By Peggy Hart, Linda Natale, and Carol Starr

The faces of students and staff at Quality Middle School are upbeat. Students walk with purpose because they know that their teachers will greet them warmly at the door of their next class with high expectations. Each class starts with an anticipatory warm-up that predicts the learning for the day and/or links previous learning to new learning.

Early on, students are provided with the mastery objective for the class, its purpose, and agenda for the day. Students know that they will be able to demonstrate in a variety of ways that they "get" the new learning. They are given a reason to focus on whatever they are doing whether it be a short explanation by the teacher, a presentation by classmates, viewing a video, interacting with software, or participating in a structured group discussion. They see how what they are learning relates to today’s world. Ongoing checks for understanding give students a chance to show what they are learning, individually, with pairs or groups.

When working in pairs or groups, students know that they will be expected to collaborate on a product, even if that product consists of explaining their thinking. Students get to make a lot of their own choices while working toward the same goal. Choices include types of articles and topics, sides to take in debates and arguments, or roles they can play. Students follow their own progress closely and know what they need to do to improve and how they can get the help they need. Students enjoy learning because they show their learning in a variety of ways and their hard work is recognized and celebrated by their teachers and, even more importantly, by themselves.

Teachers make sure that students are able to relate in one class to what they are learning in other classes because teachers work together in teams and pairs on a regular basis. They develop and share a variety of practices and approaches that promote student enthusiasm and engagement. Similar skills, vocabulary words, types of teaching and learning strategies, and rubrics carry over from one class to the next. Teachers engage in collegial conversations to ensure that no student falls through the cracks. They recognize and celebrate each student's successes and accomplishments.

The Face of Rigorous and Engaging Teaching and Learning

This is an amalgamated example of the face of quality, engaging, rigorous teaching and learning in a school that “breaks ranks.” In this school environment, the administrator plays a critical role in creating a school culture that values rigorous teaching and learning. Too often, administrators and teacher leaders see only one component of engagement in classrooms and decide this mission is accomplished. While there are no quick fixes or shortcuts, an important first step to improving teaching and learning is learning how to recognize what qualifies as rigorous and engaging teaching and learning. Instruction alone does not define engagement; teaching is not engaging unless it is connected to meaningful learning. When research on motivation and engagement began in the 60's and 70's, "proof" of engagement was limited to time on task. Subsequent research broadened that scope. Rhodes (2007) and others now recognize three characteristics in students who are engaged in rigorous learning:

  • They exhibit a set of behaviors that include task persistence, regular attendance, and sustained attention.
  • Emotionally, they demonstrate excitement, interest in learning, and a sense of belonging.
  • They show cognitive engagement by taking on academic challenge, positive self concepts, and a desire to continue learning.

In other words, students act and feel that schooling is interesting today while important for tomorrow.1

Accordingly, researchers who observed quality middle level instruction found that in classes that were highly engaging, students were engaged more than 90% of the time in learning and understanding targeted content and skills. Students and teachers alike used cognitive, meta-cognitive, and self-regulatory strategies to monitor and guide their own learning processes. They not only demonstrated deeper processing strategies such as elaboration and cross-curricular connections, they were willing to persist with difficult tasks while regulating their own behavior and mastery of content. Highly engaging teachers had clear goals for student learning, and they used many instructional practices linked to positive academic motivation supported by research, and few practices known to undermine motivation.2

Using the Rigorous Teaching and Learning Framework

© 2010 Teach for Learning, LLC

In the past, educators were very teaching-focused—the teacher “delivered” the curriculum with little emphasis on student learning. The assumption was that if the teacher taught it, the students should get it. But today, with state standards and accountability, educators must focus on student learning and provide access to rigorous teaching and learning. Academic learning goes beyond the instruction that is provided by the teacher. Based upon research, including our many years of experience working to improve teaching and learning, we have identified seven components that comprise the Rigorous Teaching and Learning Framework:

  • Beliefs that intelligence is not static and all students can learn.
  • High expectations for continually improving and delivering quality teaching and learning.
  • Skilled ongoing collaborative planning that is personalized and differentiated to meet student needs.
  • Evidence of student learning for every student that is gathered and analyzed throughout the learning process, including student monitoring of progress.
  • Critical thinking that demands that students learn to think logically, analyze and compare, and question and evaluate.
  • Research-based instructional practices that call for all students to construct meaning by interacting with authentic content, the teacher, and with other students.
  • Positive classroom and school culture and environmentformed within a professional learning community.

These components are at the core of improving teacher effectiveness and advancing student learning. While all of these components must be present in order for all students to achieve high levels of learning, recognizing quality, engaging teaching and learning is a crucial first step for any school working to become learning focused.

But what does highly engaging teaching and learning look like? Let’s look more closely at the component of Instructional Practices. Under the component, five key indicators contribute to effective instruction. The teacher:

  • Communicates explicitly and with clarity
  • Engages students in learning
  • Questions, probes, and facilitates discussion
  • Provides feedback to students
  • Uses a variety of grouping structures.

Instructional Practices

Indicator 1:  Communicates explicitly and with clarity

  • Communicates what students should know and be able to do—goal or objective
  • Communicates the agenda or specific tasks or steps that will be accomplished
  • Refers to the learning goal/objective (what students should know and be able to do)
  • Communicates directions and procedures clearly and anticipates confusions
  • Provides opportunities for students to set learning goals and monitor their growth,.

Indicator 2: Engages students in learning

  • Develops students’ background knowledge
  • Activates student knowledge and thinking
  • Makes connections and integrates new learning with previous learning
  • Models and thinks aloud the thinking and learning processes
  • Provides opportunities for students to use and create graphic organizers to facilitate their learning before, during, and after instruction
  • Uses instructional materials that appeal to diverse backgrounds and cultures
  • Provides opportunities for students to apply complex concepts and processes
  • Provides opportunities for students to reflect upon and summarize their learning
  • Checks for understanding in a variety of ways and modifies instruction to meet student needs
  • Provides opportunities for all students to think and discuss their ideas with other students
  • Integrates a variety of technology tools and applications into instructional design and implementation
  • Uses a variety of techniques that provide for total student response to learning.

Indicator 3:  Questions, probes, and facilitates discussion

  • Asks questions that arouse curiosity and interest
  • Asks questions to ascertain student knowledge and understanding
  • Asks questions that require creative and critical thinking and analysis
  • Uses clear, precise language when posing questions to students
  • Uses wait time to allow students to process their thinking
  • Provides opportunities for students to elaborate and build upon ideas and contributions of others
  • Provides opportunities for students to question and challenge each others’ ideas
  • Checks for understanding
  • Uses prompts and cues to probe student thinking

Indicator 4:  Provides feedback to students

  • Provides explicit, constructive feedback in response to student learning
  • Provides feedback that clarifies misconceptions and confusion
  • Provides feedback that is timely
  • Provides equitable feedback
  • Provides opportunities for students to give feedback to one another.

Indicator 5: Uses a variety of grouping structures

  • Uses whole group instruction to introduce and/or model new learning
  • Meets with small groups of students to address specific learning needs of students
  • Plans for flexible and responsive student grouping to maximize student learning
  • Uses a variety of grouping structures such as reciprocal teaching and cooperative learning.


What would an observer expect to see in an engaging classroom? How does an administrator know when teachers and students are performing at a rigorous level? Having clear expectations and knowing what engaging instructional practices look like enables leaders to identify rigorous teaching and learning. When teachers know more specifically what to look for in their teaching and student learning, they are able to assess and reflect upon their own practice. These “look fors” identify what might be observed during a highly engaging, rigorous lesson. They also provide a deeper understanding of the expectations for a highly engaging, rigorous classroom. Let's look at the indicator "Engages students in learning." If the teacher is engaging students in learning, the teacher might begin a new lesson with an activity such as an anticipation guide to develop student knowledge and thinking. During the lesson, the teacher might provide opportunities for students to question and challenge each others' ideas, using well-reasoned arguments. These “look fors” identify what might be observed during a highly engaging, rigorous lesson.

It is essential that administrators and staff members have the knowledge and understanding of each component within the framework and know how to use the indicators and “look fors” to improve rigorous teaching and learning. The indicators and "look fors" for each of the framework components are meant to be used in professional conversations—for staff members to reflect upon and assess their own practice. They are not meant to be used as a checklist by administrators to evaluate staff, but as way to support and improve rigorous teaching and learning practices within a school and/or district. They are a springboard for engaging staff in professional learning. Administrators and teachers can use the framework to:

  • Establish a clear shared vision of rigorous, engaging instructional practices
  • Provide focus for walkthroughs and learning walks
  • Assess the quality and extent of current practices
  • Provide focus for team collaboration
  • Prioritize areas of need for professional development
  • Confirm strengths and areas of improvement.

Once there is consensus around what rigorous, engaging teaching and learning look like, school leaders and staff members can focus on bringing them to life. Leaders and staff members who focus on improving practice and who collaborate and work diligently to motivate students to learn and reflect on their learning, deserve recognition and support each step of the way, for they have developed what matters most—quality, engaging teaching and rigorous student learning.

"Turning Points 2000: Lessons Learned: Engaging Students and Ensuring Success," P. Gayle Andrews, p. 58, Middle School Journal, Volume 41, Number 2, November 2009. [return]

"Engaging Instruction in Middle School Classrooms: An Observational Study of Nine Teachers," Lisa Bogart, Michael Pressley, and Lindsey Mohna Hawkins, Michigan State University, Elementary School Journal, v109 n1 pp 61-81, September 2008. [return]

Peggy Hart, Linda Natale, and Carol Starr are founders and partners in TEACH FOR LEARNING LLC, and have extensive experience as administrators, instructional leaders, staff developers, coaches, and classroom teachers. They have trained and coached administrators, department chairs, and classroom teachers to effectively implement new curriculum, develop and use formative and summative assessments, and provide high-quality instruction in all content areas. They can be contacted through Carol Starr at