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The Learning Classroom: Theory Into Practice

Pulling It All Together: Creating Classrooms and Schools That Support Learning

This program discusses how schools can organize for powerful learning through a coherent, connected approach to teaching and learning that is reinforced and supported by structural features. This session features the staff and students of two schools: a public school in Michigan serving grades three through eight and a first-year charter school in California. Host Linda Darling-Hammond provides expert commentary.

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Linda Darling-Hammond: Today’s knowledge-based economy requires more education of everyone, and as a result, the demands on schools are increasing.

Today’s schools are being asked to do something they were never before expected to do.

That is, to educate all students – and to do so for the most diverse student population in our nation’s history.

If schools are to ensure high levels of learning for students who come with very different experiences, different language backgrounds, and family circumstances, they’ll need to do much more than just “cover the curriculum,” they’ll need to organize themselves to support learning in every aspect of what they do.

That’s a huge challenge! And, that’s our challenge for this, our final session of The Learning Classroom.

Some schools have been able to achieve extraordinary results by designing themselves around how students learn.

They’re able to help all of their students master challenging content and high-level skills by organizing teaching so that they come to know their students well, they teach them in developmentally appropriate ways, and they support their social, emotional, and academic growth.

These learning-centered schools connect to students’ families and incorporate their cultures into the curriculum.

They organize the curriculum around the core ideas in the disciplines, and then they carefully scaffold students’ learning on authentic tasks.

Students’ work resembles the work that real writers, scientists, mathematicians, and historians do, and it is produced with continual feedback, reflection, and revision to meet standards of quality.

Extraordinarily successful schools draw upon students’ different intelligences to help them find and use their strengths.

Ultimately, they succeed even with students who have previously had difficulty, because they meet students where they are, and they give them the tools to grow.

Today, we’ll visit two schools that have organized themselves to focus on all of these aspects of learning, working as a team of staff, students, and parents to ensure that every classroom is a learning classroom.

The first of these schools is Birmingham Covington School in Michigan. Seven years ago, BCS restructured itself and became a school of choice serving third through eighth graders. Teachers, administrators, and parents applied learning theory across the entire curriculum to ensure both a rigorous academic challenge and stability throughout the middle school years.

Students learn in an interactive atmosphere, where they integrate and apply their knowledge. Through interdisciplinary projects, they demonstrate their understanding of skills and concepts. And students apply technology in performance-based assessments as they link their classroom learning to the outside world.

George Mixon: BCS is a pretty unique school. And the energy level here, the technology that they use here, the resources that the kids are able to access allows them for them for great opportunity to succeed in the classrooms.

Russ Facione: It just goes to the core belief – every student has their own unique intrinsic value and intrinsic worth, and that needs to be celebrated. And if you do your best to, you know, just foster that, you’re gonna end up having a culture like we have, where it’s cool to be involved, it’s cool to care about your community, it’s cool to be smart. It’s cool to be athletic, too, but it’s cool to be all those things. Whatever you want to do, that’s what is cool to do.

Dale Truding: We have third and fourth graders together who stay with the same teacher for two years, fifth and sixth graders are together for two years and seventh and eighth graders are together for two years. The classes are multi-age and they stay with the same team of teachers.

So we took a look at developmentally appropriate themes and in 3-4 we look at systems and patterns; in 5-6 we look at interdependence and independence; and in 7-8 we look at individuality and diversity. And if you kind of look at that continuum, that’s the way kids progress and that’s the way they’re thinking comes to get to that big picture.

George Mixon: Would you rather run into a nice concrete wall or some sand filled barrels?  If, if you’re in a car?

Karen Fitzgerald: I mean, by the time you get em that second year around,

I mean even in the first year also, but you know everything. You know their siblings. You know their, their personalities. You know, you just know everything.

Mike Gorski: You know what strengthens a child, what, um, multiple intelligences work with the child, what learning styles work with the child.   You can view the child as a work in progress. That, after they finish with you, that they’re gonna learn things from other teachers and the goal is by the time they end from 8th grade, they’ll have all those skills having been developed through 3rd through 8th grade.

This morning what we did is, uh, we were reading a book by Paul Fleischmann – Bull Run. And in order to get the kids into it, um, I though it’d be neat,  to have the kids focus on their research on that character and actually act out that character. And the nice part about it was, um, I gave the kids a, a rubric that was really differentiated for them to go as far as they wanted to with it.

(classroom scene)
Girl: Hey Adams, you don’t belong here, America’s for whites.
Other Girl: As strong as they are, why would anyone say that? They don’t even know my personality, only my name and color. I tried entering the army once, but didn’t get in.
 Did you feel uncomfortable being one of the few African American soldiers?
Girl: Yeah, I did because um, everybody looked at me as in a different light than everybody else.
Karen: How did the characters’ feelings and attitudes change before, during, and after the battle?  Some of this is going to be a little inferenceing because we have not yet finished the novel, so you might have to kind of predict as the battle carries out throughout the book.

Karen Fitzgerald: Again, we are reading Bull Run and today what I did is I asked questions that related to the novel and both the curriculum that we’re doing which is the civil war for social studies and they were able to kind of interweave the novel with prior knowledge of the civil war. And from there, they had a discussion.

(classroom scene)
Once they started fighting they think it’s all going to be like really quick and easy, but once they got out there and started to see like what’s really going to happen. I think they started to like, ‘Uh oh, it’s really war, it’s going to be really bloody and everything, what do we do?’

Dale Truding: We design our units based upon, um, standards and outcomes that we’re responsible to teach to kids.

(classroom scene)
Teacher: Bottle Rocket unit, what we’re gonna try to do in this unit is apply Newton’s laws to design a building and launching bottle rockets. Okay, let’s get to work.

Dale Truding: We ask meaningful questions that when they’re finished at the end of a unit, they’re able to answer. What is a system?  How does it relate to the world?  Where do you fall into the scheme of things in terms of independence and interdependence?  And we try to weave in all the content areas:  language arts, social studies, math, and science. And at the end, kids answer the questions, um, based on some kind of authentic assessment and that’s how our curriculum is designed.

(classroom scene)
Teacher: We’re going to use trigonometry to calculate the height the rockets achieve. PSI is the pounds per square inch. So we’re going to start off with fifty PSI. 500 milliliters of water. Altitude we have to measure.

Dale Truding: How do you research a topic beginning in the third grade and building upon that through the eighth grade?  So instead of an enrichment specialist and a reading specialist, we looked at somebody to help our teachers design curriculum and then we also looked at somebody who could, um, help with the product and performance in the area of educational technology and engineering technology.

(classroom scene)
Teacher: Today, what we’re going to focus on is we’re going to focus on the skeletal system. And you guys are going to go on a web quest, okay. So you’re going to go on the web and you’re going to go and look at cites that we found for you about the skeletal system.

Dale Truding: Every adult in this building is constantly learning. One of the keys to success is collaboration that happens with teachers. And we have designed our schedules so that our teachers have 200 minutes of team planning time a week. They probably use 400 to 600  minutes.

(classroom scene)
Dale: You said something really interesting that you guys did it in the middle-

Karen Fitzgerald: In a way we’re like a family here, I mean I don’t look, I don’t sit in my room like it’s my room and it’s my kids. I don’t shut my door. I, I go to people all the time. I’m running across the hall or someone’s coming to me and we, and we talk about something that maybe didn’t go right and how can we,  We’re, we’re constantly communicating.

Elizabeth Cook: The kids are seeing this modeling of what it takes to be a team. And I think that that shows up in their group work, and I think all of that will then transpire into how does, how do you live your life out there trying to solve these problems, just like how we’re trying to solve our problems daily.

Karen Fitzgerald: Well, I think that seques with our unit. I mean we teach interdependance and independence and those are two themes for the two year loop.

Dale Truding: We really tried  to create a culture that empowered kids, give then voice not only in what they were learning,  but a voice in the whole community. Kids understand in this building that not only do they have a voice in their curriculum, but they also have a voice in the running of the school. The older kids are mentoring the younger kids.

(classroom scene)
Stephanie: I am Stephanie Calwell. Today’s lunch is chicken and cheese quesadillas, fries or veggie sticks and dip, jello, and as always low fat milk.

Dale Truding: We have the advantage in a three-eight school that we create a mentorship program after school where some of our older students work with our younger students. And you can always hook those two or three high school kids to come back and say, “Hey, remember when you were in third-fourth grade and you had organizational problems?  Look at you now. You have so much to be able to offer to, um, John or whomever, and, and help them that way.”

Our parents are part of the grass roots that make decisions that’s going….that are going to benefit their children’s education.

Russ Facione: They are very celebrated in the, in the efforts that they do for this building, from fundraising to going in and helping out in the office, to getting ice for kids at lunch when they bump their heads.

Dale Truding: That partnership between parent-student-teacher happens with our, um, parent-teacher-student structure. And it also happens each year where the teacher, the parent and the child sit down and they do goal setting. What are those academic goals?  What are those goals in the social, emotional area that children and their parents decide that they’re going to work toward.

(classroom scene)
Boy: This is my first page of my hyperstudio, in my presentation. This is what we did last unit, it’s adding fractions.

Dale Truding: Actually what we’re doing right now is, with those student-led conferences. We’re doing them in the form of electronic portfolios so that, um, we’ll be able to burn all of their goals onto a CD so that by the end of the six years kids will really be able to look at their progress in all academic and social emotional areas and be able to see what they were able to produce, to see if they’ve really met those exiting outcomes that we expect all kids to have when they leave.

We have children in our building who have significant learning disabilities. We have children who are autistic. We have children who have attention issues. And you look at each child as an individual. You set the goals. You have those teachers work collaboratively. We don’t have a pull out program. Everybody is included in the classroom. And when you create curriculum that you’re able to differentiate, you keep the same high expectations for all kids, it’s just how they get there is different.

(classroom scene)
Teacher: Very nice.

Mike Gorski: The learning is so student centered, what we’re trying to do is equip them with the tools to help them with their own learning. It’s not where the teacher’s up there dictating what’s going on. We’re trying to equip them with those tools to help them after they leave our classroom, after they leave here to have those research tools to just explore the world and just become lifelong learners.

(classroom scene)
Girl: Is that really fair? Freeze.
Mike: Excellent job.

Dale Truding: It really doesn’t cost more money. The investment is in time, the investment is in finding a group of  professionals and a parent community who can wrap their arms around a vision; a clear vision that’s shared with, by everybody who’s a stake holder in the community. To take that vision and put it into action.

And when you use authentic assessment and when you give kids choices in the products or performances that they create, you’re really able to take kids from where they are, make accommodations and move them forward.

(classroom scene)
Students: Three, two, one.
Teacher: Woa! Heads up! <laughter>

Linda Darling-Hammond: East Palo Alto High School is a brand new school founded in a community that has not had its own high school for 25 years.

After desegregation, students were sent to neighboring districts from which only one-third managed to graduate. This year EPA High School opened with eighty ninth grade students. And it will ultimately serve about 300 in ninth through twelfth grade.

As at BCS, faculty teams work closely with small groups of students whom they teach for two years. Here, too, the curriculum is project-based and is guided by learning standards and portfolio assessments.

Faculty collectively discuss students’ learning goals, instructional activities, and performance assessments, and they provide additional supports to ensure that every student can meet the standards.

During this first year, student achievement has already increased – from only 30% of students reading at grade level in September, to over 70% reading at or above grade level in May. And students are already earning prizes throughout the region for their essays, technology inventions, and artwork.

Jeff Gilbert: If this school didn’t exist, then these students would be bussed into other communities to go to high school, and the communities they go into are very different than the community they have here. And so one of the goals of the school is to try to create a place where they have a sense of ownership and that they believe that this is their place, and that they can construct what’s happening here.

(classroom scene)
Male Student: Students are very involved in determining where they want to go academically. You know, any students can say, “I just don’t want to do this,” but it takes a strong student to say, “Yes, I’m gonna do this. And I’m gonna do it best, at the best of my abilities.”

Seth Leslie: The number one responsibility that I have as a teacher is to get to know these kids well. But I need to understand who they are, where they’re coming from, what kind of issues they bring to school.

Nicky Ramos-Beban: It was real important for us as a school to ask ourselves the question, what are we teaching, but more importantly to ask ourselves the question what do we want our students to know and be able to do, so that’s where we actually started. The curriculum grows out of that.

William Dean: We had to step back and look at our curriculum in terms of how we designed it, and was it working for these kids in terms of how they learned.

(classroom scene)
William: How does one make sure to keep hope alive in spite of the odds in life?

William Dean: For example, we discovered very quickly that they were not being successful in large groups. So then we had to go back and take things much slower.

Jeff Gilbert: We don’t just say, “Oh they’re not good at this, therefore it’s not important they do it.” We still have them work in groups of four. But we do it very carefully to introduce it to them, so that they can, so it works. But how do you get them from where they’re at to where they need to be? Sometimes you have to adjust your techniques in order to get them.

(classroom scene)
Jeff: So, what we want you to do is to actually have each, you talk to each other and take notes on each other, and try to figure out, you try to figure out when she went through something and where she felt that um, loss. And then you interview each other and write down an experience that each one of you had that was similar to what Estaban had.

Jeff Gilbert: We know that we have to teach certain things, that, you know, we are preparing them for college – that they need to be able to write well. We need to be able to get into text, and break it down, and do close readings. And, and we do those things. But we have to start where they’re at.

(classroom scene)
Girl: We have to relate it to school, family, and friends right?
Jeff: Yeah, exactly.

Seth Leslie: Providing kind of a good mix of group work and individual work, having kids together and collaborate, having kids work individually in showing us what each individual can produce as a student. If you do too much of one or the other, then you know you lose the benefit of kids talking to each other or you lose the evidence of individual production, so it’s really important to have both of those.

(classroom scene)
Seth: Okay, let’s start from the beginning. You guys said that she met Dina at 14 meters, right?  Okay, so here’s the start, and here’s the end. Dina went 14 meters, right? Towards the end of the line. Mrs. Beatty started here, walked for 11 seconds and hit Dina, okay, which is also 11 meters. So what’s this total distance?  This is 14, this is 11…
 OH! Twenty-five.
Seth: Alright, so how long is the race?
Girl: Twenty-five meters.
Seth: Yes.

Kelly Wilson: Metacognition is definitely very important in the classroom. Students need to be thinking about what they’re thinking, and it’s also important that the teacher is explicit about what they are thinking. So in the beginning of the year I did a lot of modeling and explaining why I was doing things in the classroom and then giving them the opportunity to step back and start – think about how they’re attacking a problem or solving a problem.

(classroom scene)
Kelly: Okay, so if you increase the length of the pipe, then the cup will move up. You thought is – was going to be a greater distance, why did you think that?
 Because it has more time to accelerate.
Kelly: So I think that’s a pretty good guess at why that’s happening. Good. Okay. You need to test at least one of these hypotheses. So you’re gonna have to talk with your group and pick one that you’re really interested in figuring out.

(new classroom scene)
What about, like, in the word cat. What sound is the “c” making?
 A “ka” sound.
Simone: Right, ah huh, a K sound, right.

Simone Miller: I am a reading specialist, which means that I pull kids one on one and I work on skills like comprehension, and decoding, and really just trying to help them with their self-esteem in literacy.

I really had to think about their lives and what was interesting, and instead of just kind of going through catalogs and ordering the teenage books that people were recommending, like the great books for teenagers, the American Literature List for Teenagers, I had to think, “No, Brandon likes wrestling, and he wants to read all the wrestling autobiographies. And if he was gonna read, and he’s interested in reading, then that’s what we’re gonna read.”

So I did a lot of scaffolding with him. A lot of reading to him and a lot of reading, um, having him read a few lines and then I would read a few lines.

(classroom scene)
Simone: So if that was a “ka”, what would that word be?
Boy: Caramel, or…
Simone: Uh hmm.

Simone Miller: So there’s a lot of support that has to go on, too. Just because kids can’t read at a high level doesn’t mean they’re not intellectually aware at a high level.

Rebecca Padnos Altimarano: You really have to make your lesson so that it’s something that will be important to these kids. Like, why should you care? And before I teach a lesson I need to be able to answer…why am I teaching this? Why is it important that they know what they know. And I always try to encourage students to ask me why we’re doing things.

Adrian Kirk: We have five habits, and that’s what we call them – personal responsibility, social responsibility, the application of knowledge, critical and creative thinking, and communication. And so we took that stuff and brought it into a grading rubric for school. Those are the things we think a student needs to have and to be able to demonstrate in all aspects of a student’s life in order to succeed.

Nicky Ramon-Beban: We offer physics, integrated math, and humanities for the freshmen. So, we decided to offer physics because it was hands-on and high status for freshmen. Integrated math we decided on because we liked the ability of students to go deeper on concepts and to spiral the, their knowledge through the years. We also do humanities freshman year, which is social studies and English combined. In this area, most schools don’t offer social studies to freshmen. We think it’s important that students get basic concepts of psychology, sociology, and history, and so that’s why we offer it freshmen year combined with English. Those are our core classes.

Rebecca Padnos Altimarano: So in order to prepare them for college and for the workplace beyond that, they really need to be personally responsible, they need to be able to show up on time, they need to be able to get their work done, they need to get it done at a high level, they need to be able to set goals. They need to be able to work with people, they need to be able to try to collaborate democratically, and try to create positive change. These are things that are all really important all of the – in order to be a successful human being. And that’s what we’re trying to do at our school is to create whole people.

(classroom scene)
Female Student: At this school they’re trying to teach us to be leaders, so at mosaic class, we try to figure out what the school wants and what the school needs.
 Who wants to lead the conversation about planning a dance?

Rebecca Padnos Altimarano: We’re effective because we’re able to really focus in on those needs that the students have. Every student has an advisor. My advisees, I have nine. I know them all very well. I know their parents. I know about their brothers and sisters. I know all of these things, and so I’m able to tune my lessons in so that they’ll meet those needs, and I can also talk to the other teachers and say, “Well, this student needs this, or please let me know about this and how can I help here.”

Nicky Ramos-Beban: Right now we are doing our round of PLP conferences which are student led personal learning plan conferences. The students present their learning plan for this year and for the next year’s at our school. And this is student led conference so we’re teaching them how to talk to their parents about their learning.

(classroom scene)
Student: <Girl asking her father a question in Spanish.> [translation: I told him I wasn’t really having problems in class]
<Responding in Spanish> [translation: Instead of worrying about others and their problems, you should focus on your own.]

Nicky Ramos-Beban: So the parents come in for two reasons, one, to really evaluate the students’ learning and keep on top of it. They also come in to teach us about their student, so if I want to know something about a student’s learning, I can call a parent and say, “Hey, what do you notice about the student when the student is in this environment or when the student is doing this.” And that’s a real source, a rich source of information for us.

So, it feeds the loop of continuous thought about, about education.

Seth Leslie: Not every kid has a computer at home, and not every kid has parents who have time to help them with their homework or even the ability to help them with their homework, but certainly most of them, the vast majority of them have parents who want to help them and want to see them succeed.

Adrian Kirk: All of our students are involved in a community service program that is part of school. We want to branch off into internships that would be identified for the individual and help that individual student further his or her own goals.

(classroom scene)
Brandon: Okay, say this one more time, I want you to know this one.
Boy: Dog.

Adrian Kirk: And so we expect to see the real development of this community of learners who take responsibility for their own learning. We’re gonna see kids graduate, move on to college and be independent learners with lots of very rich experience.

Nicky Ramos-Beban: We watch and observe in the classroom. So we look at how students learn, then we come back to the table, and we talk about it as a whole staff. And then we talk about what kind of practice we need to put in place for our students. It’s a whole cycle. Then you put the practice in place, and then you come back, and you talk about it. So there – it’s a work in progress.

(classroom scene)
Nicky: So I looked at three day models, four day models, and five day models for the 11 hours of testing.

Nicky Ramos-Beban: We spend a lot of time on democratic process, creating guidelines for our school – group guidelines for how we work together, norms, individual guidelines for how we come to the table as participants. We have rules in meetings. And it sounds, it sounds almost like a stilted structure, but it’s a real important structure, because structure is, in my mind, it’s the backbone of democracy.

Adrian Kirk: Everybody has a vote. Everybody participates in just about every decision, and we created a curriculum.

We are trying to create and add to that curriculum in ways that will help the students, but our whole purpose for being here is to make sure that the students graduate and go on to college.

Rebecca Padnos Altimarano: It’s exciting to be a part of this and to have the opportunities. When I look into what the classrooms were like the first few weeks and where they are now, it’s just huge, huge progess.

(classroom scene)
Edwardo: Our cries of happiness have become cries of death. I’m a Salvadorian and I have a bit of all.

Linda Darling-Hammond: The two schools we’ve just visited make careful choices to create lessons that support active, in-depth learning. They use authentic assessments to create a culture of revision and redemption in which students cannot fail. They meet children where they are with an engaging curriculum that embodies clear standards about where they need to go. Teachers work collaboratively with each other and with parents to support students’ progress.

Although they’re more than 2,000 miles apart in very different communities, serving different groups of students, the similarities between these schools are striking.

Birmingham Covington School and East Palo Alto High School show us how – with vision, commitment and an understanding of how people learn – we can meet the challenge of teaching all children for understanding — and how to make every classroom a learning classroom. I’m Linda Darling Hammond. Thanks for joining us.

“As our standards go up, as we aim to educate all kids effectively, we need to put together all of the pieces of learning theory that we’ve acquired over this last century into settings where kids are supported – where they’re scaffolded, where they’re challenged, where they’re motivated, where they have the opportunity to learn to think about their thinking, and where they become learners for life.” 
Linda Darling-Hammond

Key Question

  • How can schools organize for powerful learning?

Learning Objective

  1. Organizing schools around students’ development and learning – Teachers will understand that organizing schools for powerful learning means integrating what we know about children’s development and learning with what we know about organizing curriculum and teaching.
  2. Providing structural features that support powerful learning – Teachers will understand the structural features of schools that support teaching and learning for understanding.

Video Program

This episode discusses how schools can organize for powerful learning through a coherent, connected approach to teaching and learning that is reinforced and supported by structural features. This session features the staff and students at Birmingham Covington School, a district-wide school for grades three through eight that is part of the Birmingham (Michigan) Public Schools. BCS is in its seventh year of operation. It also features the staff and students of East Palo Alto High School, a first year charter school run by Aspire Public Schools in Menlo Park, California. Host Linda Darling-Hammond provides expert commentary.

Session Content Outline

Key Question

  • How can schools organize for powerful learning?

Learning Objectives

  • Organizing schools around students’ development and learning – Teachers will understand that organizing schools for powerful learning means integrating what we know about children’s development and learning with what we know about organizing curriculum and teaching.
  • Providing structural features that support powerful learning – Teachers will understand the structural features of schools that support teaching and learning for understanding.

Session Outline

This session synthesizes the body of learning theory presented in this course and suggests how it can be used to organize school environments that support teaching and learning for understanding.

Teaching and Learning for Understanding

  • Teaching for understanding means teaching “all students, not just a few, to understand ideas deeply and perform proficiently” (Darling-Hammond, 1997).
  • Schools that foster deep understanding are designed to build on what we know about how children learn.
  • Taken together, the principles of learning theory create a school culture that supports learning in everything the school does.
  • The learning theories in this course are interrelated. They have to come together if powerful learning is to occur.
  • The application of learning principles needs to be coherent across the school.
  • Schools that have reorganized themselves around how people learn–
    • support the growth and development of the individual learner
    • create a positive, productive environment for learning
    • organize the curriculum content for students to master

Structural Features of Schools that Support Learning

  • A coherent, connected approach to teaching and learning can be supported by the structural features of school design.
  • School features that support powerful learning include –
    • active, in-depth learning
    • emphasis on authentic performance
    • attention to development
    • appreciation for diversity
    • opportunities for collaborative learning
    • collective perspective across the school
    • structures for caring
    • support for democratic learning
    • connections to family and community

School-Wide Reform Requires Institutional Support of Teachers’ Collaborative Practice

Collaboration among teachers is a critical key to school reform – both within and across schools. Structured time for collaboration gives teachers time to study their own and each other’s “best practices” (Little, 1999).

  • Institutional support of teachers’ collaboration is essential.
  • Teachers can collaborate to design learning environments. Learning theory can inform both classroom and school design.
  • Teachers can focus on student learning by collectively mapping curriculum and conceptualizing learning experiences.
  • Teachers can use collaboration as a tool to reflect on and look at their own teaching.

What Makes Schools Powerful

The two schools that are featured in this Session, Birmingham Covington School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and East Palo Alto High School in east Palo Alto, California were both explicitly designed to capitalize on what we have come to know about the learning of both students and teachers. Each school integrates important structural features of environments that support teaching and learning for understanding across grade levels and disciplines.


Schools that have organized everything they do around what enhances learning achieve extraordinary outcomes in large part because they are working with the way people learn and making every classroom a learning classroom.

Key Terms - New In This Section

  1. Active In-depth Learning – learning that “begins with the disciplines” and “engages students in doing the work of writers, scientists, mathematicians, musicians, sculptors, and critics” (Darling-Hammond, 1997, p. 107-108).
  2. assessment-centered – school practices and structures that address the question, “What kinds of assessments will help me know what students understand and how they learn?”
  3. Authentic Performance – curriculum and assessments that are integrated around meaningful performances in real-world contexts. Performance-based assessments use multiple criteria to determine how students are thinking and learning, as well as what they know and can do.
  4. Community-centered – school practices and structures that address the question, “How can I construct a community of learners in the classroom and school to support students’ learning?”
  5. Knowledge-centered – school practices and structures that address the question, “What kind of knowledge am I trying to develop?”
  6. Learner-centered – school practices and structures that address the question, “How am I drawing on students’ interests and strengths?”

Questions for Reflection Step-By-Step Instructions

Step 1. The video segments in The Learning Classroom were taped as teachers worked in their own classrooms. As you watch, jot down the questions you have about what you see the teacher do and how the students respond.

Step 2. When you’re done, click on the episode title from the list and compare your questions with the Questions for Reflection and responses that our project team has anticipated.

Step 3. Review the responses we have prepared to questions that match the ones you have asked. The expert responses are not “final answers,” they are provided to give you a starting point for your own reflection. What else might you add to the response you read?

Questions for Reflection

Question 1: From what I have observed, neither school is typical in terms of organization. What are the steps I might take to teach for understanding and powerful learning?

Response 1: These schools do have some unique characteristics, but many changes they implemented do not require huge organizational changes, only a strong commitment of time and energy from the teacher. That’s the place to begin. Some of the challenges in good teaching involve, but are not limited to, understanding the structure of the discipline, understanding the developmental readiness of the student when considering how to provide assisted performance, teaching for understanding, and creating a safe and caring climate in the classroom. You might focus on one area that you wanted to tackle first and then add another and so on. Make notes to track what’s working and refine your lessons accordingly.

Some of the most striking school improvements have occurred in schools where teachers started informally sharing ideas, then got principal buy-in and changed the whole school culture. Find a teacher at your school who might be interested in working with you as you begin this exciting and challenging endeavor.

Question 2: I have no colleagues at my school who are interested in tackling the issues presented in the video series. What can I do to facilitate changes in my classroom and not feel I am alone in my work?

Response 2: If you are taking this course with others from your school, district, or region – that’s the place to start. Join a discussion with others from across the country by registering for Annenberg’s Channel-Talk – using the link on the left hand side of the home page for this course. Every academic topic and grade level likely has listservs that teachers can subscribe to. You might want to find other educational opportunities in your area – either through the public school system, community colleges, or four-year colleges. And sometimes just telling others about those things encourages more interaction within a school building.

Question 3: What if my state demands that I teach their specific curriculum and I have no flexibility in general content?

Response 3: There are still actions you can take to teach for understanding and powerful learning. You can, for example, present the content in ways that facilitate understanding and higher order thinking for the students in your class. Curriculum guidelines give you direction and guidance in the content that you are expected to cover, but generally the method of presentation is up to the teacher. And here you have many opportunities to teach for understanding.

Question 4: There are only one or two teachers at my school who are interested in working together to discuss plans and to discuss strengths and weaknesses of our work. What should we do?

Response 4: A small group of teachers discussing these or other topics together can make a huge difference. It’s a great start. Perhaps your working together will encourage others to join in begin another small group. Consensus is often reached faster and progress more visible in a small group rather than an all-school committee. Your group can decide on a regular meeting time and what you want the focus of your work together to be. When you are ready to create a more formal structure, there are many books and other resources that can help.

Question 5: Behavior management is my main challenge as a teacher. How can I work with very difficult students and still teach for understanding and powerful learning?

Response 5: Classroom behavior management often can be addressed both directly and indirectly. Using what you know about how students learn may help you design and implement learning activities that engage more students and reduce disruptions.

When you recognize that an individual may require more direct interventions plan them carefully in advance, so you are not always simply “reacting to the moment.” Here is one process that may help you think through the situation and develop a plan of action. First, what are the facts in the situation as you see it? It is very important to gather all the facts before you move ahead. If there are other teachers who know the child, invite them to be part of the consultation. Try to understand the principles and areas of learning and development that might be involved. For example, Dr. Comer states that teachers need to consider the developmental pathways children and youth travel: social, psychological, emotional, ethical, linguistic, and physical. Dr. Tharp states that social interaction is important for teaching and learning to occur. And Dr. Goleman speaks of the importance of an emotionally safe and caring environment. Look carefully at all these areas. After the areas of concern have been identified, look carefully at what might be happening and influencing the behavior of the student. Third, use this information to develop a plan of action. Does the environment, for example, need to be adjusted to meet the needs of the student? Could a peer help the student? There may be more than one plan of action that you develop to address the challenges. Fourth, carry out the plan. Fifth, evaluate whether the plan of action is working and modify and change as needed. If the plan is not working, begin again with the first step. This method does not solve all problems immediately, but it does give you a structure from which to approach the situation.


Linda Darling-Hammond
Charles E. Ducommon Professor of Education, Stanford University

George Mixon

Russ Facione

Dale Truding

Karen Fitzgerald

Mike Gorski

Elizabeth Cook

Jeff Gilbert

Seth Leslie

Nicky Ramos-Beban

William Dean

Kelly Wilson

Simone Miller

Rebecca Padnos Altimarano

Adrian Kirk


Web-Based Readings

Blair, L. (2000, April). Creating a context conducive to change. Connections, 1(2), pp. 1-3. Retrieved September 6, 2001, from the Connections Web site.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L. & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). The design of learning environments (Chapter 6). In How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Darling-Hammond, L. (1998, February). Strengthening the teaching profession: Teacher learning that supports student learning. Educational Leadership55(5).

Comer, J. (2001, April 23). Schools that develop children. The American Prospect, 12(7). Retrieved 9/6/01.

Related Links

Annenberg Institute for School Reform
Brown University
Box 1985
Providence, RI 02912
Phone: 401-863-7990
AISR develops, shares, and acts on knowledge that improves the conditions and outcomes of schooling in America, especially in urban communities and in schools serving disadvantaged children. They have a number initiatives in professional development, leadership, accountability, reform, and other areas.

The Coalition for Essential Schools
The Coalition of Essential Schools is a network of national schools committed to student achievement though school design, classroom practice, achievement, and community involvement.

Comer School Development Program
The Comer School Development program at Yale University Child Study Center is dedicated to providing support for teachers and schools as they organize their schools to support healthy development of children. The Web site provides background and select research.

National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching
Phone: 212-678-3432
NCREST supports restructuring of school efforts and works to help schools become learner-centered by focusing on the needs of learners in school organization, governance, and pedagogy; knowledge-based, by restructuring teacher learning and professional development; and responsible and responsive, by restructuring accountability and assessment practices.

New American Schools
1560 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 901
Arlington, Virginia 22209
Phone: 703-908-9500
New American Schools is a research-based organization that helps schools with systemic and comprehensive school reform by working with entire school community – educators, students, parents, administrators, researchers, and business leaders.