Rethinking Science Education Using the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) Process

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Note: This is my Field-Based Learing Assignment (FBLA) for my Organizational Systems Behavior Course (EDL 272) in the Drake Univeristy Educational Leadership Program. We were assigned to conduct a “systems analysis” of an educational setting, program, or experience. We had to identify and define the system, purpose, boundaries, parts, and functions. We also had to look for and identify “systems archetypes” and “learning disabilities” and develop a leadership plan that could lead to the improvement of the system, based on the PDSA (Plan-Do-Study-Act) model. 



Looking back, I’m still not entirely sure how I managed to survive my first few years of teaching. This is not an indictment the districts I worked in, but rather of our educational system as a whole. For centuries, teachers worked mostly in isolation from one another and few people really questioned whether that was what was best system for student learning to occur. If they did question it, little was done at the systems level to implement a better system to enable teacher collaboration to occur.

Therefore, while the PLC model has been implemented in nearly every school district in the country, they are still a relatively new arrival to the educational scene. I still remember how innovative it seemed in the spring of 2009 when we learned we would have a 1-hour late start every Wednesday to meet as a team and collaborate together. Sure there were curriculum maps and a few other collaborative documents in place prior to the implementation of PLC’s, but the reality was that many classrooms across the country still operated independently from one another.

In the pre-PLC system, a student’s educational experience in a specific course was often heavily dependent upon the specific teacher that was assigned to them. While the same content was generally taught, the learning process, pedagogy, assessment, and grading practices varied, sometimes wildly. It was a fragmented system of survival for teachers and students. As the system did not build in time for teachers to calibrate and align the learning process for students, the system was fundamentally flawed.

Starting in the fall of 2009, our PLC radically redesigned and calibrated the learning process for students. We created common semester tests and ensured common pacing and learning activities were happening across all classes. Eventually, we developed and adopted common unit tests, labs and activities, grading scales, policies, calendars, Moodle® pages, and much more. It was great work and it was work I was and am still proud of. It created a much better, clearer, more understandable, and more consistent educational experience for our students. Our system was dramatically altered and improved as a direct result of our hard work.

While this work was valuable, it did not create a perfect system of learning for our students. Our conversations remained primarily focused on what we were teaching and how we would teach it. We had become a great teaching organization; however, the verdict was still out on whether we were also an effective learning organization. Our system had an embedded assumption that if you taught it, all students learned it. We were too close to the system to realize this and continued for several years operating our system with this hidden assumption just waiting for us to discover it.

It took me several years before I really began to consider the extent to which the learning process for my students was largely teacher-directed and teacher-centric. I was a great “sage on the stage.” I lectured and lectured. I assigned countless problems and homework. I graded homework. I did not accept late work. I did not allow reassessments. The list goes on and on.

Anecdotally, the system functioned better than before, but the system still needed a lot of work. Were my students really learning better and more engaged with our systemic improvements in place? Over and over, I’d be surprised by the performance of some of my students on unit tests. They were actively participating in class, completing the homework, earning their homework points, seeming to understand the concepts we were teaching, but were not always performing to the same level on the tests. There were still many cracks in the new system we had in place.

Something had to change. Ultimately, our team began to realize the flaws in our approach. We quit grading homework, choosing instead to view it as practice. I equated it to athletics. Students needed to “get their reps in.” They should not be evaluated on their practice, but rather their performance when it counts. For us, that was on unit quizzes and tests.

I still mostly taught in the traditional way with lectures and PowerPoint’s, but this one change dramatically changed how students learned in our system. Gone were the temptations to chase points by copying homework without understanding it. However, this did create a few new problems. Without the reward for compliance with completing the homework, homework completion dropped off substantially. Several different fixes were tried. For example, I gave homework quizzes, which I later came to realize was basically was the same thing as reverting back to grading homework in another way. Rarely did I stop to consider and reflect upon what purpose the homework was really serving or how well it was supporting the learning needs of my students. This was a huge oversight and missed opportunity on my part.

Eventually, our team came to realize that it was our teacher-centric approach to learning that needed to change. In essence, the learning model in our classroom had encouraged students to develop learning algorithms without truly needing to understand or defend these algorithms, how they worked, or where they were flawed. As teachers, we told them all they needed to learn, how everything worked, and expected them to remember that for a test. The student investment in the learning was minimal as our students were largely enabled to be learning spectators rather than actively participating in the learning process in the classroom.


In his book, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge notes that many of the problems that exist in the world today are the direct result of our inability to “see the world as a whole.” Senge advocates for a “shift of mind” where we apply systems thinking to all aspects of our life. Senge defines system thinking as:

“System thinking is a discipline of seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots.’ It is a set of general principles – distilled over the course of the twentieth century, spanning fields as diverse as the physical and social sciences, engineering, and management (Senge, p. 68).”

Traditionally, and even in its current reality, public education reform efforts have often arisen from reductionist thinking in which so-called educational “experts” have separated or identified smaller and smaller individual pieces that make up our complex system and designed “fixes” to make those small pieces work better. In such methodology, the underlying assumption has been that by ensuring that one small part works better, the whole system will work better.

If one were to track the various educational initiatives enacted historically in any school system, they would find that much training and valuable time has been devoted to the adoption of these piecemeal approaches to educational improvement. When we separate out elements and ignore how these elements interact with one another, we are engaging in reductionist thinking. We assume the etiology of an educational challenge is derived from one small problem that we need to fix.

Our thinking rarely is outside the box as we work within such confined parameters. As a result, our solutions are often too simplistic and unlikely to yield meaningful results. In other words, the reductionist structure we have been using for so long has limited our capacity for developing more transformative solutions.

Ultimately, we must try to shift our approach to be less reflexive and more intentional and forward thinking. We must seek ways to optimize the relationships and interactions among all the elements that influence the system, but also between the system and the environment within which it functions in.

We must seek ways to allow multiple elements within our system to evolve and improve simultaneously and be always mindful of how changes to one element in the system will impact other elements in the system and the system as a whole. Engineered most effectively, our system will be able to creatively address and adapt to constant changes. It will embrace new challenges and opportunities and be being solutions-focused. Such a structure will enable the system to build upon its capacity and dynamic complexity over time.

 The Planning Phase:  

In chapter four of The Fifth Discipline, Senge suggests that many learning organizations have fundamental learning disabilities embedded deeply within their system that often go largely undetected (Senge, p. 18). Senge believes these learning organizations pervade all learning organizations to some degree, “despite the best efforts of bright, committed people.” (Senge, p. 18).

One such example of an organizational learning disability is “I am my position (Senge, p. 18).” Senge describes this disability as being a byproduct of how we are trained to be loyal to our jobs – so much so that we confuse them with our own identities.

“When asked what they do for a living, people describe tasks they perform over the purpose or enterprise under which they work. Most people see themselves within a system over which they have little or no influence. They do their job, put in their time, and try to cope with the forces outside their control. Consequently, people tend to see their responsibilities as limited to the boundaries of their position (Senge, p. 18).”

Considering the previous system we had in place. There is no doubt that our team of teachers possessed the requisite content knowledge and pedagogical skills to be effective teachers. However the possession of strong content knowledge and great pedagogy does not always correlate to increased student achievement. Our systemic problems did not lie in our collegiate preparation or training. We all possessed the mental capacities to be excellent teachers. However, our team struggled to imagine new possibilities for learning and our teaching approaches beyond our previous experiences in teaching and learning.

In the mind of many teachers, especially historically, the definition of educational excellence involves the teacher leading the classroom in the front of the room, acting as a gatekeeper of learning, carefully dispensing new content to their students. Quality classroom management is defined as being a system where the teacher is prepared and focused, students are quiet and taking notes, and there is a clear delineation of roles between teacher and student, between those that are learning and the one that is leading the learning.

The opportunities for innovation were all around us, but we struggled to see past our own mental models and ideas about what it meant to be a teacher and struggled to perceive these opportunities and take the risks necessary to adopt a newer, better approaches to learning science. We also may have been unsure and lacked confidence about whether we could proceed with such radical shifts to our approaches. Could we really just stop lecturing? How could we could we call ourselves teachers if we did things differently? Would the system permit this? Would we get in trouble?

In many systems, there is a collective sense among people within a system that they have little leverage over how the system as a whole is operating. Historically, many education systems have operated with rigid leadership hierarchies and chains of command. The system reinforced a mindset of being obedient, staying in your own lane, being compliant, following directions, and asking few questions of those above you. Over the years, this system functioned moderately well and was also easy to understand. However, it was far from a perfect system. When people are separated into fragmented areas, they rarely are able to “see the forest for the trees” or understand how the whole system operates. Their perceived locus of control shrinks and they begin to lose interest in the system as whole, as they feel powerless to change any part of it. This is another example of Senge’s organizational learning disability, “I am my position.”

“When people in organizations focus only on their position, they have little sense of responsibility for the results produced when all positions interact. Moreover, when results are disappointing, it can be very difficult to know why. All you can do is assume ‘someone screwed up’ (Senge, p. 19).”

As I read that, it really resonated with me. How often do teams that operate in various systems really function as a team as opposed to an assemblage of individuals forced together by circumstances beyond their control? How well do all the parts of the team fit together as a meaningful whole? Do all members of the team share a collective commitment one another and the success of the team? Do all members of the team take ownership for the team’s performance or do they point fingers when one member of the team struggles to be successful? Do team members support and help one another to imagine and implement better solutions or do they just identify problems? On a larger scale, do the team members understand how their work complements and adds value to the system as a whole or how the system as a whole is designed to function?

Building a team of teachers that has established shared commitment and accountability for the success and achievement for every student, not just the students in the specific teacher’s classroom, takes time. Our chemistry team was no different. It took some time for us to move from being individuals focused primarily on our own students, classroom, and workloads. Implementing PLC’s helped us work within a structure where we could collaborate to create common units, pacing, activities, and assessments. Even so, we mostly implemented individually and rarely engaged in reflective conversations about how our system as a whole was working. Therefore, one could reasonably question whether were engaged in collaborative team learning or merely task design and creation

The system had its problems and we mostly worked as individuals to implement various solutions to these problems. For example, a student’s performance on tests didn’t always correlate to the student’s performance in class. We each individually imagined possible explanations for this problem, and implemented the random acts of improvement that we thought would fix this fundamental systemic flaw. Some assigned more homework. Some assigned less homework. Some gave random homework quizzes. Some let students retake tests if homework was completed.

All of us experience some level of failure with all of our approaches. Our solutions usually worked, but only temporarily. Eventually, the problem resurfaced again and again because we weren’t thinking systematically, across all classrooms, teachers, and most importantly, all students. We did not know what we did not know, or we were choosing to ignore the obvious, that our system was flawed and we should rethink our system on the whole.

We also needed to engage in real and honest conversations about many issues surrounding our common system of instruction. How well did our in-class learning align with our tests? Did we have clear expectations and standards for performance that our students understood and could communicate to one another and us? How confident could we be in the abilities of our students if they were not doing the work in front of us? Many systemic blind spots persisted.

However, we believed we were in control. Senge would describe this as “the illusion of taking charge (Senge, p. 20).” We believed that we were being proactive or preventing a problem from getting worse, but the reality is that we were simply delaying the inevitable or reacting to previous events with a new interventions instead of really trying to understand the root causes of the original event in the first place or how that event was interconnected to many other events as whole.

In chapter four of his book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge identifies eleven laws of systems thinking. In the scenario I’ve described above, I was breaking several of the laws of systems thinking. Upon careful reflection, some of my crimes were quite egregious.

For example, I was breaking Senge’s first law of systems thinking, “Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions (Senge, p. 57). ” Senge describes this law by noting that the causes of our problems often arise from our own solutions of the past (Senge, p. 57) and that solutions that merely shift problems from one part of a system to another often go undetected (Senge, p. 57).

When I started to give homework quizzes, allowing students to use their homework on the quizzes, I thought I’d fixed the problem of homework completion. I didn’t. Sure, homework completion dramatically increased after the first few quizzes, and students generally started to perform well on the quizzes. However, test performance didn’t dramatically improve. In essence, I just put more pressure on the system. Now students felt more compelled to complete the homework, perhaps by copying another’s or getting help from others. Rather than struggle to try to understand and therefore learn, there was now a penalty for not completing the homework. I never really stopped to consider whether fixing the homework problem was the really right work to be engaging in.

Prior to implementing homework quizzes, students may have seen homework as having a purpose of helping them build a better understanding of the content. They may have even seen the struggle and difficulty to be necessary for their learning growth and may have embraced that. Others may have seen the homework as only necessary if they didn’t already understand the content. However, now all students began to see homework as a systemic punishment, a purposeless compliance task they had to complete, a hoop they had to jump through to succeed in the “game of school.”

Senge’s second law states that “The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back (Senge, p. 58).” In essence, Senge is describing a positive feedback loop in which A produces more of B, which results in the need for more of A, which results in more B. The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back; the more effort you expend trying to improve matters, the more effort seems to be required (Senge, p. 58).

One can clearly see how I kept pushing back on a flawed system by trying to fix the systemic problems with temporary solutions. When students adapted to the homework quizzes, but didn’t really deepen their learning, I unknowingly created a positive feedback loop. Now some students had learned that they could earn points to pad their grade by doing well on the (relatively easy) homework quizzes. In essence, I had implemented a temporary fix that rewarded students for their “teacher pleasing behavior.” Instead of replacing the tire, I put a piece of bubble gum on the leak and hoped for the best.

Looking back, it is also amazing to me how many times I violated Senge’s fourth law, which states that “The easy way out usually leads back in (Senge, p. 60).” Senge admits that we all find comfort in applying familiar solutions to problems, sticking to what we know best; however, if the solution were easy to see or obvious to everyone, it probably would already have been found (Senge, p. 61). Therefore, pushing harder and harder on familiar solutions, while fundamental problems persist or worsen, is a reliable indicator of nonsystemic thinking (Senge, p 61).

When student homework dropped again, I brought back the homework quizzes, students complied, made the adjustment, and life when on. However, now I also had to grade all the homework quizzes, which took a lot of time. Once I had the sense that students had learned the lessson of completing their homework, the quizzes went away, homework completion dropped, and I was right back where I was before. I never considered another approach, as that approach had worked before. Why “reinvent the wheel?”

I also heavily connect with Senge’s fifth law “The cure can be worse than the disease (Senge, p. 61).” This law maintains that the long-term consequence of applying non-systemic solutions is increased need for more and more of the solution, creating a phenomenon of short-term interventions leading to long-term dependency, shifting the burden to the intervener (Senge, p. 61).

What I really should have done is to have an honest conversation with my students to try to figure out the root causes for why the homework wasn’t getting done and why their tests weren’t always correlating to their homework performance. They probably would have given me a lot of great feedback about the flaws of the system I had put into place. Looking back, I can’t even imagine what my students must have thought of all the constant changes I was making. In not doing this, I also reinforced a strict hierarchy in my own classroom. The changes were happening to the students and not with the students. I felt I needed to feel like I was in control. In reality, I missed so many opportunities to build trust and relationships with my students by not including them in my instructional decision-making processes. After all, I was there to serve them. It was never the other way around.

The final and most obvious of Senge’s laws that I violated was Senge’ eighth law “Small changes can produce big results – but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious.” (Senge, p. 63). Senge notes that most obvious solutions don’t work – at best they improve matters in the short run, only to make things worse in the long run (Senge, p. 63-64). Therefore, Senge argues that small, well-focused actions can sometimes produce significant, enduring improvements if they are in the right place. (Senge, p. 64).

To achieve such results, the principle of leverage is crucial. We must see where the high leverage lies; a change that – with minimum effort – would lead to lasting, significant improvement. According to Senge, high-leverage changes are usually highly nonobvious to most participants in the system until we understand the forces at play in those systems (Senge, p. 64).

What if I had asked my students what they needed to be more successful? What if I had more trust in my students? What if my students had more trust in me? It is often said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Did my students really know how much I cared? Did they know how much time I thought about them, how they were learning, and what I could be doing better? How could they know? Did I provide any opportunities for them to observe that?

Clearly, we must strive to learn as much as we can about the structures that drive our systems. In chapter 5 of The Fifth Discipline, Senge succinctly states, “Structures of which we are unaware hold us prisoner (Senge, p. 93).” Senge believes that “learning to see the structures within which we operate begins a process of freeing ourselves from previously unseen forces and ultimately mastering the ability to work with them and change them (Senge, p. 93).”

How then can we identify these structures? Senge suggests that fixing this problem lies in identifying a fundamental solution to the problem, which may involve really diving into the root causes that created the problem in the first place. To assist with this process, Senge has identified several “systems archetypes” that exhibit “patterns of structure that recur over and over again (Senge, p. 93).”

Among the archetypes present in the current system is the archetype “shifting the burden (Senge, p. 391).” Shifting the burden is described below:

“A short term ‘solution’ is used to correct a problem, with seemingly positive immediate results. As this correction is used more and more, fundamental long-term corrective measures are used less and less. Over time, the capabilities for the fundamental solution may atrophy or become disabled, leading to even greater reliance on the symptomatic solution.” (Senge, p. 391)

My homework quizzes were my short-term solution. They worked for a while and eventually, they stopped working to achieve the desired change in behavior that I was striving for. It got to a point where the only way students would reliably complete the homework was if I pre-announced there was going to be a quiz over the homework the next day. Eventually, even that didn’t matter, as there were enough points in the grade book that an individual homework quiz had minimal impact on their grade. Unintentionally, my new system rewarded and reinforced a mindset of point accumulation as opposed to deep, meaningful learning of the content.

Senge would describe this dilemma as a perfect example of the archetype “Fixes that Fail” (Senge, p, 399). The homework quizzes were a short-term, effective fix that had unforeseen, negative long-term consequences, requiring more and more of the same fix. Worse yet, one could argue that implementing the homework quizzes only made the problem worsen over time.

The reality was the homework quizzes really only benefitted the students that were already doing well in the course. These were the students that always did the homework, tried their best, not due to any great teaching on my part, but more because they were disciplined, intrinsically motivated, and driven students that complied with every request from all their teachers, no matter how pointless. They knew how to “play the game of school” and understood the rewards for playing the game well. These students were already going to be successful on the test. However, one could also argue that this did not even help those students, as they may have engaged in the homework out of compliance, not due to committment or any need for additional practice. For them, the homework and extra practice was unnecessary busy work.

For the students that most needed the additional practice, the homework became a rushed, high-pressure, exercise in task compliance. Minimal learning likely occurred under such conditions. They may not have felt that they could risk failure or afford to make mistakes, which is really the process of how new learning and growth actually occurs. They may have done well enough on the homework quizzes, but they did not retain the learning at a deep and meaningful level needed for success on the tests. The homework did not help them to better connect ideas and concepts, identify gaps in their learning, and make adjustments for improvement in their learning.

Senge would classify this as a classic example of his “Success to the Successful” archetype. The rewards of the success go to those that are already successful. Those that most need additional support in their learning suffer under a flawed process where they had less freedom to make mistakes, learn, and grow. As a result, they did not do any better on the tests, even though they had complied with completing the homework.


The Doing Phase:

This phase involves really narrowing the focus and developing a shared vision among team members in the system about how to proceed. Developing consensus on the direction forward is crucial to the long-term success and sustainability of the systemic improvements. Paramount to this success is the need to remain mindful about the purpose of the changes. In our case, it was about creating a better system of learning chemistry for our students.

In our case, we had a member of our team that had been teaching physics using the modeling approach, with great success. Over the three years prior that the modeling approach had been used in our physics classes, ACT scores among students that had taken the modeling physics course rose from what they were previously (admittedly with a different cohort of students). Parents also had anecdotally reported better college readiness from their students had taken physics using the modeling approach.

Based on these results and given our stagnant results with two different chemistry curricula over the previous six years, we made a collective commitment to make the change to implement the modeling approach to our chemistry instruction.


The Study Phase:

To really understand the modeling approach, one must understand how science instruction has historically occurred in many classrooms. Traditional science instruction has reinforced and constructed two main types of learning modalities. First, it has created the perception that science is a collection of already established facts and ideas to be learned or memorized by the student. Second, the rules and procedures that govern a specific science discipline must be explained to the student in order for the student to build the requisite skills to develop an understanding of that science discipline. Such a system of learning presupposes that students will magically see the underlying structure in the content and draw meaningful connections between the various science disciplines without explicitly providing them opportunities to make these connections.

How does modeling differ from traditional science instruction? According to Larry Dukerich (2015), modeling instruction’s goals are to guide students to:

  • Construct and use scientific models to describe, to explain, to predict and to control physical phenomena
  • Model physical objects and processes using diagrammatic, graphical and algebraic representations recognize a small set of particle models as the content core of chemistry
  • Evaluate scientific models through comparison with empirical data
  • View modeling as the procedural core of scientific knowledge.

Why was this approach better than our previous approaches? First, as Dukerich (2015) describes, this approach as entirely consistent with the Science and Engineering Practices found in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) specifically:

  • I construct mental and conceptual models to represent and understand phenomena.
  • I use models to explain and predict behaviors of systems, or test a design.
  • I refine my models in light of new empirical evidence.

Modeling also aligned more clearly with our district’s instructional model, Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey’s (2008) Gradual Release of Responsibility model. Specifically, it provided a structure to shift from the teacher-centered “I do it” approach to the more student-centered “We do it together” method. Modeling is geared much more toward shifting the responsibility for cognitive work to from the teacher to the students, enabling deeper and more meaningful learning opportunities for the students. This ensures that students see science as a way of viewing the world, rather than a series of facts to be memorized.

In the modeling approach, chemistry content is organized differently than in a more traditional chemistry classroom. Dukerich (2015) describes organization very well:

“Modeling Chemistry is organized around a series of models rather than a collection of topics. In this approach, students begin with phenomena they can readily observe and are guided to develop the simplest model of matter that helps them make sense of their observations. In each subsequent unit, students encounter phenomena that require them to modify the existing model or replace it with a more robust model. This constructivist approach mirrors how early scientists developed understanding of chemistry concepts.”

Embedded within this organization are some very distinct differences in the approach to learning. Specific emphasis is placed on using the chemistry content to build skills in problem solving, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration. The teacher pushes the student’s thinking by asking “why?” several times, forcing students to really dive deep into their learning, defend their ideas and mental models, and examine the root causes of why they believe what they believe to be true.

Therefore, students are expected to think, work, and learn like a scientist. Students start with a mental model, test it, collect data, analyze the data, draw appropriate conclusions, collaborate, communicate their results, defend their ideas, listen to others, and assimilate the new learning to build better, stronger mental models. The learning becomes less passive and more active, moving the classroom away from a one-size-fits-all factory model of education. Therefore, learning moves from transmissionist to constructivist, from teacher-centered to student-centered.


The Acting Phase:

We just finished our second year of using the modeling approach in chemistry and there are several lessons I have learned in this time.

First, for the modeling approach to work, the teacher must facilitate the creation of an inclusive classroom culture of collaboration. Any teacher adopting the modeling approach must keep in mind the students’ prior experience of learning science, which is well-described by Dukerich (2015),

“In traditional classrooms, instructors present the information they feel is important for their students to know and demonstrate the skills they want their students to master. Unfortunately, there is considerable evidence that teaching by telling is ineffective. Hestenes writes, “ Coherent understanding cannot be transferred from teacher to student by lucid explanations or brilliant demonstrations. Students systematically misunderstand much of what we tell them because they do not have the same ‘schema’ that we teachers do. To a teacher, the phrase ‘conservation of energy’ conjures up the image of an energy accountant, who understands the importance of keeping track of the way energy is stored in a system and exchanged with the surroundings. To students, it is simply a definition to memorize and regurgitate on a test. Likewise, students do not learn to become effective problem-solvers by watching the teacher solve problems at the board any more than one could become physically fit by sitting on the couch and watching a workout video.”

The modeling approach to learning science is much different. Dukerich (2015) draws this distinction this way:

“By contrast, in a Modeling classroom, the teacher provides direction for investigation and model building while the students work together to represent and understand the phenomenon. They also work together to define key concepts (such as conservation of mass) from their evidence before the related scientific terminology is introduced. Problem solving evolves from applying the representational tools developed to describe the model to a new situation rather than learning to use a list of steps provided by a textbook or teacher. Throughout this process, the teacher’ s role is to listen to the students’ discourse and use questioning strategies to deepen the students’ thinking or elicit stronger explanations for their reasoning and conclusions.”

When the teacher transitions from “sage on the stage” to a facilitator of learning, the students gain greater control and responsibility over their own learning experiences. I still remember in my first year of modeling, one of our instructional coaches came in for a classroom visit.

“What am I going to see today?” she asked.

“That’s a great question.” I answered. “I think they will be … however, they could … If they … we will… If they … we will… By the end of the class, I hope we get to …”

It wasn’t exactly the answer she was expecting, but looking back, it was the perfect answer. It was not prescriptive. There was a general plan, but the plan was flexible and it was the students’ level of learning and understanding that would drive the agenda, not my own “one size fits all” teacher-driven approach.

Creating such a culture doesn’t happen overnight. Last August, during the first few days of my second year of this approach, I asked my students to whiteboard and talk about their results and they all looked at me with the classic “deer in the headlights” look. I had just assumed my students would be at a place where this was all second nature. In my mind, was where my previous students had finished in May, not where my new students were at in August. I had forgotten about the process and time it took me to build that culture again. Prepare to build the culture from scratch every year and prepare for that to take some time.

Second, learning must be assessed very differently. First and foremost, the teacher should adopt the philosophy that assessment for learning is an ongoing process. With the modeling approach, students are actively engaged in the learning process every day. Students white board nearly every day, providing me ample opportunity to assess the level of learning of every student as I circulate around the room. I never knew how little I knew about each student’s level of understanding until I started having students white board in class every day. This turned out to be a huge area of leverage for me, as it required my students to talk, collaborate, and communicate their level of understanding every day.

To accomplish this, I needed to free up time for students to engage in the white boarding. This was the area that was the hardest for me. My leverage lied in abandoning my PowerPoint’s. This required me to break from a deeply engrained mental model I had created about what teaching was. I had spent countless hours creating elegant PowerPoints. At the same time, I never realized how dependent I had become on them or how much they had kept me from interacting with and creating relationships with my students. They created an unnecessary barrier between my students and I.

My role in the system is now much more challenging. I am a facilitator of learning. I have the crucial role of asking the right questions and keeping the learning going forward, differentiating for diverse learning needs of students throughout the class. However, now my student’s minds and brains are just as fatigued as mine at the end of every class. Everyone in the room shares in the mental workout. Students can’t take a problem off. A blank whiteboard either means students need support and intervention, or they are disengaged. Both will result me having a conversation with the students to help support the correct path forward.  The daydreaming, texting, and other disruptions are at a minimum. There is not much of an opportunity to “opt out” of the learning happening in the class.

The system is still far from perfect. There are many opportunities for improvement. There is still a need to unpack the NGSS standards and identify priority standards. The instruction then needs to be closely aligned with the priority standards. Second, while students are allowed to reassess, the reassessment process is not standardized across all teachers. Third, we still give tests and use a system of percentages and points to calculate a letter grade. There is a need to move to different model that creates more focus on the learning than the grade. Some students

On the postive side, the students are learning better in the new system than the old. I had no student failures this semester, the first time ever in my career. In fact, in the most difficult part of chemistry during second semester, almost every student was fully able to write chemical formulas, balance chemical equations, perform dimensional analysis to convert units, apply mole ratios to convert between substances, and round to the correct significant problems. Test performance was strong all semester.

Our system has dramatically improved, yet is far from perfect.



  1. Senge, P.M. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. New York: Doubleday/Currency.
  2. Dukerich, L. (2015). Applying modeling instruction to high school chemistry to improve students’ conceptual understanding. Journal of Chemical Education, 92(8), 1315-1319.
  3. Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2008). Better learning through structured teaching: A framework for the gradual release of responsibility. Alexandria, VA: Association for the Supervision of Curriculum Development.





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