From teaching to learning…

We’re working on shifting the focus from teaching to learning at my school. We try to ensure decisions are based on our learning principles, be they about teaching, classrooms, programs or personnel.

Shifting the focus from teaching to learning…

We used to spend a whole day planning how we would teach a unit of inquiry.

Now we  discuss the big ideas, establish the conceptual lens, clarify the enduring understandings… and then wait and see how the learning unfolds.

We used to think we had to plan a whole range of activities and work our way through them.

Now we create a bank of possible provocations on which to draw to stimulate student thinking as their skills and understandings develop.

We used to think the whole class had to do the same thing at the same time in the same place.

Now we think groups of learners might spread out through the learning spaces doing different things, learning in different ways.

We used to think we had to teach the whole class the same skills.

Now we think explicit teaching is often focused on smaller groups depending on their specific needs at the time.

We used to think teachers controlled the learning and always knew where the learning would end up.

Now we think it’s valuable to really listen to what learners say so that what they know, understand, think and care about can drive the learning.

We used to think we had to teach every subject separately.

Now we think the best learning is often trans-disciplinary. The more connections learners make and the more they get to apply their learning in different, authentic contexts, the better.

We used to think about assessment of and assessment for learning.

Now we think about assessment as learning too. We encourage self reflection, goal setting and metacognition in our learners.

How much teachers have shifted depends on experience (but not always), on understanding, courage, and imagination. We still sometimes have trouble letting go of old ways of thinking. Sometimes we still use new learning  spaces in old ways. Some teachers still use new technology to do old things. External demands and time pressures often inhibit what we can do. But we’re constantly working on it and we know that we have changed.

It’s easy to talk about educational reform. Some inspiring educators have succeeded in entirely reinventing school. Take Monica Hardy’s Innovation Lab or Kelly Tenkely’s Anastasis Academy. Most teachers, however, are confined by the reality of life in their institutions, rules from above, expectations from outside, cultural and economic influences. While these may prevent the radical kinds of innovation that would rapidly transform education, change can happen, one school at a time, one class at a time, one teacher at a time, one idea at a time.

Do you have a teaspoon?

I honestly believe that the future is going to be millions of little things saving us. I imagine a big seesaw, and at one end of this seesaw is on the ground with a basket half-full of big rocks in it. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air. It’s got a basket one-quarter full of sand. And some of us got teaspoons, and we’re trying to fill up sand. A lot of people are laughing at us, and they say, “Ah, people like you have been trying to do that for thousands of years, and it’s leaking out as fast as you’re putting it in.” But we’re saying, “We’re getting more people with teaspoons all the time.” And we think, “One of these years, you’ll see that whole seesaw go zooop in the other direction.” And people will say, “Gee, how did it happen so suddenly?” Us and all our little teaspoons…(Pete Seeger)

Related posts:

10 ways my thinking has changed.

10 ways to differentiate learning.

10 ways to encourage students to take responsibility for the learning.

30 thoughts on “From teaching to learning…

  1. What a great way to look at Ed reform, I promise to keep scooping my teaspoon. It is hard to go against the grain of your institution, with many people focusing on the change they have to do and don’t look at the benefit to our students, which is the reason we are there! We have to change to help our students more!


  2. Now this is something that I wish we could do more of in the Secondary School but there is a lot less flexibility and in the senior Secondary, it becomes all about results (requires a lot of prescriptive teaching to help students achieve high marks) and not the learning.
    Even in Years 7-10, because of the Australian government required ‘comparative grades’ there is to much focus on assessment of learning and not enough on formative assessment. I feel shackled by a lack of time and a content rich curriculum (that seems to get fuller every time a new draft of the Australian Curriculum is released). Add to that a parent body that seems to focus mainly on VCE Study Scores and ATARs and any chance of being able to just ‘watch the learning unfold’ seems like a distant dream.
    Any suggestions as to how/where I can use my teaspoon and help other teachers to do the same?


    1. I’m thinking about it… Might be best in a face to face conversation!
      Meanwhile, I’d like to invite other middle school teachers to weigh in with their thoughts.


    2. I’m also a high school teacher and you are absolutely right. I teach Maths and Computing Studies and I feel more able to do this with the latter. You can read more about my experience here.

      i think the secret is really that it is a “teaspoon” – not buckets. We can do a bit, we really can. Teaching students how to learn lays the foundation, and whilst it takes time and effort, it does pay off in the end. I think that once they see they can learn by themselves, they become less dependent on us to teach them….and that is liberating, for both student and teacher.

      One of the things I’m constantly grappling with is letting go. It’s not a one-off decision, it’s done every time I plan. I am also starting to moderate my expectations, ie differentiate according to individual students. Anyway, as mentioned – please visit my linked post; better than repeating myself here.

      Good luck.


    3. For what it is worth, my humble two cents:

      I think as you approach this problem, you do have to be mindful of the concept of the “teaspoon” — moving a school, or even a classroom, in this direction is a process that evolves over time, often with very small steps. The issues you describe are certainly things I can relate to as secondary administrator in the United States. We have, unfortunately, become extremely focused on the results of standardized testing, and you are right, the associated pressures are impediments to implementing the type of learning that research shows our kids need.

      That being said, I think you have to start with a “teaspoon” — one lesson, one assessment, one strategy. Find at least one way that you can move away from teaching to learning, give it a try, and encourage others to do the same. Take time to share ideas, share what you have tried in the classroom and have an honest discussion about the results. I don’t see this as an “all or none” prospect, and I know from experience, it does not happen over night. Focusing on these small steps makes the entire process less intimidating.

      As a site Principal, I know that one of my most important roles is to provide a teaching environment in which teachers feel comfortable taking some instructional risks. That is a challenge because of the issues you described — there are so many external pressures that push us toward standardization and away from student driven learning. I wish I could say that our school is as far along in the process as Edna’s, but we aren’t…and that is ok. However, I am pleased to see pockets of innovation and I am confident that as those successes are shared, more teachers will be comfortable participating. But it is a process. A good friend recently described the change process (in any organization) like “hitting a homerun, fifty feet at a time.” Start small…celebrate success…and continually look for ways to improve.

      Best wishes!



    4. Oh how I can relate to this in BC, Canada as well. I’m teaching high school math and socials right now. I feel more flexability in Canadian History (except for Grade 11 which has a provincial exam attached and requires a lot of prescriptive teaching if they are expected to pass and have a low differential from their class mark), but it is the math curriculum I feel shackled by. Any time taken away to explore, or even just time taken to ensure mastery in a core concept, literally means running out of time to introduce the “last two chapters in the textbook”. Which of course are always the most fun, and would lend itself beautifully to promoting the picture perfect image of 21st Century Education! I try to delight in the impressive growth of my students, many who believed math was too hard and now have gained confidence in skills that confused them before, but then I am left feeling discouraged when they are asked to write some kind of national skills assessment test only to confirm that we need to cover a lot more content, if we are to get impressive results. Where am I to find the time to not only help them learn everthing they “need to know”, but then do it in a way that they are “discovering” it for themselves, using the lastest technology, while gaining mastery! If we are looking for radical change… it is going to have to do with the clock. But that is not even my biggest problem… it’s just that I am not sure what direction I am supposed to be moving in.

      I think there needs to be a clearer picture of what people are expecting out of 21st century education, especially in subject specific areas in highschool. It can’t just be the teacher expected to innovate somehow – or there will be no consistency from class to class, from school to school. Government money for technology and refurbished schools (like that’s going to happen anytime soon), district guidance, administrators with a clear vision and even more specifically, curriculum developers who can aid teachers in a very practical way. I’m sure these things are on their way… right?

      The idea of integration of subject material sounds great in an elementary classroom (which has been happening in theory for decades already) but does not sound as practical in highschool unless you want to move toward an elementary model… and that sounds disasterous for many reasons. (Please don’t think I am just being a negative nelly… I am a pragmatist looking for solutions that make sense to me). I am an active proponent of ‘assessment for learning’, ‘checking for understanding’, ‘formative assessment’ (they are all in the same family) and actively seek to let that drive my teaching/kid’s learning… but the movement seems much more than that. The movement seems to be about embrasing digital technology… ie: how to use the i-pad instead of an overhead, getting kids to publish their work online, replacing traditional pen and paper ativities with digital ones. Apparently, if we don’t do this, our kids are going to be left behind. Or at the very least, bored with us. I am not against any of these things per say, and I look forward to implementing some of these tools when we finally get some of those capabilities in our school… I am just not fully convinced that the ramifications of not doing it are negative. I simply do not want to throw out the baby with the bath water. We have arrived where we are right now, with our current technological advances, with the educational system we have grown up in. Most kids are more rehearsed in technology than their parents. They teach themselves, and each other on a regular basis. Am I the only one that thinks that there might be some core basic skills that should to be in place without technological assistance? My brother, who makes a very good living in this cyberworld, reminds me that the information highway is an inch deep and mile wide. It’s shallow. We need thinkers. We need to go deeper. The ability to develop thinkers is my job. That’s my goal… and the one I want to focus all my energy on. If using an i-pad helps, than so be it. But I’m not counting on it! At least I can still run a class when the internet goes down.


    5. I think it is still possible, but it requires creativity. And, has already been said — we’re talking about a teaspoon rather than a bucketload at once. I’m not familiar with ATAR and VCE (don’t even know what they stand for) but I do think that your classroom — and hopefully even your school — can probably develop an assessment policy that takes the focus off assessment OF learning and place it on assessment FOR learning or even assessment WHILE learning. I’d also challenge teachers to think creatively about how assessment FOR learning can be used to inform, guide, or replace assessment OF learning. Even in a content-laden curriculum, it’s possible to start small.

      Use criterion-based assessment, for starters. If your school is still using percentages and lettergrades. this can be more difficult but is still possible. If you are using criterion-based assessment, then assess your students (in any subject) using only ONE criterion for one task while they’re working. Even better, have them self-assess.. or if you have a very trust-filled classroom, have them peer-assess. Those grades don’t have to even “count” — just use them as a ‘hey, let’s look where we’re at and how we can improve’ … or allow students to let them “count” later if they want them to.

      Even in the most restrictive environments, it’s possible to experiment, IMO.


      1. Thanks everybody – lots of food for thought and glad I am not alone. Amichetti – I am in a school delivering the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program so grading is criterion based in Years 7-10 but not our senior secondary years which deliver the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE – the matriculation system in Victoria, Australia. ATAR is the university entrance rank/score in Australia). So we just hope that the good learning that does often go on in our middle school isn’t undone by the prescriptive teaching in Years 11 and 12. Malynmawby – I’m on my way over to have a read!


  3. I so agree. Little by little, it will happen! Nice how you set out how it is in your school. Thanks for that. I know it’s not just my school that’s moving slowly. This is waht’s so great about twitter. You realise you’re not alone!


  4. Thanks again for another refreshing post. I love that whenever I read your blog I feel inspired and empowered. Much appreciated.


  5. I’ll never forget my first year of teaching – the year I assumed “If I taught it, the students learned (and remembered) it.” What a surprise to watch them take review test and realize the amount that hadn’t stuck.

    Years later, I am constantly evaluating who needs what – sometimes spending far more days on a concept than expected.

    The best reward for the efforts is the smile on the kids’ faces when they are proud of their work and know they have achieved.

    Today I’m focusing on a couple of students who need to know where sentences end. Here I go…

    Janet |


  6. What a great post! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Since moving to VIC in late 2010 and beginning at a new school, I have made many of these changes in my thinking. It is a process, but one that is moving and changing everyday!

    Thanks 🙂



  7. Excellent post! I wish more teachers and school administrators stopped to think now and then how learning and teaching are actually two different processes that (sometimes) happen in the same physical space (i.e. classroom). Of course students are learning all the time, but they may not learn things we wished them to learn…

    I will gladly join the crowd, and have teaspoons in both hands 🙂


  8. I am an EDM 310 student at the University of South Alabama and have been assigned to comment on your blog. I am impressed by your passion to change the way teacher’s teach in today’s education system. You do a great job at balancing the negative with the positive as you express your opinion on switching the focus from teaching to learning. Just as you said, “change can happen”, and you are jump starting it!


  9. Expecting that change will happen as a jump is not a realistic aim in our professional life and can be quite discouraging to see that it fails. It will mostly progress with little steps. I believe these steps will be bigger for primary and secondry school teachers.

    However, as the students become older and the old ways of learning become fossilized both for students and teachers, these steps will be smaller. Even then, it is very inspring and encouraging to see something little has changed and your students has found a way to learn by themselves, analyze their own learning and be more-self dependent about learning.

    I work at a University whose administration is not very supportive of teaching issues and professional improvement and where students come from schools of old methods. Only reason most of our students stay in our classes is because it is imperative and they have to pass an exam. Even in this kind of environment, trying to do something different to make them realize themselves and rarely being successful in these attemps is worth it. I have a very small teaspoon, empty most of the time but it is still good to contribute.


    1. Thank you for your comment. I know I am lucky to work in the environment in which I do, and it is a very different reality from yours and many others. But I am really glad you have a little teaspoon… definitely better than sitting back and accepting there is nothing to be done. Make one small change for your own students….


  10. Lots of teaspoons at my school! One little easy thing that has made a real change for us and our community was to change the way we talked about ‘learning and teaching’… We put the learning first all the time now in our conversations (instead of always saying teaching and learning!) Small change in the order of our vocabulary but has had a huge impact in how we approach it!


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