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Volume X Issue XII

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Ten Trending Topics Impacting Our Practice

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop

Innovations in pedagogy are not new. If we look at trends over time, we find that educators have found new ideas to be frustrating, progressive, confusing, exciting, contradictory, enlightening, perplexing… or all of the above. There are those who view these creations with curiosity and with the potential to advance their thinking and improve their practice. Others see these possible breakthroughs as inhibitors to their comfort level or simply passing fads. Most of us, however, might find ourselves somewhere in between. As professionals, we are generally inquisitive and have open minds about new approaches that might help children improve their learning. We move cautiously to ensure that whatever we choose to implement will be productive and the best use of instructional time. With these thoughts in mind, this issue is devoted to investigating ten trending topics that are garnering attention in periodicals, books, videos, conferences, and classrooms across the country.

Project-Based Learning has been described as a dynamic approach to teaching and learning that allows students to explore real-world challenges or complex questions, and ultimately produce authentic products and presentations to show what they have learned. Students are required to go through a detailed process of inquiry that is more rigorous and personally more meaningful since the students connect to a topic about which they are curious and more passionate. As they tackle a driving question, the students learn key academic content while simultaneously incorporating 21st century skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, and communication into their work. When teachers include this type of thinking in their instructional delivery, it is important to remember that the outcomes for student learning are based on content standards and essential concepts required in the curriculum. Teachers begin by surveying their classes to find out where student interests, talents, and concerns might lie. When students work together with their peers, they answer important questions, use higher order thinking skills, learn how to work as a team, and are able to meet the expectations of the Common Core State Standards. Succinctly put, student passivity is not an option and teachers never hear the question, “When will I need to know this in the real world?”

Blended learning is the introduction of online, technology-driven learning into the traditional classroom structure. The approach combines teachers’ talents along with technology applications that enable teachers to work directly with individual students and small groups while also “harnessing the adaptive power and precision of technology.” Although it takes place in a bricks-and-mortar building, the students alternate between interacting with the teachers and peers and focusing on online content that matches the students’ time, pace, and progress. Because the teacher closely monitors the work of students, they are not “isolated at their keyboards with no social interaction.” Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, and Ian Pumpian suggest certain questions teachers can ask themselves when they use the blended learning approach. Their questions are:

  • What is the purpose of the lesson?
  • How do I model and think aloud as I explain the purpose of the upcoming learning?
  • Is the lesson appropriately challenging for the students as opposed to being too simplistic?
  • Is the lesson standards-based, does it involve student goal setting, and does it promote perseverance?
  • How do I help students match academic language and technology terminology in order to have their work flow more easily?
  • Am I providing appropriate feedback to students as the blended learning progresses?

As the website Education Elements states, “…an average classroom sets a ‘speed limit’ for the class… making it hard for some kids to catch up and holding others from moving ahead when they’re ready. But blended learning revs up students’ learning velocity, allowing them to go further and faster. Who knows how far they’ll go?”

The flipped classroom, the brainchild of Colorado high school teachers Jonathan Bergman and Aaron Sams, uses Internet capability to reverse the typical way students learn new content. When classrooms are “flipped,” instead of having the students complete homework assignments after school hours, students watch videos related to the content they are learning. The online videos and video podcasts, some of which are created by the teacher, take the place of direct instruction or a lecture by the teacher. The prevalence of online videos has exploded in recent years with over 2,400 available on the Khan Academy website alone. Whereas some students may not have access to computers outside of school, a significant number of young people have cell phones from which they can access assigned videos. After viewing the videos outside of the classroom at their own pace and stopping and starting as needed, students then spend classroom time on learning activities that connect to the previously viewed videos. In more traditional classes, students listen to a lecture, take notes and periodically respond to teacher questions. Unfortunately, in some traditional classrooms, many students find themselves in a passive mode since their responsibility is to listen and capture what the teacher is saying in their notebooks or on their handouts. When the classroom is flipped, the learning experience has structure and expected outcomes. In some cases, students work collaboratively while at other times they work alone. Moreover, the teacher has much more personalized contact with individuals and groups, and can provide in-time feedback to students as they work, thus reducing student frustration. In order to familiarize teachers with the flipped classroom model, some school leaders are modeling the process through the flipped faculty meeting approach.

Grit is defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals. It is receiving considerable attention in the field of education as schools tackle the rigor associated with the Common Core State Standards. It has been described as a “new spin on character education” as educators undertake the challenge of teaching the virtues of resilience, conscientiousness, and the desire to achieve. Some writers have characterized today’s students as the “trophy generation” since participation in activities has resulted in a reward whether or not it involved true achievement or tackling obstacles. In order to promote grit, the difficulty is to determine how to change students’ mindsets about their ability to achieve tough goals. One step is to have children develop a complete picture of the task at hand that includes where they are, where they need to go, and how they will get there. As they develop the willpower to press on, the students develop stronger skills that can convince them that they can handle the stress that accompanies resilience. Studies have shown that students will persist when they believe that they are treated fairly and with respect, when they are allowed to demonstrate competency in different ways, and when the entire school environment promotes high expectations for student success.

Visible Learning is based on John Hattie’s meta-analysis of more than 1,000 research reviews including over 50,000 individual studies in the field of education, the largest ever conducted. Hattie’s belief is that our current approach to using achievement data is flawed because simply telling schools that they are failing without offering solutions is not productive. He believes that we should move from “What can we do to improve schools?’ and start saying “How can we improve teaching and learning?” His research findings can help teachers and school leaders determine what practices to abandon because they simply are ineffective. He further addresses the custom of continuing to follow instructional approaches that do not work because we are comfortable with them or because we assume they are effective since they seem to work for a valued colleague. In his work, Hattie identified the variables that impacted student achievement “from family background to teacher training to specific instructional practices.” Among his data-driven findings are that appropriate cues, time on task, peer tutoring, and effective feedback have a large effect on student learning; that class size did not have a significant impact on learning; and that giving students a voice in the classroom and control over their learning with relevant choices can improve achievement

As educator Jessica Roake has written about creativity, “Success in the modern world demands innovation, complex problem solving, and new ways of understanding.” In our struggle to implement a very full curriculum, encouraging creativity may take a back seat, but as Roake furthers states, “Leaders in nearly every profession list creativity as the most valuable asset in their field, but also complain about the lack of creativity in America’s young workforce.” What keeps some educators from promoting creativity is their inability to define it and assess final creative products. Roake writes that Anthony Cody, a science teacher in Oakland, California, sees it this way: “Creative thinking is when, rather than simply following directions, we think for ourselves and come up with new ways to look at problems. It means we are bringing our personal insights and experiences to bear, and actively investigating, rather than just following predetermined steps. It means using ideas or metaphors from other disciplines and thinking about things in new ways.” If students are to be truly creative, they must feel free to explore and take chances with their thinking. As Cody further asserts, “If we start applying high stakes to the level of creativity that students exhibit, we might get students attempting to read our minds about what we are looking for and then imitating whatever they think that is.” Susan Brookhart in How to Assess Higher-Order Thinking Skills in Your Classroom provides a rubric for creativity that does not stifle student imagination. The goal for teachers attempting to promote creative thinking is to assess, not oppress, the ideas and products our students create.

A recent report in George Mason University’s Mason Spirit journal focuses on how that institution is rethinking the collegiate classroom. The report is significant because there are many K-12 educators who are hesitant to change their methodology because they feel it will be detrimental when students face a more traditional educational setting (e.g., the lecture hall) at the college level. As author Buzz McClain reports, “…the fixed-tiered-setting classroom represents a rapidly outmoded method of instruction that is being replaced by more dynamic and effecting teaching methods.” The change is being motivated by the current student body who are accustomed to getting their information in different ways and as GMU provost Peter Stearns notes, “Any sensible teacher modifies things based on the audience.” Stearns continues, “If you can organize classrooms for a greater sense of student participation, reduce if not eliminate reliance on lectures, you’re going to have a more effective and deeper point of learning. “However, as we have all heard, change is a process, not an event. While some professors are embracing the change, others are moving more slowly, just as in K-12 settings. As higher education journalist Anya Kamenetz has surmised, “What’s needed overall is a change in attitude. We’ve been used to teaching one way for a very, very long time in a limited number of ways. Now the name of the game is change, and trying different things, and I think that’s the way it’s going to be for a very long time.” With the ever-evolving job market, the lesson here is that change in pedagogy is an absolute necessity at all levels.

One technological innovation that is receiving considerable attention is Edmodo, a social networking site designed to improve communication between teacher and student. When teachers sign up to use Edmodo, they can put in place a variety of applications to communicate with students including posting assignments, embedding video clips, and setting up an upcoming calendar of events and assignments. Teachers can post readings, request student responses, transmit formative assessments for students to complete, or provide instant feedback on student work as well. Use of Edmodo, which has been deemed the Facebook of schools, is completely secure as each participant has a six-character code in order to access the classroom resource and which is known only by the teacher and their students. Furthermore, parents can also access the website enabling them to keep up with their child’s assignments and grades. Teachers are also able to send important communiqués to parents that help them keep apprised of their student’s academic responsibilities. Edmodo has been described as a way to “flatten classroom walls” and vastly improve teachers’ ability to connect with students in a format that is familiar to millions of young people. Since the popularity of social networking is not likely to wane, Edmodo shows a great deal of promise to improve the ways that students and teachers can communicate.

The use of informational texts has become one of the most written about (and confusing) requirements of the Common Core State Standards. Definitions of informational texts differ but many lists include historical works, opinion articles, scientific writings, speeches, and journals, as well as explanatory and expository texts. It has been noted that elementary students spend a significant amount of reading time on literature with not nearly enough time on non-fiction subjects such as history and science. Dr. Timothy Shanahan of the University of Chicago points out that the shift is important because informational texts include more problem-solution, cause and effect, compare and contrast, and persuasion skills students will need in their educational future and later in occupational endeavors. Further, students gain a greater understanding of how to use a variety of non-fiction tools including bullet points, italics and bold print, graphs, sidebars, and indexes. The Common Core calls for a fifty-fifty balance of fiction and non-fiction at the elementary level and seventy percent informational texts at the middle and high school levels. A common misunderstanding is that English teachers may then only devote thirty percent of readings to poetry, short stories, plays, and novels. Shanahan clarifies that English teachers play an important role in helping students analyze and interpret biographies, speeches, journals, essays, and other literary non-fiction. In their writings, San Diego State professors Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher suggest a number of strategies teachers can follow to help make the transition to informational texts including establishing a purpose for reading, following a close reading process, involving students in collaborative conversations about what they are reading and providing more (even daily) opportunities for students to read.

The Khan Academy has become a worldwide phenomenon with over six million users clicking on tutorial videos each month to better understand a variety of subjects including math, science, world history, art history, and computers. The videos, which are aligned with the Common Core State Standards, are available free of charge and students can access the extensive video library as well as interactive challenges and assessments from any computer that has access to the Internet. The Academy is not without critics who feel that these videos may have reduced mathematical explanations to a series of steps rather than to promote a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts. It must be emphasized, however, that many students may not be able to grasp concepts unless they understand the mathematical process. Sal Khan, the originator of the Academy, and his staff do not see their work as diminishing the role of teachers. As Shanantu Sinha, Khan Academy president, has said, “In our experience, nothing could be further from the truth. The fantastic teachers we have seen implementing Khan Academy are bright, innovative, creative, and they take their classrooms to new heights. Rather their responsibility is increased.” The pluses outweigh the minuses as Khan Academy continues on their journey to make a free world-class education available for anyone anywhere.

What do the ten trending topics above in common? All of them include the six research-based variables that provide a framework for Paula Rutherford’s Instruction for All Students and should be observable in the learning-centered classroom. The variables are:

  • Including varied sources of information including technology
  • Increasing opportunities for students to actively construct meaning
  • Providing growth-producing feedback to students
  • Establishing a safe, nonthreatening yet challenging environment that respects and responds to differences in learners
  • Increasing real-world examples and applications of learning
  • Using a variety of assessment strategies to provide ongoing opportunities for students to demonstrate learning

Here’s your challenge: Select one of the trends with which you are unfamiliar and investigate that topic in more detail to determine if you can integrate it into your planning and instructional delivery in order to improve student learning. To support your efforts, below you will see websites connected to the ten trends that will provide more information and insights about the trends.

Resources and References

Blended Learning

Frey, Nancy, Douglas Fisher, and Ian Pumpian. “Quality in a Blended Learning Classroom.” Principal Leadership. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals, October 2013.

“What is Blended Learning?” Education Elements. Accessed at educationelements.com/our-services/what-is-blended-learning.


Brookhart, Susan. How to Assess Higher-Order Thinking Skills in Your Classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2010.

Roake, Jessica. “The Creativity Imperative.” Education Update (blog). Alexandria, VA: ASCD, October 2013. Accessed at www.ascd.org/publications/newsletters/education-update/oct13/vol55/num10/The-Creativity-Imperative.aspx.

Tresser, Tom. “The Creativity Imperative: Why Creativity is Job #1 for America.” TEDxIIT, 2011. Accessed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=_44mS5Y_bhk.


Edmodo. Accessed at www.edmodo.com.

Flipped Classroom

Bergmann, Jonathan and Aaron Sams. Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2012.

Frayer, Jeremy. “The Flipped Classroom Infographic.” Accessed at www.knewton.com/flipped-classroom.

Khan Academy. Accessed at www.khanacademy.com.

Lopez, Veronica. “Five Game-Winning Plays for Tackling Informational Text.” ASCD Express (blog). Alexandria, VA: ASCD, November 2013. Accessed at www.ascd.org/ascd-express/vol9/903-lopez.aspx.


Barseghian, Tina. “How to Foster Grit, Tenacity, and Perserverance: An Educator’s Guide.” MindShift (blog). Washington, DC: NPR. Accessed at blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/02/how-to-foster-grit-tenacity-and-perseverance-an-educators-guide.

Fink, Jennifer. “True Grit.” Instructor Magazine. New York City, NY: Scholastic Press. Accessed at www.scholastic.com/teachers/article/true-grit-0.

Livio, Mario. Brilliant Blunders. New York City, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2013.

Oliver, Bruce. “Fostering Student Resilience.” Just for the ASKing! June 2011. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.

Informational Texts

Duke, Nell K. “The Case for Informational Text.” Educational Leadership. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, March 2004. Accessed at www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar04/vol61/num06/The-Case-for-Informational-Text.aspx.

Shanahan, Timothy. Shanahan On Literacy (blog). Accessed at www.shanahanonliteracy.com.

Shanahan, Timothy, Douglas Fisher, and Nancy Frey. “The Challenge of Challenging Text.” Educational Leadership. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, March 2012. Accessed at www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar12/vol69/num06/The-Challenge-of-Challenging-Text.aspx.

Khan Academy

Khan Academy. Accessed at www.khanacademy.com.

Sinha, Shantanu. “Reflections from Two Years of Khan Academy in the Classroom.” The Blog (blog). New York City, NY: Huffington Post, September 2012.

Project-Based Learning

“Project-Based Learning.” San Rafael, CA: Edutopia. Accessed at www.edutopia.org/project-based-learning.

Rethinking the Collegiate Classroom

McClain, Buzz. “Rethinking the Classroom.” Mason Spirit. Fairfax, VA: George Mason University, May 2013. Accessed at spirit.gmu.edu/2013/05/rethinking-the-classroom.

Visible Learning

Hattie, John. Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2013.

Hattie, John. “Visible Learning Pt. 1. Disasters and below average methods.” Accessed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=sng4p3Vsu7Y.

Hattie, John. “Visible Learning. Pt 2: effective methods.” Accessed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=3pD1DFTNQf4.

Rutherford, Paula. Instruction for All Students. Alexandria, VA: Just ASK Publications, 2008.


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. “Ten Trending Topics Impacting Our Practice.” Just for the ASKing! December 2013. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2013 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.

Free Top Ten Tips to Ask Myself as I Design Lessons

“These questions can be used to promote thinking about teaching and learning during the planning process, while teaching, and again when reflecting on the impact of the lesson either alone or with a mentor or supervisor.”

Top Ten Questions