelming for many practitioners trying to figure out what to believe and how to proceed. Some of the practices being promoted may not receive the attention they deserve and they might be just the ideas a teacher could use to address an issue. This issue of Just for the ASKing! presents information about approaches that initially may elicit doubts or hesitation since they may not seem practical. A deeper look may help teachers consider or reconsider some ideas that may be worthy of further investigation.

Does it make sense to accelerate instead of remediate students who are behind?
Author, consultant, and education innovator Suzy Pepper Rollins has a rather unorthodox and seemingly illogical theory about working with struggling students. At first glance, the title of her book, Learning in the Fast Lane: 8 Ways to Put All Students on the Road to Academic Success seems like a promising premise and the reader is immediately excited to explore her thinking. But the title of the first chapter, Acceleration: Jump-Starting Students Who Are Behind, catches the reader off guard and even may result in a “that doesn’t make sense” reaction. But wait! Delving into Ms. Rollins’ reasoning provides some valid arguments and may change some minds about how to motivate and engage students who are behind.

In order to understand Ms. Rollins’ reasoning, it is important to examine some of the research behind how students best learn. She writes, “Marzano shares a gut-wrenching reality: What students already know when they enter the classrooms… is the strongest predictor of how well they will learn the new curriculum.”

Typically, how schools address student needs when they are behind in their understanding of concepts, skills, or vocabulary is to assign them to a smaller class for remediation, e.g., math, in addition to their regular math class. In these classes, they are offered the “drilling on isolated skills that bear little resemblance to the current curriculum.” These smaller classes have labels such as “Time to Soar,” “ELT – Extended Learning Time,” or “Fast Lane Class.” In the remedial settings, there is often no connection between what is happening in the mainstream class. Rollins describes what she has observed this way: “…bored students identified as requiring remedial intervention sat passively with their workbooks, practicing missing skills, while the higher-achieving students engaged collaboratively in hands-on, rigorous, exploration aimed at a specific learning goal.” The remedial students who have insufficient academic background knowledge and skill work on material that has no clear connection to what is happening in their regular class.

Rollins suggests the following steps to help remedial students address their needs and also prepare them to engage in the new content at the same time:

  1. In the acceleration model, the teacher revisits missing skills in ways that connect the student with new content. The skills are not taught in isolation.
  2. During the small group sessions, the teacher introduces new content previewing what all students will experience in the mainstream class. The teacher introduces new vocabulary along with vocabulary students may be missing before the new content is introduced in the regular class. The remedial students actually have a head start!

The learning experience is designed to stimulate thinking, develop concrete models, introduce vocabulary, scaffold critical missing pieces, and introduce new concepts prior to acquiring new learning.

Some teachers who have experimented with the “double dose” model report that over time, teachers have seen a change in students’ confidence levels, a willingness to participate more readily in the mainstream class, an increase in responding to and asking questions, and improved test scores. Like any practice, it is not fool-proof or a panacea; it does, however, present a new vision that can replace the traditional remediation model. Some practitioners have described it as “thinking in reverse” and that has not achieved the desired results.

What are the keys to purposeful use of technology?
Classrooms across the country are replete with technological advances. Digital platforms can provide children with learning experiences previously unknown and unreachable. Monica Burns, author of Tasks Before Apps: Designing Rigorous Learning in a Tech-Rich Classroom, reminds educators to focus on technology’s purpose and not succumb to the temptation to use the “shiny digital tools” simply because they are available. Burns writes, “…even as we consider how technology helps students do new and amazing things with their learning, we must always place learning goals at the forefront.” She recommends steps teachers can apply as they develop units and daily plans:

  1. To ensure that technology is applied in a meaningful way, teachers should review their curriculum goals and ask themselves: Are there technology tools that were not even available five or 10 years ago that can help individual students meet their goals? These supports can be periodically inserted into lessons to allow for inspiration, interactions, or to facilitate discussions.
  2. A proper use of technology is to get students’ creative juices flowing. Burns writes, “Your students might create a movie, website, e-book, podcast or other shareable products to demonstrate understanding.” She further recommends Soundtrap (a tool students can use to create a podcast or record music) or Adobe Spark Video (a moviemaking tool).
  3. Interest surveys are readily available on line that can help teachers decide the direction to take a unit or to place students in appropriate groups. Teachers can then match technology applications with student interests that will result in creative-enriched products.

The management of technology use can be a risky proposition for many teachers, particularly in one-to-one schools where devices are readily available to students. Teachers may feel the need to use the products simply because of their availability. When teachers carefully and purposefully plan how products can be used and provide specific directions and rules for their use, students will not spend time searching for games, exploring social media, or tweeting with their peers. Burns’ construct of “tasks before apps” can lead to sound technology use.

Should students be able to have “do-overs”?
A current hot (and often controversial) topic in education is the practice of allowing students a “do over” option when they have not completed an assignment properly. It is a practice that has supporters on one end and skeptics on the other end. There are also many professionals on the fence still trying to make up their minds. It is a topic that deserves deeper investigation.

Proponents of redos, retakes, and do-overs include consultant and author Rick Wormeli. He has examined the practice in depth and makes compelling arguments in two YouTube videos. ( and His arguments are persuasive and filled with common sense reasoning as he thoroughly examines the practices.

A second supporter of the practices is Chris Cannon, a high school teacher in Georgia and a recent Teacher of the Year. In his writings he provides a detailed analysis of how he came to believe in these adjusted policies. He shares research on the topics of allowing students to do test corrections and how it helps to increase student motivation as well as provides a sense of hope for lower achieving students. He also noted fewer incidents of cheating, an increase in students understanding why they made mistakes, and improvement in test scores and study habits.

Cannon also believes that an essential component of allowing redos or corrections is to present a clear policy with specific guidelines to students. He also recommends that teachers do not try to do too much too quickly; start with one assignment. He also feels that it is important to remind students that all three practices are a privilege and not a right.

Wormeli and Cannon agree on a number of points:

  • Many students need hope, especially those that find themselves mired in failure from which they feel they may never recover.
  • Revised work supports the concept of growth mindset that is a realistic approach to any type of learning.
  • The important message and life lesson that the practices convey to students is “You are not allowed to give up on yourself.”
  • Another important message that redos, retakes, or do-overs imparts to students is “I won’t let immaturity or a lack of development dictate your destiny.”
  • Redoing one’s work in the real world is an acceptable part of everyday life.
  • Failure is a part of the learning process. We learn from correcting mistakes.
  • Teaching should be about learning and not just grading.

What is personalized learning and does it really work?
The term “personalized learning” has resulted in confusion and rejection among some practitioners. As reported by Education Week’s Benjamin Herold, one big problem surrounding the term is that “proponents have struggled to define personalized learning, let alone demonstrated its effectiveness. The purpose, tools, and instructional techniques that make up the notion vary considerably depending on who you ask.” The topic, however, has resulted in both private funding as well as support from the U.S. Department of Education. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided $300 million in grants to study the concept, and $500 million in federal funds has been awarded to 21 U.S. school districts. According to Herold, “Researchers have found promising early signs at some schools, and some software programs have been associated with significant improvements in student learning and engagement.”

According to the Glossary of Education Reform, the term “ personalized learning” or personalization refers to a variety of educational programs, learning experiences, instructional approaches, and academic-support strategies that are intended to address the distinct learning needs, interests, aspirations, or cultural backgrounds of individual students. It is seen as an alternative to one-size-fits all approaches and is intended to facilitate the academic success of each student by providing learning experiences that will be a pathway to success. The broad implications of personalized learning have led to some confusion about what all the terms really means.

Perhaps a better way to understand how the term is being used is to learn about the different programs that have been established under the umbrella heading. Examples that illustrate the concept include the following:

  • Smaller learning communities or schools within a school that create distinct academic programs for its students
  • Implementation of programs such as learning pathways that include a wide range of diverse learning experiences that allow students to fulfill graduation requirements
  • The creation and maintenance of personal learning plans or portfolios that map out programs depending on an individual’s collegiate or career goals
  • The establishment of study halls or advisories to provide academic support during the school day
  • The provision of career-related internships for selected students
  • The application of alternative educational approaches such as blended learning, project-based learning, STEM schools, or community-based learning.

As Herold has concluded, “Researchers have found promising early signs at some schools, and some software programs have been associated with significant improvements in students learning and engagement.” He warns, however, that school district leaders must be “savvy consumers” before adopting a specific program.

Why should we find the time for feedback?
In some classrooms, providing feedback to students is a regular procedure, while in other settings, it is minimal, sporadic, or nonexistent except for a grade on an assignment or test. Some educators provide sketchy comments or praise (“good job” or “great improvement”) atop a student’s work. Despite data to the contrary, some teachers struggle to make the time to provide meaningful feedback. The late Grant Wiggins once wrote, “Although the universal teacher lament that there’s no time for feedback is understandable, remember that ‘no time to give and use’ feedback means ‘no time to cause learning.’ As we have seen, research shows that less teaching plus more feedback is the key to achieve greater learning.”


A Baker’s Dozen of Feedback Practices

  1. Feedback must be aligned to a specific learning goal; vague or fuzzy information will not promote learning.
  2. The goal must be clear and reachable; the student must understand the next steps to take in learning
  3. Feedback includes actions a student can take; ending a conversation without specific strategies is just a waste of time.
  4. Feedback must be understood by the student; giving does not imply receiving.
  5. The culture of the student must be taken into account for the feedback to have an impact.
  6. Convincing students that errors are perfectly acceptable will influence their receptivity to feedback.
  7. Feedback should be dispensed in manageable units; too much information will overwhelm the individual.
  8. When providing feedback, concentrate on the task and not the learner.
  9. The sooner the feedback is provided the better; waiting too long will likely not get the desired results
  10. When feedback is ongoing, the comfort level of the student improves, as does the student performance.
  11.  Present feedback carefully; if it is off-putting or causes the student to be too uncomfortable, it can negatively impact motivation.
  12.  Include information that helps students see how they are progressing toward their goal.
  13. Make feedback two-way communication by asking questions or soliciting student reaction.

It never hurts to be reminded about what many professionals feel is a non-negotiable part of student learning.

How important is the correct application of evidence-based learning?
The federal education law, Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), provides opportunities for school districts to receive funding through the implementation of evidence-based interventions or strategies. ESSA offers flexibility that No Child Left Behind did not include by placing district and school leaders “in the driver’s seat” to plan for school improvement instead of simply following a federally-required plan. As states submit (or resubmit) their plans for approval, it is essential that the evidence-based activities they select are a match to address the needs of their schools or individual students. Education Week’s Alyson Klein provides a caveat for districts: “I’m concerned that people in the field will forget about the need to choose really good evidence-based strategies and implement them really well. It’s easy to latch onto the next, new shiny impressive thing without really doing the background information gathering to see what the evidence is that something is going to be successful.”

Below is a five-step process that districts and schools can follow in the selection and implementation of evidence-based learning:

  1. Identify student-learning gaps based on a needs-assessment at the local level.
  2. Carefully select evidence-based interventions based on research and likelihood of reaching intended outcome.
  3. Devise a plan for the intervention (including professional development) so that all stakeholders understand the processes to be followed.
  4. Implement the plan including formative assessments along the way to ensure student learning is occurring and that any technology needs are available and up to date.
  5. Examine results, pose questions and readjust goals if necessary.

Although the above steps may seem logical, it is important to remind districts to avoid the pitfalls of not implementing the strategies properly or not using the selected evidence-based strategies on a regular basis. Keep the focus.


Resources and References

Burns, Monica, “Embracing a Tasks Before Apps Mindset.” Education Update, September 2018.

“ESSA and Evidence Claims: A Practical Guide to Understanding What ‘Evidence-Based’ Really Means.” District Administration, March 2018.

“Evidence-Based Interventions Under the ESSA.” California Department of Education, April 2018.

Feldstein, Michael and Phil Hill. “Personalized Learning: What It Really Is and Why It Really Matters.” Educause, March 2016.

Hattie, John. “Feedback in Schools by John Hattie.” Visible Learning, October 2013.

Rollins, Suzy Pepper, Learning in the Fast Lane: 8 Ways to Put All Students on the Road to Academic Success. Alexandria, VA:ASCD. 2014.

Ryshke, Robert, “When Students ‘Fail’ Should They be Allowed Do-Overs.” Center for Teaching: Advancing the Teaching Profession, January 2012.

Wiggins, Grant.“Seven Keys to Effective Feedback.” Educational Leadership, September 2012.



Instruction for All Students


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Oliver, Bruce. “Addressing Hard Questions… Considering New Directions.”  Just for the ASKing! December 2018. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development. © 2018. All rights reserved. Available at