In How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart TeachingHerbert A. Simon, a pioneer in the field of cognitive science, said, “Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only [emphasis added] what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn.” 

Over the past several decades we have initiated countless large-scale school reform efforts and spent billions of dollars trying to improve student outcomes, and yet, our nation’s reading and math scores for 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds remain stagnant, according to scores gathered in the 44 years of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Our reforms are simply not getting close enough to the instructional core where people—teachers and students—and content come together for learning.

Picture this: students in cubicles quietly answering questions about informational texts that are unrelated to classroom-based curriculum.

Now this: students engaged in a text-based debate that culminates in a written argument to which a nurturing teacher provides thoughtful feedback.

Which scenario will foster a more humane, informed citizenry with the skills to think critically, solve problems, collaborate, and communicate effectively on assessments, in college, and in workplaces?

So what role can (and will) technology, teachers, and peers play in scaling this level of literacy skill development?

Research clearly shows what is required to improve student outcomes on scale:

1)    Coherent and rigorous curriculum

2)    Active engagement by students

3)    Knowledgeable and skilled teachers

Personalizing the instructional core is no doubt a challenge, and technology is required for us to do it at scale. But personalized critical literacy instruction cannot be delivered by technology alone. Peers and teachers are required.

Coherent Curriculum

Moving beyond basic literacy to critical literacy on scale is going to take much more than thousands of disconnected apps. No matter how well connected these apps are to dashboards or how beautiful and actionable the data becomes; no matter how engaging the digital interactions are, or how many carrots or sticks we apply, the solutions will fall short until we achieve some level of coherency in the content and the pedagogy students experience. Simply put, new standards, not to mention the laws of cognition, require depth.

As Doug Fisher so thoughtfully put it, “knowledge is the scaffold.” We have to build connected, sequenced curriculum in order to help students achieve higher-order thinking (see Charlotte Danielson’s Framework for Teaching). If students continue to move from one leveled program to the next, from topic to topic, each day across subjects, students will continue to glide across the surface of new content, remaining stuck at the lowest levels of understanding and comprehension. While these tools designed for independent practice might improve certain aspects of comprehension, disconnected content resources are not the vehicles for developing critical literacy. Critical literacy requires cognitive tasks that go far beyond comprehension.

According to the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, students who are asked to discuss what they have read and write arguments across subjects do significantly better on measures of career and college readiness. Why? Because they are engaging more deeply with content and peers. When we challenge students to develop claims, support them with evidence, explain their reasoning clearly, while addressing counterarguments, we are developing their ability to think. Regardless of the topic of study, this is how students develop career and college readiness skills and the verbal capacity to express their point of view effectively. Classrooms that nurture these complex cognitive tasks also prepare students to face complexity and persist in learning.

Let’s face it, even the most basic Google search requires productive struggle and persistence. Eventually we will send our students out into the wild, where newspapers of record, college courses, bosses and colleagues, and increasingly health care providers, bankers, and others will not provide them with accessible texts. Our grown-up students will be required to write evidence-based arguments in emails related to things like insurance or child care. Everyone living in this century has the right to be empowered to navigate complex digital texts and advocate for themselves through online writing.


As instructional leaders passionate about and accountable for helping students grow, teachers strive to make sense of digital resources, their own units, and district-adopted curriculum. They need time for this work and time to build relationships with students. Content providers and other digital products can return valuable time to teachers to be redeployed on these important tasks, but they can’t perform these tasks entirely without teachers. The contexts for learning are simply too varied, even in a single classroom.

Teachers truly need time to provide effective feedback on student writing. As someone who sacrificed 15 years of my life to grading 140 essays at least twice a month, I am all for AI, but even then, it cannot replace our voices. Feedback from a thinking, caring human matters more than the best digital dashboards we can devise. We must not fail to respond thoughtfully to students’ powerful ideas personally in class and in writing. Many of us can remember a single teacher who insisted we achieve success in our long hard journey to career and college readiness. The encouragement and feedback of a single person, perhaps even one single moment can sustain learners over decades when they are faced with detractors and challenge. Though, through technology we can improve the quality of feedback teachers provide with digital tools that save them time, store their comments, align to standards, and supply them with resources to personalize learning.

Active Mental Engagement and Peers

While we all hope to expand autonomous learning opportunities to all students, the majority of students will be educated in district schools, in classrooms, and with teachers, especially in our poorest communities. And while individualizing learning pathways is absolutely critical to our success in providing equitable access to high-quality instruction, we have to balance these learning activities with the need for positive peer interaction around ideas.

Peer interaction is a critical piece of the puzzle and needs to be front and center in our minds when we picture digital classrooms. Along with activating the social parts of our brain for better learning, as Matthew D. Lieberman has pointed out, we are also instilling intellectual and civic values when we activate peers in discussion and debate. Students in classrooms with engaged peers experience better learning conditions and amplify every learner’s chance at success. Peers, after all, are the most inspiring and abundant resources in our schools. When peers are intellectually engaged, they are also the best adaptive critical thinking engines the human mind could ever desire.

Technology can save educators incredible amounts of time while helping students and teachers along on the pathway to success in personalizing and aligning every lesson. But thinking professionals must weave these resources into connected and coherent curriculum thoughtfully, and peers need to support one another in crossing the moat to career and college readiness as well as independent and lifelong learning.

Image courtesy of MorgueFile. 

About The Author

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Eileen Murphy Buckley, CEO of ThinkCERCA, taught English for 15 years and was the founding English Department Chair at Walter Payton College Prep as well as the author of 360 Degrees of Text (NCTE, 2011). As the Director of Curriculum and Instruction for over 100 of Chicago’s highest performing schools, she became passionate about the role technology could play in education in the 21st century and left CPS in 2012 to develop ThinkCERCA to help all students achieve career and college readiness. ThinkCERCA is one of the top Literacy Courseware Challenge winners (Gates Foundation), and Eileen was named one of Chicago’s Tech 50 2013 by Crain’s Chicago Magazine.