By Teachers, For Teachers
There are no shortcuts, silver bullets, or one-size-fits-all solutions in education. Part of teaching, anyone will tell you, is the day-by-day dedication to quality instruction and the patient expectation that learning will slowly blossom. At the same time, however, there are a few extremely simple-but-underused teaching strategies that educators can implement almost immediately and see a big difference in their students.
While teachers should continue to pursue the best long-term instructional practices that will help students grow over the course of a year, they should also adopt the tried-and-true best teaching strategies they can put to work immediately.
Here are a few simple teaching strategies you can try tomorrow!
If there’s one thing I recommend to any teacher – novice or veteran – it’s to concentrate on their wait time. Too often teachers don’t put time and attention into the question asking and discussion strategies, simply asking questions off the cuff and accepting the first response a student shouts out. Unfortunately, this limits the amount of thinking each and every student can actually do, and in essence trains them to wait for the “Kid who always answers questions” to speak out.
Wait time is simply defined as the amount of time a teacher pauses after asking a question before accepting an answer. Ideally, wait time lasts for about 5-7 seconds. So when you ask a question, you might literally count 5-7 seconds in your head before doing anything else.
When we’re not implementing appropriate wait time, we are tempted to do several things that get in the way of good discussion:
Instead of doing any of these things, we should focus on making sure that we are giving students adequate time to think before they respond. Wait time helps students hear and process the question before the next thing in the classroom happens. This means that more students will be able to mentally participate, and more students will be able to prepare and share a response.
What are you doing when your students walk into the classroom? Sometimes we’re putting the finishing touches on our materials; we might be conversing with another teacher; we might be scurrying into the classroom at the last moment. But what if we demonstrably put everything else aside and made it a point to welcome each and every one of our students as they walk in?
Mr. White, a teacher in Charlotte, N.C., has taken greeting his students to heart: He has a unique handshake for each of his 5th grade students before they walk into the classroom. He does this because “… Before I’m able to deliver a substantial amount of content to them, they have to buy into me, they have to invest in the teacher itself.”
Greeting students isn’t about making a scene or putting learning on hold – it’s about relationship. As Mr. White says and researchers agree, students are more likely to put forth effort and feel motivated when they are working for the teacher rather than just blindly complying with expectations. If students feel like the teacher sees them and believes in them, they are more likely to follow through with that teacher’s expectations for them. And one simple way of seeing your students might be just to stand outside the doorway and warmly greet them as they come in.
On the one hand we put forth tons of energy offering students feedback on their tests and homework; but on the other hand we rarely ask students to exert the same energy in coming to an understanding of their own skills and progress. Why is that?
One of the simplest things we can do to help students gain mastery and have a growth mindset is to set aside consistent time for them to think through how well they are achieving on the skills of our class. Having students engage in authentic reflection about their work encourages them to consider how much effort they put into the process, how well they improved from their last performance on a similar task, and compels them to think through what steps they can take to improve their work.
Student reflection can often go hand-in-hand with teacher feedback. You can provide students the opportunity to combine their own reflecting, the rubric, the samples, and your feedback to come to a comprehensive understanding of how well they performed compared to what they were shooting for. Often we simply assign a grade and offer a few comments to justify the grade, then students merely view this and move on.
There are some great task-specific reflection techniques that might work for your courses (such as having students watch a video of themselves give a presentation, identify a particular aspect of their writing they want to hone in on, or look back at their scientific hypothesis and comparing it to the results of their research). However, here are some general questions you might consider challenging students to spend some quality time engaging with:
And let’s say that you’re going to do a similar task again in the near future – you can even give students their own reflections back to them and ask them to look at how they felt about their previous work so they can engage in their next task with more intentionality.
So much of learning is abstract and text-based. While we have improved textbooks and tech tools that enable us to demonstrate knowledge in visual terms, one simple thing you can try is to have students construct the visuals themselves.
This is especially true, researchers say, when it comes to mathematics. Jo Boaler, a mathematician and professor at Stanford University, suggests that, “When students are asked to visualize while studying mathematics, their achievement and engagement increase significantly,” and “Asking students to think visually and encouraging them to come up with their own visual representations is different from seeing a visual representation given by a textbook or teacher.”
I remember originally learning arithmetic with a number line and seeing diagrams of pies with various numbers of slices cut into them (“If there are three people, how many pieces of pie does each person get if there are nine slices total?”) But these visuals slowly evaporated and gave way to formulas and disembodied equations and graphs. Simply asking students to think visually – or even construct and manipulate their own visuals – can increase comprehension and accuracy.
This doesn’t have to stop at math, though. While students may be typically in desks and dealing with books and worksheets, we can break through the abstractions of content by simply asking “How would you visualize this?” This simple but powerful question can yield some surprising results!
Math in the math classroom; science in the lab; reading in the library; history in history class. Students learn early on that each subject is a unique, segregated topic that should not cross paths with the other subjects. But one simple and powerful adjustment we can make is to more naturally integrate the use of multiple subjects with one another!
Judy Willis from Edutopia summarizes research for us and explains, “New learning … can be strengthened by simply repeating, rereading, and drilling on the specific information again and again, until it embeds as rote memory. But there’s a better way: Providing students with directed opportunities to employ multifaceted manipulation of information promotes strong, transferrable memory creation.”
Basically, the research suggests that the more often students are permitted to cross the skills and knowledge found in multiple subject areas, the stronger memories they’re able to form. This doesn’t just mean that we should have students write a poem about a math formula or make art about their readings on the Holocaust – these actually are good activities to reinforce learning – but we should set tasks before students that implicitly require the use of skills from multiple areas.
For example, a broader project that asks students to track a specific NFL football team and certain features of their performance might require students to examine geography, statistics, biographies, and popular culture. If they work in groups or present their information, so too are those skills reinforced. There’s no specific subject that’s being covered in such a task – all the knowledge is meaningfully intermingled. From there, students can forge their own questions in areas of interest or teachers can point to specific information that relate to any core knowledge necessary in their course.
What do you think about this list of simple-yet-effective teaching strategies we shouldn’t miss out on? What would you add? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Jordan Catapano taught English for 12 years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an assistant principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.