The New Narrative for Teaching and Learning


By Allison Zmuda

How can we paint a picture for the stakeholders of our school community of what schooling must do for the students we serve? How do we put it into action?

As technology continues to push into our schools and classrooms, our children are becoming more empowered to take action using their growing networks, skill sets, and ideas. Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy, envisions that the abundance of technology in the hands of the learner will disrupt traditional pedagogy. “The virtual will create a very different type of disruption. We should not aim to replace the physical classroom. Instead we have an opportunity to blend the virtual with the physical and reimagine education entirely.”

Canadian researcher Stephen Downes calls for a seismic shift from “an education is something that is provided for us” to “the idea that an education is something that we create for ourselves.” Will Richardson echoes this sentiment and calls for a narrative that focuses on training students to be accomplished learners. “It’s a kind of schooling that prepares students for the world they will live in, not the one in which most of us grew up. In this new narrative, learning ceases to focus on consuming information or knowledge that is no longer scarce. Instead, it’s about asking questions, working with others to find the answers, doing real work for real audiences, and adding to, not simply taking from, the storehouse of knowledge that the Web is becoming. It’s developing the kinds of habits and dispositions that deep, lifelong learners need to succeed in a world rife with information and connections.”

The learner now has truly  become the heart of the classroom, three key principles underlie this new narrative: personalization, feedback, and sharing.

Personalization. To personalize learning for every child, teachers shift from their role of instructor to one of collaborators with students. From Growing Success, “How students feel about themselves as learners and whether they enjoy learning and strive for excellence are closely related to their teachers’ professional skills both in differentiating instruction and assessment and in helping students understand how they can improve.” Every student is encouraged to pursue challenges, problems, questions, and tasks that are driven by a larger concept, wonder, or hope. To handle the structural messiness of this, some staff are playing with “genius hour” where students are in charge of their own learning. Other staff are co-creating projects or problems with the students and then conferencing either one on one or with the whole class as to what standards it is measuring. Another possible approach would be for teachers to create the general parameters of the task and then the task is personalized by students for content, communication product (i.e. illustration, model, newspaper article), process (i.e. individual or collaborative, library research, interviews, investigation).

Feedback. Teachers guide less and observe more. Whether it is a traditional, flipped or blended classroom environment, teachers provide specific, descriptive feedback to students to inform students of their progress as well as recalibrate instruction based on what the students need. Outside of school, students are accustomed to receiving immediate feedback through gaming and other forms of social media. Judy Willis, a neurologist and educator, describes the power of video games as a model for instruction. “Games insert players at their achievable challenge level and reward player effort and practice with acknowledgement of incremental goal progress, not just final product…When the brain receives that feedback that this progress has been made, it reinforces the networks used to succeed.” Incremental progress can also be done in a classroom setting as well by describing the learning targets and having students and teachers examine work together to determine immediate next steps.

Sharing. Students want to make a difference in the world right now rather than waiting around for someday when they are older. Their ideas, innovations, and service can be harnessed through community projects that demonstrate growth in conceptual understanding, skill development, and ability to improve upon their work based on results. When University of Calgary researchers Sharon Friesen and David Jardine investigated what 21st century learners want, some of the highlights from the study were:

  • “We want to do work that makes a difference to us and to our world.
  • We want to learn with the media of our times.
  • We want to do work that is relevant, meaningful, and authentic.
  • We want to be engaged intellectually.”

If we leverage technological tools in service to clarity of purpose and authenticity of task, students are more likely to invest in the work because it means something. Imagine if young students determined how much food a local animal shelter needed for one month. Then, students might determine an action plan of how to raise number of dollars, cans, or bags to supply the shelter. They can estimate how long it might take to fundraise, set targets, develop media to solicit contributions. Imagine the pride of students when they see gratitude as they share the results of their efforts. Not only is this a rich multi-disciplinary, problem-solving, collaborative, communicative task but it also demonstrates the power of groups of individuals to change their environment.


Practical Steps in Vision and Action

Define what you are aiming for.

Tony Wagner offers seven highly valued skills based on conversations with employers from around the globe. Below are each skill and an illustrative quotation. (This set of skills is one of many similar sets that can be used to start a local conversation. See Partnership for 21st Century Skills, Michael Fullan’s agenda for Ontario.

1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

The idea that a company’s senior leaders have all the answers and can solve problems by themselves has gone completely by the wayside…The person who’s close to the work has to have strong analytic skills.  You have to be rigorous: test your assumptions, don’t take things at face value, don’t go in with preconceived ideas that you’re trying to prove.” Ellen Kumata, consultant to Fortune 200 companies

2. Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence

“The biggest problem we have in the company as a whole is finding people capable of exerting leadership across the board…Our mantra is that you lead by influence, rather than authority.” – Mark Chandler, Senior Vice President and General Counsel at Cisco

3. Agility and Adaptability

“I’ve been here four years, and we’ve done fundamental reorganization every year because of changes in the business…I can guarantee the job I hire someone to do will change or may not exist in the future, so this is why adaptability and learning skills are more important than technical skills.” Clay Parker, President of Chemical Management Division of BOC Edwards

4. Initiative and Entrepreneurship

“For our production and crafts staff, the hourly workers, we need self-directed people…who can find creative solutions to some very tough, challenging problems.” Mark Maddox, Human Resources Manager at Unilever Foods North America

5. Effective Oral and Written Communication

“The biggest skill people are missing is the ability to communicate: both written and oral presentations.  It’s a huge problem for us.” – Annmarie Neal, Vice President for Talent Management at Cisco Systems

6. Accessing and Analyzing Information

“There is so much information available that it is almost too much, and if people aren’t prepared to process the information effectively, it almost freezes them in their steps.” Mike Summers, Vice President for Global Talent Management at Dell

7. Curiosity and Imagination

“Our old idea is that work is defined by employers and that employees have to do whatever the employer wants…but actually, you would like him to come up with an interpretation that you like-he’s adding something personal-a creative element.” -Michael Jung, Senior Consultant


The skills identified are powerful and the quotations helpful, but they need to make sense to local stakeholders. Clarity, simplicity, and multidisciplinary language help describe what it is that school is designed to develop the capacity of every student over time. This set of skills can be embedded in the PK-12 curriculum in conjunction with the larger discipline-specific concepts and skills to frame what we expect from our learners.


Tell your collective story. A lot.

Storytelling is one of the most powerful ways to connect with others. Share the ideas by painting a picture of what can be using description as well as illustrative examples. For example, what does creativity look like in a 1st grade math classroom? How does it become more sophisticated in spite of the fact that students may become more focused on a right answer? What does collaboration look like both in and out of school? How are we encouraging it through our policies and our practices?

  • Incentivize staff innovation and sharing. In Growing Success, the policy states, “Teachers create environments in which all students feel valued and confident and have the courage to take risks and make mistakes.” The same must be true for our staff. While each district and school may have specific initiatives, consider the notion of the “genius hour” for staff — a place where individuals or a team of teachers pursue fascinating in service to at least one of the initiatives or something new altogether. With freedom comes responsibility as staff should share the goal(s) that drove the inquiry/project/topic, the learning path, as well as the outcomes and next steps.
  •  Create a portfolio of accomplishments. While course grades and test scores are a useful tool to communicate with students and parents, create a repository for every student to house their accomplishments to travel with them throughout his or her schooling. These portfolios are truly owned by the learner and are encouraged to populate the portfolio with in-school and out-of-school tasks that demonstrate growth in service of identified skills. Students then can examine evidence in their portfolio to set goals and monitor progress, lead conferences with teachers and parents, or cull examples for interviews or college applications.


The more the story is shared, the more likely individuals and groups of folks put their thumbprints on it as they are making sense of the vision. They will pose questions, provide illustrative examples of their own, and wonder aloud about the possibilities. This active sense-making grows the power of the story as it becomes more reflective of the aspirations of the community in service to a new pedagogical narrative where students and staff co-create the learning experience together.



Works Cited

Downes, Stephen. A World to Change (18 October 2010). Huffington Post:

Friesen, Sharon and David Jardine, 21st Century Learning and Learners

Khan, Salman. The Founder of Khan Academy on How to Blend the Virtual with the Physical (26 July 2013). Scientific American:

Richardson, Will. Why School? TED Conferences (2012).

Wagner, Tony. Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need–and What We Can Do About It (2010). New York: Basic Books.

Willis, Judy. A Neurologist Makes the Case for the Video Game Model as a Learning Tool (14 April 2011).


Allison Zmuda is an author and education consultant whose focus is creating dynamic learning environments for like-minded educators, parents, and kids. She has authored six books and her latest book, Breaking Free from Myths about Teaching and Learning, (ASCD, 2010) inspired the development of her new website Just Start! Kids and Schools. Allison serves as co-founder and curator of the site devoted to re-imagining what schooling looks like through the exchange of ideas and examples. Allison can be contacted via email:







Connected Educators, Leaders and Schools

by Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano

Cross posted to Langwitches Blog

Connected students need connected teachers. Connected teachers need backing from connected administrators. Connected administrators create and support connected schools!

What do I mean by connected?

I am looking beyond the traditional meaning of being connected. It is not as simple as looking at traditional networking… belonging to a Rotary Club…going to educational conferences… knowing your colleagues and staff… attending the local area school network days… I mean being connected to people (who you most likely will never meet) who inspire, support and amplify your LEARNING.

It is an intentional connection for specific purposes not merely a passive “knowing the right people”. Being connected means reaching out for diverse perspective, conversation partners, collaborative or crowdsourcing opportunities  as part of your everyday work and learn flow. The following short video shares what being connected means to several educators who are living the “connected life” as a professional educator.

What are some next steps for administrators to become connected leaders and learners? connected-leader

Next Steps:

  1. Dedicate time: minimum 15 minutes a day
  2. Grow your PLN: read blogs and Twitter
  3. Tell a story: Go beyond marketing for your school, but see sharing as part of the mechanism of your network.
  4. Bring connected learning to the consciousness of your learning community
  5. Participate actively: Seek out online conference, Twitter chats or follow Twitter hashtags around an interesting conversation

As a connected learner, I look to my network to:

  1. gather resources I had not seen (see 1 below)
  2. have a conversation about the topic I am exploring or wrapping my mind around  (see 2)
  3. listen to points of view I had not considered (see 3)
  4. get inspiration (and sometimes a laugh)  from people who are so much more creative than I am :) (see 4)
  5. be part of a crowdsourcing experience (see 5)

1) Using the #ce13 hashtag or reading customized magazine style RSS readers,  I am connected to a constant flow of resources and conversations going on. I came across the following blog post by George CourosIsolation is Now a Choice Educators Make.

2) By tweeting the link, @cmtmalvern responded with an intriguing statement and a short, spontaneous and instantaneous conversation had started.


3) I also had a face2face conversation with my Director of Technology, Mike Dunlop, who was questioning (as I was developing the image of the Connected Leader above) that I was heavily leaning towards Twitter and Blogging as the preferred platform FOR connecting. I am guilty as charged. I am biased towards twitting and blogging, since these are the platforms that I am most familiar with and primarily use for connecting. I DO agree with him though that they are NOT the only choices for becoming a connected administrator or leader.


Take a look at The American School of Bombay  and their statement on LinkedIn.

“Aligned with our Mission, Core Values, and Strategic Objectives, ASB uses LinkedIn to support and develop:

  1. Professional connections within the ASB Community

  2. Connections to potential speakers for the classroom, division, or at the school-wide level

  3. Associations and partnerships with organizations in support of school initiatives

  4. Relationships with local, national, and international governmental and education institutions”



Pinterest is quickly developing into a viable source for inspiration and connections to other educators I found the Singapore American School’s presence on Pinterest  visually connecting and “” Celebrating all things SAS!”



3) & 4) My friend and colleague, Mike Fisher, responded to a question (What to say when an administrator asks WHY do I need to be connected?)  I posted on Twitter (but which gets automatically posted to my  Facebook page.

“Anything that is unplugged won’t work. Want to be electric? Bright? Productive? Plug in!”


5) I am extremely intrigued by the transformational learning experience of crowdsourcing. Transformational… because it simply would not have been possible to create and learn in this amplified way before the existence of technology and our connections and network.

Sheryl Nussbaum Beach asked her network to contribute to a document as she wondered  where to best begin to authentically build the connected school? Take a look… what do you wonder about?

This is a collective wondering by educational leaders in Northern Ontario. Feel free to help us build collective intelligence by adding your ideas to their questions. Just start by typing below the question with your resources, blog, experiences, answers or suggestions. Maybe extend the wondering with questions of your own. Be sure and include your Twitter name so they can follow you and follow up.

Not only do we learn from people who otherwise we would never have been in contact with, but  as Joan Young points out in her blog post 7 Ways My Classroom is Better Because I Connect

I learn from the collective wisdom of the crowd. We promote the idea that students should develop skills by observing others as they learn and make mistakes. Surely it makes sense for us to connect and learn vicariously through the lives and work of other teachers.  If another teacher has used a process or tool and has shared what worked or didn’t work, this can save enormous time and energy. My students then have a teacher who is not as exhausted, but continuously inspired by stories of “what really works.”

How do you interpret the shift of what a connected educator means? How is it different? Are we talking at cross purposes when we think of being connected?

Further Resources:

Notice, Think, and Wonder: A “Close Reading” Upgrade

In the Fall of 2007, a close friend, Nancy Cook, and I wrote a piece for the New York State Middle School Association’s Journal, In Transition. The article, titled “Notice, Think, and Wonder: New Pathways to Engage Critical Thinking” asked the reader to consider using a discussion rubric that Nancy developed to increase the rigor of questions and answers around text. The link is to the entire journal, but the article and embedded rubric starts on page 15.

I still share the Notice, Think, and Wonder rubric that’s in the article while engaging in professional development with teachers. It’s become particularly useful in this age of Common Core standards and increased rigor in instructional activities, particularly around the close reading of text.

I’ve been teaching different versions of “Close Reading” to teachers, evolving over time as I strengthen my relationship with Common Core Reading for Literacy/Informational Text Standard 1: “Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and make inferences from it.” What started out as teaching teachers to write text dependent questions evolved into setting strong purposes for reading, understanding text complexity, relating the close reading to personal experiences and world events, and now, coming full circle back to Notice, Think, and Wonder.

The impetus for this blog post began with another blog post around Close Reading, written by Kate Roberts and Maggie Beattie Roberts, authors of the popular blog, indent. You can read their blog post, The Five Corners of the Text, by clicking this sentence. In the post, they stress the importance of engagement and inviting students’ experiences into the way they think critically about the words they read. What they wrote invited a warmth back into this instructional strategy that was missing from my initial interpretation of the standard.

As I read their blog post and reflected on my current and previous work, it dawned on me that a merger of ideas and an additional instructional strategy around close reading was in order. Hence, I’m revisiting “Notice, Think, and Wonder.” The original Notice, Think, and Wonder strategy asked students to collect details around what they notice in text; what jumped off the page at them. It asks students to think about those details and make connections. Finally, it asks them to wonder about the “what if’s,” the “what next’s,” or the potential additional meaning-making that comes from deep engagement with text.

To use Notice, Think, and Wonder in a way that reflects the close reading of text, one simply needs to tweak the intentions of these areas of interaction. In this upgrade, students should be invited to do the following:


  • What are some of the big ideas in the text that’s being read?

  • What are some of the main points that an author wants the reader to know as a result of reading this?

  • What’s the major message or point of reading what we are reading?


  • Where in the text did we see support for what we noticed?

  • What in our experiences, as related to what we read, make us think of connections to the big ideas?

  • How do parts of the texts explicitly lead us to the major message?


  • What might the evidence we found in the text, as related to what we noticed, mean?

  • What potential conclusions can we draw from the evidence related to what we noticed?

  • Is there evidence in the text or in our connections to the text to support anything we might potentially wonder?

I like believing that students would be engaged by deep conversation about text–particularly texts that they are interested in reading, not just texts that the teacher thinks they should read. I’m reminded of high school, when my teachers were adept at drawing me into a text by both relating to my personal experiences while guiding me through metacognitions that created mental velcro for me. Everything stuck, from the prologue to The Canterbury Tales to my empathy for Benji, a central character in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I want students to live inside texts the way that I was allowed to. I want them to have rich literary experiences that feed their souls for the rest of their lives but also teach them to be evaluative thinkers and questioners of the status quo.

I want students to read voluminously and develop a love of reading that goes beyond the cold and analytical “close reading” and explores what I guess I would call “Close Reading Plus.” Evidence plus experience equals Deep Learning, versus just evidence alone. If we look at the standard and the key words: “close reading,” “what the text says explicitly,” and “make inferences,” then we are doing all those things with this upgrade of Notice, Think, and Wonder. We are also inviting a deeper analysis, a raise in the rigor beyond the standard, which represents the zone to which we should aspire with our modern learners.

Contemporary Perspectives on Literacy, coming this Fall.

Mike on Twitter: @fisher1000

Addendum (10/3/13)

I thought about this a little more and decided to add some additional information to this blog post in terms of extending Notice, Think, and Wonder to writing about evidence and connections.

For one thing, the “Wonder” could include a question about claims, such as, “What claims can you make about what you read? or “What do you wonder about any bold statements that the author made in the text?”

The answers to those questions would be an excellent jumping off point for writing about claims and evidence, engaging both the Reading standards around Key Ideas and Details as well as the Instructional Shifts around Writing from Sources and Text-Dependent questions.