Monthly Archives: March 2020

Digital or analog, remote or in-person: thinking matters.


Many of my classroom teacher friends are moving to online instruction right now, and they are working REALLY hard to try to figure out how to make teaching and learning online work well for students. I’ve seen dozens of articles about what online systems might work well, overall guides about online teaching and learning, and I’m grateful that many organizations are producing these guides for teachers trying to make these changes quickly and effectively.

There is one “bottom line” generalization that I think might be useful during discussions of online teaching: thinking matters. There are many different ways to express this idea (I think Willingham’s quote in the image above is my favorite). Cognitive psychology research consistently shows that deep processing (effortful encoding, elaborative encoding, desirable difficulty, semantic encoding, etc.) is necessary for the kinds of long term, transferable learning we are all after. We need to set up learning situations that increase the chances that students will do the kinds of thinking in working memory that they need to do to help move information and skills into long term memory, and be able to recall those information and skills when they need to.

So how do we do this in the context of online instruction? Daisy Christodoulou offers interesting advice in this blog post, but it’s very easy to get lost in the blizzard of suggested websites and apps. If I was a classroom teacher right now, I think I would try to pick a few online tools and try to use them to increase the chances that students are doing the cognitive work they need to do to learn. Here are the tools and steps I think I would think about using (note: the context I’m most familiar with is google classroom, and that’s the tool I would use to “push out” these kinds of learning experiences):

  1. I think my first step would be to take any existing presentation slides I have for upcoming lessons and put blank “reflection slides” in the presentation. I wrote about that idea here.
  2. I would create hyperdocs as a way for students to follow a series of “learning content” “explore” and “try it on your own” steps. I like this Cult of Pedagogy blog post about hyperdocs. I think well designed hyperdocs can help increase the chances that students will do the thinking we need them to do, even when we can’t “be” there.
  3. I would consider changing some of my presentation slides to the Peardeck (or Nearpod) format. These tools allow teachers to embed “check for understanding” slides into existing presentation slides and quickly/easily see student thinking (and use that information to modify future teaching). Both Peardeck and Nearpod are probably more effective ways to accomplish the “reflection thinking” idea I described in step 1 (but it will take more work).

Many other teachers are developing different and possibly better plans than these 3 steps. But I think every effective plan will all share one underlying characteristic: effective online teaching plans will all emphasize student thinking (rather than compliance, amount of work completed, amount of time spent online, effective graphics/videos, effort, etc.) Humans learn what we think deeply about. Memory (and learning) are the residue of thought, whether we are learning face to face or online.

Just add blank slides: a simple remote teaching idea

source: – this image is kind of appropriate, and it kind of makes me laugh. The expression on this fellow’s face…

If anyone is looking for a simple “remote teaching” idea, I’d love to talk with you about this simple idea:

  • take the slides you usually use for a topic/lesson
  • insert blank slides between all or most of your slides
  • send the slides as is to students (via google classroom, etc.)
  • tell the students to use the blank slides as a chance to reflect about what they learned/remember based on the previous slide

I know there are teachers out there who have been doing a great job with online instruction, and many of you are using much cooler and more specialized tools. I think the goals in the list above could be done in more sophisticated ways with tools like PearDeck, or Hyperdocs, or many other tools. But if you need a way to take slides you already have and get some remote teaching done FAST, with little further preparation, I think this idea might work.


  • here are some slides I’ve been using with a friend (hi Sarah S!) We use these slides during presentations with teachers. Our goal: help teachers understand how the 3 box model of memory (cognitive load theory) relates to choices we all make during teaching.
  • during this presentation, we stop at strategic points and ask teachers to talk in groups about how they are understanding the memory theories and how they might use the ideas in their teaching.
  • since we won’t get to talk with teachers face to face any time soon, we may be able to adapt this same set of slides quickly into a “remote teaching” format.
  • here’s the new “blank slides” version of the same set of slides. Notice that all I did was add a new intro slide (slide 1) with some generic directions, and add blank slides a strategic spots.
  • the goal: make some very quick additions to slides that I already prepared, get them out to folks and give them the opportunity to THINK about ideas in the slides. This thinking will help them make sense of the ideas and connect them with what they already know (semantic encoding).
  • the next step can be (if you have time) someone looking at what people write on the blank slides, and then following up to correct misconceptions and share great ideas you find. You could simply copy and paste some of what people write on the blank slides and make a new set of slides that includes the best ideas (anonymously or with “credit” to the authors).

I don’t have a classroom, etc. right now so I can’t try this out. If anyone out there wants to talk about this, or use it and tell me what you think, please let me know?

Relationships Matter

True… in unexpected ways?

Blake Harvard invited “rebuttals” on his blog recently. This is a very cool idea and will start good conversations, and this blog post is my attempt to participate.

Blake wrote two posts about relationships and teaching/learning. In “But…We Do Learn from People We Don’t Like” he pointed out that we all have examples of learning from people we don’t like, and learning without “relationships”: learning from videos, texts, etc. In “Relationships and Learning: Clarification on a Popular Quote,” Blake researched the popular quote from James Comer in the image above. Blake figured out that Comer used the word “relationships” to refer to “meaningful relationships with material and experiences ” not just teacher-student relationships.

This blog post isn’t really a “rebuttal” of either of Blake’s blog posts, but I want to add to the conversation. I have a personal connection (relationship?) with this topic: my friend Pete and I have been giving a presentation called “Relationships Matter” for a few years. Pete does a great job talking about how positive student-teacher relationships are important for the scholars (Pete’s great word for students) he works with every day. I talk about how classroom assessments impact relationships, and how relationships impact classroom assessment, and how implicit bias complicates all that.

Pete and I use the James Comer quote above. Sometimes we even use this exact image. I appreciate Blake’s research into Dr. Comer’s original intention behind the quote, and I agree with Blake that we can learn from people we don’t like. BUT… relationships are amazingly important in teaching and learning, and I don’t think these clarifications should overshadow that basic truth.

One example: cognitive load theory is one of the most powerful models we have to figure out/predict what we will learn in any teaching/learning situation:


Without going into too much detail about the model (see this blog post for more information) , think about what a powerful student/teacher relationship can influence in the process illustrated above. A positive relationship might increase the chances that:

  • Attention – students selectively attending to what the teacher is saying/doing
  • Learning/Encoding – students connecting information/skills in their working memory to something in their long term memory (because the relationship may help teachers and students identify connections between the new information and previously learned information)
  • Remembering – a strong relationship can help students be more willing to engage in retrieval practice (especially when the retrieval practice is challenging)

There’s a lot more to say about how teacher-student relationships can influence motivational factors. Some of the relevant motivation findings are summarized in the APA’s Top 20 document. Cognitive psychology research has a lot to teach us about learning, but so does motivation theory, etc. So I think I agree with Blake, but disagree slightly in an important way: Dr. Comer may have meant something different when he originated this quote, and it’s true that we can learn from people we don’t like. BUT relationships absolutely matter! They influence student attention, encoding, remembering, motivations, emotions, self-efficacy, and dozens of other factors that influence what students learn.

(for the record: I strongly suspect that Blake knows all this already. I bet he’s a great teacher who develops strong, positive relationships with his students)