Practices in the Classroom are Practices for Life

Mike was born and raised in Sheboygan, WI. Mike attended UW Madison where he received his degree in Secondary Education in Broadfield Science and Biology with additional certifications in chemistry and physics. He’s been a secondary educator for 16 years, 12 of which have been at Brookfield Central High School in Brookfield, WI. His interests in education focus on putting students at the center of their own learning experience. He lives in Brown Deer, WI with his wife and dog.

More from Mike on his website.


In Students at the Center, Bena Kallick and Allison Zmuda identify seven key elements to consider when designing student centered learning:

  1. Goals
  2. Inquiry/Idea generation
  3. Task and audience
  4. Evaluation
  5. Cumulative demonstration of learning
  6. Instructional plan
  7. Feedback

In this post, I’d like to simply look at goals.

When thinking about goals we always need to start with the relevant standards. But, we can’t leave them in the “standards” language. We need to be able to translate them into goals to be communicated at the teacher level and at the student level. We have to be ready to make our standards relatable to learners. We need to be willing to co-create the language of these student goals so that they make sense to learners. This may lead us to two sets of goals in two different languages (teacher and student) and that is fine as long as the intended audiences understand them as written.

Once we have these student outcomes, we can look at lesson design. The authors introduce the idea of output-driven lesson design. This is where the teacher and student are both aware of the knowledge and skills that will need to be demonstrated at “the end.” From there it is up to the teacher and student to design a path to achieve and demonstrate mastery. So, the variable is not whether the student has demonstrated mastery. The dependent variable is time to achieve mastery. It is a given that this timing will vary from student to student.

In addition to knowledge standards, these goals integrate habits of mind and don’t simply treat them as an add-on. When we frame with habits of mind as binding our instruction, we no longer treat a curriculum as a series of content episodes with no relation. The curriculum becomes an application of these overarching skills and habits of mind to different topics within the discipline.  

What do we mean by that? In the Next Generation Science Standards, there are eight different science practices. Most of these map very easily to habits of mind. Here’s an example of how breaking down two of them helps uncover relationships to habits of mind.

Identified Science and Engineering Practice from NGSS Practice as Defined by NGSS Related Competencies Related Habits of Mind
Asking Questions and Defining Problems A practice of science is to ask and refine questions that lead to descriptions and explanations of how the natural and designed world works and which can be empirically tested.
  • Ask questions that arise from careful observation of phenomena, models, or unexpected results, to clarify and/or seek additional information.
  • Ask questions to identify and/or clarify evidence and/or the premise(s) of an argument.
  • Ask questions that can be investigated within the scope of the classroom, outdoor environment, and museums and other public facilities with available resources and, when appropriate, frame a hypothesis based on observations and scientific principles.
  • Questioning and Posing Problems
  • Thinking and Communicating with Clarity and Precision
  • Gathering Data through All Senses
  • Remaining Open to Continuous Learning
Planning and Carrying Out Investigations Scientists and engineers plan and carry out investigations in the field or laboratory, working collaboratively as well as individually. Their investigations are systematic and require clarifying what counts as data and identifying variables or parameters.
  • Plan an investigation individually and collaboratively, and in the design: identify variables and controls, tools needed to do the gathering, how measurements will be recorded, and how many data are needed to support a claim.
  • Collect data to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence to answer scientific questions or test design solutions under a range of conditions.
  • Persisting
  • Managing Impulsivity
  • Listening with Understanding and Empathy
  • Thinking Flexibly
  • Striving for Accuracy
  • Applying Past Knowledge to New Situations
  • Gathering Data through All Senses
  • Thinking Interdependently

A class may be designed to have specific units of instruction with unique content outcomes for each. But it is these overarching practices that students apply to the different units. They may not apply every practice to each unit, but they are applied multiple times over the course of the year. We track the content specific outcomes over the course of a unit of instruction. We track progress in practices over the course of a year of instruction.

The key to this application of broader practices is to not make the habits of mind they entail hidden, but show that they are essential. This will help connect them to not only the science practices but practices in other areas of life. Thinking interdependently may be key in science experimentation, but it is important in any collaborative endeavor. It is only when the classroom practices and the habits of mind they entail are made explicit that learners will find their value outside the classroom.

What are the practices that are essential to your classroom? What habits of mind can you tie to them?

For a long time, I have tried to meld a content standard and practice standard into a single outcome that could be measured together. But if I am going to do justice to practices and habits of mind, I realize I should track these separately. That way I can truly highlight what the practices are and why they are important in science, and more importantly in life.

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