The Brain, Pedagogy, and Student Outcomes

Our newsletter this quarter focuses on pedagogy, and I would like to thank Superintendents Leah Christman, and Ann Linson for taking the time to share some of their experiences transforming learning in their districts. Both of their districts participated in our three year Signature District Research Program, during which we followed 17 districts that used our research findings to guide the implementation of 1:1 technology. We had three primary questions that drove the research:

  1. What effect do the Key Implementation Factors (KIFs) have on student outcomes? Our original research identified 9 KIFs, but unfortunately, the sample sizes of the schools that had implemented the KIFs was too small to validate the results through traditional analysis. Therefore, we wanted to find a way to further validate our findings, and better understand the roll the individual KIFs might play in raising student achievement.
  2. Can 1:1 be cost neutral when taking advantage of the cost avoidance and redeployment factors we outline in our financial modeling chapter of the original Project RED report? We based our modeling on the best available information at the time from districts, vendors, and prior research. We found pieces of the model being implemented in a number of districts, but we were not able to identify any districts in the United States that embraced the entire model. We were hoping to glean from our Signature Districts a better understanding of what is feasible when attempting to implement the model in diverse settings.
  3. What new learnings or best practices were revealed during the Signature District Research Program? School districts are complicated systems. We knew that we had many bright, hardworking people in each of our districts, and that collective intelligence is far more powerful than the thinking of our Project RED team alone. Some districts already had burgeoning 1:1 programs. Some had experimented with other innovative education models. The one constant, however, was that every district had a lot more going on than just following our Project RED implementation guidance. We wanted to make sure that we remained open to all of the serendipitous learning that was going on in our districts.

As part of a district’s commitment, key administrators participated in a professional learning community facilitated by a Project RED team member. We were very pleased to hear during the first year that the implementations were going well. There are always challenges to overcome, but the devices were rolled out without any major issues, the infrastructure seemed to be sufficient and reliable, and the kids were using the devices on a regular basis throughout their day. By year 2, however, superintendents began reporting that although the rollout was effective, very few students and teachers were using technology in transformative ways, and that most teachers (especially in MS and HS) were still relying on direct instruction as their primary classroom pedagogy.

One of our Project RED core beliefs is that learning needs to become more student-centered and personalized if students are going to have a chance at fulfilling our dream of doubling student achievement. There are more organizations than you can shake a stick at right now that say they know how to do this, and for a hefty fee will guide you. “Student-centered” and “Personalized” are the catch words of the day. The problem is that most of these programs/strategies are really still teacher driven, and the vendor’s cookie cutter programs fail to address the complexities of the learning process, and the human systems that implement them. The truth is there are different types of learning, and therefore, different pedagogical approaches may be more effective than others in raising student achievement.

I am often guilty of focusing so much on helping educators move toward a more constructivist approach to learning and teaching that educators sometimes think that I expect them to abandon all other pedagogy. The reality is that pedagogy and instructional strategies need to match the intended learning. For example, I wouldn’t spend a month of valuable class time having students explore the concept of multiplication, collaborate on an inquiry project, and present their findings if the learning objective is simply to be able to quickly provide the result of multiplying two small numbers.

I am fortunate that my work provides numerous opportunities to observe, and even experiment with pedagogy in so many districts and classrooms. What I am finding is that effective learning is influenced by several things. There probably isn’t anything readers will find Earth-shattering on my list, but it is shocking how little evidence of these things I see in schools. I don’t have space to go into depth on each one, but here is a list of factors that seem to play the most significant role:

  • The learner’s intrinsic motivation
  • The learner’s engagement, and attentional system
  • The learner’s environment
  • The appropriate level of challenge, and support for each individual learner
  • High quality dynamic content/resources that include systems to provide ongoing feedback to the learner during the learning process
  • Systems of continuous improvement at the classroom, school, and district level that are laser focused on the effectiveness of learning

As some of the districts I work with have embraced these ideas, they began to see a shift toward a more student-centered culture in the schools, as well as improvements in student outcomes. These ideas don’t address pedagogy specifically, but seem to imply the need for pedagogy that is more student-centered and personalized. Knowing that direct instruction is still important, as well as repetitive practice, I started looking for a way to organize different types of learning by its most effective pedagogy. It has lead me to the generalized idea that learning in schools divides into two main categories: concepts and skills. In general terms, then, skill building usually requires direct instruction and repetitive practice, while building conceptual understandings requires more exploration, communication and collaboration.

I used this approach in a middle school 1:1 program I implemented in Michigan several years ago. The teachers developed their curriculum by unpacking the state standards, and identifying the important skills and concepts embedded. These skills and concepts were then structured around interests and research projects that students generated collaboratively at the beginning of the school year. The results were remarkable. We had virtually no discipline issues because every student was engaged in work they personally found meaningful. This approach also had a major impact on student standardized test scores. By the end of the 3rd year, every student was achieving at, or very near the highly proficient level on the state test.

I don’t claim to have all the answers, and I have many dedicated educators to thank for my insights. If I had some silver bullet I wouldn’t need to write this article, and America’s students would be outperforming the rest of the world. What I do know is that almost all educators are facing similar challenges.

In order to practice what we preach, OTO has decided to begin hosting ongoing e-chats around factors that are essential to raising student achievement. The intent is to begin creating professional learning communities of like-minded people that want to face student achievement head-on, and understand the power of learning from each other. We are not looking for people that think they have the answers and just want to share, but rather, people who are willing to contribute their best thinking, to test strategies, and to share their honest results as we take on the serious challenges facing our schools. If you would like more information about participating in our e-chats, send your contact information to, and we will provide you with dates, times and topics as they become available. I look forward to our first discussion.

Michael Gielniak, PhD

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