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ResponsiveDesign™ Powers Innovation in Teaching

Since the implementation of No Child Left Behind in 2001, high-stakes testing has become a major benchmark for teacher quality and student improvement. Although test scores are valuable pieces of information for educators, they can only point out the content areas where improvement is needed.

“With NCLB and its emphasis on testing, pedagogy has been narrowed down further and further so that it’s testable,” said Ann Taylor, the college’s Associate Dean for school and community partnerships. “Staring at a sheet of standardized test scores is probably not the best motivator for teachers to develop innovative and creative ways to present material and inspire students.”

The result is less innovation, less creativity in presenting material, she explained. Dull teaching leads to unhappiness all the way around. Teachers start limiting their goals and teaching methods to ensure that students can answer the test questions. This has led some teachers to become disillusioned with their once-enthusiastic career choice, and has left many students bored.

“Transformative learning, and the teaching that nurtures it, cannot be boiled down to solely making sure that kids know the answers to test questions,” said Ralph Córdova, Assistant Professor in the College of Education.  “Teaching to the test reduces our natural curiosity and inner creativity, and it limits critical thinking in both teachers and students.”

So, the question now is: How do we infuse innovation that broadens and improves learning and the teaching that nurtures it? Córdova has been working on these challenges for over 15 years.  Along with diverse educators and researchers from multiple disciplines in Finland and across the United States, Córdova began to synthesize insights from research in literacy, anthropology, and, art and design in order to improve and innovate teaching and learning. This process led him and his colleagues to develop a theory of action called ResponsiveDesign.

In 2003, he founded the Cultural Landscapes Collaboratory (The CoLab) a Liquid Networked Innovating Community (LiqNIC) grounded in ResponsiveDesign; a community for educational practitioners. Educators harness ResponsiveDesign in form of three Durable Practices that make immediate difference in classrooms and schools: Intentional Collaboration, Intentional Instructing, and, Intentional Critical Reflecting.

“We know how to build cultures where students, teachers and principals get better and it’s not by piling on more test data,” said Córdova. “Not scoring enough runs in a baseball game doesn’t tell the players how to improve their batting. To figure that out timely feedback is essential. Baseball coaches have broken the process down, dissected the basics of batting, like stance, weight shift, follow-through and so forth, so they can analyze the steps to improve a player’s batting techniques. We looked at how to ignite and infuse teaching with innovation and creativity in a similar fashion.”

Over the years, Córdova and his group quickly recognized that no one could learn everything all at once. They also realized that development of expertise took time, intentional focus, and a supportive community in which to practice on a continuous basis.

“We learned this growth, or constant learning and refining of teaching practices, occurred most powerfully in educators who developed particular habits of action centered around CoLab’s 3 Durable Practices: Intentional Collaborating; Intentional Instruction in Disciplinary Practices and; Intentional Critical Reflecting,” he said.

Explore, Envision and Enact – Creating Intentional Learning Cultures

The CoLab group identified, pulled apart, examined and organized the progression of innovation in teaching practice to formalize a targeted process that educators can use called Inquiry Into My Practice (IMP). The College of Education is using the IMP approach with teacher candidates in their Studio Schools practicum experiences, as well as in professional development programs in several schools and districts across the region.

“It’s a learned and culture-making process that any school or district can develop,” said Córdova. The IMP can be practiced quickly and informally – teacher to teacher, or in a larger formalized group called an InnoLab.  “It is the most direct way we have found to reignite innovation, improve teachers’ practice at every level, and engage students as co-learners.”

The IMP approach is much more intentional than developing a lesson plan, and the process reflects the core elements of ResponsiveDesign: Explore, Envision and Enact.

The first step in doing an IMP is a PreBrief, before the lesson is taught, in which the practitioner outlines and then verbally explains to his CoLab partner or group the intent of his lesson – what content the lesson will Explore and the specific teaching method to be used. Then he explains what will he Envisions, the beginning, middle and end. And finally, he explains, once the lesson is Enacted, what his students will come away with.

“We all have it in our heads what we want to do for a lesson,” says Taylor, “but the IMP process forces us to verbalize it, identify and name the parts and become specific with our vision.”

After the pre-briefing, the practitioner teaches the lesson and then reviews it (often by video with a partner/coach or CoLab group), noticing and naming the phrases used,  who the teacher is looking at, how she is moving around the room, what the students say – naming and picking apart the pieces to learn how it works.  Upon reflection on the lesson, the teacher analyzes with her colleagues how well it went and then identifies refines his techniques and approaches.

“We have to break away from the silos that educators teach in,” said Taylor. The silo effect leaves teachers isolated in their own classrooms where they cannot use the advantages offered by collaboration with colleagues.  It may at times feel comfortable to have a routine, but without teaming with others who come from different starting points, perspectives and content expertise, pedagogy throughout a school or even an entire district can easily become unadventurous, even mind-numbing to the students they serve.

CoLab leader and high school English teacher Jeff Hudson developed and has been scaling up the InnoLab at Alton High School in Southern Illinois. He and his colleagues have nurtured a culture of shared innovation at his school with their bi-weekly InnoLab meetings. Every other week, before school, teachers of all content areas convene with one leading an Inquiry into My Practice session with the support of a ThinkingPartner.  This process allows teachers to systemically harness the 3 Durable Practices of Intentional Collaboration, Intentional Instructing, and, Intentional Critical Reflecting, in order to teach each other the best of what they presently know, and then innovate upon those practices taking them immediately back to their classrooms.

“ReflectiveDesign pushes me to innovate, to try new things,” Hudson said. “I’m not just going through the motions. I’m not going back to the filing cabinet for the file folder for October.”

Taylor and Córdova have seen teachers grow in positive ways.

“What I see is teachers very easily taking the ideas of ResponsiveDesign and being excited that they can actually do something in their classrooms that’s different as a result of it,” Taylor said.


For questions regarding the content or design contact Ralph Córdova, Ph.D. at