Darshan M. Jain is the director of mathematics at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Illinois. Previously, he served as an award-winning mathematics teacher as well as as a curriculum team leader.

In a Changing Time, Remember the Fundamentals

So much of the national conversation has shifted towards reopening school to our students and to our communities. Locally, you may be hearing conversations about reopening to full in-person learning, to fully remote learning, or even to hybrid or blended learning models.  

I am reminded that as educators and school leaders, we are well trained in a myriad of school-related matters. However, we are not trained to keep students learning safely within close quarters during a pandemic. Schools are doing their very best to ensure the safest and most effective learning based on their local contexts. Nonetheless, the fall start of school for teachers and students will not be business as usual.  

You may wonder if safety measures in place are sufficient and effective or what social-emotional learning needs your students require to thrive in the current learning format. You may have begun to observe the impact that months of interrupted or trimmed schooling has affected your students.  

There may even be early indications that curriculum or the lesson pacing will need adjustment moving forward; assessments in remote or hybrid learning may look different and strategies for student engagement may be a trial and error process as your tailor planning for your students. Many questions and much new learning abound!  

When faced with a changing educational landscape we must maintain the fundamentals of our productive planning practices. As the professionals of teaching and learning, our fundamentals are the Four Critical PLC Questions (DuFour, 2016).

  • What do we want students to know and do?
  • How will we know when students learn?
  • What will we do when students don’t learn it?
  • What will we do when they have already learned it?

What do we want students to know and do?

With many state departments of education removing curricular restrictions that were placed to cope with the sudden lockdown in spring 2020, it may seem that the pre-March curriculum can be implemented in fall. Perhaps, but not likely.   Teachers should take the opportunity to consider what exactly they want their students to know and do over the upcoming school year. Often, curricula are built on acquiring knowledge. Focusing on this alone can provide a false sense of understanding if students demonstrate this by just a recall of information.  

Knowledge and knowing are not the same cognitive structures. Knowledge is important to the extent it serves students’ ability to reason, synthesize, and adapt their learning.  

As you plan for learning, even with some uncertainties, what precisely do you want your students to know and be able to do? What really matters? Posed differently, if students only remembered 5 key ideas (or skills) from your class what would they be and how can students revisit these throughout the year to build increasing proficiency? What transferable skill will help your students to reason, synthesize, and adapt their learning in changing contexts?  

How will we know when students learn?

Traditionally, the results of formal in-person assessments help us reply to this. How will this change if our students are asked to demonstrate their learning in remote or blended learning formats? Regardless of your current school format, consider the purpose and role of your assessments. An assessment is only as useful as the insight it provides teachers to support the next steps in their students’ learning.  

The results of assessments ought to influence instructional planning and guide students’ actions. In this, assessments must formatively help teachers make decisions to reteach, move forward, or extend the learning of their students. The quality of the assessment feedback must help students not rest on what they did right or wrong, but on how well they are making progress towards proficiency and what next steps they can take. If assessments do not “speak” to both teachers and students, they are likely evaluations of learning and can terminate teacher and student actions.  

What will we do when students don't learn it?

Typically, we respond to this critical question based on students’ current year assessment results. This cycle is appropriate and necessary and must be ongoing. Teachers also need start-of-learning knowledge around what students can do and cannot yet do to inform effective instructional planning and sequencing.  

When did students last fully engage in learning? Was it in February, or in April, or perhaps during summer school? Regardless, our students have diverse past learning experiences, knowledge sets, and exhibit varying readiness for growth. Using a (previous) standard curricula places students in a “waiting room” until a future assessment can inform needed corrective feedback or support.

This positions teachers in a reactionary planning mode several weeks into the school year.  

Yet, over this broad assessment cycle, some students’ confidence and motivation may have begun to waiver. We must find strategies to deter this.  

The standard curricula (with its rigor, pace, and routine) cannot launch until we identify where students are in their readiness to launch. Consider a series of initial lessons that have tight feedback and remediation cycles. Some might design these as a review of or pretests over prior learning.  

Alternatively, lessons can intentionally focus on frontloading the necessary skills for success with new material and provide feedback within the lesson. Students can be given varying but appropriate pathways to relearn or reinforce skills for success within the context of new material. The teachers’ planned actions before initiating teaching and responding to feedback during teaching are preventative Tier 1 intervention strategies.  

Prevention, prior to lesson launch and during lesson delivery, is the best medicine! It is especially prescriptive knowing the interrupted and inconsistent learning some students have experienced.

What will we do when students have already learned it?

Despite the unique circumstances of the spring or fall, some students will demonstrate expected understanding that requires a supportive response. Often, we elevate such students to be “class experts” for their peers or “peer helpers” in the classroom. While there are appropriate moments to position students showing proficiency as facilitators and leaders within the classroom, it ought not to be their sole experience.  

Just as teachers must identify and plan for students who are delayed in learning, there must be a plan for those exceeding expectations. A common strategy is to accelerate the student with a greater volume of related work. A student may be asked to read additional novels or perform more science experiments or move ahead in the mathematics curricula. An alternate model to acceleration is in extending students’ learning with richer tasks rather than more tasks.  

That is, ask students to explore layers of symbolism in the novel and draw alternate conclusions than those taught. A student can hypothesize the experimental outcome when initial conditions are changed. In mathematics, a student may be asked to identify how current topics connect with prior units of study or how different representations provide varying insights into concept or problem. Choosing to plan for richer tasks amongst the class-wide topic of study allows for a shared learning community amongst students and reduces the adverse injustices of perceived classroom status and hierarchy.  

Planning for students’ learning is complex. That’s why it takes professionals to do it well! The four critical questions help us focus, reflect on, critique, and assess our work as professionals. Their simplicity provides a framework for planning for learning that traverses school culture, community contexts, student experiences, or discipline specificity. As the four critical questions of a PLC, they are not meant to be wrestled with in isolation, but rather in community. It is within a community we can grow as professionals and become ever more effective for the known and unknown opportunities ahead. It’s game time; let’s lace-up!  


DuFour, R., DuFour, R., Eaker, R., Many, T. W., & Mattos, M. (2016). Learning by doing: A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work (3rd ed.). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

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