The Principal's Office - Caruso Middle School

A blog by Dr. Brian Bullis, the principal of Caruso Middle School in Deerfield, Illinois. Upholding the CMS mission to Engage, Inspire, Empower, and Grow.

Deconstructing What We Know About Learning and the Brain


Reflections from the opening day of The Science of How We Learn winter conference.

Deconstructing what we know about education is not easy.  Education, like any field, continues to evolve and it is critical that we allow ourselves the opportunity to challenge our current understandings and be malleable as this evolution occurs.  Mike Lubelfeld and Nick Polyak call this idea “unlearning” in their soon to be released book titled The Unlearning Leader.  Some of the major takeaways from the opening keynotes presented by John Hattie, Daniel Schwartz, and Daniel Ansari were focused around what is wrong with our current understandings related to learning.  These researchers and educational leaders all stressed the same thing – it is just as important to unlearn in education as it is to learn.

Within the span of one hour John Hattie, author of the international groundbreaking Visible Learning research, pointed to major critiques in the works of some of the biggest names and trends in education.  He identified Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy as “one of the greatest inflictions on education” and the “most untested model in our business” where there is no true hierarchy and no scientific basis.  He took a crack at Carol Dweck’s growth mindset by identifying it’s small effect size, which is below 0.20.  He noted that “problem-based learning is one of the biggest failures out there” with an effect size of 0.15.  He identified the impact of health and physical fitness on learning as having an effect size close to zero.

Daniel Schwartz, dean at the Stanford School of Education, also pushed the idea of deconstruction and unlearning.  One major focus was on “telling” students during the learning process.  He noted that telling students what they need to know has the reverse effect on them actually learning something.  When students invent and discover on their own they learn more than students that are told how to do something.  Telling, or lecturing, that takes place after students have been given the opportunity to analyze leads students to the highest levels of learning.  

Speaking more globally, Schwartz claimed that if the justification for any teaching and learning strategy relies on the premise that “it is fast” there is a high potential it will backfire.  He also touched on the topic of growth mindset, citing research that higher achieving students do not need it as they already embrace it while it has some impact on lower/average students.  Another caution was related to rewards, where he cited research that highlighted the fact that students become less creative when a reward is attached.

Daniel Ansari, neuroscience professor at the University of Western Ontario, also rejected several commonly held beliefs about learning and the brain.  One is the notion that we only use 10% of our brain when in actuality we engage the entire brain.  He also shared that there is no evidence to support that people are left-brained or right-brained as our brains demonstrate major interconnectivity.  Lastly, he shared that neuroscience strongly rejects the concept of learning styles (i.e. a student is inclined to learn through a specific mode such as visual, musical, verbal, kinesthetic, logical, social, solitary).  

There were important disclaimers throughout the presentations cautioning educators not to take any research as absolute truth.  The clear message for educators was that some of our traditionally held beliefs of what is considered to be best practice in learning need to be rejected.  Although these findings were highly informative and important, here is to hoping that the next two days of learning offer far more constructions of how students learn as opposed to deconstructions.

Student Engagement in an SBGR Environment

“Tell me and I forget.  Teach me and I remember.  Involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

Our district recently received the results from our second administration of the Humanex Student Engagement Survey.  As is true of any comprehensive survey, we found a multitude of areas to celebrate as well as a multitude of areas to grow at Caruso Middle School.  Some encouraging themes emerged in regards to how our newly implemented standards-based grading and reporting (SBGR) environment has impacted student learning and engagement.  Specifically, CMS experienced statistically significant gains in specific areas of related to feedback, choice, and a focus on results.  


One cornerstone of an effective SBGR learning environment is a focus on formative feedback, as opposed to final/summative grades.  Our students reported a significant increase in teachers returning assignments with useful comments to support improvement.  This is a great trend to see as researchers have repeatedly shown that accurate, specific, and timely feedback is a key to effective grading.  Specifically, Robert Marzano (2000) shared that “A single letter grade or a percentage score is not a good way to report student achievement in any subject area because it simply cannot present the level of detailed feedback necessary for effective learning.”  We are shifting our focus on what makes feedback effective and our students are recognizing that progress.


Another important component of SBGR is choice; students should be given multiple opportunities to learn and show their learning in multiple ways.  We saw significant gains in regards to students reporting they get to choose how they do their assignments and projects, how they get to show their learning on some tests, and in choosing the activities they work on during class.  It is important that student choice is balanced appropriately as a 2008 meta-analysis (Patall, Cooper, & Robinson) found that intrinsic motivation increased along with overall performance when given choice.  However, diminishing returns emerged when too many choices are given and the researchers recommended giving five or less options.

Focus on Results

Lastly, students reported strong gains under a “results focus” in regards to teachers showing students how to track their own progress.  This is another critical component of effective learning and grading practices.  Ken O’Connor (2011) shared in his 15th of 15 Fixes for Broken Grades to not “leave students out of the grading process. Involve students – they can – and should – play key roles in assessment and grading that promote achievement.”  We want our students to be able to consistently understand how they are growing and achieving so they can help guide their own learning process.

As we continue to navigate our first year of our standards-based grading and reporting environment we know we still have much to learn and room for significant growth.  It is also important to find our early moments of celebration and we have identified three in feedback, choice, and a focus on results.


Marzano, R. (2000). Transforming classroom grading. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

O’Connor, Ken (2011).  A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades, Second Edition, Pearson ATI, Boston, MA.

Patall, E., Cooper, H., & Robinson, J. C. (2008). The effects of choice on intrinsic motivation and related outcomes: A meta-analysis of research findings. Psychological Bulletin, 134(2), 270–300.

Educating Under a Trump Presidency

(Author’s note – this post is not about party affiliation, but instead about our educational climate.  I am an educational leader who respects and holds dear the concept of democracy and political freedom.)

As an educator, there have been a handful of times in my career where I have had to dig deep and ask myself how I would discuss challenging, controversial, difficult, and historic events to my students. There is no handbook written for these instances.  These events were not covered in our methodology classes during our professional preparation.  They happen and we respond.  This historic election is another one of those moments.

How can I explain to a student that calling a female classmate a “big, fat pig” is inappropriate, hurtful, and indecent when the next leader of our United States unapologetically is on tape as having done so?  How can we as educators address topics such as sexual assault when the President-elect has made comments on tape that many believe encourage or accept such actions?  How do we promote the respect, inclusion, and equal rights of our students with disabilities when the President-elect openly mocked a reporter with a disability?  How do we explain to our students in the LGBTQ community that their rights matter and will be maintained when the President-elect pledges to support anti-LGBTQ legislation?  How do I look in the eyes of my students of varying ethnicities, including the many undocumented students I have served, and assure them that they are valued and should look forward to their future?  How do we address fears of deportation?

These are the questions that all educators, parents, coaches, and mentors of our youth must be prepared to address after the actions (and perhaps inactions) of our nation on Election Day 2016.

As educators, we cannot tell people how to vote or what values or politics to believe in.  We educate; we do not indoctrinate.  Our own social studies department and our school as a whole have done a phenomenal job of educating our students about this election without exposing biases or presenting any sort of favoritism.  This was no easy task given the juxtaposing realities we have encountered as educators of valuing and embracing all people while the political backdrop seemed to promote the devaluing of some people.  Instead, our teachers focused on the facts, the process, and the policies and allowed our students to think for themselves.  Even today, as I visited all of our social studies classrooms post-election, their discussions were guided by impartiality and fairness and I am proud of them for that.


Our task as educators is monumental.  There has never been a more important time for character education, an emphasis on social-emotional learning, and equity.

What we can do and what we must do is promote equity.  This umbrella of equity envelopes gender, ethnicity, sexual identity, religion, disability, and human rights.  This is a leg we can stand on regardless of who leads this country.  We are educators and we have a moral imperative and shared responsibility to constantly pursue this virtue.  We believe that all students can and should learn and we do not waiver in that pursuit.  All means all.

For the good of the nation and for the good of education, we must move forward, united, endorsing democracy.  However, we must not compromise guiding our nation’s youth and supporting the rights they all have to education in an environment that supports respect and understanding.  As educators, what we ignore in the behaviors of others become what we endorse.  Now is the time, more than ever before, to focus on the promotion of equity in education with our head, hands, and heart.  


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How We Talk About Learning – SBG and PLCs

There is something exciting going on right now in our DPS109 middle schools in regard to how we talk about learning.

We have always had incredible educators that embrace a student-centered mentality. Our current efforts to implement standards-based grading and reporting and professional learning communities have upped the stakes to a whole new level.  As is often human nature, we get so mired in the details that it is crucial to take a step back and celebrate our progress.  Our conversations and practices related to how we talk about learning have risen to a whole new level and the journey has been an impressive one.


Our SBG Journey

I cannot even tell you one time this year when I have heard the word percentage used in regard to learning and grading. The same is true of incorporating late work or behavior into the academic grades.  Those indefensible practices have been expunged from our vernacular.  They have been replaced with intelligent and focused conversations about what we want students to learn and where each individual student is related to specific learning outcomes. This is what is best for students. This brings clarity to our teaching in the student learning. This is inspiring work that is taking place.

Our staff has collectively done so much to embrace the philosophy behind SBG. Our newest challenges are to have systems in place to support the shift and also to convey the necessary communications in order to make sure that students and parents understand why this is best practice. It is taking us time to learn the nuances of inputting our grades effectively and likewise it is taking time to get those we serve to fully understand the reasons we are moving away from the traditional system that has been used for several decades. Perseverance is the name of the game and as we continue to hold steadfast. Progress will continue to be made in these areas and we will be able to further clear the plate to focus on student learning

Our PLC Journey

Our efforts to become PLCs, in the true sense of the term, have prompted us to shift from excellent conversations about what we are teaching and how we are teaching it to what students are learning, how will we know it, what will we do about it, and how will it better inform our teaching.  These foundational PLC principles already existed to varying degree in our practices, but now our conversations, goal setting, and data analysis have a greater focus on what students have learned and achieved versus what we have taught.


PLCs are forcing us to have frank conversations about the consistency and integrity of our curriculum and instruction. Looking at data from common assessments creates an instant environment of vulnerability. It takes courage to stack up our students’ performance data alongside those of our peers. If one outperforms their peers they are now in the spotlight, hopefully for all the right reasons, and they will be asked to identify what they did to produce the results. If an individual’s scores fall below their peers they are compelled to have difficult internal and external conversations and about why this reality exists. Do we make excuses or do we tap into our learning community to identify ways to grow?  The best educators gravitate to the latter.

PLCs have also forced us to shift our conversations from how we teach to how students learn. It is much easier to set a goal around what we will teach, what units we will create, and how we will skillfully assess students. It is much harder, but far more important, to set explicit goals around what students will learn and hold the team accountable to pursuing, analyzing, and acting upon the results of student achievement.

The Journeys Continue

Our middle school staff should be proud of the shifts we are making to the betterment of all of our students.  

Has it been easy? No.

Will there be more challenges as we continue on these trajectories? Absolutely!

Have we mastered PLCs? No

Have we mastered SBG? No

Are we making incredible gains towards mastering these two concepts? Yes!  I am proud and honored to be part of this journey with so many insightful, innovative, reflective, driven, and visionary educators who continue to evolve and forge ahead doing what is best for our students.

Our Amazing CMS PTO!

Our Caruso Middle School PTO is second to none!  The impact of this group on our students, staff, and the larger community is wide reaching and we are so fortunate to have them as part of Caruso Middle School.

What follows are some of the many ways they have contributed to our learning environment over the past year.  A special thank you to our 2015-16 presidents, Susan Jensen and Julie Letwat, and our current 2016-17 presidents, Lori Berk and Lisa Brody!  You can click here to view the full slate of CMS PTO executive leaders and here to view our PTO committee leaders.

We have added flexible and comfortable furniture to our Learning Commons:


We have added flexible furniture to another classroom, Mrs. Reisman’s.  This includes adjustable tables that allow students to stand or sit.  Booth tables and seating were also added to the room which allows for several options to best support student learning environment preferences:


We added new uniforms for boys volleyball, soccer, and softball:


In addition to these contributions, the PTO also provided us with a piano dolly and a soundboard for our auditorium.  Thank you to our wonderful Caruso Middle School PTO!

Principal Leadership Article – Reinventing Science Labs and Curriculum

I had the privilege to co-author an article for NASSP’s Principal Leadership publication with Drs. Lubelfeld and Filippi that was released today.  We are beyond fortunate to have a community that values, supports, and pursues remarkable learning spaces and resources for our students.  Our science labs and the instruction that takes place in these spaces are second to none!

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CMS Fine Arts Metamorphosis!

We are so fortunate in District 109 to the have resources, vision, and drive to continually update our learning spaces to the benefit of our students’ learning and growth.  This year our construction efforts at CMS were primarily focused on redesigning and redefining our art, vocal music, and instrumental music spaces.  The lighting, seating, flexibility, increased storage, technology, and improved functionality will all be a welcomed addition to these fine arts classes.  We cannot wait to see our students in action in these areas in a few short days!

These spaces are not ready to be on display for our locker day.  Hopefully, the images in this blog post will serve as an effective sneak peak!  Enjoy!

Instrumental and General Music Rooms Summer Progress

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Art Room Summer Progress

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I Hear What You’re Saying…And I Respect You!

I am excited and honored to have been published alongside my esteemed colleagues, Dr. Mike Lubelfeld and Dr. John Filippi, in the most recent edition of the AASA Journal of Scholarship and Practice (The School Superintendents Association).  You may click the image below to read our take (beginning on page 44) on the importance of effective communication and how best to practice it in our day-to-day work.

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Caruso Middle School Logo Results!

Caruso Middle School recently explored the need and desire for a new school logo.  We presented six logos to students, parents, and staff and collected their feedback.  What we learned was that our traditional logo was vastly preferred by parents and staff.  Students showed significant interest in keeping the traditional logo, but slightly preferred introducing something new.  Given the information from our first survey, it was decided that the traditional logo would retain its place as the primary logo for Caruso Middle School.  

3.) Vector Blue Jay-jpeg

We then explored the idea of a secondary logo that could also be used in the future on items like school spirit wear.  We narrowed the choices down to the top three alternate vote-getters from the first survey and put them out to the students for final input.  The students gave us their feedback and we are excited to introduce a secondary logo to Caruso Middle School as seen below.

Caruso alternate logo - vectorThank you all for your input; we had fun hearing from so many of you!

John Hattie’s Top Ten Visible Learning Takeaways – Number One: Self-Reported Grades/Student Expectations

This is the final post in a ten part blog series (you may click here to start from the beginning).

Much has been written in the past few years about the research of John Hattie and his impressive Visible Learning meta-analyses synthesis.  His work has given educators quantifiable insights that have no parallel in the field of education.  The weight of over 800 meta-analyses related to achievement, based on over 50,000 studies involving millions of students, certainly demands attention and respect.

visible-learning-250w                    visible-learning-for-teachers-by-john-hattie-book-cover

This blog series serves to highlight his most significant findings and their applications to our classrooms from Hattie’s 2012 work, Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning.  Each blog in the series highlights a different finding that ranked in the top 10 out of 150 areas studied, in regard to effect size, from Hattie’s research.  If you are familiar with Hattie’s research, this blog series may serve as a valuable reminder of the findings.  If you are not familiar with Hattie’s works, hopefully you will see these findings are worth sharing and resharing, reading and rereading, and applying and reapplying as they are recognized as best practice in our field.

Need an introduction or a crash course on the effect sizes referenced below?  An effect size of 0.40 is what Hattie refers to as a hinge-point regarding what is significantly effective or at “a level where the effects of innovation enhance achievement in such a way that we can notice real-world differences” (Hattie, 2009).  Anything between a 0.00 and 0.39 is growth, but is not considered significant growth.  Anything below a 0.00 is considered detrimental to student growth.

Number 1 – Self-Reported Grades/Student Expectations (effect size = 1.44)

Students are highly attuned at estimating their own performance.  Hattie interprets this with two specific takeaways, one more positive than the other.  First, the high level of predictability about classroom achievement questions “the necessity of so many tests when students appear to already have much of the information the tests supposedly provide.”  Second, these student expectations “may become a barrier for some students as they may only perform to whatever expectations they already have of their ability” (p. 44, 2009).

Application to the Classroom
In reflecting upon the massive effect size of this specific area it is striking how fixed the findings present themselves.  However, recent research around the concept of growth mindset may be the leverage self-reported grades and student expectations need in order to capitalize and maximize its impact in our classrooms.  dweck final

Carol Dweck is the leading researcher in field of growth mindset.  Growth mindset is grounded in the belief that intelligence is not fixed and that anyone can learn and improve their performance.  She compares our brains to muscles that can grow and strengthen through hard work and persistence.  Her research has found that intelligence is malleable and anyone can change their mindset.

In your classroom, if you can combine the growth mindset philosophy of Dweck with the research findings of Hattie you will have students who believe they can grow and perform at high levels and can predict their performance with a high level of accuracy.  A wonderfully dangerous combination for student achievement!

dweckA Random Mention

Number 94 out of 150 – Homework (effect size 0.29)

Hattie finds that the overall effects of homework are positive, “but there are some important moderators.”  The older the student the greater impact homework has on learning, with high school benefitting two times more than middle school students and middle school students benefitting two times more than elementary students.  The impact was greatest when the material was not complex, when it was novel, and when students were of a higher ability level.

A Peek at the Bottom 10

Number 141 out of 150 – Ethnic Diversity of Students (effect size 0.05)

Hattie does not dedicate any page space to explaining this specific area.  


For more from this blog series view the following posts:

#10 – Feedback

#9 – Teacher Clarity

#8 – Comprehensive Interventions for Learning Disabled Students

#7 – Classroom Discussion

#6 – Microteaching

#5 – Providing Formative Evaluation of Programs

#4 – Teacher Credibility

#3 – Response to Intervention

#2 – Piagetian Programs


Hattie, J., Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement (2009)

Hattie, J. Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning (2012)

Carol Dweck Revisits Growth Mindset:

The Effort Effect:

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Effect size image retrieved from:

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