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Aleta Margolis is the founder and executive director of the Center for Inspired Teaching, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization that works with teachers, principals, and entire school faculties to foster the best teaching practices. In a recent post wrote a post titled “Letting kids move in class isn’t a break from learning. It IS learning,” Margolis wrote about how teachers incorporate movement into active learning. Now in this post, she looks at other instructional elements that indicate best practices in teaching. What should you see in a classroom where students are engaged in deep learning?

By Aleta Margolis

A classroom designed to build students’ independent thinking and analytical skills looks radically different from the norm, and one of the joys and challenges of showcasing this type of instruction is providing the necessary context. So we have created a visual aid for visitors who come to see our Inspired Teachers’ classrooms — a “bingo card” that provides structure and offers terms for what guests observe. The current bingo card contains eight items:

Independent problem-solvingIn a middle school social studies classroom, students are prompted with a question: “Where does chocolate come from?” It’s then up to the students to determine what sources to locate and reference in order to find an answer – building their skills as researchers and their comprehension of a complex lesson on production processes and global markets. The teacher explains, “I used to think it was good teaching to stand in front of a class and lecture and have students quietly doing work alone at their desks, but I don’t think that anymore. BLISS, an Inspired Teaching program, taught me what a great classroom looks like: it’s a place where students are doing as much of the talking and thinking and problem solving as the teacher. It’s a place where students are tackling questions and problems that are relevant to their daily lives. This kind of classroom helps prepare students to be thinkers—and that is the most important skill a teacher can teach.”

Students struggling and persevering. During the morning meeting in an early childhood classroom, a student is charged with writing a difficult sentence for his literacy level. Instead of jumping in and finishing the message for him when he takes a long time, the teacher stands back as her student thoughtfully considers each sound and letter. His classmates wait patiently, helping him sound out each word; when he completes the task, they celebrate his success together. The teacher intentionally creates the kind of classroom environment where this productive struggle can occur, knowing that it encourages independent thinking and supports deeper learning.

Physical movement and serious play. As I described in my piece on movement, teachers can incorporate physical tasks such as “indoor ice skating” into their instruction, allowing students to deepen their understanding of concepts from geometry to geography as they simultaneously ​refine​ their​​ ​motor skills and build spatial awareness.

Students imagining creative approaches to challenges. ​Eileen Pascucci, a Teacher Leader in Inspired Teaching’s SCALE program, describes how she makes way for students to use their imagination: “Instead of handing them an entire lab that’s already mapped out for them, step by step by step, like all the old lab manuals do, I have been much better at stripping away all of the unnecessary so they can discover it themselves.” In order to teach a unit on osmosis and diffusion in her​ ​ninth-grade biology class,​ ​Eileen tasks students with planning and carrying out their own investigations into what happens when gummy bears are soaked in a variety of solutions.

Real world connections. For the high school students enrolled in Real World History, an Inspired Teaching course offered in partnership with D.C. Public Schools, drawing connections between textbooks and the world around them is a critical part of coursework. In one project, students learn about the Great Migration by interviewing elder Washingtonians who migrated from the South about their reactions to Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration Series,” featured at the Phillips Collection.

Wide variety of student work and types of assessment. At the end of summer school for elementary students taught by the Inspired Teaching Fellows, a Learning Showcase displays student work that can’t be captured by tests alone. There are pickles students made in chemistry class, statistical graphs showing results from a survey of their classmates on gardening habits, and drawings that demonstrate understanding of many key concepts, from the way plants grow to how to sequence a story.

Student-led discussions. After participating in a Paideia seminar on reparations, Real World History students independently organize a viewing and discussion of the film “Selma” with students from a local independent school. Students engage in a discussion about the civil rights movement, the current state of civil rights in the United States, and the role they might play in movements such as #blacklivesmatter.

Social-emotional skills and empathy. Teachers at the Inspired Teaching Demonstration Public Charter School explain how empathy is seamlessly integrated into their lessons, both as a cognitive skill — building understanding of others’ perspectives in order to develop a more sophisticated worldview — and as a social-emotional one. When a student is disruptive, she is asked, “How is your behavior affecting the classroom community? Are you it helping it or hurting it?” When a student articulates his thoughts about how the mayor is doing in her first term, the teacher turns it into a discussion about what others might think, why they may or may not have voted for the mayor, and how to change fellow citizens’ minds if you disagree with them. In this way, building the skill of empathy enables a supportive and productive classroom environment.

The next time you have the opportunity to visit a classroom, take a moment to observe closely. Do you see compliance or true engagement? Are students pulling facts out of a book or are they building independent problem-solving skills and meaningful connections?

Just as in life, the answers in excellent classrooms need to be earned and never spoon-fed. The same is true for the questions. When you visit a classroom and are able to fill your bingo card, you’re seeing inquiry-based instruction that empowers students and positions them to be leaders of their own learning. Every child deserves that type of education.

What other “bingo card boxes” would you add to the list?