The Power of Learning Principles

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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Written with support from Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins

Picture a powerful learning experience you have had. Now describe what made it so powerful. Was it the opportunity to practice in front of a coach and receive immediate feedback? Was it because you had clarity on the purpose of the task and how it fit into a larger goal? Think about generalizations that come from your personal example.

Now you are well on your way to drafting learning principles.

Role of Learning Principles

I had the honor of collaborating with Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins on the Schooling by Design: An ASCD Action Tool (ASCD, 2007) where we explained the role of Learning Principles.

Learning Principles guide actions in various aspects of schooling; e.g., instructional decision-making, selection of curriculum resources, planning professional development, and resolving pedagogical debates. Once articulated and established in a school, the principles function like an education “bill of rights”: a lens through which all curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices can be viewed to determine whether or not a given practice is in service to the mission of understanding. Also, the principles can guide de-personalized decision-making about learning-related issues, such as teaching practices, selection of instructional resource materials, and school policies/structures (e.g., grading and reporting).

It is critical that staff come to “own” a set of learning principles either through drafting an original set or adopting/revising a previously developed list, such as the nine learning principles delineated in the following example.

Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins crafted their own set as a model for other districts to use.

Schooling by Design Learning Principles

  1. The goal of all learning is fluent and flexible transfer – powerful use of knowledge, in a variety of contexts.
  2. Meaning is essential to learning, hence it is essential to teaching and assessing: learning goals must make sense to the teacher and to the learner. There must be regular opportunities to see the value of what we are asked to learn, how it relates to past learning and how it will relate to future learning.
  3. Successful learning requires metacognition: learning how to reflect, self-assess, and use feedback to self adjust. These metacognitive processes can (and should) be taught explicitly.
  4. The complexity of learning requires teachers to draw upon a rich repertoire of teaching and assessing strategies carefully matched to the learning goals.
  5. Learning is most effective when differences in learners’ prior knowledge, interests and strengths are accommodated.
  6. Greater learning depends upon the right blend of challenge and comfort – knowing that success is attainable, and realizing that persistent effort will pay off.
  7. To maximize learning, learners need multiple opportunities to practice in risk-free environments, to receive regular and specific feedback related to progress against standards, and timely opportunities to use the feedback to re-do and improve.
  8. All learning-related work in schools should be judged against standards related to learning goals (for both students and adults) and reflecting how people learn.
  9. As a model learning community, a school appropriately requires learning from every member of its community, since continual learning is vital for institutional as well as personal success.
  10. All learners are capable of excellent work, if the right conditions for learning are established.
Engaged or Compliant Learner


Making it Come Alive

To make this come alive, staff should describe the learning principles in language that is borne out of their own experiences, research, and illustrative examples.

Protocol for Development of Learning Principles

  • Individually reflect. Think back to your many prior experiences with well-designed learning, both in and out of school. What was one of the most well-designed learning experiences you have ever encountered? What features of the design (not the teacher’s style or your interests) made it so engaging and effective (for example challenges posed, resources provided)?
  • Group conversation. One person starts to share their experience. The rest of the group listens for generalizations that follow from the account. After the person finishes, participants summarize the generalizations they heard and record what do well-designed learning experiences have in common.
  • Individually read one or more illustrative models. Compare to your group set. What confirms the list you generated? What areas did you find that are also important to exemplary design?Promises for Learning Environment
  • Draft into student-friendly language. These are your promises or agreements that you share with your students. Invite them to help clarify or add to the list based on what they find to be most powerful.
  • Implement in your classroom. Describe these promises or agreements are how you are designing assignments, working with students, providing feedback, and ensuring growth in the learning environment. Invite them to share ideas of how to continue to uphold and strengthen this.

Taking Action

In Wethersfield, CT, the entire high school faculty co-created learning principles over the course of several days. Here is the set that the faculty created.

  1. Learning is an active process that requires the learner to construct meaning.
  2. Learning requires the use of language (words, symbols, numbers, images) to capture and develop thinking.
  3. Learning is influenced by social interactions, interpersonal relationships, and communication with others.
  4. Learning becomes relevant when it activates and builds upon prior knowledge and experience.
  5. Cultural frame of reference, background knowledge and thinking patterns have a significant affect on how learners learn.
  6. Feedback improves learning when it is ongoing, timely and specific to established criteria.
  7. When a learner believes in one’s capacity and in the significance of the work, he/she is more able to overcome challenges, solve problems and recognize progress.
  8. Learning requires self-reflection, self-assessment and self-adjustment.
  9. Motivation to learn is affected by emotional states, beliefs, interests, habits of thinking and goals.

What was remarkable about this faculty — led by a group of 10 teacher-leader pioneers — was they wanted to pay attention to a learning principle to improve their own practice.

Over the course of a year, we developed a protocol that provided a safe environment for an individual teacher to share a video clip to a group of their colleagues in relation to a learning principle and then listen for feedback. This protocol as well as the feedback form was tested and revised over the following year with a broader group of teachers before it went full staff in Year 3.

Here is the protocol:

  1. Prior to the meeting, the presenter fills out the first part of the feedback form (shaded box).
  2. Presenter makes copies of and distributes feedback form to the other participants in the group. Here is the feedback form they used.FEEDBACK FORM
  3. Presenter reviews learning principle and area of focus for feedback from the team.
  4. Presenter plays the 3-5 minute “game film” clip(s).
    • Presenter provides additional context during viewing (as needed).
    • Participants may ask clarifying questions about the context and the lesson.
    • Participants avoid having a conversation with the presenter.
    • Participants may take notes on the feedback form.
  5. After viewing the clip(s), allow time for participants to complete the feedback form based on the chosen learning principle(s).
  6. The facilitator initiates discussion amongst participants.
    • The presenter listens and takes notes (only one with a pen in his/her hand).
    • The presenter should not participate in the discussion.
  7. After the discussion, the presenter thanks participants and may comment on the feedback they got from the experience. The facilitator and participants give their notes to the presenter for further reflection.

* The facilitator’s role is to ensure all participants follow the protocol.

The power of articulating learning principles is that we can really engage in the heart of instruction and describe what learning looks like when it is most impactful. But also there is a level of versatility in each learning principle where teachers feel they can exercise their creativity and autonomy in pursuit of agreed upon conditions.

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