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A Summary of Principles

Module by: Fred Mednick. E-mail the author

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Aspects of Good Teaching

Figure 1: Chinese children in Kaifeng

There is plenty of theory out there and you should know it. Great teaching, however, is not about theory, but practice. Theory should inform what you do, but more than anything else it should be integrated so that it is natural. Teachers Without Borders has turned theory into advice (teacher-to-teacher), and we have summarized it below, simply and clearly:

Focus on the students, not you. You are not an expert in charge of giving students the "pill" of knowledge. It does not work that way. In planning your lessons, think of what they will do - how they will discover and use information - not how you will perform.

Focus on who your students are. As the saying goes, "It's who you know." The word "education" comes from the Latin word educare meaning "to grow and to rear." That is what you are doing. The teachers and parents who know their children best are the most effective. There is a big difference between just knowing about a child, and truly knowing him. The difference is the gap between mediocrity and excellence. Your classroom, your assignments, and your nature should give rise to the conditions that make knowing children a priority.

Make it safe. Education is not about challenging the core of who one is, but challenging ideas. No one can think when s/he is frightened. Your classroom and environment must be free of intimidation. (As TWB has stressed before, if you ever strike a child, you shall be removed from this course of study.) Many times, intimidation comes from a remark that destroys a child's willingness to learn. Never embarrass a child in public.

Show, Don't Tell. There are many dimensions to this. Good writing, for instance, describes a crisp fall day by providing images of crimson and yellow leaves, the warm smell of bread baking, the crunch of snow under one's feet. Telling is "top down." Showing is "bottom up." That's the theme here. In terms of teaching, show students where they are going, what they need to accomplish. Then show them how to get there. Provide examples. Model it. Use it. Make it clear and real what it is they need to know in order to get there. Are you teaching physics? Then show them the principle at work; show them the dynamics; get them to figure out "how and why," compare the figures with the reality. Show it.

Break it down, but don't break it apart. Great teachers make the unfamiliar - familiar again. Sometimes a concept is overwhelming. If that is the case, start with the foundation and work your way up. People need to understand the story - where it starts, where it is headed, and what it will look like in the end. It is important, then, to make things clear enough in small chunks, so that people can put together the pieces of the puzzle. Curriculum and teaching need a beginning, a middle, and an end. Get students engaged, direct them towards understanding, and show them how the lessons are valuable.

More Aspects

Tell the truth. Many teachers believe that if they don't have all the answers, they're worthless. No one has all the answers. If you answer a student with "I don't know," perhaps you can also extend it to "Let's find out." Guide your students to become collaborators in their own learning. Invite them to be subject matter experts. Students need authenticity, not awe.

Make it human. In designing curriculum, find out what makes people relate to it. Mathematics was invented for a reason, so describe a problem it can solve - a real one. All great teaching makes complex ideas clear by tying the abstract to a human enterprise.

Emphasize what you want students to remember. Go for depth, rather than breadth. Play with the important points by introducing different ways of going about understanding the key issues. (More on this later, in "Learning Styles.") For now, focus on what, at the end of the day, students can identify as the core of the lesson - what they will remember. When all the hacking away at the clay has been completed, what is the elegant sculpted piece that results?

Questions are as good as answers. Good questions require thinking. Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel is reported to have come home from school one day and to have sat near his mother at the kitchen table. Instead of asking him "How did you do?" or "What grade did you get?," his mother asked him, "Did you ask any good questions today?" Questions probe. Answers come from study and should themselves be the stimulus for even greater and more extensive questions.

Less is more. We are not suggesting that you teach less, but teach more by talking less. When you ask a question, don't dive in and answer it if you don't get something back immediately. Cherish the thinking time. Listen. Pay attention to how students are feeling, grappling with the material, treating each other.

Give students an opportunity to teach. We all know this to be true: teaching is not separate from learning. Since that is the case, let us not reserve teaching for teachers alone. Allow opportunities for students to become experts in an area and to share their expertise. Provide chances for older or more competent students to tutor younger or less competent ones.

Think about how athletic coaches and artists work. The coach demonstrates what s/he knows, explains the rules, gives the student an opportunity to practice, provides feedback, and puts the student into real-life situations. So should a teacher. The artist assembles materials, conceives of the piece, works at it in stages, and collects the work for critique. So should the teacher. The athletic coach and the artist are non-traditional teachers, and they have a great deal to offer all of us. Their techniques are the key to many students who would otherwise not "get" the material from lectures, memorizations, or handouts.

Assignment 1: Your Assessment of Aspects of Good Teaching

Assignment 1: Your Assessment of Aspects of Good Teaching


One Way

Click on the link in color at the top of this page. When it appears, press "Save" and name the file so that you can work on this assignment "off-line." You can type right on the assignment template. Be sure to save your assignment on a disk or on your computer hard drive.

Another Way

Copy the text below, and save it to your disk or computer.

GOAL: To deepen your understanding of what makes for effective teaching.

GIVE: Feedback to others on their assignments at the TWB Learning Cafe by clicking here.

Assignment 1: Your Assessment of Aspects of Good Teaching

  1. List which concepts in the "Aspects of Good Teaching" section fit with your current attitude towards and method of teaching. Next to each concept you list, write a phrase or sentence that triggers a thought or anecdote (story) for you.
  2. Choose one concept from your list and expand upon it. Write a paragraph describing the situation - the learning moment - what happened when that concept was applied in your own teaching or in observing another teacher in action.
  3. From the list you've created, choose another concept and describe an example in your own teaching or in observing another teacher that tells the story of what happened when this concept was not applied.
  4. Look at the original Teachers Without Borders list of "Aspects of Good Teaching" in the previous two pages. Are there any concepts you disagree with in part or its entirety. Explain why.
  5. If you were to add 2 more "Aspects of Good Teaching" to the Teachers Without Borders list, what would the new titles be? Write a 2-3 sentence short description for each title/concept.


Successful teachers, worldwide, differentiate between basic and advanced tasks and use them appropriately:

Basic Tasks

- Disciplinary - rules and punishments

- Copying, drawing from the board

- Repetition and rote learning/memorization

- Silent reading

- Repeating a demonstration

- Skill drill

Advanced Tasks

- Imaginative answers to problems

- Collecting evidence, solving problems, reasoning, creating questions

- Applying new knowledge to tasks; analyzing the tasks themselves in order to ask new questions.

- Reorganizing ideas into new statements or relationships

- Demonstrating knowledge through multiple intelligences

- Developing skills in order to ask questions

New Classroom Culture

What emerges is a new classroom culture whereby:

  • The process of learning is important.
  • The focus of our work is on a long-term design project.
  • Curriculum incorporates content, processes, and products.
  • Assessments evaluate students' new understandings.
  • We celebrate ourselves in our work, our classroom, and our community.
  • The teacher is the mentor and the facilitator of learning.
  • The student is a novice who is learning how to be an expert.
  • Interactivity, such as cooperative and collaborative learning, is essential.

Questions to Consider

As teachers begin planning, they must ask themselves some essential questions regarding concepts, processes, products, assessment, schedule, and lesson plans. Some questions are as follows:


What are the big ideas in this course of study?


What are the ways of knowing?

Which of the following expert processes will you include: thinking, collecting data, analyzing data, drawing conclusions, and representing knowledge?

Design Products

What product will the students design to demonstrate mastery of the content and processes of the disciplines?

How does this product relate to the developmental needs and interests of students?

How does this focus on a central, real-world issue or problem?

How can students document production, perception, and reflection - creating footprints along the way?


How will you know what students know?

What types of authentic and alternative assessments will you use?

What criteria will be used for assessing students' products?

What work will students be able to include in a portfolio?


How will you use the block of time most effectively?

How might you creatively group students to learn?

How might you optimize students' and teachers' use of time?

Lesson Plans

What will students do to learn?

What resources will you use?

How are these lessons related to students' interests?

How are these lessons related to students' needs?

What questions will you ask?

Strategies for Asking Good Questions

Organize and prioritize your units of study and courses around questions. Make the "content" of the course the answers to those questions. If you could design the entire course around a question or questions, you might be surprised at what happens.

Below, you will find a synthesis of research on how curriculum designed around questions creates a learning environment that lasts, and encourages inquiry, rather than rote learning:

  • Use a reasonable number of questions (2-5) per unit of study.
  • Analyze the questions to avoid repeating them.
  • Make them open-ended and alive so that "yes" or "no" answers are avoided.
  • Derive your lessons from how and where students gain their answers.
  • Sequence your questions so that one naturally leads to another.
  • Post questions around your classroom so that everyone is reminded of them.
  • Make certain that students' notebooks address the central questions.
  • Ask students to provide ideas, notes, physical objects that help them during the process of answering the questions.
  • Make certain that you provide time to ask and address questions so that students know that questions are central. Please be mindful of student age, experience, and other factors so that you don't expect too much or too little.
  • Provide instructions that demonstrate what a solid answer looks like - not the answer itself - but the quality of the scholarship and inquiry.
  • Share your questions with the faculty at your school and celebrate the questions and responses of your students.

Assignment 2: The Power of Questions

For the Certificate of Teaching Mastery, we have already started a Question Wall - a place where our entire community of Learners can make their questions visible.

To see our Question Wall at the TWB Learning Cafe, click here.

Now, it is time to create a personal Question Wall. You can do this on a sheet of paper - either typing the questions or writing them out by hand. This personal Question Wall is for your eyes only, and it is does not have to be related to the field of education. The instructions are listed below, and the process can be an on-going gift to yourself.


  1. Set a clock or a timer for 35 minutes. Do not guess when 35 minutes is up. Keep track of when you begin and at what time you must end.
  2. During this 35-minute time period, you are going to do one thing continuously: make a list of 100 questions. For 35-minutes, non-stop, you will write one question after another in a long list. No statements. No prose writing expanding on your thoughts. No poetry. Simply, write questions - one right after another in a list.

The questions can be on any topic - they might be personal, or political, related to education or not; they might be philosophical or ordinary questions about the weather. Do not "think" too much about your questions. The point is to make a list of 100 questions - all types of questions jumbled together - and to give yourself permission to be messy and uncensored - to ask whatever comes to mind, and to put it on paper.

A list of questions might look odd when re-read because it covers a host of seemingly unrelated topics. Give yourself permission to write a list of questions, completely uncensored by the "editor" that might live in your mind - the part of us that filters out what is "acceptable" and what is " not acceptable" to present to others or to ourselves.

A list might look as diverse as follows:

  • When will the rains stop?
  • Will Najib come home?
  • How can I not feel so tired at the end of the day?
  • Will I get to use Sita's bicycle?
  • Why is one side of a blade of grass smooth and the other side rough?
  • What will happen next?
  • What would the world look like if I traveled on a beam of light?

It may be difficult to keep at it for 35 minutes, but stick with it. You do not have to write fast. You can take your time. The less you "think" about it and let it flow freely, the more surprises you might view later. Your list of questions might feel too private to share with others. Rest assured. You do not have to share this list with anyone. The point is to experience what it feels like to simply ask questions, uncensored, for an extended period of time.

Assignment 2 - The Power of Questions: Continued

Assignment 2: The Power of Questions


One Way

Click on the link in color at the top of this page. When it appears, press "Save" and name the file so that you can work on this assignment "off-line." You can type right on the assignment template. Be sure to save your assignment on a disk or on your computer hard drive.

Another Way

You can also copy the text below, and save it to your disk or computer.


  • To create your own personal Question Wall.
  • To experience the value of asking questions.
  • To see how questions can create meaningful curriculum.

GIVE: Feedback to others on their assignments at the TWB Learning Cafe by clicking here.

Assignment 2: The Power of Questions

Part One: Reflection

  1. When the 35 minutes is up, simply write 4 - 5 sentences reflecting on the process or experience of writing this list of 100 questions. Re-read your list of questions. What do you notice? What surprised you?

Part Two: Course Title and Description

  1. Imagine for a moment that a class of students generated these questions - not you. What would be the content of a course that you could design that would address or answer 1 of the questions on the list? or 3 or 4 questions on the list? or most of these questions on the list? Give this new course a title and write a 6 - 7 sentence description of the course including topics to be covered, assigned readings, activities, field trips, etc.

You might begin by putting your questions into groups and then giving titles to each group, or you might simply re-read your list, think about what "your imagined students are asking" and come up with a course title and write your 6 - 7 sentence course description from there. You might simply choose one question and write the course title and description from there. Approach it however you wish.


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