Thursday / April 25

Teach Them to Fish

Let the Students Become the Teachers

The main premise of John Hattie’s Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement (2013) is that the most effective way for children to learn is for the teacher to guide students to become their own teachers.  “If you give someone a fish, you feed him for a day; teach someone to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The same principle applies in the classroom. If you turn your students into teachers, they will be able to teach themselves anything, not just what you have to give them. This involves making students responsible for their learning rather than seeing the teacher as the disseminator of knowledge. It involves having students perform self-evaluations, teach the class, lead discussions, and problem solve.

The same premise is behind my book, Creating Life-Long Learners: Using Project Management to Teach 21st Century Skills (2015). By giving students long-term projects, teachers put the responsibly of learning on the students, with the teacher acting as a facilitator, nudging students if they get off track, providing resources, and most importantly, getting out of their way so they can teach themselves. Hattie conducted an exhaustive study to come to the conclusion that this was the most effective way for people to learn, but you can figure this out for yourself. Close your eyes and try to remember a formative or memorable lesson from your own school days. I bet no one imagined a multiple choice test, a textbook passage, or even a particularly exciting lecture. More than likely the image you recalled reflects learning where you were engaged and an agent in your own learning.

Sticky Lessons

The lesson I remember happened in French class. The teacher had charged us with picking something having to do with France and then giving an oral presentation while using a visual aid. I chose the Statue of Liberty (it was designed and made by a Frenchman) and gave the presentation dressed in a green robe, holding a torch in my hand. I still remember that presentation and what I learned from my research. The knowledge stuck because I researched it myself and figured out how to teach it to others. In order to fulfill the assignment, I had to learn the skills of reciprocal teaching and had to develop the confidence to speak in public. These are all transferable skills. If you can give a presentation in front of your peers wearing a dress, you can give a presentation in front of any audience.

As teachers, we are always trying to find these sticky lessons – enduring understandings that stick with students long after the content has been covered. After I had been teaching for a few years, some graduates returned to school to visit me. They said things like,

Hey, I remember when we went out back in the woods behind the school and got to role play the part of prehistoric people trying to survive.”

“It was cool when we put Socrates on trial.”

“I remember that great debate over who was to blame for the Civil War.”

Go figure, rather than remembering the lecture content I delivered, students remembered the projects where they were actively engaged.

With this new realization I decided that instead of sprinkling in projects between lectures, the projects would become the main focus of my classes. All of a sudden, student engagement went up and to my surprise, so did test scores. But I should not have been surprised. If students are gaining enduring understandings it makes sense that they will do better on state assessments. Over time I refined the projects to the point where the students were doing most of the work in the class while I acted as facilitator.

Skills for the Real World

After a few years it became obvious that the skills students were acquiring – research, presentations, collaboration, technology – were far more valuable than the content in the standards. A person can never know the names the twin rivers in Mesopotamia or who won the battle of X and still be a successful person. What will make our students successful is teaching them content while requiring them to be agents of their own learning. They can do this by creating portfolios, becoming skilled public speakers, and effective researchers.

So what does that mean for your classroom? It means rather than focusing so much on the content standards, instead use the content standards as an excuse to teach skills or to make a product. What product can your students create to show what they have learned? This is where performance assessments come into play. Performance assessments are assessments where students must use or apply what they have learned, usually in a real world situation. Performance assessments usually boil down to ten major categories:

  • oral presentation
  • debate/speech
  • role play
  • group discussion
  • interview
  • portfolio
  • exhibition
  • essay
  • research paper
  • journal

When students create a product to demonstrate their knowledge, not only will they have a better understanding of the content standard, and remember that content longer, they will also have acquired a survival skill that they can use in the real world.

Teach Students to Feed Themselves

The job of teacher in this learning environment does not involve standing in front of the classroom. It involves providing feedback, clarifying concepts, helping students to develop meta-cognition strategies where they are taking time to think about how they are learning, and creating relationships with students. These teaching strategies are all identified by Hattie as positively influencing student achievement and leading to the most effective learning. Teach students to learn for themselves and to become life-long learners with skills. Don’t give them fish, create fishermen.

Written by

Todd Stanley is the author of 7 teacher education books, including Creating Life-Long Learners: Using Project-Based Management to Teach 21st Century Skills. He has been a classroom teacher for the past 18 years and was a National Board Certified teacher. He helped create a gifted academy for grades 5-8 where they employ inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, and performance-based assessment. He is currently the gifted service coordinator for Pickerington Local Schools where he lives with his wife, Nicki, and two daughters, Anna and Abby.

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