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Why Your Students Aren’t Learning: 10 Silent Disruptors Of Academic Performance



Why Your Students Aren’t Learning: 10 Silent Disruptors Of Academic Performance

by Terry Heick

The reality of learning in today is a matter of perspective, but it’s clear that most K-20 learning environments are teacher-led and academic (as opposed to self-directed and authentic).

While we often write about new ways to learn using new thinking, new models, and new technology, there is absolutely a role for teacher-led, academic learning in the 21st century; being ‘led by the teacher’ isn’t always a bad thing.

In fact, the role of the human being is likely to becoming increasingly important in education no matter how deeply technology is infused in the learning process. While content-area expertise may seem to be less important with modern access to information, no matter how intelligent adaptive learning models become in the next ten years, nothing will surpass the intimacy of a human being—a person that can view and adjust the persistent interaction between a student and content.

It is in this ‘teacher important’ and highly-academic context that we’re going to take a look at common disruptors of academic performance.

The pedagogical approach of curriculum–>teacher–>student rewards efficiency, data extraction, and meaningful responsiveness to that data. This naturally makes some things (assessment and feedback) more important than others (grading).

In terms of student performance in the classroom (which is different than how deeply they understand content), there are a variety of potential disruptors. Two of the most powerful of these are basic literacy skills and socioeconomic status, facts that have spawned dozens of programs over the years—including Title I—in response.

It is likely clear to most educators then that reading levels and poverty impact academic progress, as do peer pressure, self-confidence, personal events in students’ life, the luck of the draw in terms of what peers and teachers a student gets assigned to, and dozens of other factors. It’s not all on you.

Only it kind of is, because these all are ‘excuses’ in this modern—and dangerous—game of accountability in education.

No matter the circumstances, every student deserves the best education possible—a fact both swelling with rhetoric and absolutely true.

Which means as educators we have to understand many of the potential barriers to both understanding and classroom performance. So below we look at 10 of the less common, ‘silent’ disruptors of student academic performance—factors that move beyond literacy, poverty, lack of technology access, and other admittedly powerful but already widely disseminated ideas.

Note, two of the more common reasons students aren’t learning (reading level, student engagement/motivatio) are well-covered and well-known. This post is about the less-obvious factors that could harming student performance.

10 Silent Disruptors Of Student Academic Performance 

10. Student Disorganization

Every teacher has that student—the one that comes into the classroom with a pile of papers stacked high enough to hide their face as they waddle in.

Middle school teachers especially have seen the way disorganization can impact note-taking (unlikely), note-keeping (ha!), and careful study of notes and other learning materials that can result in understanding of content, and thus academic success.

9. Student Work Not Within ZPD

Without differentiation or personalized learning, for the majority of the class any work given will likely fall outside of their Zone of Proximal Development.

In the same way it wouldn’t stress a marathon runner to run three times around the block, nor would it makes sense to have them run a thousand miles, choosing the right work at the right time in just the right amount can be a huge boon not only to student understanding, but long-term classroom success.

8. Poor Response to Data

We’ll talk more about data below, but suffice to say that while teachers are getting better at extracting, analyzing, and sharing data, meaningfully responding to that data in a timely manner every single day is another matter entirely.

Timely, meaningful, and consistent responses to data are crucial to student learning.

7. Lack of Specificity and/or Clarity

Whether it’s a lack of clarity in learning goals, muddy procedures, difficult-to-follow teacher questioning, a confusing instructional sequence, or a disconnect between a literacy strategy and the content to be learned, it very well may be that you make sense to most of the class while still leaving 1/3 or more behind—a large portion that learns to smile, give eye-contact, and ask cursory questions, then seek out peers to fill in the gaps the best they can.


6. Imbalanced Teacher Content Knowledge vs Pedagogical Knowledge

Or a disconnect between the learning goal and the planned lesson.

Many teachers are experts—or near experts—in their content areas, passionate life-long learners that eat up every science essay, literary magazine, or war monument they can find.

Others are ‘master teachers,’ engrossed in the planning of authentic learning experiences for students.

Very, very few teachers are both. At some point, one or another takes hold in a teacher’s professional pathway, making it easy to lose sight of the other. When that happens, some area of student learning will suffer: dry, irrelevant expertly delivered content, or interesting, critical poorly-packaged learning activities.

And both can disrupt academic performance.

5. Curriculum Mapping Mistakes (no iteration, practice, awkward sequencing, etc.)

Curriculum maps aren’t staid and static documents for you to adhere to and ‘be compliant with district expectations’—or rather they shouldn’t be. A well designed—and responsive and flexible—curriculum map is your friend. Mistakes at the curriculum planning level can take years for teachers and students to overcome.

4. Unmanageable Data

You may have data, but it’s incredibly time-consuming to extract. Planning, designing, and producing the assessment, then administering it (with make-up assessments), evaluating student performance (i.e., grading it), organizing learning feedback in a way that makes sense and it helpful to students, then reporting said progress (i.e., entering grades), then taking that data, repackaging it in a way that can be visualized and comprehended, then performing item analyses, making inferences about missed questions and distractors, etc., then taking all of that data and modifying and personalizing planned instruction for each student—and doing all of this consistently—is a significant burden even with technology.

The first step in mitigating this elephant-in-the-classroom of problematic data is to make it more manageable on a consistent basis, and simply organizing teachers into “data teams” is a decent but ultimately insufficient response.

3. Assessment Design

The test results may show weak academic performance, but it could be because the test isn’t assessing what you think it is. Or you’ve chosen an assessment form that only obscures what students understand rather than letting them show it.

If you suspect students know more than they show, you might be right–and this could be a big reason why.

Assessment design is one of least well-understood areas of pedagogy. For an overview, there are many, many ways to measure understanding.

2. Limited practice transferring knowledge

You may have done well explaining what a thesis statement is and is not, where they do and do not belong, and why every argument essay needs one, but students may have no idea why having a position on a given issue is important, much less how to communicate it and what on earth that has to do with a column on a rubric you just handed them.

Moving from big picture—the why and when—to the little picture—exactly how—can help those students that struggle to make that kind of transition themselves. Some students are detailed, micro-thinkers, while others are design-level, big picture surveyors. This means you need to move back and forth as often as you want them to.

This is a kind of transfer, and transfer both reflects and strengthens understanding.

See also 14 Ways Students Can Transfer What They Know

1. Student Understanding/Minimal Depth to Knowledge

Whether you use Bloom’s Taxonomy, Depth of Knowledge, Understanding by Design’s 6 Facets of Understanding, TeachThought’s Learning Taxonomy, or something else entirely, not all understanding is created equal.

While a student may be able to define tone, or perimeter, or immigration, or mitosis, or any number of other content strands, being able to transfer that understanding—to use that knowledge in new and unfamiliar situations without prompting—is another matter entirely.

Simply put, students that deeply understand content—and the context of that content—are far less likely to underperform on an assessment, struggle to complete assignments, or perform poorly in school.

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The Selflessness Of Pedagogy: What Every Teacher Gives




The Selflessness Of Pedagogy: What Every Teacher Gives

by Terry Heick

It’s better to give than to receive–something that holds true for gift-giving and education.

In fact, the act of giving isn’t just a matter of ultimately receiving more, or even an act of altruism and selflessness. It has more to do with seeing the big picture itself — a healthy, robust, functioning system of careful human performance — that becomes the goal. It’s in this simple paradigm shift that we, as teachers, can find a new level of performance as professionals, contentment in our craft, and changed lives in the communities we serve.

So how might we focus on that service not as a characteristic of my job, but as the goal itself–the most macro product of all? For teachers, this would obviously be built around the idea of service-oriented teaching, where we gain strength and perspective from serving others. It would lead to ‘other growth,’ including, on a broader level, the formation of a personal and professional ecology than can sustain us through the challenges of teaching.

What would this look like?

Other teachers who need us, and who we need

Parents who need us, and who we need

Students who need us for something other than clarifying instructions, providing credit, and letter grades

The community of our school, including grade levels above and below ours, that needs us for our performance, collaboration, and ideas, just as we need that community.

In a word, this looks like interdependence. So what can I give to begin?

They give themselves.

Teaching is martyrdom. So often, educators feel the need to give themselves up to be feasted upon until there’s nothing left. Giving yourself is a different kind of gift, though. Here, it means truly putting your self aside — your need to be the best, your insecurities, professional goals, need for affirmation, and so on — and instead give in to the act of teaching.

But more crucially, this giving of yourself implies that you give your whole self to the act of teaching — your creativity, affection, background knowledge, contacts, networks, dreams, hopes, and so on — in the whole merging of you and your work.

They give others the benefit of the doubt.

As a teacher, you’ll see a lot moving upstream and down — struggling readers that always seem to come from that school; that family that doesn’t seem to care; that co-worker who seems to challenge you at every chance; that administrator who always seems to find a way to poke holes in your teaching. That assessment. That law. That policy.

Never, ever stop questioning the things happening around you. Be a critical educator, ask tough questions, and ring the bell when you’re concerned. Just do so from a position of positivity — give others the benefit of the doubt. Use positive presuppositions, such as: “We’ve always been strong supporters of literacy here, so I’m confused why. . . ”




They give themselves the opportunity to learn new things continuously.

Okay, perspective change to first-person: I’m going to give myself the gift of learning. As a teacher, it makes sense to learn endlessly, not just to model it for students, but to keep my own curiosity and tendency for play stirring and alive.

I may learn a new set of literacy strategies. Maybe it’ll be a variation on the Socratic Seminar, or I’ll mash Fish Bowls with Agree/Disagree. I may bring new education technology into my classroom, or reach for new learning models such as project-based learning, sync teaching, or self-directed learning. I may throw out my desk and go paperless, mobile, or completely back to basics.

But I’m never going to stop learning. That is my gift to myself.

They give students a chance.

Maybe that’s a chance to surprise themselves. I want to give the gift of inspiration. Who doesn’t? And what better way can we inspire than by designing learning experiences that let students do things they didn’t think they were capable of? My gift would be giving students opportunities to surprise themselves through their own skills, critical thinking, creativity, and deep understanding of important ideas.

They give parents authentic opportunity to get involved.

It’s tempting to complain about parents that aren’t involved in their child’s schooling. Who on earth wants to be involved in schooling? Learning is a different matter — that’s something with a foothold allowing parents to engage meaningfully. This isn’t grades and homework, but rather understanding and the need to understand.

You may or may not get anything more from parents, but at least you’ve given them more tempting access than they’ve ever had in the past.

They give others chances to create new measures of success.

Teaching — properly done and measured as we do today — is impossible. It can’t be done. You cannot bring every single child to proficiency in every single standard while, at the same time, meeting their needs as human beings and helping them both see and reach their full potential. If this is your goal, you’re only going to disappoint yourself endlessly until you either burn out or realize that you’re lying to yourself.

Teaching, though, with new metrics of success — well, that’s suddenly a whole lot easier.

They give themselves a break.

The preceding represents a lot of giving, and also a lot of complexity, interdependence, opportunity, work, and chances to fail. So above all, I’m going to give myself a break.

I will give all of myself. I will give the benefit of the doubt. I’ll learn new things, promote self-discovery, connect with communities, and establish new measures of success. And when things go wrong, I’ll have a short memory. I’ll give myself a break and push on, excited about what tomorrow might bring.

Image attribution flickr user denisekrebs and cloudboard; What Every Good Teacher Gives
pay for an essay to be written

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How The Lesson Study Approach Can Improve Your Teaching



How The Lesson Study Approach Can Improve Your Teaching

contributed by Vicki Collet

Making teaching a shared and public practice supports improved instruction.

When teachers have opportunities for collaboration, reflection, and inquiry, they “can find better ways to answer the learning needs of students” (Lieberman & Wood, 2002, p. 42). Teacher inquiry makes us question practices that have become stale, generate innovation, and create dynamic learning for ourselves and our students.

Over the past decade, I’ve participated in teacher inquiry using a process called Lesson Study. I’ve seen scores of teachers engage with authentic professional learning through this work. Lesson Study is a structure for teacher inquiry that is as straightforward as it sounds: the study of a lesson. However, Catherine Lewis, who learned about Lesson Study in Japan and has been instrumental in spreading its use in the United States, points out that during Lesson Study,

(Teachers) improve the lessons not as an end in
itself, but as a way to deepen their own content knowledge, their knowledge of
student thinking, their understanding of teaching and learning, and their
commitment to improvement of their own practice and that of colleagues…Lesson
study is not about discovering the one right way to teach a lesson, but about
building knowledge of many teaching strategies and habits of observation,
inquiry, and analysis of practice (Lewis & Hurd, 2011, p. 24).

When participating in Lesson Study, you will collaboratively plan lessons that become the focus of inquiry on effective teaching practices. Then you’ll observe one another teach lessons and collaboratively revise and refine your instructional plans, as shown in the figure below.

How The Lesson Study Approach Can Improve Your Teaching

Inquiry is the essential element of Lesson Study, so the clear focus you identify for a Lesson Study cycle should propel your desire to investigate, to analyze and study together. Pursuing the questions your group has identified provides challenge and authentic purpose, which will increase your team’s motivation and engagement. Because you have identified the problem for yourself, the process will have immediate value. 

The goal of Lesson Study is not to create the ideal lesson that is universally useful. During teacher preparation and professional development, you have doubtless been taught and encouraged to use ‘best practices.’ Although it is true that some practices are more effective than others (and research has much to teach us), it is also true that there is no single, perfect lesson. This is true because you and I, and the students we teach, are diverse in so many ways. Lesson Study focuses on “the why of teaching: why teaching methods work in particular ways in particular settings” (Smagorinsky, as cited in Garcia & O’Donnell-Allen, 2015, p. 5). 

Grow your school with TeachThought PD Collaborative Lesson Study Workshops.

In our quest for better ways of doing things, Lesson Study can help us identify places where we are frozen in old practices and can help us warm to new ones. Lesson Study uncovers new approaches that are informed by the examination of evidence gained through our professional inquiry. Collaboration with colleagues who share similar contexts and concerns makes the insights gained especially helpful. By being the guides to our own professional learning, teachers resist stagnation and become mobile, active agents of change. With our colleagues, we take a learning stance by asking questions, taking risks, and reflecting on both successes and failures.

Study uses knowledge you gain from your own classroom to stimulate professional
conversations about teaching and learning. Shared experiences through joint
planning and observation support the conversation, helping you develop your own
understanding and share it with others.


If you are eager to investigate and improve instruction and increase your understanding about teaching, I invite you to learn more about Lesson Study. Lesson Study creates continuous learning cycles that put teachers in the driver’s seat of their own professional development.


Book: Collaborative Lesson Study: ReVisioning Teacher Professional


Request to join Collaborative Lesson Study Book Club on Facebook est (next book study begins January 13, 2020)

Vicki’s blog:

Vicki on Facebook:

Vicki on Twitter: @vscollet


A., & O’Donnell-Allen, C. (2015). Pose, wobble, flow: A culturally
proactive approach to literacy instruction. Teachers College Press.

C. & Hurd, J. (2011). Lesson study step by step: How teacher learning
communities improve instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

A., & Wood, D. R. (2002). From network learning to classroom
teaching. Journal of Educational Change, 3, 315-337.

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18 Inconvenient Truths About Assessment Of Learning



18 Inconvenient Truths About Assessment Of Learning

by Terry Heick

I. In terms of pedagogy, the primary purpose of an assessment is to provide data to revise planned instruction. It should provide an obvious answer to the question, “So? So what? What now?

II. It’s an extraordinary amount of work to design precise and personalized assessments that illuminate pathways forward for individual students–likely too much for one teacher to do so consistently for every student. This requires rethinking of learning models, or encourages corner-cutting. (Or worse, teacher burnout.)

III. Literacy (reading and writing ability) can obscure content knowledge. Further, language development, lexical knowledge (VL), and listening ability are all related to mathematical and reading ability (Flanagan 2006). This can mean that it’s often easier to assess something other than an academic standard than it is knowledge of the standard itself. It may not tell you what you want it to, but it’s telling you something.

IV. Student self-assessment is tricky but a key matter of understanding. According to Ross & Rolheiser, “Students who are taught self-evaluation skills are more likely to persist on difficult tasks, be more confident about their ability, and take greater responsibility for their work.” (Ross & Rolheiser 2001)

V. Assessments of learning can sometimes obscure more than they reveal. If the assessment is precisely aligned to a given standard, and that standard isn’t properly understood by both the teacher and assessment designer, and there isn’t a common language between students, teacher, assessment designer, and curriculum developers about content and its implications, there is significant “noise” in data that can mislead those wishing to use the data, and disrupt any effort towards data-based instruction.

VI. Teachers often see understanding or achievement or career and college-readiness; students often see grades and performance (e.g., a lack or abundance of failure) (Atkinson 1964).

VII. Self-evaluation and self-grading are different. ‘Self-evaluation’ does not mean that the students determine the grades for their assignments and courses instead of the teacher. Here, self-evaluation refers to the understanding and application of explicit criteria to one’s own work and behavior for the purpose of judging if one has met specified goals (Andrade 2006).

VIII. If the assessment is not married to curriculum and learning models, it’s just another assignment. That is, if the data gleaned from the assessment isn’t used immediately to substantively revise planned instruction, it’s at best practice, and at worst, extra work for the teacher and student. If assessment, curriculum, and learning models don’t ‘talk’ to one another, there is slack in the chain.

IX. As with rigor, ‘high’ is a relative term. High expectations–if personalized and attainable–can promote persistence in students (Brophy 2004). Overly simple assessments to boost ‘confidence’ are temporary. The psychology of assessment is as critical as the pedagogy and content implications.


X. Designing assessment that has diverse measures of success that ‘speak’ to the student is critical to meaningful assessment. Students are often motivated to avoid failure rather than achieve success (Atkinson 1964).

XI. In a perfect world, we’d ask not “How you do on the test,” but “How’d the test do on you?” That is, we’d ask how accurately the test illuminated exactly what we do and don’t understand rather than smile or frown at our ‘performance.’ Put another way, it can be argued that an equally important function of an assessment is to identify what a student does understand. If it doesn’t, the test failed, not the student.

XII. The classroom isn’t ‘the real world.’ It’s easy to say invoke ‘the real world’ when discussing grading and assessments (e.g., “If a law school student doesn’t study for the Bar and fail, they don’t get to become lawyers. The same applied to you in this classroom, as I am preparing you for the real world.”) Children (in part) practicing to become adults is different than the high-stakes game of actually being an adult. The classroom should be a place where students come to understand the ‘real world’ without feeling its sting.

When students fail at school, the lesson they learn may not be what we hope.

XIII. Most teachers worth their salt can already guess the range of student performance they can expect before they even give the assessment. Therefore, it makes sense to design curriculum and instruction to adjust to student performance on-the-fly without Herculean effort by the teacher. If you don’t have a plan for the assessment data before you give the assessment, you’re already behind.

XIV. Every assessment is flawed. (Nothing is perfect.) That means that the more frequent, student-centered, and ‘non-threatening’ the assessment is (here are some examples of non-threatening assessments) the better. It’s tempting to overvalue each assessment as some kind of measuring stick of human potential. At best, it’s an imperfect snapshot–and that’s okay. We just need to make sure teachers and students and parents are all aware and respond to results accordingly.

XV. As a teacher, it’s tempting to take assessment results personal; it’s not. The less personal you take the assessment, the more analytical you’ll allow yourself to be.

XVI. Confirmation bias within assessment is easy to fall for–looking for data to support what you already suspect. Force yourself to see it the other way. Consider what the data says about what you’re teaching and how students are learning rather than looking too broadly (e.g., saying ‘they’ are ‘doing well’) or looking for data to support ideas you already have.

XVII. Assessment doesn’t have to mean ‘test.’ All student work has a world of ‘data’ to offer. How much you gain depends on what you’re looking for. (Admittedly, this truth isn’t really inconvenient at all.)

XVIII. Technology can help make data collection simpler and more effective but that’s not automatically true. In fact, if not used properly, technology can even make things worse by providing too much data about the wrong things (making it almost unusable to teachers).

The Inconvenient Truth About Assessment

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