How To Teach Differently


While the call to innovate learning is strong, it isn’t an easy process for the classroom teacher even if they have strong understanding, resources, and wherewithal. With all of the admonishment to drag education (kicking and screaming) into the 21st century, there is precious little support for teachers in understanding the “social graces” in doing so.

You might have students identifying, analyzing, and evaluating through blogs, YouTube, and twitter within project-based learning to find personal, feasible solutions to authentic problems, while the teacher across the hall addresses the same learning standards using similar higher-order thinking, but with a completely different “look”: traditional book reports on posterboards, and physical artifacts like milk-jugs dangling on wire-hangers. Same standards, different products. One would think that as long as both teachers teach to those “same standards,” all would be well, but it’s not always that’s simple.

Challenges here surface everywhere, from how to best assess student understanding, to how different units “function” within increasingly important “data-team” processes within many public schools. Depending on your local approach, “Professional Learning Communities” can unwittingly put pressure on teachers to homogenize—not the best route for personalized learning and teaching, much less innovation.

Also, let’s not forget that students talk, parents murmur, and administrators try to reconcile all of your very public work—and thus very public value system and edu-thinking. Unlike many professions, all that you believe as an educator is on display to the world, and open to celebration—and criticism—from every side.

The Clashing of the Personal and the Public

Before all of the quantification of knowledge, conjuring of data, and diagnostic revision of planned instruction, education is first an artistic effort on both the part of the educator and the educated.

It is thus very personal, and so  adapting your own teaching style to the needs of learners, communities, department members, “PLC” members, various school and district-level administrators is as much an art as the delivery of the content itself. It can be a tremendous challenge.

Approach #1: Diplomacy & Flexibility

1. When collaborating with other educators, focus on standards and assessments of proficiency in discussions with other educators.

2. When collaborating with other educators, emphasize what you have in common.

3. Try new things. Great teachers are always adapting their craft, and willing to try out new ideas. It is amazing the amount of intricacy a great unit or lesson has embedded within it, and many of these ideas are taken piece-meal from others.

4. Embed curriculum within local community. Do your best to see learners, families, and communities as your primary audience, not colleagues in your department or building.

5. Establish a global PLN. If the context for your teaching is small, so will be your resource pool, and your own willingness to adapt to new challenges with new tools and ideas.

6. Embrace that there is no “best” way. While certain hallmarks of teaching and content don’t change, literally every other layer of education does, from the standards themselves, to district “pushes,” available technology, and even what are accepted as “best practices.” So maybe a better way to put it is, embrace change.

Approach #2: Cognitive Coaching

While it requires training to grasp, and can be time-intensive to implement, one powerful way to reflect on and improve your craft through better reflection is Cognitive Coaching.

Art Costa’s “Cognitive Coaching” supports the growth of critical educator “States of Mind”: consciousness, efficacy, flexibility, craftsmanship, and interdependence.

Costa believes that each of these seemingly abstract concepts undermine teacher performance and improvement. When any are “low,” the “performance” of the teacher (and thus the learning of the students) will suffer. In Cognitive Coaching, a colleague (trained in the Cognitive Coaching model) will support teacher improvement through detailed conversations that promote teacher metacognition both before and after a lesson, for example.

Questions like “How did it go? How do you know?” help educators become more familiar with their own thinking, biases, and blind-spots, helping to unlock problems in application that are first problems in thinking and perspective. This can help bridge differences in instructional and curricular approaches between teachers, grade levels, and department content areas.

  • John Jensen Ph.D.

    Teachers can clearly improve their capacity to instruct, stimulate, challenge, and inform. And when they do, students show up as more informed, stimulated, and challenged—for a time. The problem is with the wheelbarrow model of US education. Fill up a mind, take it a distance, dump it, and go back for another load. This standard design defies what is known about the retention of knowledge. If teachers will arrange class time to expand intervals of recall of what is once taught and learned, material is retained permanently instead of dissolving and disappearing. For anyone interested in more on this principle, I can email them the proofs of my 3-volume Practice Makes Permanent series being published by Rowman and Littlefield. Send an email address to John Jensen, Ph.D.