It’s Not What We Teach, but How We Teach it


By: Andrew Vivian

Too often, I meet teachers who say that they want to be more innovative in their classrooms but are restricted by their curriculum.

If asked why they feel restricted, the answer is invariably along the lines of “This is the way it has always been done” or “My principal makes me do it the way it has always been done”.

In an old Teachers TV video, Tony Buzan, the inventor of mind maps, asked his British audience which option would they choose first: teaching young people how to learn or teaching them the “basics” of all subjects.

He, along with almost every other educational researcher, proposed that if we first teach children how to learn, they will not only learn the “basics” but more, in much greater depth.

Buzan, Sir Ken Robinson and others are telling us that traditional approaches to schooling are unnatural in terms of how our brains work and are teaching most young people to be not creative.

To educators such as Buzan and Robinson, thinking and learning are easy. If they are correct, why do so many teachers not teach their students how to actually learn and think? What are the restrictions?

First, there is not unanimous agreement about the purpose of schools. Some sections of society want schools to prepare students for work, others want them to be “successful” in the 21st century, without detailing what this means, and still others want them to make a “difference”, again, without a lot of detail.

Many schools have a vision and mission, but, too many of them often have no clear understanding of the educational needs of their young people and how to turn their vision into programs that meet these needs effectively.

In excellent schools, everyone in the school community is clear about the school’s purpose, and the strategies that will lead to the successful fulfillment of it.

Second, most teachers teach the ways they were taught. This means that unless a teacher was influenced by someone who was innovative, students will receive exactly the same pedagogy that has existed in most school systems since public schooling was invented. In times of rapid change, this approach is very unlikely to be helpful to students.

Finally, particularly in schools in which student face external exams, teachers and principals lack courage. They know there is a better way, but they will not risk doing something different to other teachers and schools in case their students’ exam scores suffer. However, there are enough schools out there that both educate their students and get good external exam results by planning student-centered classes.

It is actually quite simple. The teacher or school needs to look at the material being taught and ask “What are the big ideas that underpin this?” They need to identify the concepts, the knowledge that students should have for life.

For example, rather than being able to simply memorize the presidents of the US from a unit of work, students should walk away from it with a strong concept of leadership. They can Google the presidents or the teacher can teach them quickly using games or flashcards.

Teachers can develop questions that facilitate high-level thinking and lead to an understanding of the concepts. The material from the curriculum can be used as a vehicle for this.

There are a number of excellent thinking strategies around. For example, we could use Bloom’s taxonomy of thinking: A big idea is about national leadership, could be examined through questions such as “Which presidents made the most impact on their society at the time?” (analysis), “What things would the perfect president do?” (synthesis), and “Can you think of ways to improve the political system to ensure that every president is highly effective?” (evaluation/creative).

Once good questions are developed, they can be used to plan engaging activities for students do, so that as well as remembering the basic facts, they understand the underlying concepts and principles of the topic.

Students can critically analyze the topic and come up a much better understanding of the topic than an external exam requires.

Activities could include Internet research, surveys, practical work, library research, etc. Students can even work from textbooks as long as they are answering the high-level questions and not wading through the textbook questions, all students at the same time.

An advantage of this type of approach is that students can work at their own pace, and the teacher, instead of standing at the front of the classroom, can move around and work with individual students or small groups of students.

When schools and teachers step outside the box a little, and demonstrate energy and imagination, regardless of the curriculum, students can be educated about the course material and write correct exam answers about it.


Notice: This opinion article was displayed in an online newspaper, The Jakarta Post, in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Saturday, 5 May 2012. It is also able to be searched at: [accessed in Bandung, West Java, Indonesia: 9 May 2012].

The writer, an educational consultant, was the former principal of two national plus schools in Indonesia.



  1. But, according to my experiences, approaching “how to teach it” is only relevance for students at the university level. For students at primary and secondary level, I think, it will be practiced difficulty due to students’ knowledge; and habitually that one of the important task for teacher is to teach the students actively. If we use the method of discussion, for example, the students at primary and secondary schools are absolutely passive. It is our big problem in the Indonesia educational system, especially in teaching-learning process in the classroom.

  2. Students of any age are naturally curious. They learn to be passive in poor schools and poor classrooms. I have used these methods with Indonesian students in SMP, and they respond wonderfully. In subjects like History, inquiry-style methods are more effective than any other.

    I have seen pre-elementary students doing inquiry, and they can explain what they have learned to their parents.

    We work with teachers in Indonesian schools to implement these methods, and they have excellent results from students.


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