November 2017
Volume XIV Issue XI


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The Missing Ingredient

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. He has written more than 150 issues of Just for the ASKing!  He is also a co-author of Creating a Culture for Learning published by Just ASK.


What do the following situations have in common?

  • Making guacamole without avocados
  • Having a dead battery without jumper cables
  • Preparing a soufflé without eggs
  • Connecting to the Internet without Wi-Fi
  • Playing soccer without a goal
  • Participating in an orchestra without sheet music
  • Going trick or treating without a costume
  • Celebrating a birthday without a cake
  • Going on a trip and forgetting your luggage
  • Dining out in a restaurant without a credit card

The simple examples above are quick ways of addressing a topic that may help educators think more deeply about common practices that would be improved with the addition of a missing ingredient, where we might add that something extra that would take us to a new level.

The idea behind this month’s newsletter was inspired by David I. Steinberg, an associate professor of organizational leadership at Hood University in Maryland. Throughout his extensive career in Montgomery County (Maryland) Public Schools, Dr. Steinberg followed the traditional educational axiom: What gets measured gets done. He came to the realization that practitioners needed more than just a platitude to get their jobs done successfully. He writes, “The saying isn’t wrong – merely incomplete. Clearly, focusing on goals and measuring progress toward meeting them is necessary. It’s just not sufficient.” He determined that what was needed was one additional, but absolutely essential, ingredient: on-going support. He concluded, “The saying ought to be: What gets measured and supported gets done.”

During his 16 years working in Montgomery County, Dr. Steinberg saw the introduction of support systems for teachers, principals and other administrators through the introduction of job-embedded support for each group. In a nutshell, MCPS personnel tailored support based on the specific needs at the work site. The support was delivered in the following ways:

  • For new teachers, a consulting teacher provided direct support by observing, modeling, guiding and giving, and providing feedback and resources.
  • As needed, experienced teachers were assigned one-on-one assistance from an experienced mentor.
  • New principals received intensive coaching from seasoned and successful colleagues who spent three years on special assignment to work with new leaders in their “challenging new roles.”

From his work and experiences Dr. Steinberg concluded that the value of the support “depends on whether it is perceived as real support – authentic and job-embedded, – that the teacher, principal, or any participant can see how the support improves practice and that the changed practice produces improved results.” Follow-up surveys in the district concluded that the support was meaningful and helpful and, in some cases, indispensible.

Dr. Steinberg’s experiences led me to think about other educational situations that could benefit from an added component that was missing. The scenarios that follow will further illustrate the concept and provide insights about how educators might improve their practice.

Establishing a Two-Way Street
Most often at the beginning of a new school year, the teacher shares information with her students that typically includes an overview of the curriculum, grading policies, and required materials as well as expectations and classroom rules. Some teachers share interesting personal information about themselves to better connect with their new students. Students sit stoically listening to the teacher share her thoughts about how the year will unfold, but they are rarely asked about their thoughts or expectations for their learning. On occasion, students are asked to fill in an information sheet on which the most important items may be emails and phone numbers so that parents can be easily contacted. This one-sided pattern may continue as the year transpires. But prudent teachers realize that there is something lacking in the above description: student voices. In an Edutopia article, Bellevue, Washington, science teacher Bill Palmer shares his insights about why student voices are so important. He defines student voice as how students give their input into what happens in the classroom. He writes, “Our desire is for students to know that their expertise, opinions, and ideas are valued in all aspects of school life. Student voice permeates all levels of our work together, from students participating in small group classroom conversations, students partnering in curriculum design, or establishing school norms and policy.” When adults listen to children’s ideas they may learn that “students have untapped expertise and knowledge that can bring renewed relevance and authenticity to classrooms and school reform efforts.”

Teachers can also elicit information from students that can help them reach more individuals and better engage them in learning experiences. Leadership coach Elena Aguilar suggests that teachers brainstorm questions that they can ask their students that get inside their students’ heads. Some of her suggestions include:

  • What do you wish was different about school?
  • What do you wish I would ask you so that I can be a good teacher for you?
  • What would be the most useful thing for me to know about you as a student?
  • If you could build a school, what would it look like?

Aguilar concludes, “When we ask questions, and when we’re genuinely curious about what students say, we are communicating an authentic desire to get to know who they are beyond their test scores and beyond what other teachers may share.”

Finally, students voices can find a place of importance in other ways such as:

  • Providing opportunities for students to give feedback at the end of a unit that can help their teachers refine the planning process;
  • Giving students choices as to how they can best demonstrate their learning;
  • Pausing in the middle of a lesson to give students the chance to let their teacher know how the lesson is progressing.

Practicing Makes Perfect
The brainchild of professional learning communities (PLCs) has been in existence for decades and has become a significant ingredient in K-12 education. One of the primary purposes of collaborative teams is for groups of educators to discuss and share ideas to improve teaching and learning. In addition, participants analyze student performance data to establish improvement goals and measures of success. While the practice of cooperative groups sharing ideas has great potential for success, there may be possible roadblocks including procrastination, modification of personal beliefs, or general resistance to the change process. It can be tricky.

To derive the best benefits from collaborative teams, advancement will only be made when the ideas discussed during meetings become visible practices in the classroom. Thus, the missing ingredient is deliberate transfer of theory into practice. Educational consultant Michael Wasta and his colleagues have spent significant time observing teams in action. They have noted that data discussions are lively, ideas are liberally shared, goals are established, but how individuals will reach those goals is lacking. In his article, “PLCs on Steroids: Moving Teacher Practice to the Center of Data Teams,” he suggests that teams move beyond “vaguely defined strategies,” to determine in precise language what constitutes an exemplary, researched-based teaching practice. In order for the ideas to successfully transfer into classroom practices, Wasta’s suggests the following ideas:

  • Teams observe the most proficient teachers modeling a specific strategy in the classroom;
  • Individual team members present “mock lessons” at team meetings;
  • Team members view video examples of exemplary implementation of successful practices;
  • Outside experts shed light on best practices at team meetings;
  • Teachers record lessons and team members review lessons together.

As Wasta has concluded, “In effect, teachers are designing and implementing their own professional development, focusing on an issue that they have identified as important to them. Over time, they will monitor both data streams – the change in their practices and the change in student performance – and these sources of information will guide the direction of their work.” Once teams transfer conversations to observable implementations there may be no limitations to their success.

Putting Students in the Driver’s Seat
When class begins, there is a flurry of activity as students file in. Some students have their materials while others have not come prepared. Student conversations center around pop culture, a hallway incident, personal relationships, or school drudgery. Other students check their cell phones for text messages, instagrams, or tweets. When the signal sounds for class to begin, the teacher has some difficulty getting student attention. Once class begins, the focus is primarily on the teacher who delivers content to the students, some of whom are only partially engaged, while some are completely disconnected. Students basically play a passive role; everyone is expected to learn in a lock step manner and the teacher establishes procedures which all students are expected to follow.

The other side of the coin is the teachers who have established a classroom climate in which the expectations from the get-go are that students focus on their own learning the moment they enter the room. The goals are posted, and students instantly know what the learning parameters are and what their responsibilities are. As the lesson unfolds, students take an active role in setting personal goals, they demonstrate their learning in different ways, and they support their fellow students in group work. This type of behavior has been dubbed student agency.

According to the Renaissance educational website, student agency “reflects learning through activities that are meaningful and relevant to learners, driven by their interests, and often initiated with proper guidance from teachers. To put it simply, student agency gives students voice, and often choice, in how they learn.” All students are expected to demonstrate mastery. As one educator has noted, “If students know what their goal is and trust their teacher is going to allow them to move through their chosen path to the goals while providing expert feedback, students are more interested in their own growth.” In no way does the application of student agency mean that the classroom is a free-for-all for students; the expertise of the teacher is a vital and necessary component.

Ultimately we want our students to take responsibility for their own learning, to self-assess their progress along the way, to make self-directed choices that lead to an ultimate goal. Classrooms without student agency may be missing the boat since they will not be teaching students invaluable lessons that they will need in their future endeavors. The act of moving the students from passive to active participation will give students important ownership of the results.

Working with Parents As Partners
“This is boring” are words that a teacher dreads hearing after spending valuable time planning meaningful and engaging lessons. Equally frustrating is when a teacher looks out on a sea of faces whose expressions indicate that they are disengaged or emotionally withdrawn. This is a very disheartening reality for teachers who face this challenge.

Occupational therapist Victoria Prooday has noted, “I have seen and continue to see a decline in kids’ social, emotional, and academic functioning, as well as a sharp increase in learning disabilities and other diagnoses.” Prooday refers to the current situation impacting children as a “silent tragedy.” Based on her extensive career in education, she presents a possible explanation as to why some children tend to be “emotionally unavailable for learning.” In her work, Prooday has determined that how children function outside the classroom may be the cause of their emotional detachment when they are in school. The missing ingredient that may help teachers rectify the issue is parental involvement. They can help parents understand how they can work with their child outside of school to reduce or eliminate the problem.

Prooday has found that there are certain ways that parents work with their children outside of school that may be problematic. She refers to children’s use of modern technology as a “free babysitting service” since so many young people spend an excessive amount of time using a variety of devices. Prooday writes, “After hours of virtual reality, processing information in a classroom becomes increasingly challenging for our kids because their brains are getting used to high levels of stimulation that video games provide.” In addition, she has found that delayed gratification is a key factor in a child’s future success. Some youngster’s brains have been accustomed to getting what they want when they want it, an unfortunate and unrealistic expectation when children are at school. Some parents feel that one of their roles is to keep their children stimulated with multiple activities. Prooday says, “There are no dull moments. They have created an artificial world for their children. It is important to train the brain to work and function in times of boredom because the real world is not a place filled with endless fun.” Finally, when young people spend an inordinate amount of time indoors, there is limited social interaction. Technology has taken the place of outdoor time with peers in unstructured environments where they learn important social skills such as cooperation and compromise.

Prooday provides information for teachers that they can share with parents that may help their children realize greater success in school and deal with “boredom” when it occurs. Her thoughts are below:

  • Decrease technology use; increase emotional, personal connections;
  • Practice delayed gratification by explaining that it is an important life skill to understand as they grow older;
  • Set limits on schedules, improve nutrition, and have children take a more active part in doing things they may not like in their home life;
  • Teach children social skills such as sharing, compromise, and winning/losing.

As Prooday has concluded from her work, “Children change the moment parents change their perspective on parenting.” When teachers experience any or all of the scenarios above, Vooday’s suggestions can provide a valuable game changing opportunity to diplomatically involve parents to address the issues.

Providing Essential Learning
Earlier this year New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman alerted educators about the important role they can play in the lives of their students. He wrote, “Work on a new social compact has to start with every school teaching children digital civics. And that has to begin with teaching them that the Internet is an open sewer of untreated, unfiltered information, where they need to bring skepticism and critical thinking to everything they read and basic civic decency to everything they write.” It is a reality that many of us (students and teachers) spend a significant amount of time online. How we negotiate cyberspace can impact our lives personally, politically, and commercially. Studies have determined that young people have great difficulty determining the validity of information they see on the Internet. To address the issue, Dahli Bazzaz, a reporter for The Seattle Times wrote a column entitled “News You Can Use: Infographic Walks You Through 10 Questions to Detect Fake News.” Among the questions individuals should consider are:

  • Does the story provoke a strong emotional reaction? Do you want it to be true?
  • Does the article claim to have secret information that you can’t find elsewhere?
  • Does the article cite a variety of sources, including officials and experts?
  • Is the article’s source well known? Is there an author byline and a current date?
  • Has the article been flagged by fact-checking sites like

Our students may do very well as they master the content and skills in the standards we teach. But something as important as digital civics may transcend our required curriculum because it is an ingredient we cannot afford to neglect.

Increasing Student Memory
All teachers have an abundance of content they must address during the school year. Many follow a pacing guide in order to give proper attention to the standards they are expected to address. Despite all their best efforts, there is a nemesis hovering over the classroom that teachers may not take the time to combat. It is called persistent forgetting.

Research has pointed out that forgetting content can happen very quickly after it has been taught. In the effort to “fit in everything,” teachers may move quickly to the next lesson or unit never stopping to address the forgetting that has taken place. Never fear, Edutopia writer Youki Terada has come to the rescue to address the forgetting issue that may have been overlooked. He writes, “… new research in the field of neuroscience is starting to shed light on the ways that brains are wired to forget – highlighting the importance of strategies to retain knowledge and make learning stick.” In order to combat forgetting, teachers can reinforce new learning by continually connecting it to prior knowledge. Because memories in the brain are “like spider webs, strands of recollection distributed across millions of connected neurons,” the more connections a teacher can make to memories in the brain the more likely students will retain information. Terada also recommends specific strategies that can address forgetting:

  • Provide visual aids along with textual information such as artwork, graphic displays, or photographs.
  • Give students the chance to talk to peers about their learning. This practice can help to reactivate or strengthen past memories.
  • Review content regularly throughout the year to reactivate memories. How about mimicking Facebooks’s Throwback Thursday?
  • Help students retrieve remembered materials in low-stakes, less stressful assessments that can replace a high-stakes test.
  • Math teacher Randy Adams uses spiraling to periodically review missed items from previous tests.
  • Mix different skills together in a single assessment so that students can encode their learning more deeply.

Sharing One Man’s Story
On a personal note, a young man whom I know has established a successful carpet cleaning business. I often call on John to bring his “magic” to our home. Typically, we engage in conversations while he works. On a recent visit, I asked him if there was any special memory from his years in school. Although he said that he was not a particularly strong student, he said that one high school teacher had a huge influence on him. She began one of her classes by talking about the importance of positive thinking. Although he had momentary doubts, his teacher continued to emphasize positivity regularly. She often had her students write about or talk about what they had learned in the day’s lesson that was a true enlightenment for the class. She reinforced good study skills and explained to her students exactly and precisely how to prepare for an upcoming test. When a grade improved, students completed a reflective piece of writing in which they wrote about what they attributed to their success. John said that his teacher’s emphasis on thinking positively has stuck with him through his adult life and his work in establishing his business. For John, it was the missing ingredient that made his life as a student more fulfilling.

This newsletter has addressed eight situations that have a missing ingredient that can have the potential to be a significant influence on teacher practice and student learning. As you contemplate your own individual experience, you may conjure up an ingredient or two that may support your professional efforts and increase your overall effectiveness.



Resources and References


Bazzaz, Dahlia. “News You Can Use: Infographic Walks You Through 10 Questions to Detect Fake News.” The Seattle Times, January 30, 2017.

Friedman, Thomas. “Cyberspace is a Universe That Lacks Laws, Cops.” The New York Times, January 12, 2017.

Palmer, Bill. “Including Student Voice.”Edutopia, March 2013.

Prooday, Victoria. “The Silent Tragedy Affecting Today’s Children.” Your OT (Occupational Therapist), May 24, 2017.

Renaissance EdWords, “Student Agency.”

Steinberg, David. “Support for Educators Leads to Learning Gains for Students.” The Learning Professional, August 2017.

Terada Youki. “Why Students Forget – and What You Can Do About It.” Edutopia, September 20, 2017.

Wasta, Michael. “PLCs on Steroids: Moving Teacher Practice to the Center of Data Teams.” Phi Delta Kappan, February 2017.





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. “The Misssing Ingredient.” Just for the ASKing! November 2017. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development. © 2017. All rights reserved. Available at