Lisa Beth Carey, Assistant Director, Center for Innovation and Leadership in Special Education, Kennedy Krieger Institute
Maryland, USA

Note from BHP Team: The topic of “lead learning” comes up a lot in discussions about teaching the Big History Project course. Big History is interdisciplinary and covers a wide range of knowledge and methods, which can feel daunting to teachers. Indeed, Big History is really, really big. But you don’t have to be an expert on everything. You can successfully teach Big History knowing what you already know. The most important thing is teaching how to learn – or, in the words of Lisa Beth Carey, being an “expert learner.” 

We’re so excited to be joined by Lisa in an Exchange in our online community from September 17 through 19. You can read and contribute to the conversation at any point during that time (and even after!). We can’t wait to hear what insights you take back to your BHP classrooms! 

As a special educator, I was frequently asked to co-teach courses in which I was not a content specialist. Luckily, I attended a co-teaching conference with Dr. Wendy Murawski, who pushed me to see myself as a learning specialist. This reimagining of my role in the classroom dramatically changed how I approached teaching. At roughly the same time, my students were given better access to instructional technologies that allowed for greater amounts of independent research and exploration of topics that interested them. I was able to let go of the need to be the keeper of all relevant knowledge and say things like, “that’s a great question, let’s look it up.” To reimagine yourself as a learning specialist is to think more deeply about how learning occurs and how to model expert learning for students. It removes you from being the conduit for all content knowledge, and allows you to become a leader in expert learning for your students. 

What does it mean to be an expert learner? 

Expert learners are purposeful and motivated, resourceful, knowledgeable, strategic, and goal-directed (Meyer, Rose, David, and Gordon, 2014). An expert learner does not have all of the answers. Rather, he or she has the confidence and skills to ask questions, seek solutions to problems, and critically consider sources of information. As educators in a digital information age, we best prepare our students for the future when we model expert learning skills. Our students need to learn to think critically, to ponder, to ask important questions, and when necessary, find answers on their own. If we take on the mantle of learning specialists, we must consider ways in which to teach the habits of expert learning to our students. Because learning is often a social act, we can best do this through modeling (Collins, Brown, and Holum, 1991). 

How do we model learning for students? cognitive-apprenticeship

 There are two texts that I frequently reference when I consider how to model and support active learning for students. Although written by different authors, they happen to share similar titles, highlighting the importance of acting as the lead leaner for students. The first is a journal article written by Collins, Brown, and Holum (1991). “Cognitive Apprenticeship: Making Thinking Visible” speaks to a practice of modeling learning processes for students by  explicitly sharing your inner thoughts and mental processes with them. The authors explain that due to the highly internal ways learning occurs, an important piece of modeling learning processes for students is to use techniques that verbalize and demonstrate how you work through a problem, conduct research, write, or make meaning of a text. (This concept is further illustrated by Kelly Gallagher in his book Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling and Mentor Text, which is another great resource for considering how to share expert learning with students.) making-thinking-visible

 The second text, Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding,
and Independence for All Learners
, by Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison (2011), explores the process of thinking habits and routines that promote deeper understanding among students. These are frequently collaborative routines that can be established in a classroom and can allow you to engage with your students while modeling your inner monologue as a learner. 

As educators, not feeling like content experts in the curriculum we’re using can be very uncomfortable. But, this is an opportunity to demonstrate the importance of growth mindset, perseverance, and above all, a comfort with the vulnerability that is required for true deep learning. It’s an opportunity to ask questions that you do not have the answer to, converse with students about strategies for finding answers, jointly plot the course for research endeavors to find new information, openly critique sources of information, and allow students to assist in the process of becoming content specialists. 

What skills do students need to learn more independently? 

As an educator with years of formal and informal education under your belt, you most likely possess skills that make it easier for you to engage in the learning process – that is, executive functions. Executive functions are nonacademic cognitive skills that are required for purposeful, nonautomatic behavior (Diamond, 2013). In order to engage in expert learning, students need to be able to set goals and stick to them. Students need to inhibit behaviors that will get in the way and use their working memory to hold important information in mind as they think flexibly about the task at hand. It is important to keep in mind that many students will need executive function supports as they engage in the learning process. Luckily, modeling executive functions is one of the best ways to teach students these important skills (Diamond, 2013). Modeling the learning process while paying attention to the need to support executive functions among your students will lead to better outcomes as you plot a course through your content. 

Final thoughts 

Lead learning is not the same as minimal guidance in learning. It is not suggested, nor supported by research, that you encourage your students to attempt to discover all new information on their own without guidance, support, and targeted resources (Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark, 2006). Lead learning, rather, is the process of guiding students through content while modeling expert learning skills and creating activities that support the development of a deeper understanding of content. By supporting students through targeted activities and considerations for their developing executive function skills, you can support deep learning of content while exploring new information alongside your students. 

About the author: Lisa Carey is the assistant director of the Center for Innovation and Leadership in Special Education (CILSE) at Kennedy Krieger Institute. Lisa was part of the CILSE’s first fellowship cohort, where she studied neuroscience, behavior science, school law, and scientific inquiry with faculty of Kennedy Krieger Institute and The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Lisa serves as a bridge between researchers, clinicians, and educators, translating advances in the cognitive sciences into actionable practices in the classroom. Prior to joining CILSE, Lisa served as a special educator in Baltimore County and St. Mary’s County, Maryland, where she specialized in inclusive practices. Lisa has facilitated UDL implementation projects in several school systems and states. She received a BA in History from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, an MA in teaching with certification in special education and social studies education from Goucher College, and a School Administrator certificate from Towson University. She has also served as adjunct faculty at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and Towson University, covering topics of exceptionality and UDL. Lisa is currently a doctoral student in instructional technology at Towson University, where she focuses on the improvement of pre-service and in-service training and supports for teachers.


Collins, A., Brown, J.S., Holum, A. (1991).Cognitive Apprenticeship: Making Thinking Visible. American Educator15(3), 6-11.

Diamond, A. (2013). Executive Functions. Annual Review of Psychology64, 135–168.

Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J., Clark, R.E. (2006). Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86. 

Ritchhart, R., Church, M., Morrison, K. (2011). Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence. San Francisco, CA: Wiley.

Header image: Teacher with digital tablet at blackboard in classroom. © Getty Images.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s