Tag Archives: Education

Effective teaching

Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice. Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers. Teachers College Press, 2013.

Years ago while still teaching at a school in Los Angeles, a colleague of mine championed any professional development opportunities to make connections between neurological research and understanding how students learn.  Many of the articles she encouraged me to read did, in fact, open my eyes to thinking more broadly about how my students might better acquire new knowledge.

Like my former colleague, authors Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers clearly see connections between the brain and learning.  This may seem like an obvious statement yet, as the authors successfully argue, there is a need to explain kinship between the brain, its functions, research, and teaching.  In addition, such connections need to be presented to pre-service and professional teachers in convincing and clear presentations. In many ways, Wilson and Conyers succeed on this front.  The big ideas are discussed in detail in separate chapters organized around questions intended to help focus readers and including sections that provide emphasis on a variety of key points.  In addition, the text includes chapters on the challenges and opportunities of education in the 21st century, myth busting as an educator, and the forward nature of continuous learning.  The five big ideas focus on the nature of neural plasticity (flexibility of the brain in terms of learning), recognizing human potential, understanding the nature of intelligence, how body movement can link to learning, and understanding concepts of metacognition.

A particularly important idea to embrace in successful teaching is to not have a fixed mindset about human potential or the nature of intelligence.  Modeling a “growth” mindset is important to show students how everyone can continue learning, including teachers.  Such modeling can be seen in teachers who demonstrate high standards, nurture students, focus on ideas like mastery, use formative assessment, and emphasize development of thinking skills among other ideas.  This third “big idea” for teaching is an essential component of successful teaching.  The teacher whose mindset remains fixed cannot bend or grow with their class.  If the teacher won’t advance their own mind, why should the student?

A weaker aspect of the text are the “Perspectives on” dialogues that create conversations between fictional teachers in order to explain conflicting attitudes toward the big ideas (this is particularly true in the body-brain chapter).  This method, while common in a number of texts about education, rings false.  Perhaps reshaping these conversations as dialogue between real teachers presented with the concepts explained in the chapter might be more powerful.  In addition, by using real people, the nature of debate and disagreement about teaching and learning could be viewed more clearly.  I found the “from teachers to teachers” more helpful.  These vignettes provide real case studies of how teachers are using some of the discussed strategies in practical, meaningful ways.  I’m also not convinced by some defense of the Common Core standards that appear in the text (pp. 135, 143).

Overall however, the text provides some useful links and suggestions for how to improve teaching.  To this end, I found the section covering the idea of metacognition, or, “thinking about thinking” particularly fascinating.  When assigning complex tasks to students (eg, interpreting documents or writing an essay), metacognition demands that students consider how they go about these tasks and in what order (pp. 117-119).  Each step becomes possible to complete, building toward the end goal and allows students to assess their progress along the way, seeing how and where they might improve.  Such approaches allow teachers and students alike to see where structured support or perhaps research might aid learning.  Finally, metacognition should work successfully in enhancing both student peer appraisal and teacher-directed suggestions and evaluation.


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Teaching to Inspire

Rosanne Liesveld and Jo Ann Miller with Jennifer Robison, Teach With Your Strengths, How Great Teachers Inspire Their Students. New York: Gallup Press, 2005.

In the introduction to this work, the authors discuss how the Gallup Organization has studied the question of “what makes a teacher great.”  The authors argue that teachers can have a greater impact on their students, and therefore society, than their parents.  Due to this conclusion, the importance of the teaching profession can’t be understated.  The main purpose of the book, however, is to explore how “teaching with strengths makes teachers happier, more productive, likelier to stay in the field, and far more successful in the classroom.” (11-13)

Years ago, when I began teaching, I had zero experience.  I had not been through a training program, I had not, other than leading class discussion or guest lecturing in a classroom, taught an entire class period (high school, middle school, or college), and I certainly had never planned out an entire year.  I had, one would think, very little on which to base my lessons in my first semester.  So, like many instructors, I learned on the job.  I did have two advantages that many starting teachers do not – two parents who, between them, had over 50 years of teaching experience.

That fact aside, I still remember sitting outside my first classroom (this was for what was then called World History II), day one, and thinking, “I have a plan, I have a plan, I have a plan.”  I sort of did; I focused on that about which I excelled and had been good at most of my life – my memory.  That particular lesson went ok, once the students got past the idea that the 23 year old in front of them was “in charge,” but I knew that I couldn’t rely simply on memory and storytelling, even if these were two strengths.

This text asks teachers to do just that when attempting to succeed – use your strengths more than anything else and don’t under any circumstances, believe that to be truly good at your job, you must concentrate on your weaknesses.  The authors argue that working on weaknesses in an effort to improve your overall teaching won’t work.  Teachers end up dividing their energy, perhaps become frustrated, and in worst case scenarios, do more harm than good to themselves and their students.

In addition to this overarching philosophy, the book has a lot to say about teaching as a profession that is important for educators and the general public to understand.  According to surveys conducted by Gallup, (as a reminder, Gallup is the publisher so consider this point carefully), whereas 76% of American adults believe that a lack of student discipline is a serious problem in public schools, only 4% of teachers reference the students when asked why they might wish to leave the profession (17).  The authors follow up this statistic with an important observation about how the public (and teachers with little talent at their jobs) assume that students are a captive audience.  This assumption negatively impacts teaching, argue the authors, because effective teaching works with volunteers who are emotionally engaged with learning (17,18).  Perhaps most important, the authors emphasize that to have success, good teachers must “tap students’ innate interests and needs to help them learn” (18).  To bolster this point, Teach describes how mediocrity in teaching can emerge because of a false believe that “anyone can teach” and that while learning more about work for which you have a talent can be rewarding, no amount of advanced education will turn a mediocre teacher into a great one (19, 23).

Starting at the conclusion of chapter one and repeated in additional sections, the text offers prospective and current teachers exercises and case studies, all of which could be quite useful for training classrooms or self-reflective practice.  It wouldn’t be cricket to reveal a lot of the “action items” or “_____ in teachers sounds like this” sections, but I can say that these points, along with the “CliftonStrengthsFinder” are some of the most useful pieces I’ve examined that confirm and expand my thoughts on teaching in quite some time.  Teach With Your Strengths, like a lot of other helpful teaching aids (see Harry Wong, Daniel Pink, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Louis Rubin, Bruce Larson and Timothy Keiper), is most assuredly another arrow for the quiver.

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