September 16, 2017 by

One Size Does Not Fit All

There are a lot of new dynamic approaches in the education ecosystem, and sometimes they seem to be in conflict with one another. 

 Some argue we should throw out grades altogether to improve student motivation and performance. Others insist that tracking all student learning data is the best way to provide timely personalized feedback and instruction. Inspired by an opening networking session at ASCD’s Leader to Leader conference this summer, we’ve explained how important it is to recognize the benefits and limitations of each model. Rather than choosing a side, educators should strive to find the strengths in each and integrate as many of these strengths as possible.

Teach as Expert AND Facilitator

In our experience, there are two types of teachers at the outset of their education career: those who become educators for the love of teaching children, and those who become educators for the love of teaching their subject matter. When we educators find a balance between those two perspectives, we have found Teacher-Zen. Learners need someone to serve as both an expert informant and Socratic questioner. And learners need that person to know when each skill will be best utilized. For instance: Is the learner bored? Use great questions to stir curiosity and call her to action. Is the learner overwhelmed? Use that content expertise to provide her with the information she needs to move forward confidently.

Leverage the Benefits of the Classroom AND Community

While it is important for children to physically “go to school,” it is also important for children to learn from their community. Parents and community leaders often have expertise they are willing to share with learners if given the right opportunity. Teachers invite historians, book authors, and corporate executives to meet with their students in-person and via video conferences. What’s more, students can go into the community to serve others and investigate community needs. While foundational structured lessons that happen in a classroom are essential, it is just as imperative that learners have the chance to test their new knowledge and skills with authentic conversations and experiences in their city. Educators can serve as the facilitators who help students reflect and link these experiences directly to the curriculum and skills standards.

Provide Learning Spaces that are Structured AND Flexible

Flexible seating sounds great in theory, but we have observed extreme interpretations. One day every student is seated cemetery-style. The next day, every learner is on an inflatable ball! Sometimes as educators, we rush into the latest and greatest fad without carefully examining why it is a good fit for our students. Flexible space may provide learners with options for learners, such as choosing between: an inflatable ball or a desk; sitting, kneeling, standing, or sprawling on the floor; and even collaborating elbow-elbow in small group or working alone. Students may also have the choice to use devices, paper and pen, or whiteboards to record their learning. Creating an atmosphere with authentic flexibility and choice enhances learning experiences.

Learn Skills that Include Technical AND Social

There is a great deal of fear among parents and educators about how the increasing role of screens might be affecting the social skills of today’s young learners. We’ve worked with educators who have approached device use in starkly different ways: either forbidding all screens in the classrooms, or hailing devices as the saving grace of the student engagement problem. It doesn’t have to be this way. Children should learn how to interact with both the people and the devices in the room in a balanced way. If the teacher intentionally sets the norms for balance between technical and social skills, learning experiences are more successful for students.

Experience Activities that are Virtual AND In-Person

Technology is advancing at a pace unparalleled. New methods for connecting and learning are emerging every day. Online simulations, virtual reality, and video chats with experts are the new mainstream. While technologies like these offer opportunities for learning experiences that were previously impossible, learners and educators still value and appreciate the face-to-face human connection. While virtual learning offers a new way of learning, nothing replaces a face-to-face conversation. Nothing can replace a firm handshake or an enthusiastic high-five. Because both virtual and in-person learning offer unique opportunities, why not both?

Utilize Materials that are Copyrighted AND Openly Licensed

Openly licensed educational resources (OERs) are gaining steam quickly because teachers and learners recognize that they are often more flexible and interactive that traditional copyrighted content resources. OERs allow teachers to create more personalized and varied learning experiences for their students. We should not forget, however, how important purchased scholarly research and data is to any student’s academic experience. The right combination of high quality copyrighted materials and interactive engaging OERs makes for the best opportunities for learning for our students. Schools districts should continue to invest in top notch scholarly databases, but also should invest in the evaluation and curation of OERs to provide their teachers with the best combined resources that meet the needs of their students.

While many of these concepts are considered “opposites” we have concerns about thinking of them in that way. Often when we characterize concepts as opposite, we also associate one with being inherently good while the other is inherently bad. In each of the examples above, neither extreme is the good one or the bad one. Each has its place and value in the educational experience of teachers and students.


Kerry Gallagher is a Digital Learning Specialist at St. John’s Prep in Danvers, Massachusetts. She is also Director of K-12 Education for ConnectSafely, a non-profit based in Silicon Valley focused on helping children, parents and educators use connected technology in safe and innovative ways. Kerry is an EdSurge columnist and her own award-winning blog, Start With a Question, can be found at www.KerryHawk02.com. With 15 years of experience in public and private education, she has been recognized as an ASCD Emerging Leader, Future Ready Thought Leader, TEDx Speaker, PBS Digital Innovator, and MassCUE Pathfinder. Kerry serves on Massachusetts ASCD Board.

Kyle Hamstra is a STEM Specialist at Davis Drive Elementary in Cary, North Carolina. After teaching fifth grade math and science for nearly fifteen years, he now serves over 1,000 learners weekly. Kyle is a 2016 ASCD Emerging Leader and 2017 ISTE Speaker. He’s active as an After School Director, North Carolina Phi Delta Kappa Board Member, Marbles Kids Museum Advisor, and #EdcampWake Organizer. He’s an Ambassador for TheEduCal, Discovery Education, WeatherBug, Seesaw, Flipgrid, and #Hashtag180. He created #Hashtag180 to capture and share examples of curriculum-based learning. Kyle is passionate about leadership, curriculum, and STEM. Contact Kyle for speaking opportunities and consultation on twitter @KyleHamstra and at kylehamstra.com.