What if students were a corps of educators? 

Imagine a classroom where visiting 5th grade students are coaching a team of fourth graders in their home classroom. Over the course of an hour, through solving a social and emotional learning-integrated engineering design challenge, the 5th graders apply communication and collaboration skills, use their own built examples, and 1:1 materials of instruction they’ve designed, tested and improved to coach learners through making a project - from start to finish.  Peer instructional strategies are not new in content-area learning, but project-based or hands-on activities are often overlooked as prime time for peer- or near-peer coaching. 

A hands-on SELcascade is a near-peer or peer-to-peer learning approach to engaging multiple grade levels as project-based experts and learners while building communication and collaboration skills. Like arts-integrated projects, hands-on SEL projects construct a demonstrable understanding of an SEL competency while simultaneously meeting the objectives of a project-based design challenge. 

The Look and Feel of Cascades

Every cascade starts with a lead grade-level classroom (or group of classrooms) who serve as coaches for a hands-on activity with the explicit purpose of coaching other (younger or older) learners. The whole process takes place over the course of three to four class periods and impacts two or more grade levels.  Coaches build the primary project as a group, and from that experience create coaching guides (instructional materials, exemplars and coaching strategies) to successfully lead a peer or near peer in another classroom (or grade level) through the creation of the project. These projects and guides belong to them - and go home once the project is over. 

Once the coaches have completed their instructional guides and built coaching strategies, they travel to another classroom and work 1:1 or in small teams to show what they have learned.  Materials are made available to the learner group, and the learners tackle the project.  

At the end of the cascade, the coaches and learners all keep what they make. See the video below for a sense of the feel and flow of the classrooms as they tackle a special shared cascading design challenge - create a Drawbot.

The Dynamic Trio

An effective cascade always has three essential confidences that are being developed, or in play:

Coaches are present and available for learners to experience, reflect on, and solve a hands-on challenge. Given that the information shared is their interpretation of the core hands-on activity, it is up to the coaches to provide as much information and guidance as possible.  These coaches may be from an upper-grade level, a lower-grade level, or the same grade level. 

Learners are matched from the classroom of students who receive, in one class period, a complete hands-on lesson facilitated 1:1 by a peer or near-peer coach.  This is called Cascade Day.  This project is usually in the homeroom of the learner group, or a neutral third location, and takes place over the course of a single hour at the end of the coaching term. 

Coaching Group Educators learn alongside their students and transfer their knowledge to peer educators from a matched Learner classroom on Cascade Day. support their coaches and learners without directly engaging in adult-voiced instruction.

The Three Rules:

1. Show, don’t tell.

Coaches are challenged with the responsibility of showing the instructional guidance, without telling a learner step-by-step directions.  Telling a learner how to do every step subverts the effectiveness of the instructional materials they create, and limits the leaner’s ability to make choices. 

2. Hands Off!
Learners are the only ones who are allowed to touch their project.  Even if they ask coaches to do something for them. Or when they get frustrated.  Or when they feel like it’s taking forever.  Or when it’s not perfect.  Coaches coach - that’s it. 

3. Listen.

Coaches share only when asked.  Learners build their confidence to ask “how did you do that?”, or “where do I start?”.  Coaches who lead with their mouths often leave learners confused, or following verbal directions that are difficult to follow. 

A Visual Guide to Cascades

Here’s a visual example of how a Drawbots Cascade can be implemented in any elementary grade:

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Share your expertise, get $100 off Sparks

If you’re an educator who’s witnessed the power of take-home project-based learning, we’d like to learn from you! Schedule a 30-minute conversation with us, and we’ll give you $100 towards the purchase of Sparks for your learners.

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What’s the Benefit to Learners? 

There’s seven key benefits to the cascade approach: 

  1. The core team of students completes a one-hour SEL-integrated activity, resulting in a formative artifact, SEL skill reflaction & content comprehension 
  1. The core team creates durable materials of instruction to aid their near-peer coaching, learning strategies.and collaboration skills. 
  1. SEL- and STEAM-integrated activities work best - and allow for writing/illustration/ building activity that stand as formative assessments for the coaches, or reflective documents or artifacts that belong to the learners. 
  1. Students and educators prepare to take the role of an expert/coach/instructor and identify coaching strategies (SEL and communication skills)
  1. Students transfer subject matter knowledge with peers - up- or down-grade stream - as coaches (summative, STEAM / Integrated content, SEL )
  1. Educators activate students as experts (staff development/project-based skills)
  1. The scheduling “cost” of intervention is concentrated at one grade level, all other classrooms only pay for materials.

How can you do this in your grade level? 

Confidence skyrockets and expertise is inevitable when near-peers coach hands-on STEAM projects in other classrooms.  Here’s our Padlet page for this program - click through for access to our slide decks, printables, and documentation for a Drawbots Cascade.  

FutureMakers creates hands-on SEL materials that are designed for cascades. We have provided materials to schools that do two-grade cascades, three or more grade levels, and whole-school cascades - up and down grade and age levels.  If you’d like to learn more about our approaches to this incredibly powerful near-peer SEL integration strategy, reach out to us. 

Happy Cascading!

Written by
Matt Barinholtz
Matt Barinholtz is dedicated to transforming educational experiences through playful hands-on learning.