5 Necessary Thinking Skills

It’s simple. This is the month of giving. It’s also a month of reflecting for me.

That being said, as I reflect this month on what’s important to our work, I want to share resources that I have found useful to support one-on-one and group coaching sessions.

Improving thinking is critical to our work, and so, here are 5 key cognitive strategies that are necessary for student success along with five suggestions for using this resource.



Five Ways You Can Use This Resource:

  1. Engage peers in reflective dialogue during instructional coaching sessions
  2. Share with (upper grade) students to enhance their ownership of learning
  3. Ensure common language and common understanding among staff
  4. Use when evaluating a lesson to ensure activity alignment
  5. Study for yourself to ensure your own clarity

Common Confusion: How to Avoid it and Organize for Student Success

Language precision.

This is something that  good educators like yourself require from students because you know it is essential to your students’ success. This is the case in all disciplines. Without precise use of language you know that students may miscommunicate meaning, cause unintended confusion or access inadequate information. Have you seen this happen before? I’ve seen this happen, but not only with students. I have also seen this with well-intended educators.

The first notable time I recognized  the need for using precise language among educators was in a professional learning session with middle and high school teachers. They debated with me at length–conversations and emails spanning a week to be exact–about the meaning of a cognitive process. As math teachers, they argued that evaluate meant to solve a problem and that evaluate held a different meaning for math than for other subjects.  I wrote about it in 2012. You can see my response here.

The second notable time the need for using language precisely was highlighted was during a classroom visit. I noticed the objective read, “Students will analyze their answers and correct their errors,” but after a few minutes of observing students I saw that they were simply redoing the problems that were done incorrectly on a test. There was no process of breaking down the whole into its constituent parts to determine the interconnections and surface their faulty reasoning. Students simply redid their wrong answers.

The third notable time I recognized the need for precise language was during a professional learning session where a school administrator asked, “Doc, what’s the difference between analyze and evaluate?”

It became strikingly apparent that while we may use common terms, we do not hold common understandings and that our imprecision with how we define cognitive processes can interfere with our students’ learning. This sentiment was echoed recently by an educator during a Core Deconstructed workshop. After an activity that focused on gaining common understanding of common terms she reflected saying,

This was good for me because I see how we use these terms all of the time, but we ourselves had difficulty clarifying them. It made me think that if we have difficulty clarifying them, then somehow it’s impacting the way we teach and impacting what our students learn […] and this is particularly important for the population of students I serve. I have to be precise with my language.

Given her statement I ask, when you are collaborating with your peers, providing support to your colleagues or leading your staff particularly when the topic of transformation and new standards are involved, are you sure there is no miscommunication due to language imprecision? If your answer is an emphatic, “Yes! I am sure!” then great. But if you are not absolutely sure, here are three steps you can take to be sure.

  1. Agree to agree on gaining common understanding while maintaining individual creativity
  2. Agree to access The Core Deconstructed® as a tool for fostering common understanding and individual creativity
  3. Agree to collaborate on working through the process together to ensure common understanding and individual creativity

Whether you use this process or another, one thing remains true: the use of imprecise language when organizing for student success will most certainly lead to miscommunicated meaning, unintended confusion and inadequate information.


Persepolis, House of Spirits & the Common Core

The Situation

Student A produced the following piece of writing in response to her teacher delivering instruction on CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.3: Analyze how complex characters develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme.

“The Islamic Revolution affected Marjane as a female in Iran. In the book Persepolis on page 3 panel 4 it shows Marjane at a young age where she was forced to wear a veil. It affected her as a girl because the veil had to be worn by women all ages, whether they wanted or not. Marjane was forced to wear something she did not want to wear at a young age.”

Student A was a ninth grade female English Language Learner whose school population was almost 70% Latino. This student is NOT fictional.

The Task

Her teacher took on the task of deconstructing the standard using  The Core Deconstructed® process.

The Action

Student A’s teacher explains her actions here. Specifically, a few highlights of her actions in her own words were the following:

  1. I modeled my table after a few from Dr. Brown’s book.
  2. I numbered each cell in the matrix with the idea that this would make targeted instruction for small groups easier to illustrate in my lesson plans.
  3. I tracked students’ progress towards mastery of this standard over the course of a unit.

The Result

Student A produced the following piece of writing in response to the same standard mentioned above after her teacher deconstructed the standard using  The Core Deconstructed® process.

“The government has control over individuals, but it’s not strong enough to determine your destiny. Many people think that the government controls them but in reality, they make their own decisions without them realizing. For example, in The House of the Spirits,  Pedro Tercero always made his own decision by choosing his way instead of the governments’. In page 154 it says, “And so it was the one day Esteban Treuba, who was resting on the terrace after lunch, heard the boy singing about a bunch of hens who had organized to defeat the fox.” This story, the fox and the hens, represent those people who decided to make their own decisions and go against the government, these people don’t depend on the government at all and it doesn’t influence their decisions or destiny.”

Please note that Student A’s work is unedited for the purpose of emphasizing her improvements.

As the teacher reflected on her actions and student outcomes, she noted that,

  1. I found that this system makes it easier for teachers to see the big picture and build towards the Practitioner/Expert level over the course of a few lessons rather than overwhelm students or unintentionally instill a sense of defeat in them
  2. I can link websites with enrichment or re-teaching exercises, online games, web-based assessments or supplemental texts to each cell in the matrix. This will enhance my ability to more effectively target instruction in my diverse classes.
  3. Students were able to see their need to master one objective before they could master the next objective
  4. I was able to pinpoint exactly where students were struggling in the process of mastering a standard which is essential not only for a data-driven school, but also for students.
  5. Teaching with the deconstructed standard led to great reflective discussions in teacher-student conferences, as students were able to see their progress and reflect on exactly where they were struggling.

Finally, the teacher stated, “The beauty of this system is that each teacher can tailor the results of the process to their own teaching style and the needs of their individual students.”

Have you deconstructed the core? If not, I challenge you-as I did the teacher of Student A-to start now.


Close Reading Deep Dive: Professional Learning Action Steps

It’s time.

If your teachers haven’t returned yet, I’m sure they’ll return in a few days.  Shortly thereafter, school will begin again. You are in preparation mode.

A recent conversation with a State level leader caused me to reflect on a challenge: how will instructional leaders support teachers as they mediate complex texts?

A few months ago I delivered a series on designing lessons that employ the close reading approach. Now, as teachers return, is a great time to take a deep dive into understanding close reading. Simply talking about it, or giving steps to it, or buying someone’s kit is not enough. If you want to develop professional mastery, analysis of the approach is necessary.

Below are three sample lessons designed for students to use the close reading approach to engage with complex text. They are all linked to the posts from which they originate. Reading each post will provide the background knowledge necessary to understand the logic of the lesson. Review the posts then consider the professional learning action steps that follow.




Professional Learning Action Steps

  1. Read or present What is Close Reading and the posts associated with the lessons above (everyone)
  2. Distribute the  lesson designs by assigning to groups (1 lesson per group)
  3. Read the lesson design process and the lesson itself
  4. Make the connections between the process and the lesson
  5. Facilitate discussion on how the teacher mediates the text in the lesson (here’s support)
  6. Use the lesson as a model to plan your own
  7. Peer review and rotate

Complex texts must be used in instruction and teachers must be mediators of the text, therefore educators must master the close reading approach.

It’s time.

Objectives Matter…Especially for the Common Core

The Situation

Last year, prior to the start of the school year, a principal asked if I would provide her with support by being an additional set of eyes as teachers prepared their initial lessons. It was their first time teaching with the Common Core and her first time leading with the standards. As I moved from group to group throughout the morning, I noticed a consistent phenomenon. Teachers were inserting an entire standard after the words, “Students will.” That was a problem.

The Task

That was a problem because within a standard are multiple thinking skills and knowledges that are needed to move from novice to expert in order to have success with the standard. All learners require multiple opportunities to build up to becoming skilled at their target–in this case the standard. The principal needed the teachers to understand this idea, and so, I provided support by designing an impromptu professional learning session to challenge their thinking.

The Action

The image below represents one of the slides presented during the session. Upon presenting it, I asked, “What are the differences you notice between the two objectives and how would you approach teaching both?”


While they understood both objectives, they experienced more challenges with clearly articulating the process they would execute to teach Objective B. After a few minutes of open discussion, the teachers agreed with each other that Objective A would help to accomplish Objective B. And that’s when I jumped in!

Objective B was taken directly from the Common Core, specifically CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.7.9. The major difference they later discovered was that Objective B was simply “Students will” followed by the standard, while Objective A was a tiered objective that resulted from deconstructing the standard. (The deconstruction process results in tiered objectives that create multiple entry points into a standard, based on students’ individual needs. The process allows for success with each standard by moving from novice to practitioner/expert levels. Objective A represents one of the higher tiers.)

The remainder of the session included a deconstruction demonstration with teachers deconstructing and designing clearer and more comprehensive lessons.

The Result

As teachers reflected on their collaborative learning session, a first year educator stated, “Oh! Now I see why I was having a difficult time trying to plan.” She recognized she needed to break down the standards by thinking about the multiple levels of thinking  and the multiple knowledges embedded within them. A more experienced teacher that I partnered with earlier this year said this:

In the past, I thought of objectives as more for the teacher than for the student, but this process has made me see the importance of each student understanding each objective within a unit.  When students understood and tracked their progress towards mastering each objective, they wanted to improve!  More so, they were able to see how all of their work from the unit was connected and scaffolded which made lessons much more engaging as they saw a purpose to each day.

Objectives matter…especially for the Common Core!

So as always, I have a question for you: how are you preparing your faculty to think through the multiple layers within each standard while extracting their conceptual understanding and disciplinary literacy ideas?

The Core Deconstructed can help you answer that question. If you want to know how, just let me know.

Planning with Thinking in Mind

“Why do I have to do it that way?”

“Because I said so.”

Do  you recall that conversation as a child with your parents (or maybe even now with your own children?) Well, I was reminded of that conversation last week as I chatted with a Chief Academic Officer. Our topic was accountability–holding principals accountable so that they’d hold teachers accountable. On the subject of teacher effectiveness, she asked, “What more can principals do to help teachers beyond showing (telling) them how to improve their lessons?”

Given that coaching for performance improvement is a passion of mine, my immediate response was, “Help them improve as professionals by challenging their thinking, not telling them what to do.” After all, we grow when we learn, and we learn as our thoughts are expanded through challenges.

I have observed leaders who expected teachers to do what they said because they said it, but did not do what their supervisor said because their supervisor said it.

Have you ever noticed this in yourself? Do you know why you don’t always carry out what was told to you as a directive? It is possible that you don’t carry some out directives because you don’t understand them or because they don’t make sense to you. And can you say why that is? It is possible that you weren’t given the opportunity to travel down the road of thought that would have allowed you to arrive at the same place as your supervisor. So with that being said, what does this mean for the teachers you supervise? I think you get my point.

As you rest, reflect and prepare for the Common Core and next school year, consider how you support the growth of teachers through your coaching conversations. Since you’re reading this alone, you only need to admit it to yourself, but do you simply tell teachers what to do to improve, or do you use a coaching model to help them improve their thinking? (This question can also be modified for supervisors of principals.)

If you can admit that you mostly tell and if you can admit that telling isn’t teaching, then consider challenging your own thinking. Consider thinking about what you can ask teachers to improve their own thinking.

Designing for Thinking.001

Here are some questions to get you started:

  1. What level of thinking do you want your students to engage in?
  2. What physical evidence will demonstrate that they have engaged in that level of thought?
  3. What learning activity would yield the level of thinking you want students to engage in?

For more ideas on questions you can ask, The Core Deconstructed can help with that. The second version of the ebook is being released soon. Sign up to find out when.

In the meantime, keep thinking of questions to help teachers plan with thinking in mind.

What’s Common About the Common Core?

“All students are not alike.” This is one of the arguments used against the Common Core. I agree all students are not alike and it’s because of the standards that you get to acknowledge they aren’t. That’s my counter-argument. In the revised version of The Core Deconstructed, I open by sharing more thoughts on the argument and describe what’s common about the Common Core. Here’s what I had to say.

“The word common in some cases refers to being alike. When discussing the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), this definition can lead educators, parents and stakeholders to believe that the standards were designed as if all students were the same and to make all students the same. This places the emphasis on students being common; however, the emphasis should be on the standards. The common in CCSS speaks to the standards and denotes how success is defined for a particular situation, with the situation being preparedness for success in college and the world of work. 

It’s like the safety standards for your car. You’d like to know that at a minimum all car manufactures work with standards in mind for your safety, yet the standards don’t preclude luxury car manufactures from creating cars that exceed the safety standards. The same is the case for education. The standards are a minimum criteria and they do not preclude educators from cultivating learners whose performance exceed them. The standards simply represent a general expectation of what preparedness looks like for the world beyond 12th grade. Yet, before we can prepare students to exceed the general expectations, we must first understand the foundation and the multiple levels within the standards. We must get grounded.

The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and Benjamin Bloom have all provided the foundational information to help us ground ourselves in the standards. SBAC created Achievement Level Descriptors (ALD), PARCC created Performance Level Descriptors (PLD) and Bloom generated a framework for categorizing educational objectives. On the one hand, the descriptors are needed to understand the levels of success within a standard. On the other hand, Bloom’s taxonomy helps to understand the levels of learning and performance within a standard. Looking at the two separately can possibly be confusing and yield frustration” (Brown, 2012).

The thought continues in the graphic below.

Copyright 2013 by Sheron M. Brown.

Copyright 2013 by Sheron M. Brown.

To see the remainder of the alignment, just ask me here. In the meantime, I leave you with two questions:

  1. How have you been defining success with the Common Core?
  2. How have you been planning to exceed the minimum criteria for success?



Brown, S. M. (2012). The core deconstructed: How to deconstruct the Common Core State Standards so you can teach. Laurel, MD: ESbD Publishing.