How the 4 Shifts Protocol Supports Teachers in Providing Deeper Learning Opportunities for Students

I’ve had the pleasure of working with a small cohort of teachers this year to redesign lessons for deeper learning opportunities. I called it the “Future Shift Fellowship” for two reasons: 1) I hoped that this group would begin moving our district into the future by focusing on student-centered lesson design and 2) we would be using the 4 Shifts protocol to guide our work.

To say that I’m pleased with what we’ve done this year would be an understatement. Each of the members of the cohort has stepped far beyond their comfort zone with their work. And, if you asked their students, I’m sure you’d hear how much they appreciate the opportunities for learning.

But you may be asking why we used the 4 Shifts for this work?

I’m happy to explain…

Whenever I work with teachers, my number one thought is that whatever we do together must be easy to implement. Teachers have little or no time to spend on new strategies or techniques in the classroom once the school year begins. Their days are filled with so many tasks beyond just those of teaching students that it’s difficult to squeeze in learning, even when there are demonstrable benefits to that learning.

So, any changes must be easy to make. Also, if the changes made can provide a visible impact on student learning, whether that be in the form of student engagement, assessment, or simply just changing how students talk about learning and school, then the changes are worth the time.

These two reasons above all others are why I chose to use the 4 Shifts protocol to guide the work of our fellowship.

The 4 Shifts Protocol, designed by Scott McLeod and Julie Graber, is a comprehensive framework that aims to help educators transition from traditional teaching methods to more modern, student-centered approaches that promote deeper learning opportunities. The protocol focuses on four key shifts: deeper thinking and learning, authentic work, student agency and personalized learning, and technology infusion.

  1. Deeper Thinking and Learning: This shift encourages teachers to design activities that require students to engage in higher-order thinking skills, such as analysis, evaluation, and creation, rather than just memorization and recall. By doing so, students develop critical thinking abilities and become more adept at problem-solving and decision-making.
  2. Authentic Work: The protocol emphasizes the importance of connecting classroom activities to real-world situations and contexts. This shift encourages teachers to create tasks with a genuine purpose, audience, and impact beyond the classroom, fostering relevance and meaningful student learning experiences.
  3. Student Agency and Personalized Learning: This shift focuses on providing opportunities for students to take ownership of their learning and make choices about what and how they learn. Teachers are encouraged to create learning environments that support individual learning preferences and needs, allowing students to progress at their own pace and follow their interests.
  4. Technology Infusion: The protocol recognizes the power of technology in enhancing learning experiences and facilitating the other three shifts. Teachers are encouraged to integrate technology tools and resources into their instruction, allowing students to access information, collaborate with peers, and demonstrate their learning in innovative ways.

By implementing the 4 Shifts Protocol, teachers can create more engaging and meaningful learning experiences for their students, fostering a deeper understanding and long-lasting knowledge. This approach prepares students for success in the modern world and cultivates a love for learning and a growth mindset.

Does the 4 Shifts protocol answer all the questions? Of course not. In fact, sometimes you have more questions than you started with after working through the protocol. This is why it is key to only focus on one of the shifts at a time when redesigning your lessons.

You could change a lesson to the super ultimate checks all-the-boxes learning experience in one go, but you and your students would likely be so exhausted and confused from all the changes that any benefit would be lost.

But, the protocol gives you the structure to make small changes to your lessons, whether you are a classroom teacher or an instructional coach working with teachers to make the changes.

I can’t think of a better tool to use to begin moving toward more student-centered learning.



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Rethinking & Reviewing

Happy Tuesday, folks. More appropriately (I guess), Happy Fat Tuesday.

Full disclaimer: I’m not Catholic, and Mardi Gras has no personal meaning for me. But many of you may join in the festivities and Lenten practices for the next 40 days. If you do, awesome. If you don’t, you’re welcome to hang with the rest of us heretics.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I sent out a newsletter on Tuesday. Life happens, deadlines loom, and if you’re me, there’s the ever-present anxiety beast that hangs back in the shadows, ready to rear its ugly head when you least expect it.

So, it’s been a minute. But we press on through whatever life throws our way and embrace what comes. In these times, I remember the words of Epictetus,

The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…” — Epictetus, Discourses, 2.5.4–5

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You and I can only control what we can control. Trying to exercise influence over anything else is fruitless and will only cause us distress. For me, that means managing my schedule a little better and giving myself grace for getting all the things that I have to get done. That’s not easy for me, and it likely isn’t easy for you, o fearless type A perfectionist overachiever that you are.

Not that I have any experience speaking about such things…

So, today’s newsletter is a little different. I’m just going to call it “Rethinking & Reviewing” because you’re about to go on a journey through Mike’s stream of consciousness, and we’ll both find out the destination when we get there.

Here we go…

What I’m Thinking

The first year of my year-long teacher fellowship is coming to a close. We’ve met over the course of this school year to chat and help each other redesign lesson plans for deeper learning opportunities using the 4 Shifts protocol as a reference. To say the program has gone well would be a tremendous understatement. The feedback I’m receiving from the fellows is great and full of deep reflection. Most are well on their way to completing their lessons with students, and I’ll share more soon. For me, this first year will inform my work with other teachers and future cohorts but will likely also lead to part of the work for my dissertation in the coming years.

Speaking of deeper learning, I listened to episode 2 of the “Redesigning for Deeper Learning” podcast and was challenged by one particular thought: what does “student choice” really mean? Depending on the context of the lesson, giving the students options to choose from may or may not truly be “student choice.” With several lessons from my fellows fresh in my mind, I’m rolling this around in my head quite a bit this morning.

What I’m Reading

One of my goals this year for reading is to finish up all the published Cosmere works from Brandon Sanderson. I’ve gotten through most of Arcanum Unbounded, which features several previously published short stories and novellas based in the connected Cosmere. I also finished Warbreaker in January, and it might have become one of my favorite Sanderson novels. My current pick of the bunch from Arcanum is “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell,” a short story originally published in a collection, Dangerous Women, edited by George R.R. Martin. It’s a different tale from the standard Sanderson fare, leaning a bit more toward the horror genre. It was a fantastic read.

I’m also re-reading How to Write a Lot because I need a swift kick in the pants to get my writing practice back in order. There’s no better motivation to do that than when you hear the words “your dissertation starts NOW” during a Saturday morning class. Yikes.

On the academic reading side of the world, I’ve been using Speechify for a ridiculous amount of time to process articles. For my attention-span deficient brain – no formal diagnosis, just my own experiences – having the audio version of a text playing while I am reading is a brilliant focus tool. I read faster, retain more, and am able to focus far better than when I try to read text only. This is especially true for reading journal articles, papers, and so on. Speechify gives me an audio version of just about any text on my laptop or in my web browser. I now consider it an invaluable part of my productivity toolkit, right alongside Notion and Readwise.

What I’m Watching

In my random voyage of self-care, I ran across several seasons of the 90s revival of “The Outer Limits” on YouTube. If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s an anthology series of separate sci-fi stories and features some surprising guest star appearances from some popular stars of the day (heck, even Leonard Nimoy shows up). In some episodes, they do make an attempt to connect some of the stories, which makes for interesting situations. Overall, a great way to spend 45 minutes.

Oh, and Picard Season 3 just started, so there’s that, too 😉

What’s in My Ears

Two recent episodes of The Daily from the NY Times caught my interest, mostly because they deal with the recent explosion of AI tools. “The Online Search Wars” and “The Online Search Wars Got Scary Fast” are well worth the listen.

Also, I continue to update my 2023 playlist of songs I discover, or remember, throughout the year. I’ve compiled playlists like this for 20222021, and 2020.

Wrapping Up

Well, I think I’ve rambled enough. Thanks again for reading and coming along for the ride. Have a great week!


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Every Day is Groundhog Day

Hey, y’all. It’s Friday, the day after Groundhog Day here in the US. And here’s this week’s “10 Things”

10 Things Worth Sharing

  1. I say “Every Day is Groundhog Day” because of the intro to Austin Kleon’s “Keep Going”. The book is the final installment of his series on creativity. Here’s Austin reading the first chapter. Also, full credit to Austin for the format of this newsletter, as I blatantly stole it from him 😉
  2. I’ve been spending a lot of time with several of the teachers in my Future Shift Fellowship as they are working through the lessons they redesigned this year. I shared a little about one of them on Twitter this week.
  3. George Couros has 4 questions to consider about using ChatGPT in education.
  4. Speaking of ChatGPT (no, I’m not going to stop talking about it and every other AI platform), here are some ideas for how to put the tool to work for academics.
  5. Learning loss: a topic I’ve heard far too much about and believe that it only exists because we measure the wrong things in education. I wholeheartedly agree with Jo Boaler’s thoughts on this one.
  6. Let’s face it: most self-help books are bad and are just generalizations put into print. Here are 8 that are actually worth reading.
  7. I read 12 books in January 2023. Here’s a recap of all of them, along with my thoughts.
  8. If you’ve never caught an episode of “Live from Daryl’s House” featuring Daryl Hall performing with some incredible (and huge) stars of the music industry, you should check it out. Here’s an episode featuring Tommy Shaw (whom I may have performed for once upon a time when he came to my church) that’s brilliant.
  9. Speaking of Groundhog Day, the almost-perfect movie turns 30 this year.
  10. Finally, here’s a documentary from 1981 featuring behind-the-scenes footage from The Muppet Show. The documentary features a “table read” for one of the episodes that confirms why I believe The Muppets are the gateway to good comedy.

Thanks for reading. This newsletter is a completely reader-supported publication. The best way to support it is to check out my recommendations or become a paid subscriber.

Thinking about Lesson Redesign for Deeper Learning

There’s a project that I’ve wanted to begin for a few years. I thought I’d have the chance during my first year as a full-time digital learning coach, but then COVID happened, and things went off the rails.

Now, my project is running. I’m working with a group of teachers in my district; the Future Shift Fellowship. The teachers represent grade levels from K-12 and several different content areas. Our focus is on redesigning lessons to create deeper learning experiences for students.

In case you weren’t aware, this process isn’t easy. But, with the right outlook and tools to help, we’re making some headway on this journey.

The Right Tool for Framing Conversations

We’re using the wonderful 4 Shifts Protocol as our guiding light during all our conversations. If you’re not familiar with this protocol, here’s an overview:

The 4 Shifts Protocol is a questioning protocol that focuses on redesigning lessons in four areas: deeper thinking & learning, authentic work, student agency & personalization, and technology infusion.

It’s a simple tool to begin using, but it opens the door to much deeper conversations about what we ask students to do and how those tasks align with meaningful work in settings beyond the classroom.

purple and black computer keyboard
Photo by Syed Ali on Unsplash

Before this week’s meeting, I asked the fellows to read through the 4 Shifts handbook to guide our discussions. From the group, here are some of the thoughts they shared and their takeaways from the book:

The 4 Shifts Takeaways

My fellows know that one of my rallying cries about any change we undertake in our classrooms is to “embrace the suck.” It’s a military term used by trainers to get their trainees to understand that you must lean into being uncomfortable and push through difficulties. I use it to encourage teachers and students to keep going despite whatever difficulty they face with technology usage, rethinking lessons, or anything that “sucks” about change in education.

The fellows agreed that this book and protocol give them some support and encouragement to embrace the suck. And to know that things won’t always suck.

Next, they realized that lesson redesign will look different for different people because of the protocol’s flexibility. The 4 Shifts protocol respects teachers as professionals and masters of their craft. There is no dictation to use certain tools or methods in any of the shifts, merely yes/no/maybe questions to start conversations about how to change. It’s up to each teacher to determine how to best change each no to a yes.

people sitting down near table with assorted laptop computers
Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

One fellow brought up how, when used properly, infusing technology into lessons can give students greater control over their learning. Good technology integration should provide students with greater agency and provide them with opportunities to present their work to an authentic audience and setting. Thinking about lesson redesign with deeper learning in mind makes this possible.

It Doesn’t Have to Be Hard

We talked about our overachiever desire to do something spectacular with our students. If we’re going to redesign a lesson, we thought, we need to do something that’s never been done before and end the lesson or unit with some impressive technology project to show off to as many people as possible.

Of course, that’s not the point of this process. And the redesign doesn’t have to be difficult to implement or require huge changes to lead to deeper learning. Even small tweaks to your existing lessons can open new doors for students. Changing one small part of your lesson can give students a greater opportunity to think more deeply or, if appropriate, lead them down the path of becoming creators of content rather than consumers.

Ultimately, our goal in lesson redesign is moving students from inert learning to active learning, getting away from simple test prep to acquiring knowledge that sets them up for success in the world beyond our school walls.

What Happens Next

Our journey is just beginning with this fellowship. We’re starting small to spread this work across our school district. We will learn much along the way, and I’ll be sharing our work with all of you as we go. It’s an adventure for us and, we hope, for our students, too.

Change does not happen quickly, especially in education. However, our students are worth whatever changes we can make to help them be successful and live the life of their dreams, whatever that may be. The struggle is worth it because our kids are worth it.


Thanks for reading. This site and all the work shared here are completely reader-supported. The best way to support it is to check out my recommendations or subscribe to my weekly newsletter.