Monday / April 22

Are You Planning the Best Possible Instruction?

We find the same issues cropping up in conversations with thousands of teachers across the U.S 

You face a high-stakes conundrum when it comes to planning instruction: either create curriculum from scratch, cobbling together their own resources with ones from online repositories that have little to no quality control OR follow a mandated, scripted curriculum from publishers that requires extensive supplementation, personalization, and/or renovation to make it usable.  

Teachers either are stripped of their professional autonomy and made to “follow the script” or have too-wide variance in the teaching between classrooms and grades, even in the same school. The result is a low-quality educational experience, especially for our most at-risk learners. 

The good news? There is a way forward.  

When learners are cognitively apprenticed to  

  • know (grasp concepts),  
  • do (apply knowledge to make meaning and get things done), and  
  • think (justify and explain what and how they know, monitor and self-correct performance, and adapt what has been learned for use in new situations) 

more like an expert, their performance mirrors what cognitive scientists call understanding. The EMPOWER Model can help you plan units and lessons that lead your students to deep understanding – while enhancing motivation, cultural relevance, and transfer. (It will make your job more fun, too!) 

Introducing the EMPOWER Model: A Game-Changing Framework for Planning and Teaching 

In our most recent book Planning Powerful Instruction: 7 Must-Make Moves To Transform How We Teach – And How Students Learn, we outline how effective teaching requires creating the conditions of motivation, supporting the development of expertise (especially through the use of deliberate practice), and working to achieve transfer. 

The EMPOWER model, which helps teachers simplify the design and delivery of teaching aligns with the cognitive science of improving. At every stage in the process, learners actively engage in the “hard fun” of mastering new learning. There is explicit and active teaching throughout, punctuated by periods of learners’ deliberate practice, and then time to use and enjoy, consolidate, personalize, and extend their new competence. In other words, there is a balance of instructional and independent work—of apprenticeship, practice, and use. 

The EMPOWER Model represents seven crux moves of master teachers across every domain, starting with two planning steps, “E” and “M”: 

  • Envisioning a destination: setting clear, personally relevant goals for learners 
  • Mapping the mental model and the “path to mastery”: deconstructing the learning 

And then culminating in a five-part learning sequence captured in the letters “P-O-W-E-R”: 

  • Priming the learners: activating prior knowledge and preassessment 
  • Orienting the learning: helping learners grasp the destination, and the purposes and payoffs of reaching it 
  • Walkthrough and extend expertise: apprenticeship into “3D learning,” new, ways of knowing, thinking, and doing 
  • Explore new territory: push learners towards independence 
  • Reflect on the journey: facilitate metacognition, “thinking about the thinking” 

EMPOWER is not a formula; it is a mental model or map—a representation of how an expert teacher performs the complex tasks of teaching. The possession of a complex mental model or map for complex task completion is the hallmark of expertise (Ericsson & Pool, 2016). This is why using EMPOWER helps map the journey toward expert teaching.  

EMPOWER provides a map for teachers to follow as you plan and then apprentice learners through completing a complex task using expert stances, concepts, and strategies. What’s more, EMPOWER provides a process for planning and implementing instruction—and for learning itself—that reflects the expert knowledge and research from a wide variety of the learning sciences.  

How EMPOWER can help you and your team 

EMPOWER captures the “must-make moves” of planning and implementing guided inquiry. It also cultivates a spirit of high-road transfer, which is the crux goal of inquiry as cognitive apprenticeship. 

A focus on transfer may seem obvious, but research shows that transfer rarely occurs in school (Haskell, 2000; Perkins & Salomon, 1988). When it does, it’s usually low-road transfer, where two tasks so closely resemble each other that learners automatically use the same strategies. For example, if you rent a car, you transfer what you know about driving your own car to driving the rental. High-road transfer, on the other hand, requires “mindful abstraction of skill or knowledge from one context to another” (Perkins & Salomon, 1988, p. 25). To continue the example, if you suddenly had to drive a forklift or a school bus, you’d have to ask yourself, “What do I do first?” In other words, high-road transfer requires you to know what you do, why you do it that way, how you do it, how you know it works, in what kinds of situations you might use the knowledge, how to adapt and extend your understanding, and how to self-correct and think through problems. 

Imagine what could happen if you and your colleagues came to a common understanding about achieving this level of transfer in your units? 

In our work as thinking partners with thousands of teachers over the years, we have found that EMPOWER helps teachers know how to teach learners how to develop and use expert strategies as readers, writers, and problem solvers. 

What’s in this shift in practice for you? Becoming a highly competent professional teacher who can more expertly motivate and assist your learners. What’s in it for the kids? Everything! EMPOWER moves learners into the future with purpose, motivation, and expert tools that provide them with the deep understanding to make their way in the world as learners and community members in ways rarely achieved by traditional instruction. 

Our books Planning Powerful Instruction, grades 6-12 (available now) and grades 2-5 (available in April 2020) walk you through every step of EMPOWER and provide numerous strategies you can use immediately in every step of the model. We’ll break down some of the books’ key concepts and tools for you on Corwin Connect in the coming months. In the meantime, we invite you to reach out with questions and to check out our website, for downloadable tools that will help you get started with EMPOWER right now.  


Ericsson, A. & Poole, R. (2016). Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise. New York: Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt. 

Haskell, R.  (2000).  Transfer of learning: Cognition, instruction, and reasoning.  San Diego:  Academic Press.   

Perkins, D., & Salomon, G. (1988). Teaching for transfer. Educational Leadership, 46(1), 22–32 


Written by

A classroom teacher for fifteen years,  Jeffrey D. Wilhelm is currently Professor of English Education at Boise State University. He works in local schools as part of a Virtual Professional Development Site Network sponsored by the Boise State Writing Project, and regularly teaches middle and high school students. Jeff is the founding director of the Maine Writing Project and the Boise State Writing Project. After 8 years as a classroom teacher,  Rachel Bear spent two years as co-director of the Idaho Core Coaches for the Idaho State Department of Education, supporting teachers in implementing the Next Generation Standards. She currently is a Senior Program Associate for the National Writing Project (NWP), supporting the College, Career, and Community Writers Program (C3WP), which focuses on improving academic writing in rural school districts. Adam Fachler is a strategist, coach, and consultant for Pre-K-12 teachers and educational leaders throughout New York. He left the classroom in 2014 to co-found the School in the Square, a public charter school in Washington Heights. In addition to creating the EMPOWER framework, Adam is a leading expert in Thinking Maps®—a visual language for learning—and leads acclaimed regional certification workshops in the methodology.

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