User Generated Education

Education as it should be – passion-based.

Posts Tagged ‘instructional strategies

Teacher PD: Purposeful Tinkering and Application

leave a comment »

As a preface to this post, my belief is that deep learning does not occur through sit and get. Deep learning occurs through experiential, authentic, interactive, collaborative instructional processes.  If deep learning is desired for teacher professional development, then it should reflect best practices for teaching and learning.

Professional learning must focus on creating safe and productive spaces for teachers to begin planning and experimenting with the concepts that have been shared. Too often, facilitation centers on giving strategies to teachers rather than coaching them on how to deliver the strategies to students. As a result, teachers leave the session with a toolbox of ideas that are never implemented. Instead, more professional learning time should be spent helping teachers plan, develop materials, and practice delivering the strategies with colleague support. (

When I design teacher PD-related workshops, I am guided by the following principles:

  1. Teachers need time to tinker, play, and experiment with instructional materials and resources especially with new forms of teaching/learning technologies.
  2. For skills development, such as using new technologies, scaffolding and increasing complexity should be a strong component of the PD process.
  3. Teachers need to be offered lots of instructional suggestions and resources so they can tailor their PD learning to their own teaching environments.
  4. Intentional and active reflection and goal setting should be included to increase the chances of transfer of learning.


Tinkering With Instructional Materials

Teachers and librarians, like their students, need hands-on experience with tools and with playing to learn as that helps them build creative confidence. (

Teachers, during PD, should be provided with time, resources, and materials with which to play. It sets the expectation that they will be active agents of their own learning. It gives them the message it is okay to play and experiment with the materials; that tinkering is often needed as a part of learning new skills.

Scaffolding and Introducing Complexity

As teachers, we have come to learn over the years that we should never expect our students to fully understand a new idea without some form of structured support framework, or scaffolding as the current buzzword defines it.  The same, of course, should be the case in supporting learning for our fellow teachers. (

Once teachers get familiar with instructional materials and resources through tinkering, they should be guided through a series of skills that are increasingly complex; that honor the process of scaffolding.  As with tinkering, this should be a hands-on process where teachers can try out these skills with facilitator and colleague support and guidance. As confidence is built through success with basic skills and strategies, more complex skills and strategies will be more welcomed by teachers.

Lots of Instructional Strategies and Resources

Even with fairly homogeneous groups of teachers, their teaching and learning needs can be vastly different. They often teach different groups of students, different grades, different content areas. They often have different backgrounds, years of experience, and personal and professional interests. As such, they should be provided with lots of instructional strategies and resources to help them make direct connections to their own teaching environments. Given the plethora and free resources that can be found online, curated aggregates of resources can be provided to the teachers. Time should be allotted during the PD training for them to examine and discuss these resources with their colleagues.

Transfer of Learning Through Reflection and Goal Setting

Reflection is essential for learning. In order to “make meaning” of an experience, the learner must have an opportunity to reflect on or process the experience. To help ensure that program participants transfer learning and training experiences into real-world applications, we must be intentional about both engaging the learners and creating opportunity for meaningful reflection. (

Facilitators of teacher professional development need to be more intentional to include specific strategies to help insure that learning is transferred in teachers’ educational environments. Reflection and goal setting, two powerful transfer of learning strategies, should be built into teacher professional development.

A Recent Example

Because of on my request, my district gifted education supervisor purchased 3 sets/3 dozen Spheros. As a follow-up, he asked me to facilitate a teacher professional development workshop on their use.

The schedule for this afternoon workshop was:

  1. Short Introductory video about Sphero in schools: Gain Attention and Provide a Context
  2. Orienting and Simple Driving the Sphero: Tinkering
  3. Using the Draw Program: Tinkering
  4. Video Tutorial and Practice of Simple Block Programming: Increasing Complexity
  5. Build a Project-Chariot or Tug Boat: Increasing Complexity and Instructional Resources
  6. Review Curricula for Use in the Classroom: Instructional Resources and Transfer of Learning
  7. Final Reflections – Sharing about one’s own processes and possible applications in one’s own classroom: Transfer of Learning Through Reflection and Goal Setting
  8. Email Exchange – for sharing how the use of Spheros are being implemented in the classroom: Transfer of Learning

The slide presentation used and shared with this group of teachers:

Workshop photos showing teacher engagement:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Learning Needs a Context

with 2 comments

This is a follow up to a post I wrote, How Do We Learn? How Should We Learn?  The purpose of these posts is to encourage educators to examine practices they take for granted, implement without deep reflection of their efficacy. This post discusses the instructional practice of asking students to memorize information.

How often have students (ourselves included) been asked to memorize mass amounts of facts – historical dates, vocabulary words, science facts, get tested on them, just to forget almost all those memorized facts a week or two later? Given that is this learning experience is more common than not, why do educators insist on continuing this archaic and ineffective instructional practice?

To learn it in isolation is like learning the sentence “Hamlet kills Claudius” without the faintest idea of who either gentleman is–or, for what matter, of what “kill” means. Memorization is a frontage road: It runs parallel to the best parts of learning, never intersecting. It’s a detour around all the action, a way of knowing without learning, of answering without understanding. (When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning)

The more closely we inspect this model of teaching and testing, the more problematic it reveals itself to be. First, there’s the question of what students are made to learn, which often is more oriented to factual material than to a deep understanding of ideas. Second, there’s the question of how students are taught, with a focus on passive absorption: listening to lectures, reading summaries in textbooks, and rehearsing material immediately before being required to cough it back up. Third, there’s the question of why a student has learned something: Knowledge is less likely to be retained if it has been acquired so that one will perform well on a test, as opposed to learning in the context of pursuing projects and solving problems that are personally meaningful. (Alfie Kohn)

The visual image I use to describe this is that there are all of these unconnected facts floating around in the learner’s brain. Since they have nothing to connect to, they end up flying away. This is especially true for abstract concepts.

floating facts

Memorizing facts often means a waste of students’ time and energy. In some cases, too many cases, learners lose their passion and excitement for a subject or topic that, if taught in another way, may have not been the case.

The Need for Context

Learning facts and knowledge about a content area topic is an important prerequisite to understanding that topic and then developing expertise. The key to this understanding is providing a context for the facts. The context becomes the glue to increase the stickiness, the longevity of long term memory of those facts. This is especially true for abstract concepts. These concepts need something concrete with which to attach.context

Lave and Wenger (1991) argue that learning should not be viewed as simply the transmission of abstract and decontextualised knowledge from one individual to another, but a social process whereby knowledge is co-constructed; they suggest that such learning is situated in a specific context and embedded within a particular social and physical environment. (Situated Learning)

Increasing Context and Relevancy

Authentic learning can be the driving force for increasing context and relevancy. Jan Herrington describes authentic learning along two axes – the authenticity of the task is on one axis (from authentic to decontextualised), and the setting is on the other (the classroom/university to the real setting). The goal of educators should be to increase authenticity which leads to more contextual learning (and vice versa).

Matrix pic 1(

The following are some suggestions for establishing context (the list is just a start). Ironically, they are practices that are often recommended are best practices in teaching but they aren’t implement as often as they should be:

The bottom line is that regardless of the content area, students deserve educations that have self-perceived authenticity, relevancy, and a context that makes sense.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

March 21, 2015 at 6:17 pm

%d bloggers like this: