Teach Kids, Not Topics

Beginning your career as a teacher is exciting – it’s one of the most important roles someone can fill. Every day creates opportunities for positively or negatively impacting the lives of the children we teach and the future of the world as a whole.

In my first year of teaching, I was asked to teach a “unit” on the Particle Nature of Matter. The pedagogy for teaching this unit involved using the science room, showing what the experiments look like by doing them myself, and having the children fill out a worksheet, one per week, after watching each lesson. I realized that learning in this way would bore me out of my tree, and that it would surely do the same for my students.

There had to be a better way to teach the Particle Nature of Matter. I decided to take all the science gear out of the science classroom and do a three-day deep dive into learning, beginning by setting up five learning tables around the room designed to collectively cover the content of the unit, but in a way that was meaningful for my learners. I asked for permission from my Deputy Principal and his first reaction was to laugh. He said, “Go ahead, and if your kids do better than others on the standardized test, we’ll make you our guru.” I left his office almost in tears, but was determined to do the only morally defensible thing – teach kids, not topics.

My opening question to the children was, “Could I put my finger through the middle of my other hand? And, if I can, why, or if I can’t, why not?” The room of 13-year-old students went crazy. They were so excited to try to figure out something they didn’t know in a way that was actually interesting! They loved moving freely from table to table, were respectful of the equipment and used it to explore and solve their questions.

By the end of the three days all the curriculum objectives were covered. The students were 100% engaged and loved the whole experience, and we talk about it to this day. By approaching a single lesson in a creative way, I had changed the destiny of some of the learners in my class. They are now scientists and leaders who are genuinely interested in and excited about the world around them.

The most astounding outcome came three months later, when the school conducted a school-wide standardized test on the Particle Nature of Matter. The unit was taught in 13 other classrooms, each following the worksheet series. Rather than tell my learners about the test, I surprised them with it one morning, hoping to discover whether the way I taught the unit made any difference compared to the traditional model of teaching.

Results: all my kids were at the 90th percentile or above – not averaged, but all. The rest of the school averaged out at the 55th percentile, with the exception of the gifted class whose average was at the 80th percentile. I was jumping for joy, not because I had done a great job, but because understanding and engaging my kids in a real-life question provided a genuine context for learning and supported them to succeed.

The world has changed since I started teaching 30 years ago. Unfortunately, education systems globally have held firm to content-based knowledge as the most important objective. Even within these systems, teachers have the opportunity to do something different – to consider how to engage learners by moving beyond single “topics” and embracing the challenges of learning, to support and celebrate who students are as individuals, and to promote and learn about new and interesting ways of understanding the world.

Every teacher has the ability to turn around children’s lives. It is up to each and every one of us to look into the eyes of the learners we teach and figure out what will get them excited about learning and life. My learners were able to build their individual and collective capacities in collaboration, communication, citizenship, critical thinking, creativity and character through the process of engaging with and understanding key curriculum content. As teachers, we don’t always have to teach what we know the answers to – we are learners, too.