Top Ten Books That Will Impact Your Thinking About Education

There are lots of book lists for educators and they are from varying viewpoints. The list below is a group of books that I have personally found to impact my thinking about education. Each of these books had profound impact on how I think about education, teaching and learning although many were not written for education. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.


The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Sir Ken Robinson

I could not put this book down when I first discovered it. I struggled in math although I was great at the humanities and sciences. Somehow, I always felt like I was stupid and not nearly as good as my friends who were aces at math. This book helped me reframe how I thought about myself and how, as teachers, we think about our students’ abilities. “Robinson’s groundbreaking book is about finding your talents and passions, and by doing so, finding your way in the world. The book explores the multifaceted diversity of intelligence, the power of imagination and creativity, and the importance of commitment to our own capabilities. Ken Robinson looks at the conditions that enable us to find ourselves in the Element and those that stifle that possibility.”


Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson & Joseph Grenny

When stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong, there are usually two choices: Avoid a crucial conversation and suffer the consequences; handle the conversation badly and suffer the consequences.” I participated in a two-day training in Crucial Conversations with my entire team and it made a huge difference in how we communicated. At the time, many of us took the tools we learned to our homes and shared them with our families. This book helped us create a common vocabulary and understandings for how to talk about high stakes topics. There are also two more books in the series: Crucial Accountability and Crucial Confrontations. Both equally useful.


The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni

This story is easy-to-read and a great conversation starter. Although it is applicable to leadership and leading teams, I also found it helpful in supporting classrooms where you have diverse learners needing support on how to work together. “Throughout the story, Lencioni reveals the five dysfunctions which go to the very heart of why teams even the best ones-often struggle. He outlines a powerful model and actionable steps that can be used to overcome these common hurdles and build a cohesive, effective team.”


Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools by Glenn Singleton

Engaging in conversation about race is important. Period. This book has been recently retooled and like the first one is powerful. No longer can ANYONE afford to omit the conversation about race. This book had tremendous impact on my thinking, not just about education, but on how I interacted with the world. Singleton describes the book as providing, “a foundation for those educational leaders at the systems and school level who are willing and ready to begin or accelerate their journey toward educational equity and excellence for all children.” “You can’t read this book and silently do nothing to promote equality. It is a book that demands personal reflection, promotes dialogue and questions, and calls for action.”


When Can You Trust the Experts?: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education by Daniel T. Willingham

I cannot tell you how often I reference this book. If I had to guess I bet at least once a day. Although exceptionally applicable to educators, it provides a deep understanding about why people believe as we do and how deeply entrenched beliefs, like politics, religion, and schooling, are difficult to change. The book offers educators clear, easy to understand principles to spot what’s nonsense and what’s reliable. “Each year, teachers, administrators, and parents face a barrage of new education software, games, workbooks, and professional development programs purporting to be “based on the latest research.” While some of these products are rooted in solid science, the research behind many others is grossly exaggerated. This new book, written by a top thought leader, helps everyday teachers, administrators, and family members–who don’t have years of statistics courses under their belts–separate the wheat from the chaff and determine which new educational approaches are scientifically supported and worth adopting.”


 Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block

Of all the non-education books I read recently, this has had the most impact on me. It made me rethink how we build community in our life. It reminded me the importance of honoring people, and it made me dig deep to refresh and refocus the things that I hold as values. I cannot stop thinking about this book whenever I am in a classroom. “Modern society is plagued by fragmentation. The various sectors of our communities–businesses, schools, social service organizations, churches, government–do not work together. They exist in their own worlds. As do so many individual citizens, who long for connection but end up marginalized, their gifts overlooked, their potential contributions lost. What Block provides in this inspiring new book is an exploration of the exact way community can emerge from fragmentation: How is community built? How does the transformation occur? What fundamental shifts are involved? He explores a way of thinking about our places that creates an opening for authentic communities to exist and details what each of us can do to make that happen.”


 Educated by Tara Westover

Tara Westover was 17 the first time she set foot in a classroom. lacking any formal education, Tara began to educate herself. She taught herself enough mathematics and grammar to be admitted to Brigham Young University, where she studied history, learning for the first time about important world events like the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. Her quest for knowledge transformed her, taking her over oceans and across continents, to Harvard and to Cambridge. Westover has crafted a universal coming-of-age story that gets to the heart of what an education is and what it offers: the perspective to see one’s life through new eyes and the will to change it. This is a story about tenacity and grit and is a good choice for anyone looking to confirm their belief in the powers of personal fortitude and education.


What School Could Be: Insights and Inspiration from Teachers across America by Ted Dintersmith

What School Could Be offers an inspiring vision of what our teachers and students can accomplish if trusted with the challenge of developing the skills and ways of thinking needed to thrive in a world of dizzying technological change. Innovation expert Ted Dintersmith took an unprecedented trip across America, visiting all fifty states in a single school year. He originally set out to raise awareness about the urgent need to reimagine education to prepare students for a world marked by innovation. Capturing bold ideas from teachers and classrooms across America, What School Could Be provides a realistic and profoundly optimistic roadmap for creating cultures of innovation and real learning in all our schools.


 Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant

Grant explores how to recognize a good idea, speak up without getting silenced, build a coalition of allies, choose the right time to act, and manage fear and doubt; how parents and teachers can nurture originality in children; and how leaders can build cultures that welcome dissent.


 Lead Like a Pirate by Shelley Burgess and Beth Houf

What It’s About: In this sequel to bestseller Teach Like a Pirate, Burgess and Houf apply the PIRATE technique to school leadership.

Why You Should Read It: Whether you are a current or aspiring school administrator, read this book if you need inspiration, motivation and ideas for sustaining a culture of excellence in your school. Burgess and Houf write with a contagious (and hilarious) zeal for strong leadership and dynamic schools. Pirates are on a constant quest for riches, but PIRATE leaders seek even greater rewards: amazing schools, engaged students, and empowered educators who know they are making a difference. In Lead Like a PIRATE, education leaders Shelley Burgess and Beth Houf map out the character traits necessary to captain a school or district. You’ll learn where to find the treasure that’s already in your classrooms and schools–and how to bring out the very best in your educators.


Shifting the Monkey: The Art of Protecting Good People from Liars, Criers, and Other Slackers by Todd Whitaker

Poor employees get a disproportionate amount of attention. Why? Because they complain the loudest, create the greatest disruptions, and rely on others to assume the responsibilities that they shirk. Learn how to focus on your good employees first and help them shift these “monkeys” back to the underperformers.


 The Innovators Mindset by George Couros

In The Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros encourages teachers and administrators to empower their learners to wonder, to explore–and to become forward-thinking leaders. If we want innovative students, we need innovative educators. In other words, innovation begins with you. Ultimately, innovation is not about a skill set: it’s about a mindset.


For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood . . . and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education by Christopher Emdin

With this fresh and engaging new pedagogical vision, Emdin demonstrates the importance of creating a family structure and building communities within the classroom, using culturally relevant strategies like hip-hop music and call-and-response, and connecting the experiences of urban youth to indigenous populations globally.


The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever by Michael Bungay Stanier

One of my grad students reminded me of this book. This easy to read book teaches leaders how to coach through questions. It’s dramatically increased my ability to help others maximize their potential. It’ll help you coach others to become top performers by developing your own questioning and listening skills. A fresh innovative take on the traditional how-to manual, the book combines insider information with research based in neuroscience and behavioral economics, together with interactive training tools to turn practical advice into practiced habits. “Coaching is an art and it’s far easier said than done. It takes courage to ask a question rather than offer up advice, provide an answer, or unleash a solution. giving another person the opportunity to find their own way, make their own mistakes, and create their own wisdom is both brave and vulnerable.”


The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by The Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, Douglas Carlton Abrams

Nobel Peace Prize Laureates His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have survived more than fifty years of exile and the soul-crushing violence of oppression. Despite their hardships—or, as they would say, because of them—they are two of the most joyful people on the planet. We get to listen as they explore the Nature of True Joy and confront each of the Obstacles of Joy—from fear, stress, and anger to grief, illness, and death. They then offer us the Eight Pillars of Joy, which provide the foundation for lasting happiness. Throughout, they include stories, wisdom, and science. Finally, they share their daily Joy Practices that anchor their own emotional and spiritual lives.

Technology Doesn’t Have to be Scary Pt. 2



Dr. Hope Dugan, February 27,  2019


Technology Doesn’t Have to be Scary – Supporting your teachers through technology adoption (Technology Fatigue)

Part two in two-part series on leading technology adoption

What exactly is technology fatigue?

  • This year the district decided we were going to use Canvas…Last year we were told we had to use Moodle…The previous year we were told we had to use Blackboard…The previous year we were told to use Edmodo….
  • Meanwhile, your principal announced everyone had to create their own webpage, AND learn the new PD system, AND make sure all student work is run through Turnitin….AND utilize 3 social media platforms…


When too many things are introduced at one time OR when not enough time is given to learn how to use the new tool OR every year you leave behind the one app you finally learned to use because the district decided to use something else…That, my friends, is technology fatigue…


When you receive less than enthusiastic support upon introducing a new technology initiative, technology fatigue may play a role in your team’s reaction. This year’s shift to a new LMS may not seem that big a deal, but when you consider what other technology shifts may also be occurring simultaneously (new student information system, new attendance program, new statewide mandates…) or how often they have been asked to learn a new system (3 years, 3 new LMSs…) you begin to understand their frustration and fatigue. It takes a great deal of energy to learn, unlearn, and relearn and to seamlessly integrate a new technology solution. Understanding how much effort a shift requires and honoring teachers for their willingness to make the shift is very important. If you suspect that your team is suffering from technology fatigue, there are several things you can do:

  • Stay the course – Ensure that you are not a magpie flitting from shiny new thing to shiny new thing. Select a tool/LMS/program and guarantee that it will be around for a minimum of 3 years. If you don’t feel confident in supporting your selection for three years, you may want to reconsider why you are changing to it to begin with.
  • Provide options, where appropriate – Is it absolutely necessary that the entire staff all use the same tool? Students like to be given opportunities for choice and so do our adults. Providing teachers with several options may make the shift more palatable. Especially if some of the staff are already comfortable with a tool. If providing options is not possible, explain the vision for the shift and why the selection will be the best opportunity.
  • Loose and tight – While there may be some things that must be adopted (like new student information and grading systems) there may be other items, like classroom tools, that can be optional. Provide clarity on what teachers will be held accountable for doing (Every day you will take attendance in the automated system) and where there may be room for options (You may select to use one of the following: Smartboard or Promethean; Class Dojo or G suite tool).
  • Respond with empathy – If the decision was made at the district or state levels, let your staff know. Also ensure your team that you will be there to support them and that you understand their frustration.
  • Invitational Learning – In education we are a big fan of a pilot. When considering a large-scale initiative, enlist those on your staff who are excited and ready to try something new. A tech director I once worked for used to say she would gather an army of the willing and she did so through invitational learning opportunities. This was her way of starting a pilot with the people who were ready for the change.
  • WAIT – If the decision is in your hands, understanding your staff’s capacity for change is important. Maybe this is not the year to try a large-scale shift.

When attempting to shift an entire district or school to a new technology, it may feel next to impossible. Understanding that fear is a natural response to change and additionally, many educators are simply fatigued by the amount of change foisted upon them may help you understand negative reactions. Remind yourself why the change is necessary and understand how it will have positive impact on students. This will help you keep going even when you feel alone in the process.

Technology Doesn’t Have to be Scary


Dr. Hope Dugan, February 25,  2019

Technology Doesn’t Have to be Scary – Supporting your teachers through technology adoption (Change Management)

Part one in two-part series on leading technology adoption


You are sitting in the staff meeting when a new technology tool is introduced, or should I say mandated. You feel the annoyance rising, and questions spring to mind: Why are we adding another tool? Who chose this? When am I going to find time to learn how to use this one? Why can’t I just use the tool I have been using for the past several years? GGGRRRRrrrrrrrrrrrr.


The discomfort people feel when introduced to new technology, software, hardware, programs, or apps is very real. As the leader, it may feel confrontational and adversarial when you are the bearer of the news. Why do your teachers fight against new technology? What can you do now to better support technology adoption? In part one of this two-part series we will explore leading and managing through change.

Fear is the number one barrier to successful technology adoption. What might appear to be stubbornness or insubordination may actually be a fear of failure. Fear manifests in many different ways including anger, frustration, acting out, and shutting down. When you reframe these seemingly negative behaviors through the lens of understanding, you will be able to offer teachers differentiated supports to help reduce their fear.

How can you lead your team through change? Here are some ideas:

  • Fostering a climate where failure is acceptable – Many teachers were great students and many of your teachers have been successful in their careers. Asking them to try things at which they may not be immediately successful is scary! Leadership must communicate that they will be supported through the change and then provide a structure for success. Clear and consistent messaging about what is expected and what leadership will do to support the shift is critical.
  • Distributed Leadership – Creating a team of people to craft the vision and plan for transitioning to a new technology tool will help staff feel that they have been heard. Beware the common pitfall of already having a plan in place and then drafting a team for validation rather than input. When you create a team to assist in planning, leaders must take into account what the team is suggesting and to let go of some control.
  • Trust and honor your staff – It is important to believe that teachers come to school with the intention of doing what is best for students. When leadership looks at staff behavior through this lens, you see that barriers to learning are not spitefulness, laziness, or malintent. Assuming good intent and rallying your team around your vision helps provide positivity and energy when they are struggling with work that may feel extremely difficult.
  • Ownership of the change – In a PL classroom we espouse gradual release of control to the students to develop agency. Our staff deserves no less. We must allow our staff to step up and take ownership of the change and be integrated into the planning. When we do this, we honor the expertise of our team while at the same time communicating that we know they will be successful.
  • More time to learn – The days of the 2-hour PD session and the 3-ring binder are, hopefully, behind us. It is important to remember that it takes time to learn a new behavior/practice and it takes even more time to master it. Like our students, some teachers need a lot of time to learn while others pick up a new tool quickly. The transition team should communicate clear goals for adoption, but also understand that some people will need more time and more support.
  • Differentiated PD – A one-size-fits-all PD plan is not effective when adopting new technology. Providing many access points and different ways to integrate knowledge is important for adult learners. When crafting a plan, you will need to take into account varied learner styles and provide multiple ways to be successful. It is often helpful to put together a small planning team to help generate creative ways to learn together.
  • Mentors/Coaches/PLCs – To effectively encourage change, you need systems in place that support the learning. Just like in your classroom, you want to provide multiple ways for learners to receive help. Encouraging the creation of a robust network of mentors, coaches, and PLCs demonstrates that you care while at the same time creates a safe-space to fail and receive help.

Leading any kind of large-scale change has its challenges. As a leader, you do not have to know everything to lead effectively through change and adoption. In summary, remember to engage a variety of stakeholders to help craft the vision, message, and plan. Provide opportunities for staff to fail in a safe way. Finally, it is mentally and sometimes physically taxing to lead change. Be gentle and kind to yourself and surround yourself with people who are nurturing and supportive.

Be sure to check out Part 2 of this topic: Supporting your teachers through technology adoption (Technology Fatigue) on Wednesday, Feb. 27th.

2018 Education Research in Review

High School Students With Teacher In Class Using Laptops
January 2019, By Dr. Hope Dugan

I love research and I spend a disproportionate amount of time reading and reviewing studies. As we usher in 2019, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on some of the headline-making education research from last year. Some of the research was expected and yielded expected results while other research refuted long-held ideas about what is effective. Let’s take a look at some of the studies making headlines last year.

  1. Reduced funding negatively impacts student achievement. Two education journalists published research findings indicating that, contrary to popular-held belief, increased funding increases student success. “There’s this notion out there that increased spending doesn’t help [students],….There’s good evidence that indeed increased spending does help — it increases student test scores and it improves later life outcomes.” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, director the Hamilton Project.
    1. Edutopia also reported on several studies that suggest there is a causal link between funding and student achievement. Additional research suggests that when states cut funding in the wake of an economic downturn, test scores and graduation rates both plummet. Cutting per-student spending by 10 percent throughout a student’s high-school years reduces their likelihood of graduating by nearly 3 percentage points. Another study indicated when states increased spending, substantial increases in federal NAEP exam scores were noted. Other research has linked more spending to higher graduation ratesand greater social mobility. State-specific studies have pointed to similar results and research in CaliforniaMassachusettsMichigan, and Ohio found additional education spending resulted in student gains.
  2. SocialEmotional Learning (SEL) is a continued area of interest. The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development noted that “…social, emotional, cognitive, linguistic, and academic development are “deeply intertwined” and “all are central to learning and success.” Another research report, What Do Test Scores Miss? The Importance of Teacher Effects on Non–Test Score Outcomes, noted that student behavior is a much stronger predictor of future success than test scores. This large-scale study completed by Northwestern University and the National Bureau of Economic Research included over 500,000 9th graders and indicated “…the impact of teachers on behavior is 10 times more predictive of whether they increase students’ high school completion than their impacts on test scores.” Moreover, teachers who maintained focus on helping students improve their behaviors showed a statistically significant impact in increasing graduation rates.
  3. Welcome students at your door. One study (Positive Greetings at the Door: Evaluation of a Low-Cost, High-Yield Proactive Classroom Management Strategy) found both psychological and academic benefits when teachers greet students as they enter their rooms. Some of the reported benefits included: A 20-point increase in engagement and a 9-point decrease in negative behaviors. Check out this ABC news video of fifth-grade teacher, Barry White Jr., in Charlotte, North Carolina greeting each of his students. This heart-warming story made national news last year.
  4. Growth mindset interventions may support at-risk students. The Meta-Analysis, To What Extent and Under Which Circumstances Are Growth Mind-Sets Important to Academic Achievement? indicated that Carol Dweck’s ideas about growth mindset may not have the overarching impact once thought. Two analyses, on over 400,000 subjects, were conducted examining the strength of the relationship between mind-set and academic achievement. The outcomes for both indicated minimal effect. The report, however, did indicate that low-performing students and students deemed at-risk are positively impacted by exposure to the idea and practices of growth mindset.
  5. New hope for successful scaling of pilot programs. The Journal of Economic Perspectives presented findings on the generalizability of small-scale pilot programs and concluded: “The promise of randomized controlled trials is that evidence gathered through the evaluation of a specific program helps us—possibly after several rounds of fine-tuning and multiple replications in different contexts—to inform policy.”


Not all research contained great news, however. There were many depressing reports and studies detailing, among other heart-breaks, the rising number of school shootings, teachers leaving the profession in droves, the opportunity myth (if you do well in school you will do well in life), and concerns about what the final ruling will be on DACA recipients. Here are some other headlines that made the news.


  1. Education Week’s annual state-by-state assessment, Quality Counts Report Card, an annual report that weighs academic, fiscal, and socioeconomic factors, indicated that the majority of states have a grade of “C” or lower. The 2018 US rating was 74.5 which was relatively flat, only up .3 from 2017. The 2018 score reflects a mixed bag of strengths and weaknesses and indicated substantial disparities between high and low-performing states. (Massachusetts bringing in the first place prize with a score of 86.8 with New Jersey, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut close behind. New Mexico and Nevada received the lowest scores – 66.2 and 65, respectively.) On a positive note, high school graduation and postsecondary participation rates are up but schools continue to struggle with large achievement and funding gaps.
  2. Implicit bias disproportionately impacts African-American In a frightening report, researchers at UNC – Chapel Hill reported that more than 10 percent of children born between 1998 and 2000 in large US cities were suspended or expelled by age nine. They also noted extreme racial disparity with 40 percent of non-Hispanic, African-American boys suspended or expelled as compared to only 8 percent of non-Hispanic white or other-race boys. The study also concluded that those findings, among other results, implied school discipline policies rely heavily on exclusionary punishment which may be a co-variable to inequalities.
  3. Teachers are seriously stressed out. A study in the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions found that 93 percent of elementary school teachers experience high levels of stress. There were many stressors noted including long hours, heavy workload, emotional exhaustion, and feeling pressure to increase student outcomes without proper resourcing. The study sorted teachers into 4 groups, based on their stress level and their ability to cope with stress. These teacher groups were then linked to student academic outcomes. As one would expect, teachers in the high stress/high burnout/low coping categories were associated with the lower student outcomes.

2018 was an interesting year in education research. In 2019 I predict that we will see more studies on how education technologies impact students, the importance of STEM, CTE, and SEL learning opportunities, and continuing research into personalized learning. I also expect continuing research on the achievement gap, bias in the school, and other social justice issues. I look forward to more reading and learning in 2019!

The Magic What If

Hope Dugan, December 2018

I spend a lot of time with educators and something I seem to be hearing a lot more of are reasons why we cannot do something. “We simply cannot change our master schedule! We could not possibly allow a student to select their own learning path! There is simply no way our school could handle a digital learning environment.” And so on. Unfortunately, when well-intentioned leadership decides that a school ‘cannot possibly…’ it frequently means that the school will not have the option. These fear-based responses to a fast-changing world are completely understandable, but as understandable as they are, they are still a barrier to greater success.

Richard Bach, in his groundbreaking book: Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah stated, “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.” Stated simply: If you are constantly saying what you cannot do, you will create a self-fulfilling prophecy that prevents your students and your teachers from reaching new heights.

One way to reframe these thoughts is to utilize the Magic What If. When faced with a difficult decision, ask yourself, “What if?” What if I could affect change? Ask your reluctant administrator, “What if we tried a few classes in a digital learning environment? What if students succeeded? What if it could help reach all our kids? What if we could increase teacher satisfaction and retention?

Instead of arguing for your limitations: “With the budget cuts, we have no option to explore digital learning!” Try using the Magic What If to open the dialogue “What if we tried a few classes using some of the basics? What if we already have some teachers doing this work? What if these teachers could help design and lead the work? What could we achieve together? The Magic What If allows your mind to focus on potential solutions and not stagnate in the barriers to success. The Magic What If allows us to move the conversation forward.

Many schools and districts openly embrace digital learning; some do not. When you believe passionately that digital learning opens the world to a student and solves issues for your district but are constantly met with all the reasons why it can’t work, you can begin to feel like giving up-that it is just easier to go with the flow. When you feel like you are trying to turn the Titanic, remember these 4 things:

  1. If you argue for your limitations, they are yours.
  2. Approach problems as temporary situations and explore ideas with the Magic What If to reframe the conversation.
  3. If there is not a sound educational reason to say no-then consider saying yes.
  4. Keep in mind the desired outcome: that the child learns.

Words are powerful. What if you embraced NOT arguing for your limitations? What if you could begin to affect positive change in your community? What if you could be the difference?

Simple steps for getting and keeping your students’ interest


As I work with schools and staff, the most often asked question is: How do I engage my students? The frequent follow up to the question is an explanation that their students aren’t interested in school or that their students are not motivated to learn. The use of their students somehow implying that those cherubs are different than other teachers’ students. Given all the tasks teachers are asked to complete it is understandable why some feel this way. That being said, I am here to tell you, all students (and really, all people) want to learn. We, as humans, are innately wired to be curious and want to learn. If you accept this premise, the issue at hand then becomes: My students aren’t motivated and don’t want to learn what I am teaching. Ouch!

My students want to learn but not from me or not what I teach? Most of us will have this epiphany at some point, but it does not help to know we are in good company. I was a secondary school teacher and I hold a deep love of the arts – theatre in particular. I wanted to share that love with my students and I was very surprised when some had unequivocally no interest in what I was offering. It would have been easy for me to decide that my students were not motivated or engaged instead of taking a deep breath and realizing that they were not interested in theatre.

We live in exponential times. What we experienced as students, even just 5 years ago, bears little resemblance to what our kids are now experiencing. Our students are living in one of the most exciting times in human history and their lives are filled with instantaneous feedback, real-world engagements, multi-media presentations, and bleeding edge technology. They live in a world where they can customize almost 100% of their experiences, the exception being their education. To ask students to fully engage in whole-class instruction that may not be meeting their needs in a meaningful way will result in what appears to be apathy. ‘Those kids’ who tune out and otherwise appear unmotivated are still desperate to learn and participate, just maybe not in the way or subject you are teaching.

For as long as we have had schools there have been students who were bored or disinterested. The difference now is that their world comes to them and they customize it to suit their unique interests. They expect no less in the classrooms. As teachers, with enormous responsibilities that extend way beyond the duties of teaching, how do you begin to reach the disinterested in your classroom? Below are three places where you can start:

  1. Take the time to know about your students beyond the school day.

TED Talks have become a staple for many of us. We can tune in, select a topic and find hundreds of people sharing their knowledge and stories. What makes a good TED talk? Passion, great storytelling, and the ability to hold an audience’s attention. To take a page from those presenters, TED speakers know how to engage their audience – no matter what the topic. TED speakers connect with the audience in a very personal way and in doing so, ignite curiosity. The modern teacher’s role is no less.

But how do you know what will capture your students’ attention? With 25-40 student in a class, how do reach all of them? It goes back to basics: you have to know them as individuals. It is in the knowing that you build relationships and it is through those relationships that your students will follow where you want them to go. If you cannot make a meaningful connection with your student, it really doesn’t matter how dynamic the topic or how passionate you are about it. Without the connection, students may not be willing to focus and learn. When in doubt, ask your students what they think. Believe me, they will tell you!

  1. Get crystal clear about why this concept/idea/lesson is important.

I once worked with two Algebra teachers. They were frustrated because their students were not doing well and they could not understand why. I observed a class and then sat down with the teachers and asked clarifying questions. My first question was ‘why are you teaching this?’ The first teacher responded, ‘because they have to pass the test.’ And the second responded ‘because it is where we are in the pacing guide.’ I took a deep breath, calmed myself, and tried to ask the question again in several other ways including ‘how will they apply this knowledge in the real world?’ and ‘why is it important that they know this?’ They could not answer in any way other than accountability measures – and I knew then why their students had no interest. Would you be interested in sitting through a difficult lesson when it had no relevance to your life? I wouldn’t. To bring this a step closer to home, if you had been asked to sit through a whole-group professional development designed for only a portion of the group, are you interested? Engaged? Probably not.

Sometimes, foundational information must be learned before more inspirational things can be attempted. That is OK. What is not OK is to teach for the purpose of ‘passing a test’ or because it is in the pacing guide! Tests and guides serve as feedback for the teacher – not the REASON the lesson is taught. If you cannot figure out why the lesson might be important for students to learn, you might want to revisit why you are teaching it. Simon Sinek reminds us to Start with the Why and when you clearly articulate the WHY of the lesson, students are much more likely to follow you through the less interesting points to get to the exciting parts.

  1. Successful teachers know their subject well and know how to create meaningful ways to share their knowledge.

As a teacher, it is not enough to love your subject. You must have a deep understanding of your topic AND know how to share that understanding with your students. There is no power point in the world that will make your students excited to learn but your passion, energy, ensuring student voice and choice, and understanding of how to best share that information might.

Students are smart and they want you to be a lot smarter than they are – at least about your subject. If you are reading one chapter ahead of your students, they intuit that; if you do not love what you teach, they know. Are you engaged? Checked in? Motivated? If not, chances are your students won’t be either.

Teaching is both an art and a science; great teaching is nothing short of magic. Great teachers open the world to their students in ways that consider their learners’ interests. Great teachers know their content area and through that knowing are able to craft meaningful experiences. Will this kind of teacher reach 100% of students 100% of the time? No. Of course not. But teachers who understand the importance of connections, expertise, and how to share their knowledge will reach most of their students, most of the time and in doing so, maintain their interest.

The Gift of Student Agency

Personalized Learning (PL), although a phrase in frequent use, still does not have a universally understood definition. I prefer to define it as an environment where strong relationships between students and teachers are formed and students are empowered to take control of their own learning. Additionally, PL places emphasis on understanding diverse learner needs and including individual interests, passions, and aspirations as a regular part of learning.


At the core of these ideas is the concept of student agency. Agency refers to the ability of the student to take purposeful, intentional action to direct their learning and by extension, their life. Students who have been nurtured to a high level of agency are not helpless bystanders waiting for someone to tell them what to do; they are empowered leaders, seeking out ideas that support their passions and creating the conditions they want for themselves and others.


Agency shapes both the process and the outcomes of student learning. The core features of agency enable students to play a significant role in their self-development, adaptation, and self-renewal. Through the process of understanding how to direct their own learning, students begin to believe their actions can influence desired outcomes; that they are the creators of their destiny. Building agency allows them to gain intrinsic motivation and persistence, both of which are necessary for life-long success.


In order to create the conditions for agency to occur, there must be a shift in how teachers engage students. The role of the teacher should no longer be confined to ‘keeper of the knowledge.’ The new classroom demands an environment where teachers and students co-create and learn together. Below is a continuum, based on the work of McClaskey and Bray, representing the gradual release of control from teacher-led to student-created learning.


Teacher-led Student-centered Student-directed Student-created
  • Traditional teaching role.
  • Teacher creates plans, and sets assignments, due dates and assessments.
  • Students have little voice or choice in their learning.
  • Students are assigned activities based on current unit of study.
  • Assessments may be standard rubric, tests, quizzes and compliance.
  • Students demonstrate mastery as a class (Same time; same assessment).
  • Traditional teaching role.
  • Teacher still creates the majority of the experience.
  • Students may have some voice or choice in their learning.
  • There may be some variance in assignment or some flexibility over time, path, pace or place.
  • Students demonstrate mastery in a variety of ways.
  • The role of the teacher moves to co-designer and co-creator.
  •  The teacher facilitates, and guides students based on individual needs.
  • The teacher is no longer the prime creator of plans and assessments
  • Students manage their learning at their own pace through choice, voice, and data.
  • The student has significant input and control over their learning.
  • The teacher serves to enable the learner to take an active role in their learning. The teacher is an active coach of students based on their needs.
  • The student is empowered to design learning experiences to meet their goals.
  • Students seek needed supports.


Teachers must be willing to share ownership of the classroom and allow students to develop the skills necessary to become agents of their own learning. To support learners on their journey to ownership, teachers create the conditions for students as they grow their confidence, character, grit, and habits of mind. The new classroom becomes a lab for exploration and allows for failure in a safe space. Getting it right the first time is no longer the goal; the process of learning, unlearning, and relearning is now the primary focus. The shift from a teacher-led environment to a student-created environment takes time and patience but it is worth it. Because of the richness these opportunities and experiences provide, teacher-led, direct-instruction pales in comparison.


When we are courageous in our leadership and provide for the gradual release of control that supports learner agency, we are ensuring that our students have the needed skills to address the problems and challenges of the rapidly evolving world in which they live. As teachers, there is no greater gift that we can give.



Zia Learning Zigs into the Ed-Tech Breach
By: Cebron Walker, Editor



School district administrators across the country are moving full steam ahead with personalized learning implementations. The promise of these initiatives is a lofty one; the customization of learning paths to meet the individual needs of students and yield highest levels of attainment for every learner. Yet there is a major breach between the traditional ways of teaching and the emerging world of personalized learning. One educator found a way to successfully juggle the many aspects of facilitation in a personalized classroom and scale that model nation-wide through a teaching framework that has been adopted by some of the largest districts in the US.

While personalized learning success stories abound, there are just as many instances where teachers find themselves policing among rows of students on computer screens, or students using the digital options as a reward or reinforcer, without a true infusion of technology into the daily work of student instruction. The cost to students is the full-promise of transformative personalized learning. Teachers need a new solution, one that shows the “how” of teaching in this new era. Moreover, they need the ability to seemlessly incorporate classroom technologies.

Correctly implemented, personalized learning frees the teacher from rote and data-heavy tasks and gives them the time to work more directly with learners.  However, asking teachers to move away from front-of-room direct instruction towards a more facilitated and student-led approach to teaching and learning is no small request.

Robin Gonzales founded Zia Learning after major realizations about how personalized learning is also a new approach to facilitated instruction, leveraged by technology. With over 15-years of experience in public education, she has made it her life’s passion to support teachers with a practical solution to their transition woes, through a set of frameworks, professional development and student readiness programs. “Teachers are having a difficult time making the shift to personalized learning and really understanding their new role in a 21st Century classroom,” she stated. “Teachers have been trained as experts in their content area but to make this leap they need a clear framework and professional development on the many facets of personalized learning and what it means to facilitate the learning process in a technology rich environment.”

If you haven’t been in a classroom for many years, let’s just say this is an epic shift in required teaching skills. Gonzales thinks this shift in teaching happened at least five years ago and the evolution of methods is just catching up. “I believe that the pedagogy (teaching) predates the technology. Personalized learning is enabled through new 21st Century Tech and allows for teachers to authentically differentiate and individualize instruction and spend more time on the application of knowledge” she said. “When we talk about the constructivist theories of education, we think about Piaget and his theory of cognitive development as well as other models of instruction; multiple intelligences, differentiated instruction, data-driven decision making. These are all pedagogies that have been around, in some cases for centuries and, in other cases, for decades, but they were all very difficult things to implement. New technologies give us data, multiple learning paths and most importantly the time to work with small groups or even individual students.”

Gonzales is working in districts across the US to ensure that personalized learning goes far beyond using online programs in traditional classrooms.  “True personalized learning leverages the technology for what it does best (providing data, allowing for multiple personalized learning curriculum paths) and then frees the teacher from that daily front of room instruction and other tasks to allow for them to support the whole-child. Teachers can then begin to truly know their students’ needs, both academic and social-emotional.”

“Personalized learning is made possible through real-time, formative and adaptive assessments coupled with personalized learning plans, content and lessons that are often delivered via automated systems,” states Gonzales. “Today’s tech enables true personalized learning with timely data which then can be used to tailor individual student learning paths simply and easily for any teacher. Once all the analyzing and tracking duties are taken care of [with the introduction of software] teachers now have the time to take care of the students individually. That’s known as the Time-Technology Swap. The technology takes care of certain components and it actually augments the teacher’s availability in the classroom to serve his or her students and student groups.”

While teachers have more interaction with students in a personalized classroom, students are also called upon to work more independently while completing digital or project components. This means that teachers are also being asked to support self-directed learners. In addition, new pressures to also provide social-emotional support are growing as a solution to underachievement. Gonzales says the two fit perfectly together. “The time gained from implementing a personalized model and the call to move away from direct instruction allows the teacher to better know their students and to address needs beyond the academic context.”

Gonzales states that we must be mindful that students may not be ready for this new autonomous role.  While students are indeed digital natives, they oftentimes lack digital citizenship, time management, pacing, motivation, goal setting and communication skills that are requisite to success in a personalized learning model. Zia Learning addresses this need through a student Skills for Success program that couples social emotional skills with 21st century and autonomous learning skills.

While education leaders have been quick to see the potential of personalized learning, the rightful question she hears most often from teachers is “if I’m not teaching the content and delivering lessons then what exactly am I supposed to do?”  The answer? Develop a highly engaging learning environment that allows for individualized instruction and deeper application of knowledge. In short, facilitate learning.

Gonzales has codified this role of teacher as facilitator in a clear, user friendly framework that breaks down the art of facilitation into four clear domains

  • Coach (in this domain teachers focus on the mentoring aspects of teaching and supporting students socially-emotionally)
  • Direct (teachers focus on the use of data in this domain, including analyzing and interpreting data as well as the development of personalized learning plans based on that information)
  • Design (this domain focuses on the actual layout of the physical classroom in a personalized model as well as grouping for instruction)
  • Apply (in this domain teachers focus on critical thinking skills, project based learning options and the application of knowledge in real-world contexts)

What Zia Learning is doing is giving today’s teacher the opportunity—the superpower—to enable their best teaching practices. Gonzales warns that if you have implemented a personalized learning model and see what she calls KICCC in your classrooms (Kids in Cubicles Clicking Computers) then you might want to visit the Framework and work towards moving beyond adoption and augmentation and towards true transformation of teaching and learning.

Zia Learning is a leading voice in the professional learning and development arena who is saying that the new teacher role is a vital one, and one that takes strong PD support. This new PD approach will give teachers time and the flexibility to create interesting project-based and applied learning options.

Teaching, learning and ultimately outcomes can be enhanced with computers in student’s hands. Zia has zigged in to help teachers learn critical new facilitation skills, while also helping students to strengthen their self-directed learning skills. “It’s how every teacher will teach and how every student will learn in the 21stcentury,” says Gonzales.

Twenty-five years in the trenches of news media and marketing. As Editor at the Learning Counsel, Cebron lives in the “eye of the storm” in this rapidly transforming space, reporting on leading schools, innovative administrators and industry which are shaping the future of teaching and learning.