High-Performing Classrooms: 32 Characteristics

by Terry Heick

This post was originally written in 2013 and updated in 2023

Instructional design is the strategic creation of learning experiences through planning, sequencing, and data-based revision of learning.

This process includes both the ways content is accessed and the learning needs and objectives (and how they are determined) themselves. This puts instructional strategies, literacy strategies, curriculum mapping, standards unpacking, assessment design, digital literacy, and a dozen other facets of education beneath its umbrella.

Before we look at the categories and facets of a high-performing classroom, here are a few points of emphasis in a modern classroom.

See also A Checklist For Teachers Today: From Creativity to Assessment

Technology Integration

A modern classroom leverages technology to enhance the learning experience. This includes interactive whiteboards, projectors, computers, tablets, educational software, and internet access. Technology enables personalized learning, engagement, collaboration, and access to many educational resources beyond traditional textbooks.

Active Learning and Collaboration

Modern classrooms emphasize active learning techniques over passive learning. Students are encouraged to participate actively in discussions, problem-solving, and hands-on activities. Collaborative learning is also essential, promoting teamwork, communication skills, and diverse perspectives. Group projects, debates, and interactive exercises are common in such classrooms.

Flexibility and Personalization

A modern classroom recognizes that students learn differently and at their own pace. It embraces differentiation and personalization of learning experiences to cater to individual strengths, weaknesses, and interests. Teachers use various instructional strategies to accommodate diverse learning styles, ensuring every student has content, learning strategies, reading lists, assessment styles, etc.,

Social Emotional Learning

Teaching social-emotional skills in the classroom is crucial because it equips students with essential abilities to navigate their emotions, build positive relationships, and develop self-awareness and self-regulation. These skills foster a supportive and inclusive learning environment, improving academic performance and well-being. Students can better cope with stress, develop empathy, and make responsible decisions by understanding and managing their emotions. Additionally, social-emotional learning enhances communication and conflict-resolution skills, enabling students to collaborate effectively and foster a sense of belonging, contributing to their personal growth and success in academic and real-life situations.

Within the above context, we’ve created the following 32 characteristics of high-performing classrooms to help you spot opportunities for growth in your teaching.

Technology Integration

  1. Technology connects students with authentic content and communities
  2. Personalized learning experiences are achieved through a variety of mobile, game-based, or self-directed learning
  3. Technology creates learning opportunities impossible without it
  4. Technology is a means, not an end

Cognitive Demand

  1. From bell ringers and quizzes to accountable talk and assessments, assignments are nuanced and complex within, as much as possible, each student’s Zone of Proximal Development
  2. Students generate original ideas from seemingly disparate sources of information
  3. Students consistently revisit ideas, thinking, and general misconception
  4. Thinking habits are valued over demonstrated ‘proficiency’

Lesson Planning

  1. Lesson planning templates, as much as possible, center students, teachers, and content more than local mandates, policies, standards, and procedure
  2. Bloom’s taxonomy (or related learning taxonomies) is/are used to move students from basic to complex thinking daily
  3. Data is accessible to teachers in a way that allows for the immediate consistent revision of planned instruction
  4. There is clear evidence of backward design


  1. Transfer is required to prove mastery
  2. Data is easily extracted and visualized
  3. The academic standard and assessment form complement one another
  4. There is opportunity for students to demonstrate what they do know rather than simply succeed or fail in demonstrating what the assessment asks for
  5. Feedback loops are clear for teachers and effective at helping students learn

Curriculum Mapping

  1. Curriculum naturally absorbs and adapts to data sources
  2. Curriculum maps are dynamic, changing in response to data and circumstance
  3. There is clear priority of academic standards (not all standards are created equal)
  4. There is clear evidence of the Gradual Release of Responsibility model

Learner Choice

  1. Student questioning–rather than the teacher’s–drives learning
  2. The ability for self-directed learning extends beyond the topical to assessment forms, research sources, learning technology, topics, and essential questions
  3. Learning pathways can be self-directed by ambitious, supported, and/or resourceful students
  4. Students recognize and can articulate their own role in the learning process at any given time

Classroom Management

  1. Expectations are clear 
  2. Discipline is a collective effort: peers, colleagues, administration, and family
  3. Fair doesn’t always mean equal
  4. ‘Behavior’ starts with self-awareness and self-respect, which must be encouraged and modeled

Student Support

  1. Students have choice to demonstrate understanding
  2. There are exemplar models immediately accessible to students of all important work and activities
  3. Students are accountable to peers, families, organizations, and communities, not you
  4. Student literacy levels are meaningfully taken into account when planning instruction


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