Why Are We Asking These Questions

Flickr Image from JISC infoNet

I’m sitting at Starbucks right now, working on “A Gardener’s Approach to Learning,” and I happened to glance at my Tweetdeck for inspiration — and boy! Illinois educator, Greg Noack says,

Why is it that, the more I learn and meditate on HOW kids learn, not what they learn. The less I have in common with other teachers. ((Noack, Greg. Twitter. 19 Dec 2009 08:11. Web. 19 Dec 2009.))

I immediately agreed and was inspired, as I usually am, when someone puts into words (140 characters) something that’s, until that point, been little more than fleeting thought.

But then, it occurred to me that an important and interesting question is, “Why?” Why is Greg and why are so many of us asking the question, “How do our students learn?”  Certainly good teachers do that as an ongoing part of differentiating their classroom learning experiences.  ..and it may simply be because we are talking a lot more and a lot more loudly about our professional reflections.

But if we are asking those questions more today, then why?  Why today?  ..when supposedly the purpose of my university experiences, my degrees, was to teach me how my students learn.

I’d like to suggest just a few possible reasons, and then let you have at it, while I continue my book writing.

  1. We are recognizing that our students will be moving from their formal education into a world that we can hardly imagine.  We are paying a lot more attention — and that’s us learning.  How do I do it better?  How might my students do it better, as a lifestyle rather than just something to do at school.
  2. We are teaching within a rapidly changing information environment, and the technologies that facilitate the information’s flow are advancing — just about every day.  We either learn it or ignore it — and many of us believe that ignoring it is professional malpractice.
  3. And I have to wonder if working, playing, socializing, and dreaming within such a responsive environment literally turns us into a learning species — not that we weren’t before.  But learning, in this kind of information environment, is just about as common as breathing.

Learning is at the core of teaching today — and just about everything else.  So we’re thinking about it more.

What do you think?

81 thoughts on “Why Are We Asking These Questions”

  1. David,

    Thanks for putting the most essential question (How do our students learn) out there for us to talk about. While the answer seems obvious to some, I think the reason we are asking it again and again because we are overwhelmed by its magnitude.

    This is mainly due to the fact that the way our students learn is so contrary to how most educators learned. Chris Lehmann summed it up well in a recent article in Principal Leadership titled Shifting Ground stating, “The single greatest challenge schools face is helping students make sense of the world today. Schools have gone from information scarcity to information overload.”

    The problem for educators and students is the same one. Both are overwhelmed with the vast amounts of information and just where to begin. The old paradigm would have provided one “right answer” at the end of the rainbow. However, this new exciting paradigm leaves learners an endless choice of pathways to arrive at a conclusion.

    We need to fight through the overwhelming prospect of where to begin and we just need to begin. A great starting point would be to admit that we are all learners (teachers and students). Let’s just be honest about the fact that we are overwhelmed and unsure how to use so many of the new tools at our disposal. Let’s ask our students to show us connections that they see and let’s move to an inquiry-based model where we learn together.

    As you say – let’s make this collaborative environment now do that “learning seems as common as breathing.”

    1. @Patrick Larkin, I really like your response to this article. I think that educators need to be more open to admitting that they don’t know all the answers anymore. There are so many teachers at my school who don’t want to try new things. I also agree that we have become “overwhelmed and unsure how to use new tools”. Thanks for taking this article to the level for me.

  2. As an educator, I am not only overwhelmed by the magnitude of the question, but I am honestly overwhelmed by the magnitude of ways I need to learn how to address it. In the past when someone asked me what I taught, I could answer that question in a few sentences. “What are my students learning?” is so much harder to say. There isn’t a general one size fits all response (nor should there be), but it does reflect on my ability to enable students to connect to their learning. This simple question does not have a simple answer but it needs to be asked.

    1. I identify with what Dana wrote about being overwhelmed by the amount of information that I must learn to adequately address the needs of my students and prepare them to live and work in the 21st century. I am thankful that others have posed this question so thoughtful. It is my hope that our community of educators will take the time to continue the conversation and find innovative answers. I’m inspired to do so and time is of the essense if I intend to meet the needs of the students I teach today.

      1. I agree that the vast amount of information today’s teachers need to learn is the primary reason that we are not addressing the question of HOW to learn with equal energy and enthusiasm that we address the question of WHAT to learn. In order for us to overcome this obstacle, we need to simply begin the process. I am a music teacher and have always wanted to do a podcast when my students perform in-class recitals. This is a good place for me to begin.

  3. How I define myself as a teacher has a lot to do with why I continue to ask myself this question. I might have a handle on 22 of my 23 learners, but it’s always that one that eats away at me and I think..how does this kid learn? Why isn’t he getting it? What’s his brain doing with the information? How can I repackage the content, manipulate the information, change the environment so that HE gets it? I am constantly re-inventing myself, my classroom, the environment, the tools, so that I know when my students leave me at the end of the year, I did everything I could to help them grow as learners. If I ever stop doing that, I’ll know it’s time to retire:)

  4. I guess I should have added that when my world was smaller, before PLN’s and blogs I was asking this question, but my pool of resources for dealing with the question was infinitely smaller than it is now. The more you know, the more you question, the more you feel driven to know more…

  5. David-

    Again my thought is pushed when thinking about our students and what we are teaching them. I love the question ‘are we thinking about HOW our kids learn rather than WHAT our kids learn’. When I reflect on my own classroom, I can’t help but review my objectives and notice they are all skill-based, and virtually none (outside of my Web 2.0 unit) are metacognitive. In a test-driven culture, our focus so often tends to fall on meeting this knowledge and skill based objectives, that we push the HOW aside in favor of the WHAT. Yet, in the 21st century things are changing so quickly that the WHAT is soon going to obsolete, as any student who has mastered HOW to learn will have the resources and tools available to teach themselves.

    1. I think asking how our students learn is a very important question. I think it is important to the 21st century teacher and learner because technology is increasing and complicating the number and range of ways that students can learn. However, I think that students have always learned in a variety of different ways. This should be an essential question for any good reflective teacher. All children have different learning styles, strengths and weaknesses (7 or 8 if you agree with Howard Gardener’s intelligences). It is the responsibility of the teacher to ask how each and every student in his or her class learns to tailor instruction to be the most engaging and effective, no matter how much technology they use.
      The emphasis on using standardized tests as the primary method of evaluation of student learning pushes many teachers to focus on the what, their students learning skills and content, in order to succeed on those tests. Many teachers focus on what students are learning because most of the how questions are “how can I get my students to learn this content and learn how to show it on a standardized test.” With the pressure of performance on such specific (and predictable) assessments, teachers resort to putting more emphasis on repetition and strategy, rather than reflecting on creative ways to help their students learn best.
      I agree that it is important to consider how students learn best, alongside considering what they are learning. I think these two questions must be taken together. Babies and children have a natural inclination to explore, and adult modeling can guide and help children develop skills, attitudes and learn important information. Now that the possibilities to use technology as a learning tool are expanding at such a rapid rate, we must cast a wider net when we ask the question of how students learn best, and we must learn about new technologies, experiment with them (alone and with our students), and reflect on our practice to improve our teaching and student learning.

  6. David,
    The question, ‘How do our students learn?’ is the most important question when it comes to 21st century learning because it is the how, not the what, that will set students free and provide them with ultimate learning independence. As a teacher at an urban charter school, we, as a charter network, are so focused on standardized testing and therefore we are under great pressure as teachers to pack each day chock full of standards. Most times, I feel the emphasis is not on creative modalities of presentation in order to reach all students, but rather making sure we are making headway in our vast scope and sequence of standards. This creates a learning culture for students, which is nearly devoid of critical thinking skills and independence. The shame in this is that we are not actually setting our students free with these methods. The ultimate goal of education is to create life-long learners and this can only be done if we are equipping students with the strategies to learn and discover independently of us. I think that in addition to focusing on standardized testing, teachers are resistant to look at the how vs. the what because there is not necessarily a neatly packaged answer to how students learn and this is intimidating to many teachers including myself.

    1. As an educator at a school similar to Nikki’s, I agree that it is incredibly difficult to balance the amount of material we are supposed to “cover” with finding the best ways for our students to actually learn. We spend incredible amounts of our non-teaching time analyzing the data that we collect from students in order to evaluate what we need to re-teach or teach next. As a result, we spend less time seeking out exemplary methods of teaching. That focus on content coverage over actual learning does not prepare our students to be independent, self-directed, social learners that they will have to become to make headway in the world when or where their formal education leaves off. In the 21st century, this question of how vs. what is of particular importance because of all of the new ways we have to learn and access information. We have to go “beyond the book” in our classrooms to prepare students for their futures.

  7. David,

    Thank you for your thought-provoking post. I think the question, “How do our students learn?” is an important one right now for two main reasons.

    The first reason echoes the first reason you wrote. We are educating students who will work in a world that we can’t picture. All we know is that it won’t look much like the world we live in today. As an early elementary school teacher, this idea has tremendous implications for my teaching. The how we teach is important because when our students enter the workforce the emphasis will be placed on how they’re able to access their knowledge and skills.

    The second reason so many of us are discussing the how is because there are more ongoing conversations amongst teachers and educators now than ever before. 15 years a go, a forum such as this was unthinkable. Instruction in one classroom in one school may have been identical to the instruction in one classroom in another school and those two teachers would have never known it. Due to means by which we exchange and share information, so many of us are sharing best practices, ideas, and theories about education. In my mind, these conversations have lent themselves to more people thinking about and talking about the HOW.

  8. I think a focus on standards, for better or for worse, has heightened the educator anxiety surrounding the “what” in school. But I was struck by your thought that 21st century learning needs to be taught “as a lifestyle rather than just something to do at school.”

    This made me think about how today’s fast-paced and tech-heavy world requires dynamic learning because our world around us is increasingly dynamic…textbooks become outdated as soon as the CNN twitter page uploads, and our students need practice synthesizing and evaluating the millions of images and ideas that stream into their brains during every hour of their lives… except the ones at school.

    For the learners of today and tomorrow, it’s less important to always know WHAT the answer is, but instead HOW and WHERE to go to FIND the answer…

    The last thing we want is modern school becoming some sort of museum to a lost civilization…beloved, esteemed, but long gone. Our students, especially too many of our low income students, are the ones on the inside of the glass display case.

  9. Today I had a formal observation by the principal and my supervisor (the school’s academic dean for grades K-2). After seeing me work my principal gifted me a book entitled “Scaffolding Language, Scaffolding Learning: teaching second language learners in the mainstream classroom.” Within the first paragraph of the Foreword the author is discussing the centralized path education has taken being a far cry from the locally autonomous system of times passed. Then, goes into the pressures and consequences of high-stakes testing as related to English Language Learners. It made me think that it is not just our ELLs that are getting lost in this movement of standards-based reform. Being constrained by WHAT we must teach greatly hinders us from being able to understand HOW students learn which would help us figure out many things– even what they should learn. I remember sitting in my 4th grade history lesson with Mr. Cohen; I was a student who had a lot of trouble remembering specific dates, names and faces. My mind was and is more inclined to think about larger themes than minute details of the past. I sat there thinking, “If the world keeps going like this and more history books have to be made, there is NO WAY I can fit all this information in my brain. Yet, we constantly shove information down our kids’ throats. We cling to details and small facts, rather than teaching them what do think we should be teaching them how to think. But, as educators, as people, with deadlines, emergencies, tasks and meetings we have little time to contemplate the how. All the tests test is the what. Still, the question, “How do our students learn?” is the most important when it comes to 21st century learning because in order know what they need to be taught we must understand, as Mr. Warlick said, that we live in a dynamic environment in which people can have an instantaneous influx of information at any desired moment. The way that we process situations and react to circumstances has been greatly affected by technology and yet education remains in the dust of all the other institutions that have adopted technology and made it work for them. Still, the goal for us, as teachers, is not to “conquer” technology but to use it as a facilitation tool, as a way to understand the how.

  10. David,
    Your post is extremely thought-provoking. As a second year teacher who continues to grow in my profession, I find myself asking these same questions frequently. Because our world is changing so quickly, it requires a quicker turnaround time in terms of reflection and using that reflection to adapt to change. We must realize HOW are students are learning (as you said) and adapt our methods of teaching to meet their needs. I feel that because we, as educators, were taught using tried-and-true book/pencil/paper/rote memorization methods, we feel that is how we should teach our students as well. Our mindsets as teachers are certainly developed by our experiences in the classroom. This is why teachers tend to focus on WHAT students are learning. However, I completely agree with you that the question of HOW students are learning is much more essential. I remember sitting in an elementary school classroom and never wanting to learn about technology because it was never utilized. I did not spend my free software time playing video games, texting friends, or spending time on social networking sites. Our students do. It is time for educators to pay attention to the HOW and not the WHAT. Thanks for bringing this to the forefront.

  11. “How do our students learn?” As educators, is there any more important question? Students need to be taught how to think and how to learn new information, not just endless facts and details. While the facts and details change with each year of schooling and will change even more as students enter the workforce, the HOW can be applied to each new situation our students face. However, you’re right, we don’t see teachers teaching the how. Content-coverage seems to be ever-present in our schools, I believe, because standardized tests test the what. As an educator in a school whose principal puts immense pressures on his staff to achieve high test scores, I too find myself stressing the WHAT over the HOW. Thank you. Your blog post has forced me to reflect upon my own teaching, and committed me to paying more attention to HOW my students learn, so that my students can learn any WHAT that comes their way.

    1. The 21st century classroom and world is diverse and ever changing. It is important that we prepare our students for success in both of these places. In order to do this we need to think about how our students learn. If we are able to do that we will then be able to meet the educational needs of the individual, as defined by the state and national standards, as well as meeting the needs of a person in the 21st century – how to discover, create, communicate and prosper. Unfortunately I think many educators get caught up in the what, instead of the how. I believe this happens for two reasons. 1) Our schools are judged by our students’ performance on standardized tests. 2) We are replicating the kind of education we received as children – an education that worked, but was more focused on the what rather than the how. As we (my school and learning community) grow as professionals we are beginning to have more conversations about this very topic. As a young school and staff I am not sure we have quite reached the place where we are able to move from talking about this to applying it in our classrooms. I look forward to continuing thinking about this, talking about it and beginning to implement it in my classroom and school.

  12. David,

    I appreciate your intelligent and thought provoking comments. I am particularly intrigued by the question ‘are we thinking about HOW our kids learn rather than WHAT our kids learn’, as this is something is something I have spent a lot of time thinking about this year. Indeed, one of the challenges I have enjoyed most this school year has been trying to incorporate many different learning activities into my classes. I have–not surprisingly–found that kids have the most success when I have carefully planned the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ together. One unexpected (and wonderful!) consequence of being more aware of how students are learning is that I’ve engaged more people in the whole process. I am constantly talking with coworkers, friends, family members, and kids in the cafeteria about different ways to approach different lessons. These oftentimes casual conversations have led my students and me to a countless number of activities from “seasonal migration” simulations, to “States’ Jeopardy” to interviewing community members on the street. Obviously some activities prove more valuable than others, but by taking the time to track and reflect on what works, my students and I are learning about how they learn best.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your last comment that “learning, in this kind of information environment, is just about as common as breathing.” This is both an immense challenge and amazing opportunity!

    1. Mark,

      I agree that I have the most success in the classroom when I simultaneously think about what my students need to learn alongside with how my students learn. Many of us work in schools where the “what” is heavily emphasized and it is tracked by standardized tests and home-grown interim assessments. As a middle school math teacher what my students learn is very important and it lays the foundation for all future math courses that they will take. I carefully track what standards my students have mastered after each lesson and I have found that even if my students master a topic at the end of a lesson it doesn’t guarantee that the information will actually “stick” with them. In order for my students to really understand a mathematical concept and be able to use it again in the future, I need to find a way to make the information stick with them. I find that this comes when I focus on how my students learn along with what they are learning. When I focus on how my students learn, I can make the lesson more meaningful to them, which will make them more likely to retain the information and be able to use it again and build on it in the future. Our students may learn if we just focus on what they are learning, but they will be more likely to internalize and use the information if we also focus on how they learn it.

  13. David,

    Your question is not only thought provoking, but as many have stated, extremely important. In order to reach a generation of children who are growing up in a multimedia world, it is important to understand and be in tune with how and where they are getting their information from. I agree that our students today are constantly learning from several different outlets and it has become a “lifestyle” for them. As educators, we need to be aware how our students learn, what different styles and media are pertinent to them so that we can reach them in the most effective format. The books and learning tools that seemed advanced to us may not be relevant to today’s learning environments.
    It is unfortunate that as educators we are always focusing on the “what to teach” instead of “how to teach.” I think this happens for a few different reasons. One may be because we are comfortable with the way we were taught, and may feel that as long as we are teaching state standards, there does not need to be innovation in practice (i.e., it worked on me so it will work on them). Another reason why teachers may not focus on the “how” is because they may not know how to incorporate different methods / technologies into their classroom. This lack of knowledge and /or confidence may prompt someone to steer away from changing their teaching styles.
    I do agree that we need to think more about the “how” behind teaching. Students these days are growing up in environments that are very different than what we remember and it would not be fair to have the same teaching styles as our teachers. Just as society is evolving, our practices need to keep up in the evolution.

  14. AnnMary Beshara, middle school math teacher (currently not teaching), Teacher U
    In the 21st century, ‘How students learn?” is the most important question to be constantly reflecting. The amount of both ever-changing and growing technology and information has resulted in a shift from ‘what’ to teach to ‘how’ to effectively teach our students. Nowadays, whatever profession you are in, you are required to continue to learn and update yourself about the latest research and technology available in your field to stay competitive and effective at your job. We must apply the same realities we face as adults to our students. Therefore, the question no longer becomes ‘what’ to teach but rather ‘how.’ The ‘how’ leads us to prepare our students to be critical thinkers, digest and process information, and know what resources to seek to access information.

    Few educators are concerned about the ‘how’ as oppsed to the ‘what’ because they are held accountable to predetermined state and national standards which mandate what to learn not necessarily how to teach content and skills. Also most schools of education do not focus on the how, but train teachers on what to teach in their specific grade or speciality. Very few programs, such as Teacher U have begin to shift toward thinking of the how rather than the what, but it has not spilled over to the greater community. Many school districts are bogged down by the pressures from the state and federal legistlation to encourage this paradigm shift.

    I have taught in two school with different experiences. The first school I taught at implemented technology to create a modernized learning community. Teachers, such as myself, had set up google groups where we would post notes and assignments, instant messaging for students to receive homework help were frequently used, and an online gradebook to communicate with students and parents on students overall performance was well-established. In math classes, students explored conceptual mathematics and used graphing calculators to take care of the skill and compuational side of the course. Laptop carts were accesible for students to research and type papers.
    The second school had only a website to update parents and students on events. It had limited use of the technologies our students are accostumed. The learning community here was completely different. It involved heavy test prep, drill and kill, and constant review because students were not really learning.
    Based on my experiences I agree that a shift from what students shoud learn to how has far more pay offs and rewards to both the students and teachers

  15. As a reading teacher this idea of focusing on HOW students learn rather than WHAT students learn resonates with me deeply. I spend my time thinking about the best ways to teach my students to decipher and digest text rather than the content of the text. I am excited when I see students leave my class confident with a full reading toolbelt of strategies to breakdown and then own varying forms of information. While the how I am describing does not directly translate to all aspects of our responsive information focused world, the general “how” does and has become the most important topic for just that reason. In reading this post I was struck by the fact that I am constantly engaging in the how of learning as an adult. Before I begin any project I access my “how” skills in researching and analyzing information. If I was simply equipped with a high degree of content and lacked the ability to find and comprehend new content I would fail at almost every task I attempt throughout my day. If this is the case now I can only imagine what my students will be asked to process or develop or research (all hows) when they are professionals.
    It is true that this obsession with the how of learning has not yet caught fire across every classroom in every school. Unfortunately there are a great deal of educators who are grounded in the what of teaching and learning and have not shifted; either because they are not interested in shifting, they haven’t been respectfully approached or persuaded, or they simply have not been exposed to the idea and effects in a way that is meaningful and allows them to implement it in their classroom. I would argue though that there is actually a great deal more teachers in a great deal more schools focused on the how of learning than is often assumed by outsiders to education world, and some insiders as well. The first school I taught at was filled with teachers who some of my current colleagues would assume were outdated and ineffective yet I was exposed to practitioners of the how of learning that established the foundations of my philosophy of what we need to teach. I think that as valuable as these conversations are they sometimes take direction of handwringing and condemnation of the established education system (and implicitly those who work within it) and I would argue that there is a significant and growing tide of educators who are already engaged in the how of teaching and learning.

  16. The question “How do our students learn” is more important now than ever before because it gets to the heart of actual learning, that is, the process of learning itself. Educators, like Warlick, rightly point out that, traditionally, teaching has focused on the “what” – the content, what students are being taught. It’s possible that so few people are thinking about the “how” as opposed to the “what” because the “what” better lends itself to educator control; educators determine what’s important for people to know, and then devise and implement the curricula across classrooms. Of course, a meaningful analysis of content is vital and necessary, as what students are learning should be rich, thought provoking, and rigorous. But it is not the bottom line. How students learn is. If students aren’t really processing the content, or if it is not being presented in a way that they can meaningfully access it, then what’s the point? What, if any, learning will take place?

    The world of 21st century technology that our students grow, interact, and thrive in compels us to look at how our students are actually learning. And as Warlick suggests in his post, we must appropriate this technology for our classroom, so that we could prepare our students professionally to perform in the even more technology-rich environment they will be competing in within the next couple of decades. One point Warlick makes particularly resonates with me with respect to the students I teach, as they come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. A disregard for fully integrating technology into our classrooms poses a greater risk of widening the divide between the haves and the have-nots, between my students, some of whom do not have access to computers at home, and students of higher socioeconomic status, who have regular access to computers and other technology.

  17. I was struck with how the question, “How do our students learn?” is the most important when considering 21st century education. Simply put, the world that students engage with outside of school has an equal or greater impact on the ways that they learn. In order for school to be effective, then, it must conform to students’ real world experiences. This fact is far from new—Dewey’s laboratory school attempted to achieve the same integrative goal. The salient difference that Warlick points out is that the means of interaction we now have available are not only changing the process of learning, they may be fundamentally accelerating it. School must attempt to keep up with changes in technology as well as this increased pace of information flow. I think the most important phrase a student could internalize in the 21st century is, “I love to learn, I never want to stop learning, and I must not stop learning.”

    I would suggest there is a reason educators like Warlick believe so few people think about the how as opposed to the what. In order to think about the how for your students you must come to recognize teaching as a dynamic profession whose practitioners are always changing with students. To put this in concrete terms for the 21st century, a teacher isn’t going to be able to incorporate the use of Web 2.0 in the classroom if the teacher isn’t an active user of these tools naturally. This constant search for professional learning is difficult and requires curiosity and self-discipline. If teachers fail to embody the phrase at the end of the preceding paragraph, they certainly have no hope of convincing their students to adopt it.

    I agree with Warlick’s sentiment—just now, I finished a meeting in which a teacher defended her practice based almost entirely on, “what worked last year.” While this type of conservatism in teaching may have its place in order to preserve best practices and ensure equitable student achievement, there is no doubt that teaching lags way behind other fields in matching its methods to those of the 21st century world.

  18. When it comes to 21st century learning it is SO important to ask how our students learn because so many systems have changed around us yet the school systems have remained the same for decades. If we don’t step back and ask this question, (one the we should have asked back when the internet first appeared) then we don’t move forward. There won’t be a reassessing of what works and what doesn’t work. So much isn’t working and so many students are learning that they are resisting school and as a result, their own education. Things won’t change until you ask a different type of question. Constantly saying WHAT are kids learning will only result in the similar answers: the three R’s, dates and facts, the same *&^% their parents learned and forgot about, etc. etc. etc. When you begin to ask HOW then you can start to see that 1. kids aren’t learning this old fashioned way and 2. they can learn to program and surf and blog and voice their opinions and develop and create and dream in a way that never reaches our classrooms. The medium that could make all the difference isn’t even being considered because no one asks HOW.
    My final point is that I agree that things are shifting. The question is, will it happen fast enough. Will it be controlled by the same people that issued text books to us without 9-11 in them or will the teachers and students drive this forward? The answer to this question will make all the difference.

  19. David, thanks for this interesting post. As a kindergarten teacher, asking “How do our students learn?” is of utmost importance as I will be one of the first teachers my students interact with. By the time my students are looking for jobs, our world will be completely different. As Ken Robinson said in his talk about creativity, we’re preparing our students for a world we can’t imagine. How will I prepare my students for a world I can’t imagine? Interesting thought. I suppose the best thing we can do as educators to keep in touch and share our best practices with each other. Your blog and hundreds of other professional educational blogs are where teachers can meet to exchange thoughts and ideas so that we can at least discuss how to teach our students and best prepare them for their future.

  20. I agree that “How do our students learn?” should be at the forefront of our minds in order for us to truly reach them. It can become harder for us to understand this question as youth moves farther and farther from the world we experienced growing up. I think it is important, though, for us to strive to keep up with it. I think it is rare that a group of educators focuses on this “how do they learn?” because our country and our society has drilled into us that we must be most concerned about “what do they learn?” and “will they do well on the test?” The school that I work at, while never outwardly suggesting that we “teach to the test,” is definitely focused on test scores. Naturally, even the best teachers have this looming state test over their heads and battles each day with whether to teach things that are on the test, or things that are applicable to life. If we focused our how our students learn, we would most likely be able to do both.

  21. The question “How do our students learn,” is a question that every great teacher asks themselves at some point in their evolution of teaching. When a teacher begins to focus on this their teaching goes to a new level and they start to make that leap from good to great. Their lessons become more thoughtful, engaging, and the think ratio shifts to the students, whose understanding becomes so much deeper. Unfortunately, when we think about how to evaluate both teachers and students, the focus shifts from how students learn and inform themselves to “what do the students know,” because it is much easier to assess. I do believe in assessments and think that they are necessary to hold schools and districts accountable to the learning standards, but we need to find a way to balance the need for a quick turnaround in scores and tests that value students conceptual knowledge—a tough task indeed.

  22. David, as a new teacher (this being my 2nd year), I was shocked by what your reflections on today mean about past decades of education.
    “Learning is at the core of teaching today”. How was it ever not at the core of teaching? The direct product of teaching is learning–isn’t that just the base of what should be happening in a classroom? I guess this is where your question of “How” comes into play. It is much more difficult to answer the “How” than the “What”. The “how” is so individualized, and as you point out, so driven by social/cultural/technological changes. I imagine how intimidating it would be for teachers of the past to evolve their teaching styles and approaches (especially without easy access to what others are doing, as we have now with Youtube clips of great teaching). Nowadays, as we are able to quickly analyze our quantified data (both of which weren’t happening in the past) and find shortcomings, the first we ask is “How”—How did this happen (from the standpoint of my instruction)? How can I change my instruction? How can my students learn these skills next time?
    Without the “How” though, the “What” is meaningless. If we can’t tap into our students’ learning styles, than what we teach them will fail to stick with them.
    My experiences at my school have shown me this. The “what” is already there–determined by state standards, our curriculum team, and the assessments that we use. It is my responsibility to develop the “how” for my particular learners.

  23. David,
    As I was reading your post, I immediately thought of all the wonderful educators that I’m lucky enough to be working alongside each day. Although there is always room for improvement, I can confidently say that at our school, we DO spend a lot of time thinking about how our students learn. Whether it’s teaching small pull-out groups, creating differentiated assignments, or planning a week’s worth of hands-on experiments, we are always trying to gauge how to best reach our students.

    However, I think the difference is that our emphasis has never been tied to technology. I teach 2nd Grade, and I’m still unsure of how important it is to embrace technology in my classroom. Yes, it is vital that my students learn a certain skill set: typing, researching, publishing, etc. However, in my opinion it is even more vital that they learn how to read, and that they actually enjoy having a real novel in their hands. I think technology should certainly be utilized in many of our lessons, but I think we must also think carefully about how to teach our students to enjoy and respect more simplified ways of learning….reading novels, participating in book discussions with the peers in front of them, using an encyclopedia to research a topic, etc. There is great value in learning those processes. I know I wouldn’t have survived my first year in college if I hadn’t known how to be resourceful or how to hold my own in a face-to-face conversation.

  24. I am fortunate to be currently working in a charter school that fully emphasizes a great deal of energy on how students in urban communities learn and achieve. With this devotion, we are able to mold instruction to target individual student achievement as well as achievement of an entire middle school that lies amongst a achievement-threatened city school district. To an educator, how students learn should be a determining factor in all areas of teaching: planning, delivery of instruction, and assessment. If we devote our time to figuring out how students learn as opposed to simply thinking about what students should learn, we can maximize student achievement and engagement. Today, there are so many advancements that can assist students’ learning and achievement, including instructional advancements and teaching philosophies as well as technological advancements. It’s important to take into account how students learn in order to maximize what they learn throughout the school day. Some modes of instruction that incorporate the “big” technologies become unattainable to some schools that are unable to purchase or maintain equipment (such as computer labs, smart boards, laptops, etc.), however, we can utilize technologies that are easily obtainable and maximize how students learn (a powerpoint, a video, a cd player, etc).
    There is such a push for success on state tests and continuing assessments throughout the school year, that I believe it could be easy to focus on what students learn rather than on how students learn. It also takes a lot of time and effort to devote one’s thinking as an educator to how students learn, because there are so many ways in which an individual child may absorb and retain information for a great length of time. It’s more difficult to quantify and categorize the how as opposed to the what, but the how can lead to more what if we decide to keep devoting our energy towards incorporating the how into our everyday instruction.
    I agree that the “how” may be less emphasized in traditional schools or schools that operate without incorporating fresh ideas and new ways of thinking towards the process of teaching and learning because of the level of professional development and drive it takes on the teacher’s part. However, I think that there are always ways to incorporate different modes of instruction and learning for the student and it is each educator’s job to push this further in their classroom and on a daily basis.

  25. Thinking about the how as opposed to the what…as a new teacher this is a question that has definitely made me think back to my classroom. It seems that many times I am just focused on the what my students are learning as a result of a school environment where test scores mean everything and I am reminded daily that the scores are all that matter. However, I believe that if I begin to think more about the how my students learn I will be able to be more effective in what my students are learning. As a teacher in the 21st century it seems like a natural progression to begin thinking about the how considering all the different outlets available to my students and myself.

  26. Because 21st century learning in regards to the “what” (i.e. content) is more concrete, stabilized and thoroughly researched within our past (and proven to lean towards success on standardized tests), the “how” children/students are obtaining and storing information is unfortunately pushed to the outer corners of importance. The HOW, however, is the salient issue today though within our learning communities because it is on a consistently evolving wheel that both changes daily (from the development of the internet to podcasts to blogs ,etc.) and which affects the students of today so substantially. It is not so much important anymore about what information they need to know in order to be successful in high school, college, and the professional world, but rather how can the information be taught to them so that the students are feeling actively engaged with the content and empowered to create and implement the information in new and meaningful ways both in and out of the classroom. Educators feel that so few people are thinking about the HOW because in the history of academia, teachers have been conditioned to constantly question the WHAT and to use the content as the root of all learning instead of the means from which the content is taught to the students. In addition, the escalator of technological use is an intimidating thing to many people (especially those in older generations) and at times it is easier to turn a blind eye to it instead of to ask the hard questions and to engage your own self in learning new things and reflecting upon the question of how the learning of today is different from the learning of yesterday and what we can do to both bridge the two and reach new ground. Based on my own experiences in my charter school, I do agree that there needs to be a closer examination into the HOW over the WHAT because in order for our schools to even come close to “closing the achievement gap” we need to both access how students worldwide are leaning and how students nationally and locally are obtaining information and where the most success and growth is being seen and then “what” can be done to change the “HOW” within our own school community. Essentially and ideally, in the long term, we want our students to be able to hold solid ground among other “competitors” in the professional world and to have all the intellectual tools needed in order to be successful in a chosen field. In order to prepare them for that though, we have to be critical learners ourselves and embrace the new technological advances that our kids have exposure to in order to prepare them as fully as possible to be critical thinkers and learners. This requires a shift of thinking and focus however away from the content that we teach them (which is difficult since assessments are based on the content learned, not the means of learning the content) towards the way we deliver the “what” so that the students are truly feeling like active learners instead of passive learners.

  27. Thank you for your thought-provoking post David. I think that you have highlighted the fundamental divide between teaching skills and teaching content. However, in this technological age, it seems to me that the line is becoming increasingly blurry. More specifically, teaching students the skill of locating and processing information is becoming increasingly valuable. As such, it seems that giving thought to how our students learn is of prime importance to educators.
    It seems to me that as an educator, I often fall into the trap of replicating the education that I received as a child. However, such an approach discounts the changing informational landscape of modern times. Information used to be much more difficult to come by, and the most valuable person was one that possessed great volumes of information, or content. But, nowadays, it seems that the most valuable person is not necessarily one with volumes of information, but instead one that can locate high-quality information and make sense of it in a meaningful way. There has been a fundamental shift from valuing content to valuing the skill of acquiring content.
    I think that all too often we focus on WHAT we are teaching because that is more readily measured by traditional assessment devices. It is far easier to assess content with traditional means (i.e. the written test) than it is to truly assess the ability to acquire content. However, by examining HOW our students learn we can begin to truly meet their needs and set them up for successful futures as they navigate this rapidly changing informational landscape.

  28. David,
    I think that this question “How do our students learn?” is not a 21st century question. Great teachers now and throughout history have differentiated their instruction to meet the needs of their students and to adequately prepare our students for life outside of the classroom. For me, the major shift in mindset is not “how do they learn?” but what are the new technologies that we should be preparing our students to use and how can we use these things to maximize our own instruction and make sure that we are reaching all different learners in our classroom.
    I feel that the major “How” vs. “What” dilemma lies within the structure of our schools system. As a teacher, I often discuss the importance of finding the best way to teach each student. However, I think there is a strong pressure to focus on the content and not on the best way to reach each child because there is constant pressure to produce quantitative results. In being forced to cover an overwhelming amount of content in such a short period of time plus the influx of new and inexperienced teachers into the classroom the “how” often is set aside in an attempt to cover the content necessary for schools to stay afloat. I feel that if more teachers stayed in the classroom and continued to improve we would develop a force ready to handle thinking about the “what” and the “how.”

  29. David,
    I think that the question “How do our students learn?” has always been one of the essential questions we must ask as teachers. Not only now, in the 21st century but, always. The technological advances of the 21st century have certainly provided us with a greater variety of answers to this very essential question. In my own experience as a teacher, I’ve worked with a lot of teachers that focus on the HOW and an equal number of teachers that focus on the WHAT. Most of the teachers that have focused on the WHAT have done so for three reasons, 1) lack of experience as an educator, 2) focus on results/test scores and 3) lack of passion for true education. I do agree that we need to think about both what students are learning and how they are learning it, however, I cannot relate to Greg’s feelings of isolation as he comes to this understanding as I am surrounded by educators asking this same question every day. And as I read many of the previous comments on this page, I see that there are many more educators out there focusing on the HOW.

    1. How our students learn is a very important topic when it comes to 21st century learning and because of our own education we often fail to adequately answer it. It is obvious that students are using a variety of technologies outside of the classroom to learn in a social setting, therefore it is important we transfer and build on those same technologies in the classroom. In the future students will be entering a workforce that is different from today’s in many ways, including the technology that is used, and it is our job as educators to utilize this technology in the classroom. I think many educators are thinking about the WHAT instead of the HOW because there is such a large amount of content that needs to be taught, and there is a large focus on mastering that content on standardized tests. There needs to be a system of accountability that does not just focus on test scores, but allows teachers to focus on how students learn and incorporate that into the classroom on a daily basis. As a math teacher it is easy for me to spend a majority of my time on planning a lesson using examples and a well thought-out independent practice. However, once I am in the classroom I often realize that the method I taught does not work for everyone, and I am forced to adapt to students individual needs as learners. Technology could help bridge this gap for me because it is an area that many students are comfortable with and can help students master the content.

  30. In some ways I think the question of how we learn has always been the most important question. I remember in school one of my teachers telling me that it wasn’t ultimately important if I remembered what she taught me but if I remembered how she taught me to think. At the time, I remember being shocked by that because I thought I was supposed to “know stuff” in school; however, many years later, I think the most important teachers I had were the ones that gave me the skills and experiences that helped me think, question, challenge, and push myself. In the 21st century, “how” students learn is even more important because as you said—we don’t even know what the world is going to be like when our students are adults. If we are only focused on what they are learning rather than how they are learning and developing, we will not be preparing them for a world that we cannot even imagine and that will demand creativity, innovation, and critical thought more than anything else.

    I think that the most people feel frustrated by the lack of attention to this question of HOW because we are in such a results-based system. Many schools today are focused on test results, data, and achievement as measured through numbers and test gains. This standards-based, data based focus, while it might have been rooted in a necessary and positive attempt towards achievement have not left much room for schools and educators to think about how students learn.

    I definitely agree that there is a lack of focus on how students learn. I think that in some ways we are thinking about that question all the time in our schools because ultimately to think about WHAT students learn, you have to think about HOW they will learn the what. However, because of the results based drive that many of us see in our schools, it is hard to make room for learning, thinking, exploring, and inquiry that is not directly measurable or quantifiable.

  31. As we all know, the world of education has become incredibly focused on test scores and standards. The unfortunate result of this focus is that teachers have been forced into a mode of thinking that emphasizes what kids learn over how kids learn. However, when we consider our mission as educators, that focus seems entirely nonsensical. We don’t teach so that our students will be able to memorize and regurgitate information for exams. We teach so that our students will grow into life long learners. Therefore, we should be emphasizing how they learn much more than what. If we emphasize how our kids learn, we will be able to equip them with the tools they need to continue learning after they leave our classrooms. By doing this we will fulfill our mission as educators, rather than test prep administrators.

  32. David,

    I was most stricken with your comment about this essential question and how it relates to differentiated instruction. It seems to me that a reorientation is occurring: that the primacy of the “what?” is being challenged by the “how?” This is happening in response to a more complex and diffuse information environment, yes, but also as a result of a (slowly) changing educational profession. The charter movement and NCLB have created a new mandate in public education which simply didn’t exist a generation ago, and this as much as the internet or other forms of information-sharing has necessitated this change. The insistence on, rather than simply the sincere hope of reaching every single child has created a much more reflective and communicative environment within our profession.

  33. David,
    Thank you so much for your thought provoking comments, they have lead me to reflect a lot on my personal experiences in my education and in my classroom everyday. The question of “how do our students learn?” is essential in thinking about fully preparing our students for the future. The 21st century is filled with technological advancements that have shaped and developed our world in many new ways. It is hard to imagine our lives without it. Yet while we have made so many advancements in our technology the HOW we teach has not changed. If the goal of our educational system is to create life long learners who are able to succeed in whatever path they choose it seems foolish that we have not made the developments in HOW to align with our technological advancements. Technology opens up a new world of learning and can be a powerful tool in leading our students to academic and life success. I believe that so few people think about the HOW we teach and rather focus on the WHAT because our education system has been relatively set in stone for centuries and it is hard for us to abandon our papers, pencils, and books and enter into an unknown territory. In reflecting on my own classroom I feel like I too often focus on the content rather than the HOW and unfortunately am doing my students a disservice. It is a huge undertaking to shift our mindsets to look at the way in which our students are learning and requires the work and collaboration of many excellent teachers but I am excited to see what advancements will be made in the future to ensure that all students reach their maximum potential.

  34. When our kids are sent so many messages through out the day with the advances of technology a simple teachers lecture is not going to get our students to pay attention and really learn. So its extremely important for educators to examine how their students learn and learn at their fullest. I agree that few teachers really take the time to think about how students learn because they are so focused on the what. Testing and state curriculum can be daunting, so teacher spend their time tyring to figure out what they are going to teach when they know they are lacking time to get through it all. I feel that if teachers began to think about the “how” we would get better results from our students. However this is easier said than done. Our students learn differently and we have to think of how we are going to meet them in each of their own defined “I learn best this way” places. As educators, if we do not take this time we end up falling into the trap of what standards am I going to teach today instead of how am I going to teach these standards today.

  35. As a science teacher, I am certainly in agreement with what you say about the “how” of student learning and thinking. In a world that is increasingly technologically oriented, it is critical to analyze where students are getting information and accordingly help students understand exactly where their information is coming from, whether they can trust it, and how to think critically about their sources of information. Most educators belong to a generation in which information did not flow nearly as freely and quickly as it flows in our new century, and therefore do not take into account the reality that the vast majority of *what* students are learning is coming from non-school, media sources. I absolutely agree with the contention that we are doing students a disservice by ignoring the reality that our students will have to deal with and, better yet, effectively use the information overload that is so characteristic of our culture.

  36. “How do our students learn” is the most important question when it comes to 21st century learning because we are now living in an age of constant change, increased reliability on technology, and rapid exchange of information and knowledge. How our students learn in our classrooms will subsequently determine how they perform and survive in a society that operates under these characteristics. I think these educators feel so few people are thinking about the HOW as opposed to the WHAT due to the history of our country’s education system. As a country, we have focused more on our schools’ curriculum content than on the actual execution. We spend endless hours writing standards and objectives; however, we don’t dedicate nearly the same amount of time to how these standards and objectives are taught, which is equally as important. Based on my experience in teaching at a public school in the South Bronx, I completely agree that we spend much more time on the WHAT than the HOW. My administrators have countless meetings and discussions on what teachers should be teaching. They argue amongst themselves about the content and objectives. But they don’t really think about how teachers should be teaching the content. Furthermore, teachers at my school are not given much independence in what and how we teach. There isn’t much room for teachers to be creative in the classroom as everything is more or less dictated to us.

  37. It seems like this question of “How?” is becoming increasingly important in the classroom, and it is almost happening at too quick a pace to keep up. How are our students learning, and how can we reach them? How can we help them succeed in this rapidly evolving world? As teachers, we must respond to the new environment, a world our students will soon face on their own, and figure out how to make education relevant to them. It is as if each generation learns a slightly different way, and those growing up in the twenty-first century are even farther from their teachers than ever. We must adjust. Educators probably feel that so few people are asking themselves “How?” because we all grew up thinking “What?” As in, what facts will we learn today? What must we know to get a job? Up until recently, jobs were pre-determined, with a description ready; now, anything can happen. There are many more ways to succeed. As a teacher, I agree that we should be spending more time thinking about the “How?” Though it is easier and much less intimidating for us to fall back on the way we learned, it is our duty as educators to give our students a way to learn that is meaningful to them, and a way to apply their knowledge to the real and ever-changing world.

  38. How students learn is the most important question to teaching period, regardless of the century. It great minds trying to answer this question that saw the dawn of progressive education heralded by Dewey, and it is the answer to this question that will continue to push the practice and study of education forward. I say that the century the question is answered is not relevant, because as educators we should continually as this question to hone our craft. Now, I would be remiss, if I did not acknowledge that the advances/change in thought, technology, culture, etc influence how students learn. However, it is the fact that the aforementioned factors do influence the way students learn that we should not look at this question as the most important for education in the 21 century, but we should be asking this question in any century. Otherwise, we will be teaching students who to learn in the 22 century through the 21 and so on…
    b. Why do you think these educators feel so few people are thinking about the HOW as opposed to the WHAT?
    I think that more educators are concerned with the what instead of the how, because teachers in the classroom are more practioners and less philosopher due to pressures in the field, and I agree with this fracture in the field. Ultimately, a good teacher is one who executes a lesson effectively that is they teach a lesson and students are able perform a task and rationale. We are effective executers to the extent information is provided about how students learn that is useful to said execution. After, teachers in the classroom are being held more and numbers and student performance, which is tied to teaching practices aka good execution of a lesson. This is not to stay that the teacher in the classroom is not a researcher; after all, I do research on all my students to better understand how best they learn. However, this is not scientific/controlled research, because it would simply get in the way of my job which is to teach! Thus, I think more teachers are thinking about what, because they are helded accountable to the extent a student can demonstrated WHAT they learned. Teachers are not held accountable to the extent they know how a student learners. Now, I would be remiss if I did not recognize that the two are not linked ; however, I think an effective teacher is reading more research by someone who asked the HOW questions in order to better empart that WHAT.

  39. David,

    I enjoyed reading and grappling with your question, “How do our students learn”. As an educator in an early elementary classroom I find this question particularly challenging as I attempt to lay the educational foundation that will hopefully carry them through their lives. It’s stressful knowing that if I don’t figure out the answer to this question than my students won’t learn. However, it’s comforting to be able to focus on the “how” of learning rather than worrying about the output. So much of my job is focused on the output, that it was nice to think about my students’ thought processes. Our world has changed so much since I was the age of my students and it has become increasingly important to remain privy to their lifestyles and specifically the technology that they use. Knowing this and also that the world will continue to change as an educator I must prepare them for anything and everything that the world of technology throws at them. Students learning processes are changing as their world changes around them. It them becomes my job to find ways to teach according to their thought processes.

  40. April Williams-physical and health educator K-5 Community Partnership Charter School

    Great educators are always asking themselves the question, “How do my (our) students learn?” As the world continues to change we (educators) must prepare our students for these changes. Technology is a wonderful thing and it is always changing for the better and the fact of the matter is that we are currently living in a technology integrated society and as educators we it is our duty to not only teach the “p’s” and the “q’s” but we must also prepare our students how to manage themselves in this ever changing world.

    When thinking about this question, “How do our students learn?” we have to treat it as the most important question when it comes to the learning of the 21st century. I think that as our society changes it is crucial for educators to focus on the how in order to prepare our students for the society that they will be entering as young adults. Yes, it’s great that students can demonstrate what they know on state and national assessments, but if they are not able to function in their society then all that knowledge is for nothing. Great educators are going to focus on the “how” for their students.

    I think that so few educators are thinking about the “how” as opposed to the “what” because of the pressure on getting their students to demonstrate what they know on these assessments. Many educators are pressured into getting their students to a point in which they can demonstrate “what” they know on these assessments and thus educators find themselves in that ugly cycle in which they begin to teach to the assessments.

    As a physical and health educator I will agree with the fact that as educators it is our duty to not only focus on the “what” but more importantly on the “how”. Yes content is important but the actually discovery (the “how”) is in my opinion what really matters. In my community I think that it is crucial for the general educators to focus not only on content but on “how” students learn the content.

  41. As educators, it’s important that we ask HOW because we have absolutely no idea what our kids will encounter in their future. They have to be able to apply their learning not regurgitate. We have to mold them into people who are critical thinkers and problem solvers. Also, if we constantly reflect on how our students learn then we can teach them to do the same. If children realize they learn best through music or kinesthetics then they will be able to tackle any concept long past their exit from our classrooms. I would even argue that we, as teachers, need to practice metacognition in order to effectively model this for our students.

    I disagree that few educators are thinking about the HOW. If we think back to our own educational experiences, I’m sure most of us will agree that our teachers probably only had the WHAT in mind. I mean, when I was in school teachers outside of gifted and talented never even approached teaching with multiple intelligences in mind. Everyone was expected to learn the same way and the first time around. Just the fact that we observe each other’s best practices proves that we are not only focused on content. We should acknowledge that in this respect we have grown over the decades. We are on our way to the other end of the spectrum, the HOW, and I believe that as we continue to use technology as a means to share resources and thoughts on our profession then we will soon get there.

  42. Asking the HOW instead of the WHAT our students learn seems logical and reasonable, yet many of us do focus solely or rely heavily on the what. As an urban charter school teacher, I feel the pressure constantly to make sure my students are meeting standards and succeeding on tests and other measures provided by my school and state, but rarely do we discuss the method of acquisition or the why behind the gaps and successes. If we were to raise the question of the HOW simultaneously with the WHAT we could possibly create independent, critical thinkers in a rapidly moving environment. The idea that learning and education should form a lifestyle rather than just the “doing something at school” really resonates with my ideal of how students should be immersed and aware of their learning and potential. Both teachers and students need to embrace resources and method to how we acquire what we know as a basis for what we will learn.

    1. The question “How do our students learn?” is one of the most important questions we can ask as 21st century educators. Despite a national insistence on performance indicators, in order to help our students achieve these skills, we need to know how they learn best. In a world where students are presented with eye catching technology at every turn, a lot of what we do needs to be updated and centered on how students today learn.

      Due to our need to teach to the test, few educators are able to focus on the “how” of teaching, but must focus on the “what.” These educators are given little latitude in their instruction and must achieve scores to continue educating students. Though assessment is an important part of education, our country has hindered it with our systems.

      I agree that many teachers focus on the “what” due to the emphasis on testing in this country. Ironically, the “what” is often hindered by the “how.” Given more flexibility in the execution of content, perhaps teachers will be better able to focus on the “how.”

    2. I have long advocated that the primary goal of education should be to teach students how to learn. Prior to becoming a first grade teacher, I had already worked in 3 or 4 major industries with even more job titles and responsibilities… all of which I was expected to learn rapidly and then think about creatively. The knowledge that I gained from school was almost entirely useless (except for that which I’m now using as a teacher), but the discipline of learning how to THINK was invaluable. I never took a class in project management, starting a company, writing curriculum, providing technical support, or salesmanship, yet I moved into each job with the confidence that I could get on board quickly because of my general background as a learner. Yet, I feel that many adults lack these skills because they were not supported in gaining them either at home or school.

      Our school system is badly mis-matched with even the business world of 2010 (let alone 2026 when my students will finish college) making the “how” question critical.

      On the flip side, however, I’ve seen some schools go too far in the opposite direction. For example, at my school we have a reading curriculum which teaches only big-picture “thinking” skills, completely ignoring the foundational basics. Unfortunately, without the foundations our students get frustrated and often can’t meet the goals. I feel that to a certain extent, it doesn’t matter what content is taught–but there better be some content somewhere! Learning content effectively may be one of the most important skills students need to develop for success in adulthood. So I agree completely that we need to think more about how we teach… but we can’t lose sight of the what, or we’re left with nothing to stand on.

  43. I think that your question “how do our students learn?” is critically important in educating 21st century youth. I think about teaching lower elementary students and they certainly do not come to us in Kindergarten or Pre-Kindergarten with a blank slate. They have over 4-5 years of interaction with the world that is completely independent of traditional schooling methods. They’ve probably learned many colors, numbers, vocabulary and inferencing skill through children’s television shows, children’s websites or children’s songs from electronic media. Students come to us pre-disposed to certain learning methods and we could work much more efficiently if we took advantage of successful learning methods with which they are already comfortable. The way students learn outside of the classroom will continue to advance and it is in our best interest to consider those methods so we can work most efficiently in our classroom.

    I feel like we spend so much time arguing about which curriculum, which skills, which assessments and which “methods” we use, we spend very little time thinking about how students would learn best, most quickly and most deeply.

    While I feel like it’s critically important to deeply consider the medium of our teaching delivery method and how it relates to our students optimal learning experience, I believe that the WHAT needs to be determined before we go into how. Schools need to be on the same page about WHAT and HOW. While I would love to expand the how in my school, the what is so controversial I sometimes feel we will never make sure we are providing a uniformly rigorous curriculum. This controversy is holding us back from expanding our how and making sure our students are learning, but I think it’s still most important to have a quality what.

  44. Jesse Montero from Bushwick Elementary writes:
    I think as an educator, the question, “How do students learn?” is a question that should be asked all the time if we are reflecting back on our own teaching in the classroom. With technology growing everyday, this question holds even more meaning for our teaching practice in the 21st century. I have been able to experience this technological growth within my childhood. The norm went from, close to, every household having a television to, close to, every household having a computer by the end of my childhood. Now as an educator in the 21st century, not only is it important to be aware of these technological advances but also I feel it is crucial to incorporate technology into our everyday teaching practices in order to grab those “digital” learners.
    In a world that looks at test results and numbers, David Warlick feels many educators today are looking and thinking about the WHAT in teaching as opposed to the HOW in teaching. “We are teaching within a rapidly changing information environment” (David Warlick) If students are exposes to technology and are imputing information through many sources, then why not grab onto those sources and use those technological advances in your favor as a classroom teacher. I cannot agree with Mr. Warlick more on his idea of teaching in a rapidly changing information environment. Bring all those resources into your classroom and watch your achievement in studnts shot up.

  45. I think the question posed is a great thought provoking question and it is something every teacher should consider in their daily practice. The world my students are interacting in is different from when i was their age so the traditional methods of teaching will not fully prepare our students for the changing environment. Technology is becoming a staple in today’s society, therefore we must expose our students to some aspect of it on daily basis. Thinking about how students learn does not just involve the incorporation of technology in the the curriculum, but it also involves Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory. Our students have different learning styles so it is important to differentiate our teaching to embody those various learning styles for our students to learn to the best of their ability.

    Few people consider the how as opposed to the what because people may not know how to address the how students learn and some teach for number results. To change all of this I do agree it needs to be a school effort to provide teachers with the resources to accomplish. My school is very pro-active when it comes to meeting the needs of multiple learning styles and preparing our students for the 21st century.

  46. David,
    I agree that one of the most essential questions is “How will our students learn”. These days there is so much pressure for students to produce a certain type of work and for teachers to analyze it in a certain way. Perhaps educators are becoming more narrow minded when it comes to what students should produce. If the focus is on How will students learn as opposed to what will students learn, this would allow for students to flourish in the type of work that they do best and would enable them to find their niche. It is true that the world is a rapidly changing place and the manner in which we educate our children must change along with it. We could allow students to think more critically about the world around them. The world is becoming a more dynamic place and we must prepare our students in the correct manner.

  47. David,
    Your post brings back memories to my undergraduate teacher prep work when I read David A. Sousa’s How the Brian Learns. I remember thinking that this book would save me in my early years of teaching and would sit on my desk every night I lesson planned. Unfortunately, 3 years into the field and I haven’t opened the book since my last exam for the teacher prep course. Asking “How” we learn has not been a priority in my first few years…the question is “What standards and skills will they need to know?” AND “How will we assess mastery of the standards being taught?”. In a field where schools are judged on how well students perform the depth and breadth of that learning is often short changed for the amount of “WHAT” can get taught in a short amount of time. If we are preparing our students for a successful future then we need to provide real opportunities within their environments that tap into the ways they engage with information around them and others so that learning isn’t just about the content in a given curriculum but easily transferred to life-long learning in their future. You are 100 percent right learning is as common as breathing and if teachers focus on “HOW” we learn we can shape the minds of our students to seek, be informed, and learn beyond the classroom.
    ? Nivia

  48. As educators we have to pinpoint the ways to differentiate instruction. Differentiation is not an end to a means but a means to the same end. With the curriculum as our constant variable, we are able to use the ‘how’ as our dependent variable. 21st century learning needs to affect all kids in some form or fashion yet the question to ask is what types of methods are good for some kids and not others, what will be helpful to one group and not another.

    I think more people are interested in the WHAT, because no one believes that anyone has devised a formula that has successfully affected the learning of all children. The WHAT is the money-maker as well, as soon as someone does some research and proves that more than 50% of students can be successful from this model or program or methodology, that then becomes the new WHAT. Until the majority of educators are on the same page regarding WHAT are our students learning, then not many will jump on the HOW bandwagon.

  49. The question “How do our students learn?” is the most important question of the 21st century because the world of our students is rapidly changing. We have never before seen the technology that exists today and will exist as our srudents come of age. In this “information age,” there are more opportunities for all people to learn than even before. Inherently, the methods of learning for students today are very different than the methods that students used in the past. As teachers, it is our responsibility to be “in the know” about these methods as our students encounter them daily, whether we realize it or not. I think that these educators feel that so few people are thinking about how students learn as opposed to what because many people are somewhat stuck in their past experiences with learning. The world has changed rapidly in a very short period of time. From my own experiences at my school, I agree that there isn’t enough thinking about how to use technology to facilitate student learning, though this is changing. Teachers at my school are beginning to engage students in technologically astute ways.

    1. I believe it’s an important question because as educators that should be our main concern. We need to understand how our scholars’ learn best so that we can make the most out of our instructional time with them. Our jobs as educators are to prepare our scholars to be successful contributing global citizens. If we don’t concern ourselves with how they learn best then we are doing them a huge disservice. I do believe that we spend an enormous amount of time on what they learn instead of how they learn. In terms of my own learning community I do believe that we spend a lot of time on what our scholars are learning and not enough time on how they learn. Although we do have that discussion we don’t spend as much time on that aspect of our instruction.

  50. At the expense of sounding redundant, I couldn’t agree with my colleagues more about the focus that we teachers place on what students learn over how they learn. And although I agree that we have a responsibility to engage our students and better prepare them for the technologically dependent world they are living in; I personally find it challenging given my lack of technological knowledge. Additionally, it becomes quite a daunting task when ones school environment is not necessarily supportive nor well-equipped to handle a technologically driven and implemented curriculum.
    Again, although I feel strongly that it is essential that we develop in our students the necessary skills to compete in an ever-changing global world, it is just as important that we recognize that changes have to take place within the curriculum of all our educational institutions.

  51. This question is important for many reasons, but for me the most valuable reason is what is the best vehicle for me to reach my students. What is going to help them understand the world around them. I think that many teachers are focused on what students are learning more than how students are learning because we live in a test driven society. We have to prove that our students know thinks or have the proper set of skills. It is also important because the word is changing very fast and children are not the same as they were when I was a kid but in many cases we are still teaching them the same way. If the student is different then maybe we should teach them differently. I agree with this because I taught a lesson about playing a chord on a guitar and the children were very confused but the next lesson I played a video of how to play that same chord and the students got it immediately. As I reflected on this I thought maybe I said some thing different but I really did not because I watched the video before I taught the lesson and used the same language. It had to do with the level of engagement the students paid for more attention to the video then they did to me. I also worry about this because it makes me feel like the children today are be coming less social with real people.

  52. David,
    I think that the “How” is the most important question now simply because it is really difficult for us to conceive what sorts of jobs our kids will be encountering in the 21st century. I don’t think it’s so much that educators aren’t thinking about the how, but there are far few professional resources available to address the How in student learning. We spend so much time talking around this issue that in never gets addressed.

    Even in the school that I teach in we spend a lot of time discussing content but NOT a lot of time discussing different ways in which students learn–especially incorporating technology into learning.

  53. David,

    This thought provoking question is one in which ALL teachers should ask when reflecting on their practice. In terms of learning in the 21st century, I believe that it is the responsibility of an effective educator to prepare students for a world that is not apparent but is constantly changing.
    Educators feel so few people are thinking about the HOW because much emphasis is being placed on content, achieving on tests. Much time is spent on curriculum, performance skills, and assessments as opposed to focusing on the “how”.
    Based on my experience in my school and learning community, I believe that content is important, however, in order for students to make sense of the content, as educators we need to ask ‘How do they learn?’ With the use technology and its resources, teachers can help students’ become the critical thinkers for their future.

    1. Keisha,

      I am wondering what your school has done to help teach you ‘how students learn’? I know that I learned a lot about developmental stages etc during undergraduate, but it was not all applicable situations. I would much rather work with students to learn, rather than sit in a lecture hall listening to child psychology etc. Any ideas?

  54. I think that the question of how our students learn is more important now because if we don’t know how our students learn, we don’t know how to teach them!

    Unfortunately, it feels like there are not a lot of people out there thinking about the how as opposed to the what because we as teachers are not using the technology available to communicate with each other. There seems to be a dichotomy between the two “types” of teachers: those who think their way is right and aren’t concerned with continuing their growth as educators and those who are continually seeking to improve their practice. As it stands today, we are not guiding our most innovative and brilliant minds into the teaching profession- it’s not financially lucrative and the respect that used to be bestowed upon teachers is no longer given. I believe that our (as Americans) attitude about education needs to undergo a massive overhaul. Teachers should be considered professionals and, as such, should be concerned with doing their jobs the best they can.

    Working in a charter school in NYC, I have the great fortune to work with a staff that is almost all passionately dedicated to providing the best education possible to our students. However, having worked in other school settings, I am well aware that there are too many educators out there that are just looking to draw a paycheck and don’t care whether or not they are meeting their students’ needs in the classroom. And, there are WAY too many teachers that are not technologically savvy or are even afraid of technology!

  55. I think that it is more important to consider how our students learn because, if we don’t know how they learn, we don’t know how to teach them!

    I think that we, as educators, need to speak up about changing the way our educational system works, including pinpointing the needs of our students and the needs of our changing world. The reason it seems like there are not that many people concerned with how we teach as opposed to what we teach is that teaching is no longer a profession that we drive our most talented, gifted, or innovative thinkers toward. If teaching were a “cool” profession, like video game developing or website design, we would find that the population of teachers would change into the kind of questioning, envelope-pushing, reflective people that would make our education great.

  56. I was recently asked in my graduate course what we want our students to say about us at our retirement banquet. It started me thinking about the words I would want my students to use…motivating, inspiring, fun, fair, honest, caring, thought-provoking, challenging etc. None of these words have anything to do with the fact that I teach art. I wouldn’t want them to just say, she taught me about complimentary colors, or how to connect slabs of clay. It is all about how we teach our students to be effective members of today’s society. If educators can learn ‘how’ students learn then we have created a relationship with that student on a deeper level and created the type of caring connection needed for true learning.

  57. The “How”, The “What”, or is “Integration” were educators should focus? Integration of the content using multiple modalities strategies will reach all students.
    The focus on the “What” will educate students so they will know the trials and tribulations of the past in the hope they do not repeat them.
    Through integration students will be exposed to different learning modalities so they can find their optimal learning style. These Digital Natives will take their learning style, use technology and the internet to facilitate their own learning.

  58. Back in the day, when I worked at OERI in the Department of Education, Asst. Sec. Checker Finn frequently opened staff meetings by turning to the research arm and asking, “In the past week, have we learned how people learn?” The answer was always “No.”

    So, Finn would say, now that we know we don’t know what we’re doing, let’s get on with the meeting.

    My recollection is that he did that every week, but that’s probably not accurate.

    I am constantly frustrated that how students learn is not factored into what they are supposed to learn; this hammer us in subjects like history, where students are assumed to read a lot better than they do in most classrooms, and where the state standards assume the students are familiar with much of American literature and common culture that they’ve never seen, heard or experienced.

    How students learn is one of the most important considerations we can make for classrooms today. And yet, it is a topic thoroughly ignored and overlooked by state and district officials.

    Ask away, indeed.

    1. @Ed Darrell, It was a round that time (the writing of this blog post – 2009), that a good deal of research was happening about how we learn. Usually, going under the title of Brain Research, neuroscientists were taking pictures of the brains of children as they engaged in various cognitive tasks. What was fascinating was that the teaching practices that were suggested by this research were practices that good, reflective teachers were engaging already and had for years.

      But you are absolutely right, that this research, and what good teachers already know about learning, is largely being ignored by those who are making education policy — folks who are, by and large, amateurs, when it comes to the science and art of education.

      Thanks for bringing me back to this blog post.

  59. Awesome blog! As I am currently a student at Walden University, I can relate to the research that I am currently learning about how students learn. Moreover, the course that I am currently taking has videos and resources on brain research. Brain research shows that is imperative for us as educators to know how students learn. We need to take this into consideration when planining our lessons. We need to incorporate different activities for students with different learning styles. We also need to make sure our lessons are meaningful because research shows that meaningful lessons create connections. How the students learn is essetial, some learn by doing, others learn with visuals, so this information is what we need to analyze before we teach curriculum. If the students are not motivated or in a positive environment they won’t learn. Sometimes they are just there to survive and just sit there because they have to. We need to engage them and learn how they learn!

  60. Yes! We are now paying attention to helping shape the minds of lifelong learners and refrain from seeing them as just students. Research shows everyone has a different learning style and we are obligated to offer support for all to be successful. As educators we must also continue to learn because once we do, we become informed of best practices that work for our students. That is what sets us apart from other teachers. 21st century technology is taking over classrooms as well as the ability to socialize. We have to keep learning in order to assist, inspire and further enhance their developing minds.

  61. We are teaching in such a rapidly changing environment that it would be impossible for us, as teachers to ignore. With better technology being developed every day it seems, if we do not stay up with it then teachers will be farther behind than the majority of the students. If we expect the students to learn from us, we need to at least be equal to them in regards to technology, because that is how many of our students learn, is through technology. Not only is technology another tool that teachers could use in their classroom to help teach students the content, it is also a way to really connect with the students and get them back in their comfort zones. Students are more apt to learn if they feel comfortable and at ease in a situation, and this would be one more way to help in that endeavor.

  62. The difference between teaching and learning. This is the heart of what I hear in this post. What are we asking of our students? Are we teaching them content or helping them learn skills? Are we aware of how our modern day students learn and are we adapting the curriculum to meet these changes?

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