Identifying What to Teach: Using Concepts, Generalizations and Driving Questions, pp. 2 of 9

You have probably realized that it is important to think about how to teach, but you may not have realized that you also need to think about what to teach.  Although you will be given a syllabus and told what needs to be taught during the school year, this is only the outline.  Rather than simply

trying to “cover” everything, it is important to understand the “big ideas” and identify the key skills contained in the syllabus.  If you do not make sense of what is to be taught, how can your students begin to make sense?  Let us begin by briefly thinking about what it means to really learn something and how people learn.

How Do We Learn?

How people learn and what it actually means to learn something are subjects of vast fields of study.  As you read this text, think about what you have learned previously about how people learn and try to make connections between what you know about learning and how you might teach.  To help you do this, there are a few key points to keep in mind.  Learning is generally seen as an active process through which new information is acquired, integrated and stored (Ornstein & Lasley, 2004, p 16).  That is, even when learners are sitting quietly, perhaps listening to someone or reading something, their brains are active.  They are trying to make sense of new information, to organize or “chunk” it in ways that seem meaningful.  They are connecting new information to what they already know in order for it to make sense.  Can you remember an experience where you tried to learn something very new, something for which you had very little prior knowledge?  You may have felt as though the new information was going in your head and then right out again.  You may have realized that you needed some very basic understanding in order to make sense of the new information.  It is very likely that the children in your class may feel that way about some of what they need to learn in school.  If it makes no sense they will not remember it, much less understand it.

Learning theorists tell us that as we learn we develop schema in our minds.  Jean Piaget, for example, used the term “schema” in the 1920s to explain how children develop understanding, and other learning theorists have further developed the concept (Piaget, 1928)[i]. Schemata (the plural of schema) refer to mental structures or the ways in which we organize knowledge in our minds.  Without a mental framework about something, information about that something makes no sense; hence the phrase “in one ear and out the other.” The schemata we develop help us organize our world.  Schemata contribute to the development of understanding; they can also contribute to misconceptions.  If new information does not fit an existing schema it is likely to be rejected, hence misconceptions can be difficult to change.  On the other hand, new information that does not fit existing schema can also cause what Piaget called “disequilibrium” and new learning can develop.  This happens as the learner restructures his or her schema to accommodate new information.  Keep in mind that as a teacher you are helping your students develop and refine their mental frameworks in order for them to really learn and understand.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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