Approaches to Teaching and Learning

Ways that Teachers Think about and Use Time in the Classroom

Teaching holds the tension between certainty and ambiguity. When teachers plan units and lessons, we draw upon our craft knowledge to design a series of experiences with logic, flow, coherence, and outcomes, to name a few aspects. And teaching is ambiguous at the same time because in the course of a lesson, students respond in individual ways. In the tension of both certainty and ambiguity, teachers are always considering time.

Costa and Garmston (2013) name a few ways that teachers think about time. We understand that these ways also represent how time dimensions impact the teacher’s thinking while teaching.


The authors define this time dimension as the order in which a teacher decides how instruction will proceed. When we plan lessons, we often deliberately question what should happen first, then next and next, in order to shape and direct what we intend students to know, understand and be able to do. We look at short-range planning such as within a unit of inquiry, and we also design the long-term planning such as in a yearlong overview, or an entire program of inquiry.

Because we think deeply about factors like student readiness and developmental progression of cognitive processes such as concept formation and ability to think abstractly, sequence is an important dimension of time for teachers.


The Twitterchat on Approaches to Teaching and Learning brought the idea that the multiple dimensions of a school program are braided. (During the chat, we discussed that ‘woven’ was not as precise a term for our program intentions as ‘braided.’ In braids, we can see the strands and interconnections more clearly, and each strand in the braid remains distinct; whereas in a weave, it is difficult to see individual strands and their distinct identities and forms.) In may ways, a lesson is braided in that we are constantly, at the same time, holding on to different layers of learning – the content, concepts, context(s) and construct as it applies to our plans and as it applies to each learner’s experience.

The dimension of simultaneity in the classroom is described by Costa and Garmston (2013) as the ability of the teacher to hold many layers of conscious intentions at the same time. For example, in any given unit of inquiry, a teacher might keep in mind the learning target for the particular lesson, while also being mindful of the conceptual framework; the content that best unpacks and illustrates the conceptual focus; the skills that are targeted for the unit; when to rehearse; the different entry points and pathways individual students might choose to take toward understanding; and a myriad of other, equally important learning events happening at the same time.

Dimensions of Metacognition

Metacognition is a person’s capacity to “stand outside themselves” (Costa and Garmston, 2013, p. 143) and hold at least two threads of thinking at the same time: the thinking that follows the logic and flow of the intended learning experience and all that the teacher does to make it happen, as well as the thinking about his or her words and actions and thinking as he or she facilitates the learning. Teachers who are metacognitive thinkers and emotionally intelligent, for instance, constantly read the learners in the room. They take in the nonverbal cues from students and adjust accordingly. They are always making careful and attentive observations and choose congruent behaviors to either slow down, speed up, pause for rehearsal, and other instructional decisions that arise form their own metacognition.

Metacognition is an additional source of time dimensions because of lesson factors such as pace, self-correction, pedagogical prioritizing, and reflection.


Pace is an important part of metacognition. Assessing the environment and the students’ responses in light of the learning targets and the process among other factors pose questions like whether the teacher should go faster or slow down, when to pause and reteach in different ways, and how to support students who have already learned the material, students who need more time or ways to access it, and all the conditions in between.


An effective teacher uses his or her metacognitive thinking to discern a complex set of influences on their instruction. For instance, she might ask questions like:

  • How does my own set of learning preferences and strengths hinder my understanding of how my students might experience the lesson?
  • Do I understand how they struggle with concepts I naturally grasped when I was their grade level?
  • What big ideas are we touching on? What universal, human contexts might they anchor this concept to?
  • How do I know each student grasps the concept?
  • Are my students gaining a better understanding of how context frames their learning? Can they shift perspective?

Teachers self-correct based on thousands of different data points they glean from the environment, including their reading of the learners in the room. This self-correction is a series of time decisions because what’s important to the learners does take more time, take less time, and/or repurposes the time allocated for lessons.

Pedagogical priorities

Teachers have a wide range of instructional strategies that they might call upon in planning and also implement during ‘teachable moments’ that emerge from classroom events. When teachers have to shift instruction suddenly due to cues from how the learners are responding and events in the classroom, the prioritizing that happens results in somewhat different uses of time than what might have been previously planned.

Flexible teachers recognize that learning is not one-size-fits-all, and the priorities he or she decided upon might change due to previous learning or levels of readiness in the students.

The craftsman-like teacher is continually learning to expand their quiver of instructional strategies to address the many ways students can meet learning targets.


Reflection is understood to be looking back at self. Teachers who use time to reflect on practice generally are self-directed learners. They self-monitor, self-modify and self-manage (Costa and Garmston, 2013).

When teachers reflect about a lesson or unit, they are essentially taking time to self-assess whether their intentions (learning targets or objectives) align with the outcomes (assessment of learning).

Often, reflection is done after an event, such as a lesson or after having taught a unit. Reflection is metacognitive thinking in that it can also happen at the moment of action. This type of reflection might be akin to mindfulness because using metacognitive thinking, a person can “know intentions and choose congruent behaviors” (Costa and Garmston).

Reflection can greatly impact the efficiency of instruction as it might yield a panoramic consciousness of all that schools do (Dufour and Dufour, 1998).

  • What will our students learn?
  • How do we know they are learning?
  • How will we respond when they are not learning?
  • How will we respond when they already know it?

The many ways that teachers have to consider time and its dimensions in the classroom is complex, adaptive work.



Photo Credit:
Monarch emerging from coccoon By Seney Natural History Association – A Monarch Emerging from Cocoon, CC BY-SA 2.0


Dufour, R. and Eaker, R. (1998). Professional Learning Communities at Work: Best Practices for Enhancing Student Achievement. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Costa A. and Garmston, R. (2013). Cognitive Coaching; Developing Self-Directed Leaders and Learners. NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

The Target Board Strategy

Action plans have numerous practices that need to be implemented. Here’s a useful collaborative strategy for prioritizing implementation.

I’ve used this with different schools including Canadian Academy in Kobe when I was working with Stephen Taylor and the CA faculty to implement creative inquiry.

The Purpose of this Strategy

The visualization of priorities using a Target Board helps group members to

  1. Understand how program facets are interrelated
  2. Dialog on the most needful to the least urgent goals
  3. Discuss and decide on the progression of implementation points

Hopefully as the group collaboratively create the target board, the conversations reveal the time continuum supporting the implementation action plan.

The Target Board CC @alohalavina

How to use the target board

The target board can be used on its own for a sorting activity. Simply, it can guide ways to use time and urgency to justify when to do certain things.

When used with an Adaptive Schools protocol such as “Here’s What, So What, Now What” the Target Board can be a tool for understanding the purposeful work that organizes both time and tasks for implementation.


Featured Photo credit: Target Board by MaxPixel CC Public Domain

I am grateful to Thinking Collaborative for their mission in creating capacity in individuals and organizations.

Explicitly teaching skills in disciplinary inquiry

One of the topics that can fuel hours of teacher dialog is the difference between assigning tasks and teaching the process by which tasks can be pursued through inquiry. Assigning might consist of telling students to do a task. Teaching a process involves teaching approaches to learning, which might allow students to problem solve for the task.

It is one thing to talk about how scientists solve problems using scientific inquiry, and it is another thing altogether to experience using scientific inquiry to solve a problem. In every discipline or subject, there are patterns of thinking employed systematically by the people who work in that discipline, which are particularly developed by practitioners in that discipline.

Schooling as it exists has been structured for people to learn how to learn in disciplines. The ways of doing and learning in a discipline follow systematic approaches which help to inquire in the discipline, and these are the experiences we attempt to provide in school, so that our students understand the systems within a discipline, and how these systems help the practitioner to inquire, reflect and take action.

In sciences, the ways of doing research or inquiry have common threads. Research is a big part of each discipline. In studies of language and literature, for instance, experiences in organizing communication of ideas and experiences in the actual production of these ways of communication are predominant approaches for those who communicate through language and literature; authors write specific texts for specific purposes.

Part of our planning of learning in a subject involves planning for experiences wherein students learn and use skills and approaches particular to that subject. Some of the questions we might have in how to do this in a unit of inquiry may include:

  • How do we embed skills into a unit with context, content and concepts?
  • How do we plan for students to experience, as authentically as possible, the ways of doing what people do in a particular field?
  • How do we integrate skills and approaches to learning in a subject as effectively as possible?

These questions of instructional design might give us a hint of the complexity that an integrated and holistic planning approach requires. Design is a creative process, which involves evaluation at every step of the way, and demands of the designer an ability to iterate: to test and use a feedback loop to inform further revisions of the design until the desired outcome is achieved.

The approaches to learning in a subject

What do scientists do?

Science is a good example for a subject with a systematic way of approaching learning. Scientists have a specific way of arriving at understanding – the scientific method. Through research and investigations, scientists have arrived at the body of knowledge which exists because scientists perpetually investigate and demystify how the world works. Through the scientific method, students can also experience the ways that science arrives at understanding. Through research and experiments, students can arrive at understanding the principles that scientists have learnt and used to solve authentic problems and illuminated the thinking through science in our world.

Not only the natural sciences use specifically created methods to find solutions to questions about how the world works. Human sciences, the humanities, have also adopted systematic research and investigation to find solutions to problems in these fields. In psychology, geography, history, and other human sciences, research and investigation play a large role in demystifying the world.

The goal for doing in the social sciences, therefore, remains very close to doing in the natural sciences, in that students might experience problem solving through investigation and research. In this discussion of the integration of skills and practice in units, it is helpful to look at investigation as an experience for students of a subject, in which knowledge is used in processes, which help students to learn and do in a subject.

The process of investigation

Process learning is often more effective when the learner actually experiences the process. Designing ways for students to experience research as it is done in a subject is therefore a worthy pursuit in the unit plan. Repeated rehearsal in the problem-solving process that a practitioner uses in that subject is essential for students to truly understand what it is like to be a practitioner in that subject.

As students rehearse the process through repeated use, habituated thinking within those approaches are more likely to happen (Brown & Bennet, 2002). The implications are that as students learn the process, the teacher might:

  • Draw attention to the reasons why specific steps in a process are taken, to establish the significance of these in the process
  • Facilitate awareness of changes that might result in the students’ thinking as they use the process
  • Allow students to make connections between their own thinking and the effects a specific thinking pattern might have on the process
  • Embed opportunities for reflection and metacognition within the process
  • Find ways to highlight similarities between processes used to solve different problems in the same subject with different contexts, content and concepts, to facilitate understanding of the approach as part of the systematic pattern of thinking and learning in that subject
  • Provide ways for students to highlight transfer of the process in other situations, for example, in solving unfamiliar problems

The implications above also point out the importance of teaching the process rather than just assigning the process (Merzenich et al., 1996). Assuming that students naturally know how to use a process as they get older, for instance, is unwise because there might be no default setting for these processes, which have been constructed to support learning in a subject by those who have developed expertise in the subject’s approaches to learning.

How a teacher breaks down the processes and helps students to learn multiple pathways to understanding impact how effectively the student can use the processes to learn in that subject.

How do you break down the processes and approaches in your discipline? I invite you to share your ideas in a comment.

Further reading

Brown, S. W., & Bennet, E. (2002). The role of practice and automaticity in temporal and nontemporal dual-task performance. Psychological Research, 66(1), 80-9. doi: 101007/S004260100076

Merzenich, M. M., Jenkins, W.M, Johnston, P., Schreiner, C., Miller, S. L., & Tallal, P. (1996). Temporal processing deficits of language-learning impaired children ameliorated by training. Science, 271, 77-81. doi:10.2307/29890377


Why we can’t just do whatever we want (in isolation)

This blog post might end up with a nice title like “Why Collaboration is Key.” But really, it is about why as educators, we can’t just do whatever we want (in isolation).

Imagine that you are a student and that the information on this infographic represents a student’s experience in school.



Some students will be able to transfer from one subject area to another on their own. For instance, a grade 7 student might be able to connect setting and character in Language and literature and then connect these concepts to geography and how geography shapes the thinking and behavior of people.

What are the chances of most students being able to transfer understanding without guidance?

We need to collaborate

Collaboration, and guaranteed time spent doing it, is key to a coherent experience for our students. A study of an impoverished school linked knowledge to teacher and student learning and found that the connection between collaboration and reflection and learning was missing.

The study focused on uncovering how teachers attained knowledge necessary to improve learning in their classrooms and throughout the whole school. The study used semi-structured individual interviews, classroom observations, and follow-up interviews to form a picture of teacher and classroom learning. The purposive participant sample in the study was chosen based on teacher’s individual traits, experiences in the teaching career, and a reputation as an effective teacher. As the investigator gathered data, he examined the narratives for themes that emerged and coded them for analysis. What he found teaches us about how teacher knowledge and practice is influenced by available opportunities for collegial discourse.

Teachers participating in the study classified professional knowledge into four types. Practical knowledge, or knowing the ‘what’ of teaching came in the form of teaching strategies. Pedagogical knowledge, or knowing how to teach, formed the basis of how teachers planned and carried out instruction. Curriculum knowledge consisted of currency with a field of expertise such as subject content knowledge. A fourth type of knowledge was relational knowledge, which was social in nature and addressed, for instance, how to deal with student behavior.

The teachers interviewed in the study found that they experimented with creative ways of delivering content, but received no feedback and so fell back to lecture as the preferred lesson method. Often as they used the lecture method, teachers used questioning, but the questions were found to resemble a script. Teachers asked questions about content, and students quoted facts and descriptions from texts. There was also a reported lack of classroom management knowledge since the only pedagogy teachers used was content transmission. Students were observed to be apathetic, showing no love for learning, and they also lacked self-management, often showing up late to class and not submitting work.

The study also found that there were no structures for sharing knowledge in the school. Teachers were isolated because no common space was provided to congregate and talk about teaching and learning. There existed a negative attitude towards discussion; one teacher admitted that discussion feels like debating and that colleagues did not accept others who wanted to discuss teaching issues. The timetable provided no collaborative time, and there were no other structures in place that would provide opportunities for discourse about teaching and learning.

In interpreting the study, the researcher pointed out that part of practical knowledge is reflective, consisting of knowledge of a teacher’s own efficacy and agency in their professional identity.

Schools impoverished of collaboration are impoverished of learning.

Without collaborative structures in place, teachers cannot be expected to construct understanding of practical, pedagogical, curricular, and relational knowledge apart from what they learn on their own through other sources such as textbooks about teaching. In this impoverished situation, teacher knowledge resides in a bubble, isolated and static. Pedagogy stagnates in this context since it is uninformed and unformed by any other tensions that would result from shared dialog and discussion.

How teachers structure teaching and learning often reflects constructive understanding of these events. In other words, teacher discourse is a source of learning, which in turn shapes how teachers teach and how their students learn. What we learn from the above case study is that schools impoverished of collaboration tend to lose focus on learning. The implication is that student achievement suffers.

From a personal standpoint, teacher isolation impacts teacher growth. More often than not, teachers tend to use curriculum materials that work in their classrooms. If an activity works one time or more, teachers file this away in their repertoire and are more likely to use the activity again. Over years of experience, the piles of activities grow into binders of ‘tried and tested’ activities. As student needs shift, or contextual circumstances shift, the binder of activities may not address learning needs. Rather than a repertoire of engaging activities, the teacher may find that what worked in the past is no longer working to engage students. In this century, when factual and topical knowledge is literally at a student’s fingertips and readily available to Google searches, what worked in the past may no longer be engaging to students. The isolated teacher, although experienced, may need professional revitalization to address current student learning needs. If the school is full of isolated teachers experiencing a dearth of collaborative professional learning, how might professional revitalization occur?

Removing teachers from isolation and providing them with opportunities for collaboration and reflection is not just a way to sustain professional learning. It is also a way to build a culture around inspiring practice.

Providing teachers opportunities, time and space for discourse is a way of putting collaboration into the structure of a school. As teachers transfer knowledge and understanding across groups, several things may happen.

One result of collaboration is better alignment across the board. Because people talk about curriculum, there are more chances to examine how it aligns, for instance. As teachers talk about aligning the taught curriculum, the written curriculum might begin to reflect this coherence. There may even be discussions about assessment and how this needs to be coherent.

Marzano (2006) has pointed out that a “coherent, viable and guaranteed curriculum” (p. 15) is necessary to improve student achievement. Discussions between teachers, which center the development of teaching around student learning is a start to guarantee a viable learning pathway for each student in a school.

But again, we cannot leave this phenomenon to chance. Just because we institute new staff rooms doesn’t mean that teachers will automatically engage in professional discussions that will transform practice and improve coherence in a school. Like all systematic processes, we have to develop ways to sustain the discourse and make it purposeful, impactful work.

As we end another school year, we might reflect on these essential questions:

  • How will we guarantee a coherent experience for our students?
  • How might we use collaboration to guarantee that coherence?




Marzano, R. (2006). What works in schools; Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Photo credit: Red arrows radom by via Wikimedia Commons.


‘Thinking Things Anew’

The other day I had a badly-designed experience in a restaurant. The food came about 50 minutes after we ordered it, which was bad enough. But the real clunker was, they failed to serve the drinks, which was water for two and an orange fizz for the third. That we had to wait for 50 minutes for at least the water was unacceptable. Then when my friend complained after the food was served, the waiter said, “It’s your fault. We could not serve until your soup was ready.”


What I took away aside from the decision never to go back to that restaurant again was that a badly-designed experience could be made better by ‘thinking things anew(Wiggins and McTighe, 2007, p. 40).

Two things stand out. First is that an experience can be designed. Second is that fresh thinking about the design can improve experience.

When we think about the experiences students have as they go through school, it’s a worthy inquiry to explore how we might better design experiences and put some fresh thinking into what we do, how we do, and why we do what we do in the ways we do.

The big question is, How do we design school holistically?

Wiggins and McTighe suggest some facets for designing the experience of school (2007, p. 41):

  • “ The goal of curriculum is not to take a tour of the content but to learn to use and investigate the content, right from the start. Curriculum is thus inseparable from the design of valid, recurring performance tasks.

  • “If autonomous transfer and meaning making is the goal, then the curriculum must be designed from the start to give students practice in autonomous transfer and meaning making, and make clear via assessments that this is the goal

  • “An academic curriculum must be more like the curriculum in law, design, medicine, music, athletics and early literacy: focused from the start on masterful performance as the goal.”

The first implication is the centrality of the assessments we use to frame the experience. If assessments are the experiences of success for students, what considerations might we take in designing experiences students will have so they are able to use content, investigate content, rehearse knowledge, skills and understanding, until tasked with a performance of these in the assessment? And how do we align the plans and instruction to the assessments?

The second implication is that transfer and meaning making or understanding must be rehearsed deliberately. This means that the formative experiences we give our students must be intentionally crafted. Understanding is not gained by chance but by purposeful behaviors toward the goals of transfer and meaning making.

The authors also provide a set of learning principles, a few of which are quoted below.

Engaged and sustained learning, a prerequisite of understanding, requires that learners constantly see the value of their work and feel a growing sense of efficacy when facing worthy challenges” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007, p. 113).

This principle suggests that in planning learning experiences, we need to draw upon authentic connections to the students’ prior learning and to their lives and the world. Drawing upon these contexts helps the learning experiences to gain meaningful connections to the students’ own experiences and hastens the cementing of relationships between school and scholar and life.

An understanding is a learner realization about the power of an idea. Understandings cannot be given; they have to be engineered so that learners see for themselves the power of an idea for making sense of things” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007, p. 113).

An inquiry makes sense with authentic connections, and part of the design is the anchoring of learning experiences to large, significant ideas, such as our common humanity, what constitutes a personally-relevant and responsible action as a response to what is being learned. These connections provide opportunities to link classroom experiences to the world, breaking the boundaries between real-life and school in ways wherein students can realize the power of ideas at work in their lives and the world.

The capacity to deeply understand depends greatly on the capacity to think things anew (and other related habits of mind), because any insight typically requires the refining of earlier ideas. Becoming willing and able to rethink requires a safe and supportive environment for questioning assumptions and habits (of mind)” (Wiggins & McTighe, 2007, p. 113).

The above principle is loaded with program implications.

First, the design of learning must provide experiences wherein students must draw upon habits of mind, those attitudes and approaches to learning, which must be rehearsed while rethinking ideas afresh.

Second, how a school or classroom provides a ‘safe and supporting environment’ asks of schools to design its culture – for example, how is risk-taking and failure viewed in the school? What are the attitudes toward failure? How does a school honor its students’ interests, strengths, prior learning? These are but a few considerations when we think of how safe and supportive a school might be.

Third, how students learn how to construct and use questions is a key part of design.

Fourth, how students are explicitly taught to use a repertoire of learning approaches is important in creating a culture of confident inquirers who feel safe to take intellectual risks and pursue personally- significant inquiries.

Some design considerations

To sum up the ideas above, we find that the design of learning experiences needs to consider:

  • How assessment aligns with instruction and instructional intentions.
  • How learning engagements provide authentic contexts for learning.
  • How students gain meaning from their learning experiences.
  • How to create learning experiences so that students arrive at large, powerful ideas (such as concepts and statements of inquiry).
  • How learning experiences are designed to draw out dispositions and approaches to learning and how these become visible to students in those experiences.
  • How to design a safe and supportive learning environment.
  • How to honor prior learning, interests, strengths of students.
  • How students learn how to use questions to pursue their own learning.
  • How to explicitly teach approaches to learning and build a confident self-directed learner.

If we take the patterns within these considerations, we find that these correspond to principles we must turn into practice so that our students experience a coherent, relevant, and challenging program in which each one grows and achieves.

We find that the systems of curriculum and instruction link to systems for assessment. We discover that social emotional learning is built in to the structures that support academic goals. We might also realize that collaboration and reflection are keys to this holistic implementation of a well-designed learning experience.

Making connections between systems

In their book about Coca ColaDesign to Grow: How Coca-Cola Learned to Combine Scale and Agility” (2015, p. 27), Butler and Tischler write, “Problems don’t exist in isolation. You can’t solve one without affecting another. This is where design creates value that’s hard to see or quantify, in that, by connecting things more smoothly, the entire experience improves.”

Essential takeaways seem to be that design is about making connections and that effective design makes for a coherent and meaningful experience.

From this we arrive at some essential questions in our program design. A few might be:

  • What connections can we make explicit between how we plan, how we learn and teach, and how we assess?
  • What connections can we make explicit between the soft skills and the academic ones?
  • What connections can we create between the resources in our environment and the perceptions of safety and support?
  • What connections can we facilitate between the students’ lives, the world and the classroom inquiries?

The fresh thinking that we need as we design learning experiences is mirrored by the fresh thinking we would like our students to do as they experience these.

What connections are you making between your learning and your students’? How might both these experiences gain meaning and transfer?

Just as a restaurant must make connections to make the dining experience a pleasant one, we are tasked with making connections between systems in our schools to make the experience one that our students will savor.



Butler, D. and Tischler, L. Design to Grow: How Coca-Cola learned to combine scale and agility; (And how you can too). USA: Penguin.

Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. (2007). Schooling by Design; Mission, action and achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Photo by Carl Heinrich Bloch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


The Learner in Charge

Learning is scalable.

The fractal of how we learn transfers into smaller versions of the full design—such as the specific process of learning how to write from personal significance, with a personalized process, seeking our own audiences and feedback to get better at writing. These patterns also transfer into larger-scale systems predicated on assumptions that people have the capacity for self-directedness. Approaches to learning, for example, could be a system-wide approach to using metacognitive strategies.

By Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Romanesco broccoli fractals By Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Because learning is scalable, we can infer patterns in the larger expression of a fractal, say a culture of self-directedness, from the iterations of behavior in smaller sections of the fractal, like individual self-directedness. In other words, individuals together behaving in certain ways make up the concerted behavior of a whole community.

So how do we enact a culture of self-directed learning?

We might begin with what’s happening with the individual learner.

In their collaborative work The Art and Science of Portraiture, Sara Lawrence- Lightfoot and Jessica Hoffman Davis (1997) engage in a dialog on the value of a self-portrait as a form of learning process and product.

They suggest that the creation of a self-portrait “is an intentionally generous and eclectic process that begins by searching for what is good and healthy and assumes that the expression of goodness will always be laced with imperfections.” If we ask ‘what is good?’ we are “likely to absorb a very different reality than one who is on a mission to discover the sources of failure” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 9).

The generosity of this developmental self-portrait hinges, it seems, upon the assumptions that people want to seek what is good and start this inquiry from a stance of positive intentions and aspirations. Considering assumptions about self-development consider that “Not only do portraits seek to capture the origins and expression of goodness, they are also concerned with documenting how the subjects or actors in the setting define goodness” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 9).

The process might be more concrete if we thought about the self-portrait as a portfolio.

In developing a documentation of learning and achievement, which is the basis for a portfolio, the learner becomes participant in this inquiry and dialog on What is good, how do we find it, and what expressions might be exemplars of this search and its discoveries?

The portfolio becomes an ever-transforming map of growth. As the learner curates his or her own documentation of growth, the reflective nature of constructing this self-portrait facilitates and sustains the inquiry. This is a pattern of the self-directness that we consider a significant cornerstone of transformational learning.

How does this individual pattern influence the larger patterns in the places where we facilitate learning?

Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis (1997) suggest that the self-portrait is a conversation. In this sense they are also “acts of intervention” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 11) in that within the process of creating self-portraits we engage others in conversations about what is good; we engage in acts of transformation; we provoke thinking and reflection. “This is provocative work that can disturb the natural rhythms of social reality and encounter” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 11).

In her book The Good High School; Portraits of Character and Culture Lawrence-Lightfoot (1983) suggests that the actors within a school context “create conversations and find shared meanings, the significance of the voice of teachers, and the crucial importance of local context as well as the commitment of a scholar to truth and solidarity” (in Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 11).

The conversations about what is good propels our inquiries into constructions of criteria for best practice within the contexts of our schools. In these co-constructions; we seek our mentors and teachers in our peers and in our networks; and we revisit again and again a common ownership of learning.

We influence the story of our school’s focus on learning.

From conversations and patterns of self-directedness emerges a narrative. The resulting narrative tells the story of the landscape of transformation for the individual as well as the group. Together, our portraits of growth collectively “document the human behavior and experience in context.” (Laurence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. 11).

So it may follow that culture is influenced by individuals creating portraits of best practice.

In the conversation between practitioners, we find a similar idea to Eudora Welty’s distinction between the storyteller and the one who listens to a story. Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis (1997, p. 12) suggest that “The latter is a much more active, engaged position in which one searches for the story, seeks it out, is central to its creation.”

In this inductive inquiry, we may recognize the “persistent irony” that “as one moves closer to the unique characteristic of a person or a place, one discovers the universal” (Lawrence-Lightfoot and Davis, 1997, p. 14).

Discoveries of the universal within the personal suggest that learning is scalable. Individuals in self-directedness make up the human landscape of a self-directed organization. By putting the learner in charge of his or her learning, we cultivate resonance within our selves and our organizations.



Lawrence-Lightfoot S. & Hoffman Davis, J. (1997). The Art and Science of Portraiture. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, S. (1983). The Good High School; Portraits of Character and Culture. NY: Basic Books.

Photo By Becks – Windvane, CC BY 2.0,

Photo Romanesco broccoli fractals By Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Summative Season and the Self-Directed Learner

It is summative season once again. IB Exams are in progress. Summative teacher evaluations are due. Report cards are on the horizon, and schools are scrambling to get the last bits of data that will inform the next academic year’s instructional goals, both for children and adults.

During this summative season, when we are reflecting on the actions that have been enacted and continue to be until the last day of school, do we ever consider how much of what we do actually builds a culture of self-directedness?

In the Twitter chat on self-directed learning, collaborating minds raised the following points.

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 07.21.13 Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 07.21.35 Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 07.22.36

The views from the Twitterchat on Self-Directed Learning suggest what Costa, Garmston and Zimmerman pose as a guiding principle of self-directed learning, that “the gates of learning are only opened from within and that motivation to learn or change cannot be externally coerced” (2014, p. xvi in Powell & Kusuma-Powell, 2015).

I left the Twitterchat with more questions.

If schools want self-directed individuals, how do we reconcile the reliance on external assessments of learning with our aim to promote self-directed learning? When the assessments of learning are significantly anchored to someone outside of the self, how do we shift learners toward internal motivation?

Asking these questions in their latest book Teacher Self-Supervision; Why teacher evaluation has failed and what we can do about it (John Catt, 2015), Powell and Kusuma-Powell present schools with the task of examining our assumptions about self-directedness and how the adult learning structures as they exist might use a lot more reflection.

Assumptions guiding teacher evaluation

Powell and Kusuma-Powell (2015) suggest the following assumptions guiding current practices in teacher evaluation:

  1. External feedback systems gives teachers ways to improve instruction and hence student learning.
  2. Student learning is like an algebraic algorithm and deficits can be addressed technically as in the equation, if x then y must follow.
  3. Schools can be operated like factories.
  4. Relationships, especially trusting relationships, are not significant aspects of schools as learning organizations.
  5. External rewards and punishments are necessary to coerce teachers to be better at facilitating learning.
  6. Teachers need to be praised and affirmed by someone else all the time.
  7. Principals and supervisors are the best source of knowledge about teaching and learning.
  8. One principal can mentor 40 or 50 teachers at a time and be effective at it.
  9. Compliance is more important than personal investment.
  10. If you cannot reduce something to an algorithm or a quantity, it does not exist.

The above assumptions, if they guide teacher evaluation, direct us to a culture wherein:

  • Teachers are infantilized.
  • Internal motivation is not a resource for school development.
  • We waste a lot of time, and we do not guarantee that teachers learn how to facilitate learning better for our students.

Patterns are the best teacher, suggests Wellman (2013). If school patterns of behavior hinge upon the premise that the adults in the school learn best with external coercion, how will those adults facilitate self-directedness in themselves and in their students?

We need a new set of assumptions if our schools are to create cultures of self-directedness. What if we created our schools based on these assumptions?

  • That each person, including teachers, learn best when they are motivated internally.
  • That each person has the capacity to self-assess, self-monitor and self-modify.

And what if we created systems in our schools, which honor and respect the learner within each individual?


Garmston, R. & Wellman, B. (2013). The Adaptive School: A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups. NY: Rowman and Littlefield.

Powell, W. & Kusuma-Powell, O. (2015). Teacher Self-Supervision; Why teacher evaluation has failed and what we can do about it. Melton, Woodbridge: John Catt.

Photo Credit: Toutes direction By Dyon Joël (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.