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What good teachers do and don’t do?

September 2, 2013

I came across a quote in a book I am reading, The Parallel Curriculum: A Design to Develop Learner Potential and Challenge Advanced Learners.  The book was written by a large team, headed by Carol Ann Tomlinson.  The idea behind the quote is not necessarily novel; however, it was written in a way that captivated my attention.  The authors write:

Good teachers, she knows, challenge learners to think their way through new content, but good teachers never present insurmountable obstacles to the acquisition of knowledge and skills.  (page 66)

So a good teacher “introduces, explains, scaffolds, organizes, and demonstrates new knowledge and skills, as well as engages students with the new material.”

What I like about this framework for good teaching is that it hinges on the teacher being a facilitator of process, rather than a master of content.  I think we can all agree that every good teacher needs to understand the content he or she is about to teach; however, it is not enough to know the material.  The learner, in order to deeply understand the ideas, must go through a process using specific strategies that help unravel the mystery behind the ideas.  Teachers are the guides through the wilderness.  They employ a set of tools, ways of introducing, explaining, scaffolding, organizing and demonstrating new knowledge and skills, that illuminate the concept for a student.  This is a process.  So like the sculptor who molds the clay into a form that has meaning, the teacher uses tools to help the student sculpt unfamiliar ideas into the familiar.

As teachers, we need to create a structure to help students analyze and synthesize the ideas we want them to know and understand.  To create a structure a good teacher uses focus questions, research-based instructional strategies, graphic organizers, and collaborative learning situations to help students sort through the complex ideas.  The understanding should be our goal.

We need to help students “think their way” through the content.”  This implies that good teachers help students move from dependent to independent learners, people who see inherent value in the techniques and apply them to new learning situations.

As a chemistry teacher, I always expected my students to read the text as part of their homework.  I assigned the reading at the beginning of the unit and went about explaining the chapter they were expected to read.  If I am honest with myself, few students read the text in any meaningful way.  They learned to rely on my presentations of the material.  So in some way, I did not move them from dependent to independent learners.  I should have taught them how to read the chemistry text.  How do expert readers and thinkers use a text to gain an understanding.  I just assumed they knew how to do this.  It was a false assumption for the most part.

Good teachers do not make assumptions about what their students know, understand and can do.  Good teachers look for ways to verify what students know, understand and can do and then go about crafting lessons that take students from where they are to a more enlightened place.

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