Teaching Requires Knowing Our Students

“Miriam had taught eighth grade for years. She knew the required curriculum and the amount of time available for each unit. Over the years she had collected many instructional resources to add interest to the topic. She was confident that she had fully prepared for teaching this material. Miriam was unaware that the classroom itself doomed some of her students to failure.

Sue had planned on using at least one Cooperative Learning activity to teach this unit. She assumed that, by actively involving her students, they’d all learn enough to get As or B’s on the unit test. She was doing exactly what her supervisor had suggested. This time her students would out-perform themselves! Sue was unaware that Cooperative Learning would not be effective for a majority of her students.

Barbara had taken a course in alternative teaching strategies. She’d learned that the Activity Alternatives in a Contract Activity Package allowed students to use their “multiple intelligences” to show what and how much they had learned. Her roster included several adolescents who were struggling with identity issues. She thought she’d try a Contract to see if students did as well as her professor had predicted they would. Barbara forgot that the professor had said that Contracts were great -for motivated auditory and/or verbal students.

Most teachers assume that if they care about the youngsters they teach and “cover the curriculum,” their students should be able to master it. Most teachers know what to teach, but don’t realize that they can’t possibly know how to teach it without first identifying how their children learn. And most children do not learn traditionally through lectures, readings or discussions.

Doesn’t everybody learn the same way?

Prize-winning research has made it clear that most children can master the curriculum when they’re taught with strategies, methods or resources that complement how they learn. However, students in the same class often learn differently from each other and many actually learn backwards from each other. As a result, Strategy A can produce an A for one student and a C for another, whereas Strategy B can reverse these same two students’ grades.”
-How do we teach them, if we don’t know how they learn? Apr 1999 by Dunn, RitaRita Dunn

We can talk about Educational Technology and its role in transforming teaching and learning all we want; it is an amazing tool that can be used to differentiate instruction and accommodate the learning styles of most students; but isn’t knowing how the individual students in our classrooms learn best, at the core of all school reform?



8 thoughts on “Teaching Requires Knowing Our Students

  1. I have worked in two school systems that worked with the Schlechty Center for Leadership in School Reform. Through the work I did with them, I learned a great deal about what teachers can build into their lessons to engage students and what administrators can build into their work to engage teachers. Here are the 10 design qualities as they call them. Many teachers include some of these qualities in their work instinctively, but they don’t include them deliberately based on their knowledge of the kids they have in the room each period. It goes beyond covering the material and knowing the kids to designing lessons based on knowledge of the kids so that kids learn difficult content at high levels even when they aren’t particularly interested in the content.

    Content and Substance
    What we ask students to learn reflects input from national, state, and local sources and is rich and culturally relevant.

    Organization of Knowledge
    Information and knowledge are organized in a way that makes them accessible and inviting to students

    Product Focus
    The students understand and value their own performances or work products

    Clear and Compelling Product Standards
    The standards for student products are clearly articulated and demonstrated with concrete examples.

    Protection from Adverse Consequences
    Students are provided with feedback while they are working. They have additional opportunities to be successful. Most students meet the product standards.

    Affirmation of Performance
    Products and performances are made sufficiently public so that other persons significant in the students’ lives affirm their importance.

    The tasks are designed with sufficient complexity so that successful completion encourages cooperative action between students and adults.

    Novelty and Variety
    The students are called upon to employ new or varied means of completing the task.

    The students are provided with appropriate choices with regard to performance or products.

    The products or performances have meaning or significance to the students.

  2. Sunny,
    These are excellent!
    So, whether we teach or we lead there are common elements:
    1. we must know our “stuff” content and teaching strategies.,
    2. We must know our students and their learning styles
    3., We must know ourselves; for “who we are, is how we teach”.


  3. I like what Sunny has included and how they offer students the choice they need to demonstrate what they know. I was never that organized but a method I used was called “Show me what you learned”. Using this method, I would give students license to demonstrate their learning in whatever method they chose, provided that they okayed it with me. If we were studying a section in literature and had gone over different short stories, poems and maybe a novel, I’d have them show me what they had learned about: life in general, life for other people and their own lives. I’d get videos, raps, stories, news presentations, drawings and so much more. Through it all, the students and I would work back and forth as they checked in with me, letting me know what was happening. Of course I had rubrics and other assessments built in but, by far, I learned the most about those students from these assignments and they learned a great deal about themselves and the world around them. As for the technology, it doesn’t matter what we use if we use it in an arbitrary fashion without be certain that it’s the best tool for the job. You don’t mix lemonade with a jackhammer.

  4. Pete,
    Absolutely. The content is the “nonnegotiable” variable because our state has a required content, but the “how” is where we really are able to hook ourselves and our students. When I say nonnegotiable, I don’t mean that we don’t need to have a very strong foundation; it is actually quite the opposite. We have to know our students in order to design using the design qualities effectively. Some groups need to see a real world connection more than other groups; some groups need to work together more than other groups.

    Again, many teachers will say, “I already do many of these things.” The difference is selecting which qualities to use based on your KNOWLEDGE of the kids–being deliberate.

  5. Dear Peter:

    Just spoke with Mark via e-mail and I linked in. I am not sure if this adds to the conversation, but one of our school’s initiatives and goals is our training in the Responsive Classroom approach to teaching and learning. “Developed by classroom teachers, this approach consists of practical strategies for bringing together social and academic learning throughout the school day”. Two components (of six) are “guided discovery and academic choice”.

    The guiding principles of Responsive Classroom include: “How children learn is as important as what they learn: Process and content go hand in hand”; “The greatest cognitive growth occurs through social interaction”; There is a specific set of social skills that children need to learn and practice in order to be successful academically and socially (CARES: cooperation; assertiveness; responsibility; empathy; and self-control); Knowing the children we teach-individually, culturally, and developmentally-is as important as knowing the content we teach; and Knowing the families of the children we teach is as important as knowing the children we teach. The first of these principles states “The social curriculum is as important as the academic curriculum”.

    Not a secondary model, but certainly an elementary one. I am not a salesperson for RC, but I have seen it make a huge difference in my building AND Teacher Leaders are the ones who make it happen.

  6. One more thing that I wanted to share. Take a moment and go to YouTube and call up Animal School and call up the video on kids with differences. A pretty smart person created the slide show. Emotional and right on the mark.

  7. FYI – There is a secondary model for Responsive Classroom, called Developmental Designs for Middle School http://www.originsonline.org/dd_index.php.
    I have a teacher-friend in South Burlington who uses it, along with differentiated instruction, in her classrooms to great results.
    I think you summed it up well, Pete.
    Know yourself
    Know your curriculum
    Know your students
    Know solid teaching strategies
    I had the pleasure of meeting Carol-Ann Tomlinson last year, a leader in differentiated instruction, and was able to further appreciate the depth to which it can help in all of the above, especially when coupled with a curriculum mapping process like Understanding by Design.
    I set up a little resource page last year for Differentiated Instruction (among other things). Here’s the link, if anyone is interested.

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