The “what” vs. the “how” of teaching

One part of my job is to lead discussions about the implementation of new learning standards adopted by the state.  Recently, our state approved new social studies standards, and with the way they are arranged (read = lumped together in a 6-8 group) at the middle-school level, it can be a bit of a hurdle to decide what to teach and what grade level.

And that’s the question that first comes to teacher’s minds, isn’t it, when looking at new standards or courses or programs – What will we teach the students?

I think we should examine a different question first:

How will we teach so all students can be successful learners?


To me, the “what” usually takes care of itself.  The “how” is the essential question that really needs to be answered.  To clarify that during curriculum discussions around new standards, I usually start with the questions below:

  1. What do we need to start doing?
  2. What do we need to stop doing?
  3. What do we value more – content acquisition or skill acquisition?

It’s that last question that serves as a lead-in to discussing the instructional shifts that need to take place in order to really implement the standards, to let teachers see that they will need to teach in a way that allows students to be successful rather than just memorize a bunch of content they will quickly forget.

In the end, the “what” of teaching isn’t the goal.  The “how” of teaching is.

Some timely essential questions

This week we were lucky enough to visit another nearby school district’s extended services program for students that need more academic challenge.  In one classroom I saw these essential questions posted on the wall, always referenced during various lessons no matter what the subject area (when we were watching, they were being referenced during an opening unit on slavery):


Right now in the United States, I think these are essential questions we all need to stop and take a few minutes to ponder.

Help students make connections. 

A chemistry teacher at our high school allowed me into her classroom to model how to use concept mapping with students. Today was the first day of the second semester, so we chose to work on some concepts that students weren’t getting as shown by their final exams. After showing them an example of a concept map, students were asked to make a concept map out of the chosen words in poster paper, give feedback on other students’ maps, and then provide evidence that they knew the connections between them. 

Here’s why concept maps are so awesome:

1. They help students practice making connections. Connections are how the brain remembers things. Too often we give notes and expect students to magically make connections when they’ve never actually had practice in doing so. Concept maps give students time to work on the “making connections” skill, especially when students must label he lines between words with why they are connecting those words. 

2. They allow for students to make meaning in their own way. There’s never one right answer to a concept map-only better connections than others. Getting students to recognize and discuss the difference between shallow and deep connections after making and looking at other students’ maps is a powerful thing. A word of caution – if you always hand out black line masters of concept maps for students to fill in, they’re not making meaning; they’re just filling in another worksheet. 

3. They give students a visual of their own understanding. Making the map itself can be a visual hook for remembering and connecting during later learning. 

4. They are an excellent assessment tool-both formative and summative. Walk around while students are making their maps, and it’s a great way to get a read on what students really understand. You can see if they are making surface or deep connections, or if they’re stuck making connections at all. I used to make students make concept maps for final exams to see if they really saw how everything we had studied was related. They are also useful pre-assessments, where you can ask students to connect critical vocabulary before instruction to see what they already know. 

Concept maps are a fantastic tool to put in students’ meaning-making toolbox. We need to use strategies like this to help students practice the skills they really need to be life-long learners. 

The formula for failure.

This year we’ve been pushing a bit in new directions for staff while really trying to support them as we go along.  Just a little reminder as I begin planning for the week ahead, thinking about specific professional development opportunities taking place that will continue to challenge the status quo.

While everyone may not agree or be happy, I don’t think we can forget that if we’re moving in a direction that’s good for kids and they’re learning, we’re going the right way.


Challenge all students.

One of the many things we’re working on at our district is the implementation of a program for students who are identified as academically talented (gifted).  While we have a vision for what we want the program to look like, we still decided to reach out to other districts with gifted programs in order to see if we could come take a peek at their program’s structure and instruction.  One nearby district graciously allowed us to come and see what they did at grades 3-5, allowing us to see their 3rd grade honors program and their magnet school (school within a school) at grades 4 and 5.

We saw some pretty awesome things – instruction was steeped in inquiry and problem-solving, with the expectation that students learn cooperatively but learn to be independent, and metacognition and the habits of mind were more than just posters on a wall.  They were infused into assignments and discussions.


Not once did we see lectures and the old “advanced kids get more stuff faster.”  Teachers were never the end-all and be-all of the classroom.  Kids were asked to do all the mental heavy lifting, integrating technology, with students told to “figure it out” with the resources posted in Canvas for them.  And it was obvious that the students were used this way of doing school, because they eagerly dug in, explored, and figured stuff out on their own and with each other.


It really seemed that the program embodied the motto I saw on every teacher’s classroom wall: “Home for your mind.”


I absolutely loved what I saw.  Real learning was the rule, not the exception.

But as someone who has taught AP and advanced classes and “basic” classes and team-taught classes and regular classes…the question that kept traipsing across my mind on the drive home from this visit was this:

Should this type of learning environment just be reserved for gifted students?

I didn’t get a chance to see the non-gifted classrooms in the building, so I can’t speak to the instruction that was going on in those rooms. But I ask that question above because, in too many schools, what I saw in those classrooms is usually only reserved for those gifted students, because people feel only “those” students can “handle it.” In my opinion, that kind of thinking devalues and underestimates the students who aren’t identified for those specialized programs.  That type of learning will work for all students, although it may involve a lot of reprogramming and practice and time and patience on the part of both students and teachers.

Because we’re supposed to be challenging all students, aren’t we?  And I mean “challenge” in the current best practice-real learning sense, not the “memorizing more stuff that won’t be used after the current grade level/class” challenge of old.


Proactive paranoia and not taking it personally

I’m currently reading the following book:

This is a very real look at how administrators need to have a “proactive paranoia” in order to deal with people that may seek to tear them down. I have to say I’ve developed a certain level of paranoia just reading the first four chapters, which detail ten adversarial tactics used by people and give real examples of bad things that have happened to administrators. 

I’ve worked in an extremely toxic environment before, and my main mistake is taking it personally and then trying to convince and reason my way back into harmony. What I need to remember is this quote from the book:

“Understanding that their behavior is about them-and not about you-will help determine what is in your control and what is out of your control.”

More goodness as I work my way through the book.