“Activated Learning” (AL), also called the “EFs2theRescue Pedagogy” in Guare and Dawson’s 3rd edition of Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents, is an adaptive executive function (EF) intervention that aims to facilitate high-impact teaching and learning that is necessary for some and good for all in typical classrooms. AL is a self-regulated learning pedagogy that, among other benefits, allows teachers to support students with learning disabilities (LDs) as part of their everyday teaching. It was developed in 2014 by a special education teacher (the author) and has been championed by hundreds of educators in several school boards in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K.
There is no “manual” for AL because it is not a commercial program. After years of collaboration with teachers in the Trillium Lakelands District School Board, an effective training method has been developed that begins with a one-day teacher workshop. In a 4-hour training day, teachers learn broad conceptual knowledge about EF, develop the skill of spotting EFs in everyday performance, and then practice using a self-regulated learning pedagogy that applies these new skills and knowledge.
Following the training day, teachers are invited to join a series of 30-minute online videoconferences. These conferences are accessed via the activatedlearning.org website. Teachers browse a calendar of available dates and times, and may sign up for a meeting before school, on a prep, or after school. This is a very cost-effective method of follow up training because it can be conducted during the course of a regular teaching day and does not require expensive release time
Each videoconference is hosted by an experienced practitioner of Activated Learning and will be joined by up to three other educators who are implementing the approach. During these conversations, trainees discuss a wide variety of different first steps, access further resources, ask questions, share challenges, and describe successes. The goal is to send each educator back to their classroom with a “next step” that is perfect for their context and readiness-level, a sense of community, and a feeling of support.
These conferences are used in different ways. Most often they are scheduled by individuals or pairs of educators who are excited to start making change in their classrooms. Occasionally, a small group of teachers will sign up for support to integrate AL into a special program, like a maker space or a behavioral resource program.
The online forum has also been used by school teams, including teachers and principals, who are gearing up to launch AL across all grades in their communities. After completing four online video conferences, participants are mailed a note of congratulations and a “Level II” ribbon. In many ways, this phase is like running alongside a new kite, coaxing it up into the air until it catches a gust of wind and takes flight.
Diversity of implementation is a strength of the AL approach. Educators are encouraged to change their classroom practice in a way that suits their context, students, and teaching style.
Furthermore, teachers engage with AL as owners of their learning and co-creators of a variety of materials which are often donated to a sharing page on the www.activatedlearning.org website. Occasionally, when teachers develop more sophisticated materials that may be useful to AL teachers, their pay-for websites (e.g., Teachers Pay Teachers) are linked to the community website. The name Activated Learning is used as a rally cry, a signpost, and a descriptor; it is not meant to brand a commercial endeavor.
Description of the Program
Activated Learning (AL) is very simple. It asks teachers to add a 5-minute metacognitive discourse to their whole-class instruction, in which students and teachers discuss the EF obstacles they will face in specific assignments and co-create strategies to be successful. Then, students receive feedback and assessment on their achievement of the agreed upon strategies. These processes can occur at any time of the day, as often as needed.
AL makes use of well-established instructional practices such as inquiry-based teaching (What will we struggle with?), co-created goals (What will we do to overcome our challenges?), and meaningful feedback and assessment (I’m going to hold you accountable and track your use of that strategy!). In practice, this metacognitive troubleshooting session will take place when a teacher feels that the class, as a whole, is unable to self-regulate their learning. It sounds like this:
TEACHER: You seem to be having difficulty with these math problems. What are your obstacles? What is difficult about this task?
STUDENTS: We’re rushing and forgetting to do certain steps.
TEACHER: That sounds like inhibition. Am I right? What else?
STUDENTS: For me, it is hard because my numbers get all jumbled up.
TEACHER: That sounds like organization. Am I right?
(Further discussion during which teacher elicits other obstacle ideas and encourages class to connect them to executive functioning.)
TEACHER: What strategies can we use to overcome these obstacles?
(Discussion, during which teacher charts a variety of strategy ideas for the student/s.)
TEACHER: You have suggested several strategies that might work. I will be watching to see which strategy you choose and use. I will be making notes!
AL is similar to other interventions that call for the direct teaching of learning strategies, such as Facilitated Planning (Naglieri & Pickering, 2003) or Lynn Meltzer’s “Drive to Thrive” (Meltzer, 2010), but is unique because of its timing, key teaching mechanism, themes of instruction, context, and follow up. It is a viable, teacher-friendly pedagogy that aims to optimize the performance of every student and make it possible to deliver challenging 21st century curriculum.
Features of Activated Learning
|Timing||Trigger: Teacher recognizes that the class is having difficulty, is stuck, or otherwise needs a lot of help to progress.|
|Duration: 5-10 minutes|
|Frequency: 1-3 times per day, as needed|
|Central Teaching Mechanism||Whole class discussion in which teacher charts students’ ideas about specific obstacles to performance and strategies to overcome those obstacles.|
|Themes of Instruction||Self-knowledge, self- and other-acceptance, self- and other-compassion, a strategizing stance, teamwork, and growth mindset. Discovering the factors that can be controlled in any challenging situation.|
|Classroom Context||Classrooms in which students are taught a non-judgemental and descriptive nomenclature (11 executive functions) to describe challenges and obstacles.|
|Follow Up||Students encouraged to “choose and use” suitable strategies.
Teacher does “notice and name,” providing ongoing descriptive feedback on student choice of and use of strategy.
Teacher conducts ongoing assessment of student use of strategy.
How EFs Impact All Students, and Especially Students with Learning Disabilities
As educators abandon rote worksheets and explore innovative teaching approaches, an old problem of teaching and institutional schooling has become impossible to ignore: kids. While they are naturally curious, creative, and energetic, we sometimes forget that children are capable of much less mature execution than the adults who plan and direct their school experiences. Teachers struggle to engage, motivate and elicit optimum performance from their students, particularly when delivering challenging or creative lessons.
It is a balance. Sometimes my students can handle creative lessons and sometimes they can’t. Much of the time, my students just need to be kept busy. I can always trust my class to write in their journals, answer questions, do math pages, and read, so I come back to those types of tasks a lot. I want to use new and creative approaches, but I deal with a lot of “behavior” and the fancy stuff doesn’t always work with my group - Ontario Teacher
The more teachers ask of students, the more they challenge their executive functions (EFs). These EF skills, such as attention, flexibility, emotional control, initiation, inhibition, and organization, work alongside creativity and intellect to enable adaptive responses to novel or complex situations. They allow children to express their gifts and talents, learn at school, thrive in the workplace, and enjoy healthy relationships.
The term “executive functioning” is a regrettably scientific-sounding label for what is actually a very commonplace phenomenon. Teachers are often exposed to EFs by name for the first time on the pages of psycho-educational reports, but quickly realize that these names refer to classroom behaviors that they see day in and day out. The inattention, inflexibility, poor emotional control, and disorganization encompassed by executive dysfunction account for over half of all variance in school performance (Visu-Petra, Cheie, Benga, & Miclea, 2011).
EFs develop naturally throughout childhood and adolescence according to age related increases in the activation of dopamine-rich frontal and striatal circuits (Tau & Peterson, 2010), though they assume a natural variation of strength and weakness in different individuals. While even the most capable students, and most adults, have one or two weak EFs that will impair performance to some extent, students with LDs, ADD, autism, giftedness, fetal alcohol syndrome, and low socio-economic status often have especially poor EFs.
To further exacerbate the problem, everyday factors such as over-exposure to screens, lack of exercise, improper sleep or nutrition, sickness (Swing, Gentile, Anderson, & Walsh, 2010) can suppress EFs. Recently, experts have warned that high or “toxic” levels of stress have a negative impact on EFs (Southern Education Foundation, 2015) and may even cause permanent impairment (Bethell, Newacheck, Hawes, & Halfon, 2014; Burke, Hellman, Scott, Weems, & Carrion, 2011; Hostinar, Stellern, Schaefer, Carlson, & Gunnar, 2012; Shonkoff & Garner, 2012; Shonkoff & Phillips, 2000) that creates patterns of lackluster performance, misbehavior, or dramatic over-reaction in response to the least sign of negative feedback. As they compound, unusually weak EFs are associated with academic failure, troubled relationships, anxiety, depression, conduct disorders, health problems, risky behavior, and, eventually, incarceration (Hackman & Farah, 2009; Moffitt et al., 2011). EFs, so vital to both short and long-term school success, are susceptible to all kinds of threats; students with LDs are often starting this perilous journey at a disadvantage.
School, Teaching and the Support of EFs
Longitudinal studies of EF weakness conclude that interventions yielding even small improvements to individual capacity for EFs could dramatically improve society (Moffitt et al., 2011, p. 2694). Given the amount of time children spend at school, surely the everyday work of classroom teachers should contribute to that improvement. Research in Canada, the US, and Australia, however, suggests that most qualified teachers are unprepared to fully understand and address the needs of students with poor attention, inhibition, organization, or emotional regulation (Bekle, 2004; Bussing, Gary, Leon, Garvan, & Reid, 2002; Jones & Chronis-Tuscano, 2008; Martinussen, Tannock, & Chaban, 2011). The majority of Ontario teachers have only basic special education training, and receive special education professional development much less often than training related to content areas like math or technology (EQAO, 2016). Many teachers, however, feel that additional training is necessary to be productive with an integrated student body (Scruggs & Mastropieri, 1996)
What should we be doing? EF development is optimized in calm, structured, and stimulating environments, when good nutrition and sleep habits are in place (Hostinar, Stellern, Schaefer, Carlson, & Gunnar, 2012; Shonkoff & Garner, 2012; Swing, Gentile, Anderson, & Walsh, 2010). Teachers strive to create these conditions in their classrooms, but succeed to varying degrees and have very little control over the condition in which students arrive at school. While a structured schoolday has always been a place where EFs grow, our slow and steady efforts often leave a considerable gap between desired performance and the high level of EF impairment. Creating an EF-friendly environment only goes so far.
Direct approaches to building EFs exist. Educators have been intrigued by programs, like CogMed, that provide intensive small-group or solo training for individual executive functions. There is evidence that this type of practice can yield changes to specific EFs; however, these changes are only evident in isolated testing and have yet to prove transfer to novel challenges and generalized performance (Hitchcock & Westwell, 2016; Klingberg, 2010; Melby-Lervag & Hulme, 2013; Soderqvist et al., 2012). There is no easy solution.
Teachers’ mandate regarding executive functions, therefore, should be the same as for any disability or learning challenge. Firstly, yes, we must continue to provide positive, structured, stimulating, and supportive classroom experiences, but secondly, we must invest in approaches that build student self-advocacy and the ability to work around limitations. To do this, we can use the same methods that have been shown to support EF growth in familial contexts: scaffolded problem-solving, modeled mindful verbal reflection on thinking, and a sensitive engagement style that permits children to have a sense of agency and impact (Carlson, 2003). An EF-based instrucion, feedback and assessment approach, such as the one practiced under the name “Activated Learning”, offers just such a solution.
How Activated Learning (AL) Wins Teacher Support
We have many good reasons to gear public education toward the optimization of EFs. There is a big difference, however, between knowing a change should happen and actually making it happen. This is particularly true in education, where teachers handle high emotional and physical stress by developing efficient and comfortable routines and habits. Often, we compromise by creating small, add-on programs with highly structured lessons. These interventions survive by intruding very little on the sanctity of a teacher’s pedagogy and, at all costs, by avoiding the dreaded “C” word: CHANGE.
AL, in contrast, is not an add-on curriculum; it targets the hours and hours of teachers’ daily, in-context pedagogical contact with students. This deep embeddedness is a key advantage of AL over other add-on interventions because context-relevance and a high frequency of exposure are associated with increased maintenance and transfer of learned self-regulated learning (SRL) skills (Brown, Campione, & Day, 1981; Veenman, 2007). Asking teachers to fundamentally change their core teaching practice is a big ask so several years have been dedicated to fine tuning the approach to find a simple, open-ended, efficient, and time sensitive design that will fit any style.
Teams of teachers from several schools were consulted to identify key implementation threats. Overwhelmingly, teachers insisted that any new approach should not demand too much extra time. Our emphasis in development, therefore, has been to bring AL towards time neutrality. Our intention is that it should almost seamlessly replace less efficient modes of student support.
During training, teachers are asked to weigh the amount of time they already spend providing 1:1 SRL support to students. Teachers enjoy listing the work they do in a classroom, much of which relates to executive functioning. This work includes, for example, helping students resolve disagreements, get organized, plan projects, stick to timelines, get started, pay attention, or continue on with work that has been started. Teachers describe moving from student-to-student, asking good questions, helping them articulate their challenges, and assisting with the design of good learning strategies. These activities require a lot of contact time but reach only a handful of students per day. Teachers remark that this feels exhausting and ineffective because there are so many students to support, and because so many of them seem dependent on teacher help. One teacher commented, “I feel like I am wearing out the treads on my shoes!” When teachers contemplate the tremendous energy they already spend supporting self-regulated learning, and how tiring and futile those efforts feel, the idea of trying something new is more acceptable.
While supporting students individually is challenging and inefficient, supporting students in larger groups is not ideal either. Teachers in AL training are often asked to consider the impact of delivering SRL lessons in a whole-class setting. By this method, a teacher might target a specific area for improvement and use it as the basis for a whole class learning strategy lesson. While this whole class strategy instruction allows teachers to reach all students on a regular basis, it removes the student from the process of metacognitive monitoring. By this method, only the teacher practices a strategic stance, doing all of the noticing, planning, and strategizing on his or her own. And, while self-regulated learners benefit from learning teacher-selected strategies, and whole class strategy teaching is very important, students must also learn to be adaptable, independent, and capable of their own metacognitive monitoring. Whole class strategy teaching does not help students practice metacognitive, resilient, strategic responses to novel challenges.
The teaching of SRL is overdue for improvement. In general, despite a century of consensus on its effectiveness (Winne, 2017) self-regulated learning teaching has failed to make a cohesive impact on classroom practise (Dignath-van Ewijk, Dickhäuser, & Büttner, 2013; Kistner et al., 2010; Spruce & Bol, 2015). Even the most well-trained teachers do not engage students in SRL as often as they say they’d like to (Spruce & Bol, 2015) because, as currently enacted, it is perceived to require constant individual attention from teachers and compete with curricular demands. Moreover, teachers report a limited number of strategy ideas for students (Winne, 2010). When teachers see that much of their work in a classroom is actually in support self-regulated learning, they are more willing to learn a proactive method for managing it.
The message to teachers, with regard to both 1:1 SRL teaching and whole-class SRL teaching, is that they are spending time on this work already. AL offers them a way to do it more efficiently and effectively.
How Activated Learning (AL) Works for Students with LDs: A Neat Trick
Students with learning disabilities are often less adept at metacognitive monitoring. In general, they have difficulty responding strategically to challenging tasks (Swanson, 1990; Torgesen, 1977) and tend to benefit from interventions that directly teach adaptable, resourceful responses (eg., Wong, Butler, Ficzere, & Kuperis, 1996). The central teaching mechanism of AL is a metacognitive conversation that helps students practice noticing their challenges and responding strategically. It is called “mental contrasting with implementation intentions” (MCII) (Oettingen & Gollwitzer, 2010). Mental contrasting refers to the process of contrasting one’s goal with its specific obstacles, and, when accompanied by the formation of an “if this happens then I will do that” plan, has been shown to boost success in goal achievement by helping individuals to act more quickly (Gollwitzer & Brandstatter, 1997), deal more effectively with cognitive demands, and execute planned strategies with less effort (Brandstatter, Lengfelder, & Gollwitzer, 2001). These if-then conversations stimulate metacognitive monitoring and metacognitive control, the fundamental processes at the root of self-regulated learning (Corno, 1993; Winne, 1995, 1996, 1997).
Using mental contrasting, AL classes practice employing metacognitive monitoring and metacognitive control on a regular basis. This allows students with learning disabilities to participate fully in mainstream education while receiving much needed support for the development of their strategic skills.
Activated Learning (AL) and Powerful, Positive Feelings for Students with Learning Disabilities
Students with learning disabilities struggle with negative emotions and a sense of powerlessness. They tend to believe that their failure and success are caused by fixed factors that cannot be controlled (Baird, Scott, Dearing, & Hamill, 2009; Majorano, Brondino, Morelli, & Maes, 2017). This is discouraging, causes lower than average academic self-efficacy and self-esteem, and leads them to enact maladaptive self-regulatory patterns (Elliott & Dweck, 1988) such as avoidance and distraction. AL intervenes on this pattern in two ways: it helps students to see that many of their challenges are natural, normal, and shared by their peers, and it trains them to look for and act upon sources of control.
In an AL classroom, learning challenges are completely re-characterized. Firstly, students learn that they are not alone. This occurs during the 5-10 minute troubleshooting conversations, when students work together to brainstorm the many different reasons a task may be difficult.
During these whole-class discussions, the silence is broken, and students can see that their friends and teachers also experience difficulty. Teachers, too, help to normalize everyday difficulties by modelling self-understanding and acceptance. For example, a teacher might say,
“You know how I struggle with response inhibition. I’m trying really hard not to give away the answer…” or “I had a terrible night’s sleep and my working memory is struggling. Can you repeat what you just said? I missed the last half…”. By connecting learning challenges to lagging executive functioning skills, they become more predictable, recognizable, and separate from a students’ academic and creative potential. In this context, a student with a learning disability can feel like a more normal member of the classroom.
AL trains students to find control over many different kinds of obstacles. In group troubleshooting sessions, students may discuss the obstacles to writing an essay and suggest several different possible obstacles. For one student, the problem is task initiation; for another, organization. Yet another student may struggle with perfectionism and conclude that the lagging executive function is emotional control. Each of these obstacles may resonate with a handful of different students in the room when suggested, as will the compensatory strategies that the students discuss and list. This process will both provide valuable strategies, and engage the whole class in resilient, adaptive thinking.
Using AL and a knowledge of executive functions, students can respond to even the most fixed-seeming challenges with a greater sense of power and control. So, dyslexia, for example, can be controlled using goal directed persistence to self-advocate for access to technology, organization to keep personal copies of anchor charts and other visual supports, and emotional control to stay calm in the face of frustration. In this way, students with LDs can learn to be adaptive, getting in the habit of moving obstacles from the “impossible” pile to the “I can control this” pile. Believing that there is always a way forward is the foundation of a growth mindset.
This process of finding control relates to a powerful motivational intervention: attributional retraining (AR). AR works by changing one’s ideas about the potential causes for failure to factors that can be controlled. In studies spanning elementary, secondary, special education, and college-age students, shifting the locus of cause for difficulty at school away from innate, internal, and fixed factors like character or intelligence consistently boosts performance (Andrews & Debus, 1978; Chapin & Dyck, 1976; Dweck, 1975). These findings are most pronounced for students with performance worries (Van Overwalle & de Metsenaere, 1990; Wilson & Linville, 1985) and poor past performance (Menec et al., 1994; Perry, Stupnisky, Hall, Chipperfield, & Weiner, 2010). Weiner’s (1985, 1995, 2006) theory of attribution laid the groundwork for several randomized field and laboratory studies showing that correcting students’ attributional schema changes their expectation of success, reduces debilitating emotions such as shame and hopelessness, increases positive emotions such as hope and pride, and thus makes possible a strategic approach to overcome obstacles (Hall, Hladkyj, Perry, & Ruthig, 2004; Hall et al., 2007; Haynes et al., 2006; Menec et al., 1994).
Activated Learning (AL) and Agency for Students with Learning Disabilities
AL supports students’ feelings of control and autonomy. In an AL classroom, the assignment of a challenging academic task is often followed by a whole-class troubleshooting session in which students and teachers work together to collect a list of specific strategies for success. This offers an opportunity for atypical learners to demonstrate their tactical creativity, which can be thrilling for someone who tends to receive less recognition for traditional academic performance. Including students in strategy-making also has practical benefits – they often have very good ideas and can ease the pressure on teachers to be the ultimate strategy experts.
In AL classrooms, students receive observation, feedback, and assessment on how they “choose and use” strategies. We might say, “I see you making a chart to organize the data before you begin your calculations” or “I noticed that this group is dividing the work before they begin”. This type of specific descriptive feedback is known to support the development of a mastery-goal orientation, which emerges from the belief that personal effort leads to success and is associated with self-efficacy and a deep motivation to learn (Brophy, 1983). In contrast, evaluative feedback is a more general expression of approval or disapproval, and leads to a “performance goal orientation” in which self-worth is linked to ability, superiority, and the appearance of ease (Dweck, 1986; Nicholls, Chueng, Lauer, & Patashnick, 1989).
Activated Learning emphasises the value of strategic choice-making, independence, and autonomy, which have been shown to enhance student motivation (Andrade, 2010; Black & Wiliam, 2009; Deci & Ryan, 2000; Mouratidis, Lens, & Vansteenkiste, 2010; Reeve, 1998; Reeve, Bolt, & Cai, 1999; Zimmerman & Martinez-Pons, 1986) and are very well established predictors of academic engagement and success (Benware & Deci, 1984; Grolnick & Ryan, 1987; Hofferber, Eckes, & Wilde, 2014; Miserando, 1996; Zimmerman & Martinez-Pons, 1986).
Activated Learning (AL) as Better Option to Handle a Challenging Class
The best way to teach learning skills is not in isolated mini-lessons, but integrated throughout a mainstream day (Diamond & Lee, 2011; Farrington et al., 2012). Students demonstrating poor EFs, however, can be overwhelming for classroom teachers, hard to relate to, and difficult to work with. Their maladaptive behaviors are often mistaken for symptoms of poor character (Gaier, 2015) and they often seem intentional (Elik, Wiener, & Corkum, 2010). For this reason, many students with LDs who also have EF challenges find themselves streamed to Tier 2 or 3 contexts to receive support.
In status quo classrooms, EF problems are often met with management responses that suppress EFs further. When teachers become overwhelmed by off-task, inattentive, or disruptive student behavior they often fall into “cascades” of over-simplification in which best practices are abandoned and replaced with safer lessons that are more didactic and controlled (Klusmann, Kunter, Trautwein, Ludtke, & Baumert, 2008; Muller, Gorrow, & Fiala, 2011; Yong & Yue, 2007). As the classroom becomes more deprived of work that is creative, engaging, and meaningful (Blase, 1986), students respond poorly, and the problems intensify. A paradox familiar to any teacher is the student who seems to put in very little effort and tolerate novel tasks poorly, but who complains of boredom and acts out. Mainstream educators are definitely ready for a fresh and proactive way to support executive functioning diversity and teach learning skills.
Activated Learning (AL) is a feasible process for EF-based instruction, feedback, and assessment. In partnership with their teachers, “Activated” learners use a series of mechanisms shown to promote feelings of hopefulness, competence, control, and autonomy to more independently act upon their intellectual and creative potential. Moving forward, pilot studies taking place in the York Regional District School Board and by scholars at Cambridge University will determine whether this arrangement of established mediators actually improve student motivation, mindset, and academic success. In the meantime, Activated Learning continues to be the darling of the front line, espoused by teachers who know that if their classrooms are running smoothly they can stick with challenging, engaging, and meaningful teaching approaches. A change like this may be necessary for students with learning disabilities and absolutely amazing for the future of all resilient 21st century learners.
About the Author
Laurie Faith is a PhD student at the University of Toronto, focusing on exploring the dynamics of self-regulated learning in classrooms. She is the leader of a teaching movement called Activated Learning, which has been scaled across the Trillium Lakelands District School board, is the focus of a 24-class pilot study at the York Regional District School Board, and that is also being used and studied in the UK. This approach was featured in a chapter of the highly reviewed 3rd edition of Dawson and Guare’s Executive Skills in Children and Adolescents.
Laurie’s work is based on 17 years in the classroom. She is a certified Future Design School educator, and has extensive training in both the Rotman School of Business’s Integrative Thinking discipline and Google’s Search Inside Yourself mindfulness approach. Laurie has received recognition from SENG for distinguished contributions to gifted education.
If you would like to see more on AL and EFs, follow Laurie Faith on Twitter (@LCFaith).