The use of learning stations can provide teachers and students at all grade levels increased options for differentiated learning with greater student agency. Catlin Tucker shares many specific station rotation strategies for handling issues around school schedules, class size, and management. Her knowledge around blended learning options expands the opportunities.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:01 Hello and welcome to the Teacher edition of Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud. The complexity of teaching is both challenging and rewarding and my curiosity is peaked whenever I explore with teachers, the multiple pathways for facilitating student engagement in the exciting world of learning. This podcast looks to serve teachers as they motivate and support their learners. Thanks for listening. I’m delighted that you’re here.
Steve: 00:36 Teaching and learning With station rotation. Sometime back, I worked with a middle school where many of the teachers were implementing a station rotation model. In many classrooms, teachers had three stations – one where students worked with the teacher in a direct instruction mode, another where some of the students were working independently, usually using technology, and one where the students were engaged in a collaborative tasks, sometimes with one student or a few students. As I studied and watched that setting I ended up focusing in on what I called, “learning production behaviors,” identifying what students needed in order to be a successful learner at each of the stations. And I realized that at each station it was a different set of learning production behaviors. And in many of the cases, I found out that there hadn’t been a clear message given to students and support for students and what those behaviors are.
Steve: 01:48 When Dr. Catlin Tucker agreed to join me on a podcast, I explored her website to find several resources for teachers around the use of station rotation and I was pleased when she agreed to share her insights on that topic and process. Catlin is a sought after speaker and trainer for educators. She’s a prolific author and her 16 years as a teacher gives experience that she brings into all the work that she does. And so I’m excited that she’s joining us here.
Dr. Tucker: 02:30 Yeah, I’m thrilled to be here with you.
Steve: 02:32 I’m wondering if you’d start by talking a little bit about how you define the term, “station rotation” and what value there is, both from a teaching and learning standpoint.
Dr. Tucker: 02:46 Absolutely. So the station rotation model does exactly what the name suggests. There are a series of learning stations and students rotate through them. Typically, as you said in the intro, there is a teacher-led station. There’s at least one online learning station, maybe multiple, but that one online learning station is what technically qualifies this as a blended learning model, which is different from maybe like a traditional learning stations that teachers might have done without any technology. And then there’s an offline or multiple offline learning stations. I’m very quick to caution teachers who are in a one-to-one setting – do not make every station an online station. Blended learning is really about the combination of active engaged learning online and offline. So we wanna have both kinds of stations kind of at the ready for our learners. And I would say that when I talk to teachers about the benefit of station rotation, I’ll often lead them through an exercise about the challenges and perceived benefits of the whole group teacher-led lesson.
Dr. Tucker: 03:52 And then we’ll break down some of those challenges and talk about how a station rotation could be an alternative model that we want to add to our teaching tool belt to kind of address particular teacher pain points. So, for example, if we’re feeling like our class is just too big, and I would argue almost every class I taught in public school setting was far too large, station rotation offers this opportunity to break that larger class up into what feels like smaller learning communities where groups of learners can interact with each other without it being a whole group setting, which can be very intimidating on a lot of different levels. It also frees a teacher to differentiate more effectively and consistently. So, as you said, a lot of teachers will use their small group teacher-led time for differentiated direct instruction, which is great. We don’t want teachers saying the same thing the same way to each group that comes through.
Dr. Tucker: 04:51 We want them thinking about what problems, what texts, what examples, what questions are going to be within this particular zone of possibility. What supports and scaffolds might they need? What building background information might be helpful? How am I gonna be thoughtful about my word choice and vocabulary as I present information to groups? Even mixed skill level groups, like having certain scaffolds on hand for students to use if they need them. But I also encourage teachers, like, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by just the amount of take home feedback you have to give students, then run a teacher-led feedback station. So if students are working on a piece of writing, on a performance task on a project, and they would benefit from that focused, actionable, timely feedback, that’s a great way to use the station. Or as you said, if they really would eventually love learners to engage in small group discussions at an offline station on the other side of the room, then maybe the focus on that learning production kind of behaviors could be, hey, I know they don’t have the skills to do discussion on their own yet.
Dr. Tucker: 06:00 I’m gonna run a mini fishbowl at my teacher-led. I’m gonna facilitate some small group group discussions so students can start to understand what that looks like.
Dr. Tucker: 06:05 So there’s so much the teacher can do at that teacher-led to really address specific needs in a classroom to differentiate. And then at those offline stations, we have this opportunity to really connect learners and build those tactile, experiential, social elements of learning into the classroom where kids can engage with each other. And the online stations are great, though I do often see them kind of limited to things like personalized practice with adaptive software or online programs or video lessons, which are wonderful ways to use the online station, but I would love to see teachers also use that online station to foster communication and collaboration around shared tasks. So lots of wonderful benefits from a teacher perspective in terms of getting to really differentiate and target specific needs in the classroom, but also a learner perspective because at those other stations where they’re working on their own or with their peers, they have a higher degree of control over the pace at which they navigate particular tasks, consume new information, process ideas.
Dr. Tucker: 07:13 I think all of those are really beneficial parts of using this model as compared to that whole group teacher-led teacher-paced lesson.
Steve: 07:22 How does a school’s schedule and class size end up impacting a teacher’s use of station rotation?
Dr. Tucker: 07:32 I feel like I do a lot of myth busting when it comes to station rotation. The first myth I think I encountered the most is actually people at the secondary level assuming somehow this is an elementary strategy. And I think that’s just a product of the fact that they were taught a very different approach to designing instruction that was much more linear and whole group. But really when it comes to a schedule, station rotation is flexible. A single rotation doesn’t have to happen in a class. Now, if you have a block schedule, the station rotation is a wonderful way to really maximize anywhere from a 70 to two hour block of time with students so that you’re not losing them in a whole group lesson. But I work with teachers who are on a 49 minute class schedule, and so they’ll do like a two day four station rotation.
Dr. Tucker: 08:22 I was piloting a four day, four station rotation with a school in Palm Springs, where Monday they did a whole group, kind of set the stage for the week, and then every day they did a welcome activity and kids would transition into a station and over the course of the week, they hit all four stations. So lots of flexibility. I can tell you with big class sizes, since I always had big class sizes, one approach that I share, and actually a few of the schools I’ve supported, have classes over 40, sometimes 42 students, which is just absolutely bonkers to me. But there are two ways to kind of approach that, which is, you kind of imagine an imaginary line down the center of your classroom, and you might have three stations rotating on the right side of the room. And then on the other side you have three, what I call, mirror stations.
Dr. Tucker: 09:14 So they’re the same learning activities students are cycling through, but because you are using this kind of mirror stations
approach and having two separate pods of learners moving through the same kind of rotation, you keep the numbers at the stations low. Now you do get two sides of the room feeding the teacher-led station, so that station’s gonna be a bit bigger, but that’s where the teacher is so it’s typically not as big of an issue. Another way to do it is to just have maybe your three or four stations in the room, but at each station you kind of break up each group into two pods just to keep numbers low. So there’s lots of creative ways to kind of address any concern teachers might have about how this would work in different class sizes, in classes that run different lengths of time.
Steve: 10:01 How do you build student agency into stations?
Dr. Tucker: 10:08 So when I come in and I train a group of teachers on station rotation, often that is like a big ask in and of itself. It’s very new, it’s a lot to think about in terms of the design, and then I start throwing in things like, hey, how are we gonna differentiate our teacher-led station? And hey, how are we gonna build student agency into these stations? And teachers get a bit wide-eyed like, “okay, Catlin. Can you just like pull the e-brake a little bit? You’re overwhelming us.” But sometimes they only have them for a day so I’m like, we gotta cover everything. And so I tell them, giving students agency is a pillar of high quality blended learning. You can do blended learning basics without those pillars of agency differentiation, control over pace. But if we really want to maximize the impact of these models, we need to be keeping those things in mind.
Dr. Tucker: 10:58 But it doesn’t mean students need a ton of choices for it to be meaningful. I encourage teachers to just start with like a would you rather option at at least one station. Just one would you rather choice. And it could be something like, hey, at this station you are watching a video or you’re reading a text, or you’re listening to a podcast. And you can choose to take traditional Cornell notes or draw sketch notes, or, hey, at this station I want you engaged in a discussion, but maybe you sit at these tables, if you want to engage in a live small group discussion and you sit at these tables, if you have social anxiety, if you’re shy and you’d prefer to engage in an online discussion in our learning management system. So the options and choices don’t even have to be super taxing for a teacher, but the goal is to use them to remove barriers so all learners feel they can choose a pathway where they can be successful.
Dr. Tucker: 11:50 So starting small and then the sky’s the limit. I mean, you can get into choice boards and choose your learning path adventure designs if you wanna really go nuts with student agency. But starting simple is great for teachers and it’s actually good for students because so often I forget, these kids have spent years in classrooms where a lot of them have not been invited to make very many choices about what they learn, how they learn, what they create to demonstrate their learning. So when you give them a choice, sometimes you get this deer in the headlights look of like, wait, what? Like, can’t you just tell me how to do this? And so they almost have to build that muscle and that confidence in their ability to make choices. So starting small can help to kind of onboard them to what will be more significant choices in the future.
Steve: 12:41 I’m wondering – the timing. So if you change the station at a particular time, how does a teacher deal with, are you finished, are you finished early? Does the teacher has to learn a little bit of building the expectation into the task that you have at the station?
Dr. Tucker: 13:06 Yes. So there’s a lot I wanna say in relation to that question because I get it a lot. So first, one of the things that is important to remember is station rotation is within the umbrella of blended learning. And one of the goals of blended learning is to give students more control over pace. But teachers really worry like, what if a kid gets done early? And I get it, you get done early, you start making your own fun, you distract the kids next to you, it’s problematic. So instead, we have to set the expectation that if students finish early, one, is there any other task in that rotation they didn’t finish that they need to return to? If they are all set, then here is a list of next steps or may do options they can choose from. I’ve designed brain-break boards for teachers who don’t want to make students do additional work if they get done early, they just wanna give them kind of a fun brain-break task.
Dr. Tucker: 14:00 So setting up some kind of structure and expectation for kind of what they do if they’re done early. There are also really fun ways to kind of play around with pacing in a station rotation. So one variation on the traditional rotation is if a teacher is not leading direct instruction during that rotation, instead they’re giving feedback or maybe they want to guide and give corrective kind of feedback on something students are working on, they can basically run a student-paced free flow station rotation. So every student starts at a station and then when they’re done with that task, they pick up their things and they move to the next station. And one teachers always worry like, wait, what if everybody ends up at a backlog at one station? And by the way, it never happens.
Dr. Tucker: 14:51 You might get a little overflow at a station for a moment, but for the most part, kids love this approach.
Dr. Tucker: 14:58 They love being able to move and transition when they’re ready. And I’ve seen this work beautifully in first grade. So all
my secondary teachers who are like, I don’t know if they can do this, I’m like, yes, they can, they just need practice. And then that teacher-led station essentially becomes a drop-in station. You get your feedback, you get to touch base with the teacher around your practice, and then you move on to the next station and it works beautifully. Another thing I would say, just in the beginning, know you’re gonna plan way too much for your station. So try to dial it back. I can’t tell you how many station rotations in the early days, I would plan a forest station rotation, 23 minutes per station to fit into my 90 block class and we’d get through like 15 minutes of the first 23 minute station and I’d think, well this is a two day
four station rotation.
Dr. Tucker: 15:50 Nobody is moving at the rate I was expecting them to move and so sometimes it just means being flexible in the beginning as you kind of get a feel for how quickly they move through the different activities. Because what we don’t want to do is jam the station so full of work that kids can’t finish anything at any station and they leave feeling totally overwhelmed with so much homework. Another adaptation that I like is, if you notice, oh, one of these stations nobody’s finishing work at, I would just tell my kids like, hey guys, when you come in next class, we’re gonna have 30 minutes or 15 minutes of my time. And that is just time you need to revisit anything from a station today that you didn’t finish. So there are lots of creative ways to deal with it, but don’t let that pacing scare you away from this model because it’s actually a big benefit.
Steve: 16:40 As I’ve been listening to you, I’m getting a sense that the use of a strategy-like station rotation creates the opportunity for kids to learn another set of skills beyond the content. So I’m almost hearing time management, who I group with, the choices that the student learns from either a successful experience or an unsuccessful experience, they still learn from the choice that they made.
Dr. Tucker: 17:15 Yeah. And self-management. There is a degree of self-management that has to happen. And I think the more clear teachers are with students about this is why we’re doing this. I wanna support small groups, or I want you to have opportunities to work together or control the pace at which you move through these tasks. Be really clear about the value proposition of trying something new and then be really clear also about like, here’s the expectation and make that a conversation. Don’t just dump into a station rotation without talking about, hey, this is different. What do we all need to do to be successful in this new style lesson? What are we gonna attempt to do? What norms do we wanna adopt? And then have a clear set of consequences. Kids are gonna have an off day, they’re gonna get distracted.
Dr. Tucker: 18:00 So what are you gonna do? Are you gonna have a verbal kind of intervention? Have a conversation? If that doesn’t work, do you move them to like a floater desk on the side of the room to work on their own for the day? If that doesn’t work, do we have a conversation with parents? So I think so often what I see from my vantage point as a coach, and I remember, believe me, as a teacher jumping into plenty of things without doing kind of that foundational work and then realizing, oh my gosh, I have to back this up and like really start from the beginning, is, teachers will jump into these things without laying that foundation and then it’s really rocky the first time they do it and a lot of teachers will just abandon mission. They’ll be like, I’m not doing this again. That was horrible. I don’t like it. I’m more comfortable with this other way of doing it. And it’s not that the model or the strategy didn’t work, it’s that the preparation wasn’t there.
Steve: 18:46 So I guess you’ve somehow came around to this question. Maybe I can push you a little more specific. I’m a teacher who hasn’t done this and I’m gonna step in the water for the first time here. What’s a couple of guidelines you’d lay out for a person getting started?
Dr. Tucker: 19:05 First, I would start with activities and routine, like the learning tasks you and students are already familiar with. So you’re trying a new model, they’re gonna be moving in this more circular way. You don’t want to overcomplicate that by also introducing new activities and tools and strategies that kids are then trying to learn while navigating a new type of lesson. I would also say, really think about grouping learners with intention. So what is it you’re trying to do at your teacher-led station? Would it be helpful for her it to be a mixed skill level group? Would it be helpful for it to be a needs-based grouping? Are they gonna be collaborating at a particular station? If so, maybe you group them by strengths in a group dynamic and personalities you think will work well together. So having like a clear grouping strategy.
Dr. Tucker: 19:54 And if you have a difficult group, know that you can like assign each student in that group a number and as they transition from station to station, they sit in their numbered place so you can make sure they’re sitting next to people who will be reinforcing hopefully, positive behavior. I think all of those things are really critical. Have a clear transition strategy. And I don’t care if you’re teaching seniors – practice it. So when the alarm or the timer goes off, what do they do? Do they have like one minute to wrap up cleanup? When they’re done doing that is the expectation that they stand behind the chair so you know, who’s visually ready to transition? And then what is the expectation for walking to the next station? I think elementary teachers do this beautifully, this kind of training and onboarding to those routines.
Dr. Tucker: 20:41 And I think sometimes at secondary level we’re just like, oh, they’re teens, they can almost operate a vehicle. They can do this. And it’s like, no, they can’t. They need practice. They need routines. So don’t jump over those pieces because those pieces will really set you up for success or potential bumps when you’re trying this too. And I think I just blogged a couple weeks ago about furniture arrangement, which is not the most exciting topic in the world, but I can’t tell you how many classrooms I go into where teachers are new to station rotation. They’re like, oh, they’re stations, let’s just clump desks together all over the room. And then kids are being asked to do individual kind of quiet tasks, but they’re looking at each other, so they’re just naturally distracting each other. So at the teacher-led station, consider making a U formation so kids are looking at the whiteboard, you can display things, you can move around the U really easily.
Dr. Tucker: 21:31 If it’s an individual station, maybe that’s where you have a line of desks. And maybe those desks, if it’s an online station, are facing away from the teacher-led so you can kind of glance up and see what are on these screens, because I can’t tell you how many teachers are scared that kids will be not doing what they’re supposed to be doing online. They’ll be on YouTube or somewhere else. So visually can you have a line of sight to these devices, even if you’re at a teacher-led station? And then of course, for those collaborative stations, let’s push desks together, make sure kids can easily work together. But even something as simple as the furniture setup can either maximize engagement and focus or really distract from it.
Steve: 22:13 You just hit there some great coaching observations that teachers might request from from an instructional coach or a peer to just come in and observe movement and activity within a station with the thought of do I have a structure even just with the furniture that’s supporting what I’m asking the kids to do, or distracting from what it is I’m asking the kids to do? Powerful piece. Seems simple. Which I know most of the things we value coaching on are are pretty simple. I think John Hattie’s description is that 80% of what’s happening in the classroom isn’t seen by the teacher. So a coach who can spot that – it’s a really valuable piece.
Dr. Tucker: 23:12 Definitely.
Steve: 23:13 Well, Catlin, thank you so much. And I’ve been to your website, I know you got a ton of stuff there to support people. You wanna share with people some of the things that are there and how they can get in touch with you?
Dr. Tucker: 23:24 Yeah, so my website, catlintucker.com is definitely the one stop shop that you need to get started if you’re interested in any of this stuff. I would say, specifically for station rotation, you can go to my blog and do a keyword search and everything that I’ve posted on station rotation will come up from furniture to frequently asked questions where I have a series of video responses. I have a mini course on station rotation. So for a teacher who’s like, I’m interested, I wanna try it, but I’m not getting this training at school, you can absolutely do that. I have a bunch of books, very active on Twitter and Instagram and on Instagram I post a lot of videos that are responses to teacher questions. A lot of them have to do with station rotation. A lot of them observations from my own coaching, which I’ve shared here. So that might be a useful resource as well.
Steve: 24:09 Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate your time and your insights. It’s a pleasure to chat with you.
Dr. Tucker: 24:14 Yeah, me too. I’m so glad we made this happen.
Steve: 24:17 Have a great day.
Dr. Tucker: 24:18 You too.
Steve [Outro]: 24:21 Thanks for listening in folks. I’d love to hear what your pondering. You can find me on Twitter at Steve Barkley or send me your questions and find my videos and email@example.com.