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What does teaching really look like?

By August 23, 2009June 14th, 20163 Comments

I attended Colorado’s Learning 2.0 conference in February of this year, my second time participating in this lively “unconference conference.” The kinds of conversations and connections that are made at this event are, I think, the future of educational gatherings. Howard Pitler and I presented “What Does Teaching Really Look Like?” In this session, we presented data from our Power Walkthrough software. Now that we are nearly two years into this product, we have compiled data from over 27,000 walkthroughs. We are starting to get a picture of what classrooms look like during the school day and what our students are actually doing during their K-12 years.

What we are finding is startling: overwhelmingly, the primary instructional strategies that teachers are using are Practice, Cues & Questions, Nonlinguistic Representation, and Feedback. While these are all very effective strategies, those that engage students in higher order thinking skills, such as Generating and Testing Hypotheses and Identifying Similarities and Differences, represent a small margin of the strategies used.

Almost 80% of the time, students are either working individually (24%) or are in whole-group instruction (54%). This means that students are in cooperative groups, informal small groups, or pairs only 20% of the time. Considering the social nature of students, especially Millennials, this is unfortunate. Working collaboratively is increasingly becoming a necessary skill for the 21st century workplace, yet students get relatively little time to practice these skills. Teacher-directed question/answer and worksheets are two primary methods of providing evidence of learning. (See Wes Fryer’s post on Worksheets here

The data that is being gathered is starting to paint a picture that we know all too well: due to high stakes testing and curricula that are all too often a mile long and an inch deep, teachers will quickly cue and question students, then give them practice time and feedback to learn the content or skill. There are many solutions to this problem, some more quickly implemented than others: reconstruct curricula so that students get deeper learning experiences with less content, make lecture material readily accessible online so that students come to class with the background knowledge for higher level projects (see Rethinking Homework, Part 1 of 2), and make sure that administrators can provide the support teachers need for collaborative inquiry projects with their students.

Administrators, what other “low-hanging fruit” can you think of that would help teachers to have the skills, time, and resources to make certain that higher-order thinking and project-based learning is happening regularly in classrooms? Teachers, what barriers currently keep you from doing as much collaborative, inquiry-based learning as you would like?

We welcome your comments.

*For a complete article on this topic, we invite you to read this month’s issue of Changing Schools, a free quarterly magazine written and published by McREL.

Elizabeth R. Hubbell is an Educational Technology Consultant in the Curriculum & Instruction department at McREL.

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Kristi Novak says:

    Collaboration has been proven to be a best practice, however, it can be difficult to find the optimum space for this shared learning to take place.

  • Esther says:

    This makes me feel a lot better about teaching “same” and “different” to my silent stage ELL kindergarten class. It generates a lot of language (or non-verbal communication) and it is fun to watch the look on their faces as they, one by one, start to realize what we are doing.
    I have two students stand up and ask why did I pick them? What is the same? One of my students, failed by speech, got up and pulled on their hoodies, much to their chagrin.
    And, yes, he was right.

  • Esther says:

    I really like the idea of reconstructing the curriculum for deeper learning.
    Are there people currently working on this issue?

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