Teachers Designing Reforms That Stick: The Interactive Student Notebook (Part 2)

Some school reforms are like shooting stars–a flash, a fiery tail, and they are gone. Some school reforms are like a slow-setting glue, once in place they are hard to dislodge. Interactive student notebooks typify the unglamorous glue, not the glittering but fleeting star.

Part 1 defined an interactive student notebook and described its origins in high school social studies classrooms. Part 2 describes the spread of ISNs across grade levels and academic subjects, explores the influence of ISNs on student achievement, and elaborates why teacher-designed classroom innovations often spread and stick in teacher repertoires than top-down mandates directing how teachers should teach.

Remarkable spread of ISNs across academic subjects and grade levels

Fifteen years after History Alive had been published, ISNs had spread to English, science, math, and foreign language teachers. And they tailored  ISNs to their discipline. Some of these teachers wrote articles, others did blog posts about how they used the approach in their lessons (see here, here, here, and here). Teachers also bought commercial versions of ISNs through the Internet.


The convergence of scholarly ideas (e.g. multiple intelligences, right/left brain) with many existing teacher beliefs on cultivating students’ creativity and thinking skills combined to give teachers at all levels the sense that ISNs are imminently practical and can be added to their teaching repertoire. Moreover,the technique was easily adapted to both subject and student’s age. Finally, ISNs were low-tech and portable to other subjects. The ease of fit for all academic subjects accounts for these notebooks migrating to middle and elementary school teachers where, again, teachers modified the technique to fit young children and pre-teens (see here and here).

The portability of ISNs being used across academic subjects and for different aged students is evident. Much less evident, however, is its iffy influence on student’s measured achievement.

Do ISNs improve academic achievement?

No one knows if they do. Like digital technologies, researchers have separated out one technique–laptops or ISNs–from a bundle of  approaches that a teacher uses over the course of a lesson. But then researchers attributing gains or losses in students’ academic achievement to that specific technique be it use of tablets or interactive notebooks is a fool’s errand. Why is that so?

The causal linkages between teaching and student learning include a host of factors including teacher attributes, relationships between and among students and the teacher, students’ motivations, abilities, and interests, the instructional materials used, the structure of lessons, school organization–I could go on but these will do for now–make it nearly impossible to disentangle one of these factors and suggest that it causes achievement to rise or fall. Student outcomes derive from multiple interacting factors, not just one or two. The whole of teaching is far more than its individual parts.

Yes, researchers can show correlations between, say, use of tablets and test scores, but, of course, an association is merely an association. After all, roosters crow at sunrise; they do not cause the sun to rise. So while a few studies have been done (e.g., masters and doctoral theses) to make a causal linkage between ISNs and student outcomes, they suffer from the weaknesses noted above (see here, here, here, and here)

Even with little to no evidence that ISNs improve students’ academic achievement, why have ISNs not only spread to a remarkable degree in less than two decades but also appear to have become a permanent part of the repertoires of tens of thousands of teachers?

Over time, teacher-designed classroom reforms stick

In Part 1, I made three statements and answered the initial two.

  • The history of U.S. teaching documents that teachers have altered their daily practices often (see Part 1 for evidence and sources for the history of teachers making changes in how they have taught over the past century)
  • Most teachers have added to their repertoire of classroom approaches a little at a time based upon their daily experiences in teaching and what they learn from trusted colleagues (see Part 1 for how teacher Lee Swenson’s version of an ISN became embedded in a history textbook in the late-1990s that sold well in many districts and schools across the nation and migrated into other academic subjects and grade levels as teacher networks and writings spread the word to other teachers)
  • Reforms aimed at teachers’ lessons that have the most sticking power are neither top-down policy mandates nor research studies but ideas that teachers design, borrow, adapt, and put into practice.


ISNs are not the only teacher-designed techniques that have had a long life. In the 1920s and 1930s in Denver (CO), between 30-40 percent of all Denver teachers were involved in revising the curriculum for all levels of schooling. Under three long-tenured superintendents who believed in the tenets of progressive pedagogy they set up an infrastructure for teachers to actually create units and courses for Denver teachers to use in their classrooms. These committees of teachers, curriculum supervisors, and academics created a district wide- curriculum that became the Denver elementary and secondary curriculum for over two decades (see here, chapter 3).

Consider that teachers have not only embraced selected research studies that have practical effects on their students (e.g., Bloom’s taxonomy, multiple intelligences, direct instruction, and use of projects in classroom instruction) but also adapted such ideas to the content and skills they teach regularly (see here ). Borrowing and adapting are second nature to teachers.

Finally, ISNs are practical for those teachers whose dominant instructional approach is teacher-centered. Organizing information in thoughtful and creative ways is what students have to do when teachers teach lessons aligned to the Common Core standards (or any curriculum standards), use digital or print textbooks assign homework, give tests, and record grades. Low-tech ISNs permit students to use imagination to grasp the deeper meaning of the information and concepts they are learning within teacher-centered lessons.*

For all of these reasons, I believe that teacher-designed materials and those borrowed by teachers to used in their lessons stick and become part of teachers’ repertoires.


*Mike Goldstein in commenting on Part 1 suggested that Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion (2010) is another instance of a bottom up reform. Lemov, a charter school founder, teacher, and principal, studied exemplars of “effective” teaching and wrote his book. Surely, the popularity of the practical book among tens of thousands of new and veteran teachers (including teacher educators) both in the U.S. and internationally has soared. Documenting widespread use of some or all of those 49 techniques (or 62 in Teach Like a Champion, 2.0) in actual classrooms, however, has yet to occur. Keep in mind also that Lemov’s books reinforce teacher-directed instruction, one factor that attracts many teachers who read the book.









Filed under how teachers teach

2 responses to “Teachers Designing Reforms That Stick: The Interactive Student Notebook (Part 2)

  1. Laura H. Chapman

    Just wondering, when you refer to academic subjects and academic achievement which subjects to you include? exclude? and should I ask why?

    • larrycuban

      Hi Laura,
      For academic subjects I include math, science, social studies, foreign languages, and English (reading, language arts,and literature) at both the secondary and elementary school levels I exclude physical education, health education, and vocational courses. Reasons? the history of academic subjects in the school curriculum–one that is more than a century and a half old–includes the courses I list as academic. When I did my research on how teacher taught over three decades ago I stuck to those traditional subjects and have done so since.

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