An Interview with Steve Peha: News Educators Can Really Use

Sep 22, 2013 by

Steve Peha

In this interview, he responds to questions about his newsletter and contemporary topics in education.

Bryan Barnes & Michael F. Shaughnessy

1) We note that you have a very fine newsletter for teachers. When did you start this and how did this come about?

Thank you for the kind words about our newsletter. It has been very well received—better than we had imagined. It has become a terrific way of getting high quality information out to educators in a format that takes less than five minutes to read.

We started in the middle of August so most teachers would begin receiving it just before school started or just as their year began.

Why did we do it? Because education reform and the Common Core have inundated educators with so much new information that there’s no way anyone can keep up with it.

We wanted to offer something each week that could be reviewed quickly and that would contain only the most valuable information—things teachers and administrators can use immediately.

2) Would you say that your newsletter is geared toward teachers that are seasoned or to new and upcoming teachers?

We’ve received great feedback from four different audiences: (1) Teachers of all experience levels, grade levels, and subject areas; (2) Principals, curriculum directors, and district administrators; (3) Parents; and (4) Adults who are just generally interested in keeping up with education.

Most of the people on our list are teachers we have worked with in the past or who have contacted us for help. We answer questions for about 500 teachers a year via e-mail. So teachers are our biggest audience.

We’re really trying to gather the very best and most useful information we can about teaching and learning. Anyone who is interested will probably find something each week they will enjoy.

3) Do you organize your newsletter by what you think teachers want to know about and see? Or is it based on what the “hot new topic” is?

Right now, the newsletter has a format that seems to be very popular.

At the top, we always announce and link to some kind of research about teaching and learning. Sharing knowledge is our #1 goal and this seems like exactly the kind of knowledge that should be shared. It’s also not the kind of information that most people follow very closely. So I think we’re helping people connect with important stuff they don’t usually run into.

Next, we feature something about technology. Technology is probably the biggest force shaping education today. And, once again, the amount of information about ed tech is growing so quickly that no one can keep up with it. So we include, each week, one item typically with a link to a piece of software that we find very useful or to a technology website that we use a lot.

The third section is the “feature” section. Here we usually pick new writings (often articles I have written in the previous week) that we think people will derive value from. This section often includes several links to several articles.

Finally, each week we give away new teaching materials from our Free Teaching library. A big part of our effort over the last 18 years has been creating high quality classroom-proven teaching materials—things that we use ourselves in classrooms all over the country—and making them free.

The Open Educational Resources movement has made literally hundreds of thousands of resources available to educators. But that’s almost more of a problem than a solution because very little of that material has been validated in enough classrooms to know how well it really works. Beyond that, there’s just no way for any single human being to sort through that much material in a reasonable amount of time.

We have always wanted to address that problem directly with content that is based on solid research, has been taught in hundreds, if not thousands of classrooms, and that has consistently produced great results. That’s what teachers need. And that’s what we want them to have.

There is sometimes an extra section at the bottom called “Announcements”. Occasionally, there are things we just need people to know. Most recently, it was how to subscribe to the newsletter. We kept getting requests from folks who had received forwarded copies but who didn’t know how to subscribe.

Our next newsletter will feature a short announcement about the new “promotions” folder that Google has added to GMail. Google now scans your mail and takes anything that it thinks is a promotion and pulls it out of your inbox and puts it behind a special tab—one that I imagine most people don’t even look at. So we’ll share the fix for that for our GMail users. All you really have to do is tell GMail that you don’t want a particular item to go behind that tab, that you want it always to come into your inbox. Because we always use the same subject linke and because it always comes from me directly, fixing this problem shouldn’t be a problem.

Sometimes we also remind people about how to subscribe to the newsletter. We include several links to subscribe in the newsletter itself but readers don’t often notice those because they’re focused on content. We’ve also put a large link on the home page of our website at and we’re picking up about 50 subscribers a week there now.

And then there’s a simple link to the newsletter sign-up page as well:

This allows people to sign up but also to review every newsletter we’ve sent by date.

Another thing we do is to always use the same subject line in every newsletter. We do that, so that none who is using an e-mail program that offers threaded discussions will always be able to look at every newsletter they receive just by finding the most recent one in their inbox.

4) How do you decide which research is put into your newsletter?

We have three criteria we use to evaluate the research we include: (1) Is it immediately relevant to classroom practice? (2) Is it based on solid science? and (3) Is it actually entertaining to review?

That last one is especially important to us. Some research, even good research, is just deadly dull. If people don’t read it, it’s not valuable to them—even if it is really good science. So, again, we’re focused on the practical stuff here, the things people will consume so that they can be more effective in their work.

5) Have you been getting requests on specific topics- for example, RTI ?

We get requests for all kinds of things. But people don’t usually request research because what they want is the result of that research—practice they can use right away. So we get many requests for teaching tools, assessment instruments, ideas for improving student engagement, and so on.

It has been our experience, that few classroom practitioners really have the time to consume research. That’s why we’re so thoughtful about the one piece of research we feature each week and why we usually link out to a brief summary of it—with actual classroom applications whenever possible.

But just because educators don’t have time for research doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in the results as long as they can use those results right away. That’s what we focus on when we talk about research.

6) Getting students motivated in the classroom seems to be something that can be the most troublesome. Have you included anything on motivation in your newsletter before?

The most frequent request we get these days—both in our inbox and in our professional development trainings—is for better ideas on motivation or, as some people call it, student engagement.

We just included a great piece this week on the three most important factors in human motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. We did it by linking out to a fun video gven by Dan Pink who wrote a wonderful book called “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”.

I’m working on a book right now called “The Achievement Equation” which is, essentially, a book on improving student motivation and engagement. So I’m sure we’ll be including more information about this in the future.

I also invited any of our readers to contact me directly if they wanted help with motivation immediately.

7) In your current issue, September 2013, you mention research dealing with laptops. What is your view on this subject matter?

I included that study—about how kids staring at laptops during lectures compromises learning—because the situation it refers to is so common. Schools with 1:1 laptop programs need to know about this. Colleges, of course, need to know about this. And, to be honest, at TTMS we face it now all the time in our training.

I don’t mind if people bring laptops to learning situations. That’s great. I just think—and the research shows—that people learn more when they pay more attention to their learning and less to their laptops.


I handle this by asking people to close their laptops while we’re doing an activity. But then I ask them to open their laptops back up as soon as we’re done so they can capture the most important things they’ve learned while we’re having a short discussion about it.

To me, this is the best of both worlds: high attention to the material being presented followed by a handy way of consolidating and recording the learning that has taken place.

Do you include your views and opinions or will you just be reviewing published research?

With regard to research, I typically only tell people that I think is most important about it. Sometimes I relate my own experience of applying it to my own work. But since I’m choosing the research we tell people about, I think they can assume that we think it’s good and valuable. What I try to do in that part of the newsletter is focus readers on what I have found to be the most important and most useful aspects of the research.

8) In your mind, what is it that teachers REALLY need nowadays?

The same things teachers have always needed: (1) Reliable information about what works in a format they can consume quickly and easily; (2) Free teaching materials that have been thoroughly tested in the field; and (3) A trusted source that they know they can go to for help when they need it.

That’s what our whole company stands for. The newsletter is really just a concise weekly sample of who we are at Teaching That Makes Sense.

9) What have we neglected to ask?

As we head into the Common Core and this next phase of reform, I think we need to have some honest discussion about school culture. How people in schools feel about their work and the people they work with is probably a lot more important than we’ve ever acknowledged.

But now is the time to acknowledge the importance of workplace culture in our schools.

I’m working on something right now to address this. It’s called “The Culture Engine” and it’s based on a very simple approach that anyone can use to begin improving their workplace culture—and to increase the personal satisfaction they take in their work.

I think workplace culture is both critical and, unfortunately, almost completely ignored in our frantic rush to improve schools.

The simple truth is, we won’t improve schools if we don’t improve the way schools work. And schools with poor workplace cultures, and people who really aren’t happy about the work they do and the people they work with, just aren’t going to improve very much no matter what standards or tests or evaluations we throw at them.

I think workplace culture is the new frontier of education reform.


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