Coaching the Coaches

Peer-Ed, 2018

Peer coaching in the teaching profession is a humbling job. Whether part-time or full-time, a peer coach’s job is to help his or her colleagues improve their practice. In his book, “Peer Coaching: Unlocking the Power of Collaboration”, Dr. Les Foltos speaks to the critical role that a peer coach can play in a fellow teacher’s practice, “This process of observation and reflection is the most effective form of formative assessment for educators. It is their key to life-long learning.” Given that a teacher’s practice is as much personal as professional, a peer coach’s job is to take this into full consideration while helping the observed colleague to reflect, ask questions, and improve upon his or her practice. On an annual basis, this is the fall focus of the Digital Educational Leadership (DEL) program at Seattle Pacific University (SPU) where Dr. Les Foltos and Dr. David Wicks coach a cohort of instructional coaches on the delicate art and science of peer coaching.

Essential Question

How does an educational professional take pedagogical and andragogical instructional theory related to peer coaching and practically apply this in practice with a colleague?

Coaching a Colleague

The overarching task of peer coaches in the SPU DEL program is partnering with a peer to practice applied coaching skills and strategies. One of the first things to consider are the various roles and approaches that a peer coach can take on: facilitator, collaborator, expert, and catalyst. There are times for each, however, a 1-on-1 focus lends itself well to collaboration. If the interaction were more of a large-group instructional setting then facilitator may have been the best option, whereas more of a one-time consulting-type interaction may have meant an expert approach. Growing into relationship over time can result in a catalyst role, however, this generally takes time and a significant level of relational capacity. With all of this in mind, my approach to working with a colleague was to focus on the role of collaborator so that we could grow our peer coaching relationship together. Our initial meeting focused on getting to know each other with relation to this task, agreeing upon relational norms of interaction, and setting goals for our time together. This naturally led into and supported the rest of our peer coaching work together.

Planning Together

After our initial introductory meeting, my peer coaching colleague and I arranged a follow-up meeting to focus on a possible lesson together. We looked at a relatively new project that covered six hours of professional development learning for teachers. This presented a good opportunity to practice all of the critical skills that Dr. Foltos describes as essential to successful peer coaching, “The coach’s success rests on her ability to utilize skills in all three areas: coaching skills (communication and collaboration), ICT (information and communication technology) integration, and lesson design. Remove any leg and coaching could fail.” The skills of communication and collaboration were critical in our first session as well as leading into the planning session. My job was to actively listen and verify understanding through listening strategies such as paraphrasing and summary. Once my peer coaching partner verified mutual understanding then we could focus on the collaborative act of lesson planning together. Given that the lesson instruction focused around online teaching, information and communication technology skills became a critical part of the process by the very nature of the instructional context. We maintained the focus on the learning first and foremost, and then explored a variety of technology tools to support this process. Lastly, the third facet of lesson design was certainly part of the process from beginning to end. We approached lesson design based on the collaborating teacher’s experience, and kept this in mind as this would drive a lot of the reflection process.

Reflecting as a Team

The lesson reflection process centered around the Learning Design Matrix referenced and featured in Dr. Foltos’s peer coaching book. The matrix serves as the feature image of this blog post, and, as you can see, the focus of the four quadrants is on standards-based tasks, engaging tasks, problem-based tasks, and technology enables and accelerates learning. Fortunate enough to have established a positive rapport, my peer coaching partner and I were able to review the lesson of focus through the lens of all four quadrants from the Learning Design Matrix. Through the standards-based lens, we were able to look more closely at the learning targets. While the selected standards seemed well aligned, we were able to brainstorm ways to make them more explicit for learners. Engaging tasks take on a new dimension when learning online, so we looked at ways to build more interaction among participants. By keeping breakout group members consistent, we discussed how this would likely lead to more relational engagement by participants which would help increase task engagement. The lesson contained several problem-based tasks. What seemed missing, though, were ways to empower participants to better support each other so we brainstormed ongoing discussion board ideas. Lastly, we looked at technology–something that’s pervasive throughout online learning but can also become a distraction or impediment to application as a result. With this in mind, we looked at how technology could better support interaction and looked at learning tools that better support the human element of learning. The overarching coaching and reflection discussion had both breadth and depth as we explored numerous applications across the entire Learning Design Matrix for iterating upon the existing lesson design for future instructional improvements and implementation.

Next Steps

The act of learning about peer coaching became real through the practical applications of these lessons learned under the guidance of Dr. Foltos and Dr. Wicks. These theoretical lessons offered many possibilities for practice, while the application offered real-life examples. My personal goal is to continue to improve upon my utilization of these applied skills as well as to continue my overall study of peer coaching skills and strategies. As a lifelong learner, I realize this is a lifelong process where the process is the journey and the destination is an ever-moving target of growth where one never truly “arrives”.


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from
  2. Les Foltos. (2013). Peer Coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration.
  3. Foltos, L. (2018). Coaching Roles. Peer-Ed, Mill Creek.

Teaching by Design, Part Deux

Photo by Senjuti Kundu on Unsplash

Picking Up Where We Left Off 

The first post in this two-part series highlighted some key aspects from  Dr. Les Foltos’s book, “Peer Coaching: Unlocking the Power of Collaboration,” starting with his foundational outline of three general areas of skills that instructional coaches should possess: “The coach’s success rests on her ability to utilize skills in all three areas: coaching skills (communication and collaboration), ICT (information and communication technology) integration, and lesson design.” When focusing on the lesson design leg of the stool, Dr. Foltos provides a “Learning Activity Checklist” tool for reviewing and improving lesson plans.  So far in this series, we’ve explored the “Standards Based” category and the “Engaging” category.  Both are critical quadrants of the four-part resource.  The two remaining categories to address are “Problem Based Task” and “Technology Enhances Academic Achievement”.  With the same ISTE standards and essential question in mind as the initial post, we’ll explore each category to round out a full review of the four categories from Dr. Foltos’s “Learning Activity Checklist” tool. 

Coaching Standards

  1. Change Agent: Coaches inspire educators and leaders to use technology to create equitable and ongoing access to high-quality learning. Coaches: 1a. Create a shared vision and culture for using technology to learn and accelerate transformation through the coaching process. 
  1. Collaborator: Coaches establish productive relationships with educators in order to improve instructional practice and learning outcomes. Coaches: 3a. Establish trusting and respectful coaching relationships that encourage educators to explore new instructional strategies. 3d. Personalize support for educators by planning and modeling the effective use of technology to improve student learning. 
  1. Learning Designer: Coaches model and support educators to design learning experiences and environments to meet the needs and interests of all students. Coaches: 4a. Collaborate with educators to develop authentic, active learning experiences that foster student agency, deepen content mastery and allow students to demonstrate their competency. 

Essential Question:  

How does one approach lesson design in an ever-evolving classroom context? 

Problem-Based Task 

The “Problem Based Task” category draws on established PBL approaches.  I start with the acronym because there are various flavors of PBL, with Problem-Based Learning being one of the more prominent.  The original and most well-known is Project-Based Learning.  There’s also place-based, passion-based, and phenomena-based among others.  All of them are essentially different sides of the same proverbial coin in that the focus is on engaging students with real-world problems and applications of their learning.  Dr. Foltos speaks to this in his peer coaching book by citing relevant research on the topic, ”Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000) remind educators that real-world problems have to have meaning to their students in their community and need to draw on students’ current knowledge, skills, beliefs, and passions.”  He goes onto address some of the critical aspects of Problem-Based activities, “…tasks often consist of two elements: a scenario that will stimulate students’ interest, give them an understandable setting, and define an audience along with an essential question that is designed to define the product the students will create (Meyer et al., 2011).” 

To say that there are a lot of PBL resources out there for teachers to explore would be an understatement, and pretty much all of these resources build on the foundational aspects described above: they tend involve real-world or “real enough” scenario-based problems that will engaged student interest, provide a defined audience, and align with a matching essential question that helps define student-created products.  A great place to start exploring PBL resources that help build on this solid foundation is Edutopia’s website.  PBL is an area that Edutopia focuses on and there is a lot of high quality content available.  One incredibly helpful five-part series entitled “Problem-Based Learning Research Review” walks the reader through a detailed and in-depth overview.  The article cites research to highlight four major areas as an introduction to PBL, “According to researchers (Barron & Darling-Hammond, 2008; Thomas, 2000), PBL essentially involves the following: students learning knowledge to tackle realistic problems as they would be solved in the real world, increased student control over his or her learning, teachers serving as coaches and facilitators of inquiry and reflection, and students (usually, but not always) working in pairs or groups.”  Additional research by Erdogan, Niyazi & Bozeman, Todd (2015), and called “Models of Project-Based Learning for the 21st Century”, evaluates common schools of PBL thought to identify unifying concepts across the varying approaches.  They identify four phases to the learning process that are common across different versions of PBL: “Initiation, Management, Deliverables, and Assessment”.  Taking all of these aspects together into consideration, educators can begin to identify certain patterns.  For example, it’s worth noting that there are some similarities in the identified PBL progression to the 5E approach referenced in the first post of this series.   

PBL can be a little overwhelming so starting small with a focus on Problem Based Tasks, as suggested by the structure of Dr. Foltos’s “Learning Activity Checklist”.  Many of the lesson aspects involved with an emphasis on problem-based tasks arguably come down to just good teaching.  The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards reference numerous aspects of PBL-related teaching, for example, “…understanding that information is not simply delivered to students but that meaningful learning requires students to employ new ideas in real world contexts.”  Ideas for activities and where to start are also important.  “It’s Debatable” is a book with several in-depth examples of modern socio-scientific issues such as whether or not to mine rare earth minerals.  The PBL Works website has a variety of examples and PBL-related resources.  This site is maintained by the Buck Institute which created one of the original Problem-Based Learning schools of thought and is considered by many to be the gold standard of PBL.  If you’re looking to dive deeper into a resource with a specific Problem-Based Learning focus then the Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA) has created a toolbox of resources to support this effort with manuals focused around four primary topics: “PBL Matters, PBL Design, PBL Coaching, PBL Assessment”.  IMSA offers the following description from their PBL Tool Kit, “Problem-Based Learning is focused experiential learning organized around the investigation and resolution of messy, real-world problems.”  In the PBL book “Problem As Possibilities”,  IMSA authors (Torp and Sage), also wrote “As an engagement process, problem-based learning empowers students as learners and doers to translate imagination and thought into actuality as well as to reflect on the process and proposed solution.”  So the idea in PBL is that students are engaged in opportunities for deep learning solving complex problems with opportunities for real outcomes, while, at the same time, all PBL units should be passion-based learning opportunities for students so as to build a strong foundational and lifelong love of learning. 

Technology Enhances Academic Achievement 

The fourth and final category from the “Learning Activity Checklist” tool is “Technology Enhances Academic Achievement”.  This category, in some ways, could also be viewed as an extension or application of the “Information and Communication Technology Integration” leg of Dr. Foltos’s peer coaching skills stool metaphor.  Tying this into a lesson review tool becomes important because of the ever increasing role that technology plays in schools, a role which Dr. Foltos speaks to in his book, “Adding technology hasn’t changed traditional teaching and learning, but it has made poor pedagogy more expensive.”  This potential pitfall is important to remember, and there is research to support successful approaches with technology, “It is not (never was) about technology. To make a difference, it has always been about good teaching, reflecting and focusing on (relevant?) student learning (Sylvia Tolisano, 2009).”  The well-established National Board for Professional Teaching Standards also support this approach throughout technology-related instructional standards, “The standards therefore explore how such tools [emerging instructional tools], including technology, may be used to support teaching and learning for themselves and their students instead of focusing on how to use specific tools which may change.”  That being said, the standards do reinforce the importance of utilizing instructional technology, “To support content-related and pedagogical goals, accomplished teachers integrate and use instructional tools, including technology, within the curriculum, ” with the emphasis being on the pedagogical aspect. 

With the established idea that sound pedagogy still fundamentally drives instruction when technology is involved, finding resources to support the pedagogically appropriate use of instructional technology can be challenging.  Researched-based approaches where the application is proven provide the best opportunity for successful classroom applications.  One such book, “The Distance Learning Playbook” by Fisher, Frey, and Hattie, provides plenty of research-based support for careful technology integration.  They speak to concerns where “too much talk has focused on teaching and not on learning” by offering that “teachers should not hold an instructional strategy in higher esteem than their student’s learning.”  In support of this, they offer suggestions for instructional strategies that can be effectively integrated with technology such as Classroom Discussion with an effect size of 0.82, Jigsaw lesson organizational strategies with an effect size of 1.2, Reciprocal Teaching with an effect size of 0.74, and more.  Liz Kolb takes a very research-based focus in her book “Learning First, Technology Second”.  As the book title might suggest, she offers that “Teaching with technology is about the learning first and the tool second,” and advises educators to “Focus specifically on how the technology is meeting the needs of the learner.”  Based on her research, Kolb offers her “Triple E Framework” as a means to helping educators accomplish effective integration of instructional technology through the lens of “Engagement, Enhancement, and Extension.”  One last example of research-based instructional ideas around technology integration is “Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works” by Pitler, Hubbell, Kuhn, and Malenoski which applies the meta-research from Dr. Robert Marzano’s book “Classroom Instruction that Works” to instructional technology.  While many of the specific technology examples are dated, the core research-based concepts are sound, insightful, and proven.  The research-based reasons for careful planning around thoughtful instruction also remain the same, “Research indicates that technology’s use in the classroom can have an additional positive influence on student learning when the learning goals are clearly articulated prior to the technology’s use (Ringstaff & Kelley, 2002; Schacter, 1999).” 


There are a lot of different ways to approach coaching a colleague on lesson improvement.  The addressed areas of Standards Based, Engaging, Problem-Based Task, Technology Enhances Academic Achievement provide great starting point and reflective lenses through which to evaluate lessons.  However a peer coach is approaching a colleague, Dr. Foltos provides sound advice in that “Any coaching conversation about improving a colleague’s work must start with a clear statement that praises what’s good about the learning activity.” This advice draws on the first leg of Dr. Foltos’s instructional stool, “coaching skills (communication and collaboration)”.  These skills are critical to the peer coach’s success and must be present throughout his or her coaching interactions and work. In other words, tread lightly so as to “Begin with praise and honest appreciation” and “Be ‘hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise'” to quote Dale Carnegie as you are truly try to win over your colleagues and influence them in the best possible way. 


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from
  2. Les Foltos. (2013). Peer Coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration.
  3. Corwin.Foltos, L. (January, 2018). Teachers Learn Better Together. Edutopia. Retrieved from
  4. Parish, N. (May, 2019). Ensuring That Instruction Is Inclusive for Diverse Learners. Edutopia. Retrieved from
  5. Wiggins, G., & McTighe, Jay. (2005).  Understanding by Design (Expanded 2nd ed., Gale virtual reference library). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  6. Marzon, R., Pickering, D., Pollock, J. (January, 2001). Classroom Instruction that Works. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  7. Wood, C. (2007). Yardsticks. Northeast Foundation for Children, Inc.
  8. Bybee, R. (2015). The BSCS 5E Instructional Model. National Science Teachers Association.
  9. Burgess, D. (2012). Teach Like a Pirate. Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc.
  10. Fisher, D., Frey, N., Hattie, J. (2020). The Distance Learning Playbook. Corwin.
  11. Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers. Routledge.
  12. Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA). (2013). PBL Network, Collaborative Inquiry in Action. IMSA.PBL Works. (2020).
  13. Buck Institute For Education. Retrieved from
  14. Zeidler, D. & Kahn, S. (2014). It’s Debatable. NSTApress.
  15. Vega, V. (December, 2012). Edutopia. Retrieved from
  16. Erdogan, N. & Bozeman, T.D. (2015). Models of Project-Based Learning for the 21st Century. Sense Publishers.
  17. Corwin.Kolb, L. (2017). Learning First, Technology Second. International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).
  18. Pitler, H., Hubbell, E., Kuhn, M., Malenoski, K. (2007). Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development & Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.
  19. National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). (2016). NBPTS. Pearson.
  20. Carnegie, D. (1936). How to Win Friends and Influence People. Pocket Books.

Teaching by Design, Part Uno

Photo by Alice Dietrich on Unsplash

In his book, “Peer Coaching: Unlocking the Power of Collaboration,” Dr. Les Foltos outlines three general areas of skills that instructional coaches should possess: “The coach’s success rests on her ability to utilize skills in all three areas: coaching skills (communication and collaboration), ICT (information and communication technology) integration, and lesson design.”  Dr. Foltos uses the metaphor of a three-legged stool to describe how these skills are all critical to successful coaching, “Remove any leg and coaching could fail.”  The last of these three areas, lesson design, is perhaps the most nuanced to address.  Teachers start out writing detailed lesson plans as student teachers and slowly move away from this as they become more experienced.  Most, if not all, keep detailed lesson plan books for their own guidance but a lot of the less plan details are internalized.  Given the accelerating rate of change in education, how does a peer coach help teachers explore, reflect, and improve upon lesson and unit planning in their practice?  Dr. Foltos provides one such tool in his book that he refers to as the “Learning Activity Checklist” and divides this approach into four categories: Standards Based, Engaging, Problem Based Task, and Technology Enhances Academic Achievement.  A further exploration of these four areas, with the relevant ISTE Coaching standards in mind, provides some additional insights into the essential question raised around lesson design.

Coaching Standards

1. Change Agent: Coaches inspire educators and leaders to use technology to create equitable and ongoing access to high-quality learning. Coaches: 1a. Create a shared vision and culture for using technology to learn and accelerate transformation through the coaching process.

3. Collaborator: Coaches establish productive relationships with educators in order to improve instructional practice and learning outcomes. Coaches: 3a. Establish trusting and respectful coaching relationships that encourage educators to explore new instructional strategies. 3d. Personalize support for educators by planning and modeling the effective use of technology to improve student learning.

4. Learning Designer: Coaches model and support educators to design learning experiences and environments to meet the needs and interests of all students. Coaches: 4a. Collaborate with educators to develop authentic, active learning experiences that foster student agency, deepen content mastery and allow students to demonstrate their competency.

Essential Question

How does one approach lesson design in an ever-evolving classroom context?

Standards Based

In his “Peer Coaching” book, Dr. Foltos is clear about the need for standards based instruction, “There are three groups of standards educators should include in their learning activities: curriculum standards, 21st-century standards, and technology standards (Meyer et al., 2011m).”  There is plenty of support for this approach across educational literature and research. “Understanding By Design” by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe raises the critical approach of beginning with the end in mind.  In the case of standards-based teaching, this means the standards.  The standards will inform construction of learning objectives to be introduced to students at the beginning of the lesson or unit and learning outcomes to be evaluated as student success criteria at the end of the same given lesson or unit. Wiggins and McTighe focus in on this as defining the “why” of the instruction, “Answering the ’why?’ and ’so what?’ questions that older students always ask (or want to), and doing so in concrete terms as the focus of curriculum planning, is thus the essence of understanding by design.”

Not only are objectives important, but individualized feedback coupled with those objectives is critical.  This can take the form of formative assessment along the way or summative assessment at the end of the activity or unit.  “Setting Objectives and Providing Feedback” is so important that Robert Marzano cites this as one of the “Nine Categories in Instructional Planning” based on meta-research he conducted and wrote about in his book entitled “Classroom Instruction that Works”.  Dr. Foltos speaks to this as well with an emphasis on formative assessment of the standards based learning, “Educators must use formative assessment, which gives learners opportunities to receive feedback at benchmarks along the way, “to revise and improve the quality of their learning… while they are engaged in learning new materials” (Bransford, et al., 2000, pp. 24–25).”  While the objectives are classwide and the learning is standards based, individualization is important toward this end as well because every student is different. According to John Hattie’s book on meta-analyses of education research, Visible Learning for Teachers, formative assessment has a student learning effect size of 0.90 and individualized feedback has an effect size of 0.75.

Universal Learning is a valuable approach to consider when looking at lesson planning because it means providing individualized access for students whether they have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), 504, or not.  In the Edutopia blog post entitled “Ensuring That Instruction Is Inclusive For Diverse Learners” by Nina Parrish, she speaks to the idea that Universal Design provides a flexible model for adjusting instructional approaches.  She lists three key ideas for successfully implementing universal design in the classroom, “Teach content in many ways, provide choices to sustain student engagement, and provide accommodations for all students.” Universal Design creates a more student centered approach that is more inclusive across the entire classroom for all students.


“Tasks are essential in learning that asks students to play an active role in solving real-world problems and develop 21st-century skills. They hook the students, engage their interest in a learning activity, and define how students will demonstrate their learning.”  The type of learning tasks that Dr. Foltos is describing in his book on “Peer Coaching” are authentically engaging tasks.  For a task to be engaging, it must be developmentally appropriate.  Chip Wood’s book, “Yardsticks”, provides developmentally appropriate descriptions that can be extremely useful for appropriate engaging students at certain ages.  He speaks to our establish knowledge in this area, “In the first half of the last century, the so-called “giants” in the field of child development—people such as Jean Piaget, Arnold Gesell, Maria Montessori, Erik Erikson, Lev Vygotsky—observed, researched, and recorded most of the developmental patters that form the basis of our knowledge of how children mature.” Meeting students where they are at based on these established “developmental patterns” means we can better engage students.

In fact, “Engage” is the first of the five “E’s” listed as part of “The BSCS  5E Instructional Model” by Rodger Bybee.  The 5E Model is based on the work of John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky, among others, in terms of the natural and “engaging” progressions of learning. According to John Hattie, Piagetian programs have an effect size of 1.28.  By engaging student interest through a discrepant event that connects to previous knowledge, teachers can help student construct new knowledge by moving from equilibrium to the disequilibrium engaged by the discrepant event and eventually back to equilibrium through the processing of new learning in the “Explore” and “Explain” phases.  Teachers then verify understanding via student’s ability to apply new learning in a different context via the “Elaborate” and “Evaluate” phases.

As demonstrated by the three provided examples, appropriate engagement is key.  This is as much an art as a science and will vary teacher to teacher and even class to class with the same teacher.  The importance throughout different contexts is a focus on being intentional about engaging the learner.  Dave Burgess is a master at this as demonstrated through his “Teach Like a Pirate” philosophy.  His book, “Teach Like a Pirate, Increase Student Engagement, Boost Your Creativity, and Transform Your Life as an Educator” speaks to the importance of engaging students in their learning in a way that makes sense for each educator based on their respective passion, “It doesn’t matter what subject you teach, you can become totally engaging to your audience if they can feel your passion and love for what you are doing. You will draw students in as if by some magnetic force.”  Passion is engaging, and it’s also contagious and spreads throughout your learning practice and to those around you.  Passion is engaging.

Halfway Home

So far, with Dr. Foltos’s “Learning Activity Checklist”, we’ve looked at the first two categories of ”Standards Based” and ”Engaging”.  These are two critical areas to keep in mind when reviewing existing lessons and units as well as designing new ones.  There are numerous connections across literature and via educational theorists to support these approaches.  That being said, one is best off focusing on one aspect of one category at a time as opposed to trying to process and apply all four areas at once.  Over time, with practice, many of these approaches can become second nature and intuitive for the intentional teacher. The authors of “Understanding by Design” speak specifically to this process of internalization.  The remaining two areas of ”Problem-Based” and ”Technology Enhances Academic Achievement“ will be addressed in the follow-up to this blog post.  There are entire books written on each topic, so the intent will be to address key points from established resources like this introductory post.  Together, all four areas create powerful opportunities for intentional teaching of carefully designed lessons and units of instruction.


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from
  2. Les Foltos. (2013). Peer Coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration. Corwin.
  3. Foltos, L. (January, 2018). Teachers Learn Better Together. Edutopia. Retrieved from
  4. Parish, N. (May, 2019). Ensuring That Instruction Is Inclusive for Diverse Learners. Edutopia. Retrieved from
  5. Wiggins, G., & McTighe, Jay. (2005).  Understanding by Design (Expanded 2nd ed., Gale virtual reference library). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  6. Marzon, R., Pickering, D., Pollock, J. (January, 2001). Classroom Instruction that Works. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  7. Wood, C. (2007). Yardsticks. Northeast Foundation for Children, Inc.
  8. Bybee, R. (2015). The BSCS 5E Instructional Model. National Science Teachers Association.
  9. Burgess, D. (2012). Teach Like a Pirate. Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc.
  10. Fisher, D., Frey, N., Hattie, J. (2020). The Distance Learning Playbook. Corwin.
  11. Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers. Routledge.
  12. Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA). (2013). PBL Network, Collaborative Inquiry in Action. IMSA.
  13. PBL Works. (2020). Buck Institute For Education. Retrieved from
  14. Zeidler, D. & Kahn, S. (2014). It’s Debatable. NSTApress.
  15. Vega, V. (December, 2012). Edutopia. Retrieved from
  16. Erdogan, N. & Bozeman, T.D. (2015). Models of Project-Based Learning for the 21st Century. Sense Publishers.
  17. Kolb, L. (2017). Learning First, Technology Second. International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).
  18. Pitler, H., Hubbell, E., Kuhn, M., Malenoski, K. (2007). Using Technology with Classroom Instruction that Works. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development & Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.
  19. National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). (2016). NBPTS. Pearson.
  20. Carnegie, D. (1936). How to Win Friends and Influence People. Pocket Books.

If You Say Tomayto and I Say Tomahto then Why are We Debating Potayto? The Importance of Communication and Collaboration to Successful Peer Coaching.

Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

Teaching is a hard job in the best of times.  Add in a pandemic that requires the ability to teach in-person, remotely, or some combination there-of, and more questions than answers will surely arise.  Teachers need help and support and hopefully this is where peer coaches can come into play, but where do coaches even begin to establish the complex level of support needed by teachers?  In Dr. Les Foltos’s book, Peer Coaching: Unlocking the Power of Collaboration, he outlines key skills needed by coaches: “The coach’s success rests on her ability to utilize skills in all three areas: coaching skills (communication and collaboration), ICT (information and communication technology) integration, and lesson design.”  All three areas are important, but the coaching skills of communication and collaboration are essential.  Both ICT integration and lesson design are dependent upon effective communication and collaboration, “A coach’s successes in incorporating lesson-design skills and insights into the effective use of technology “hinge on their success with communication and collaboration skills” (J. Linklater, personal communication, June 14, 2012).”  A closer look at coaching skills also requires relevant context since the peer coach takes on a variety of roles: “Facilitator, Collaborator, Expert, and Catalyst.”  Successful coaching requires that effective application of skills coincides with, complements, and even enhances the critical context of coaching roles.

Coaching Standards

2. Connected Learner: Coaches model the ISTE Standards for Students and the ISTE Standards for Educators, and identify ways to improve their coaching practice. Coaches: 2c. Establish shared goals with educators, reflect on successes and continually improve coaching and teaching practice.

3. Collaborator: Coaches establish productive relationships with educators in order to improve instructional practice and learning outcomes. Coaches: 3a. Establish trusting and respectful coaching relationships that encourage educators to explore new instructional strategies.

5. Professional Learning Facilitator: Coaches plan, provide and evaluate the impact of professional learning for educators and leaders to use technology to advance teaching and learning. Coaches: 5b.  Build the capacity of educators, leaders and instructional teams to put the ISTE Standards into practice by facilitating active learning and providing meaningful feedback.

Essential Question 

How do coaching skills, with an emphasis on communication and collaboration, translate into all of the different roles that peer coaches take on?


When the peer coach assumes the role of facilitator, this means “Planning and leading meetings, activities, and staff development in one-on-one, small group, or large group situations,” (Foltos, 2018).  Regardless of the size of facilitation, the coach needs to be prepared to model risk taking, “Other Peer Coaches model risk taking and recognize that taking risks may occasionally mean failure” (Foltos, 2013).  This helps lay the foundation of safety that’ll be needed for collaboration later on. This is also a key communication strategy that the peer coach can reference later on when trying to navigate the tricky terrain of providing constructive peer feedback.  As described by famed communicator Dale Carnegie in his book How to Win Friends & Influence People, “Talk about your own mistakes before criticizing the other person.”

Acting as a facilitator, means being able to guide staff interactions and transitioning in and out of a peer leadership role.  This means being aware of group norms.  In the absence of agreed upon norms, pairs/groups will develop their own unsaid norms that may not be as conducive to effective collaboration.  By taking the lead in this area and developing norms together, the structure can help facilitate the relationships and learning: “Collaborative norms shape our conversations in ways that build trust and respect; they define accountability and build capacity. Collaborative norms are essential for effective coaching,” (Foltos, 2013).


Being a collaborator means “Working together with colleagues to plan, implement, and evaluate activities,” (Foltos, 2018).  This means “Addressing the potential fear-factor of working with an instructional coach”, which can be accomplished by modeling risk taking as mentioned in the facilitator role and providing a safety net within the relationship, “Their efforts to encourage their peers to adopt more innovative teaching and learning strategies are always undergirded by the safety net they built with their collaborating teachers,” (Foltos, 2013).  When collaborating, you’re often preparing, planning, teaching and reflecting together with a focus on student learning. The reflecting is where the trust and safety net come in so that coach and teacher can “discuss what worked and what the peer would do differently next time” in a safe manner, (Foltos, 2013).

A critical part of effective collaboration is clear communication and utilizing strategies that support this.  A simple but powerful strategy that Dr. Foltos references in his book is paraphrasing, “In its simplest form, paraphrasing is the listener repeating, albeit in a modified form, what he or she heard the speaker say.”  This facilitates clear communication and ensures understanding while also demonstrating that the coach is practicing another critical listening skill that Dr. Foltos refers to as active listening: “Active listeners are focused on what the speaker is saying. They look right at the speaker, block out competing thoughts, and assess what the speaker is saying.”  This also ties into one of Dale Carnegies key strategies for building relationship, “Be a good listener, encourage others to talk about themselves.”  Again, all of this builds toward the coach being able to grow the relationship with the teacher while helping the teacher grow in his or her practice, “Give honest and sincere appreciation” and “praise the slightest improvement and praise every improvement. Be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise,” (Carnegie, 1936). This strategy is so important and underutilized that it’s worth citing additional support from an Edutopia article on the topic by Shannon McGrath and entitled 5 Vital To-Dos for Instructional Coaches, “Be vocal about the good you see: Teachers rarely get focused feedback on the practices they devote so much of their time to improving. Be constantly on the lookout for small moves your teachers are making that shift students, efforts that go above and beyond expectations, or relationships that are making the difference for students.“

There are additional benefits in this for students as well, because “teachers who learned these communication skills from a coach turn around and teach these same skills with their students (P. Cleaves, personal communication, May 23, 2012),” (Foltos, 2013).  On top of this, good coaching is actually an effective teaching strategy per the meta-analyses of research done by Dr. John Hattie and as cited in The Distance Learning Playbook by Fisher, Frey, and Hattie (2020).  This also leads into and connected with some strong research cited around effective questioning strategies which support a lot of the work coaches do as a catalyst, but, first, let’s explore the often misunderstood role of expert.


The role of expert is probably the hardest to navigate while maintaining the role of peer and “Acting as a subject matter expert on a variety of topics,” (Foltos, 2018).  This is because growing the relationship means you “Make the other person feel important—and do it sincerely” per Dale Carnegie but you also need to posses a self-evident mastery of the relevant content.  Most importantly as the expert, the peer coach needs to be careful not to take learning responsibility away from the learner and inadvertently steal their joy of discovery because this engenders ownership of ideas: “Effective coaches, like Grace Dublin, make it clear to learning partners that “the responsibility to learn something belongs to the learner” (G. Dublin, personal communication, September 13, 2011),” Foltos (2013).  Even better as far as persuading individuals to a new way of thinking goes per Mr. Carnegie, “Let the other person feel that the idea is his or hers.

The following from Dr. Foltos ties together the ideas inquiry into the other teacher’s ideas and advocacy for the coach’s ideas, “Inquiry Over Advocacy: When is the right time for advocacy? How often can they [coaches] present their solutions? As I noted in earlier chapters, successful coaches feel that a little advocacy works, but only after a strong coaching relationship based on inquiry is formed. Too much advocacy, they observed, means the coach becomes the expert with the answer. Garmston and Wellman (1999) argue it is important for successful collaboration to balance advocacy and inquiry.”  In other words, one should refrain from playing the role of expert as much as possible in a peer coaching relationship.  It’s like yelling by the teacher in the classroom, which should be reserved for the rarest of instances (preferably emergencies) so that when actually needed it can be utilized effectively.  Otherwise, when over-utilized, the role of expert will lead to potential disagreements that inevitably grow into arguments, and “The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it,” (Carnegie, 1936).  This is doubly important and true of the peer coaching role.  


After significant work has been done to grow relationships with teachers, coaches can serve in the role of catalyst: “Helping teachers reflect on and improve their practice by using question strategies and skills that assist colleagues to become effective instructional decision makers,” (Foltos, 2018).  There are many ways to build to this level.  The work done as facilitator, collaborator, and expert should help and go a long way toward establishing this level of relationship.  Additionally, efforts to grow teacher confidence through careful actions such as providing recognition for positive accomplishments can help, “Successful Peer Coaches use a variety of strategies to get teachers recognition for their work. Many coaches use conversations with their peers to recognize the strengths of the learning activities the teachers are using with students and work to help their learning partners build on those strengths,” (Foltos, 2013).

With inquiry over advocacy in mind, effective questioning strategies can be especially helpful in the catalyst role.  Dale Carnegie emphasizes the power of asking questions with regard to changing attitudes and behaviors, “Ask questions instead of giving direct orders.”  Practice can be built with regard to clarifying questions, which “… are simple and typically factual. They fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle…”, and then lead to higher level probing questions, “Why are they [probing questions] so critical? The answer gets to the heart of effective coaching,” (Foltos, 2013).  Research supports these strategies with regard to learning and so again there is an added benefit that teachers tend to turn around and employ these new strategies with their students.  According to Fisher, Frey, and Hattie, “Questioning has an effect size of 0.48.”  The right line of probing questions lead to deep reflective thinking which is even more powerful for learning, “Metacognitive strategies have an effect size of 0.55.”  One longtime peer coach, Dr. Greg Bianchi, wrote his entire dissertation on the power of metacognition.  When we keep in mind that any effect size greater than 0.40 greatly accelerates student learning then this is powerful stuff.  Not to get ahead of ourselves, it’s still important to remember the power of consistent small changes for continuous Improvement: “Successful Peer Coaches don’t push for one big, dramatic change, instead relying on an incremental process of continuous improvement,” (Foltos, 2013). 

So, What’s the Potahto? 

Teaching is a hard job and, by association, so is peer coaching, “Most Peer Coaches I have worked with know that they are trying to build these kinds of relationships in difficult circumstances. Many have worked in schools in which teachers work alone and in which collaboration consisted of teachers exchanging lesson plans and teaching resources,” (Foltos, 2013).  Building relationships is key to being able to make any progress with regard to effective coaching translating into student learning growth.  True collaboration is elusive because school systems are not designed to facilitate this.  So coaches must rely on relationship to bridge these systemic gaps, “Being friendly, positive, and supportive doesn’t guarantee innovation, but coaches won’t encourage innovation without drawing on these behaviors to create a safety net.”  To influence teachers, coaches need to be adept and adroit with their approaches to create that trust-based safety net so that they can “Arouse in the other person an eager want” and “Make the other person happy about doing the thing you suggest,” (Carnegie, 1936). Creating a safe enough environment for positive change to happen is more challenging with teaching because it’s deeply personal, “Teaching is an identity and an action, not just a vocation,” (Fisher, Frey, Hattie, 2020).  This means that, ultimately, “Peer Coaches can’t be the experts with the answers. Instead, as Grace Dublin insists, coaches are there to “help them formulate their strategies. It is ultimately their answer” (G. Dublin, personal communication, September 13, 2011),” (Foltos, 2013).  Coaches can truly effect change by believing in their teachers to arrive at their own answers because belief not only has a large effect size on learning, but it also does something even more powerful: it empowers the believer to “Give the other person a fine reputation to to live up to,” (Carnegie, 1936). This action persuades teachers to pursue the desired improvement by way of self-fulfilling prophesy because a coach knew that a teacher could be something more and guided them to that realization through careful facilitation, collaboration, and expertise that all lead up to a catalyst.


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from
  2. Foltos, L. (2013). Peer Coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration. Corwin.
  3. Foltos, L. (2018). Coaching Roles. Peer-Ed, Mill Creek 
  4. Foltos, L. (January, 2018).  Teachers Learn Better Together. Edutopia. Retrieved from
  5. Carnegie, D. (1936). How to Win Friends and Influence People. Pocket Books.
  6. Fisher, D., Frey, N., Hattie, J. (2020). The Distance Learning Playbook. Corwin.
  7. McGrath, S. (2019). 5 Relationship-Building Tips for Instructional Coaches. Edutopia. Retrieved from
  8. Bianchi, G. (2007). Effects of metacognitive instruction on the academic achievement of students in the secondary sciences. Seattle Pacific University. Retrieved from…….128B/abstract

Is Coaching Remotely Necessary in the Era of Remote Learning?

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” —Mahatma Gandhi

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” —Mother Teresa

Image created by Digital Promise

“Educators often say that education is frustratingly isolating. And if you talk with them about collaboration, you quickly learn that they know it can be a powerful tool to improve teaching and learning—and many feel a growing expectation to collaborate.”  In an article written for Edutopia, Dr. Les Foltos leads off with this quote and captures the quintessential crux of the collaboration problem in education.  The teaching profession, by structure, inherently isolates teachers from each other and others in their profession, yet, collaboration is key to effecting change in education.  As Dr. Foltos goes on to write, “Reducing the isolation starts with the recognition that collaboration is a learned skill.”  Peer (instructional) coaching is one such solution that Dr. Foltos provides and an increasing body of research supports.  How do educators successfully implement this model under the best of circumstances, let alone during a pandemic that often requires remote instruction that’s done online?  We need to start out by looking at the why and what of coaching before we can begin to look at the how in any case, especially in regard to online applications.

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Coaching Standard 1

  1. Change Agent: Coaches inspire educators and leaders to use technology to create equitable and ongoing access to high-quality learning. Coaches:
  • 1a Create a shared vision and culture for using technology to learn and accelerate transformation through the coaching process.
  • 1b Facilitate equitable use of digital learning tools and content that meet the needs of each learner.
  • 1c Cultivate a supportive coaching culture that encourages educators and leaders to achieve a shared vision and individual goals.
  • 1d Recognize educators across the organization who use technology effectively to enable high-impact teaching and learning.
  • 1e Connect leaders, educators, instructional support, technical support, domain experts and solution providers to maximize the potential of technology for learning.

Essential Question

What, why, and how can peer instructional coaching help to increase collaboration and effective professional development in general let alone in the midst of a pandemic?

Why Instructional Coaching?

Diana Lee writes for EdSurge, “A growing body of research confirms her theory, showing instructional coaching to be more effective for teacher growth than traditional forms of professional development.” The quoted research from Digital Promise is also strengthened by Instructional Coach Teresa Engler,  “I wish I had a coach in my long career as a teacher because there were times I felt like I was struggling and if I just had the support of a coach next to me, I would’ve been able to be a little braver, try to do more things or been just a little more confident in what I was implementing in my classroom,” she reflected. “Having a coach would have made a significant contribution to the quality of my teaching—expanding what my students learned from me.”  Peer coaches provide support based on personal experience, research, and professional development that also serves as a safety net for teachers to be brave and implement new learnings together.

The “why” for instructional coach grows with every passing research study in support of this practice as well as personal anecdote citing success.  In Dr. Les Foltos’s book, Peer Coaching: Unlocking the Power of Collaboration, he cites research by Linda Darling-Hammond and colleagues (2009) in support of instructional coaching, “They found that teachers need about 50 hours of professional development to improve in a specific area.”  This proven need exists yet teachers often only receive training that’s “…episodic, myopic, and often meaningless.”  The cited key idea that most administrators miss is that ”Improving Practice Can Only Be Done by Teachers, Not to Teachers”. Most Professional Development only focuses on theory and how to put this into practice with a successful application by teachers no more than 15% of the time.  Training that includes “coaching, study teams, peer visits” demonstrates successful classroom implementation in 80-90% of trainings according to Dr. Foltos. 

What is the Quintessential Quiddity of Instructional Coaching?

Moving from “why” to “what” with regard to peer coaching means moving from supporting research and anecdotal stories to what instructional coaching actually looks like.  Dr. Les Foltos outlines the core skills required in chapter 3 of his book: “Think of a successful coach sitting on the stool in Figure 3.1. The coach’s success rests on her ability to utilize skills in all three areas: coaching skills (communication and collaboration), ICT (information and communication technology) integration, and lesson design. Remove any leg and coaching could fail.” So first and foremost, communication and collaboration are the foundation of coaching skills.  While Dr. Foltos lists information and communication technology integration second, he actually describes the technology component as being secondary to both coaching skills and lesson design.  Communication skills are a recurring theme while learning is clearly emphasized as top priority with technology serving in secondary be essential supporting role, “It is not (never was) about technology. To make a difference, it has always been about good teaching, reflecting and focusing on (relevant?) student learning. (Sylvia Tolisano, 2009)”.

In support of these critical coaching skills, coaches take on a variety of approaches while supporting teachers.  Dr. Les Foltos describes these roles in the following manner:

· “Facilitator- Planning and leading meetings, activities, and staff development in one-on-one, small group, or large group situations. 

· Collaborator- Working together with colleagues to plan, implement, and evaluate activities. 

· Expert – Acting as a subject matter expert on a variety of topics. 

· Catalyst – Helping teachers reflect on and improve their practice by using questions strategies and skills that assist colleagues to become effective instructional decision makers.”

Knowing the different roles involved with regard to supporting teachers is an important facet of the peer coach’s efforts.  When combined with a clear mastery of the skills required, the role of peer coach can be very powerful in effecting instructional transformation across a building.  As for whom, the role of instructional coach can be a fellow classroom teacher, a part-time instructional coach, or even a full-time teacher on special assignment.  As long as it’s a peer, the peer coaching model can be effective.

How does this Translate Online?

How does the why and what help us achieve the how of peer coaching in general?  This question needs to at least be addressed concurrently if we are to explore how to potentially implement peer coaching online. According to research from Digital Promise, there is a strong correlation between peer instructional coaching and technology implementation and instructional integration.  One question related to this is how does this technological connection translate to peer coaching that’s providing online.  What does instructional coaching in the era of remote learning, and therefore remote teaching, mean for educators in need of additional support more than ever.  The nature of effective professional development doesn’t change once everything related to school and education over all moves online, “When the program evaluators focused on one topic, technology integration, they found that 30 hours of collaboration produced increases in the teachers’ use of technology with students. More significant changes in comfort and use with students occurred when the coaches collaborated more than 40 hours (Cohen & Patterson, 2006).” This research quoted by Dr. Les Foltos makes clear the need for continued coaching support in an online environment.

Peer coaching still needs to involve the application of the three key skill categories cited by Dr. Foltos within the context of the four different roles that instructional coaches typically take on.    To be done in an online environment, educators must identify and implement effective tools and strategies that support communication and collaboration via a remote learning environment, instructional technologies that work remotely, and lesson design that remains focused first and foremost on effective learning pedagogues while accounting for the differences of online learning.  When educators can do this in support of their colleagues then they must also keep in mind that this looks different when serving in the role of Facilitator versus collaborator, expert, or catalyst.

More Questions than Answers?

This is a very high-level and relatively vague description of moving an incredibly complex role online and more details are needed for any sort of full explanation.  By tackling one at a time in future posts, I hope to further explore in a much more detailed manner how each of the three areas of coaching skills described by Dr. Foltos potentially translate online to a remote learning environment.  Additionally, I hope to explore what he writes on several occasions in regard to the power of the ripple effect in effecting change across the various systems that make up a school’s ecosystem.  Translating and transforming this ripple effect from in-person to online is critical in an era of online instruction and also raises the possibility of amplification in terms of the efficiency and effectiveness of spreading positive instructional practices throughout a school community and beyond.  Being “the change” as referenced in the Ghandi quote cited at the beginning of this post means that anyone can “ripple” their influence far beyond what they observe on a daily basis just like Mother Teresa.  This powerful combination speaks to the potential of peer instructional coaching transformed for an online environment.


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Coaches. ISTE. Retrieved from
  2. Foltos, L. (2013). Peer Coaching : Unlocking the Power of Collaboration. Corwin.
  3. Foltos, L. (2018). Coaching Roles. Peer-Ed, Mill Creek.
  4. Foltos, L. (January, 2018).  Teachers Learn Better Together. Edutopia. Retrieved from
  5. Lee, D. (September, 2020). How Personalized Coaching Can Kick-Start Your School’s PD (Sponsored content from Digital Promise). Edsurge. Retrieved from
  6. Van Ostrand, K., Seylar, J., Luke, C. (2017). Prevalence of Coaching and Approaches to Supporting Coaching in Education. Digital Promise. Retrieved from
  7. Johnson, K. (2016, June 28th). 5 Things Teachers Want from PD, and How Coaching and Collaboration Can Deliver Them—If Implementation Improves. EdSurge. Retrieved from

Open Education Resources in Action

Introductory Section

In a previous blog entitled Open Sourcing Education, I explored the topic, or “what”, of Open Education Resources (OERs) while this post looks more at the application, or “how”, of OERs.  OERs have an intriguing history that is mostly tied to the evolution of the internet with some influences from other open sourcing movements such as software.  Open Education Resources didn’t really take off until the early 2000’s, and both the growth and adoption of this approach to freely sharing educational content and curriculum has not consisted of a smooth evolution.  The current educational challenges surrounding remote teaching due to the pandemic-induced closure of physical school locations has created a resurgence in interest surrounding Open Education Resources as a way to support educators everywhere during this challenging time.  This provides an opportunity for intentional, standards-based educational support for digital teaching and learning as well as an opportunity to learn how to better utilize Open Education Resources across public and private education.

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Coaching Standard 4

Learning Designer: Coaches model and support educators to design learning experiences and environments to meet the needs and interests of all students. Coaches:

  • 4a. Collaborate with educators to develop authentic, active learning experiences that foster student agency, deepen content mastery and allow students to demonstrate their competency.
  • 4b. Help educators use digital tools to create effective assessments that provide timely feedback and support personalized learning.
  • 4c. Collaborate with educators to design accessible and active digital learning environments that accommodate learner variability.
  • 4d. Model the use of instructional design principles 

The components of ISTE Coaching Standard 4 lend themselves to supporting development and implementation of Open Education Resources.  Component 1 is especially strong in this area because of the emphasis on collaborating with educators to develop authentic, active learning experiences.  Any efforts to develop resources for teachers should be done in conjunction with current classroom practitioners.  Such an informed approach ensures real and relevant content that fosters student agency, deepens content mastery, and truly allows students to demonstrate their competency.

Essential Question

How can educators collaborate together to develop authentic learning experiences that can be shared online with teachers everywhere in order to foster student agency and deepen student learning?

Types of Open Education Resources

What defines the designation of Open Education Resource has a variety of interpretations and there are many different approaches by organizations that are creating and providing OERs.  In general, there are OERs that provide an entire curriculum (or even curricula) from beginning to end, there are OERs that provide vast searchable lesson libraries, there are OERs that focus on specific types of content (multimedia versus lesson plans for example), and there are OERs that focus on quality over quantity.  The sheer variation, lack of standardization, and quantity of content has left many educators feeling frustrated with the OER concept and unsure as to how to utilize them, if at all.

The last category of quality over quantity probably has the fewest OERs, however, this is where things get interesting because most OERs are trying just to provide as much free and accessible content as possible.  This is also where the approach taken by the AVID Open Access platform comes into play.  AVID’s take on the OER focuses on quality over quantity of lesson content available for teachers.  Because of this manageable amount, AVID Open Access provides a good case study in terms of how to approach, utilize, and apply OERs in a classroom instructional setting.

Using an Open Education Resource

Starting with a basic example of how to approach, explore, and utilize a specific Open Education Resource is probably the best way to begin to figure out how to approach OERs in general as an educator.  AVID Open Access is an OER-style resource that I can speak to based on my experience because I’ve worked directly on the project.  While this familiarity may come with a slight inherent bias as a result, it also allows me to more clearly speak to the overall intent of the tool.  Here are some general thoughts on how to approach an Open Education Resource based on my work with AVID Open Access.

  • Decide ahead of time your intent: Looking for something specific or general, searching for inspiration, or just browsing?  By deciding ahead of time what your goal is then you can save yourself some frustration if you end up clicking your way down a hyperlinked “rabbit hole” of content.
  • Know what kind of content is being offered: Some OERs intend to be a one-size-fits-all approach but many do not.  If you go looking for ELA resources on a STEM OER then you’re probably going to come away disappointed.
  • Become familiar with the organizational system: Second to content, understanding how the OER is organized is key to successful navigation.  For example, AVID Open Access is organized into three general buckets of Virtual Teaching, Virtual Student Learning, and STEM, so pick your overarching area and then take note of the sub-categories, e.g. STEM is divided up into Invention, Exploration, Cardboard Engineering, and Robotics.
  • If relevant, conduct a practice search: If an Open Education Resource is big enough to essentially have a library of content then it should have a means to searching this content.  Practice, get familiar, and become comfortable with how to find what you’re looking for via any search tool (Open AVID Access is not large enough yet for this to be the case).
  • Keep a running list of potential lessons to use: As you come across possibilities, write them down or record them somewhere.  This is probably true in general for keeping track of potential resources but you’ll thank yourself later.
  • Pick a short lesson to test the quality: Kick the proverbial “tires” of the resource by “test driving” one of the shorter activities with your students.  Get a feel for the accuracy of content timing and writing as well as the measures of grade-appropriate difficulty.  This will limit your commitment but give you a direct feel for the quality of substance inherent in the overall resource.
  • Keep a running record of quality: Make notes in regard to what worked and what didn’t so as to determine if the content is consistently high quality.  The more dependable the resource is in terms of screening high-quality content before posting then the more confident a classroom teacher can be to “grab and go” with a lesson.
  • Use tools to evaluate the OER as a resource: This takes time and so may limited in value depending on a teachers context and overall situation, but it’s worth keeping in mind that Achieve has developed a tool specifically created to function as an OER rubric

Applying Lessons Learned to OERs in General

One way to arguably measure if an OER is even worth a teacher’s time is whether or not it saves the teacher work over simply designing and developing the content lessons themselves.  If it’s less work for the teacher to design a lesson from scratch than it is to search through a vast library for a quality lesson to use then the Open Education Resource being used is probably not an effective tool or even a good use of time.  This is something that OER creators should keep at the forefront of their minds.  As soon as the OER fails to pass the simple lesson design time test then it is actually quite a ways past being an efficient or even effective resource for teachers.  A teacher’s planning time is worth more than its weight in gold because they have so little of it.  Don’t take that time for granted.  Ever.


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Educators. ISTE. Retrieved from
  2. Edutopia. (2015, December 4). Open Educational Resources (OER): Resource Roundup. Edutopia (George Lucas Foundation). Retrieved from
  3. Vega, V. (2011, August 30). A Primer on Curriculum-Sharing Sites. Edutopia (George Lucas Foundation). Retrieved from
  4. Sparks, S. D. (2017, April 12). Open Educational Resources (OER): Overview and Definition. Education Week. Retrieved from
  5. UNESCO. (2020, January 4). Launch of the UNESCO Dynamic Coalition for Open Education Resources (OER). UNESCO (United Nations). Retrieved from

Open Sourcing Education

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Introductory Section

One of the earliest definitions for Open Education Resource (OER) comes from the UNESCO 2002 Forum on Open Courseware: “teaching, learning, and research materials in any medium, digital or otherwise, that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation, and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.”  Knowing early thinking around OER helps to understand how the concept has grown and developed over the years with the evolution of the Information Age.  Where open source as an idea facilitated largely by technology meets education can be confusing, however, it can also be clarified by looking through the lens of educational technology standards.

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Educator Standard 6

Facilitator: Educators facilitate learning with technology to support student achievement of the ISTE Standards for Students. Educators:

  • 6a. Foster a culture where students take ownership of their learning goals and outcomes in both independent and group settings.
  • 6b. Manage the use of technology and student learning strategies in digital platforms, virtual environments, hands-on makerspaces or in the field.
  • 6c. Create learning opportunities that challenge students to use a design process and computational thinking to innovate and solve problems.
  • 6d. Model and nurture creativity and creative expression to communicate ideas, knowledge or connections.

ISTE Educator Standard 6 describes how educators can facilitate learning with technology by managing use in regard to student learning strategies in digital platforms and virtual environments.  There is a strong connection between this standards language and utilizing an Open Education Resource.  Online OERs provide accessible digital content for students in a virtual environment that teachers can scaffold, adapt, and leverage for both classwide and individualized learning.

Essential Question

How can educators manage the use of technology and pedagogical practices in digital platforms and virtual environments in such a way that facilitates student engagement and learning?

Learning Strategies and Digital Platforms

Leveraging ISTE standards with Open Education Resources helps answer some of the questions around management of technology and digital pedagogical practices in regard to student engagement and learning.  There are a wide range of OERs online. Some OERs serve as an entire curriculum unto themselves.  EngageNY is one of the most widely known examples and was created in response to the lack of curriculum supporting Common Core State Standards.  Another gold standard in this area is YouCubed which is technically a MOOC (Massive Open Online Curriculum).  YouCubed provides curriculum with videos that essentially form self-contained courses.  As one can imagine, adopting an entire curriculum is not realistic for most contexts so educators may be more interested in utilizing collections of individual lessons that they can search, adapt, modify, and customize for their educational contexts.

OER Lesson Libraries

While EngageNY and YouCubed function as relatively quality one-size fits all curriculum, other OERs function as searchable online lesson libraries that allow teachers to mix and match per their context.  The advantage is flexibility but the disadvantage is the time required to search through what’s available.  Gauging quality within and across these types of OERs is also a challenge because there may be multiple authors, limited rating and feedback mechanisms, and a variety of lesson templates among other things.  Edutopia speaks to this aspect in a 2015 article entitled “Open Educational Resources (OER): Resource Roundup” and suggests utilizing an OER rubric tool developed by Achieve.  Ultimately, each educator is the best judge of what meets the unique and specific needs of his or her educational context.  Based on my experience and research, the OERs below are good places to start in order to build familiarity and to begin to learn what’s out there.

Curriki: This is a collection of lessons and units across content areas.  Curriki has a five-star rating system and a strong history as it’s been operating as an award-winning OER since 2007.  Curriki also offers wide-variety of resources across content areas.  Curriki also has arguably one of the largest collections of open-source curriculum online.

Better Lesson: Backed by both the National Education Association and the Gates Foundation (a rare combination), Better Lesson certainly warrants a visit.  More recently, Better Lesson has started focusing on how to promote peer coaching but the resource did start out as an OER focused on providing national standards-based lessons.

OER Commons: OER Commons is a platform for organizations to create and share their own Open Education Resource.  The advantage is that look, feel, and navigation are more consistent from one resource to another and there’s an entire collection of OERs all in one spot.  Many states have started to utilize this resource with Washington State launching an OER here in response to various educational needs created by the current pandemic and quarantine.

Polyup and Cue US Challenge: Polyup is a website that utilizes Reverse Polish Notation to gamify mathematics by removing order of operations (PEMDAS) and focusing on the process as opposed to the answer.  Polyup has partnered with CUE and November Learning among others to create an OER library of standards-based math lesson activities for grades 1-8.  Polyup is working toward K-12 support and in the meantime is providing a US Challenge with prizes for teams/classes that earn enough “math points” collectively by not just solving problems but also creating content for others.

Learning Keeps Going: Learning Keeps Going is an an OER created in direct response to the current pandemic and quarantine circumstances.  The resource has powerhouse sponsor organizations in the form of ISTE, EdSurge, Digital Promise, Education Week, and several others.  Learning Keeps Going is more of a curiation OER highlighting and sorting resources available for educators in response to COVID-19 as a one-stop shop.  The sheer volume of everything out there is overwhelming so having a searchable library like this can be helpful.  Learning Keeps Going lists materials, resources, and OERs (including the next example on the list).

AVID Open Access: AVID Open Access (AOA) emphasizes quality over quantity as an OER resource.  It’s not meant to be a one-stop shop but one of several quality options for teachers where they know that what they find will be high quality.  AVID Open Access focuses on virtual teaching and student resources for online learning as well as STEM lessons and activities.  Partner organizations include MIT, Wonder Workshop, Blue Origin, Microsoft, Engineering is Elementary, and more added every week!  Full disclosure: as the author of this blog, I am also working on and supporting AOA so there is some implicit bias due to my involvement.

Other Well-Known Examples: There are far too many examples to list and searching through all that’s out there can be a little overwhelming.  Some additional examples that may be more well-known as well as more niche include the following: Khan Academy, TED Ed, PhET Science and Math Simulations, Wikipedia, the Micro:bit Foundation, and much more!

Beyond a Basic Introduction

While OERs have a 20+ year history in education, the recent pandemic conditions have created resurgence of both interest and creation of content in this space.  The dramatic increase of materials available at no cost to classroom teachers means more quality educational content but also more materials to sort through.  Educators will need help, time, and support in navigating these resources so curation done at all levels will greatly assist and improve the ability to leverage the increased number of OERs and their expanded libraries.  School administrators, government education officials and policy makers, and non-government education organizations would all do well to keep this in mind as we seek to support all teachers as best we can in meeting all students’ needs. Some ideas related to this can be found in the post, Open Education Resources in Action, which builds on the “what” of OER found in this post to look more closely at the “How” of using OERs.


  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Educators. ISTE. Retrieved from
  2. Edutopia. (2015, December 4). Open Educational Resources (OER): Resource Roundup. Edutopia (George Lucas Foundation). Retrieved from
  3. Vega, V. (2011, August 30). A Primer on Curriculum-Sharing Sites. Edutopia (George Lucas Foundation). Retrieved from
  4. Sparks, S. D. (2017, April 12). Open Educational Resources (OER): Overview and Definition. Education Week. Retrieved from
  5. UNESCO. (2020, January 4). Launch of the UNESCO Dynamic Coalition for Open Education Resources (OER). UNESCO (United Nations). Retrieved from

Technology Standards and Tools for Teachers

Learning Standards for Teachers?

One of the more unique aspects of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) standards is the creation of not just teaching standards, but instructional standards that apply to teachers themselves.  My initial reaction when I first heard this was probably similar to many educators: why? I have enough on my plate already and I don’t need another group of standards that apply to me in addition to my students. While I still agree with this statement depending on the timing, I also think that, for those that have the bandwidth to focus on professional development, the ISTE Educator Standards can provide helpful guidelines for personal growth.  At this unique time in education, a good area to grow is around learning to collaborate online.

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Educator Standard 4

ISTE Educator Standard 4: Collaborator: Educators dedicate time to collaborate with both colleagues and students to improve practice, discover and share resources and ideas, and solve problems. Educators: 

  1. Dedicate planning time to collaborate with colleagues to create authentic learning experiences that leverage technology.
  2. Collaborate and co-learn with students to discover and use new digital resources and diagnose and troubleshoot technology issues.
  3. Use collaborative tools to expand students’ authentic, real-world learning experiences by engaging virtually with experts, teams and students, locally and globally.
  4. Demonstrate cultural competency when communicating with students, parents and colleagues and interact with them as co-collaborators in student learning.

One of the things that I like about this standard is the inclusion of students as potential collaborators for educators.  We are charged with educating all of the students that come through our door, whether physical or virtual, but we also have so much that we can learn from these students.  One concept that I used to explain to my students in September was that my job was to figure out what unique thing each of them had to teach me, and then learn from them over the course of the year.  When we become co-learners with our students and learn with them as the “chief learner” in the classroom, then we are able to try out lesson ideas that wouldn’t normally work because we’ve modeled that we don’t know everything and that learning together is important.  With this in mind, I’d like to focus on the second component of ISTE Educator Standard 4, because when learning something so entirely new such as online learning there is no way to successfully accomplish this without our students help so we need to be able to collaborate, co-learn, discover, diagnose, and troubleshoot together.

Essential Question

How can teachers and students utilize online tools and resources together in lieu of hands-on learning with physical manipulatives?

Virtual Hands-on Learning

Hands-on learning is so important.  I chose the essential question because I am very interested in how educators may be looking to uniquely engage students with online tools that attempt to simulate hands-on learning.  Even though one cannot truly substitute or replicate, there are some resources out there that attempt to provide the next best thing. Since humans are wired to learn via their hands (see homunculus model), I believe it’s important to do as much with our hands in a virtual online learning environment as possible.  The close that we, as educators, can come to helping our learners simulate hands-on learning in an online environment then the more effective we can be in terms of maximizing natural learning modalities, individual comprehension, and overall learning retention.

Computer Assisted Design

Computer assisted design, or CAD, programs help people to create a variety of virtual design versions of real physical objects.  This can be as simple as dealing with very basic shapes to things as complex and intricate as microprocessors, engines, and airplanes.  There are many advantages to CAD programs, but most relevant application in this case is the ability to design and interact with virtual versions of physical objects.  In many ways, this is the closest virtual version of hands-on manipulatives. There are dozens of CAD programs so one of the biggest challenges is finding the right program to utilize in an educational environment.

Tinkercad as a Solution for CAD in Education

Tinkercad is created by Autodesk which is known for a variety of CAD programs.  Tinkercad has several advantages for use by educators. Autodesk provides Tinkercad to educators and students at no cost which greatly increases accessibility.  Tinkercad is also web-based which means no program installation is necessary. Most importantly, Tinkercad is user-friendly and intuitive so students as young as 3rd grade can learn the platform quickly and begin virtual hands-on learning in a digital environment.  For teachers, Tinkercad has an easy to get started tutorial series as well as an entire library of classroom lesson activities. Given that a new Tinkercad project starts as a blank canvas with unlimited possibilities, there are numerous learning applications that can be taken on with Tinkercad.  Tinkercad’s user-friendly environment incorporates lots of opportunities for measurement which opens the door to all sorts of math applications covering most basic math standards from basic shapes to area and volume to angles and more. In addition to math, there are plenty of applications in regard to engineering design and science standards.  More creative applications can even look at creating settings for narratives and story panels in a virtual environment. Regardless of subject area, the resulting designs can be saved, converted to image files, printed on paper, printed via a 3D printer, imported to Minecraft, converted to basic LEGO shapes, and more. Students learning to program can alsocode shapes in Tinkercad.  The possibilities for creating convergence between the hands-on physical world and the minds-on virtual world are endless, and the savvy teacher will highlight the aspects of the platform that tie into student interests as way to increase overall engagement.

How Then Do Classroom Teachers Go About Applying This?

Like so many things with technology, starting small and trying one new step at a time.  This becomes much more doable and even powerful when collaborating with students themselves.  The key as the lead learner is to engage students in the concept, students will often take the learning from there and figure out far more things than the average adult learner.  They aren’t afraid to click on anything and everything. An additional advantage to Tinkercad for collaborative online learning, is that multiple users can interactive with, design, and adjust objects in the same virtual online environment.  This means the teacher can design alongside students while talking them through the learning activity, and in addition to this assign groups of students to work on the same design project together. This type of collaborative virtual learning is not a direct substitute for hands-on learning but certainly compliments and even enhances what can be done with physical manipulatives.  When distance learning is the only option then Tinkercad provides the next best way for students to interact with virtual versions of physical objects while interacting with other students.


  1. Autodesk.  (2020). Tinkercad. Retrieved from
  2. Huddleston, L.  (July 10, 2019).  Using a Makerspace for English and Humanities Instruction. Edutopia.  Retrieved from:
  3. Instructables.  (2020). Design Thinking and Tinkercad.  Retrieved from:
  4. Instructables.  (2020). How to Bring Tinkercad into Your Classroom.  Retrieved from:
  5. Thingiverse.  (2020). Tinkercad.  Retrieved from:
  6. Common Sense Media.  (2020). Lesson Plans for Tinkercad.  Retrieved from:
  7. Edsurge.  (2020). Tinkercad by Autodesk.  Retrieved from:

Pivoting from In-Person to Virtual PD

Live and In-person to Virtual, Remote, & Online Learning

Every year as part of my job as a learning designer, I help to design, host, and train teachers that will be running professional development training over the coming year.  We do this training in person over the course of a long weekend. So what happens when that training suddenly has to pivot to being done online? How do we adapt? What does that even begin to look like?  So many questions! And, not a lot of answers. In some ways, I feel fortunate because I’m trying to figure out how to host online training for adults as opposed to many of my k-12 teacher friends that are currently trying to figure out how to approach a similar shift with kids.  All the same, I think there are some similarities, and right now is a good time to share thoughts around what’s sure to be a common challenge faced by many educators across the country and even around the world. In some ways, this is much bigger than any of us as individuals or as educators and is a question of citizenship because the root cause is a global pandemic.  Since we’re taking this online, it’s a good opportunity to review digital citizenship as outlined by the International Society for Technology Education (ISTE) Standards.

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Standard 2

ISTE Standard 2, Digital Citizen, students recognize the rights, responsibilities and opportunities of living, learning and working in an interconnected digital world, and they act and model in ways that are safe, legal and ethical. Students will:

  1. Cultivate and manage their digital identity and reputation and are aware of the permanence of their actions in the digital world.
  2. Engage in positive, safe, legal and ethical behavior when using technology, including social interactions online or when using networked devices.
  3. Demonstrate an understanding of and respect for the rights and obligations of using and sharing intellectual property.
  4. Manage their personal data to maintain digital privacy and security and are aware of data-collection technology used to track their navigation online.

As we look at being good citizens overall during a challenging time, thinking about what good online citizenship means is a good review and preparation for better overall interactions and guiding of learning online.  Acting in model ways that are safe, legal, and ethical are important ideas to keep in mind. As educators, we should model the type of choices and behaviors that we want to see from our students. Online actions are much more permanent because there’s a digital record so being cognisant of this is important.  Assuming positive intent is especially important because tone and body language are often hard to communicate online. Additionally, a genuine understanding and respect for intellectual property is important online as well as a general area for improvement in education in general. Finally, managing personal data as an educator means not only monitoring your own personal data but protecting that of those whom you work with and teach as well.  All of these things are natural extensions of good citizenship during the best of times let alone during challenging times, and extending these critical ideals to an online learning environment will make for a much better and overall more productive experience for everyone.

Essential Question

How do teachers shift from in-person professional development to virtual online learning for their own edification and what are the andragogical versus pedagogical implications?

Shifting from Face-to-Face to Online Face Time

Synchronous Video Chat Programs with Chat Rooms: Transitioning from face-to-face in person to face-to-face online is not as straightforward as one might imagine.  It is difficult to engage a large group via video chat. Some programs support up to 9-10 in a group well but once you grow beyond the “brady bunch” frame then it’s extremely difficult to have small interactions that normally occur in an in-person large group setting.  So this medium cannot just be approached as a substitute for in-person but as its own unique thing and as a different way to engage a group of people. For example, one difference that can be an enhancement is the back-channel chat that allows more voices to be heard without interrupting the presenters and also allow for more interaction.  This combined with breakout rooms for smaller chats that can instantaneously become small group discussions or work groups which can then regroup with the large group. Some examples of common video chat programs are Skype, Google Chat, Zoom, WebEx, Teams, Big Blue Button, and Google Meet, but there are definitely many more options out there.

Asynchronous Video Chat Programs: This is where online gets more interesting, in my opinion, and it can truly augment in-person interactions.  The ability to record short videos that can then be shared with a group, interacted with, commented on, and viewed or saved for later enhances in-person as well as remote interaction adds quite a bit to the learning experience.  There are many options and programs that can be used for this approach, including many of the common video chat programs. The one that is most common and launched this kind of interaction to the mainstream is called Flipgrid.  Approaching online interaction with unique tools and approaches helps to make the time more engaging and compensate for some of the aspects lost from being all together. Whether live or virtual, at the end of the day, it all comes back to relationships and a sense of community among participants and the instructors.

Online Professional Development Beyond the Video

Interactive note-taking applications: This is one type of tool that allows for a fair amount of asynchronous interactivity online but is not a huge shift for users. These are not too different from current computer word processing applications except that they add an interactive collaboration component.  Google Docs, Word 365, and OneNote are all great examples of spaces where people can share their notes together and add information while watching the same presentation, in a meeting, or working asynchronously on a particular problem.

Interactive annotation applications: A slight variation on interactive note-taking is digital annotation web applications, which are becoming common.  These allow for a commonly selected text to be shared and then both highlighted and commented on in such a way that all participants can interact with the information and grow the interactive annotation into a more global conversation.  Perusall and Edpuzzle are great examples. Edpuzzle even allows the usage of digital media with questions inserted by an instructor for a slight variation on the task. This is also an excellent way to practice digital citizenship in terms of both honoring and emphasizing intellectual property.

Interactive brainstorming: This is another take on web collaboration and allows everything from a virtual whiteboard to an online mind map to virtual sticky notes.  Virtual whiteboards, like Miro, allow for people to virtually interact in a Whiteboard space. The disadvantage is the lack of kinesthetic movement in the space and interactivity but the advantage is that the work is instantaneously saved and people can work on the project asynchronously from any location.  If mind mapping is the focus then Coggle is a great resource for quick and efficient mind maps outlining ideas, workflows, and similar tasks.

Additionally, padlet allows for interactive usage of sticky notes and is a great way to conduct online group interactions, thinking, brainstorms, and reflections.  Again, the information is automatically saved for later review and accessible to any group members at a later time for reference.

Less Obvious Online Interactions

While somewhat less obvious, online simulations and interactive coding opportunities provide new and unique ways for participants to experience a virtual version of hands-on learning.  Freely available PhET simulations from the University of Colorado are a great option for both math and science simulations that can be done via a computer, tablet, or phone. Block-based coding software makes computer programming much more accessible and can be both quickly learned and shared via platforms such as, Scratch, MakeCode, and Polyup to name just a few.

Completely Synchronous to Asynchronous and Beyond

When pivoting from in-person synchronous to online synchronous and asynchronous, I think the main lesson to learn is that there are very few direct substitutes or replacements.  Most interactive online learning tools have their own advantages and disadvantages when compared with in-person learning. Most importantly, there are many ways in which these online tools can also be used to augment and improve in-person professional development.  This is probably the best of both worlds where both tools can be used to supplement, complement, enhance, and amplify learning together. In this way, tools such as Google Office and Microsoft Office 365 can be used both in person and online. These traditional office tools now have several options for online collaboration and can make working together digitally more seamless when done both in-person and virtually as well as synchronous activities combined with asynchronous activities.

How then does the average classroom teacher apply this?  This is a question that’s been in the back of my mind as I prepare to adapt adult professional development and many of my peers prepare for their students to learn remotely.  In some ways, this means looking at where the andragogical aspects end and the pedagogical implications begin. In other ways, it means simply jumping in, trying whatever you can, doing your very best, and giving yourself permission to struggle, fail, and try again with different approaches.  Normally, I’d recommended starting small and just trying an activity here or there but recent events mean many educators are going from all in-person learning to completely online learning environments virtually overnight. This is a challenging transition in the best of circumstances, and so I hope my colleagues will give themselves and their students grace while they try to learn in a brave new virtual world that’s familiar only to some and foreign to most.  I know it can be done, though, I believe in my fellow educators, and I hope that somehow I can help support them as we all work through these unique circumstances together.


  1. MIT. (2020). Scratch. Retrieved from
  2. (2020). Hour of Code Full course catalog. Retrieved from
  3. Microsoft. (2020). MakeCode. Retrieved from
  4. Polyup. (2020). Poly Challenge. Retrieved from
  5. International Society for Technology in Education. (2016). ISTE Standards For Students. ISTE. Retrieved from

Encoding Creative Communication

Creating Creative Communicators

Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity are often referred to as the 4 C’s of 21st Century Learning.  These so-called “soft skills” are different from the “hard skills” of math and science” but essential for success in applying math, science, engineering, and technology in our modern society and, arguably, harder to teach. The Battelle Foundation’s Partnership for 21st Century Learning highlights these 4 C’s throughout its “Framework for 21st Century Learning Definitions”.  Another organization in this space, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), provides us with multiple references to these modern “soft” skills throughout the ISTE standards. One example is ISTE standard 6, Creative Communicator, which addresses all of these in one standard for students.

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Standard 6

ISTE Standard 6, Creative Communicator, students communicate clearly and express themselves creatively for a variety of purposes using the platforms, tools, styles, formats and digital media appropriate to their goals. Students:

  1. Choose the appropriate platforms and tools for meeting the desired objectives of their creation or communication.
  2. Create original works or responsibly repurpose or remix digital resources into new creations.
  3. Communicate complex ideas clearly and effectively by creating or using a variety of digital objects such as visualizations, models or simulations.
  4. Publish or present content that customizes the message and medium for their intended audiences.

Successfully addressing ISTE Standard 6, Creative Communicator, requires aspects of all four C’s from the core set of 21st Century Skills.  Creativity is obviously required in order to be a creative communicator, as are communication and collaboration essential skills for creatively communicating with others.  Lastly, and perhaps less obvious, is the need for critical thinking as creative communicators (i.e. students) evaluate tools, mediums, and resources to use effectively in order to accomplish their goals as supported by this standard.  This last part comes out through the third component of the standard to “communicate complex ideas clearly and effectively…” and forms the basis for my essential question and the focus of this blog post.

Essential Question

How do teachers empower students to communicate complex ideas in creative ways so that they use a variety of digital objects such as visualizations, models, and simulations?

Computer Science for the Non-Computer-Science Teacher

Encoding is a means of transforming information into a format that is easily transferred or communicated.  Encoding creative communication is one way to think about transforming student abilities so as to transfer information in more unique and creative ways such as visualizations, models, or simulations.  What better way to do this than computer science and programming? Not a coder? Not a problem. We need to move beyond the traditional definition of the computer science teacher and expand the communication medium to all classrooms and thus create computer science opportunities for the non-computer-science teacher.  Block based coding is an equalizer in this area and empowers everyone to approach and learn to write computer programs in an easily understood and transferable environment. This opens all sorts of doors for everyone to explore creative communication and to communicate complex ideas creatively via a variety of digital objects because those objects can be programmed by students as young as 1st grade and in some cases even kindergarten.

MIT, Scratch, & the Rise of Block-Based Programming in Education

MIT’s Scratch Website: The Logo computer programming language, otherwise known as the “turtle programming language” is what essentially launched accessible programming but MIT’s Scratch is what truly made block-based programming mainstream (it’s worth noting that Logo led to Lego Logo which was a precursor to Scratch).  Scratch is an accessible block-based language that is especially user friendly when it comes to animating a character, otherwise known as “sprite”, and assigning dialogue or interactions via code. This becomes extremely useful for integration opportunities across Language Arts, English language learning, and art among other areas.  Scratch is compatible with a wide-range of products and browser-based so it’s easily accessible (like most modern block-based programming languages).

BootUp: Scratch’s curriculum for educators has not historically been one of the more user-friendly resources. The newest iteration appears to be a definite improvement although still a little text heavy at times.  Those looking for something a little different may want to check out BootUp’s freely available Scratch curriculum which utilizes a variety of short student-friendly video vignettes to support instruction.  BootUp bills themselves as “what’s next” after initially jumping into computer coding via or some other introductory platform.

Google CS: This is arguably the newest block-based coding curriculum for mainstream k-12 computer science.  Google has created a series of introductory lessons that utilize Scratch as a means to teach basic computer coding strategies.  Google CS’s selection at this point in time is somewhat limited compared to other resources because it’s newer but new lessons and resources are being added on a regular basis.  Google CS’s choice of Scratch is an interesting one given that the block-based programming language, Blockly, is also created by and a project of Google.

Block-Based Coding with Blockly & as the Gold Standard “Hour of Code” was popularized by which essentially launched somewhat of a k-12 computer science revolution in a relatively short amount of time. uses Blockly and is the current gold standard of providing student friendly lessons for all grade levels. Once students have progressed through the highly formulaic, structured, and scaffolded lessons then they can apply the basic computer science skills they’ve learned in couple of different settings such as’s Play Lab.  This is a fun environment for students to try out their newfound skills but slightly more limited than the more open forum provided by Scratch. To date, remains arguably the most user-friendly introduction to programming.

MakeCode as the New Kid on the Block & Physical Computing

MakeCode: Microsoft’s entry into the foray of block-based programming is only a couple of years old but has some powerful partnerships.  MakeCode’s main strength is through these partnerships and both the virtual and physical computing that this allows. Current partners include micro:bit, Circuit Playground Express, Minecraft, LEGO Mindstorms Education EV3, Wonder Workshop Cue, Arcade, and Chibi Chip.  The micro:bit partnership in particular is powerful because students can program a microbit: simulator on a computer web browser and take turns testing their programs on the relatively inexpensive physical micro:bits themselves (a basic microcontroller). The same is true of the Circuit Playground Express simulator as well as the LEGO Mindstorms EV3 simulator which provides a rough but workable simulated example.  Long story short, students can write programs for physical devices but test them virtually which increases accessibility and stretches limited physical resources further. With the notable exception of the Wonder Workshop Cue, the remaining options can all be programmed via any browser and have a series of accessible tutorials provided below the programming environment. The micro:bit in particular has a robust set of curriculum available as well as a significant number of accessories.

Coding in Mathematics with Polyup Polyup is a drag and drop website that allows the user to program via math and what is essentially a math-based functional programming language.  The platform gets around the challenge of doing this with order of operations by utilizing Reverse Polish Notation. Students can then use math to write basic programs, solve unique problems, and even code motion into objects.  All of this is done via Polyup’s gamified computational thinking and mathematical coding online platform. There is also a real-world model for this approach to programming with math via the Wolfram Alpha search engine which uses a similar computing language and algorithm approach to Polyup.  All of this bridges math, computer science, and a broader fundamental approach to applied computational thinking in a problem-based learning setting.

How Then Does The Average Classroom Teacher Apply This?

Again, think computer science for the non-computer science teacher.  A classroom teacher interested in incorporating computer science should consider his/her objectives and what s/he is hoping to accomplish with students in the classroom setting.  Is the focus on teaching basic programming itself? Problem solving? Content integration? Physical computing? Some combination thereof or something else all together? Additionally, gauging individual comfort level and available resources is important. empowers the average teacher without any programming background, knowledge, or support to sign up students and get them started together on mostly self-paced programming lessons as well as detailed offline computing lesson plans. The more comfortable or advanced the teacher’s ability then the more robust the example they might try such as programming stories in Scratch from scratch, designing video games in Arcade, writing programs for micro:bit microcontrollers in MakeCode, or even exploring entirely new avenues like programming 3-dimensional shapes in Minecraft for virtual interaction or Tinkercad for physical printing via their respective coding environments.  The hardest part is starting but the journey of a thousand programming steps begins with that very first coded “Hello World” program. From there, the possibilities are infinite and students will no doubt exceed any expectations.


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  2. BootUp. (2020). BootUp Professional Development Curriculum Overview. Retrieved from
  3. (2020). Hour of Code Full course catalog. Retrieved from
  4. Google for Education. (2020). Google CS. Google. Retrieved from
  5. Microsoft. (2020). MakeCode. Retrieved from
  6. Polyup. (2020). Poly Challenge. Retrieved from
  7. Wolfram Alpha. (2020). Reverse Polish Notation. Retrieved from
  8. Battelle for Kids. (2019). Partnership for 21st Century Learning Frameworks & Resources.  Retreived from
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  10. Computer Science Teachers Association. (2019). Computer Science Standards. Retrieved from
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  12. Autodesk. (2019). Tinkercad. Retrieved from