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June 1, 2021

7 Question-Sets That Guide the Work of Inspired Teachers

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    Instructional Strategies
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      I’m near the ocean where the sky is bright blue and the water is placid, but I can’t help recalling how gray, mute, and turbulent the last 15 months have been.
      While I spent most of that time wrestling with a book I began four years ago, the process was surprisingly more a gift than a burden. During the long isolation of the pandemic, the book gave me a reason to get out of bed, shake off the mullygrubs, and provoke my brain into gear. Crucially, it gave me a reason to be hopeful for a better future at a time when the world was making me, like many others, skeptical of hoping.
      The book, So Each May Soar: Principles and Practices of Learner-Centered Classrooms, explores what our classrooms might look like if we focused our considerable efforts on what highly effective teaching looks like. No new bells and whistles. No new technologies that will save us. No pretending that teaching as test prep will benefit the young folks in our care. Just doing—as well as we can, and a little better each day—what our common sense and a substantial body of research points to as the root system of success.
      While writing, it occurred to me to bring together and compare two resources I’d previously studied. One is a book that includes a study on what the best college teachers do. The other shares conclusions of a study on what inspired K-12 teachers do. Unsurprisingly, there was little difference in the conclusions of the two studies. Inspired teaching looks remarkably alike in primary grades and the university level. Still, I was captivated by the multiple parallels in the two books. 
      In synthesizing the work of the two authors, I generated 7 question-sets that informed the work of the teachers in both contexts. In other words, excellent teachers in both settings began their planning by asking these questions and continued asking and seeking answers to them throughout each school year—and beyond.
      1. Who are these students? How will I get to know each of them well enough to guide them productively?
      2. What big questions will the course or units I teach help my students answer? What skills and abilities and qualities will I need to help them pursue answers to those questions? How will I build teaching and learning around those questions?
      3. How will I find out what students’ hopes and expectations are for the course(s) we share, what their interests are? How will I address those hopes, expectations, and interests to support learning?
      4. How will I help students learn to learn, to examine and assess their own learning, and to read and listen more thoughtfully, analytically, and actively?
      5. How can I interact with my students in a way that fuels their interest, curiosity, motivation, and thinking? How can I ensure that they interact with one another in ways that support understanding?
      6. How can I create assignments that students will find fascinating—authentic tasks that will arouse curiosity and challenge their thinking? How will I create a safe learning environment in which students can tackle these assignments with optimism and be willing to try, fail, receive feedback, and try again?
      7. How can I make clear the criteria for quality work we will use in class and help students understand why those benchmarks are significant? How can I help them learn to assess their own work using those standards? How can I support each of my students in reaching for excellence?
      What if we determined together to return to our classrooms asking these questions, seeking answers to them, and teaching in response to what we learn instead of returning to an old “normal” that in so many ways was abnormal? Might we find ourselves and our students living together under bluer skies, experiencing new growth rather than making our way through gray turbulence that somehow diminishes all of us?

      At the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish, Jr. professor and chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy, teaching post-graduate students, mainly in the areas of curriculum design and differentiated instruction. She is also co-director of the university's Institutes on Academic Diversity, where she strives to help educators understand the principles of differentiated instruction and develop competence and confidence in creating responsive classrooms that meet the diverse learning needs of today's students.

      As an educator for more than 21 years, Tomlinson has worked as an elementary and a secondary public school teacher. She was named Outstanding Professor at Curry School of Education in 2004 and received an All-University Teaching Award in 2008. In 2016, she was ranked #16 in the Education Week Edu-Scholar Public Presence Rankings for "university-based academics who are contributing most substantially to public debates about schools and schooling," and as the #3 voice in Educational Psychology. She's written more than 300 books, book chapters, articles, and other materials for educators.

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