Wednesday, August 10, 2011

How do you use the workshop model?

My vision of teaching and learning is summed up in my six-word teaching philosophy: engagement that fosters capacity and agency. This is based on my current understandings of the research of Vygotsky, Cambourne, and Johnston. It is also reflected in the National Resource Council's book How Students Learn. Putting structure to this vision has resulted in my implementation of the workshop model in the courses that I teach.

Planning and Instruction Portion of Teaching-Learning Cycle

I first read about this model for planning and instruction in Cambourne's book, The Whole Story. He saw it as a framework for providing the Conditions of Learning that he had identified in his research. Next, I became aware of a slightly different version of the workshop model used by various teachers from the Public Education and Business Coalition. Authors like Keene, Miller, and Conrad explained how this structure supports learners in developing the comprehension strategies they can use to make sense of the world. Nowadays, Lucy Calkins is a big name in Readers' and Writers' Workshop.
With my colleagues, Esther Billings and John Golden, we have modified these models to represent our theoretical framework of how to support learning. The specific structure is a combination of four key components that I have come to label connection, concentration, construction, and consolidation. We have also used schema activation, focus, activity, and reflection, but I like the alliteration.

Connection: The teachers or learners make connections between previous experiences and the present workshop. This provides a cognitive foundation on which to build new ideas. Schema activation was our original label because we liked the comprehension aspect - moving from the known to the new.

Concentration: The teacher sets the expectations for the workshop during this phase. By letting the learners know exactly what the focus is for the lesson, they are more likely to be engaged in the workshop because they know its purpose. Often, this looks like a mini-lesson based on the gradual release of responsibility that highlights the work the learners will be doing.

Construction: Learners are provided an opportunity to employ the idea presented during the concentration. This is the bulk of the workshop. An attempt is made to immerse the learners in authentic tasks so that they are learning in context and see the complexity surrounding the idea they are concentrating on. This usually includes some compulsory work, and perhaps a limited number of predetermined choice activities. While the learners work, the teacher is free to observe their progress, confer with individual learners, or provide a small group lesson.

Consolidation: This is the phase that attempts to ensure that learning lasts. It is imperative to provide learners with time to reflect on their experiences otherwise the response to "What did you learn today?" is a predictable "Nothing." We ask learners to look back at what they did and what it meant to them and to look forward to how their experience might transfer to other situations. This might entail writing (exit ticket), small-group sharing (round table), or whole class presentation (mathematician's chair). Typically, we use the formative assessment data collected during this phase to inform planning and build connections to future lessons.

In order to ensure that all phases are attended to, I often use an online stopwatch to manage our classroom time. This sometimes means interrupting learners during the construction phase before they are done, but usually they have engaged in enough of the activity to be able to reflect on it. When someone complains that they haven't finished, I respond, "Feel free to work more on it when you get some free time." Some take me up on this and some don't - it's their choice. I like to think that this builds what Ellin Keene calls, "learning lust."

I use the workshop format for in-class activities and for assignments. It even provides the framework for some of my assessments. Ultimately, the learners come to a point where they want less structure and more freedom. Then I turn the responsibility of designing workshops over to them. I provide the objective and the resources and they plan their time - keeping in mind that learning is supported by connections, concentration, construction, and consolidation. 

The workshop approach may not be for everyone, but it works for me.


  1. Works for me, too. So glad Dave wrote this. He and Kathy (@literacygurl) introduced Esther and I to the model.

    Here's a previous presentation that we did together on it, along with a lot of work with Esther Billings.

    One of the main benefits of workshop as a structure is its flexibility. Each of us implements it differently, and each of us uses it differently on different days.

  2. In my non-Math Forum life I've spent a lot of time hanging out with the folks from Training for Change, who implement George Lakey's "Direct Instruction" idea. They are mainly focused on adult learners, fostering capacity and agency to do activist work for social justice. But the model applies to learning almost anything (I know because I've tried to apply it to math workshops!). Their "experiential learning cycle" is Experience -> Reflect -> Generalize -> Apply -> (repeat as needed). Their workshops engage learners in having common experiences (through games, simulations, remembering common experience, etc.), reflecting on (and sharing) the feelings and thoughts that come up during the experience (what happened? how did you feel? what did you notice?), generalizing those experience (what happens every time? what are key steps? what is the theory behind this?) and then applying the theory/generalization to a new situation. Often, handouts or mini-lectures occur during the end of the generalization phase. The workshops are primarily driven by the experiences and reflections and insights of the learner... the key is that the learner feels like, "the know-how to make sense of this is within me, and I can keep doing this and learning about this." I've found it highly effective for teaching facilitation skills and some kinds of theory and am curious to think about how it interacts with your model(s).

  3. If you are looking for a large free online stopwatch I also recommend It has a very large display which makes it perfect for classrooms. It also keeps going even if you leave so you don't have to worry about starting over if you accidentally close it.