Listening Has Changed My Coaching

Listening Has Changed My Coaching thumbnail

Aside from trying to be as productive as I can every day, listening - truly listening to people - has completely changed my coaching. Elena Agular talks about listening at length in The Art of Coaching (well worth the read, btw) and since I've made the conscious effort to listen first, I've seen fruits.

I stopped going in with preconceptions about progress or willingness to try new things. One unfortunate carryover from teaching is that I have expectations about specific teachers. So and so is hard to work with or this person will never change...I had shut down any possibility of working productively before I even walked in the room. Meeting people with the intent to listen rather than talk erased those expectations and allowed for positive conversations.

My ability to help people has increased. I don't limit this statement to technical help, which is certainly a component of my work these days. Asking questions and listening for context clues has allowed me to look beyond immediate problems and solve deeper issues, or at least identify issues to work toward solutions.

Summarizing the problem before offering solutions is critical. I stopped taking my computer to meetings with teachers because it leads to distractions. Or, if I do have it, I don't open it until we're working on a specific item. While we're talking, I have a notebook. I'm quietly making notes, looking for patterns and letting the teacher express their frustrations, ideas, or concerns without interrupting. I ask probing questions - "Why did you feel that way?" or, "What did [this thing] help you learn about your students' understandings?" - to draw out reflective thought. Before I start to talk, I take one minute to process my notes and state back, in my words, what they're experiencing. This catalyzes the rest of the conversation and helps us work together.

I can loop back to previous conversations and push toward growth. Since I have detailed notes (completely confidential notes) I can look back to previous meetings and probe next time we're together. Looping back to gently push toward growth on goals is easier because they're the teacher's own ideas. I'm there as a processing tool, not as the Owner Of Solutions.

In the end, I want to make sure I'm helping people in ways they want to be helped. I want to push them professionally by talking honestly about teaching - why we do what we do - to promote growth. If I can't understand what they're saying, it's a fool's errand.

Reflected Rocks flickr photo by Stanley Zimny (Thank You for 32 Million views) shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

Planning a Flipped Unit Part 4

Now it’s down to the What of your unit. Standards have been identified and selected, themes established, and your main mechanism for assessment has been designed to check what students know and can do at the conclusion of the unit.

The center of the Golden Circle isn’t the most important. It’s the component that fits within each of the larger rings. The What of your lessons should drive students toward successful completion of the assessment mechanism which, in turn, shows you what the students have learned of the identified standards.

The What is hard to specify, because the variety of activity in a flipped environment depends on individual student needs. Using the 5E structure helped me plan meaningful and varied activities all within the large scope of the unit.

If you’re not familiar with 5E, here’s a breakdown:

  1. Engage
  2. Explore
  3. Explain
  4. Elaborate
  5. Evaluate

I bolded Engage and Explain because it’s where I focused much of my effort in early unit planning.


It’s easy for me to stand up front and teach a topic. I can communicate ideas clearly and succinctly and ask students to demonstrate understanding with a variety of mechanisms. But, that sucks the joy out of learning something new (not that all students will love chemistry, but you get the idea). Ramsey Musallam and Dan Meyer are two really smart people I found early in this transition who helped frame my view of the engage portion.

Ramsey’s Explore-Flip-Apply structure fit well with my goals. Science is the practice of observation and I wasn’t great at getting students to observe phenomena. Use EFA at times, I was able to both engage the students in an interesting question and push them to draw conclusions based on lab experience.

Dan has pioneered 3 Act Math approach, which works to drive student inquisitiveness as a carrier for math instruction. I took his advice about practicing capturing perplexing things and started trying to photograph or film things that would be useful for engaging my students. (The previous link is a video about halfway through Dan’s 2014 CUE keynote. I recommend watching the entire presentation if you can find the time.)

This is hard to do, mainly because what I find engaging might not be engaging to students at all. Expect to swing for the fences and miss with some. As you hone your units, your engage activities will improve.


After exploring an idea, there will inevitably be misconceptions which need to be corrected. This is the Flip in Ramsey’s Explore-Flip-Apply. I can assess and gather information about student understanding as they explore and then I can use the power of a camera and a short video to instruct where students need the intervention.

If you’ve been flipping for a while, you know where students struggle. You probably already have a library of support videos you can filter into the unit. This also helps you identify gaps in your own instruction! Pay attention to what material students need additional help with and continue to build those resources out. Structuring your unit (not just a lesson) this way will also help you target which lessons are the most important, and that’s what students do. You don’t have to assign everything every year because the goals of the unit stay the same while student understanding changes year to year or class to class.

More on 5E

Each step in the 5E structure were not prepared for every single day of every single unit. Some components were easier to run across several days (or even weeks) because of low overhead (no prep, etc). Others were limited to specific dates and times. This is particularly important in a science classroom because of lab availability and safety considerations. Giving students choice in how they tackle a particular activity does not mean carte blanche. Specific constructs and limitations are acceptable.

Without repeating the linked 5E article above, Elaboration focuses on connecting to other ideas rather than staying within the immediate context. This is a great place to spiral back to previous units or to build anticipation for future units. It forces you to continue to consider the connections at the standards level rather than looking 24 hours in the future. Not only are your units more powerful, but your course as a whole takes on a larger internal support structure.

Final Thoughts

Much of this is written from secondary math/science perspective because that’s my experience. If you’re not in the same context, pay attention to the support structures rather than the individual examples. How are your standards mapped out? Have you mapped them out? Start large and work down to the day to day. This ensures students have a consistent experience and that the unit has internal fidelity to specific ideas. Looking day to day narrows the scope and makes it too easy to dictate the entire path of the course.

This is a skill that develops over time. There are strong communities of teachers on the FLN website and Slack channel. Get connected with others to solicit feedback and suggestions from people working on the same ideas. As you continue to zoom your lens out and work down to individual lessons your skill will build and your students will benefit.

Thanks for reading the series. If you have questions, leave a comment or head over to my website and drop me a line.

Featured image by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash.

Planning a Flipped Unit Part 3

Once you know why you’re teaching what you’re teaching, you need to define how you’ll know what students have learned or not learned. What task(s) will students complete in order to show what they’ve learned as you move through the unit? Keep in mind that this does not necessarily have to be a written test! This step in planning helps you meaningfully outline the Why of your unit.

Default Action

Defaults surround us. When I use my computer, I have a default web browser. I have default settings on my phone. When I get home in the evenings, I change into more comfortable clothes. Defaults help us work effectively and efficiently to accomplish a specific task.

We also have defaults in our teaching. When I need to quickly assess students, my default is usually a quick poll (choose the best answer from the board) or some targeted questioning to reiterate some important points from the activity. Those quick checks are routine for my students and the default action helps me effectively check for understanding without significant interruption of the class flow.

Defaults can also be dangerous. If I’m going out in the evening, my default clothing choice would not be appropriate. Asking students to answer a single multiple choice question (probably) won’t show me deep understanding. Our default actions need to be overridden from time to time depending on the situation. Relying on the default is particularly dangerous when you’re planning your unit assessment.

Understanding By Designing

This portion of the planning process relies heavily on Understanding By Design (UbD), also called “backward design,” developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTigh. UbD outlines seven key principles which permeate all instructional decisions. I’m not going to go in depth on the entire framework in this post, so I encourage you to go read more about how to implement UbD.

At it’s core, UbD “helps focus curriculum and teaching on the development and deepening of student understanding.” The How defines how students demonstrate their learning. I cannot answer the question of whether or not students learned without some kind of assessment mechanism. The Golden Circle parallels the three-step process outlined by UbD:

  1. Desired Results
  2. Evidence
  3. Learning Plan

We’ve already outlined our desired results by defining and organizing standards. Now it’s time to dive into the assessment mechanisms that will flow throughout your unit.

How Will You Know What They Know?

The purpose of defining the assessment before the lessons is to ensure you are hyper-focused on teaching the standards you outlined in the Why. This is absolutely teaching to the test and it’s absolutely okay. Understand that teaching students the material you outlined is expected! Don’t fall into the trap of labelling your instruction as “narrow” or “prescribed” because you define the scope of your instruction. If you find something is missing, you can add it to your unit plan! This is an important component of planning because your assessment, to be reliable, valid, and fair, should reflect the material you set out to teach.

As you learn more about UbD, this portion of your unit planning is for the culminating event, not necessarily day-to-day formative assessments. The formative checks are critical because they help you “correct the ship,” as it were, but those are more aligned to daily tasks, so we’ll plan those in the next step.

There are six facets for understanding defined by Wiggins and McTigh that you should work to include: explanations, interpretation, application, perspective, empathy, and self-knowledge. Your culminating event should be broad enough for students to demonstrate many of these facets and narrow enough to ensure they are showing their learning on the defined standards.

A Sample Culminating Event

You have complete control over the culminating event, so try to avoid your default action and plan a true event, not just an assessment.

In my general chemistry course, we spent a significant amount of time on the properties of atoms. Understanding how these little pieces of matter behave is important in later concepts, like describing bonding or chemical reactions. Luckily, we have the Periodic Table of Elements which describes and organizes these properties. A major component was my emphasis on the fact that the periodic table is relatively new - only in its current form since the early 1900’s after many years of experiments and revisions. I needed my students not only know how to read the periodic table (explain and interpret), but to also relate to it’s development and connect it to the nature of science as a revision-based process.

I can definitely assess their knowledge using a multiple choice and essay test, and those were a component as we went through the unit in the form of quizzes. But, I’m missing the other half of the six facets of understanding - empathy, perspective, and self-knowledge. By using a unit test as my culminating event, I was missing opportunities for metacognition and growth.

In 2006, NSTA published an article by Vicki Volpe which described a Periodic Table of Cereal Boxes. I modified the project and added a reflection my students would do to show their understanding at the end of the unit. By putting students in the driver’s seat, I was able to watch them assimilate all of the principles they’d learned over the course of the unit to create something novel. Beyond the chemistry skills, students felt the frustration of building a meaningful representation, not unlike the early organizers of the periodic table. The process involved research, drafting, and revision - and not just one cycle. The reflection included a strengths/weaknesses analysis of their table and many recognized that it wasn’t perfect, but it worked given the data they had access to.

The Role of How

The culminating event brings into alignment to the entire unit. Every standard was assessed in some way, but not in isolation. All learning is connected and our unit assessments should highlight and expect students to make those connections. Designing your culminating event should unify the learning standards and give students opportunity to show the facets outlined in UbD. As a bonus, these holistic assessment items don’t feel like assessments. The conversation changes from “we have a test over this stuff” to, “use what you know and show me what you can do with it.” It’s a rolling performance event for students with checks along the way to ensure a supportive learning environment. This is particularly evident in a flipped environment where students can go back to review material as needed. The support structure is built right in!

What’s Next?

Once you’ve defined the Why and the How, you have a framework which provides support for the What - the day to day items. We’ll look at that in the next post.

The featured image is Geared flickr photo by arbyreed shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Planning a Flipped Unit

The idea for this series was sparked when I was helping some people research sample flipped lessons for a curriculum workshop I was facilitating. I was embarrassed while working with this teacher because most of what we found was significantly below standard.

That night, I did some more searching and I leafed through page after page of Google results of substitution-level implementations of flipping. Lessons that came up in the search were roughly:

  1. Video for homework, quiz the next day.
  2. Video for homework, worksheet the next day.
  3. Video for homework, lecture the next day.

What I could not find were resources on designing effective and powerful lessons for flipping, let alone units.

This is a problem.


In my early years, a unit was simply a sequence of lessons around a central theme. Essential Questions guided my day to day work, but instead of focusing on content standards as a baseline, I relied on thematic relationships. At the time, I thought I was giving myself freedom to explore related ideas no “prescribed in the curriculum.” In reality, I was making more work for myself as I pulled ideas in without a guiding framework. On top of cherry-picking pieces of content within a unit, I was trying to flip everything. That meant making videos and corresponding materials to help my students in their learning. The majority of my work was focused on lesson preparation and the overall unit structure was left to nothing more than the sum of the parts.

Flipped Learning has been around long enough for most people to have heard about it if not researched it for themselves. Sal Khan’s 2011 TED talk is a firestarter for conversation among teachers and administrators looking for methods to jumpstart some innovation. Jon Bergmann and Aaron Sams have published a number of books about flipping at the classroom level as well as for particular subjects. Others like Crystal Kirch, Troy Cockrum, Robert Talbert, and Ramsey Musallam have written books (all linked) about their implementation strategies teachers can model as they begin to explore.

The Gap

There is a significant information gap when it comes to learning about how to successfully implement flipped practices. In a culture of Google results and “power skimming,” most implementations begin - and end - with finding or recording lectures that students watch at home and then “apply” in the classroom.

At it’s worst, the teacher becomes a non-essential mediator of student YouTube binging. At best, the teacher essentially resets the clock on student work, promoting passive listening and devaluing the net positives that can be gained in a classroom setting.

Sherry Turkle explores the advent of using technology to engage today’s “disengaged” students in her book, Reclaiming Conversation. Her point is similar - rich classrooms come with discussion and interaction. Savvy and intentional course design is key in promoting this interaction. Flipped Learning can help you build that culture, but only if you’re prepared with the right instructional tools.

So, our question: When you’re asked to design a lesson, where do you start?

Like many, you may identify your Big Idea and Essential Question for the day (don’t forget to put them on the board!). Then, you’d outline your instruction and some guided practice strategies after which you can assess student understanding of the material.

Lessons are easy. As a teacher, you’ve been crafting lessons since your undergrad years. Over time, they may be refined or updated, but planning is typically spent looking at a calendar, outlining day to day activities.

When you design from the top - starting with the biggest ideas and burrowing down through assessment and lessons - you are rooted in the main ideas. Those themes permeate everything your students do, which leads to more opportunities for exploration and discussions on related topics. You won’t need to think about every contingency to engage students when they lose interest because students will define those topics themselves.


Our worldview informs everything we do in the classroom. “The medium is the message,” the adage goes, and it’s particularly important to remember as you begin to incorporate video (or other media) into your instructional habits. The idea of an asynchronous introductory event is not a common experience for most of our students. How will it communicate a shift in the typical learning cycle?

Our bubbles are strong. Our brains work hard to fit new experiences into existing schemas. When they don’t fit, the schema is broken down and rebuilt. Working in a flipped environment will certainly break your students schemas about learning. If your schema for instruction isn’t being broken and rebuilt as part of the process, your wheels will spin.

The Big Picture

To address the shortcomings of planning effectively for flipped material, we’ll be using a modified version Simon Sinek’s “Golden Circle” to plan out a holistic unit from the top down. If you’re not familiar with the Golden Circle, here’s a diagram:

The golden circle - What, how, why

The Golden Circle is meant to help organizations determine their core mission. In many cases, employees (or teachers and students) can quickly answer What it is they do every day. For example, a Microsoft employee would say they make software. A student would say they’re learning about the Revolutionary War or linear equations.

Most people, however, can’t answer the “Why” nearly as easily. Why does Microsoft make software? Why are linear equations taught in school? Sinek’s argument for the corporate world is that by answering the Why for your clients, you stand out - you become unique and a cohesive and productive culture develops.

Schools are not businesses, but the principles of the Golden Circle can be applied to curriculum development. How do we transfer corporate descriptors to the classroom?

  • WHY: Standards, essential questions, outcomes.
    • Defining the Why in your curriculum is step one. It sets the tone for the entire course, defining the end results for students. Knowing which standards, essential questions, and outcomes you have for student at any given point keeps your instruction on focus as you plan. Looking unit by unit helps you tell a story to your students - it provides a cohesive overview of how things relate to one another.
  • HOW: Assessment(s)/capstone event
    • Once you know why you’re teaching what you’re teaching, you need to define how you’ll know what students have learned or not learned. Step two in Understanding by Design calls this “Assessment Evidence.” What tasks will students complete in order to show what they’ve learned as you move through the unit? Keep in mind that this does not necessarily have to be a written test!
  • What: Lessons, day to day
    • You’ve defined the Why and you know How you’ll be evaluating student growth, now you can start to think about the day to day work. Every single thing you plan for your students should support their growth toward showing what they know (the Why) and How you know they know it.

In our application, we’re going to put the Why at the outside, exchanging it for the What:

Modified Golden Circle - Why, How, What

This Golden Circle hangs on a wall near my desk. It’s a visual reminder as I work with teachers to build units of instruction. Everything defined in the unit is nested and related: all of the What is measured and related to the defined Why. The idea is to root our planning in practices which focus on teaching standards with authentic and meaningful opportunities for assessment.

Admittedly, the visual analogy isn’t perfect because usually, when a dartboard is involved, you’re shooting for the bullseye. We need to get to the what eventually, but it’s always within the context of what’s around it, the standards and assessments.

Each post in this series will dive deeper into designing units of instruction rather than flipped lessons. Comments, suggestions, and feedback are always appreciated.