Cosmic Stories to Make Sense of Complexity

Skillful teachers can shape even the most complex content into engaging stories that plant seeds of wonder—stories that invite students to investigate the world beyond the classroom door.

Mary Beth Wertime tells that kind of story. Mary Beth worked in international development and most recently as a Montessori teacher in a public school in the U.S. We met Mary Beth at the 2014 Human Systems Dynamics Conference and discovered our shared passion for generative teaching and learning in public schools—and our shared frustration with the current high stakes testing regime.

In this post, Mary Beth explains how five stories (called “Great Lessons” in Montessori schools) are told to children at the beginning of each year. She explains how these stories engage children in interdisciplinary explorations. She also addresses the structural difficulties of this inquiry-based approach in public schools where local, state, and federal testing requirements require frequent interruptions throughout the year.

The following post is based on the transcript from the January 4 HSD in Education Webinar led by Mary Beth Wertime.

What Are the Montessori “Great Lessons”?

Maria Montessori was one of the first female physicians in Italy. She opened a school in 1907 in Rome. She developed her methodologies and philosophies through careful observation of children. Montessori used her medical training, observation of the developmental stages of growth in children, and her association with scientists to study how students build concentration and self-discipline and learn to explore and discover.

Although many Montessori schools are private, there are 443 public Montessori schools in the United States as of 2014 (taken from Census Project of the National Center for Montessori in the Public Sector, 2014). Of these, many are primary schools (Ages 3 – 6), but over 100 schools serve adolescents. These schools serve 112,486 students in the U.S. There are not as many middle and high schools because Montessori did not develop methodologies for older students, but she did write about adolescents, and some educators developed materials for middle and high schools.

The groundwork for the “Great Lessons” can be found in two books by Maria Montessori: To Educate the Human Potential and From Childhood to Adolescence. However, it was her son, Mario Montessori, who took these ideas and wrote the Great Lessons or “the cosmic fables” or “the “cosmic curriculum.” You can find summaries of these Great Lessons in Montessori Today by Paula Polk Lillard and in Children of the Universe: Cosmic Education in the Montessori Elementary Classroom by Michael and D’Neal Duffy.

The idea of telling stories to highlight interdisciplinary study is not a new idea. It was written about in the 1800s. Mario Montessori, however, pulled together information and designed these stories to be part of how Montessorians teach in elementary school.

The cosmic stories, or the “Great Lessons,” are stories used at the beginning of each year to introduce the big ideas that the children will continue to investigate throughout the school year. It’s important to remember that these are impressionistic stories, and not every detail is given while telling each story. Their purpose is to whet the appetite and draw children into thinking about the world around them. The stories start from age 6 and are taught throughout the elementary curriculum. They are:






Notice that this is a nested sequence, beginning with the most expansive–the universe. Montessori thought that, rather than starting with the child’s town, then teaching about the state, and then each country, Montessori teachers should start with the universe because children are asking huge questions about life.

Let us give them (the elementary children) a vision of the whole universe….all things are part of the universe and are connected with each other…This idea helps the mind of the child to become fixed.”(Montessori, p. 8)

Slide1If you look at the bottom of the stack of nested bowls in the picture, you can see that Montessori teachers begin with the story of the Coming of the Universe.

We start with the whole and move to the parts.

Each story draws from different subjects. Chemistry, geology, astronomy, and physics are addressed in the 1st Great Lesson. Botany and zoology are addressed when we teach about the Coming of Life on Earth, and we move to anthropology, archaeology, and history as we tell the Coming of Humans Great Lesson, etc.

Why did Maria and Mario Montessori develop these stories? They thought that developmentally, young children are ready to consider significant issues. Starting at age six, children are leaving their families, thinking about how they fit into a larger social context. As they start to ask deeper “why” and “what” questions, why not give them the whole universe?

To interest the children in the universe, we must not begin by giving them elementary facts about it, to make them merely understand its mechanism, but start with far loftier notions of a philosophical nature, put in an acceptable manner, suited to the child’s psychology. (Montessori, 1989,  p. 28)

Montessori teachers use these stories for several reasons:

  • as a springboard to awaken wonder and curiosity. The stories are not told to memorize all the facts about the big bang theory, for example, but to touch imaginations so that children are inspired to ask more questions and seek information about those questions.
  • to suggest a framework of interrelated information that leads to independent study.
  • to address the interdependence across the whole system, rather than teaching using isolated parts: “Children’s minds are not divided into categories. They operate as whole systems.” (Lillard, 1996, p. 59).
  • to build respect and reverence for all that has come before and during human time on Earth.

Montessori elementary teachers teach the stories (Great Lessons) at the beginning of each year. We don’t always finish them in the first month of school. Sometimes we stretch them out a little longer, depending on whether the students take off exploring lessons that they have heard. And we keep follow up lessons “flowing” while we follow the children and what they are inspired to study after hearing the story. Then we tell the next story.

What’s really interesting about these stories is that they draw the teacher AND the student into important learning. The stories give Montessori teachers a framework for organizing their work, and a way to be intentional about planting seeds of wonder in children. Every year, I went back and reviewed the basic outline of the stories developed by Maria and Mario Montessori, and then I reviewed story-telling techniques, about how to bring new energy into telling of the stories. I found that this made me excited about starting each new year. For the children, the stories are a seed-planting experience, getting the children engaged and awakening the questions that they might have and the research they can work on throughout the year.

There are charts and scientific experiment materials that go along with telling the stories. .All of these materials need to be prepared in advance. In the days before we start the stories, we whisper to the children that we will be telling very special stories. The older children hold this secret (having heard the stories in previous years). They whisper to the younger children that special stories are about to be told. Excitement builds. The day the children walk into class and see that the windows are covered and/or the blinds are down, they know that this is an indication that this is finally the day that the first Great Lesson will be told. Many types of journals are set up, too, so that the children are ready to start working on questions that inspire them after they hear the stories.

How Do These Stories Plant Seeds of Wonder?

The stories are told in lower elementary—(Montessori classrooms combine 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades)—and they are also told in upper elementary (4th, 5th, and 6th grades) and in the older grades, too (sometimes 6th grade is in a public Montessori middle school). The teachers in the older grades add on to these stories in a very sophisticated way. So if you are a Montessori student, you hear these stories over and over again, with more details added on each year, and the questions the children ask are more sophisticated each year.

In this picture teacher 1st lessonthe teacher is set up for the first Great Lesson. Usually we ask the children to sit on the floor, but in this class, they are sitting in chairs. You can see all the scientific experimental material on the table. This teacher is going to tell the Coming of the Universe story. It includes the scientific theories such as the big bang theory.

The story includes expansionist theories, and any new scientific theories that have come along can be added into the story. We also tell stories that come from ancient traditions. But once again, it’s not every fact and detail; it is an impressionistic story. Charts are used, like these charts seen in this picture and then, once the story is told, children start asking questions like: “How does gravity work?” “Why don’t the planets fall out of the sky?” “How do volcanoes work?” As soon as the teacher starts hearing these types of questions, he or she guides the students to go off and begin research on these questions. There are additional stories and scientific lessons that continue to follow the main story–such as:

  • scientific states of matter
  • the birth and death of stars
  • the creation of the solar system
  • volcanoes
  • creation stories.


The second story or Great Lesson is “The Coming of Life on Earth.” We use several materials to tell this story. This story tells about how creatures came to life on Earth… as we unroll the Timeline of Life we show the children the very simple, single celled creatures that were created on Earth. Then the story goes on as we unfold the Timeline of Life to talk about the jelly fish as an ancient creature, the trilobites (that became extinct), and as the timeline opens all sorts of sea, air, and land creatures are discussed on the timeline. A blank timeline is also included with this material so that the children can use it to memorize where each creature goes on the timeline, or to match the creatures from the original timeline. This Great Lesson inspires a lot of work in biology and zoology.


When the children see the timeline and the “Coming of Life” stories, they begin asking questions such as:

“What happened to the trilobites?” “Why aren’t the dinosaurs here anymore?”

They may begin studying fossils and how scientists tracked different creatures that lived on earth through the fossil record. We also give lessons on the plant and animal kingdoms. We teach songs so the children can memorize the 5 kingdoms of life etc. In lower elementary (1st-3rd) many children carry out animal research.

Then we move to animal husbandry. We go out to farms to see live animals and encourage the children to continue their research with live animals. Children love to do research on different plants in our own classroom gardens. Montessori teachers develop a lot of materials to add into the follow-on lessons after the Coming of Life story is told.

This is a child actually teaching other chiSlide1ldren about the research that she did. Thus, one of the outcomes of these stories is the cross-fertilization that begins to happen between children. The teacher tells the Great Lesson, but the children also present information to each other.


Thus this cyclical pattern begins to happen:

Slide1We use another timeline to tell the “Coming of Humans” story. It includes pictures that demonstrate the unique qualities of humans—like demonstrating the importance of using the pincer grip, human’s unique ability to use hands to create; about how humans discovered fire, and how humans take care of young and elders. Also, it depicts the human capacity to bury those who die. In this story we talk about the human capacity for empathy. (For example, we can feel for others who lived through a tsunami, even though we haven’t lived through it ourselves). This leads to the study of ancient civilizations.Slide1

Here are some examples of follow-on lessons that come after the “Coming of Humans” story:

  • fundamental needs of humans
  • history of tools
  • ancient civilizations
  • history of transportation
  • history of medicine.


This child is working on a timeline about ancient China.

child timeline

We also go out of the classroom—for example, to museums and galleries—to learn about the history of humans in our communities.

The fourth story or “Great Lesson” is the Story of Communication in Signs. This is when we talk about how humans learned to communicate through writing and reading. We talk about the ancient Egyptians and cuneiform writing (and many other ancient scripts). This is a fascinating story for young children who are learning to read because they begin to realize they are not alone in this endeavor… that all humans developed the skill of reading and writing over time. Some of the follow-on stories that are told after this Great Lesson are about

  • diverse alphabets
  • origins of writing utensils and paper
  • development of the printing press
  • history of fax and computer
  • continuation of the study of ancient civilizations and their means of communication


The 5th story (Great Lesson) is called the Story of Numbers. Ancient humans needed a way to communicate through trading. The “Story of Numbers” is about how ancient ways of counting began. It includes stories, for example, about how the Mayans piled stones up to count and how Arabic numerals evolved.       Interesting stories continue to be told afterwards. Here are some examples of follow-up stories and lessons related to the “Story of Numbers:”

  • How zero was “born”
  • Continued history of counting
  • History of math principles
  • Development of calendars
  • Systems and units of measurement
  • Economic geography.

Basically the whole concept of teaching these stories is to help students realize that they have the power within themselves to ask powerful questions as they listen to the stories. It is our job as Montessorians to listen to their questions, to decide how we can guide their interests, and to support them as they do their research.

Does this mean there is total unstructured time in the classroom?

Of course, in public schools, Montessori teachers must follow the state curriculum each year. We start with the five great lessons, and student interest and research are inspired through hearing the stories. It is our job as Montessori teachers to keep an eye on the state curriculum but also to honor the children’s questions. We try to weave the content from the state curriculum with where the students are trying to go with their questions. So there is structure in that we have the aligned curriculum from the state, as well as the Montessori curriculum. In fact, people have spent a lot of time aligning these two curricular documents to give us a structure so that children have access to both of them. It is not just a jumble but has structure.

What about the testing mandates in public schools?

We are still curious about the future of Montessori in the public schools and what’s going to happen to us with all the testing requirements. There is a dis-connect between Montessori teaching and the amount of stopping and starting that happens to accommodate test-taking. Our concern is about the large numbers of tests and how tests interrupt the dynamic flow that happens when we get all these threads flowing. This picture, in fact, is an actual stack of my testing materials for a year in a public Montessori school.

stack of tests

Once these “Great Lessons” are told, it’s not a linear process where we are only studying “the plant cycle” or the “animal kingdom.” The children are involved in a complex inquiry process including follow-on lessons and independent research. And then the children are expected to sit down and take a test only in reading or only in math. It simply interrupts the flow.

Kids often want to go to these deeper places, and there isn’t time because you have to hit all the reading, writing, and math skills in the state standards. We strive to keep this dynamic flow of storytelling, experimenting, researching, and reporting continuing, but the children are interrupted constantly by required testing. In the evolution of the standards and the testing systems, there are some opportunities for performance-based assessments, however, which can be integrated into the flow of students’ questions.

Telling the Great Lessons and observing children in follow up provides data, too—as we watch students interact, as we watch them explore the lessons and complete their research. It makes sense to watch for patterns in their interactions across time. This information can tell us a great deal about what and how children are learning.

So what did we do at my school to work on keeping this opportunity for keeping complexity alive in our classrooms?

  • We tried to protect a three-hour uninterrupted work period. Children could stay in the classroom and keep the cycle going.
  • But that didn’t stop the amount of interruption to take the tests so we’d like to keep this conversation alive, to see what other adjustments might be made.

What more can we do?

  • Stories provide data, too. Stories that we get as we watch the students interact – without making it a test – is really important. We can look for other ways to measure to replace or supplement traditional testing data.
  • Keep avenues open for allowing complexity to thrive in each classroom rather than shutting down these avenues by designing structures and rules that promote the exact opposite.
  • Let’s continue to question the way we are collecting evidence to prove that learning is taking place. What outcomes do our methods produce? It is not easy to do so but worth every effort for the sake of the children.

Now What?

Other approaches are similar to these “Great Lessons” if other teachers would like to use these stories as a framework to guide instruction. For example, David Christian developed an approach called “Big History,” which is similar to the Montessori “Great Lessons.”

Big History can be used in high schools and universities. The challenge is to take all the Common Core that is written and weave these standards into the art of storytelling using Big History. It’s a huge job when information is taught in silos of isolated subjects. However, “leaning in” to try to weave it all together is a worthy endeavor.

We must continue our “courageous conversations” about how to teach in an interdisciplinary way, to preserve space for this type of storytelling that inspires children to ask important questions about significant issues, and to preserve the time for children to explore findings. By doing so we honor the complexity that is inherent in helping each child develop his or her full potential.


Duffy, M. and D. (2013). Children of the Universe: Cosmic Education in the Montessori Elementary Classroom. Santa Rosa, CA: Parent Child Press.

Lillard, P. P. (1996). Montessori today: A comprehensive approach to education from birth to adulthood. New York: Schocken Books.

Montessori, M. (1989). To educate the human potential. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO Ltd; 1st Paperback Edition.

Montessori, M. (1994). From Childhood to adolescence: Including Erdkinder and the Function of the University. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO Ltd; 1st Paperback Edition.

 Thanks for the images. . .

Teacher Stories for Change

Telling Your Story: Narratives in Complex Adaptive Systems

 This blog by Royce Holladay was first posted May 7,2015 at It’s a perfect companion to our 2015-16 webinar series.

You have an important story to tell. Whatever it is, your story is unique to you, and it is your opportunity to share who you are, what you do, and the place you stand in the world. You depend on your story to draw clients and customers to your business; to engage people in your interests; and to call them to action. Effective stories create compelling, sharply defined pictures to share.Slide1

The reason it is so difficult to tell a focused, compelling story is that you are creating a narrative about a very complex situation. Because you live, work, and play in complex systems, your story is about multiple forces that influence and shape the patterns around you. It is populated with a variety of individuals, ideas, information, and interactions. The events, concepts, and relationships in your world are connected to each other in nonlinear ways that make it difficult, if not impossible, to map a straight path between cause and effect.

These characteristics can shape a story that is ultimately messy and undefined. What can you do to clarify and focus your story? HSD offers tips to create and share your story as a compelling and powerful narrative of who you are, what you want, and what you created.

Point to the tension in the system. Good narrative focuses directly on the tension in whatever system you are describing—interpersonal interactions, organizational concerns, community activities. What is the conflict? What needs to change? Where is tension building, and how might it be released creatively? Those kinds of questions can help build a compelling narrative. They help you describe how individuals and groups respond when tensions they experience are not uncomfortable, or “fit to purpose” for their system.

Describe the patterns. A narrative can seem mundane when the storyteller tries to include all the facts and drama of the story. Sometimes details that have personal meaning to the story teller, but are just confusing—even boring—to the audience. Avoid this by framing your narrative around the patterns in your system, rather than around details. Examine your story for similarities, differences, and connections that hold or shape the greatest tensions in the system.

For instance team members come together to accomplish a task and their work together shapes patterns. Team members bring similar understandings of the task and commitment to completing it. At the same time, they bring different skills to that task. Ultimately if these diverse individuals connect with each other in supportive and complementary ways, they will generate patterns of collaboration and coordination. If, on the other hand, they connect in uncooperative or independent ways, they may generate patterns of competition or “star” worship.

Look at your story and pick out one or two powerful patterns to focus the listener on what’s most important.

Make your narrative brief and to the point. In today’s world, most people just don’t have time for long, drawn-out stories. You have to paint your picture in a handful of sentences. After you identify two or three patterns you want to highlight, begin to describe them. For each pattern, describe what holds or bounds the pattern (the place, issue, time, people, etc.). Then talk about the differences within the pattern that are important (values, interests, skills, contributions, etc.). Finally, describe how parts of the pattern connect (intimacies, dependencies, language, feedback, data, etc.). Engage the audience to explore individual and group interactions around system tensions.

Include both actual and aspirational narrative. Actual narrative describes patterns that currently exist. Aspirational narrative describes the patterns you want to achieve. Both kinds of patterns are important to build a compelling story. The difference between the actual and the aspirational creates the tension for change. If you want people to get involved in your story, help them see the power of that tension.

Express the arc of the story in your brief narrative. Present your story in a clear and disciplined arc that reflects the path of the change or event you are describing. The iterative nature of the Adaptive Action cycle helps to shape that arc in your narrative. This cycle is made of three simple questions: What? So what? and Now what?

  • Start with the What? Set the context of your narrative. Describe the patterns, both actual and aspirational, that are the focus of your story. Start with a few sentences to describe those patterns. Get it as lean and articulate as you can, then allow yourself to expand a bit, as the space and/or time allows.
  • Move to the So what? Talk about dynamics, impact, and possibilities that emerge from those patterns. Explore what shapes those patterns, and what it tells you about the system itself. Identify what your deep understanding of those patterns tells you about the system’s tensions. List the options for action that emerged over time. Talk about how you assessed your capacity to take any of those actions, and the ways you considered their impact on the system as a whole before you chose one action to take.
  • Move to the Now what? Choose one action and take steps to complete it. Explain what you did and the markers you looked for in the system to measure your impact. Talk about your timeline and your plan for involving others.
  • Circle back to the What? Complete your narrative about by describing your final outcomes and talking about the next possible questions. Identify where will you watch for tensions in the system next time. Bring your narrative to a closure that looks to the future and moves your audience to action in support of the system’s aspirational goals.

Focused narratives are useful in describing and explaining your system. They can communicate your expectations and hopes. They can help you amplify patterns you want and damp patterns you don’t want. Narratives can carry the messages you want shared inside your system and in the greater environment.

Use these simple tips to create engaging and compelling narratives. Share with your colleagues and students, and watch what happens!


Learning, Adaptive Action, and the Moon

ImageSome weeks ago, I was driving my two granddaughters home after dinner. It was only dusky-dark, but the full moon was already visible. Six-year-old Claire saw it first: “See the moon! It’s so big tonight! Is it a full moon yet?” When two-year-old Brooke spotted it, she squealed, “Moon! Moon! Moon! Ball!  Moon! Ball!”

They were both—from different perspectives—noticing, naming, interpreting patterns. They were learning without paying attention to the process.

Learning happens whether we pay attention or not.  The brain is a learning organ, and the healthy brain must learn—that’s what it does. When human beings engage with the world, we learn. We notice, name, and make sense of patterns in our experiences.

If we think of “learning” in this way, we can see it daily. Hourly. Minute-by-minute. Learning doesn’t have to be a deliberate (or painful) process, but in schools, where our business is learning, we need to make the process more visible and deliberate.  We need to set conditions so that learning can happen. The question is this: How do we ensure that this natural and necessary learning process happens every day, for every student?

This is not a new question. (John Dewey had quite a bit to say about it, for example.)  But across the complex landscape of teaching and learning in schools today, educators and policy-makers have yet to answer that question in a coherent or systemic way. We see “best practices,” mandated programs, and accountability schemes, but none of those have yet answered that question in a coherent or sustainable way.

Here’s an alternative. It’s not an answer, but it’s a way to search for answers—Adaptive Action.  Adaptive Action is a deceptively simple inquiry/action cycle that makes learning a systemic function in complex system.

With Adaptive Action, we try to frame a deliberate learning process with three questions:

  • What?  — What do we notice? How do those experiences, observations, perceptions create patterns?
  • So what? — So what do these patterns mean? to us? to others? What might have caused these patterns to form in this way? How might they trigger new patterns?
  • Now what? — Now what shall we do next? Now what are our new questions?


Adaptive Action is not about conducting a long-term inquiry before taking action; nor is it a series of action steps before a summative evaluation. It is an iterative cycle that integrates inquiry and action at each moment. It’s about always and ever taking an inquiry stance. What is happening? So what does it mean? Now what shall we do?

Just a few days ago, I was again driving the granddaughters home after dinner. This time, we couldn’t locate the moon. . . “Where’s the moon?” Brooke wondered. “Where’s the ball moon?” she demanded again, almost in tears. Uh-oh—an interruption to the pattern that had been so noticeable just weeks before. What happened to our moon?

Older sister Claire tapped on the window and asked a passing car:  “Excuse me. Have you seen the moon?”

It was another Adaptive Action cycle at work. And another lesson about learning.

More Information

Eoyang, G. H. and Holladay, R. (2013). Adaptive action: Leveraging uncertainty in your organization. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Patterson, L., Holladay, R., and Eoyang, G. (2013). Radical rules for schools: Adaptive Action for complex change. Circle Pines, MN: Human Systems Dynamics Institute.


Photo: The Moon – Facts About The Moon For Kids

This blog was first posted to in March 14, 2014.

Inquiry: Questions and Learning Quests

Earlier this fall, we explored the generative patterns that we want to see in classrooms and on campuses where students and teachers are having fun learning together:

pattern graphic

No one of them is more important than another; there is no sequence or hierarchy here. And every great teacher will have a personal preference–emphasizing the one works best for students. Like multiple ingredients of a delicious stew, each one contributes to the whole and each one can open possibilities for the others.

For me, inquiry is the heart of the matter.  Puzzles, paradoxes, and wonderings make good things happen–whether the learners are five years old or fifty-five. Questions fuel learning.

What does inquiry look and sound like? Glenda Eoyang and Royce Holladay (Human Systems Dynamics Institute) suggest these four ways we can stand in inquiry:


This path is not always easy or safe. It’s much more comfortable to rely on what we know we know. Or what we think we know.

Here are juicy examples of inquiry at work in classrooms across the country:

Let us know how inquiry shows up in your work? How do you invite students to ask important questions and to look for answers?


Eoyang, G. & Holladay, R. (2013). Adaptive action: Leveraging uncertainty in your organization. California. Stanford University Press.

Patterson, L., Holladay, R., and Eoyang, G. (2013). Radical rules for schools: Adaptive Action for complex change. Circle Pines, MN: Human Systems Dynamics Institute.

Apprenticeship: Inviting Learners into Learning Clubs

They (children) learn – usually without anyone being aware that they are learning ‐ by participating in literacy activities with people who use written language. It can all be summed up in a metaphor: Children learn about reading and writing by joining the “literacy club.”
–Frank Smith, 1994
Frank Smith has been telling us for decades that there are two main jobs for literacy teachers. First, make sure there is a literacy club alive and working in our classrooms.  Second, make sure every learner is a full-fledged member of that club.
That metaphor resonates for me. And it works across the disciplines. Math teachers lead clubs for young mathematicians. Science teachers lead clubs for novice scientistsHistorians lead clubs for novice historians. Why? Because that’s the way human being learn. We learn best when we belong to a group of like-minded people–our partners in tasks that help us accomplish authentic goals.
Frank Smith points out that when we join a club, we are immediately immersed in shared activities. Even novices are included in those activities, even if their activity is somewhat limited at first. As novice club members gain experience, they take on more and more responsibility for the work of the club. That is what “apprenticeship” means–whether in a club or in our classrooms.
What does this mean for the way we teach?

1.  Teachers show more than they tell.

 A demonstration is worth a thousand lectures. If I’m a history teacher, and I want my students to analyze a historical document, then I need to do it myself and talk them through my process. What did I think about? How did I look for patterns? What questions did I ask myself?   What did I notice? Did I make lists? How shall I share what I’m learning with others?
I save my long explanations and background information until the students’ questions tell me that they are ready. In a club, new recruits typically watch more experienced members lead the work and gradually begin participating fully in the work.

2. Teachers invite students to make mistakes as they learn.

We expect novice club members to make mistakes. Teachers create spaces where it is safe for learners to make mistakes. We cannot create “risk-free” environments, and we shouldn’t try. We want to create time and space where learners can explore, investigate, and experiment as they learn our craft. We want learners to take the risks inherent in learning; we stand by to support their risk-taking.

3.  Teachers design instruction that anticipates what learners need to do next. . .and next. . . and next.

Experienced and thoughtful teachers know enough about their craft to anticipate the steps or stages of their learners’ progress. They use Adaptive Action, asking

WHAT are my students currently doing? What do they know?

SO WHAT does that mean in terms of what they need to learn next?

NOW WHAT shall I do to give them a task that is challenging, but within their learning zone?

They design lessons that build on what the learners now know and what they need to learn next.  Vygotsky called this the “zone of proximal development” — beyond what students can comfortably do without assistance, yet not so challenging that they cannot experience success, even with support.

We sometimes call this instruction “scaffolding” — building metaphoric structures that anticipate the kinds of support that learners will need to accomplish particular tasks. Here are four powerful “scaffolding” tools:

  • Flexible grouping — Sometimes you want to work with the whole class as you demonstrate a skill or strategy. Sometimes you put them into small, heterogeneous groups–groups where students bring different skill levels in which they can learn from one another. Sometimes you have students work in pairs–with more knowledgeable students working with students who are still learning. Sometimes it’s best for learners to work by themselves, and you move around the room, checking in with individual learners to give them “just-in-time” support.
  • Individual conferences — Powerful teaching happens one learner at a time. Over the years, I realized that my most powerful teaching happened in the moments when I took time to have an individual conversation with one student as he or she was in the midst of a challenging task. Making time for those conversations takes some work, but the pay-off is clearly worth it. In English language arts classes, we call those conversations “conferences,” and whole books have been written to help us have powerful conferences.

Join the learning club!

So . . . organize a learning club in your classroom, and invite your students to join the club!  Patterns of apprenticeship show up when when we invite our students into real work — the work of readers, writers, mathematicians, historians, geographers, economists, scientists, artists, musicians, athletes, and more!

Smith, F. (1987). Joining the literacy club: Further essays into literacy. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Smith, F. (1994). Writing and the writer. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

The Power of Patterns

When I walk into a school, it takes me about five minutes to know whether it’s a powerful place for students and teachers to learn. It’s not about whether they have the latest technology, and it’s IMG_7372not about their test scores. There’s a feeling, an attitude, a tone, a climate on a campus like this–a campus where teachers and students alike can take the risks inherent in authentic learning.

What policy-makers do not seem to recognize is that each of these excellent learning places is unique.  Powerful teaching and learning cannot be standardized–no five easy steps; no fool-proof method. These powerful schools are by no means the same, but there are similarities–similarities in the ways teaching and learning even in the wide diversity we see across these schools.

Across these “schools and classrooms that work,” we see similar features, but these features are merely similar–not the same. They vary–sometimes only slightly–in response to the unique features of each community. We see these similarities as “patterns .”

What are the patterns in these powerful learning places? Here is a list of what we have seen–both in the classrooms we know and in the research we read:

  • Empathy and Responsiveness
  • Inquiry
  • Dialogue
  • Authenticity
  • Re-visioning and Adaptation
  • Apprenticeship
  • Deep Content Learning

We use this list of patterns as a springboard for conversations about our goals for learners. There’s nothing sacred about these labels. Some groups decide to talk about “accountable talk” instead of “dialogue” or “modeling” instead of “apprenticeship.” The particular language is not important, but those conversations about the patterns are critical if we want to set the conditions for powerful learning.

Teachers in the North Star of Texas Writing Project (a local site of the National Writing Project) have developed this chart to explain these patterns as they use them in their professional development work:

patterns self assessment

Do these patterns make sense to you and your colleagues? Do they seem true? Do they seem useful? Which three patterns would you choose to prioritize on your campus? Check these out and let us know what you think!