Today host Lori Boll speaks with Mitch Weathers, creator of The Organized Binder. Mitch created this binder to empower teachers with a simple but research-backed strategy to teach students executive functioning skills while protecting the time needed for content instruction. Lori & Mitch discuss how establishing a predictable learning routine for our students serves to foster safer learning spaces and how shared routines throughout an entire school helps create collective efficacy.
Mitch became a gifted teacher because he was a mediocre student.
Mitch rarely felt comfortable in the classroom. In fact, it took him 7 years for him to graduate from college.
Choosing to become a teacher, Mitch was fortunate enough to experience school as if it was happening all around him. He was unsure how to jump into his learning with confidence. There is a loneliness to experiencing your education as a passive object as opposed to an active subject.
From the moment he entered the classroom Mitch relied on his personal experiences as a learner. He recognized that what we teach, the content or curriculum, is secondary. We must first lay the foundation for learning before we can get to teaching.
Mitch designed Organized Binder to empower teachers with a simple but research-backed strategy to teach students executive functioning skills while protecting the time needed for content instruction. The secret is found in establishing a predictable learning routine that serves to foster safer learning spaces. When students get practice with executive functions by virtue we set them up for success.
Transcribed by Kanako Suwa
[ Introduction music plays ]
Welcome to the SENIA Happy Hour with your host, Lori Boll. We know you’re busy so we bring you 1 hour of content in under thirty minutes, leaving you with time for a true happy hour.
Lori: Well, hello, everyone today, I got to speak with Mitch Weathers who is a well-known speaker worldwide. He is a giver of webinars and he is the creator of the organized binder. He designed this system to empower our teachers with a simple but research-backed strategy to teach students executive functioning skills while protecting the time needed for content instruction and well, let’s face it time. It’s a concern of all of ours and so to fit in those executive functioning skills and be able to teach content. That’s a bonus.
Today, Mitch and I discussed how establishing a predictable learning routine for our students serves to foster safer learning spaces and how shared routines throughout schools help create collective efficacy. We had a really great conversation, and I know you’ll walk away with some new learning today. So now on to the show.
Well, hello, Mitch, and welcome to the podcast.
Mitch: Hello, Lori. Thanks for having me. I’m glad to be here.
Lori: I’m so glad you’re here. You know, we’re here today to talk about executive functioning, which, of course, is not a new topic, but it’s one that’s completely essential for all educators to know about. So first, how did you get involved or interested in this particular topic?
Mitch: Good question. I have to go back to when I entered the classroom over 20 years ago. I certainly didn’t have the language for it. I wouldn’t have called these skills or habits executive functioning skills, but it occurred to me. So my first teaching job, I taught at a school for 16 years and it was a large comprehensive title, one high school out here. I’m based in California, Northern California. And I was working primarily with students for whom English was a second language, multi-language learners, and many of them had struggled academically historically.
And it just kind of occurred to me like, wow, you’re incredibly gifted and absolutely capable of succeeding. But you don’t know how to, like do school and the good news for you. And I remember, I remember this day is I didn’t really feel like I knew how to do school either. So I looked out at this classroom and I started in the nonprofit space before entering the classroom.
So after undergraduate school, I was an ED of a nonprofit that worked with middle school and high school kids. And so one thing I realized as well, like that was kind of my domain interacting with, with young people. And I didn’t, I didn’t struggle with maybe some of the more typical new teacher classroom management interacting with this alien species called teenagers. You know, it, it was kind of like, OK, I got that and I think it allowed me a little bit of capacity to to just ponder that and like, oh, you don’t, you don’t know how to do this. And now that’s kind of on me because if you’re failing, I’m failing. And I remember, like I was saying, looking out like, oh, I know exactly what you’re feeling like this, this experience of I’m here and I, I kind of have to be here, of course, by law. And it feels like everything’s happening all around me and I have no idea how to, like jump in and enter that, that process of my education with, with a sense of agency or dexterity. And I remember that was me in my K-12. And in fact, I, I maybe even in my undergrad where I just kind of kept trying. It wasn’t until graduate school, I think where I kind of figured out some things about the way I learn and how to approach my, my education.
And so that’s, that’s where I got really interested in, figuring it out. Like, how do you do this, this school thing, this student this and the way I defined it back then was I need to help you understand and figure out how to do all the stuff that surrounds and lays the foundation for the or whatever it is we’re trying to learn. And from that moment, it might have been my first or second year in the classroom. I just, it became very clear to me that content was secondary that there was this primary or foundational work that nobody talked about in graduate school. I have a master’s degree in cross-cultural pedagogy and nobody mentioned any of this stuff. What, what is this? Why, why am I, you know, nobody talking about this? But it just became so clear like, OK, I was teaching these kids biology and engagement was simple. I mean, it was, it’s fun, right? You can go outside, you can do labs, you can fire up Bunsen burners. I mean, science can be a very engaging topic, but it was like, well, this isn’t, this isn’t helping if we’re not also laying that foundation.
So that’s to answer your question. That’s really where I first got interested and have forever been just gripped and fascinated by it because I’m absolutely convinced that it’s, it’s the work that we all need to be doing in education in addition to or in conjunction with those things that we’re hired to teach. It’s not to negate content in any way. But needs to happen together 100%. I often can’t be heard, spouse to the world, but every educator needs to know about executive functioning and how to support students in their classroom. And like you say, build that foundation, I think your word, your word, your phrase content is secondary is just key. And if we could get that thought out there into the world for our administrators to hear. So when, when they walk in the classroom and the teacher is teaching these very important skills, the admin is understanding what’s happening is on board.
Lori: Yeah. Can I jump in there? I think there’s an important piece that, that you’re, I think that I think this makes sense to say right here. You know, historically, we know these skills and habits have been left up to chance, right? Kind of just hope that people and young people pick them up as they move through life. I can’t tell you how many adults I’ve met. They were like, oh my gosh, I wish I had this when I was in K-12. Like I wish I would have practiced these. So the reason I’ve thought a lot about this is that, you know, why, why I’ve never met an educator or a parent or a school leader or district that would argue with what we’re saying.
Mitch: Right. Of course, we need these skills. So why have they been left up to chance? Why do we not explicitly teach them. And I think the reason is twofold one or, or kind of overarching if these executive functioning skills aren’t actually taught in a, in a traditional or kind of didactic sense. They’re best learned when students see them modeled for them and they get daily practice with them by virtue of a consistent or predictable learning routine. And that learning routine and what I mean by that is how we begin, how we transition, how we conclude where we put our stuff, just that kind of rhythm to the day, right? If by virtue of engaging in a predictable routine, it never changes because I’m also convinced that more predictable learning spaces are feel safer for students. They are safer for students and students are more likely to take risks that are inherent to learning when they feel safe. And there is risk, right? When, when we’re learning something new. But if by virtue of this routine, I get practice with these skills, then it kind of frees the teacher up because there’s a, there’s the two reasons I think that they haven’t been taught historically is one is a time crunch.
“You’ll never meet a teacher anywhere on the planet that has enough time to do what they’re tasked or hired to do, right, to teach their stuff. And the second is what something I refer to as zone of genius, right? When you meet that fourth grade teacher and they’re like, this is what I do. This is my zone of genius. And although goal setting and organizational skills and working memory, all these things, self-regulation are important. I may not necessarily, that may not be my sweet spot. Right? And I don’t have time anyway. So where the work that has come out of my teaching practice is, you know, equipping teachers with a predictable routine, one that can be shared from class to class or grade level to grade level. And so by virtue of engaging in this routine, which is within the context of whatever I’m learning, right? Because it’s just the routine to the day or the class period, I get practiced with these skills. So I’m practicing these executive functions in conjunction with or in the context of seventh grade ELA or third grade or whatever that thing is that I’m learning. So when that, when you had mentioned, when an administrator comes by and they’re like, why is this happening in the room? This is supposed to be high school algebra or whatever that might be. It actually, once this predictable routine is in place, teachers find that they have more instructional time because of the consistency and they’re not chasing kids for homework and names on paper and all of, you know, lining up the paper I worked with a teacher that would always have the students draw a red line down the left-hand side of his math page. Right? And so whenever they started the day, but why are they doing that right there, there was no reasoning to why.
I was going to comment on the predictable routines because what I’ve noticed through, in elementary school is a lot of the elementary school teachers do build in these predictable routines because they’re scaffolding and they’re supporting their students through this, these, you know, different learning times. They know what they should be doing in each, in each of their subject areas in that one class and then they head off to middle school and there might be 6, 7, 8 teachers, and every single teacher has a different routine, you know, and so to have one predictable routine, possibly in a middle school setting or even a high school setting would be just ideal in my mind, might be one of the most important things we could do to ease or bridge that elementary to middle and then ninth grade or middle to high school transition, which are so fraught with problematic for students.
I was working with a school, an in-person training yesterday at a K-8, and we were talking about this, and the, that how fortunate they are that when they move into middle school, it’s all on the same campus and we’re all here talking to each other. Whereas I spoke at an equity symposium north of Chicago this year. And I happened to be, it was a district-wide thing and where my session was with, it was at a middle school. And I remember going into the class, people are coming in, and I start my session and I ask everybody, I’m like, is this your bell schedule? And they were like, yeah, and I said, you have 10 periods a day and they, I think like 38 minutes long or 42 minutes, something really, really short. I, I, and I said, yeah, and I, I, I’ve never seen 10 before. I’ve seen, like you said, like maybe 7 or 8. And we talked about it. I said, think about a student’s experience and how just scary. Let’s just admit it. Like I’m in fifth grade and up until fifth grade, if I’m at a K-5, it could be a K-6, whatever. My last year of elementary, what happens? And we don’t ever like, I don’t know, certainly some teachers do but explicitly acknowledge it or talk about it, the world shifts on its axis because up until then I have one teacher, it’s self-contained. It’s self-contained. They’re 11 on me and then I get to fifth grade, and everybody just starts talking about the big leap to sixth grade and imagine leaving that one self-contained environment.
And then I find myself in 10 different classes to your point with 10 different routines, 10 different potential expectations, and 10 different subjects. I mean, we’re right and all that translates into increased cognitive load which we know right, cognitive load. It influences working memory and working memory or kind of our short-term memory, which is the engine for really learning that we’re using every day. It’s, it, it has a capacity to it, it’s finite. So the more we tax it, there’s less available for me to do the work of learning as an individual student. And so when I see those environments and you can see and, and I always think back to my students, you know, multi-language learners, there’s, there’s they just, it’s guaranteed they’re gonna have cognitive load compared to their English-speaking peers, right? Because I’m translating everything I’m hearing, everything I’m reading, and now I’m in 10 different environments with 10 different expectations. I mean, we start differently with like there’s just so much cognitive load there that the capacity is, is diminished.
So to your point that you brought up a shared routine. So now I walk to each class with a sense of confidence, like I know what to do before I even arrive to begin and be ready and go with this class community. And that’s that modeling piece. So my work with organized binder, the analog physical color-coded organized binder. And if anyone listening hasn’t seen one just go to the website, you’ll see a picture that’s all about reducing cognitive load by nonverbal visual queuing in the classroom. So if I have 30 students in the classroom and I’m showing up and I am for whatever reason, maybe having a AAA larger or greater cognitive load. And we know there’s lots of reasons for that teacher has that modeled for me when they walk in. This is where you need to be in your binder. It’s a certain color, it’s a certain tag. And let’s say there’s 30 kids. Like I’m saying, I have 29 visual reminders all around me about where I need to be to engage with the learning community when we begin. And all of that makes it more likely that students could go to six or seven or eight different environments and be successful.
Lori: It’s all routine. It’s all predictable routine and modeling. Great. And so your shared routine is through your organized binder that is color-coded by class. I’m assuming no 11 binders per subject. So the color coding is one binder per subject.
Mitch: There’s a few reasons for that. So the color coding is more about the steps of the routine. So we begin here and then we transition here. And so for us, it’s that we begin with a reteach and a revisit of previously learned concepts or standards so that I get opportunities for retrieval practice which strengthens working memory and then we introduce the lesson and then we get ourselves organized. There’s very clear steps that are really just the first few moments, and then we have a concluding routine. The last few moments in between is what teachers do their thing, right? So that’s where it can be within the context of whatever I’m learning.
Lori: Got it. That makes sense. Yeah. So how did those shared routines lead to more collective efficacy?
Mitch: I think it’s the thing that leads to collective efficacy. If we look at it, you know, visible learning how these work and you know, the effect size collective teacher efficacy is if not always number one on that list, that’s one or two, you know, if anybody’s new to this, you know, 0.4 is like the overall average of one grade year in terms of impacting students. So anything above a 0.4 on that effect size has a greater than one year of an impact. 0.8 theoretically two years, collective teacher efficacy is always like 1.5. It’s like completely off the charts. But that belief that we’re all in this together, if we’re all rallying around, what better way to do that than to adopt a shared routine that doesn’t infringe upon my instructional time, but gives my students daily practice with these executive functioning skills that research and literature clearly. So lay the foundation for learning. So what better thing to rally around than that routine? So or I should say one of the things to rally around, but I do see it as you know, central.
Lori: Can you share some strategies on how to teach some of these foundational skills in the classroom? Maybe just one or two?
Mitch: But so, so again, I’ll, I’ll, I’ll come back to they’re not taught, right? So what if if we’re ever inter interacting with and, and working with schools or teachers? It’s not like we equipped them with, here’s a lesson or a unit on goal setting. So explain goal setting and and then model it for students and you know, all of that, what we do is come in and say, OK, so what, what, what’s a really simple because most young people have not set goals, most adults, let’s be honest, really have not set goals, maybe New Year’s resolutions here and there, but it’s, I’ve from my experience, it’s even the, even that convoluted for young people who’ve never set goals.
For us, instead of me working with a teacher and saying here, let me teach you the importance of goal setting or how to set goals. Let’s equip you with a template that has three steps. And so we would go in and, and you are going to set goals with your students within the context of your subject or grade level because let’s pretend we’re in high school as a learner, my goals in English might look very different than in science or history or art or whatever that might be. So that context matters with these. So for us, it, it our work, it’s all about and our trainings working with teachers, we’re showing them how to model this routine so that students get practice with the skills so they’re not actually taught.
So it’s all about saying, OK, we have this first step where we introduce or we kick off the lesson and I’m coming back and I’m reteaching and revisiting a previously learned concept or standard. And what the best practice there for teachers is we know that the more clarity we bring to the point of every lesson, like the objectives, the more likely students are to get it. So let’s just pretend I’m here on Monday and I’m kicking off the lesson, that’s what we call it with organized binder. What was the point on Thursday or Friday the last time I saw you? Because if you don’t know as the teacher, then how am I, how are you gonna bring clarity and, and, and clear up misconceptions and have that Reteach? But when we look at you would ask the question, how you teach these executive functioning skills in the classroom? What’s actually happening when I take a moment to revisit and reteach previously learned concepts, student’s perception is it’s a chance to get my questions answered clear up misconceptions. OK? I got this before we move on. That’s like the intent.
But the kind of science of learning, the cognitive science there is it’s that retrieval practice, it’s going back. And where is that? And using my working memory while I’m interacting with this kickoff prompt and reteach. And then I’m, I’m putting it back. So you’re actually teaching an executive functioning skill by simply having this way of starting each time. And it’s the same thing we conclude that we begin the school day or the class period with a revisit from previously learned ideas. And we conclude with a similar reflection kind of a meta cognitive practice, but it’s on the stuff we’ve learned or experience today. Always coming back to reflection because that’s what incorporates working memory through retrieval practice, which we know is the more repetitions like this is Zana’s work and others that you know, the more exposure students have to with the learning, the more likely it makes it into their long term memory, write that back and forth.
So, and then our next step is saying, let’s take a moment and introduce the lesson that increases predictability. What are we gonna be doing? And then we model for them on that. How do you keep a calendar like brass tacks? Like, what’s that look like? And this is better done in our training than here talking about it. But it’s looking ok at the skill of time and task management. What does that look like? How do I, you know, know what I’m responsible for two weeks from now or three weeks from now? And how do I model that for students? We make it very simple for teachers. So that, that’s the work of it is it’s equipping them with this routine. And because there’s these portfolios or these binders that’s constantly modeled for students, each of these skills, I hope that makes sense.
Lori: Yeah, it makes complete sense and I appreciate you clarifying that you’re not teaching them through a lesson.
Mitch: It’s just you, no stakes, right? Just get practice with it and it’s no stakes if I did it wrong. Or it’s not impacting my course performance. And it’s that repetition over time where these skills move into our kind of like subconscious, we get them. They’re ours now.
Lori: So cool. Thanks. So Mitch, you are going to be presenting at our conference coming up here in November at our virtual conference. Can you give us a little sneak peek about what you’ll be talking about all this stuff?
Mitch: I’m absolutely thrilled to be participating. Yes, definitely going to be looking at how to teach executive functioning skills. And I recognize the dichotomy there because they’re not actually taught, but that’s what I want to unpack for listeners and what I want attendees to my particular session to experience. Is this work in a way if you’re a classroom teacher or it doesn’t even have to be a classroom for this work. There’s going to be concrete and tangible takeaways that you can use the next day in your classroom. I think that’s like one of the important parts of specifically teacher PD, like it could be really good ideas, but if it requires so much work on my part to integrate it into what I already do, It’s just less likely to have an impact.
So we’ll look at, you know, what are executive functioning skills. We’ll talk about why they have been left up to chance or historically not been taught. We’ll explore the three keys of teaching these skills and I’ll really unpack that for attendees, which is the three are clarity routine and modeling, which you and I have been talking about Laurie. And then I will model for everybody, the daily routine that we’re talking about. How does, what does that actually look like for me as a teacher? That’s the goal of the session.
Lori: Well, awesome. I’m pretty excited about it and I know our participants will love it and take so much away from it and we appreciate the strategies. So that’s, that’s what we’re told after every conference is that people walked out of there with tools and strategies they can use right away.
Mitch: That’s the goal. Yeah.
Lori: Right. Well, I also understand that you have some exciting news to share with us, I should tell.
Mitch: Yeah. So I’m, I am thrilled as well and the time it’s, it’s a right when the preorders will happen when about the time of the conference. But I have written my first book. It’s being published by Corwin. The actual publication date is February 24. and the title at this point is, it’s still, I think some of that being tweaked, but for the most part, it’s Executive Functions for Every Classroom. And with a, with a subtitle of, but, you know, making a point about something about predictable routines because that’s modeling and routine, everything you and I are talking about. and yeah, I’m thrilled to put it out in the world. I’ve never written a book. It’s been quite a journey. I was incredibly honored to even have the opportunity and to be honest, it’s really, I’ve done my best to write a book. That is exactly what I will, you know, provide at the SENIA conference, something that’s realistic, tangible takeaways for the busy teacher that I can read this and be like, oh OK. So it’s again, that theory and practice and all that’s there. But what does it mean? You know, or I should say theory and research, but then what’s that mean for my practice? And it will be very, very tangible, very practical takeaways for teachers in the book.
Lori: Well, that’s exciting. Congratulations. I know it’s no easy feat and I can’t wait to read it.
Mitch: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Lori: Well, Mitch, I think that’s all we have time for today.
Mitch: Thank you.
Lori: Thank you for coming on the podcast, sharing your wisdom with us and we will see you at our conference.
Mitch: I’m thrilled. I’m excited. Thanks for having me.
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