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Outlier Practices Make or Break the Learning Experience

We learn, and remember for that matter, from experience.  Thus, it is critical that the culture in your classroom and school positively impacts learners while adequately preparing them for their future, not our past.  I shared the following in Chapter 7 of Disruptive Thinking in Our Classrooms:

Almost all of us have heard the phrase, “Experience is the best teacher.” Growing up, I heard it a great deal. At the time, I didn’t appre¬ciate it or fully understand its meaning, but now I wholeheartedly con¬cur. Of course, there are some experiences I wish I could have avoided that resulted in negative outcomes, but they are still a significant com¬ponent of my story. The driving force behind the decisions we make is the innate beliefs we have about ourselves. Our experiences, positive and negative, shape who we are. They become an integral part of us and create our story.

Think about why you went into the field of education.  For many of us, the answer lies in the relationships that were forged by amazing teachers, administrators, coaches, custodians, bus drivers, or other support staff.  It was the experience that each provided that helped shape us into who we are today.  For me, there were several standout teachers that impacted me in ways that I am forever grateful for. Here is what I shared in Disrutive Thinking:

These teachers—and a handful of others throughout my own K-12 educational journey—engaged in practices that were memorable and perhaps even outside the norm. They did not focus on grades and homework; instead, they focused on learning and creating experiences designed to enhance students’ learning and push our thinking. In many ways, they were “outlier” educators who engaged in “outlier” practices which resulted in outside-the-box thinking and learning on the part of the students with whom they interacted. Pockets of excellence such as these examples are no longer good enough.

Many practices in education can fall into the outlier category. For the intents of this post, I want to focus on those that are either overused, underused, or ineffective, and that can either make or break a student’s experience.  They are as follows:

  • Grades
  • Zeros
  • Homework
  • Feedback
  • Reflection 


Numbers and letters are synonymous with education. While I am not opposed to grades, I do feel that they often lack true clarity in terms of what a student has learned but are still an overused element in a traditional classroom.  The key is to make them as meaningful as possible through the use of multiple means of assessment, including rubrics and scaffolded tasks aligned to relevant application.  Assigning arbitrary points for participation and behavior as a part of scoring guides or on research papers should be avoided. These do not reflect what has been learned.  


The practice of assigning a zero is ineffective as the only role it serves is to punish kids. Once given, it will completely distort a student’s grade, which will no longer represent what has been learned.  It is essential to determine first and foremost why the task is not being completed in the first place. In almost all cases, the assignment should be marked as incomplete until it is done. In my opinion, a zero should only be considered in the cases of cheating or if all other strategies have been exhausted. 


Rarely does a child come home excited to complete homework, yet it represents another overused outlier strategy. It tends to diminish excitement and appreciation for learning.  Many times, it is assigned because that’s the way it has always been.  In moderation, homework can be an effective strategy if it allows for the authentic application of key concepts learned in a timely manner.  You also can’t go wrong with reading. It should not be graded as there are equity issues or take hours of time to complete. Kids need to be kids. 


While a grade might be the final indicator of what has been learned, it’s the feedback that helps students along the way.  This is an underused strategy where there is always room for growth.  Effective feedback is delivered promptly, involves learners in the process, and articulates how to advance towards a goal in relation to standards or concepts. 


John Dewey said, “We don’t learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” Reflective learning allows kids to step back from their learning experience to help them develop disruptive thinking and improve future performance by analyzing their experience. It assists them in moving from surface to deep learning. Writing, video, peer interaction, and closure questions are a great way to incorporate reflection regularly. 

Outlier practices, depending on how they are implemented, can either promote or inhibit disruptive thinking. As you reflect on the outlier practices above where do you see an opportunity to grow or improve? What action steps will you take? The main takeaway is how they are implemented in ways that support or enhance learning while helping to build powerful relationships in the process.