What makes an educator – or a class, or a lesson – great?

I’ve been fortunate, throughout my life, to observe many amazing educators in action. First, I had great teachers when I was in school. Then, I took inspiration and wisdom from skillful colleagues while teaching in both public and private schools. Now, as the co-founder of the Modern Classrooms Project, I support incredible educators around the world in meeting every one of their learners’ needs.

And through all of these diverse experiences, I’ve observed one common truth of great teaching. What matters is what learners DO.

Think about it. What were your best educational experiences? I bet you remember very little of what your teachers said, and much more of what they challenged you to do. Similarly, what are your favorite lessons to teach? I’d guess they’re the ones where you give your learners something interesting to do, and watch as they work through it. 

Don’t get me wrong here – there are some educators whose speaking skills alone can captivate a room. But that wasn’t me, and it isn’t most of us. So if we want our students to really learn, we need to give them something worthwhile to do. 

And how, exactly, can we do that?

Engaging students meaningfully is easier said than done. After all, many of us don’t select our curriculum, set our learning standards, or choose the students we teach. We, as educators, play the hands we’re dealt. Even so, however, I think there are a few things that any educator can do, to give learners work that’s truly worth doing.

  1. Make work appropriately challenging. There isn’t much to be gained from content that’s too easy, or that goes over learners’ heads. When the level of challenge is “just right,” however, learning becomes meaningful. If you can figure out what each of your learners already knows, and institute a simple differentiation strategy like Must/Should/Aspire-to-Do, you can ensure that every learner’s time and mental energy are well spent.
  2. Foster collaboration. Group work is inherently active: after all, if students are working together, they aren’t just sitting and listening to you. So if there’s an opportunity for students to learn by doing something together, embrace it! Let learners take ownership of their learning and step down from the front of the room so that you can support your learners more directly. You’ll encourage real human connection and enjoy class time more as well.
  1. Incorporate inquiry. The content you teach was probably developed to help humans answer interesting questions. Why not give your learners those questions too? Rather than teaching content out of context, let your learners master material by applying it to rich inquiry tasks and projects. This is learning at its most pure – and most engaging.

Of course, the principles that apply to meaningful learning experiences apply to good professional development as well. (We teachers know better than anyone just how bad a passive PD session can be!) That’s why, at the Modern Classrooms Project, all of our teacher PD, both free and paid, is:

  1. Personalized. Our courses are self-paced, so you can learn at whatever speed suits you best – and focus your energy on the topics that seem most relevant. We encourage you to skim what they already know, and invest deeply in what’s new and challenging. You’ll spend time working only on things that really matter to you.
  1. Supported. With our free online course, you’ll have access (through our Facebook Group) to a network of thousands of educators worldwide, who are eager to answer questions and share advice. And in our premium Virtual Mentorship Program, you’ll work one-on-one with an expert mentor who teaches similar content as you do to ensure that the work you’re producing will have an impact on your learners.
  2. Actionable. The entire goal of our PD is for you to create lesson materials you’ll actually use. Everything you learn will connect to something you can implement with your students, and you’ll spend most of your time planning rather than listening. After all, what matters in our training is what you’ll DO! 

If you’re ready to engage your learners meaningfully, and personalized, supported, actionable PD appeals to you, you’re in luck! I invite you to sign up for our completely free online course today. Or, better yet, I hope you’ll join our upcoming Virtual Summer Institute, to start designing learning experiences that meet every learner’s needs.

What matters is what learners do. This spring and summer, what will you do to help them succeed?

This guest post was written by Robert Barnett, President and Co-founder of The Modern Classrooms Project.

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