After a lackluster response to my most recent unit on the Industrial Revolution — who knew I could be so excited to investigate the relationship between industrialization, progress, capitalism, and justice, while my students could be so apathetic? — I spent some time reflecting. The kids seemed to love learning about the facts but ran out of steam (Industrial Revolution pun intended) when it came to engaging with the big ideas. Where was I going wrong?
I needed some inspiration to turn things around, so I spent a few hours searching my favorite blogs for some new ideas and came away with my new mantra for the rest of the year:

Stop teaching, start coaching.

I have to credit Dr. Scott Petri (blog here) and this article from Mark Barnes for reminding me that I do my best work, and students are most deeply engaged, when I think of myself as a coach, not a teacher.
Traditional “teaching” means that I set the goals for a unit of study, I write the test, I map out the learning plan and develop the assignments. My kids come in each day and follow instructions. When I’m in normal “teaching” mode, the questions I get from kids go something like this:

  • Is this on the test?
  • Do we need to write this down?
  • What is the homework?
  • Are we playing a game today?
  • Can I get extra credit?
  • How many points is this worth?

And I find myself talking more about the class — what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, the format of the next quiz, etc. — instead of the ideas we’re learning.
However, when I have kids invested in a compelling question worth answering, or a complex problem worth solving, I don’t have to “teach,” I get to “coach.” Kids generally see the bigger picture of what we’re trying to accomplish and can bear greater responsibility for achieving it. They can organize and sustain their own efforts. And instead of “teaching,” I get to spend my time playing devil’s advocate (But isn’t it also true that Lincoln supported the idea of sending former slaves back to Africa?), providing resources (Ah, it looks like you need more information about the Dred Scott case.), giving suggestions for improvement (It’s hard to understand what you mean here. Could you include an example to clarify your idea?), and pondering possibilities (What would happen if we turned this into a video instead of a paper?) alongside my students. I get more questions like this:

  • Do you have any books that show how this impacted women?
  • Does this website seem credible to you?
  • Can you read this? Am I on the right track?
  • I’m trying to find more examples of this. Where should I look?

When they’re invested in the ideas of the unit, I get to talk about ideas and I get to help them construct knowledge (not feed them my knowledge while they wonder about which key terms will be multiple-choiced later).
In my experience, there are two types of units that almost always allow me coach, not teach: concept-based units and project-based units. And, best of all: concept-based projects!

Project-Based Units

A good definition for project-based learning comes from the Buck Institute for Education:

Project Based Learning is a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge.

So, for instance, students may be tasked with researching the experiences of Holocaust survivors and rescuers in order to understand how people make courageous choices in the face of extreme danger. What does it take to overcome fear to resist hate?
A project-based unit should include all of the following elements:

  • Key Knowledge, Understanding, and Success Skills – The project is focused on student learning goals, including standards-based content and skills such as critical thinking/problem solving, collaboration, and self-management. 

  • Challenging Problem or Question – The project is framed by a meaningful problem to solve or a question to answer, at the appropriate level of challenge.

  • Sustained Inquiry – Students engage in a rigorous, extended process of asking questions, finding resources, and applying information.

  • Authenticity – The project features real-world context, tasks and tools, quality standards, or impact – or speaks to students’ personal concerns, interests, and issues in their lives.

  • Student Voice & Choice – Students make some decisions about the project, including how they work and what they create.

  • Reflection – Students and teachers reflect on learning, the effectiveness of their inquiry and project activities, the quality of student work, obstacles and how to overcome them.

  • Critique & Revision – Students give, receive, and use feedback to improve their process and products.

  • Public Product Students make their project work public by explaining, displaying and/or presenting it to people beyond the classroom.

What I’ve found to be most important about project-based units is that students have time and space for sustained inquiry and that reflection, critique, and revision time requires students to think carefully and re-think in order to refine their ideas and products.
While in the regular course of teaching I often attempt to iron out the kinks ahead of time for students, anticipating ideas they may misunderstand or mistakes they might make and trying to avoid them, during a project mistakes are what drive the learning.

Concept-Based Units

Concept-based units are units where students investigate the relationship among concepts in order to understand larger generalizations and principles that transfer to new situations.

Learning starts with a question like, “What is the relationship between freedom and equality?” Students then read texts, watch videos, conduct experiments, etc. in order to develop theories and defend them with evidence. For instance, in this case students might discover that In order for individuals to experience true freedom, the society they live in must prioritize and value economic and political equality. 

We’ve written extensively about concept-based teaching on this blog because we’re huge fans of concept-based curriculum. Check out some of of our posts here.

Concept-based projects!

These two approaches seem like a natural fit together. Project-based learning encourages kids to “gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge” and transferring conceptual understandings to novel situations can easily provide the “engaging and complex question, problem, or challenge” for any project.
Both approaches are student centered and emphasize the need for students to construct their own knowledge with the support of their peers and the teacher.
Both approaches lend themselves to iteration. In concept-based learning, students need to develop and test hypotheses about conceptual relationships over and over again to finally arrive at a valid, complex idea. In project-based learning, student products need to undergo rounds of feedback and revision to reach their full potential.
Both approaches allow for personalization. Kids are not expected to come to the same conceptual understanding or to build their understanding in the same way, just as no student is expected to achieve the goals of a project in exactly the same way as his peer. Choice and independent thought are central components.
Best of all, both approaches cast the teacher as the coach, whose job is to support kids through a process of thinking (not tell them what to think)!
So, when your teaching is in a rut, stop teaching. Plan a concept-based project and start coaching instead.