Principles First

The afternoon is a rush of activity. Your mind is on hyper switch-tasking mode, denying the growing reality that you’ll never get it all done.

On the way to the school office to pick up your mail, grab your lunch bag from the lounge, and requisition the heat probes you need for next month’s lab activity, you are stopped by your student, Tony. He asks if you heard about what happened at last night’s talent show.

Yes, you already have heard this story three times today. As Tony starts relating what seems to be a long, complicated story, you know you would rather be getting to the other matters on your to-do list.

In this moment, do you think about your own state of affairs and rush Tony along, providing a truncated description of last night’s event yourself so you can end the interaction and move on?

Or do you realize that this student chose you to be the person with whom to share the story? This moment is about Tony summoning the poise to talk to an adult, share a funny moment in life, and make a connection with you.

Wisely, you slow your heart rate and give every body language indicator that you are committed to Tony and his story and that what he has to share is worth hearing.

Meaning and productivity, especially in teaching, come down to mindsets, and mindsets are forged by the operating tenets with which we perceive the world and conduct our actions. Effective teachers regularly assess these principles to see if they still work. Even more powerfully, they strive to make their actions reflect their principles.

Teaching/Learning Tenets

Let’s explore this decisions-based-on-principles approach with a variety of teaching tenets. For each sample teaching/learning tenet listed, I suggest several policy and behavior implications. Notice that some suggestions require unconventional responses. Principled teaching can push us in less popular but highly effective directions.

Principle/Tenet: Students learn at different rates of speed.

  • I will recognize that some students will need more or less support to meet learning deadlines.
  • I will encourage re-dos and re-takes for full credit.
  • I will incorporate formative assessment in my classroom to make sure teaching matches learning needs.

Principle/Tenet: Teachers should teach in the ways students best learn.

  • I will constantly update myself in terms of new methods and tools for teaching.
  • Sometimes, I will provide learning experiences for students that are outside my comfort zone.
  • I will ask students how they best learn and use that information in my lesson planning.

Principle/Tenet: Teachers should teach for mastery.

  • Basic recall, matching, and memorized responses will not suffice for mastery on my tests.
  • I will teach students models, but also how to flex and break them as necessary.

Principle/Tenet: Our future depends on the individuals who break from conventional practices.

  • I will embrace students who think differently rather than admonish them or remain indifferent to them.
  • I will require students to incorporate their own unique voices in projects.
  • I will break the rules once in a while to increase learning and creativity.
  • I will provide students with multiple examples of individuals who parted from normal procedures and improved the human condition as a result.

Principle/Tenet: We can’t get creative students from non-creative classrooms.

  • I will cultivate my own creativity as a teacher and thinker and model it for students.
  • I will teach students specific techniques to boost their own creativity.
  • I will invite students to incorporate creative thinking in most assignments and assessments.
  • I will provide frequent descriptive feedback on students’ creative endeavors.

Principle/Tenet: Fair isn’t always equal.

  • I will use different teaching techniques with different students as needed for them to achieve competencies.
  • I will not use a one-size-fits-all theme in my lessons.
  • Grades will be a report of only what students know and can do after learning’s cycle, not the routes we used to get there.

Principle/Tenet: Memorization is still important in a “you can always look it up” world.

  • I will teach students at least two dozen memorization techniques.
  • I will ask students to memorize tools, formulas, facts, definitions, sections of text, and other curriculum elements in order to boost their capacity to make connections when encountering new material.
  • I will provide multiple examples and experiences in which content memorized resulted in positive results and feelings.

Principle/Tenet: Teachers are no longer the only oracle or final arbiter of knowledge.

  • My lectures will not be something to store in the brain and retrieve for a test. They will be launching pads for students’ personal investigations.
  • I will invite students to analyze multiple online presentations on our class topics and compare them with our own.
  • In each lecture/presentation, I will provide a “so, what does all this mean?” portion in which we explore the larger perspective and the next steps in our learning.

Principle/Tenet: My testimony as a teacher is what students carry forward at the end of my lessons, not what I presented to them during those lessons.

  • At the end of lessons, I will re-visit/summarize major elements, even if we don’t get to their final portions during those class periods.
  • I will teach for long-term memory retention, not settle for short-term.
  • I will put previous curriculum on all subsequent assessments, even months later, and those later grades will count heavily on the final grades for those standards.

Principle/Tenet: Whoever does the editing does the learning.

  • I will stop editing students so often. Instead, I will put a dot at the end of the line or in the general area of the issue in a math problem or lab write-up and ask students to identify and fix the mistakes. If necessary, I will provide a one-word clue as to the nature of the error.
  • I will include students’ critique and editing of others’ work as a portion of the evidence of their own mastery in that content area.
  • I will increase students’ practice with editing/critiquing the work of others.
  • I will do more self-talks and think-alouds of successful editing of content and skills, and I will ask students to demonstrate the same in front of their classmates.

Principle/Tenet: Carrots and sticks systems don’t work for cognitive learning and growth.

  • I will not use rewards and punishments to motivate students to engage in curriculum. Instead, I will provide descriptive feedback and strive to make the work meaningful.
  • I will not rely on grades and grading policies for my classroom management tool.
  • I will study motivation of young adolescents.
  • I will help students build grit, perseverance, and independence in their learning.

Principle/Tenet: When instructing and grading, teachers should be criterion-referenced, not norm-referenced.

  • I will compare students’ performance on assessments to the standards, not to the performance of their classmates.
  • I will identify evidence of learning in each standard with my like-subject colleagues¸ and I will exchange assessments with them to make sure our assessments assess what we think they assess.
  • All grades will report on what is listed in the standards set for my course. Anything not listed in the course description will not be included in the grade, though it may be given a column or category of its own.

Principle/Tenet: Recovering in full from a failure teaches more than being labeled for failure.

  • I will not let a student’s immaturity dictate his learning and thereby his destiny.
  • I shall not abdicate my adult responsibilities and simply wag my finger in admonishment when a child makes a bad decision, assuming that the wagging finger builds moral fiber and self-discipline.
  • I will help my students build plans of action to recover from their failures, and I will give them full credit when they do so.

Principle/Tenet: Personal processing—meaning-making after initial learning—has more impact than presentation of material.

  • I will emphasize the back side (personal processing after practicing) of my lessons just as much as the front side.
  • I will learn and incorporate methods of personal processing, i.e. meaning-making, not just sense-making.
  • I will stop thinking that just because I said something to students means that it was learned by those students. The real learning comes in what they do with the content.

Principle/Tenet: Homework is for practicing what has already been learned, not for learning content for the first time.

  • I will not assign homework to students who do not understand the content.
  • I will give some students homework and others different or no homework, depending on their proficiency in the content.
  • I will do more exit slips and formative assessment during class so I can determine proper after-school practice for each student.
  • I will not give homework because parents and administrators expect me to do so, or because it’s a particular day of the week.
  • I will only give students homework if it furthers their proficiency in the field we’re studying.

Taking a step back and looking at the larger picture of what we do results in clearer, more effective decisions. Gathering a bunch of recipes in the form of techniques, quick tips, and “Give me something I can use the next day” ideas from conferences in order to build our teaching cookbooks isn’t enough. We must be strategic, not simply throw techniques at a problem and blame the technique when it doesn’t work.

And just as important, we need to sit together and discuss whether our decisions and actions reflect our principles. If not, do we have to the courage to change our practices to align with our beliefs? It’s a scary proposition, but effective schools have that alignment, despite the economy or politics of the time.

Rick Wormeli is a teacher, consultant, and writer living in Herndon, Virginia. His newly released book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching is available from AMLE.

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2013.