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A few years ago, I met a chef and asked him, “So, bay leaves? Do they even have a point? You can’t taste them. You have to take them out. They seem to get in the way.”

He shook his head and said, “Nah, it’s the opposite.”

“Wait, what?” I asked.

“They’re the invisible heroes of the culinary arts. Bay leaves won’t give you a distinct flavor. They don’t stand out. It can be so subtle you don’t even detect it. But what they do is offer depth. They’re a small thing that makes a big difference. They’re working behind the scenes to amplify everything else. Trust me, they’re a big deal.”

I realize that bay leaves are actually a controversial topic among chefs. Some say they don’t really enhance the flavors at all. Others say they don’t enhance the existing flavor so much as add a new flavor entirely. I’m not about to dive into the culinary debate. But it has me wondering . . .

What are the bay leaves in education? What are those small, seemingly invisible tweaks we can make that end up having a huge impact on our teaching?

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12 Bay Leaves in Education

The following are some of my favorite bay leaves. I genuinely believe that teachers play a profound creative role in the classroom and sometimes these creative strategies are small tweaks rather than massive overhauls.


1. Create Question Breaks During Direct Instruction

I once had a student teacher observe how often I asked questions and how often students asked questions to one another. The results were depressing. 97% of the questions were from me to them. Only 3% were from them to me. None were to each other. Well, actually, we scrapped two very common student questions: What did the teacher say? and Can I borrow a pencil? At that moment, I tried a new strategy.

  • Take a break during direct instruction and ask students to generate as many questions as they can.
  • Do a Rally Robin activity where they ask one another their questions.
  • Do a stand-up, hand-up, pair-up, where they walk around asking questions. This has the added advantage of functioning like a brain break where they are able to move and get their blood flowing.
  • Return to their seats and highlight all the questions that remain unanswered.

This was a small, bay leaf moment. It didn’t require a huge chunk of time or a new way of teaching. But it tapped into their prior knowledge and taught students to ask questions. They began to recognize the reality of the adage that the smartest person in the room is the room. It also allowed me to see what types of questions students had in the moment, during direct instruction, instead of after the fact.


2. Record Directions in Video Format

In my 7th year in the classroom, I had a student teacher do a time audit while he observed me. One of the biggest surprises was that I could easily spend 5 minutes over-explaining directions. This was also when students were most likely to get off-task.

At that point, I made a switch. Instead of verbal directions, I filmed a quick screencast video going over the directions and sharing a quick exemplar that students could view. I then played that same video for each class period.

  • The average screencast video was 90 seconds.
  • The use of visual and exemplar made it easier for students to see what was expected of them.
  • Students who were confused could re-watch the video with headphones on. Some students would even watch the videos and pause as they went.
  • Students who missed class could easily watch a video the next day (or, in some cases, would watch the video from home on our LMS).

For me, this is a reminder that innovation doesn’t have be big or flashy. Sometimes it’s in the small tweaks we make on a daily basis that yield big results in the long run.


3. Have Students Ask for Feedback

I’ve noticed something in my life. If I don’t expect critical feedback, I tend to get defensive when someone offers a critique. If I expect critical feedback, I am more open to it. I’m far less likely to get angry or defensive. If I ask for feedback, I am even more likely to embrace the feedback. You can imagine it like a continuum of self-initiated and others-initiated. If I ask for critical feedback, it’s often something I genuinely want.

I mention this because students often struggle with giving and receiving critical feedback. They don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. However, critical feedback is vital for growth. One small bay leaf solution is to have students ask for specific feedback. So, in this 20 minute peer feedback process I replaced the elevator pitch with “Tell your partner what type of feedback you want.”

Similarly, I sometimes ask students too tell me what type of feedback they want to receive on an assignment. This builds on their own sense of agency while requiring some humility. You’re saying to students, “I expect your work to be imperfect and I’d like you to ask for a critique.” Students are also more likely to use the feedback they receive because it connects directly to their own plan of what they would like to modify or revise.


4. Turn Rubrics into Checklists

Think of the last time you did a project. Chances are, you used a checklist or a set of checklists or checklists of the checklists you need to create. It’s a common diagnostic tool that we use to keep things on track. I love checklists so much that I actually read a book called Checklist Manifesto. And yet, when students do projects they often use rubrics. There’s nothing inherently wrong with rubrics. After, rubrics are great for judging finished work or assessing one’s performance. We use rubrics in life. We just don’t tend to use the rubric as we go.

A simple, bay leaf solution is to have students turn their rubrics into checklists. This turns the rubric into a diagnostic tool they can use on a daily basis. It also helps ensure that students have actually read and understood the rubric they’re using. I share this idea in a YouTube short that I created:

By the way, if you like this YouTube Short, would you consider subscribing to my YouTube Channel?


5. Teach Verb Tenses in Math

When my ELL students struggled with word problems in math, I started with front-loading vocabulary and teaching academic language. However, students still struggled. I asked them to explain what they didn’t understand and they underlined certain sentences. I immediately noticed the same sentences over and over again. Many of these were written in a passive voice. Others were complex verb tenses that we use in writing but not in speaking (for example, the past perfect progressive). In some cases, the issue was one of context. In English, we use the progressive in a more general sense (“I’m building a house” rather than “I build a house”) and we use it to describe future activities (“I’m going on a vacation this summer”). So, I began to teach the verb tenses in a systematic way and noticed that students were able to access the challenging word problems.


6. Switching to Timed-Pair-Shares

I’m a huge fan of Kagan strategies and I love the think-pair-share concept. But one of the best bay leaf solutions was to shift from think-pair-share to think alone then shift to a timed pair-share. In a timed pair-share, each member has the exact same amount of time to share their answer with a partner. This helped ensure that all students had equal time to share their thoughts. I immediately noticed that students were quiet or introverted began sharing more openly. Extroverted students started listening more. Many of my students with learning differences as well as multilingual students were far more likely to share in a partner conversation as well. If a student finished early, I would require their partner to ask follow-up questions.


7. Doing a Design Sprint First

In doing design thinking projects, I noticed that many students wanted to rush into the Create a Prototype phase. They were so excited about making something new that they became fixated on the hands-on making element. I had a hard time getting students to slow down and embrace the inquiry and research elements needed before ideation and prototyping. But then I tried something new. I took the entire project and turned it into a 45 minute sprint. Students moved quickly through each of the phases of the LAUNCH Cycle.

I then asked students, “If we did this again, what would you need from me?” Overwhelmingly, students described the need for time, for revision, and for additional prior knowledge. They had discovered, on their own, that great design sometimes takes time. As we then moved into a multi-week design thinking project, I would reference this design sprint as an experiential framework they could access. There was the sense of, “We’ve done this before. I know what to do now.”


8. Paying Close Attention to Body Language and Voice

When I was in my practicum, I struggled with classroom management. I could keep students engaged by using humor, energy, and critical thinking questions. Students responded well to my approach and I embraced the notion of being a fun teacher. But then the assistant principal stopped by to observe me. He stopped by the classroom during my prep period and said, “Look, it’s no secret we’re going to hire you next year.”

He then offered a list of positive strategies he had observed. I was so excited. I had pretty much locked down a job as a social studies teacher.

But then he said, “But I want you remember that you don’t teach in your head. You teach in a physical environment and you need to use that to your advantage.”

For the rest of the prep period, he walked me through how to use space proximity when discipline issues occurred. He had me practice giving eye content. He walked me through how to change my posture, take deep breaths, and calmly correct students who were talking when I was talking. I practiced using my authoritative and approachable voice to send non-verbal expectations. At the end of this prep period, he handed me Tools for Teaching by Fred Jones and said, “Some of this might be too traditional for your style but remember that you can have high expectations for student behavior while also focusing on making the learning engaging and authentic.”

That bay leaf changed my world. To this day, I still pay close attention to the concrete, physical reality of teaching. I’ve learned to monitor my body language. I still use a “raise your hand if you can hear me” approach to getting people’s attention.


9. Changing the Negative to Positive Ratio on Feedback

When I get a course evaluation, I can have five positive comments but I will tend to fixate on the single negative comment. Similarly, if someone reviews my book on Amazon, I’m likely to pay more attention to the single negative review than the multiple positive reviews. It turns out, I’m not alone. What I’m experiencing is the negativity bias. Researchers Rozin and Royzman posited that both animals and humans to give greater weight to negative entities (experiences, events, objects, personal traits) over positive ones.  It’s not unlike Khaneman and Tversky’s notion of prospect theory and loss aversion (we care more about not losing things rather than gaining things).

So, now imagine you have students giving each other “glows and grows” or doing a Harkness protocol or something like a 3-2-1 (three positives, two negatives, one question). Because of the negativity bias, many students will not pay attention to the important positive feedback because of this negativity bias. One bay leaf type solution has been to separate critical feedback and positive feedback based on time. This preps students to go into a peer feedback process knowing what to expect. Here, they might actually ask for specific critical feedback.

Another option is to change the ratio of negative to positive. Psychologists Barbara Fredrickson and Marcial Losada have suggested we use a  “positivity ratio.” Their research initially proposed that a ratio of about 3 positive interactions to 1 negative interaction is necessary to thrive in various domains. It should be noted that the positivity ratio has been contested, in terms of the mathematical analysis of the initial studies and the variability of each person and domain.

But there remains a solid set of research suggesting we need more positive feedback compared to negative feedback. For this reason, I have kept the ratio in my own feedback toward students at about 4 to 1. I’ve noticed that students seem more confident, more likely to make modifications based on the critical feedback, and better able to build on their strengths.


10. Reframing How I Ask for Feedback

In Adam Grant’s latest book Hidden Potential, he describes a shift in asking for feedback. Instead of saying, “How did I do?” you shift to “What should I do differently next time?” This bay leaf of an idea can make a huge difference. When I ask, “What should I do differently?” it sends a signal that I’m looking for critical feedback. I’m inviting people to be candid in their response. It also focuses on growth and action. I’m more likely to get specific ideas.

In other words, asking “How did I do?” tends to solicit evaluative feedback, which might focus on past performance without necessarily providing actionable insights. Answers tend to be vague and positive. On the other hand, “What should I do differently next time?” directly seeks constructive feedback aimed at future actions, which is more likely to facilitate growth and learning. There’s actually some solid research behind this idea. Framing questions in a way that focuses on future improvements may encourage more detailed and actionable responses, which can support growth and learning.

Every time I teach, I give my students a 4 question survey to help me improve in my craft. I rewrote the question, “What feedback would you give to your professor?” and changed it to “What advice would you give your professor for the next time he teaches this class?” I’m noticing more specific, practical ideas as a result.


11. Do a Concept Attainment Lesson Before Inquiry

I remember feeling disheartened when I read John Hattie’s chart describing how ineffective inquiry-based learning was in its effect size on student learning. But then I saw a video where he described how inquiry-based learning is actually highly effective if we front-load vocabulary and do a concept attainment lesson first. At that point, I create a quick concept attainment lesson, followed by an explanation of the inquiry process:

I then front-loaded the vocabulary and had a shared reading activity. So, this simple 35 minute process became a bay leaf in my PBL and inquiry-based process. I later added an explanation of the phases of a project, complete with a visual. I found that breaking the project down into parts and providing students with road map actually reduced their cognitive load.


12. Color Code Your Use of AI

I stole this idea of green, yellow, and red from AJ Juliani. The idea is that red is “no AI used at all,” yellow is “some AI with significant human modifcation” and green is “created by AI.” I changed it up because of the red-green color blind issue and set up a three color system where students could complete an assignment and define for me whether a section is AI-generated, AI-generated but modified by a human, human-generated but modified by AI (such as Grammarly feedback) and human generated with no AI usage. This is an idea I explored more in-depth in an article about how AI will change the essay.

The goal here is to shift from a gotcha form of catching plagiarism and toward a space of trust and transparency:

As a professor, I can look at an assignment and see, in a clearly visual way, the interplay between AI and human. I can see the way an AI-generated idea sparked an entirely new line of thinking that then led to something fully human. I can also see how students created significant modifications in their work.

So, I would love to hear from you. What are some of those bay leaves that you use in your classroom?

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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