Author Spotlight: Gavin Grift – Teachers as Architects of Learning

by | Aug 28, 2018

Developing teaching practice sits at the centre of most school improvement plans and, as part of this, so does the need for utilising an approach that is respectful, professional and ultimately impactful on learning. In my career as educator, author and coach, I have devoted my energy and time to supporting teachers in the development of their craft, including through working alongside them as a cognitive coach, collaborator and critical friend. Teachers as Architects of Learning spans the last ten years of this work and encapsulates what my co-author, Clare Major, and I have learnt during that time.

In an education age where neuroscience and effect sizes rule supreme, it is more important than ever that we don’t view or treat teaching as an exact science. It isn’t and never will be.  Why? Because the transactional process of learning and teaching occurs between human beings.  As Dr Robert Marzano highlights in his important research on instruction, there is both a science and art to it.

What Clare and I intend to do in the work of Teachers as Architects of Learning is three fold.  We advocate for teaching decisions to first and foremost be based on the impact they will have on learning (both for the student and the teacher). Secondly, we want teachers to be the chief decision-makers in the development of their own practice, embracing the emerging research and thinking from our field and combining it with the contextual fabric of their professional lives. Lastly, we support teachers to be researchers of their teaching identity – undertaking self-exploration of who they are as teachers, and not just what skills and strategies might be best for their students and themselves.

Teachers as Architects of Learning provides educators with the opportunity to dig deeper into who they are as teachers and gain greater clarity about what approaches to learning might assist their growth and/or, in some cases, hinder it. We take the position that all teachers are essentially architects of the learning experience. Regardless of what context teachers work in, they share the common responsibility for ensuring they create a learning experience where learning can thrive. Learning architects are aware of the constructs required to create this successful learning experience for students, deliberately applying specific teaching approaches to their evolving capacity for designing and building powerful learning experiences. In Teachers as Architects of Learning, we outline twelve specific constructs and associated strategies teachers consider as they decide what’s best for the learning circumstance they find themselves in.

The constructs we outline to support teachers to take a learning-centred approach to their instructional decision-making processes include:



When used effectively, questions create the platform for ensuring teachers and students understand where the learner is at in their understanding. They provide the catalyst for motivating students to further their learning efforts, and contribute to a classroom culture that promotes curiosity, wonder and reciprocal respect – while safeguarding learning as the number one priority. Effective questions are also paramount in informing a teacher about what they might need to do next in their support of the learning process.


Self-Assessment: Reflection and Feedback

Student involvement where the student is able to clearly articulate and monitor their learning progression is critical in building students’ self-efficacy. Opportunities for significant self-assessment that encompass structured, meaningful and targeted reflection and feedback become a powerful tool for the learner to monitor their efforts and plot their path for future learning success. The capacity for teachers to build self-assessment into their practice also provides teachers with the critical information they may need from students to clarify each student’s thinking, address misconceptions or errors in their reasoning and find what assists their learning. This can only be done when we move the emphasis from feeding back to students toward receiving feedback from students.


Observing and Listening

The role of sensory learning is ever present in the teacher–learner relationship.

A teacher who is able to observe how a student is coping or empathise with a student’s struggles may be able to more appropriately respond to their needs. When a teacher truly listens to what a student is saying, the student’s thinking processes can be illuminated, providing a window into their mind. Moreover, if a teacher can create a climate where students recognise and apply the skills of deep listening and targeted observing as well, they too will move a step closer to developing learning dispositions that place them in good stead both within and beyond the school.


Explicit Instruction

The enemy of explicit instruction is ambiguity. Teachers who utilise the key elements of this behaviourist approach to teaching ensure that learning for students is clear, understood, practised, reinforced and guided. Teachers who use explicit instruction don’t leave learning to chance – and, when used skilfully, can apply it to a range of learning contexts. Even within an inquiry learning unit of work, students may need the skills for research specifically taught, for example. To teach instruction explicitly, the teacher relies upon their clear understanding of the intended understandings and the instructional processes required in order for students to demonstrate they have learnt and can apply this learning.


Modelling and Exemplars

It’s a genuine challenge to work toward something you haven’t seen, touched or experienced. Demonstrating, discussing and analysing exemplar models of products and/or processes provides students with the mental model they need to apply successful approaches to the learning process. Providing students with this opportunity can remove “secret service” teaching, whereby students only know how successful they have been once they’ve been allocated their final grade or mark for a task or course. Designed and implemented well, modelling and exemplars have the potential to foster creative and novel reasoning.


Safety and Support

Trust is fundamental to learning, and a safe and supportive environment is the platform for building relational trust. A student who feels connected, physically and psychologically safe, and supported within their classroom environment will be more willing to take risks in both their academic and social and emotional learning. Within this construct lies the decisions a teacher makes about the physical environment they set up, the rules and procedures they implement and the methodology they apply to the building of relationships in their classroom. The outcome of applying this construct well is an increase in innovative and creative engagement as a result of higher levels of trust and possible engagement in the learning process.



We do not get more time – we can only work with the time we have in our schools and classrooms. This construct considers deeply not the question around how much time we have, but rather how we use our time effectively when we teach and when we plan. This relies upon decisions made through planning, prioritising and maintaining focus. It is critical because of the simple fact that once the time has passed, you can’t go back to get it. Every minute matters in the learning process and that’s the first priority any teacher makes when considering this construct.



You get what you expect, so what are you expecting? This construct is perceptual in that even when a teacher believes they have high expectations for learning and communicates their belief in a student’s ability to succeed, the student themselves might not see it this way. This is why it is both challenging but essential. Expectancy is the belief that with further effort the learner will improve and succeed. Expectancy is affected by things such as the quality and level of support provided, available resources at hand and the dispositions and skills of the learner.



For both teachers and students, the learning experience is coloured by an array of factors, including past experiences, personal beliefs and dispositions, family influences , current life situation and future dreams. As the saying goes “no man is an island”, and it is also true that, “no student or classroom is an island”. According to Hattie (2003) up to 60% of variance in student achievement can be attributed to what students bring to the learning experience themselves that is important. This construct assists teachers in recognising this to be a factor, and then creating a mindset to respect and connect to the lifeworld of the student without diminishing teacher expectations of what they can achieve.



Desire links to the motivation to learn. This construct links closely to Life-worlds and asks teachers to consider how they honour what a student brings to the learning in terms of their motivation to learn. There are times when little external thought needs to be given to this because students are naturally curious and interested in what is taught. But there are other times when it pays for a teacher to think about the strategies and techniques they can bring to the learning experience to spark interest, curiosity and a desire to find out more.



This construct has teachers consider what are the most appropriate, effective and powerful human and non-human resources that can foster learning success. It’s less about having resources and more about basing instructional decisions on how and when to best use the resources that we have. It requires a view that outside of the teacher and student themselves (who are both human resources to the learning), other resources may need to be utilised.


Existing Knowledge

This construct recognises and builds from the knowledge and skills a learner already possesses. It encourages teachers to consider how they will access and utilise the prior knowledge the student has to aid others in their learning and to ensure the instruction is pitched to their relevant stage of developmental readiness. Accessing prior knowledge is also critical in acting as a filter for teachers as they determine the need for differentiating content.

Teachers as Architects of Learning has been written to support educators in reflecting upon their practice in order to embed ideas and approaches into their ongoing professional practice. It provides opportunities to ascertain what sits at their growth edge in order to spend time deliberately building their practice in order to maximise learning for the students they serve.

Finally, it respects individual differences of teachers.  It honours the emerging education research without advocating for a one-size-fits-all approach to teacher development. Teachers as Architects of Learning encourages educators to identify what works for them while illuminating blind spots for “growth edge” practice foci. Ultimately it enhances inquiry into who we are as teachers and, more importantly, the impact “who we are” has on our teaching practice.

Gavin Grift With experience as a teacher, assistant principal and educational coach, Gavin Grift's passion, commitment and style have made him an in-demand presenter of keynotes, seminars and in-school support days. As a speaker, Gavin connects with national and international audiences on topics ranging from Cognitive Coaching and quality teacher practice to professional learning communities (PLCs) and learning-centred leadership. Read more articles by Gavin Grift

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