Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Start By Matching Student Interests, Then Build From There’

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 22, 2014 13 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series on this topic)

This week’s question is:

Based on your research and what you’ve seen and experienced in the classroom, what are the five best practices teachers can do to help their students become better learners?

Though the question asks for five best practices, I’ve also given readers the option to share just one or two suggestions.

In addition to publishing three posts responding to the question, you can listen to a nine-minute BAM! Radio podcast where I interview two educators, Diana Laufenberg and Jeff Charbonneau, whose written responses appear in this piece.

I’ve written elsewhere about the controversy around reaching any kind of universal agreement on what “best” teaching practices might look like. Perhaps this series might point us in a good direction.

Today, in addition to contributions by Diana and Jeff, Ted Appel and special guest John Hattie share their thoughts.

Response From Jeff Charbonneau

Jeff Charbonneau is the 2013 National Teacher of the Year. He is a Chemistry, Physics, and Engineering teacher at Zillah High School, in Zillah, WA. You can follow him on Twitter at @JeffCharbonneau:

Learning begins when students are able to see a strong connection between the material and their own lives. The best learners are those who are able to create those connections with any subject.

The big question then is how to help students create a personal connection to the subject. Here are some of the best practices I have seen:

1) Model passionate learning by being excited, TRULY excited, about your subject.

This means that you come to school ready show your enthusiasm and your passion for the subject. You talk about the books, tv shows, documentaries, performances, or music pieces that you engage with at home that are related to the field you teach. Your teaching is filled with references current theories and work in the field. In essence, the teacher strives to show that the subject matter is alive and current. By doing so, students will have a model of what an active learner looks like. If they don’t know what active learning looks like, how can we expect them to do it?

2) Student teachers. Not pre-service teachers, but use the students as teachers.

I have heard it repeated many times that to truly understand a subject, you need to teach it to someone else. It’s true. And it works. The more times students are asked to explain the material to others - to the teacher, other students, their parents, etc, the better they will understand it. When you teach to someone else you have to come up with varied ways to explain the material, use multiple analogies, and approaches. It leads to a much deeper understanding of the material.

3) Start by matching the student interests, then build from there.

Ever ponder this? If a student is bad a math, one of the first things we do is put them in more math classes at the expense of classes they might both enjoy and be good at. And yet, NFL football players were not pulled off their high school football field and forced to spend more time on the tennis court. Interesting.

Now, I know it’s not the same thing. And I completely agree that all students need to have a solid background in all subjects.

However, this is what it feels like to our students. At times it can feel like they are being forced to do something they are not good at, or care about. It’s our job to help the students see the relevance of the subject matter to their lives. As a teacher you must make a connection between the material and their individual lives. This goes beyond saying “you will use math in your career someday”. Instead let the students SHOW you how they use it in their lives NOW. Have a BMX star in your classroom? Have them do a project on the minimum and maximum distances around the same BMX course depending on lane position. Have an outstanding musician in class? Have them do a project on the wave interference patterns as a function of the chords played.

In other words, let students demonstrate the usefulness of their learning to their everyday lives. Don’t just tell them about it.

4) Ask the students for help.

Each person that I know has one trait in common. They want to be needed. They want to be valued for their skills and have the opportunity to show those skills to others. Easiest way to accomplish this? Ask for help. Even when you don’t really need it!

When a teacher asks a student for help, on an individual basis, it does two things: First, it shows that the teacher is, in fact, human. It places teachers on a more accessible level, one that allows the students and their teacher to be partners in the educational process. Second, it gives the student a sense of pride and confidence to be needed, to be called upon by someone else for help. Most students respond to this with increased effort and focus on their studies.

By allowing students to help, with instruction, planning, or organization - really anything at all in the classroom, you show that they have value as an intellectual.

5) If you want to create a lifelong learner, treat them like one.

We are a function of the things and people we surround ourselves with. If we hear the same thing over and over we begin to believe it.

Teachers need to make sure they are sending the right messages to their students. Believe it or not, they are listening. Treat EVERY conversation as though it will be the one conversation that defines their view of their future.

Response From Diana Laufenberg

Diana Laufenberg has taught all grade levels from 7-12 in Social Studies over the past 15 years. She most recently taught at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, an inquiry-driven, project-based high school focused on modern learning. Her practice has deep roots in experiential education, taking students from the classroom to the real world and back again. Prior to her work in Philadelphia, she was an active member of the teaching community in Flagstaff, AZ. Diana was featured on TED.com for her “How to Learn? From Mistakes” and recognized for earning National Board Certification:

* Be Less Helpful - In most learning endeavors, students will need you. The manner in which you sate that need is incredibly important. Being less helpful is the space in which students are allowed to flounder and fumble. When you can ask a question rather than answer one, do. Think carefully about keeping the student actively engaged in knowing how to know, not just knowing.

* Be Flexible - Students must know that their ideas direct the path of their learning. If you have the entire year planned out in such a way that no matter what a student thinks or wants to pursue, changes that plan in any way, the students know they are a passive actor in their own learning. This is a sure fire way to disengage learners. Look to your lessons and unit plans for places that you can tolerate some flex to the plan, which invites in the student voice.

* Teach Kids, Not Subjects - A phrase repeated by SLA’s founding principal, Chris Lehmann, frequently - teach the child, first and the content, second. A young person can tell when you care for them and when you do not. Meeting them first as a person, a human being in the process of becoming, allows a strong relationship based on a respect for humanity and then a strong learning relationship can flow from there. It does not work the other way around. Students that know you are working for them and caring for them will engage in learning in a way that is more authentic and personally meaningful.

* Build a frame, but not the whole house - I like to think of teachers as architects, building the framework for the learning but with room for the students to bring their own ideas and discoveries to the construction. The role of the teacher is to frame up the structure of the learning and let the students build in the rest of it. Much of the curriculum that students experience today is a fully built structure that all they need to do is open the door and walk through. Learning like this leaves much to be desired. Think of the least amount of frame or scaffolding you need to bring to the learning experience that will still allow the structure to ‘hold’ when the students start to work.

* Reflect Often - For both students and teachers, the reflective process is a critical part of the learning process. In my last 4 years in the classroom, I was able to indulge in the reflective process with my students in a way that I had not done before. This constant spiral of reflection between the learning within and between classrooms was powerful. Effective reflection needs time and space, but if done consistently and over time the results are students that understand their process of learning, working and movement forward as a learner. It was one of the most influential realizations I had in my 12th year of teaching.

Response From Ted Appel

Ted Appel started his career in education working for Outward Bound programs establishing a foundation in experiential education. Taking the lessons learned in outdoor adventure programs to the classroom, Ted began his classroom teaching career as a high school social science teacher. He then became a teacher coach for new teachers at Luther Burbank High School, where he then became a vice principal and then principal. He has served as the school’s principal for the last ten years:

I am generally resistant to engaging in conversations of best strategies or practices. Too often, these conversations focus on some new “hot” idea that will fix everything, or on an overly simplistic checklist created to make it easy for administrators to defend “objective” evaluations. I do believe, however, there are a few teaching and learning principles that can guide a common understanding of good teaching strategies. Within these principles are a multitude of mundane and creative practices which, if used with an understanding of these guiding principles, can consistently bring these concepts to life. These principles are described with no order of priority.

• Teachers need to create structures that support consistent opportunities for students to cognitively process information or physically experience skills being taught.

Learning happens when students engage in learning practices that cause them to do something with information / ideas / skills being presented. This needs to be done at various levels in various ways. Strategies that do not create the opportunity to process are usually little more than information delivery.

• Structures need to be established for teachers to know what is understood by students so appropriate feedback can be given and lesson adjustments can be made.

Teachers need to continuously know the effectiveness of a learning activity. In order for this to occur, teachers need to employ strategies that give them that formative information. Procedures such as consistent monitoring student work, chunking lessons, and other formative assessments are crucial for an ongoing cycle of communication for learning.

• Teachers and students need a clear understanding of what students are learning or getting better at and learning activities need to be aligned to that intent.

While some learning can occur in a random or unintended manner, lessons and practice that is intentional usually has a stronger impact. Students need to be focused on what they are learning with a real sense of purpose. The lesson intent needs to be clear, and it needs to be supported by the processing activity.

• There needs to be a feeling tone in the classroom that encourages students to attend, engage, and be productive.

Learning is unlikely to happen in an environment that is not conducive to that end. Everything from relationships to room arrangement foster a climate that either encourages or inhibits learning. Close attention to all factors that influences the climate is essential. Strong positive, respectful relationships, appropriate expectations, clear rules and procedures all foster motivation for engagement.

• Teachers need to use strategies for students to practice.

Little is retained long term without significant opportunities for practice. This is certainly true for skill development but is equally true for the acquisition on of information. Teachers need to create structures that give students multiple opportunities to practice skills, concepts and information that needs to be retained.

By focusing on broader principles of teaching and learning, teachers not only have freedom to use a wide array of strategies that work to their strengths, it gives them a means to assess and diagnose the effectiveness of those strategies. It acknowledges the complexity of the teaching learning process and engages teachers in a dynamic examination of their work. Teachers can continually ask: are students engaged in processing, are they getting feedback on their learning, are they engaged in work that is aligned to what they need to learn or get better at, is there an environment that is conducive to learning, and do students have opportunities to see, hear, do things on multiple times? The work will never be simple. But, by identifying common principles, there is a basis to engage in a meaningful examination of good teaching.

Response From John Hattie

John Hattie’s research on teaching and learning are having a huge impact on education worldwide. You can find his books here and more information about his work here:

The underlying notion is high impact passionate teachers. That means:

(1) teachers who walk into classrooms with high expectations that ALL their students can achieve success in their learning

(2) communicate their notions of what success looks like to the students (so they can share in working towards this success)

(3) are constantly seeking feedback about their (the teachers) impact on this progress (by assessment, by creating and then listening to student dialogue, etc.)

(4) work together (collaborative impact) to ensure common conceptions of progress and challenge across the school (so it is not so random when students move up in the school)

(5) willing to recognise expertise in colleagues and be part of the coalition of the success.

And to sneak in a sixth - be passionate about having an impact.

Thanks to Jeff, Diana, Ted and John for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be publishing comments from readers in a few days.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind. You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers. I’ll be highlighting one particular publisher every two months, and it’s Routledge’s turn now.

Just a reminder -- you can subscribe to blog for free via RSS Reader or email.... And,if you missed any of the highlights from the first two years of blog, you can see a categorized list of them here. You won’t see posts from school year in those compilations, but you can review those new ones by clicking in the monthly archives link on blog’s sidebar.

You can also see annual lists of my most popular posts.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Last, but not least, I’ve recently begun recording a weekly eight-minute BAM! Radio podcast with educators who provide guest responses to questions. You can listen and/or download them here.

I’ll be posting Part Two in a couple of days....

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.