Reflecting on the W’s

by Ron Archer

Simply stated, any teacher should not consider how to teach until careful reflection has been given to the why, the who and the what to teach.

For me, the why is about leverage. Students must always leave an educational experience with a skill that they can leverage into a salary, a positive influence or an invention. Students who master content without learning a skill have nothing to leverage into success in business or in life.

Providing this important leverage requires knowledge of who is being taught. Getting to know students takes data mining from school records, researching and experiencing local culture, collaboration with other teachers, and spending time talking with the students.

When teachers know what skills students already possess, the teacher can compare those skills with the what, which are the content and skills to mastered. Failure to take these necessary steps before considering how to teach may negate acquisition of the skills that must be acquired as proof of successful education.

Additionally, this deceptively complex pedagogy also requires the constant application of reflection for it to be successful. In teaching (and in learning) consistent reflection should always lead to consistent positive change.

For example, teaching and improving writing skills requires ongoing changes in methodology as the writing process and the writing product become more sophisticated. When introducing a basic expository paragraph, for example, initial instruction and prompt delivery are generally best conveyed with plenty of verbal interaction, using written material to serve as visuals. As time passes, more and more written instruction and written prompts can accompany increasingly sophisticated products, preparing students for standardized writing exams given locally by districts or for national exams like AP test.

On the other hand, changes based on reflection must also be made when students fail to make satisfactory progress. At one point early in my teaching career, I found that although students understood the structure and purpose of the paragraph I was requesting, allowing them to choose a topic was counterproductive. Students spent so much time thinking about what to write about that they were frustrating advances in thinking and writing fluency. Backing up into some “quick thinking” exercises helped them have a library of topics to choose from and improve their fluency in choosing a topic when required.

To do this, I asked the students to fold a sheet of notebook paper “hot dog style” and quickly number from 1 to 3 over and over on two sides of the paper. Then purposefully rushing the pace, I asked them a rapid series of questions (“Name three places that most people would not want to vacation,” “Name three foods that you enjoy that many others don’t.”) The rapid pace of production and easily accessible questions created potential topic sentences and supporting evidence. With a choice of topic out of the way, students could concentration on vividly filling in the framework of the paragraph. Referring to this exercise during future assignments reminded students that pace is important when generating content without getting stuck and how the “prewriting” always relates to the frame of the paragraph (which is often dictated by the prompt). 

A student-teacher I was working with indicated that his students had done a poor job when generating the writing product he had assigned. As we talked about his expectations for the product, I invited him to consider how his writing prompt was structured on the page of instructions given to the students. We discovered that he had placed all of the steps for creating the writing in a single large chunk. I ask him if he thought the students would have done a better job if the directions were numbered or separated visually on the page. He agreed that would be helpful. This is just one example of the kind of constant refection upon all facets of the teaching process that is required for successful instruction.

In addition to research, collaboration, and reflection, I have always believed it is important to remember the difference between how to be a good teacher and how to teach students well. This brings us back to the discussion of leverage with which we began.

A meticulously planned, picture-perfect lesson can look great on paper and even look great when delivered, but if students learn little or nothing, the teacher has done a good job of teaching (which, by the way, does not disqualify the teacher for being a good teacher—yet). A teacher who fails to recognize and incorporate feedback from students during and after a lesson still has something to learn about how to teach. But actually, just learning how to teach is only one characteristic of being a good teacher. Good teachers buttress instruction with encouragement. Good teachers promote and model civil discourse and civil behavior. Good teachers teach discipline, responsibility, empathy, inclusion, creative thinking, caring, and character.

Of course, there are probably curricula that purport to do the same, but there is a necessary magic that must often be part of transmitting skills that teachers are tasked with providing. That magic is the physical presence of a smart, insightful and caring human being in the room with students. It is the time-honored truth that good teachers are human beings who make a positive difference in not just brains, but lives.

That’s why we should teach. It is why we should constantly seek improvement by reflecting on our skills and role as teachers—and always get the W’s right.


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