Scaffolding vs Differentiation

My recent post on scaffolds and success criteria seemed to be useful to folks, so I thought I should share something more on scaffolding that can help to further clarify the term.

Scaffolding and differentiation are both words frequently thrown around in schools, often interchangeably and without precision. But there’s a clear distinction between the two that must be made, most especially as teachers are increasingly pressured to “differentiate” their lessons by school and district leadership with little guidance and concrete models.

So what is differentiation?

Differentiation asks teachers to plan different tasks or learning experiences for different groups of students, with the idea being that we can better meet the needs of diverse learners.

So for example, if we had our “high” student, our “medium” student, and our “low” performing student, we might provide a different text for each one in order to ensure they would be reading something at their “level.”

But there’s a problem with this. If the so-called “low” students only ever receive less complex and challenging expectations, texts, and learning experiences, they will continue to perform at a lower level.

This is why too many of our kids end up in “remedial” classes if and when they make it to college. This is why too many students consigned to a segregated “self-contained” program rarely even make it to graduation.

There’s another problem with differentiation. It demands quite a bit from a teacher to design (at least) 3 separate tasks or resources for any given lesson — time and energy that could perhaps be more effectively spent elsewhere.

To acknowledge these problems is not to say that differentiation can’t be applied effectively nor that it is universally the wrong thing to do. Structures for guided reading, for example, draw from this model and can be very effective in a school and classroom that have developed the necessary systems and routines. But these problems are big enough that they should give us strong pause before mindlessly evaluating and chiding teachers about whether they are adequately “differentiating” their lessons.

What is scaffolding, and how is it different?

The concept of scaffolding shifts how we approach meeting the needs of diverse learners.

We may have students coming into a learning experience with differing levels of knowledge, ability, or background, but rather than providing them with something different, we instead consider how we can provide the scaffolding necessary to ensure they can work together in grappling with a common task or text.

This is a shift offered by common standards, which demand a shared set of expectations for all students. For our students who may struggle in meeting these more rigorous demands, we must consider how to scaffold the concepts, procedures, and environment to support their engagement in practice with the texts and learning experiences that can enable them to meet those expectations.

This is certainly not an easy thing to do, either. But if I had to take a pick about what is going to give me the most bang for my buck, designing access and practice with common vocabulary, tasks, and texts is where I would ask educators to more wisely invest their time and energy.

For more on what that scaffolding should look like, take a look at my prior post, Scaffolding and Success Criteria.

Scaffolding & Success Criteria

What is a scaffold, anyway?

While working on a series of workshops about scaffolding, I came to a revelation about what the term really means. It’s one of those words, like “differentiation,” so ubiquitous in the field it seems to mean almost anything. But such generality can easily lead to some big misconceptions in actual application. I’m going to share my learning here in the case it may be useful and help others to avoid some of those missteps.

In order to truly understand scaffolding, I think you need to be able to answer this question:

Why should a scaffold used during a lesson align to the success criteria of a unit of study?

Furthermore, I think you need to understand what it takes to master a parachute landing fall at the army jump school in Fort Benning, Georgia.

Mastering a Parachute Landing Fall

For a reading that serves as a great basis for a team discussion on rigor, assessment, or scaffolding, I urge you to read Chapter 4 pg. 69 – 71 of Make It Stick by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. Read the whole darn book while you’re at it, of course; it’s all good. But I found this particular chapter especially relevant to scaffolding.

Since I obviously can’t reproduce the chapter for copyright reasons, I’ll give you an executive summary. At the army jump school in Georgia, mastering a parachute landing fall is a necessity. The jump school supports and drives recruits to mastery of this extremely complex and difficult skill within three weeks. How do they do this?

First, recruits initiate their practice in a gravel pit. They receive demonstrations of different falls. Then they practice falling and they receive feedback and they practice some more.

Next, recruits move to a short platform a couple feet off the ground. They practice jumping off the platform and executing the falls they had mastered in the gravel pit.

The challenge is ratched up. Recruits move to a zip line and practice falling from a higher drop that’s propelling them in different moving directions. They can control when they drop off the line.

You see where this is going. The recruits move to a platform 12 feet off the ground. They put on gear and jump down a mock chute, connected to a zip line. But this time the instructor pulls the cord and introduces the element of uncertainty and surprise. Recruits now have to be able to demonstrate a PLF according to chance, simulating the variables of an actual fall.

Finally, they move to a 34 foot tower. This is the final step of demonstrating mastery before boarding a moving airplane and engaging in a real-world application of the skill.

There’s some aspects of this narrative that illuminates effective scaffolding:

    • Each step provides practice and feedback on a component skill that requires mastery before moving on
    • Practice grows increasingly complex and difficult
    • At no point is the practice easy
    • Practice serves simultaneously as performance-based assessment


There’s a term that the authors of Make It Stick introduce that is useful for this progression of increasingly rigorous steps: desirable difficulty.

Desirable Difficulty, Academic Rigor, and Scaffolding

Desirable difficulty, a term coined by psychologists Elizabeth and Robert Bjork, is a way to describe short-term impediments that lead to stronger learning. At the army jump school, you can see desirable difficulty in action, and it highlights key aspects of effective scaffolding and how it connects to academic rigor.

At each successive step of training, the recruits are engaged in practice at a level of desirable difficulty required for them to master each successive component skill. Once they’ve mastered that skill or set of skills, they are then ready to move to the next level.

This is important to highlight for a few reasons. One is that it’s clear that at no level is the work and practice “easy.” A common misapplication of scaffolding is that it makes work easier for a student. This might make the teacher and student feel better about themselves, but it does long-term damage to student learning.

But a well-designed scaffold should not make a task or concept easy. Rather, it should provide the right level of impediment and challenge for the level of practice in the skills or concepts required to move forward.

This means that instructors can have extremely high expectations for students, as the army jump school has for its recruits, while providing well-structured practice and guidance that will lead to achievement that matches those expectations.

It also means instructors must be crystal clear about the component skills and practice that will build successively and sequentially to mastery.

Scaffolding as Performance-based Formative Assessment

“It’s one thing to feel confident of your knowledge; it’s something else to demonstrate mastery. Testing is not only a powerful learning strategy, it is a potent reality check on the accuracy of your own judgement of what you know how to do. When confidence is based on repeated performance, demonstrated through testing that simulates real-world conditions, you can lean into it.”

Make It Stick

There’s another aspect of scaffolding that is really interesting to consider from the jump school example: effective scaffolding is a performance-based form of formative assessment. Formative assessment, for those of you not up on the ed jargon, simply means testing that occurs during learning. This is in opposition to summative assessment which takes place at the end as an evaluative measure, and is usually accompanied with a grade. In the jump school example, the summative assessment would be executing the parachute landing fall from a plane.

A well-designed scaffold, therefore, engages a student in the practice of a skill that informs the instructor whether the student is ready to move on. This should be immediately visible and clear, enabling the instructor to provide ongoing feedback as the student engages with the scaffold.

Now let’s return to our original question and bring this back to the classroom:

Why should a scaffold used during a lesson align to the success criteria of a unit of study?

Success Criteria

Let’s break this down. What the heck are “success criteria”?

Success criteria are what you use to assess whether you’ve achieved the goals for learning in a unit of study. You’ll typically see these as a rubric or a checklist. The criteria are directly aligned to standards or expectations for learning for the subject and grade.

As an example, let’s say I’m an ELA teacher and I wanted to assess a third grade student’s ability to determine a central idea of a text. The Common Core Standard for Reading Literature states that by the end of third grade, kids should be able to “Determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details.

So an example of a few success criteria I might use to assess that student’s progress towards the standard could be:

☐ I can distinguish between the important and unimportant details in a text.
☐ I can determine the details most essential to understanding a text.
☐ I can combine key details to determine a main idea.

Let’s look one of these criteria: “I can distinguish between important and unimportant details in a text.”

Many students will struggle with this abstract skill (not least because they don’t know enough about whatever they’re reading in order to do so . . . but that’s a whole other post). So they will need some type of scaffold to assist them in getting started on this.

So what could such a scaffold be?

One possible scaffold could be to support them in first distinguishing between details that are merely interesting, such as details that an author gives to make the text more engaging to read, from details that are central to understanding the topic of the text.

We might create some type of graphic organizer or chart to support students in practicing this with a text, and of course, we’d probably model it and do it together as a whole class before having students practice it in groups or pairs, then we’d ask individual students use it on their own.

Some students may be ready to just make a T-chart in their notebooks, while other students may need some more guided practice with a handout. Some students may need manipulatives, such as cut outs of both interesting and important details, in order to get started and to feel success before they are ready to move to greater abstraction.

But notice something about my description: the scaffold is less about a graphic organizer, chart, or manipulative, and more about the practice of a specific skill component: clarifying the difference between interesting and important details.

In other words, the point of a scaffold like this isn’t really about the thing — it’s about the thinking that students are training their minds to do through the application of the scaffold.

A scaffold should therefore provide the thinking practice that a student needs to master the criteria for success.

If we just told students to distinguish between the important and unimportant details in an informational text, some might be able to do so, and some will not. The point of the scaffold, in this example, is to train students who don’t yet see it to become aware of the difference between details provided by an author that are merely interesting, versus details that are important to understanding the topic.

Eventually, those students should no longer need a scaffold. They’ll internalize the concept and be able to apply it without thinking. A few students may never need such a scaffold at all. That’s the differentiation piece. If they don’t need it, they shouldn’t be practicing it.

We may think of something like a stepladder or the scaffolding on a building when we use the word “scaffolding.” Or you might think of a bike with training wheels, or a parent holding the bike as the child learns to pedal.

The model of a bike with training wheels is probably closer to the way we should think of what a scaffold means in instruction. We want to shift our mental model of what a “scaffold” is away from it being a tool that merely makes a task easier, to a process or activity that engages a student in the practice that they can experience success with, while on the road to mastery.

What’s the difference? Some students will need to practice a whole bunch using a scaffold before they get it. A few students may not need it at all. But the expectation is that all students will be expected to achieve that mastery.

Which leads us to another realization about what function a scaffold serves. If a scaffold is directly aligned to the success criteria in a unit of study, then it serves not only as a form of practice to achieve mastery, but it furthermore serves as method of formative assessment for both students and teachers. It provides performance-based, task-based feedback on whether or not a student has achieved the success criteria.
So a scaffold does not mean making learning easy. It doesn’t mean giving kids a shortcut so they can reach something they will never be able to reach again. It’s about having rigorous expectations and demanding that students practice in a way that will enable them to achieve those expectations.

A New Definition of Scaffold

A scaffold provides opportunities for performance and practice of the component content and skills that a student requires to achieve success in a unit of study.

Characteristics of Scaffolds

  • Scaffolds are smaller components of a complex task or skill
  • Scaffolds are at the right level of “desirable difficulty” for practice.
  • Scaffolds are not “easy”
  • Scaffolds must be mastered at each step along the way. Students shouldn’t move along until they have mastered each component
  • Scaffolds serve as performance-based formative assessment


Smorgasbord: Some Important Stuff

Buffet Train Lunch

On the necessity for deliberate practice of foundational writing skills in classrooms.

“The idea behind progressive mastery is to protect students from what confuses them until they have mastered each individual component.”

Connect this to what I wrote about Hochman’s writing method.

Air pollution is damaging our nation’s children in the one place they spend some of the most time in and should be most protected in — our schools.

A critically important piece from The Center for Public Integrity on the invisible–and thus largely ignored–health risk of air pollution. Many schools, especially here in NYC, are built right next to busy roadways. The long-term health costs are incalculable, and all it would take would be a high grade air filter that can remove 90 percent of the pollution. And forcing old diesel trucks off of our roads. This may sound like a pipe dream, but California has already led the way.

Says one baffled Californian:

“The technology is well established, the installation is straightforward and the maintenance is simple,” said district spokesman Sam Atwood, who doesn’t recall officials from other states getting in touch to learn from his agency’s experience.

As in the office, so in the classroom. Empower students to design their spaces.

“When workers were empowered to design their own space, they had fun and worked hard and accurately, producing 30 per cent more work than in the minimalist office and 15 per cent more than in the decorated office. When workers were deliberately disempowered, their work suffered and of course, they hated it. “I wanted to hit you,” one participant later admitted to an experimenter.”

A special education teacher discovers the power in scheduling for effective collaboration.

“Most people struggle with the idea that medicine is all about probability”

An important ProPublica piece on the hit and miss nature of many medicinal and surgical interventions. Most will do no harm —a few may gain benefit—and some will be harmed. There’s some parallels to consider with education here.

“If we really wanted to make a big impact on a large number of people. . . we’d be doing a lot more diet and exercise and lifestyle stuff.”

Kevin Carey outlines the generally poor results on vouchers.

“while vouchers and charters are often grouped under the umbrella of ‘school choice,’ the best charters tend to be nonprofit public schools, open to all and accountable to public authorities. The less ‘private’ that school choice programs are, the better they seem to work.”

Interactional motivational scaffolds are more effective than other scaffolds.


“conversing with a child in an elaborative way could help them remember more about their lesson”

Need to remember something? Use weird visual cues to trigger your memory. Classroom teachers, take heed.

We blame a lot of problems on immigrants. But maybe it’s time to point the finger at the “longstanding native-born Americans” as the real source of the problem.

Daniel Kahneman comments on a blog post. The world changes.

Kahneman responds to a blog post, noting that he was overzealous in his interpretation of studies on social priming. This is important not only as an encapsulation of the “replication crisis,” but furthermore for those of us who have read and been heavily influenced by Thinking Fast and Slow.

Wind turbines inspired by insect wings are 35% more efficient.

On Threshold Concepts and Experiences


In a recent post, “On Knowledge and Curriculum,” we reviewed a few disruptive ideas from cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, with the most incendiary implication being:

a school needs to come to a consensus on the topics, texts, vocabulary, and concepts that are most essential to know within and across each academic domain and carefully sequence and reinforce those concepts across classrooms and grades.

So how can a school embark upon this quest? In this post, I will attempt to provide some guiding ideas and protocols for this work.

How Do We Reinforce Knowledge?

First off, a few guiding documents to equip you with the cognitive principles of affirmative testing, which are essential to reinforcing knowledge over time:

—Annie Murphy Paul, “Affirmative Testing” (she has designed an entire e-course around these concepts!)

—Deans for Impact, “The Science of Learning


How Do We Determine the Knowledge that is ESSENTIAL?

Folks are going to disagree about this, including the “experts,” so ultimately, this determination should be made collaboratively within a school (and beyond). The key is that the school comes to a consensus on this essential knowledge, then teachers carefully sequence it across the curriculum and quiz it repeatedly in a low stakes manner.

There’s a useful frame, known as threshold concepts, for drilling down to this “essential knowledge” within a specific academic domain. Threshold concepts come out of higher ed academia, and it’s admittedly a bit esoteric in the literature, but I think it’s a useful lens with practical implications. Threshold concepts are very much related to Wiggins and McTighe’s “big ideas,” but with a few interesting twists.

I first stumbled over the threshold of these concepts in blogs from UK educators, to whom I’m indebted for starting me on this journey:

—Alex Quigley, “Designing a New Curriculum: What are your ‘Big Ideas?’

—Joe Kirby, “One scientific insight for curriculum design” (he also sums up research on affirmative testing really well here)

What we’re really trying to get here is that 20% of the knowledge that is most essential to understanding an academic domain in a specific grade. Here’s a frame for this:


How can threshold concepts help us to determine that 20% of essential knowledge within a specific academic domain? I decided to review some of the literature for further clues:

—Ray Land, Jan Meyer, and Jan Smith,”Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines” (Land and Meyer are the rockstars who originated the concept)


—James Rhem, “Before and after students “get it”: threshold concepts” (a useful overview)

This idea of a transformation of understanding that is essential for progressing deeper into the academic content is really interesting.


—James Atherton, “How do people ‘get it’?” (another useful overview)

There are many other characteristics that were identified, but they don’t all seem very useful in a practical sense for K-12. I think the three outlined above are the most relevant and applicable.

—Tracy Fortune, Priscilla Ennals, and Mary Kennedy-Jones, “The Hero’s Journey: Uncovering Threshold Barriers, Dispositions, and Practices Among Occupational Therapy Students


I love this idea of viewing a student’s passage through a threshold concept as akin to a hero’s journey. In considering this journey, what are the troublesome obstacles and bottlenecks that student will face? The idea of “bottlenecks” comes thanks for the link immediately below. In thinking through this, I also think we need to acknowledge that bottlenecks may not be purely conceptual — they can also be procedural, in the form of skills required to complete academic tasks, as well as social-emotional (this can be a tremendous and often unaddressed barrier for many kids).

In this sense, then, we can expand the notion of crossing a threshold to not solely refer to concepts, but furthermore experiences. As educators, we seek to design experiences in which students engage in an academic form of a hero’s journey, learning to overcome barriers and gain the intellectual accomplishment of mastering skills and knowledge.

—Joan Middendorf & David Pace, “Decoding the Disciplines: A Model for Helping Students Learn Disciplinary Ways of Thinking” (they offer a useful protocol that I’ve drawn from below)

OK, So How Do We Discover These Threshold Concepts and Experiences?

But we still need some kind of process for distilling away all the cruft and getting down that 20% of the most essential knowledge within a content and grade.

Here in the US, we have a general list of skills we use as guidance in the form of state standards. And as I’ve done with the Common Core standards, we can do a deeper analysis to begin unpacking what that knowledge might be.

But this can still be at a pretty abstract level, and we want this to be relevant to classroom teaching. By focusing on the topics and texts that will be studied, we can make this more concrete.

Because English Language Arts is my specific area of expertise, I’ve focused my efforts in this area, especially since this content area is probably the most difficult to pin down in terms of a progression of knowledge.


There’s two ways we could utilize this protocol: 1) unit of study, or 2) over the entire school year.

1) Consider the topics and/or texts that will be taught.

2) What will be the product or products that students will be expected to create that can demonstrate their mastery of learning? (This product could also be a performance).

3) What are the primary modalities that this product is focused upon? In literacy, of course we’re focused on all modalities, but it helps for a department to focus upon the one they consider most essential.

4) Now consider the standards that your district adheres to. For the Common Core, they are helpfully broken up by modality, so turn to that modality. Then, narrow down which specific, few standards you will primarily be targeting.

5) What are the bottlenecks, most especially those that are conceptual and specific to this content, that students will encounter?

6) Evaluate the list of items you have generated. Do they fit the criteria of a threshold concept or experience? Are they transformative, integrative, and troublesome? If not, they may not be essential.

7) You don’t have to do this, but I find that at this step it can be useful to phrase the threshold concept in the form of a message or lesson, akin to a theme statement.

For example, for an upcoming professional learning session I’m working on about supporting struggling middle school readers, I’ve identified the following threshold concepts:

  • Students that struggle with reading comprehension also often struggle with a lack of academic and world knowledge. An English Language Learner can also be understood as native English speakers that do not understand the language of math, science, social studies – i.e. academic, formal, domain specific language.
  • A teacher must work through a task/text in order to identify key takeaways, key vocabulary, and potential barriers to learning, regardless of whether a curriculum is provided.
  • All learners can be engaged in reading and comprehending complex academic texts through well-designed activities, tasks, and resources.
  • An environment in which a student feels safe to take risks in front of peers is a prerequisite for learning — most especially for struggling readers.
  • Learners should be explicitly equipped with strategies and mindsets for when they encounter challenging vocabulary on their own.

It’s important to note that threshold concepts will vary completely depending on any teacher’s specific set of knowledge, perspectives, and interest, and I think that’s OK. What’s most important is that once these most essential concepts and experiences have been identified and voiced, they will not only help to focus that teacher’s instruction on what they feel is most important, they will serve as a basis for arriving at a consensus as a department and as a school.

Here’s a few really basic examples at a unit level of study:

Now that threshold concepts and experiences have been identified, here’s the really hard part:


This is where the rubber hits the road. This is the part that is so very contrary and disruptive to the norms of public education.


I hope some of these resources in this post are useful to your work. The slides outlined above and the protocol are accessible and downloadable here:

On Knowledge and Curriculum


Forget the presidential debates, this is more important.

I attended a PD today that featured cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham. It’s pretty rare that my employer, the NYCDOE, offers professional learning that has someone presenting from the academic research realm, so when I saw this was happening, I jumped on it.

I’ve been following Willingham’s articles in American Educator and have read Why Kids Don’t Like School, and I’ve been convinced of the importance of a strong curriculum and building knowledge for a while now, but it was nice to get a direct and clear reminder of what really matters in literacy, especially when that message is so very rare.

There were a lot of great ideas and takeaways on motivating children to read at home and on reading comprehension in general, but there were two main points that especially struck me during his presentation (the summary and phrasing is my own):

  1. Knowledge needs to be “in the mind” in order for reading comprehension to be effortless, rather than a problem-solving struggle to determine meaning.
  2. We can only build the broad, world knowledge required for literacy through a carefully sequenced and structured curriculum.

If you take these points to be accurate, then the implications are quite revolutionary in comparison to the regular practices of most schools and districts.

Let’s break down why this runs so counter to the norm.

Here’s what would need to happen:

  • If knowledge must be “in the mind” (rather than on Google) than that means the knowledge considered worth studying must be reinforced and revisited, tested, interleaved, sequenced, and spaced throughout a school’s curriculum.
  • That means across classrooms and across grades.
  • Therefore, a school needs to have come to a consensus on the topics, texts, vocabulary, and concepts that are most essential to know within and across each academic domain.
  • That means that each teacher (or at the very least, a department head or team) will have to have invested a substantial amount of time, both individually and collaboratively, into studying those texts and topics themselves in order to know how to design a learning environment, projects, activities, field trips, and interim assessments that will provide the access to and reinforce that knowledge for all students.
  • This would of course be accompanied by adjusting the curriculum periodically based on an analysis and reflection on interim assessment data and student work.

Sound pretty straightforward? No. Here’s the norm in most schools:

  • What most prioritizes a school’s focus are external assessments, such as state tests. ELA tests in this vein consist of random passages of text that are meant to focus on isolated reading skills devoid of knowledge. Therefore, what is taught and focused upon are the practice of skills devoid of knowledge.
  • That’s what constitutes an ELA curriculum for many schools.
  • A teacher is either not provided a curriculum, or is provided a curriculum but no support, or is provided a curriculum and support but the curriculum is not oriented around sequentially building knowledge.
  • Even when a curriculum might be provided and might be relatively well-crafted (this is a rarity, and if you know of such a curriculum, tell me. I can name two. Maybe three), I have yet to have seen any curriculum that still does not require a teacher to revise and adjust it substantially based on the needs of their students, the circumstances of their school or classroom, or their own particular style and knowledge.
  • Thus, in those rare schools where there is even a coherent curriculum “in place,” the point made above about investment of time still holds. A substantial amount of time needs to be spent in designing and continually molding the school around and in support of that knowledge embedded within the curriculum.
  • Most of what is taught in different classrooms in a school has little coherency across a school.
  • What is a taught in any given classroom is rarely reinforced via low stakes quizzing across an entire school year.

See the problem? From what I’ve seen in much of the professional development sessions and focus of schools and districts is a focus on individual teacher strategies and practices. But let’s get real. If a school does not come together to determine and design it’s mission around the knowledge and skills it will teach sequentially and systematically, then there will be little impact.

For ideas on how a school might begin to do this work, check out my next post on this topic: On Threshold Concepts & Experiences

Smorgasbord: Acclaim for Michaela, Cognitive Science, and a Movement for School Integration


I’ve been moving apartments this week, so I haven’t been as closely attuned to all things ED, but here’s a few links worth reviewing when you take a break from admiring the swiftly changing color of the leaves on this lovely autumnal weekend.

Acclaiming Michaela

There’s a school entitled Michaela that has apparently been getting some guff in the UK reminiscent of the strong debate that Success Academy engenders here in NYC.

Tom Bennett, the founder of ResearchED (coming to a D.C. near you in a couple of weekends), writes a defense of the school, noting that while it’s intense structure and discipline are not for everyone, critics need to get off their high horses.

Doug Lemov has also taken a gander, and he challenges educators to learn from innovations that are worth emulating, rather than merely criticize from afar. In that spirit, he is exploring some of the practices he finds worthy of stealing in a series of blogs, beginning with this one on Michaela’s “maximum impact, minimum effort” grading policy. Schools renowned for sucking the pith out of young teachers (like, ahem, Success Academy) would do well to consider it. Teaching is a demanding profession, and the more we can reduce paperwork that bears little impact, the better.

I haven’t been much aware of any controversy around Michaela, but I have been very aware of it’s innovative and research-based approach to instruction and curriculum design, thanks to the consistently trenchant writing of Joe Kirby. This summer I switched to an out-of-classroom role designing professional development, and I’ve found myself continually revisiting some of his posts, as well as blogs of other UK educators such as Daisy Christodoulou, Alex Quigley, David Didau, David Fawcett, and many others. I don’t know what’s in the water over there, but UK educators seem to spend a lot more time blogging about practice and research, rather than politics, and it’s refreshing.

Speaking of Research

Deans for Impact founder Benjamin Riley penned a piece for Kappan presenting the case for educator practice to be informed by principles from cognitive science research. And if you haven’t read Deans for Impact’s The Science of Learning, you should probably make that priority number one. Another resource I’ve found myself continually revisiting when designing professional learning.

The Movement for Increasing School Diversity is Growing

I’ve written about the need for increasing school and neighborhood diversity before, and you’ll be hearing much more from me on this; it’s the focus I’ve selected for my NY policy fellowship with America Achieves this year. I’ve been really excited to see an increasing amount of media coverage, advocacy, and ground work taking place on this issue.

This week, NYC Councilmember Helen Rosenthal pushed back against the privileged Upper West Side parents who have been vocal opponents of school rezoning efforts.

The Hechinger Report took a deep dive in an analysis of the desegregation and resegregation of Greenville, Mississippi. Many insights and lessons to heed here.

The Century Foundation released a report on the increasing efforts at school integration, while highlighting the dinosaur progress occurring in NYC.

And magazine highlights research from MIT that “has shown that in both the U.S. and European Union, wealth is predicted by the diversity of face-to-face communication and that both poverty and crime levels are predicted by the isolation of a community.” This confirms my premise for increasing school and neighborhood diversity: we can only really fight discrimination and bias, and improve long-term outcomes, when we interact daily, face-to-face, with others who are different than us.

Mental Practice Just as Important as Physical Practice


There is now compelling evidence that motor imagery promotes motor learning. . . . It turns out that 20 minutes is the optimal amount of time for a mental practice session, according to a meta-analysis of many physical activities.

—Jim Davies, “Just Imagining a Workout Can Make You Stronger,” in

Honnold keeps a detailed climbing journal, in which he revisits his climbs and makes note of what he can do better. For his most challenging solos, he also puts a lot of time into preparation: rehearsing the moves and, later, picturing each movement in perfect execution. To get ready for one 1,200-foot-high ascent at the cutting edge of free soloing, he even visualized everything that could possibly go wrong—including “losing it,” falling off, and bleeding out on the rock below—to come to terms with those possibilities before he left the ground.

. . . “It’s better over time if you can put yourself in a situation where you experience some fear, but you overcome it, and you do it again and again and again,” Monfils says. “It’s hard, and it’s a big investment, but it becomes easier.”

—J.B. Mackinnon, “The Strange Brain of the World’s Greatest Solo Climber” in, about free solo rock climber Alex Honnold

Much of deliberate practice involves developing ever more efficient mental representations that you can use in whatever activity you are practicing.

. . . What sets expert performers apart from everyone else is the quality and quantity of their mental representations. Through years of practice, they develop highly complex and sophisticated representations of the various situations they are likely to encounter in their fields.

—Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

As these various quotes demonstrate, mental practice can be just as critical to performance as physical practice. This type of practice is therefore important to consider in terms of classroom teaching and learning.

This past winter, I was starting to feel set in my ways, so I decided to begin learning a new instrument and began taking tabla lessons. Tabla, in case you are unfamiliar with it, is a drum used in classical Indian music.


It has a long tradition and is accompanied with a syllabic language (“bols”) that signify each type of sound. My teacher constantly stresses the importance in rehearsing compositions mentally as a part of daily practice. His advice makes a lot of sense in light of the research.

One of the best classroom teachers I know prepares by mentally and verbally rehearsing the day’s lesson in the morning.

How can we assist our students in developing the skills necessary to engage in this kind of practice? While it’s pretty clear how this type of practice can accompany a performance, such as sports, dance, music, or theater, I wonder how mental rehearsal could accompany practice in specific academic domains, such as writing, math, or science? How could mental rehearsal be beneficial in related service areas for students with Individualized Education Programs, such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, and counseling?

Teachers and Education Officials: Expect More from Students with Disabilities


By Onlysilence (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
I believe that most students with disabilities* can and should engage with the same academic content that any other student would receive. Furthermore, I believe that most students with disabilities should be held to the same academic expectations as that of their peers.

I seem to hold somewhat radical expectations for my students, if what I’m hearing from my colleagues and from NY state education officials is accurate.

I was at a meeting with fellow special education specialists in my district several weeks ago and assumed I was speaking to the choir when I shared these beliefs. I was taken aback when a number of other educators strongly disagreed. I heard my fellow educators argue that their students “can’t” be expected to do grade-level work.

When I hear the word “can’t” used by an educator to describe their students’ potential, I get so upset. I know that working with children who face significant challenges is tough work. But really?


I think such a perspective says more about an educator’s lack of vision than a student’s lack of ability.

When you consider disability from a historical perspective, students with disabilities have been denied access to the same expectations and content as that of other students for a very long time. They have been segregated physically, and given “different” curriculum, because no one expected anything from them.

Unsurprisingly, students so treated do not often go on to achieve success.

It was upsetting enough to hear this perspective from my colleagues here in the Bronx. But now I’m also hearing it from education officials up in Albany. There is a plan in discussion and most likely up for a vote soon to water down high school diploma requirements for students with disabilities.

We’ve been here before. NY State used to have a largely meaningless piece of paper called an “IEP diploma” for students said to have met their IEP goals, which are highly subjective measurements primarily measured by those who write them.

I know that a high school diploma doesn’t mean much these days, but it’s a slippery slope when we begin completely dismantling any measure of what academic preparedness might mean.

What kind of message do we send to kids when we lower the bar for them? We don’t expect you to be able to achieve this. You CAN’T achieve this.

But that’s the wrong message. Instead, we should be saying, What will it take for you to achieve this? And if you try and aren’t ready yet — it’s OK because there’s other options for you to have a viable career in the meantime and we will help you to get there.

Not everyone is ready for college. A high school diploma should be a sign that you are prepared to succeed academically in college, not a consolation prize.

If we truly believe that not every student is able to achieve a high school diploma, than we’d better be looking very closely at what we’re doing to build alternative pathways to careers.

But watering down academic expectations for some students is not the way to go, New York. We’re fooling ourselves if we think making it “easier” is helping any kid to succeed. We’re only making it easier for adults to continue to pretend they’re doing their jobs.


*an extremely wide and diverse bucket, BTW. The differences between any given disability and any given student are so vast as to be nearly incomparable. Yet we persist.

Providing context for concepts may hinder transfer

“One implication of this pattern of results is that as an instructor designs their instructional materials, they should be asking themselves whether they are trying to optimize their students’ demonstrated mastery of the material itself or their ability to transfer their understanding to new materials. . . .

Simply adding richer meaningful content to in-class examples may make intuitive sense, and may have immediately obvious benefits in terms of student engagement and comprehension. But as the results of our experiments make clear, these short-term benefits seem to come at the cost of students’ long-term ability to apply their knowledge. If educators are to take advantage of these inherent benefits, they will need to give careful consideration to how such examples are designed and used together in order to plan the most effective instruction.”

—Samuel Day, Benjamin Motz, and Robert Goldstone, “The Cognitive Costs of Context: The Effects of Concreteness and Immersiveness in Instructional Examples” on frontiers in Psychology (H/T Greg Ashman)

The Traits of Achievement

A provocative opinion piece in the NY Times, “What Drives Success?” by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, suggested this Sunday that cultural traits can provide the impetus for success:

It turns out that for all their diversity, the strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that, together, propel success. The first is a superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite — insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.

Any individual, from any background, can have what we call this Triple Package of traits. But research shows that some groups are instilling them more frequently than others, and that they are enjoying greater success.

Reading this, I thought of how this “Triple Package” of traits connects to some of the concepts that Jim Collins articulates in Good to Great (which I’ve discussed here before) for the most successful organizations.

In the framework of concepts that Collin’s lays out in his book,”Confront the Brutal Facts,” “The Hedgehog Concept,” and “A Culture of Discipline” especially resonate with the logic that the authors of the NY Times article present, though I will argue that the term “superiority complex” that Chua and Rubenfeld choose may not be the most useful.

Let’s look a little closer at how these traits of successful organizations and cultures align.

Insecurity and the Brutal Facts

According to Collins, one of the central traits of remarkably successful organizations that have gone from good to great is that they are willing to “confront the brutal facts.” In other words, these organizations create an environment where the truth is able to be heard, even when it might not be something that leaders want to hear. There are mechanisms in place for people to provide honest feedback without fear of reprisal.

This openness to unpleasant news bears some linkage to the trait of insecurity in an individual or culture. When you are insecure, you are sensitive to feedback even from strangers in the street. You dissect run-of-the-mill conversations to determine why your comments didn’t seem to land the way you imagined it would.

Insecurity, as Chua and Rubenfeld suggest, can be pathological in the absence of the other traits of success: “Insecure people feel like they’re never good enough.” But when complemented by other qualities, this sense of never being good enough can turn into a driver of achievement. Insecure cultures, like organizations, tend not to be complacent.

Insecurity, the Superiority Complex, and the Stockdale Paradox

One of the ways that Jim Collins explains how “Level 5 Leaders” manifest the capacity for “confronting the brutal facts” is what he terms the “Stockdale Paradox.” Named after an Admiral who was tortured “over twenty times during his eight-year imprisonment from 1965 to 1973,” the paradox delineates that even as you confront the brutal facts of your reality, you must also be able to “retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties.”

This paradoxical faith, even when faced with the most daunting of circumstances, parallels the notion of a “superiority complex” that Chua and Rubenfeld refer to. However, I don’t feel that the latter terminology is the most productive. When considered from the vantage of Admiral Jim Stockdale, it wasn’t necessarily a feeling of being better than others that enabled him to survive and thrive in horrific circumstances—it was that he had an unwavering faith that he would prevail. This may seem like equivocation, but I feel there is a subtle distinction between an unearned sense of superiority and a disciplined determination and will. Someone who believes they are superior or exceptional are not likely to confront the brutal facts of their reality for any sustained period of time. Yet someone who believes they will prevail against all odds—even as they confront the brutal reality of their existence—can continue to endure far beyond even their own expectations.

The Hedgehog Concept and the Superiority Complex

Another concept Collins explores in Good to Great that aligns with this unfortunately named “superiority complex” is the “Hedgehog Concept.” A common quality of successful organizations that Collins studied was that they had a strong and clear understanding of what they were best at, and they took action based on this understanding with a relentless focus.

This is again why I think using a term like “superiority complex” is unfortunate. There are certainly people who are masters of their craft who act like they have a superiority complex. Yet if they are truly masters, they most likely have a fairly accurate picture of their weaknesses and strengths in their particular domain. As Annie Murphy Paul writes in “The Myth of Practice Makes Perfect“:

“Deliberate practice,” Ericsson declares sternly, “requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable.” Having given us fair warning, he reveals the secret of deliberate practice: relentlessly focusing on our weaknesses and inventing new ways to root them out. Results are carefully monitored, ideally with the help of a coach or teacher, and become grist for the next round of ruthless self-evaluation (Bold added).

Again, we can see the focus on confronting the brutal facts of reality. Someone who does have a superior skill or expertise in a domain has gained that superiority through a relentless focus on their weaknesses.

Similarly, in the top functioning organizations, a Hedgehog Concept is brought into fruition via a commitment to hard work and investment based on the understanding of what it can be best at. Collins writes that “The Hedgehog Concept requires a severe standard of excellence. It’s not just about building on strength and competence, but about understanding what your organization truly has the potential to be the very best at and sticking to it.”

Impulse Control and A Culture of Discipline

A final correlation between Chua and Rubenfeld’s explication of “What Drives Success?” and Collins’ Good to Great is the skill of “impulse control” and “a culture of discipline.” I’m not going to spend much time on this, as I think this one is more self-evident, especially given the increased focus in education and other realms on self-control and grit. Suffice it to say that what ties together a relentless focus on excellence and an uncompromising openness to negative feedback is discipline.

As Collins’ neatly frames it, “A culture of discipline is not just about action. It is about getting disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who then take disciplined action.”

So what drives success?

It’s interesting to compare Chua and Rubenfeld’s cultural traits of success against Collins’ framework of organizational success, because it enables us to recognize that both any given group of people or organization will rise or fall based upon the culture that is established via thoughts and action. Furthermore, the traits and patterns of successful groups and organizations can be studied and emulated.

So the question for your homework this week is: how does a school establish a culture steeped in such traits of success?