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At the Core


At the Core

What is at the core of great teaching?  Since the 1800s, with John Dewey telling us that our job was not only to impart knowledge of content, but to educate children in habits of mind, we have engaged in a debate about what matters most in teaching – teaching content or teaching life skills. The pendulum has swung both ways and back again. Current research is telling us that what matters most in regard to student learning may well be those so-called soft skills – social-emotional intelligence and skills like persistence and motivation.

In 2004, I was working at the Educational Testing Service, after leaving a 26-year career as a middle school librarian.  A big part of my work at ETS was to bring the voice of the classroom teacher to the research that was being undertaken.  I had the privilege of working with Richard Roberts and Walter Emmerich, two of the most renowned non-cognitive scientists in the world, in thinking about how we could identify and recruit excellent practitioners.

Working in concert with AACTE’s Team C at that time, we investigated the so-called soft-skills – skills like nurturing, ability to motivate, persistence, determination.  We debated which of these kinds of skills would best suit teachers working with various age groups of students.  And, most importantly, which of these skills could actually be taught.  In other words, is it possible to teach prospective teachers to be nurturing if that is not in their natural makeup? Are these skills at the core of great teaching?

At about the same time, organizations like ASCD were thinking about the same kinds of things in terms of students.  While we were thinking about what is at the core of teaching, ASCD staff were asking a related question – what is at the core of learning?  ASCD had embarked on its whole child initiative in 2007, calling for teachers to use strategies like collaborative learning, group problem-solving, and focusing on educating the social and emotional aspects of students as well as academics.

This was exciting work and it continues at organizations that think deeply about these things.  Thinking about these kinds of skills has become more prevalent in the education research field. Today, the research is telling us that what well may be at the core of teaching and learning is those softer skills, those non-cognitive traits like conscientiousness and emotional stability, which may be better predictors of academic success than cognitive ability. (Poropoat, 2009)

Other studies tell us that non-cognitive factors are better predictors of employability – things like wages earned and chronic unemployment – than cognitive factors.  (Lindquist and Vestman)  And, employers tell us that the skills that they most value in hiring new staff – the skills at the core of employability - are professionalism, communications, teamwork, and critical thinking – not academic knowledge.  Are They Really Ready to Work?


In the past few weeks alone, we have seen additional research emerge that reinforces the notion that we need to take a closer look at the role that non-cognitives play in the world of work, and in teaching and learning.  Read this articlefrom the New York Times, September 11, 2013 magazine: Can Emotional Intelligence be Taught?  It cites numerous studies reinforcing this view.


And, Nick Yoder at the Center for Great Teaching and Learning recently published, Teaching the Whole Child:

Instructional Practices That Support Social-Emotional Learning in Three Teacher Evaluation Frameworks, a resource to promote understanding of social-emotional intelligence and the role it plays in teaching and learning.


On September 30th, NNSTOY and the Hunt Institute, in partnership with the AFT, NEA, PTA and The Ignite Show, will begin the release of four, thirty-minute special episodes of The Ignite Show through the Georgia Public Broadcasting Service (GPBS) online portal.  Each of these episodes will feature a State Teacher of the Year providing an exemplar lesson on teaching to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).

Exemplar lessons will be broken out into three parts so that viewers can see how a lesson evolves from setup through post-activities.  We will see/hear teacher and student reflection on the teaching and learning, including students voicing thoughts about their own learning – what they learned, where they still need to grow, and how they will get there.

We also hear from policy makers, business leaders, and education advocates talking about how the CCSS will provide a foundation for curricula that produces college and career ready learners; learners who are better poised to contribute to the world of work.

I was privileged to sit in the classrooms of two of the State Teaches of the Year who provide exemplars for these episodes, and to view the two remaining on tape.  These are stunning examples of teaching and learning period; they are also outstanding exemplars of teaching both academics and those softer skills.

Sitting in – or viewing – these four classrooms was exciting.  Students are actively engaged in learning through activities that included collaborative exploration, group problem-solving, creative brainstorming, action research – all for the purpose of applying content to real-life situations.  Learning is student-centered and driven.

Students determine the best way to solve an engineering design problem, make connections between dilemmas presented in classic literature to problems we face in the 21st century, to analyze story for theme and make connections between characters in different pieces of literature.  They use algebraic formulas to design real-life structures, finding multiple ways to solve mathematical equations, and discovering that there isn’t always just one right way to do something.

But as importantly, they actively engage in their own learning, and are cognizant that they are learning.  These students analyze and talk about their own growth.  They recognize that they are members of a learning community, and work together to make sure that everyone is ‘getting it.’ These teachers are truly facilitating learning.

In these schools, administrators, parents, and community members are truly present.  They are each a part of the learning taking place very day. Even the youngest elementary students in Perea Blackmon’s Washington, DC classroom are able to talk about their own learning and why it is important. They support their classmates in learning and exhibit, in the best ways possible, a true learning community. A student who was struggling to understand the importance of measuring the length of the rubber bands stretched in engineering a means of getting an object as close to the ground as possible without its breaking, when dropped from 16 feet, was not ignored by his teammates.  Action stopped, and the teammates each explained – in her own words – why this mattered.  The puzzled student had an aha moment, understood the concept, and the activity moved on. And, these students know that outside the walls of their own classroom is a larger community waiting to support them.

Visiting these schools and classrooms was inspiring. These are not ‘sit and get’ learning environments; these are incubators for the world of work, for stretching one’s imagination, for learning not just math and literacy but how to work with others, solve problems, push oneself -and others - to constantly expand and grow.

What is at the core of great teaching? I believe it is a combination of the cognitive and non-cognitive skills, and to ignore either is dangerous.

I have seen teachers – I’ve had them – who have enormous academic/content knowledge but who simply were incapable of conveying to anyone else.  They, quite simply, could not teach.

I have seen – and had – teachers who were nurturing, caring, and who valued every learner; but, who did not have the needed academic/content knowledge to convey – they did not ‘know their stuff’ to put it simply.

At the core of great teaching and learning has to be a teacher who has both the content and the understanding of non-cognitive traits and how to nurture and value them, and teach with them in mind. At the core of great teaching are standards and curricula that recognize this –both skills sets matter.  At the core of great teaching are teachers who are prepared to teach to both.

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