More Talking in Class, Please


Strategies for facilitating small group and whole class conversations with students in grades 3 to 12.


Two young boys smiling and talking with each other in a classroom

Providing consistent, structured time for students to participate in collaborative conversations can improve the overall classroom environment because once the need to sit quietly is replaced with opportunities to discuss course content, the amount of off-topic talking declines. Both small group and whole class discussions can provide these opportunities.


Teachers can facilitate quick small group collaborative conversations during class and provide immediate opportunities for students to verbally process their learning.

Students often benefit from a few moments of quiet before speaking. I call this time Silent Seconds, when students spend around 10 seconds collecting their thoughts before they speak. Once they’ve done so, I remind them that we have a variety of conversation starters to propel the conversation forward, including “I think _____,” “I wonder _____,” and “I was surprised by _____.”

Create class and individual discussion goals, and be sure to give students time to reflect on their success.

I use two guided discussion strategies—idea interchange and revolving discussion—to provide students an opportunity to move around and discuss their ideas with their peers.

Idea interchange: There are multiple variations to this strategy, but all begin with designating enough “idea interchange” locations around the room that kids will be able to break into groups of three to five students each. In each location, post a different question or discussion topic related to the lesson.

In one variation, the teacher assigns students to groups, and the groups move around the room together to discuss each question, jotting down notes individually or as a group as they rotate. The teacher sets a time limit for each idea interchange location depending on the age of the students and the topic. Students can move through all the locations on the same day or over multiple days.

Another way to do this is to assign each group a home location, where they’ll start out. At each station, each group decides on one statement that sums up their ideas about the question, writes it down, and puts it in a folder with the question. Once all groups have circulated to all locations, each group reads the statements left by their classmates at their home station and then creates a synthesis statement to share with the entire class.

You can also use this strategy successfully by creating groups based on interests or pre-assessment data and using the same information to assign appropriate stations for each group to visit.

Revolving discussion: Students form two circles, with one inside the other—the students in the inner circle face a partner in the outer circle. The teacher then poses a question that is open ended and requires critical thinking. Students spend one to three minutes (depending on topic and age) discussing the question with their partner. When the teacher calls time, students rotate so that they are facing a new partner, and they discuss the same question.

At this point, depending on the complexity of the question and the age of the students, students can rotate to another partner and continue discussing the same question or be given a new question to discuss.

This strategy allows students to talk through their ideas, gives them multiple perspectives on the same questions, and allows them to move around the room. The process can take however much time is appropriate for the content.


The most successful class conversations start with an engaging topic, clear procedures regarding how ideas will be exchanged, and sufficient time for students to gain confidence in their knowledge of the topic.

Some points to bear in mind:

  • Silence doesn’t have to immediately be filled with a comment. Students should review the text or other content and craft a response before speaking.
  • Before participating in any type of whole class discussion, students should take time to research the topic, gather facts to support their ideas, and generate their own questions for discussion.
  • Students should have access to the texts and other relevant content and refer to them during the discussion.
  • Students should have a place to jot down questions and new ideas during these discussions.
  • After whole class discussions, students benefit from taking time to reflect on what they have learned.

There are many structured ways to conduct whole class discussions, including seminars, summits, and debates.

Seminar: This discussion is designed to allow students freedom to share ideas and questions with each other by discussing without raising their hands. In practice, when students are learning the strategy it is helpful to begin by having them raise their hands and transition over time to free discussion.

Summit: This discussion is designed to encourage collaboration and problem solving as students generate ideas and come to a consensus. Students are given an open-ended question or problem to solve. They share out ideas and, through critical discussion in a seminar format, decide together which ideas are best supported by evidence and agreed upon by the majority of their classmates. They then come to a consensus to present to the teacher. This strategy works best after students have some experience participating in the seminar format. If more scaffolding is needed, students can practice in smaller groups before working as an entire class.

Debate: This discussion is designed to have students use facts to support their opinions and engage in civil discourse with their peers. Before a debate, students are assigned a side to argue for, and they research both sides and gather facts to support their ideas. A debate can be structured so that students freely share their arguments and counterarguments and then ask questions, or it can be structured as a round robin, in which each member of the class is given two minutes to talk. Alternate between the two sides until everyone in the class has spoken. During their turn, students can choose to bring up their own point or provide a counterargument to the person who went before them.


What We Can Learn from Higher Education: A New Era of Collaboration and Exploration


A study by strategy consultancy EY-Parthenon titled “Strength in Numbers: Strategies for Collaborating in a New Era for Higher Education” recently caught my attention. Many analyses of higher education portray an industry in decline, with a forecast of many institutional closings, but this study suggests a potentially different outcome if higher education institutions adopt a strategy of collaboration. Although not new, this strategy’s day has come, and in my opinion, not just for higher education but for K–12 as well. The study’s authors, however, note that not every institution may be a candidate for collaboration if too many risk factors are currently present; in that case, institutions may need to look at complete transformation if they are to survive. The authors describe those risk factors as:

  • Enrollment under 1,000 students
  • No online programs
  • Annual tuition increases of more than 8 percent
  • Tuition discount rates higher than 35 percent
  • Dependent on tuition for more than 85 percent of revenue
  • Endowment that covers less than 33 percent of expenses
  • Debt payments more than 10 percent of expenses
  • Deficit spending

Trends Driving Demographic and Economic Changes

Let’s take a step back and review the trends that are cause for concern:

  • From now through 2060, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the under 18 population is expected to experience the least amount of change of any population segment, with projected growth from 74 million in 2016 to 80 million in 2060, while during the same time period, the population over 65 is expected to double in size.
  • Young adults who are starting families today are projected to be downwardly mobile compared with previous generations at this time in life, due to rising costs, lesser attainment of wealth producing vehicles such as home ownership, and accumulation of student debt. That debt now stands at $1.48 trillion.
  • Sharp cuts in funding to higher education have driven tuitions up at public colleges and universities, and cuts in subsidies to both public and private higher education have shifted more of the tuition burden to students and their families, resulting in an ever-expanding debt burden for the consumer and more discounting for the institutions.
  • According to a study just released by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, in 2016–2017, the average discount rate for first-time, full-time freshmen reached 48.2 percent. By 2017–2018, it is expected to have reached the highest level recorded since the organization’s tuition discounting study began—49.9 percent. The discount rate for all undergraduates in 2017–2018 is also an expected all-time high, at 44.8 percent.

In response to these trends, Moody’s recently downgraded its rating of higher education from stable to negative, predicting that “the growth of the industry’s expenses will outpace revenue growth for the next 12–18 months, with public universities in particular facing money woes.” Independent schools face many of the same trends as higher education, resulting in enrollment declines and escalating financial aid in many corners of the industry.

There is no question that there is cause for concern as we look to the future, but there is also cause for optimism. There is still very strong support among the American public for quality education at all levels. However, if we are to be successful, K–16, over the long-term, we need to rethink our models.

Segmented Strategies for Collaboration

The EY-Parthenon study concludes that this new era “demands a significant shift in strategy for institutions around the idea of collaboration and the development of much deeper partnerships than higher education has ever seen before.” The authors frame the problem as too many institutions chasing too few students and the strategy as deep collaboration to cut expenses and to enhance the student experience. What most intrigued me about the approach was the division of the higher education market into four buckets, with a different strategy resulting from the market conditions for each segment. Here’s how they divided the higher education market:


Their categorization could easily be applied to the independent school world and the strategies resound as well. I would like to build off the recommendations from the school context.

  1. Strong niche: Schools in this category come from a position of strength, as they have a clear value proposition and a particular niche in the market. However, that may not be enough to keep them solvent in the years ahead. The study authors suggest that this group consider partnerships as an opportunity to further differentiate. For example, a successful single-sex independent school could partner with similar schools, as well as other nonprofits and corporate entities, to create a STEAM focused-school unrivaled in the marketplace. The partnerships could reduce costs and drive much larger fundraising dollars, thus making the school more accessible financially to a larger segment of the market.
  2. Large and thriving: These are also schools that come from a place of strength. The authors suggest that schools in this category should think enhancement. Like schools in group one, they grow stronger from collaboration, offering even greater opportunities for students. Collaborations could allow them to build on their current strengths or fill a gap for which there is a growing market. For example, a few independent schools have experimented with partnering with existing social service agencies to address student needs that they can’t fill within their own institutions. Schools also have partnered with colleges and universities to expand advanced curricular offerings.
  3. Small and at risk: These are perhaps the most vulnerable institutions for which survival is questionable. The authors suggest that these schools can’t cut or tweak their way to survival, rather they have to come up with a totally different strategy. Merger is certainly a potential option for these schools, but also there is the option to partner with one or more schools to come up with something completely different in the marketplace—the blue rather than the red ocean strategy. In the higher education world, think of Western Governors University. It was founded when a group of governors got together to solve this problem: “How can we ensure more of our residents have greater access to a college education that fits their schedule?” Could a group of independent schools collaborate to solve a problem such as a high-quality, affordable independent school within reach of the middle class?
  4. Large and languishing: There is probably a slower march to extinction for schools in this category, but the authors suggest that they need to adopt newer models of efficiency if they are to survive long-term. In the independent school world, schools in this category could think about partnering around infrastructure services such as database, finance, and human resources. Instead of launching new programs, they could partner with online programs or other schools. If they take a systems approach to structuring themselves and breaking down silos, they will no doubt find new efficiencies.

Exploration of New Models Also Needed

In addition to collaboration, I believe we need exploration. If we look at the problems that need to be solved in our society and partner around those, we may come up with novel educational approaches and business models. Consider MissionU, a partnership of academics and businesses trying to solve the problem of students graduating from college laden with student debt, yet finding it difficult to find a job because they do not have the requisite skills. They offer an intensive one-year program that charges no tuition up front, rather the student pays it back once they have achieved a certain earning level. WeWork’s WeGrow, an enterprise that is opening its first elementary school this fall, just purchased MissionU. It also acquired a coding bootcamp and developed a partnership with 2U, which operates online graduate programs. According to WeGrow CEO Rebekah Neumann, its mission will be to unleash every human’s superpowers, as opposed to every child’s. “The purpose of life, in our opinion, is to be a student of life, for life.”

It’s an interesting value proposition and an organization worth watching as we enter this third education revolution of continuous learning.


Donna Orem
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is NAIS President.

The Two Traits of the Best Problem-Solving Teams

Imagine you are a fly on the wall in a corporate training center where a management team of 12 is participating in a session on executing strategy. The team is midway through attempting to solve a new, uncertain, and complex problem. The facilitators look on as at first the exercise follows its usual path. But then activity grinds to a halt — people have no idea what to do. Suddenly, a more junior member of the team raises her hand and exclaims, “I think I know what we should do!” Relieved, the team follows her instructions enthusiastically. There is no doubt she has the answer — but as she directs her colleagues, she makes one mistake and the activity breaks down. Not a word is spoken but the entire group exude disappointment. Her confidence evaporates. Even though she has clearly learnt something important, she does not contribute again. The group gives up.

What happened?

In an earlier article, “Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitively Diverse,” we reported our research findings that teams with high levels of cognitive diversity performed better on these kinds of challenges. In these groups, we observed a blend of different problem-solving behaviors, like collaboration, identifying problems, applying information, maintaining discipline, breaking rules, and inventing new approaches. These techniques combined were more effective than in groups where there were too many rule-breakers, or too many discipline-maintainers, for example.

But in the case of these 12 managers, they did show a cognitively diverse approach. So what happened? We returned to our data to find out. In this team, as well as other under-performing teams, we observed a smaller percentage of the group contributing, longer intervals between testing ideas, and greater repetition of the same mistakes.

The groups that performed well treated mistakes with curiosity and shared responsibility for the outcomes. As a result people could express themselves, their thoughts and ideas without fear of social retribution. The environment they created through their interaction was one of psychological safety.

Psychological safety is the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. It is a dynamic, emergent property of interaction and can be destroyed in an instant with an ill-timed sigh. Without behaviors that create and maintain a level of psychological safety in a group, people do not fully contribute — and when they don’t, the power of cognitive diversity is left unrealized. Furthermore, anxiety rises and defensive behavior prevails.

So the question is, how do you establish and maintain psychological safety with a cognitively diverse group?

The Generative Organization

Over the last 12 months we asked 150 senior executives from different organizations across the world to rate their organizations in terms of cognitive diversity, psychological safety, and the extent to which they consider their organization able to anticipate and respond to challenges and opportunities, i.e. their adaptability. Not surprisingly, adaptability correlated very highly with high levels of both cognitive diversity and psychological safety. We called these organizations “generative,” and labelled the worse-performing organizations oppositional (high diversity, low safety), uniform (low diversity, high safety), and defensive (low in both).

We also asked the same 150 executives to choose five words (from a list of more than 60) that best described the dominant behaviors and emotions in their organization. To identify which behaviors correlated with the best- and worst-performing groups, we matched the chosen words with the levels of reported psychological safety and cognitive diversity. The table below shows the most common behaviors selected by each group:


In the Generative quadrant, we find behaviors associated with learning, experimenting, and confidenceTogether they facilitate high quality interactionInterestingly, “forceful” appears here too, which at a first glance might seem surprising. Exploring this further, participants were identifying the assertive expression and vigorous analysis of ideas. “Forceful” therefore relates to having the confidence to persist in expressing what you think is important. Psychologically safe environments enable this kind of candour without it being perceived as aggressive. Note that we also see more positive emotions in the generative and uniform quadrants.

By contrast, in the other quadrants we find words associated with control and constraint. These behaviors are conspicuously absent from the Generative quadrant. We see more negative emotions as well.

The Behaviors That Count

We choose our behavior. We need to be more curious, inquiring, experimental and nurturing. We need to stop being hierarchical, directive, controlling, and conforming. It is not just the presence of the positive behaviors in the Generative quadrant that count, it is the corresponding absence of the negative behaviors.

For example, hierarchical behavior is cited as one of the top 5 dominant behaviors 40% of the time in the non-generative quadrants. It is only cited 15% of the time as a top behavior in the Generative quadrant. This is not because the organizations in the Generative quadrant have a flatter structure — hierarchy is a fact of organizational life — but because hierarchy does not define their interactions. We see controlling cited 33% of the time as a top behavior in the non-generative quadrants compared with only 10% in the generative quadrant. We see directive cited 24% of the time as top behavior in the non-generative quadrants compared to only 5% in the generative.

When we fail to foster a high quality interaction, we lose out on the benefit of discourse between people who see things differently. The result is a lack of deep understanding, fewer creative options, diminished commitment to act, increased anxiety and resistance, and reduced morale and wellbeing.

A psychologically safe environment ignites cognitive diversity and puts different minds to work on the bumpy and difficult journey of strategy execution.

How people choose to behave determines the quality of interaction and the emergent culture. Leaders need to consider not only how they will act, but as importantly, how they will not act. They need to disturb and disrupt unhelpful patterns of behavior and commit to establishing new routines. To lay the ground for successful execution everyone needs to strengthen and sustain psychological safety through continuous gestures and responses. People cannot express their cognitive difference if it is unsafe to do so. If leaders focus on enhancing the quality of interaction in their teams, business performance and wellbeing will follow.

Alison Reynolds is a member of faculty at the UK’s Ashridge Business School where she works with executive groups in the field of leadership development, strategy execution and organization development. She has previously worked in the public sector and management consulting, and is an advisor to a number of small businesses and charities.

David Lewis is Director of London Business School’s Senior Executive Programme and teaches on strategy execution and leading in uncertainty. He is a consultant and works with global corporations, advising and coaching board teams.  He is co-founder of a research company focusing on developing tools to enhance individual, team and organization performance through better interaction.

Student-Centered Learning in Spotlight at World’s Largest Ed-Tech Show

Associate Editor


What will today’s kindergartners need in order to succeed in the world as the Class of 2030?

“Student-centricity,” according to research conducted by McKinsey & Company on behalf of Microsoft Education, and showcased on the opening day at Bett, the world’s largest educational technology show here.

“That’s a theme we heard loud and clear: focusing on the learner,” said Barbara Holzapfel, the general manager of education marketing for Microsoft, during a presentation about the findings that attracted hundreds of people at a “standing room only” session of the conference.

They want to be supported by teachers who understand their needs, and want to be able to explore for themselves what interests them, she said.

Exhibiting that very trait were three 10-year-olds from Hong Kong, who came to the massive ed-tech show with their teacher Ms. Wong, to show off some of the inventions they built and programmed, including a paper airplane launcher and a tea-making machine that allows their teacher to choose how strong she wants her tea.

Here, the 5th-grade students from a government school explain what their invention does:

The automatic tea maker was a gift for their teacher, who explains their invention:

And the girls explain their favorite part about collaborating on the month-long project to create an automatic tea maker:

But what will all this student-centricity mean for teachers? “Teaching is one of the professions at the least risk of being automated,” said Holzapfel, who said the field is expected to grow exponentially.

The teacher “will morph into a guide and coach for students,” she said. “This is a generation that expects to have voice/choice in their own learning journey…and how they navigate it.”

Jobs of the Future

Lower-skill jobs are likely to continue to be replaced by automation. By 2030, “the fastest-growing occupations will require higher-level cognitive skills in areas such as collaboration, problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity,” the researchers found, according to an announcement about the study. “To help all students build these crucial cognitive and social and emotional skills, educators will need training, technologies, and time.” (See the special report Education Week produced recently on this topic: Schools and the Future of Work.)

McKinsey’s research was based on input from 70 “thought leaders,” an analysis of 150 pieces of relevant research, and surveys of 2,000 teachers and 2,000 students across the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Singapore.

The future of learning, work and life “is going to be profoundly social,” said Holzapfel, so students will need to develop and apply social and emotional skills. In fact, researchers found these “soft skills” to be twice as predictive of academic achievement as home environment and demographics.

Among the students surveyed, 50 percent indicated social-emotional skills were among their top priorities, compared with 30 percent of teachers. But perceptions differ. While only 30 to 40 percent of students feel they are receiving feedback on these skills, between 50 and 60 percent of teachers feel they are providing it.

Personalized Learning: Part of the Solution

Personalized learning is one of the most promising ways to develop social-emotional skills, according to the study. (See the special report Education Week produced recently on this topic: Personalized Learning: Vision vs. Reality.)

“Research in the past has shown that personalized learning improves cognition and skill development,” said Holzapfel.

“Seventy percent of students believe they can achieve higher growth and more content mastery when they are supported by teachers who really understand them as individuals,” and their individual learning needs, she said.

But personalized learning “is in very high demand, but very short supply,” she explained, noting that 70 percent of teachers say time is a barrier to the approach. Teachers and students in the study disagreed on the pace of learning, with educators identifying time constraints and the ability to individualize to so many students as central to the problem.

Microsoft sees technology as key to the solution. “Artificial intelligence, mixed reality, collaborative platforms, and technologies that go way beyond that—all of these technologies can be really powerful tools” to help teachers save time and gain insights into the learning and progress of each individual student, Holzapfel said.

The surprising thing Google learned about its employees — and what it means for today’s students

 December 20, 2017

(Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

The conventional wisdom about 21st century skills holds that students need to master the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — and learn to code as well because that’s where the jobs are. It turns out that is a gross simplification of what students need to know and be able to do, and some proof for that comes from a surprising source: Google.

This post explains what Google learned about its employees, and what that means for students across the country.  It was written by Cathy N. Davidson, founding director of the Futures Initiative and a professor in the doctoral program in English at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and author of the new book, “The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux.” She also serves on the Mozilla Foundation board of directors,  and was appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Council on the Humanities.

By Cathy N. Davidson

All across America, students are anxiously finishing their “What I Want To Be …” college application essays, advised to focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) by pundits and parents who insist that’s the only way to become workforce ready.  But two recent studies of workplace success contradict the conventional wisdom about “hard skills.” Surprisingly, this research comes from the company most identified with the STEM-only approach: Google.

Sergey Brin and Larry Page, both brilliant computer scientists, founded their company on the conviction that only technologists can understand technology. Google originally set its hiring algorithms to sort for computer science students with top grades from elite science universities.

In 2013, Google decided to test its hiring hypothesis by crunching every bit and byte of hiring, firing, and promotion data accumulated since the company’s incorporation in 1998. Project Oxygen shocked everyone by concluding that, among the eight most important qualities of Google’s top employees, STEM expertise comes in dead last. The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.

Those traits sound more like what one gains as an English or theater major than as a programmer. Could it be that top Google employees were succeeding despite their technical training, not because of it?  After bringing in anthropologists and ethnographers to dive even deeper into the data, the company enlarged its previous hiring practices to include humanities majors, artists, and even the MBAs that, initially, Brin and Page viewed with disdain.

Project Aristotle, a study released by Google this past spring, further supports the importance of soft skills even in high-tech environments. Project Aristotle analyzes data on inventive and productive teams. Google takes pride in its A-teams, assembled with top scientists, each with the most specialized knowledge and able to throw down one cutting-edge idea after another. Its data analysis revealed, however, that the company’s most important and productive new ideas come from B-teams comprised of employees who don’t always have to be the smartest people in the room.

Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.

Google’s studies concur with others trying to understand the secret of a great future employee. A recent survey of 260 employers by the nonprofit National Association of Colleges and Employers, which includes both small firms and behemoths like Chevron and IBM, also ranks communication skills in the top three most-sought after qualities by job recruiters. They prize both an ability to communicate with one’s workers and an aptitude for conveying the company’s product and mission outside the organization. Or take billionaire venture capitalist and “Shark Tank” TV personality Mark Cuban: He looks for philosophy majors when he’s investing in sharks most likely to succeed.

STEM skills are vital to the world we live in today, but technology alone, as Steve Jobs famously insisted, is not enough. We desperately need the expertise of those who are educated to the human, cultural, and social as well as the computational.

No student should be prevented from majoring in an area they love based on a false idea of what they need to succeed. Broad learning skills are the key to long-term, satisfying, productive careers. What helps you thrive in a changing world isn’t rocket science. It may just well be social science, and, yes, even the humanities and the arts that contribute to making you not just workforce ready but world ready.

Birmingham Covington: Building a Student-Centered School


Here are some fantastic examples of student-centered learning.  Be sure to watch the videos.


Educators take on the role of guides and motivate students to direct their own learning.

A group of middle school students in full beekeeping gear examines one of the hives their school keeps in the woods nearby. “Ooh, there’s honey!” says one excitedly. “I see nectar!” says another.

These eager fifth and sixth graders from Birmingham Covington, a public magnet school in suburban Michigan focused on science and technology, are empowered to become self-directed learners through hands-on experiences in and outside their classroom.

Birmingham Covington’s student-centered philosophy is embedded throughout the curriculum, from third- and fourth-grade classes focused on teaching individual resourcefulness to an almost wholly independent capstone class in seventh and eighth grade called Thinkering Studio. Teachers at the school often say they’re “teaching kids to teach themselves” and rarely answer questions directly; instead they ask students to consider other sources of information first. Even the classrooms, with their spacious communal tables and movable walls, emphasize fluid group and peer-to-peer dynamics over teacher-led instruction.

By relentlessly focusing the classwork on student interest and independence, the educators at Birmingham Covington hope to transform students into active learners who will be successful throughout their lifetimes.

“When you get kids collaborating together, they become more resourceful and they see themselves as experts,” said Mark Morawski, who’s been the principal since 2013. “All of a sudden you’ve opened the ceiling to what kids are able to do, and they surprise you sometimes.”

Solving Real-World Problems: The Bee Project

Birmingham Covington’s unique bee project, like much of the coursework prioritized at the school, was driven by student interest. After reading an article about the extinction of honeybees in their science literacy class, fifth- and sixth-grade students said they wanted to do something to help.

In the class, which combines inquiry-based science and English language arts (ELA), students build their research, literacy, and collaboration skills through small group projects aimed at effecting lasting change around real-world problems. Working on a range of activities—from building a website to managing a real beehive—students become more active and engaged learners, teachers say.

“Science literacy is teaching our kids to be curious about the world around them, with the problems they identify,” said ELA teacher Pauline Roberts, who co-teaches the class. “Even as students, they are learning how to become effective agents of change. It’s bigger than the science content—it’s about helping to develop the citizens that we hope our children become.”

Teaching Resourcefulness

Throughout Birmingham Covington, both coursework and instruction push students to learn lifelong skills like independence and resourcefulness, which teachers encourage early on in the primary grades.

Third- and fourth-grade teacher Jessie Heckman says she empowers her students to become more resourceful by solving common problems with the support of their classmates. Instead of raising their hands when they have a question or encounter a hurdle, for example, Heckman’s students clip clothespins to their computers and fellow students circulate around to troubleshoot—a system she calls the help desk.

“Kids need to learn teamwork-based skills because every other class in any other subject that they have—third through eighth grade—requires them to work in different sized groups accomplishing different tasks,” Heckman explains.

Modeling Collaboration: Teacher Labs

Students aren’t the only ones at Birmingham Covington improving their collaboration skills—teachers also identify as a “community of learners” who use planned, peer-to-peer feedback to help each other raise student outcomes throughout the school.

The school’s voluntary Teacher Labs—facilitated by an instructional coach and organized around a clear, written protocol—enable teachers to reflect on their craft with support from their peers. Through the labs, small groups of teachers observe each other’s classes and then offer constructive feedback around a stated objective.

“We’re really asking teachers to step outside of their comfort zones,” said Roberts, who serves as the lead facilitator in the labs. “We are creatures who live behind closed doors. To experience being in someone else’s classroom is really powerful.”

Increasing Independence for Older Learners

As they near the end of their time at the school, Birmingham Covington seventh- and eighth-grade students are accustomed to self-reliance and problem-solving. They put these skills to use in Thinkering Studio, an elective class where they design their own independent learning projects, and Engage, a class focused on design thinking—a system of solving problems that follows the steps of inquiry, ideation, prototyping, and testing.

In Engage, teachers Roy McCloud and Mathew Brown guide students to work on various self-directed, team-oriented projects like designing a new sport for third graders or building a roller coaster. Their support and feedback direct students toward the right resources while encouraging them to dig deeper: Did students ask the right questions? Did they get the right information? Did they go to other groups for feedback?

In these culminating classes, as in the curriculum more generally, teachers act as guides rather than instructors, directing students toward helpful resources but ultimately insisting they solve their own problems.

This innovative, student-centered approach to learning—the bedrock of the school’s vision—takes the long view, helping students develop skills and interests they can continue to draw on after they leave the school. The school believes that this model better prepares students for real-world challenges, since modern workplaces are increasingly collaborative and involve complex, interdisciplinary problem solving.

“The ultimate questions we’re going to be asked by future employers is ‘Can this person work well in a team? Does this person have the ability to problem solve and critically think?’” said Morawski. “Because our students are more resourceful, they have more intrinsic motivation in the learning process and ultimately, are learning to be learners.”

Before You Study, Ask For Help

The Wall Street Journal

That’s one of several ways students can better prepare themselves for tests in the new school year


What’s the best way to study for a test?

Many students will plunge into marathon study sessions this fall, rereading textbooks and highlighting their notes late into the night. The more effort the better, right?

Not so, new research shows. Students who excel at both classroom and standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT aren’t necessarily those who study longest. Instead, they study smart—planning ahead, quizzing themselves on the material and actively seeking out help when they don’t understand it.

Carl Wilke, a Tacoma, Wash., father of six children ages 4 to 22, sees the studying challenges that students face almost every school day. He coaches his children to pick out the main points in their notes rather than highlight everything, and to look for headings and words in bold type to find the big ideas in their textbooks.

Several months ago, his 18-year-old daughter Eileen tried to study for an advanced-placement exam. Eileen says she struggled with a practice test and realized that she didn’t know how to study. She asked her mother, Catherine, for help. Ms. Wilke sat with Eileen for two hours while Eileen used an answer guide for the test to explain why her answers were wrong on questions she’d missed, then discuss the correct ones. As they worked together, Eileen says, “I was teaching her while simultaneously teaching myself” the material—a study technique that enabled her to ace the test.


  • Find out what the test will cover and the kinds of questions it will include.
  • Start at least a few days before the test to plan how and when you will study.
  • Identify helpful resources such as practice tests or instructors’ office hours to assist with material you don’t understand.
  • Practice recalling facts and concepts by quizzing yourself.
  • Limit study sessions to 45 minutes to increase your concentration and focus.

High-achieving students take charge of their own learning and ask for help when they’re stuck, according to a 2017 study of 414 college students. Students who performed better sought out extra study aids such as instructional videos on YouTube. Those who asked instructors for help during office hours were more likely to get A’s, but fewer than 1 in 5 students did so, says the study by Elena Bray Speth, an associate professor of biology, and Amanda Sebesta, a doctoral candidate, both at St. Louis University in Missouri.

That activist approach reflects what researchers call self-regulated learning: the capacity to track how well you’re doing in your classes and hold yourself accountable for reaching goals. College professors typically expect students to have mastered these skills by the time they arrive on campus as freshmen.

Many students, however, take a more passive approach to studying by rereading textbooks and highlighting notes—techniques that can give them a false sense of security, says Ned Johnson, founder of Prep Matters, a Bethesda, Md., test-preparation company. After students review the material several times, it starts to look familiar and they conclude, “Oh, I know that,” he says. But they may have only learned to recognize the material rather than storing it in memory, leaving them unable to recall it on a test, Mr. Johnson says.

Top students spend more time in retrieval practice, he says—quizzing themselves or each other, which forces them to recall facts and concepts just as they must do on tests. This leads to deeper learning, often in a shorter amount of time, a pattern researchers call the testing effect.

Students who formed study groups and quizzed each other weekly on material presented in class posted higher grades than those who used other study techniques, says a 2015 study of 144 students. At home, Mr. Johnson suggests making copies of teachers’ study questions and having students try to answer them as if they were taking a test. Taking practice tests for the SAT and the ACT is helpful not only in recalling facts and concepts, but in easing anxiety on testing day, he says.

Retrieval practice often works best when students practice recalling the facts at intervals of a few minutes to several days, research shows.

Studying in general tends to be more productive when it’s done in short segments of 45 minutes or so rather than over several hours, Mr. Johnson says. He sees a takeoff-and-landing effect at work: People tend to exert more energy right after a study session begins, and again when they know it’s about to end.

No one can pace their studying that way if they wait until the night before an exam to start. Students who plan ahead do better.

Students who completed a 15-minute online exercise 7 to 10 days before an exam that prompted them to anticipate what would be on the test, name the resources they’d use to study, and explain how and when they’d use them, had average scores one-third of a letter grade higher on the exam compared with students who didn’t do the exercise, according to a 2017 study of 361 college students led by Patricia Chen, a former Stanford University researcher and assistant professor of psychology at the National University of Singapore. One participant’s plan, for example, called for doing practice problems repeatedly until he no longer needed his notes to solve them—a highly effective strategy.

Many teachers in middle and high school try to teach good study habits, but the lessons often don’t stick unless students are highly motivated to try them—for example, when they’re afraid of getting a bad grade in class, or scoring poorly on high-stakes tests such as the ACT or SAT.

When her daughter Deja was still young, Christina Kirk began to encourage her to identify major concepts in her notes and use retrieval practice when she studied. When as a teenager Deja resisted being quizzed by her mother, Dr. Kirk asked an older cousin to serve as a study partner.

Dr. Kirk also encouraged Deja to invite one or two of her more studious friends to their Oklahoma City home so they could quiz each other. After the girls worked for a while, Dr. Kirk took them to the movies. “You have to give them something positive at the end, because they’re still kids,” she says.

Deja, now 18, still makes use of study groups in her college courses.