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Volume XII Issue V

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Common Denominators: Ten Essential Practices

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop


When we hear the term common denominator, the definition that usually comes to mind is a number that is a multiple of all the denominators of a set of fractions. However, there is also a second definition that can apply to the work that educators do: A trait, attribute, characteristic, belief, or the like common to or shared by all members of a group. This alternate definition is the inspiration for this month’s newsletter. 

There are a number of trending topics and programs that are receiving extensive publicity in the field of education today and that have the potential to have a positive impact on student learning. These include STEM, Project-Based Learning (PBL), Depth of Knowledge (DOK), inquiry-based education, the flipped classroom, student engagement, blended learning, and the Rigor and Relevance Framework®. The subjects are multi-faceted and complex, and require extensive thinking, analysis and planning. They may take days, weeks or even months to implement with success.

In order for these approaches to grow and flourish, there are some practices that teachers need to continue to incorporate into their regular instructional delivery. The use of these variables in unit and lesson planning and delivery constitute the instructional foundation that enables teachers to successfully implement the more recent innovations such as those mentioned above. Ten variables that represent the backbone of good instruction and can be the common denominators from classroom to classroom in a school are described below. Accompanying each of the variables are web resources that provide detailed information about the practice. Because these are foundational practices, the research bases were often established in the 20th century.

Pause for processing and practice wait time
Two important principles for teachers to follow to create and maintain a learner-centered classroom are Mary Budd Rowe’s research on the 10:2 Theory and Wait Time. The smartest and most capable students can only maintain a focus for a certain period of time before they are on overload or their minds start to wander. Therefore, teachers should pause, approximately every ten minutes, to allow students to process the content that is being addressed. Usually processing can occur with a fellow student. Teachers might pose a question, ask students to react, or make connections to past learning and allow students to have a brief conversation. In addition, teachers need to provide think time by pausing for 3-5 seconds after posing a question before calling on anyone to answer. Both of these practices can result in improved student engagement, increased student participation and more engrossing class discussions.

Post and review objectives in “kid-friendly” language
Research has shown that when teachers explain the purpose and outcome of the day’s lesson, it helps students to focus their attention in the right direction. It is also important to post the objectives in language that any student can understand; the guideline is that if asked to do so, all students can put into their own words what they are supposed to learn. One successful approach is to write the lesson objectives beginning with the words “I can” indicating what the students will be able to do to show what they have learned.

Access prior knowledge at the beginning of new learning
Students will learn and remember new information better when it is connected to prior knowledge. When teachers build on students’ familiarity with a topic, it enables students to connect the curriculum and content to their prior learning experiences. To achieve this goal, teachers might conduct a class discussion, use a graphic organizer, or connect the new content to students’ lives and/or culture.

Move beyond fact-based questions when checking for understanding
Teachers often spend considerable time preparing unit and lesson plans making sure that they are addressing the required standards. However, they sometimes forget to prepare thought-provoking and engaging questions during lessons and rely on whatever questions occur to them on the spot to check for student understanding. We want our students to become critical thinkers; thus, it is our responsibility to move beyond short answer, fact-based questions and prepare challenging questions prior to the delivery of the lesson. Teachers can also delve deeper into student thinking by asking follow-up questions such as “Why do you think that?” “Do you have data to support your answer?” “Can you tell me more?” and “What other questions come to mind?”

Use the gradual release model in strategy instruction
Madeline Hunter’s Elements of Lesson Design have morphed over the years into a variety of lesson unit design organizers and plans, including Gradual Release of Responsibility. Despite the tendency of some educators to believe that all elements were to be present in every lesson, Hunter’s elements were not designed to be completed in a single teaching period. She wrote extensively about that misconception and stated that they would/should occur in a typical unit plan composed of several lessons over many days.

Gradual Release of Responsibility, a term coined in 1983 by David Pearson and Margaret Gallagher replicated Hunter’s contention that all the steps do not have to be completed in one lesson, but rather may unfold over time. This model, which builds on Leo Vygotsky’s concept of the Zone of Proximal Development and Jerome Bruner’s notion of scaffolding, meets the needs of students by moving from the teacher having more responsibility for learning to a point where individual students become capable and independent learners and thinkers. Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey’s book Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility, 2nd Edition is now a best seller and has brought this well-researched planning tool to the attention of many educators.

The four stages of the model are:

I do it (Focus Lesson)

We do it (Guided Instruction)

You do it together (Student Collaboration)

You do it alone (Independent Work)


Although the model can be effective in a wide variety of content, recent research in the use of the model has shown it to be effective in improving literacy achievement, reading comprehension and literacy outcomes for English language learners. Note: Watch for information in future issues about Grant Wiggins’ take on the challenges we face in ensuring that student transfer strategy knowledge and skillfulness to new situation.)

Make learning active and relevant
Stated succinctly, students learn more and retain what they learn longer when they are active participants in the learning process. Furthermore, they become more invested and motivated, increase their analytical skills, make more personal connections to the content, develop better collaborative skills and emerge as more self-confident and self-reliant learners. When teachers establish a repertoire of active learning strategies, they can select from wide variety of options to effectively involve their students.

Provide growth-producing feedback
Feedback to students on an ongoing and consistent basis can be a powerful learning tool. It is important for practitioners to understand that feedback, which can make a difference in student learning, is not praise, blame or vague references. When feedback is growth-producing it is information to students about the accuracy and quality of their work as they move toward reaching a learning goal. It must be in language the student can understand so that the student knows precisely what next step to take to make progress in their learning. When feedback is administered properly, students will be diligent as they continue on their quest toward mastery level learning.

Use formative assessment data to determine student progress
A commonly accepted definition of formative assessment is a process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning in order to improve students’ achievement on intended student outcomes. In contrast, summative assessments are used to evaluate student learning at the conclusion of project, unit or program. In current literature, formative assessment is considered an integral part of effective teaching. Data from formative assessments help students determine where they are in their learning journey and they inform teachers about the effectiveness of their instruction.

Incorporate summarizers into every lesson
A lesson without a summarizer is like a book with no ending. Both teachers and students need to know whether instruction worked and what specific learning occurred just as a reader needs to know how a story concludes. Summarizers may occur within a lesson or at the end of a learning segment. Summarizers may give students the opportunity to review the lesson’s content, reach conclusions from the lesson’s purpose, demonstrate their ability to solve a problem, create a synopsis of the lesson’s main ideas, or describe how lesson materials can apply to a real-world setting. In short, the ability to summarize is vital to demonstrating an understanding of the lesson’s objective.

Most importantly, build personal relationships
Robert Marzano has stated, “Positive relationships between teachers and students are among the most commonly cited variables associated with effective instruction.” In order for a teacher to build strong and lasting relationships with students, they must create a classroom community which is safe, where students feel cared for and encouraged, and where each student experiences a sense of belonging and self worth. These conditions emerge as a result of a teacher’s words and actions. Whereas some educators feel that relationship building requires work and conscious effort, blogger and teacher Michal Linsin sees things in a different way.  He writes, “The fact is the most effective way to build relationships with students also happens to be the most effective approach to classroom management. Be true to your word. Follow through with your classroom management plan. Refrain from any and all harmful, scolding, bribing, manipulative, or friction-creating methods of managing behavior. Smile. Love your students. Bring humor and joy to your classroom. And you’ll never, ever have to try to build influential relationships.  They’ll just happen.”

In conclusion
The ten practices I included in this issue are a matter of personal opinion. Certainly there are other sound instructional methods that promote student learning. When I witnessed these ten variable in action during many classroom visits, they were used consistently by some teachers while in other cases they were applied sporadically. My conclusion is that when implemented on a regular basis, these practices have an indisputable positive impact on student learning. For this reason, school leaders and faculties are encouraged to discuss and determine the conventions that all teachers will use in their practice on a consistent basis. In addition, it is recommended that staff members engage in peer observations and learning walks so that they can learn from one another and see first-hand how these foundational approaches are being implemented across the school. As Learning Forward Executive Director Stephanie Hirsh has written, “Schools that commit to everyone learning and sharing responsibility for the success of every student spread the effectiveness of teaching from room to room, making sure that every student has access to excellent teaching every day.”   

Finally, Just ASK publications and workshops are excellent resources for studying and implementing the Common Denominators detailed here. Each of the Just ASK books (Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners, Instruction for All Students, Leading the Learning, Creating a Culture for Learning, The 21st Century Mentor’s Handbook, Active Learning and Engagement Strategies, and Why Didn’t I Learn This in College?) contains justifications and applications of the ten featured strategies. Additionally, the Just ASK Resource Center includes more resources including all issues of the e-newsletters Making the Common Core Come Alive! and Just for the ASKing!



Resources and References


Bruner, Jerome. The Process of Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977.

Fisher, Doug and Nancy Frey. Better Learning Through Structured Teaching: A Framework for the Gradual Release of Responsibility, 2nd Edition. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2013.

Hunter, Madeline. Mastery Teaching. El Segundo, CA: TIP Publications, 1982.

Pearson, David and Margaret Gallagher. “The Instruction of Reading Comprehension.” Contemporary Educational Psychology, pp 317-44, July 1983. 

Rowe, Mary Budd. “Wait Time: Slowing Down May Be a Way of Speeding Up!” Journal of Teacher Education. January 1986, pp 43-50. 

____________ “Getting Chemistry Off the Killer Course List.” Journal of Chemical Education. November 1983, pp 954-956. 

Vygotsky, Lev. Mind and Society: The Development of Higher Mental Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.


Instruction for All Students

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “Common Denominators: Ten Essential Practices.” Just for the ASKing! May 2015. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2015 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.