How to teach “for” students, not “at” them

June 6, 2023

By Brian Johnson, Director of Learning Design & Development and Maria Akinyele, Assistant Director of Strategy and Innovation at the Danielson Group

Our very own Director of Learning Design & Development at the Danielson Group, Brian Johnson, gave a TED-Ed Educator Talk emphasizing the need for educators to affirm students, cultivate student-centered culture, and reimagine the physical classroom environment.

Below, Maria Akinyele, Assistant Director of Innovation and Strategic Partnerships, interviews Brian about his own experience as an educator and a student and how these lessons are reinforced in the Framework for Teaching’s vision for professional learning.

Maria Akinyele: Your talk is entitled: Teaching For Students and Not At Them. What are the most significant differences between teaching for students and not at them?

Brian Johnson: When we teach “at students,” we are not actively thinking about how they learn, process, or build ownership of their learning. Too often, I see teacher-centric classrooms because the educator has not invested enough time in thinking about their students and their needs. Teaching ‘for’ students is more than just curriculum or instructional practice. It involves the educator utilizing their knowledge of students, including their habits of mind, interests, and social and academic skills, and designing learning that caters to the students. Ultimately, as educators, we should feel and see joy, excitement, and curiosity when we have truly designed learning for students. It should be equally enjoyable for the educator to teach or coach the material when we focus on our students.

MA: In your talk, you shared a powerful story about the positive impact of a teacher affirming your strengths and racial identity as a child. What more can teachers do to know and value their students (Component 1b)?

BJ: Developing a positive self-image includes understanding yourself in several contexts, such as a family member, citizen of society, or teacher. Each day, a teacher or educator should ask themselves: “What makes me who I am?” When teachers spend more time analyzing how their collective experiences impact how they move and interact in the world, they will also become more comfortable infusing identity into their daily work with students. Some books that helped me think more critically about myself are The Impact of Identity, The Power of Understanding Yourself, and I Never Thought of It that Way.

MA: One aspect of designing learning we, as educators, might spend little time thinking about is organizing physical space for learning (Component 2e). You called it out as critical to positively impacting student learning. What is the relationship between reimagining the physical classroom environment and student learning?

BJ: I like to make the comparison of our homes or the place we spend most of our personal time to the classroom. I doubt if anyone has ever stated that they like to be in uncomfortable chairs or overly cluttered areas in their homes. The same goes for our students. Although we may not be able to purchase or provide additional furniture to our classroom, we can give more time to showcasing student artwork or artifacts and polling students on creative ideas for the classroom. If we treat the classroom as if it belongs to students, it would be beneficial to get as much input on design and layout from them. Designing the classroom to reflect our students and their learning can only increase their level of interest and engagement.

MA: You offer many insightful tips in your talk about creating a student-centered learning environment and the consequences of not centering students. What are the three most important actions educators can take to cultivate a student-centered culture of learning?

BJ: One of the reasons I created my TED-Ed Talk was to help us all simplify strategies and actions for educators. Here’s my list of three ways to cultivate a student-centered culture in our classrooms:

  1. Every day, get some feedback from students. I recommend thinking about content, process, and overall reflection.

  2. At the beginning of the school year, co-create norms and rules of engagement with your students. The key is to go back to those norms periodically and adjust them with your students throughout the year.

  3. Model the actions and dispositions you want to see in your classroom. No matter the age group, we should be explicit about what kindness, sharing, and respect looks and sounds like.

Watch the TED-Ed Educator Talk Today!

Between 2020 and 2022, The National Center for Educational Statistics reported the largest average decline in reading scores since 1990, and the first ever drop in math. How can we reverse these current trends and improve student outcomes? Brian Johnson, a former teacher turned consultant, has designated three focus areas that can help educators: affirming students, cultivating student-centered culture and reimagining the physical classroom environment.