Sometimes I am asked what is the most important part of teaching effectively or what is the one thing that I’d recommend for people to try. Unfortunately, I don’t believe the question can be answered. There is no single thing that can be done. The more I think about teaching, the more I see it as a complex interaction of many different strategies and ways of thinking. In short, teaching is too complex to answer the question. Therefore, please don’t misinterpret the title or what follows as overly reductionist.
However, as I was considering what to write about today, I thought about what has been most useful for me as a teacher. First my mind went to the importance of concrete representations. Then I thought about the importance of asking question rather than explaining, but then I thought about all the non-verbals and management needed to make questioning work. After some thought I realized that most of the things I do in my teaching are in support of one question: “How do I get the students thinking about the thing I want them to think about?”
This feels somewhat intuitive, but I have (and have witnessed countless others) taught lessons in which the students did a lot of thinking, but were never asked to think about what the teacher wanted them to think about. This insight shows up most prominently in the literature as Abd-El-Khalick and Lederman’s “explicit & reflective” framework for teaching the nature of science. For example, a teacher might set out to help their students understand that science is creative. Throughout the lesson the students are encouraged to be creative, but the teacher never asks the students to think about how science is creative. The students leave that lesson and have NOT learned that science is creative. This finding is extremely well supported. I’ve even applied the notion of explicit & reflective instruction to other content areas and found similar results. Kids can’t just do (even if the doing requires thought), they must also reflect on what they are doing. (This is a problem with the NGSS, they can easily be interpreted as things for students to do rather than things for students to understand, but that is for another post.)
One thing I’ve notice when working with teachers on implementing this idea is that they tend to stay very general. For example, they might ask, “How is what we did today like what scientists do?” This is a reasonable starting point, but doesn’t target anything more specific. Below are some general questions with related specific questions to try with your students.
General Question: How what we did today like what scientists do?
Related Specific Questions: We were creative today, why do think scientists have to creative? Why do you think scientists work together like you did? I notice you didn’t follow a specific set of steps, why can we say the scientific method is a myth?
General Question: What can we say about technology after today’s lesson?
Related Specific Questions: Why is equating technology with digital not accurate? How did the technology change the way we thought today? In what way was technology both a good thing and bad thing in class today?
General Question: What does it mean to learn?
Related Specific Questions: Why does knowing vocabulary not necessarily mean you understand something? Why is learning not usually a quick process? Why is the notion of “right” answers sometimes problematic?
General Question: How are systems of oppression constructed?
Related Specific Questions: In what way does language mediate access to education? How might media portrayals of marginalized groups reinforce inequity? What does a bootstrapping mentality miss about the role of safety nets?
Even though these questions are more specific, they are still open-ended and I work hard to respond to students appropriately. Of course simply asking these questions is not enough. We have to provide a concrete experience on which to draw, ensure our questions are developmentally appropriate, use inviting non-verbals, create an expectation for participation, provide reasonable scaffolding, and many other pieces of effective teaching. Yet, thinking is learning. If we want our students to learn something, we have to encourage them to think about that something.