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August 8, 2023

Making the Complex Less Complicated: A Systems Design Approach to Fostering Engaging and Enriched Learning Environments

In "Making the Complex Less Complicated: A Systems Design Approach to Fostering Engaging and Enriched Learning Environments", subject-matter expert, Mackey Pendergrast, brings his expertise in education leadership to craft a compelling argument to student support services from high school to higher ed.

Despite the advent of online learning, the greatest lever to impact each student is still exceptional lesson design and classroom instruction. Over the last two decades, there has been plenty of discussion regarding standards, curriculum, technology integration, social and emotional skills, and other foundational themes that are all critical for students to ascend. However, there is a difference between merely having all of these tools at our disposal and actually putting them together skillfully into an exceptional lesson that engages students deeply. 

While it is true that in today’s technology-integrated world students are learning all day and from every possible location, compelling classroom instruction and meaningful classroom interactions among teachers and students remain the most impactful elements to ignite student curiosity and catapult them toward success. 

How can educational leaders support teachers in their crafting of lessons that incorporate the best of online tools and skillfully weave them together with the best of face-to-face instruction? 

Unfortunately, the term “learning acceleration” and the current educational headlines can lead educators to feel they have to work faster and do more – more teaching, more tests, more lessons, more meetings, more data, more communication – and do it faster. 

Of course, piling more information into the brain to process isn’t a learning plan, and it certainly will not equate to accelerated learning. Educational leaders must combat this notion directly. 

But where do we start? 

Given the myriad challenges facing teachers and educational leaders today, how do we make the complex less complicated so educators can focus their attention on elevating classroom instruction and fostering an engaging and enriched learning environment for all students? Here I propose a systems thinking approach anchored in four key questions that administrative teams can use to create greater clarity, simplicity, and coherence around a blended learning classroom instruction model. 

In its most basic concept, systems thinking asserts everything is a system and all systems are made up of components and relationships that must work together coherently – in the right way for the system to work effectively (called “emergence” in systems thinking language).


Is there a gap between “how you want students to learn” and the actual day-to-day practices in the classroom? 

How do we want students to learn?” is one of the most important questions to pose to your administrative team as you prepare for the new school year. More importantly, it is critical to weigh the gap between the aspirational vision for instruction and learning in your district and what is happening day-to-day for students at every level. Does your mental model match reality? The cognitive bias that can easily sneak into this conversation is to point out examples of where there is consistency between aspirations and reality. However, educational leaders must ask for evidence that the vision for learning is true for each learner. If you need an honest answer, just ask your students (at every academic level). Once this “vision gap” can be discussed in concrete terms, then district leaders can take the systemic steps to operationalize these aspirations through the district mission.


What repeatable actions (instructional strategies) are necessary to bring about this instructional vision? 

Every district needs to create a “signature pedagogy” to identify the core instructional and assessment strategies that should be repeated each day, week, marking period, and school year. One of my biggest concerns was that our students were merely completing a list of activities everyday from a wide variety of sources that didn’t align with how the brain learns and our vision for an exceptional lesson design. Over the last decade, the volume of curriculum resources, edtech platforms, and assessment tools has exploded, and the internet, seemingly, has given teachers access to a huge volume of lessons. Yet, even if all of these resources are high quality, it is important to assess if our teachers are able to put these resources together in a coherent learning experience that accomplishes how we want students to learn. When should teachers use edtech platform A vs curriculum resource B? To avert this, we felt it was important to create a district signature “blended learning” pedagogy.


What process or platform is necessary to execute the mission? In other words, what would help teacher “readiness” and enable them to put it all together?

Even with clear aspirational values and a focused district instructional model, teachers need the tools to employ a signature pedagogy in a modern classroom. While I was superintendent of the Morris School District, we used GoGuardian Teacher, a member of the Pear Deck product family, to provide this seamless integration of resources. It saved our teachers time, created accountability, and allowed students to come into a prepared classroom without the typical distractions plaguing so many learning environments today. As a result, teachers started using our curriculum resources and a variety of edtech solutions with greater frequency and it allowed them to focus more on instruction and not an avalanche of disruptions. Moreover, GoGuardian Teacher recently integrated Pear Deck into its platform, which has also allowed for greater student engagement, focus, and agency because of its seamless integration. 

Our blended learning instructional model aligned perfectly with our aspirational values. Yet, without GoGuardian Teacher, our capacity to make our mental model a reality was very limited.

Any discussion regarding exceptional lesson design needs to be bookended with a discussion regarding local district assessments. Most teachers understand the importance of aligning their assessments directly to their instruction and a school’s priority standards, yet, the harsh reality is that most simply do not have the time or the right tools to execute this critical task properly. The complexity involved in crafting exceptional assessments that are challenging students with the proper depth of knowledge and mastery level of the standards becomes overwhelming very quickly as the school year unfolds for even the most experienced teachers. As a result, in my experience, students within the same grade level and school may be held to widely varying expectations and standards.


What “feedback loop” can we put in place so we know how we are doing along the way? What data and information will help us continuously learn and adapt?

An intentional “feedback loop” designed to provide insight into the effectiveness of the above strategies is fundamental to long-term success. Without a feedback loop, any initiative will stall and lose momentum whether we are talking about personal health, finances, or student academic growth. For many districts, this may take the form of common formative assessments, benchmark assessments, or other direct academic measures of mastering standards. For some districts, this may take the form of a “walk-through” program, peer observations, faculty meetings, data analysis, or a formal check-in during post observation conferences. According to systems-thinking design, the more integrated your feedback loop is into your daily dialogue and habits of thinking, the greater chance of success. 

In his wonderful book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown states, “Our highest priority is to protect our ability to prioritize,” and for education leaders, classroom instruction along with student well-being is at the top of the “priority list.” Although our world has become increasingly complex, a systems design approach can make the complex less complicated when it comes to the modern blended learning classroom.


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Mackey Pendergrast
Education Strategist, District Leadership

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