This post is a companion to a Presentation (handout)  at MACUL 2014 by @jmccarthyeds. You can find dialog from that session on Twitter at #OPATHS or go to

How can we support constructivist learning in Common Core Environments?

Last year at Ardis New Tech, they did an event called Innovation Days. It was inspired by the 20% Rule, an account by Daniel Pink in Drive, where he talked about how Google gave it’s employees one day per week to work on personal projects that they are passionate about, to experiment and innovate. The results have included such products as Gmail and Google News. At Ardis, they adapted the experience into a 3-day experience. Students explored areas of interest to develop products or ideas with other like-minded peers. The teams worked either in a high tech location because of their needs, while others worked in other parts of the building. Some topics included research, creative writing, culinary arts, and computer game development. The third day was for presentations. All teams presented, and all students attended presentations, which occurred simultaneously in different segments of the building.

This student experience, like the others that will be shared, happens because of a an understanding and commitment by educators that students thrive when they have support to construct their understanding; and that the Common Core, as with any statewide standards, when understood for its key concepts is not a barrier to student-friendly learning. In fact, the experiences can be quite liberating.

So what makes constructivist learning possible in Common Core environments? Here are six understandings that help the process:

  1. Collect data on student interests, perception of content, and how they process understanding
  2. Establish and coach clear academic criteria
  3. Teach/coach collaboration and develop collaborative partnership
  4. Eliminate assessment fog
  5. Teach/coach inquiry
  6. Establish culture of constructive feedback

This list could easily be expanded. For anyone considering exploring a constructivist approach to their classroom, the idea can be quite daunting. These six ideas are a way to start the process with a high degree for a successful launch. The first two can be addressed in your order of preference, but both are equally important for setting the foundation that allows for a successful learning partnership with students.

Collect data on student interests, perception of content, and how they process understanding

Getting to know students is critical to any type of successful work relationship. In the world of Differentiated Instruction, work begins with knowing a person’s strengths, interests, and background. This is especially true with building a constructivist environment. An effective strategy for gathering such information is Learning Profile Cards.


Students fill out Learning Profile Cards in 15-20 minutes, and can be used immediately. Teachers find benefit from this strategy with students from kindergarten to graduate school. Getting a student’s perceptions of their confidence level in their learning styles, areas of personal interests, and core academic skills–like reading, writing, and computations–helps to know how they will engage in tasks. Any task that requires skills that they feel they lack confidence may lead to students resisting the work or becoming disengaged. Knowing this helps teachers to anticipate structures of supports based on learning styles and interests leads to success. Through relationship building, teachers can show empathy before students get to the point of disengagement.

Establish and coach clear academic criteria

A key non-negotiable for success is that the teacher must have a deep understanding of their content standards. This means being able to unpack them for key concepts and skills, and know how to use student-friendly language to help learners understand the academic focus for themselves. This base helps for developing effective academic criteria.

Academic criteria is the heart of what skills and concepts that students must demonstrate in the various products, including the final product or performance. If the criteria are clear and understandable by students, then the final product or performance does not need to be defined. Students can freely design and develop products or performances of their choosing so long as what’s created demonstrates the academic criteria. Here are examples of the power of clear criteria:

At Lakeshore Public Schools in Southwest MI, students studied FrankLloydWrightfamous Americans and their accomplishments. One student researched Frank Lloyd Wright. As part of his presentation, he created one of the Architect’s homes inside Minecraft, a world builder game that many play at home and with others online. He included part of his presentation as a recorded introduction of the design.

At the York County School Division (YCSD) in VA, high school students took Newton’s 3 Laws of Motion and developed tutorial videos to translate the concepts into language that others could understand as an entry point into the content. Another class did a similar process for a Social Studies unit about the Jamestown Settlement (Video). More examples from YCSD can be found at these two posts from the Superintendent, Eric Williams:  A and BThe work is based on YCSD initiative: Transformative Learning, which is led by many staff.  Characteristics include:

  1. Mastering content and skills
  2. Students own the learning
  3. Authentic Audience
  4. The learning has meaning and purpose beyond school work

At Ardis New Tech in Ypsilanti MI, students in Algebra Squared (Algebra II content), students applied their knowledge of logarithms to usage with 401k plans. They sought to answer the driving question: How can we use exponential and logarithmic equations to manage money?  The students’ presentations must demonstrate the mathematics while persuading or informing adults on the value of such plans. One student team decided to create a video in the spirit of an SNL interview skit.

When academic criteria is clearly defined, the possibilities are endless as to what students can come up with to demonstrate their understanding. Allowing such voice leads to increased engagement on the work.

Eliminate assessment and grade fog

The emphasis is on “Academic” criteria because sometime logistical requirements get mixed in as part of the assessment. This muddies the assessment, leading to assessment or grade fog. For example, in one middle school class, students were given a research assignment to explore a famous African American and his/her contributions. One requirement was that the final paper be in a five paragraph format. A student who wrote seven paragraphs was assessed as not following directions. Following directions was not an explicit assessment category. Social Studies content and informative writing were the targets, which the student demonstrated in seven paragraphs.

Logistical requirements are best used as guidelines for submitting work. When work misses a logistical checkpoint, have the students revise the item in question, if time is provided. Otherwise, give the student feedback on the missed logistics, but do not include it in the grade to avoid academic inaccuracies.[i]

Teach/coach collaboration and develop collaborative partnership

Collaboration is a critical skill set when constructing knowledge and conducting explorations. Students do not magically know how to effectively collaborate.  While there are many collaborative experiences that occur in classrooms, students need coaching on the language and skills for collaboration. Otherwise, they do not realize what they are doing is more than group activities. There are many good resources to help coach students such as Team builders and Rubrics. Some are listed at the end of this post.[ii]

While several of the previous examples reflect this process, such as Ardis New Tech, here are examples:

In Novi Community School District in Novi, MI, 4th graders embarked on a project that started with the district “Superintendent challenged the students to make their learning transparent to the community.”[iii] The teacher provided an overarching focus, which the students used to design their own driving questions. A driving question is the major focus of a project. The students in collaborating on crafting their own meant that they were also setting their own course throughout the unit.

In Dupont-Hadley Middle School in Metro Nashville Public Schools (TN), the students participated in an interdisciplinary project about cancer: Cell-a-brate. One of the students was a 2-time cancer survivor. Students learned about cells and the difference from cancerous cells with the intent to raise awareness about the need for more support by adults to help find a cure. They organized a Spaghetti meal to raise funds for the local hospital’s Children’s Cancer center. Much of the work required students to work together for research, messaging, and the charity event. This project received national attention through ASCD Express.

Teach/coach inquiry

The skills of asking inquiry questions is complex. The inquiry process helps students delve deeply into content and building understanding. The experience may start small, as part of a specific activity or event, and expand into a cultural approach to learning. The skill set is also required of teachers as to how to structure inquiry and the kinds of questions that help support the experience or culture.

WSC Academy in MI embarked on to such an experience when there students explored a need for a snack food cart. Typically lunch is off campus, and the students wanted to figure out how to make food purchase options available, while complying with health and other governmental regulations. The interdisciplinary project lead to much exploration as the adults did not define what the final proposed plan could be. Students intently dug into various ideas and issues in the course of their study. In the end, they presented their recommendations to school officials. Impressed with the students’ work, the school leadership continues to work with them to possibly bring one of the proposals to reality.

National School Reform Faculty has a wealth of protocols for developing thinking among students and staff. The Pocket Guide to Probing Questions is an excellent tool for helping students learn to ask questions that stretches one’s thinking. It’s also a process that teachers will find successful in helping students work through their thinking.

Establish culture of constructive feedback

Constructive feedback is more valuable, and palatable to students, then constructive criticism. Students and adults think of criticism as wholly negative, which is not the intent in education. A culture of constructive feedback helps a person or team to make a product or idea better than its current draft. Sometimes the change is dramatic, and needed; but other times the improvement is modest, and worthwhile.

There are many protocols that can be found or created based on giving good feedback. A good guide is “How Am I Doing?” by Jan Chappuis[iv] Also, it’s good to include starter stems for any conversation, such as:

  • “I like…”
  • “I wonder…”
  • “What if…”

Such a structure takes time to develop, but once in place, students are empowered to support each other, and free the teacher to coach where needed.

While there could be more steps to nurture rich constructivist learning in a Common Core environment, these six will get you a long way on the journey. Whether you begin small or big, start with the first 2 understandings, and you’ll have the base you need for students to prosper. Then delve into the remaining 4 to make the experiences for your students and yourself rich with learning and engagement.

[i] Standards Based Learning (#sblchat) is a great Professional Learning Network on Twitter that discusses many topics about assessment and grading practices. As of this writing, there is a standard Twitter session at 9 p.m. EST on Wednesdays.

[ii] is a great resource for free team builders. Check out the category: Collaboration. A place for Collaboration rubrics is the Buck Institute for Education. They have collaboration rubrics for different grade spans, and versions that are aligned to CCSS and non-CCSS.

[iii] Quote from Myla Lee’s teacher reflection about this amazing experience. Myla (@MyTLee3) leads a district initiative to implement Project Based Learning. As of this writing, she is completing a successful first year.

[iv] Article can be found at ASCD Educational Leadership, September 2012, p. 36-41.