Zaretta Hammond has over 20 years of experience in education, and has dedicated her life’s work to the issue of equity in the classroom, and to answering an important question: How do we get students to be the leaders of their own learning?

For Zaretta, achievement in learning happens when students feel competent they become confident and in charge of their own learning. The goal for teachers (and for coaches partnering with teachers), therefore, should be to help students become competent learners.

Zaretta believes that much is gained by providing students independence and responsibility. Teachers have a lot to process in real time while teaching, creating a lot of work for a teacher’s brain. Teachers crave tools to reduce that workload. One way to reduce their cognitive workload is by sharing it with students. Rather than being told the answers, or how to get the answers, students thrive when they feel they are a part of the inquiry, and part of a community of learners that can learn new things together. Learning does not have to always be teacher-directed; instead, within a positive learning environment, students can carry out routines that help them process information more effectively and learn to regulate their own learning moves.

Gloria Ladson-Billings coined the term culturally responsive teaching, which she defines as creating the conditions the environment for learners to grow. According to Zaretta, if these conditions are executed well in classrooms, it can lead to happier, more successful students and teachers.


Zaretta uses what we know about neuroscience to help us execute the most optimal culturally responsive teaching that leverages the funds of knowledge students bring with them. After talking with her and reading her book ,Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, we want to highlight three specific examples of using neuroscience to help students and teachers reach their full potential.


Cognitive-Challenging Work

The first core idea of Zaretta’s work that caught our attention was the notion of not being afraid to give students cognitively challenging work. Too often, teachers carry a huge cognitive work burden and are afraid to share too much of that work with their students. Of course, you have to build student capacity to carry the cognitive load over time. Too often we over-scaffold thinking we are sharing the cognitive load. Teachers should be encouraged to share more of this cognitive work, as it is more likely to increase: “Engagement comes when we are doing complex cognitive work that is fun,” Zaretta says. “It is all about helping students not only reclaim their sense of confidence but be the leaders of their own learning – getting them to the point where as independent learners they are carrying the majority of the cognitive load – they self-initiate.”   

We suspect this is also true for coaches working with teachers. So often we fear putting anything else on a teacher’s plate that we are ready to just “give them the answer” or offer our own teaching strategies. Instead, if we can find the will to pause our advice and allow the teacher to discover her own methods, thus partaking in her own cognitive work, autonomy and ownership will increase, and teachers will gain more from the coaching process.


Progress Principle

The next idea from Zaretta that we wanted to share was the notion of the brain’s Progress Principle, and what that means for assessments. We have to re-frame testing and assessment of our students to making assessments “for” students, which Zaretta calls the essential feedback loop. “Assessment FOR learning is about helping students become conscious of their learning moves so they can deliberately change them to improve their learning.”

When students know they are progressing, neuroscience tells us that they will be more likely to persevere through more challenging lessons. The Progress Principle means that just by seeing progress, the dopamine level in our brain’s reward center goes up, and our brain will encourage us to keep going. From a coach’s perspective, the use of fine grain data, for example, can help teachers see their progress and keep them engaged and committed to implementing strategies.



Finally, we want to highlight Zaretta’s thoughts on the need for coaching and collaborative inquiry. We love that Zaretta sees that partnership needs to be at the heart of any approach with teachers:

“Just giving teachers new strategies is not enough. We have to help teachers develop the capacity to build trust with their students – to be in a learning partnership … [Teachers] need instructional coaches who can help them see their blind spots around building a community of learners where students have agency as learners.”

If students sense hostility in the classroom, their brain shuts down. People learn better when surrounded by warmth and productive struggle, and Zaretta feels strongly that coaches can help teachers become what she calls a “warm demanders” of cognitive development, and help students gain more control over learning in the classroom.


If you would like to read our whole interview with Zaretta, check out our blog post, An Interview with Zaretta Hammond.


See Zaretta in person at this year’s Teaching Learning Coaching Conference where she’ll be keynoting. We hope to see you in San Antonio!



As a series of posts leading up to our annual conference, Teaching | Learning | Coaching, we will be sharing thoughts and ideas by experts who will be presenting at the conference. The posts will surface many different ways of looking at coaching, and like the conference itself, we hope they inspire, educate, and provoke new thinking.

We don’t always agree with everything said by our colleagues, but we are grateful for others’ thinking. We move forward by challenging our beliefs, and we hope you feel challenged, too. You can keep up with the thought-provoking posts by subscribing to our newsletter.