When a K12 supervisor recently observed a teacher in a classroom with continuing discipline problems, he noticed that she consistently violated a fundamental teaching technique by asking "everyone questions." Questions such as "Is everyone on page fifty-three?" and "Did everybody get a handout?" invite every student to respond, which increases classroom noise and threatens control. Therefore, teaching the teacher to rephrase questions in the format "Who is not on page fifty-three?" and "Who did not get a handout?" resulted in fewer voices and improved discipline (see sidebar, "The Art of Questioning").
Supervising classroom teachers and critiquing lessons can be difficult for the supervisor as well as the person being supervised, especially if little usable information is exchanged following an observation. General comments such as "good lesson" or "interesting discussion" offer no direction for improvement and leave teachers wondering how they are really doing. On the other hand, supervisors may not have the background and experience to assess teacher presentation skills and recommend changes. Consequently, even veteran teachers make strategic errors repeatedly-such as asking "everyone questions"-because no one pointed out those problems and showed them better ways. That's what this guide is all about.
Throughout my career in K12 education I observed and evaluated close to a thousand lessons-I can hardly believe it myself-taking notes on what took place, prescribing improvements and following up on the results. This led me to compile a list of essential teaching techniques for initiating, managing and concluding learning activities, which appears below. And since techniques for giving instructions and asking questions are crucial skills across each of these areas, I highlighted those topics separately.
These methods have been documented by supervisors at every level and content area and have been used to help weak teachers become better and good teachers become excellent. They also support teaching standards promulgated by curriculum associations and state departments of education, though occasionally my opinions differ (see, for example, the technique "avoiding Lysiphobia"). So whether you are an administrator, a curriculum coordinator, a mentor or a classroom teacher, this guide will help improve teaching in your district. Feel free to distribute copies and link to the article on our Web site (www.districtadministration.com).
The teaching techniques that follow are based on two fundamental principles confirmed time and again in educational research:
Students learn best by doing. The most meaningful learning takes place through direct interaction with concrete materials, so students need experience with all sorts of materials, including math manipulatives, science specimens, art supplies, measuring devices, maps, graphs and interactive software.
Students need to do their own thinking and exploration. Learning how to process information and draw conclusions is one of the most important outcomes of education, as opposed to only getting predigested content from texts and teachers.
Each teaching technique below is followed by its rationale and is grouped into sections for initiating, managing and concluding learning activities. I recommend that teachers focus on one or two skills at a time.
Techniques for Initiating Learning Activities
1. Relate New Activities to Previous Student Experience One of the best ways to add interest to a classroom activity is to integrate local content. For example, teaching graphing with data from local sports teams or school surveys is more interesting and meaningful than using impersonal data from a textbook. It is also helpful to link new activities to earlier learning experiences, such as reviewing primary level lessons on patterns with colors and shapes before introducing patterns with sounds.
2. When Introducing Unique Materials, Provide Unstructured Time When students use new manipulative items such as a magnet or compass, it is difficult to focus immediately on structured activities when they are distracted by the experience. It therefore makes sense to give students time to try out an item on their own before using it for a specific purpose. For example, while a teacher's objective may be to have students observe moss plants with magnifying glasses, they may initially be more interested in looking at hairs on their hands or the tips of their pens.
3. Introduce ALL New Terms In Writing It is important that students can read every new term that is introduced in a lesson or activity. This ensures that the terms were heard correctly, helps with spelling and adds additional "concrete" dimensions to activities. When new terms are part of lesson plans, they can be written in advance on cards or PowerPoint slides and displayed at the appropriate time. But even if a term arises unexpectedly in an activity, it should still be written out on a chalkboard or whiteboard. In practice, every teacher is a reading teacher.
4. Organize Materials for Easy Distribution One of the quickest ways to destroy an activity-centered lesson is seemingly to take "forever" to distribute materials. Required materials should be placed in student hands as soon as possible after an activity is introduced. (Numerous times I have seen teachers waste time, such as, walking around the room filling glasses from a single pitcher.) Unnecessary waiting causes students to lose interest and encourages them to invent other things to do. Materials can instead be grouped in advance using trays, shoeboxes, plastic pans, paper bags or envelopes that the teacher and/or volunteers can distribute quickly. A variation on the theme at the elementary school level is to have an entire class walk follow-the-leader- style past an array of materials, quickly taking each item.
5. Keep Teaching Materials Hidden Until They Are Needed It is almost always a mistake to display materials for a lesson or activity before they are used. Seeing items in advance distracts students and may cause teachers to rush through activities in order to use all the items. In contrast, introducing new items at different times in a lesson renews interest, so the "interest-profile" of the class is a series of peaks, rather than a long downhill slope. Also, if teachers don't get to a particular part of the lesson, no one else will know.
6. Introduce Each Activity Before Distributing Materials A common teaching error is giving students access to materials before activities are introduced. This presents huge temptations to toy with items or start activities early, and either way students will miss introductory comments and instructions. It also adds unnecessarily to the noise level and threatens control. Far more effective is to introduce activities using a sample set of items and then distribute the materials.
Techniques for Managing Learning Activities
1. At the Start of Each Activity, Check 100 Percent of the Students As soon as an activity starts, the teacher's first move should be a quick "once through" walk from student to student to make sure that each has started out on the right foot. This should be done before working with individuals, referring to lesson plans or doing anything else. If teachers tune in to activities in this way, they can provide immediate help for students who misunderstood the instructions, have difficulty beginning an activity, or are misusing the materials. It also shows interest in what the students are doing, makes instructions more effective, and ultimately saves time.
2. Avoid "Talking Over" Group Noise Activities usually raise the noise levels in classrooms, but hopefully the sound is constructive. However, if teachers need to talk to the whole class while an activity is underway, it is futile to try and overpower the "working noise," since students are thinking about other things. A better option is to excuse the interruption, wait until all the working noise has subsided, and then make the announcement in a normal speaking voice (if the teacher talks before the noise level drops to "zero," it will bubble back up again and the words will be wasted). However, if the activity is going well and the teacher prefers not to interrupt, the other option is to repeat the message to each team in turn: "Go on to the self-test as soon as you are finished," etc.
3. Separate Talk Time from Work Time While there are exceptions-for example, in tightly controlled teacher-directed lessons-it is usually a mistake to make running comments to the entire class as students are working (e.g., "How many people saw the liquid change to blue?"). The teacher talk interferes with the student work, and the student work interferes with what the teacher wants to say. It is also important to make sure that no one continues to work when it is time to talk about the activity.
4. Avoid "Telling" and Concluding for Students A good general teaching rule is to avoid telling students anything they can discover for themselves. Instead of "teacher telling" statements such as "The branches of the Federal Government are the executive, legislative and judicial," or "Your word processor inserted the new sentence in the wrong place because you didn't move your cursor," teachers should try student-centered questions such as "What are the branches of the Federal Government?" or "Why didn't your new sentence get inserted in the right place?" The teacher's role is to guide and coach students, and not to think for them.
5. Prompt Student Discussions by Joining Groups as an Observer Skillful teachers know how to maintain that delicate balance between probing student understanding and holding back. You will therefore want to join some activities as they are going on and encourage students to talk with each other about what they are doing (joining students at "eye level" tends to increase the comfort level, especially for young children). Teachers may also wish to take the opportunity to suggest pertinent "what if" kinds of questions and comments, such as "How many different ways can you get a bulb to light using one wire and a flashlight cell?" If teachers turn to other matters as students are working, such as correcting papers, it sends a message that the activity is not very important.
6. Resolve Differences by Returning to the Materials Some of the best learning experiences occur when students come to different conclusions in an activity. When these occasions arise, encourage students to return to the materials and demonstrate support for each position. Such back-and-forth negotiations are valuable opportunities to use evidence in resolving differences, and teachers should not intercede too quickly.
Techniques for Concluding Learning Activities
1. Alert Students to the Approaching End of Each Activity Well-designed learning activities can be so captivating that time passes quickly, and an abrupt signal to end an activity can be an unwelcome intrusion. It is therefore better to alert students to the approaching end of an activity (without talking over group noise-see above), so they can plan to finish what they are doing. Announcements made to each group, such as "We will talk about our results in about ten minutes," make transitions flow more smoothly.
2. Use a "Group Focus" to Display Information for Discussion It is important to meet periodically as a class to discuss results. At such times, the discussion will be more effective if the students can all see and think about the contributed content. Recording responses on a large chart, chalkboard or word processor can serve as such a group focus for making conclusions, reviewing procedures and concluding the activity. Teachers may also want to edit the summarized information and distribute copies to each student.
3. Avoid Lysiphobia! The word "lysiphobia" was coined by the late Dr. Robert Karplus of the University of California at Berkeley and is a powerful teaching concept defined as the "fear of leaving loose ends." A lysiphobic teacher, therefore, attempts to wrap lessons or activities into neat packages by summarizing what was learned. While summarizing lessons is of course important, it is the loose ends that encourage thinking to continue. So while many teacher competency measures require each lesson to have a clear conclusion, I recommend allowing an unresolved part of a lesson or activity to spill over to another day. For example, if students use their senses to try and figure out the contents of a mystery box, the activity will be more compelling if opening the box is deferred. This technique also provides natural links to subsequent lessons and activities and may even prompt students to talk about the experiences with their parents, which in itself is marvelous!
4. Provide for At-Home Activities Getting parents more involved with their children's learning is one of the best-and least expensive-avenues to improving education locally. An outstanding way is to give students materials for activities they can do at home, which brings the benefits of materials-centered teaching to out-of-class time and almost always involves other family members. Assignments may also focus on family participation, such as opinion surveys, interviews, and asking parents to serve as online or in-person resources.
Odvard Egil Dyrli, email@example.com, is editor-in-chief of District Administration and emeritus professor of education at the University of Connecticut.