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Instructional Agility

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The true power of assessment comes when emerging results determine what comes next in student learning. This practical book empowers educators and their teams, schools, or districts to move seamlessly between instruction, formative assessment, and feedback, improving school culture more effectively than traditional methods. Instructional agility enhances ownership of learning, proficiency, and motivation for students, and promotes a positive school culture. Each chapter concludes with reflection questions that assist readers in determining next steps for supporting the whole child and the whole learning process.

Learn how to promote an agile culture of learning in school to increase student ownership of learning:

  • Discover how instructional agility fits within the six tenets of the essential assessment framework.
  • Learn how to foster and maintain a culture of learning in schools.
  • Gain strategies and tools to enhance instructional agility and assessment practices.
  • Examine examples of instructional agility in action.
  • Consider questions that help individual teachers and learning teams contemplate what they learned and their next steps for implementing for instructional agility strategies.

Chapter 1: Establishing a Culture of Learning
Chapter 2: Engineering Engaging Conversations
Chapter 3: Questioning
Chapter 4: Observing
Chapter 5: Mobilizing
Chapter 6: Practicing
Chapter 7: Fostering a Culture of Instructional Agility
References and Resources

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8 Chapters

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1 | Establishing a Culture of Learning




Research in both learning and motivation supports the idea that classroom assessment is not solely the end point. Rather, it is a powerful agent for influencing learning and motivation.

—James H. McMillan

Maintaining a classroom culture that is conducive to learning is paramount to every teacher’s instructional efforts and ultimate success. Culture, a group’s generally unspoken but commonly shared attitudes, beliefs, values, goals, behaviors, rituals, and social norms, can act as a lever or a roadblock to change. In other words, a teacher who intends to apply powerful strategies with instruction and assessment but does not attend to the classroom culture will most likely fail despite those strategies. If, for example, the students in a school have adopted the attitude that learning is not cool, and that culture is pervasive, then a teacher’s effort to employ the best instructional strategy will have minimal impact. On the other hand, a teacher who strives to create the desired culture and then aligns instructional efforts to those shared beliefs will experience rapid change. Culture is that powerful.


2 | Engineering Engaging Conversations




The feeling of being interested can act as a kind of neurological signal, directing us to fruitful areas of inquiry.

—B. F. Skinner

The practice of engineering engaging conversations in the classroom provides a significant foundation for a successful culture of learning. Despite its invaluable contribution to learning, the process of engineering engaging conversations is completely underused when it comes to making real-time instructional adjustments. Teachers should not consider dialogue or active, social learning as strategies for rare occasions. Rather, engaging conversations should happen intentionally and consistently, not merely when it is convenient or when students seem ready. In other words, working collaboratively with peers in a learning context is vital to the process of learning and is imperative to being instructionally agile. Engineering engaging conversations marks a change in modern teaching and learning, as even direct instruction must include a pathway of provocative questions and compelling conversations that students drive themselves.


3 | Questioning




Questions wake people up. They prompt new ideas. They show people new places, new ways of doing things.

—Michael Marquardt

Questions generate curiosity, promote engagement, provide insight into how students make sense of things, and lead to interesting new ideas and potentially innovative solutions to persisting problems. In his book A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger (2014) makes a compelling case for the role questioning plays in providing meaningful solutions to pressing dilemmas.

Among many examples across disciplines and situations, he describes the plight of Van Phillips, a bright and athletic college student who lost his left foot in a boating accident in 1976. Upon waking up and realizing his new reality, he heard from many people that he would just have to get used to it. The doctors fit him with a wooden foot and assured him if he walked through the pain, his leg would toughen up and become more comfortable. Phillips, however, was not satisfied with that reality. He wondered, “If they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they make a decent foot?” (Berger, 2014, p. 11).


4 | Observing




You can observe a lot by watching.

—Yogi Berra

Observing is what coaches do, whether it’s in real time or through video recordings. Certainly, long-term planning and long-term improvements come about when coaches consistently examine video of past games because it allows them to watch their athletes perform the same moment multiple times at various speeds. However, the art of coaching actually lies in the moments when coaches identify a discrepancy between the desirable performance and what the athlete just did and use that information to promote continued improvement. Athletes perform and rarely produce any kind of tangible evidence of their skills; a tennis coach doesn’t ask his or her athletes to write a paragraph about their serving ability, for example. While coaches employ a variety of tools to help focus their attention on what truly matters, the art of coaching is in the real-time maneuvers coaches make in service of their individual athletes and teams.


5 | Mobilizing




Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.


Learners often look to their teacher for affirmation and direction. With strong instructional agility practice, the goal is to help students self-assess and self-monitor as they learn. In many classrooms, learners feel the need for this affirmation or feel paralyzed and overwhelmed regarding how to move forward. Do any of these students’ comments sound familiar?

■  After putting the finishing touches on her website design, Maria raises her hand and asks the teacher, “Is this right?”

■  Trelle finishes the first part of the mathematics problem. Frustrated, he puts his head on the desk. As the teacher walks by, she asks him what’s wrong. Trelle responds, “I don’t know what to do next. I don’t care.”

■  Jamal is working with his small group. The students are studying the water cycle and examining different scenarios, talking through how each impacts the water cycle. Each time the teacher walks by, Jamal stops, looks up, and asks, “How does this look? Are we doing it right?”


6 | Practicing




Take chances, make mistakes. That’s how you grow.… You have to fail in order to practice being brave.

—Mary Tyler Moore

Practice is important. Experts in any field—even those who are naturally gifted—will say they can never get enough practice on their road to perfection. Pablo Casals, the world’s foremost cellist in the late 1950s, performed at the United Nations when he was eighty-one years old. Asked at that time why he continued to practice four to five hours a day, Casals replied, “Because I think I am making progress” (Quote Investigator, n.d.). And he is not alone in that perspective.

NBA star Michael Jordan said:

I’ve missed more than nine thousand shots in my career. I’ve lost almost three hundred games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot—and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. That is why I succeed. (Richardson, 2004, p. 72)


7 | Viewing Instructional Agility in the Broader Context




In systems thinking, the true wisdom often comes from a willingness to let go of past learning.

—Pearl Zhu

Agility means graceful, nimble, flexible, responsive, and quick. Any one of these words describes the state of being or action taken when an individual, team, school, or system is agile. The broader context, including the larger district, jurisdiction, and school, influences the culture in which students and teachers thrive. This chapter addresses how the broader context establishes the conditions for instructional agility to take hold.

A graceful system communicates its expectations and builds on the strengths of individuals and teams within it. District and school leaders, along with others working with and for teachers, should commit to a tone of possibility. Their words and actions need to reflect a vision focused on learning. The more confident teachers feel, the more potential for them to develop a positive tone in the classroom that supports students achieving at high levels. The more teachers feel heard, the more confident and invested they become in the system. For example, we can see graceful agility when people perhaps resist a bit, but the system and individuals seek to understand that resistance and provide the support necessary to engage in meaningful assessment work. Grace creates trust and a sense of efficacy. When teachers feel like those in the system believe in their capacity to do amazing work with learners, there is a sense of optimism and confidence. That positively influences the daily interactions teachers have with students.


Appendix: Instructional Agility Manifesto




Visit for a free reproducible version of this appendix.

As educators, we commit to the following principles.

■  Our highest priority is to support learning through engendering hope, building efficacy, and increasing achievement for our students.

■  We recognize education to be the great equalizer and, as such, we commit to guaranteeing high levels of success for each and every student entrusted to our care.

■  We pledge to remain instructionally agile at all times, responding to the emerging evidence as we are teaching in precise yet flexible ways.

Through our instruction, we commit to the following.

■  We will care deeply but never justify or accept less from our students.

■  We will empower but never abandon our students to their own devices.

■  We will obligate excellence but never impose rigidity.



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