Principled First, Practical Second

By Rick Wormeli, 2019 CCIRA Presenter

There were hundreds of ideas, tools, and insights shared at this year’s CCIRA conference in Denver, and now we’ve returned to our schools and have to make sense of all we learned. It’s an exciting, heady experience for many of us, and some colleagues who did not attend will note our post-conference, anything-is-possible glow with bemusement. We smile with renewed vitality.

‘Quick caution in all that excitement, however: Let’s consider all those ideas not as recipes for our teaching cookbooks, but more as principles from which we draw our practicalities. In some cases, we get an idea from a researcher, presenter, or author and we try it out in our classrooms, regardless of whether or not it’s warranted. We were told it works, so we implemented it in our classes right away. It bombs, however, students don’t learn, and we swear we’ll never use it again. We move into Eeyore-mode, and declare to the faculty in low, sad voice, “It’s my birthday, nobody will remember. This author’s idea is just a fad; it will pass like an education kidney stone.” Alternatively, some of us try an idea because we’re excited about it, and, just by luck alone, it works really well, so we declare that everyone on the team, grade level, department, or school has to do it, too. This over-zealousness is just as unhelpful.

Let’s be principled first, strategic and practical second. A principle is often considered a fundamental truth or foundation of belief and behaviors, or an accepted explanation for how something operates. For example, the Order of Operations in math – parentheses, exponents, multiply, divide, add, subtract (PEMDAS) – is the way we prioritize math operations when solving equations. It’s universally accepted. We are negligent and ineffective when we disregard its truth.

In the world of cognitive science, we know that priming students’ brains for the lesson ahead increases their capacity to learn and retain new content. Roughly, that means we make them aware of the lesson’s goals and objectives, and we describe what they are going to experience in the journey. We also know that little goes into long-term memory unless it has a strong emotional connection or it is connected to something already in storage. This means that we should spend significant time helping students connect with learning emotionally and building prior knowledge where there was none. Just as above, we are ineffective when we ignore these truths.

In each case, an operating principle indicated our actions. Without the principle, however, actions were just mismatched, wild shots in the dark.  When students fail to learn as a result, it’s easier to blame the student for his lack of diligence or the system in general, rather than looking at our own decisions as instructors.   

There is no book, Ted Talk, software, or seminar that will tell us how to handle every teaching situation we’ll face in the course of our classroom careers. Let’s stop seeking such a resource. Instead, let’s collaborate with one another and determine our principles, and from each one, identify how to respond to challenges as they arise. For many of us, this is the true value of presenters at conferences: the principles they share and how they are manifest in our classrooms.

Integrity requires a match between our values and actions. In teaching, though, we can be hypocritical: Yes, we know that middle and high school students learn better when they get ample sleep before coming to school, but the bus schedule dictates an unusually early start to the school day for secondary students and so, we muddle through the first two zombie periods of the day. Yes, we know students develop cognitively at different rates, but we march them through a uniform curriculum sequence nonetheless.  

Being principled minimizes our hypocrisies to a large degree, and it brings us into alignment with our school’s values. We declare something an operational truth in teaching and learning, and we act accordingly – or so we hope. Sometimes we lose focus, however, and stray from our beliefs, giving only lip service to something deeply fundamental to student success.

Take a look at the principles listed below that drive instruction in today’s effective classrooms. For each one, consider what it would mean for us, if weren’t hypocrites, identifying at least one element or action in our classrooms that would be in place if we had the courage of our convictions and followed through on the principle:

  • Chance favors the prepared mind. – Pasteur
  • All thinking begins with wonder. – Socrates
  • Sense-making (students accessing content) is great, but long-term retention of curriculum requires meaning-making (students making connections and processing content).  
  • Recovering in full from failure teaches more than being labeled for failure can teach.
  • Whoever does the editing does the learning.
  • We cannot conflate reports of compliance with evidence of mastery.
  • Homework is practice of what has already been learned, not for learning content for the first time.
  • We can’t be creative unless we’re willing to be confused. – Margaret Wheatley
  • What students learn is heavily influenced by their existing ideas.
  • Emotion drives attention, attention drives learning. – Robert Sylwester, 1995, p. 119, Wolfe
  • Strict, unwavering adherence to pacing mandates, regardless of student need, is willful act of failure.
  • Evaluation and judgement inhibit critical error analysis and thoughtful reflection.
  • Memorization is still important in a, “You can always look it up” world.
  • Grades are communication, not compensation.
  • Everyone needs to save face, be honored; cornered students self-preserve.
  • We can’t drive forward by looking only in the rearview mirror. (“Rearview-Mirror Effect,” White, 2011)
  • We can’t get creative students from non-creative classrooms.
  • My testimony as a teacher is what students carry forward at the end of my lessons, not what I presented to them during those lessons.
  • Teachers are responsible for their own professional development.
  • Learning is fundamentally an act of creation, not consumption of information. – Sharon L. Bowman, Professional Trainer

Each one of these serves is a catalyst for a myriad of teaching decisions and actions. For example, in White’s caution about not driving forward while looking only in the rearview mirror, we realize that we can’t make instructional decisions regarding a student’s learning this fall or winter by only looking at his test scores from last March; we’ll have to do some assessments right here and now to perceive where he is.  If we accept the principle about whoever does the editing, does the learning, then we have to stop editing student’s writings, and instead, place a dot at the end of the line where there is an error and teach students to find their own errors and correct them. And if we’re principled, what are we doing to build students’ personal background knowledge with a given topic before asking them to read challenging text regarding that content?

Screen Shot 2019-02-26 at 9.00.40 AM
Photo credit: Izzy Rivi

If we find evidence for a favored principle in our practice lacking, that’s the place to start: Does the principle still work for us, given our latest thinking, or does it need augmentation or deletion? If we still find it valuable, what do we need to change in order to bring it back into focus? What new principles gained over the last year intersect with this current one, and how does that intersection inform what we do next? Renewing oneself to guiding principles is liberating; it inspires reinvention.  

If you attended the CCIRA conference this year, consider arranging the most resonant ideas, tools, and elements you gleaned from the experience into principles. For example, you may have learned quite a bit about descriptive feedback, so gather those ideas under the category, “Guidelines for effective feedback.” You may have found great ideas for how to use mentor texts (or, “Just good literature,” as Regie Routman reminded us), or principles for how to use instructional apps and technology, how to do effective grammar instruction, or how to use graphic novels to teach historical, mathematical, or scientific content. Alternatively, if you didn’t attend the conference, just record five principles of literacy instruction that inform your practice. Then, for each principle, identify at least three ways that the given principle is manifest in your instructional design. If possible, share your thinking with a colleague (‘acting principle: The brain is innately social!), and ask for feedback on whether or not the identified actions/elements express the principle. True, it’s a meaningful way to create our authentic selves in classroom, but even better, students learn more with principled teachers. They’re simply more effective.

Instead of throwing new techniques and strategies randomly into old lesson plans, take a moment to see if the new ideas are warranted based on which principles are in play, and if they are needed, where they might fit, and with which students. This is the stuff of invigorated teaching – It will carry us through the rest of the school year. Enjoy the ride!

Rick Wormeli is a national speaker and author of three books: Fair Isn’t Always Equal, 2nd Edition (Stenhouse), Summarization in any Subject, 2nd Edition (ASCD), Metaphors & Analogies: Power Tools for Teaching any Subject (Stenhouse). Contact him at


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