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Teaching Strategies: Learning Outside the Textbook

Outside the Box Teaching Ideas


This article originally appeared in TeachHUB magazine, our award-winning, downloadable publication. For more informative articles about issues affecting education, download the latest issue today!

Truth be told, I’ve never been a fan of the using the classroom textbook as the main tool within my teacher’s toolbox. Perhaps it stems from my own experience as a student; read the chapter, answer the questions, take the test. Although some students can read, retain, and move on in this way, I was not one of those students. I needed to “do” something and get my hands dirty (so to speak) to experience the lesson.

This learning philosophy has transcended into my teaching strategies today. I aspire to be the teacher that everyone finds intriguing – the one that inspires students to ask more questions, seek out more answers, and as a consequence, obtain more knowledge. This is, by no stretch of the word, quite a tall task, and I soon discovered that keeping my students engaged in this way takes a great deal of creativity and out of the box thinking (not to mention extra time and money).

Nevertheless, I am now able to balance this teaching strategy creatively with the traditional textbook approach. I encourage my fellow educators to try and do the same, even on a small scale using any of the following techniques:

1. Build a Mystery. This is my absolute favorite and I can recall a very specific instance where this came in handy while teaching my students about various ecosystems. Rather than give them a list with details and examples, or handing out individual research, I created a fictional character (Professor Ima Tracker) and gave each student a mystery envelope with a specific species pictured inside. Students needed to identify the species, locate their habitat, and report back to headquarters. Once this mission was completed, another was handed out. I was able to keep my students engaged in researching, learning, discussing, and sharing all about the various ecosystems. And, Prof. Ima Tracker did make a special appearance!

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2. Divide and Conquer. Division is not an easy task. Many of my students struggled with understanding the Math steps and applying them properly. To help, I initially had them create their own mnemonic for all the steps involved and then I had them take turns teaching their process to the class. Once I thought they had a good foundation, I had them teach someone at home, record it, and send to me. It was great hearing them explaining the mnemonic to someone else. We watched each video in class the next day to provide an open forum for classmates to critique and comment.

3. Question Wall. During discussions throughout the day, I love posing a question on the board and having my students discuss in small groups. For a twist, ask your class to discuss the question as if you were one side or the other. For example, while we were learning about the planets – I posed the question, “Why isn’t Pluto a planet anymore?” My kids first discussed from Pluto’s perspective, explaining why he should still be a planet. After a while, the roles switched and they conversed from an astronomer’s point of view who has decided to remove Pluto from the list. These conversations allowed my students to think outside the textbook – to problem solve, listen, and successfully discuss both viewpoints.

4. Lesson Rap. Using a lesson rap has by far been the funniest method to my teaching. I am by no means musically gifted but my students are. They love to sing, dance, and of course make up raps/songs. Because music is universal, we were able to use this technique in a variety of subjects: Geography (learning the 50 states), Math (multiplication rap), and English (verbs). This is a great technique if you have restless students that need to get up and moving throughout the day. 

5. Act it Out. Lastly, Act it Out is another one of my favorites. Reenacting the writing of the Declaration of Independence was an eye opener to many of my 4th graders. They assumed the men met together, agreed quickly, and wrote out what became one of the most important documents in history, until of course they had to do it. With this unit, I incorporated acting with creative discussion. Students learned how various opinions, ideas, and thoughts make creating such an important writing more difficult. Add the various personalities to writing a declaration for our classroom, and you have the makings for a great lesson.

This year I have used most if not all of these tools to engage my students in learning. Each of these allowed me to meet the standard, teach the lesson, and keep my students from falling asleep at their desks. Combining these techniques with popular ed tech (i.e. computers/tablets, Flip cameras, etc.) can add yet another element to these creative teaching exercises.

Remember, teaching strategies don’t always have to be straight from the text. Yes, they are wonderful tools to gain information with illustrations to follow, but many do not allow for the critical thinking skills, problem solving abilities, and engagement that is needed to ensure students retain information. Don’t be afraid to go outside the box and be a little silly in your teaching. You’ll be surprised how much a little bit of creativity helps your students learn.


Christian Bertrand /