We live in an age where the number of discussions about education reform, teacher accountability, and dropout rates have become the basis of news reports, research topics, and even dinner conversation topics. Many educators feel the overwhelming pressures of high-stakes testing, the lack of parental involvement, biased teacher evaluation systems, and limited amounts of instructional time to sufficiently address all of the academic standards prior to the end of the school year. At times, as an educator, it becomes difficult to decipher through it all in order to figure out what to do to meet the needs of the divergent learners that come into our classrooms. It is because of this difficulty, which in part, may explain the alarming number of teachers choosing to leave the profession altogether. With so many challenges, many may ask: “Well, what is the answer to improving student learning?” The answer is that in the midst of it all, educators must remain committed to the one element within education that is within their control, which is authentic and purposeful teaching. This type of teaching occurs when teachers seek to teach so that their students understand because without understanding learning ceases to exist. In order to teach for understanding, teachers can choose to focus their energies to committing to three key principles: teaching the whole child, taking careful mental notes along the way, and making the learning process a reciprocal process.
So, let’s begin! Teaching the whole child takes work because, in order to teach the whole child, you must know the whole child. This requires studying your students. As we study our students, it is necessary that we endeavor to collect artifacts or data that offers insight as to what they are heard saying and observed doing. The information gained aids teachers in making accurate inferences relative to student learning. Through student observations, the value is placed on the qualitative data that children can offer, but in today’s society, the quantitative data or numerical value that can be derived from test scores have unfortunately gained more value. So, our students have been often times seen more as numbers rather than actual people. For example, consider the times that you have had the opportunity to participate in an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting, or a Data Team meeting. Think about how the strengths and needs of various students were identified. You may recall hearing the number of grade levels that a child may have been performing at in comparison to his or her peers or the number of words that a child could read fluently within a minute. Indeed, the numbers can provide vital sources of information, but they are not the only sources of information that educators can glean from. So, instead of “talking numbers”, educators should seek every opportunity to learn why students perform at the level that they do. This is not a superficial task, but one that requires work and dedication.
Secondly, it is so critical that teachers make mental notes before teaching, while teaching, and after teaching. Engaging in a reflective practice is so necessary if teachers endeavor to be more than what Wiggins and McTighe identify as “coverage teachers”, but instead, teachers that are truly invested in their students’ ability to understand what is taught. Making these mental notes requires that you monitor the level of engagement, motivation, and interest that your learners take in the learning process that you have been assigned to facilitate. Recording these mental notes, requires that teachers not only engage in observing their students, but that they also strive to make connections that will help them to assess where their students are, where they are as the teacher, where understanding is occurring, where there may be potential breakdowns in understanding, and what next steps should be considered in moving forward. Making mental notes is advantageous because it gives the students the opportunity to benefit from responsive teaching, which means that the teacher is not teaching at them, but teaching for them… for them to understand.
Lastly, in order for students to understand what is taught, they must be invited to be a part of the process. Authentic and effective teaching is grounded in inviting students to engage in a process where reciprocity occurs. This reciprocity takes the form of teachers being willing to teach their students and to learn from them, and where students are willing to do the same. Believe it or not, there is a great deal that our students can and will teach us if we give them permission to do so. We no longer live in an age where teachers serve as the sole provider of dispensing knowledge, but students can take on this role as well. Teachers can and must create a learning environment in which students’ thinking is valued, their opinions are welcomed, and their experiences are invited. In the absence of these components, students become disengaged and teachers struggle to teach for understanding.
Just like anything else in the world of academia, the three principles in this article cannot simply be remembered, but must truly become embedded within the “teaching DNA” of an educator if they are to be truly practiced. These principles must be adopted as a part of the educator’s teaching philosophy, and not to be dismissed when new administrative mandates are introduced or drastic shifts in students’ behavior occur. Instead, teachers must remember that each principle discussed in this article is the source for relationship-building. “Good” teaching, which is teaching for understanding, is most evident when teachers strive to build healthy, genuine relationships with their students.