3 Important Ways to Connect Teaching Practice to Student Learning

on Oct 13, 2015
Boy in classroom

Raise your hand if you think you’re keeping students at the center of your work.

We all do. It’s why many of us went into education and it’s what motivates us to do the best we can every day. In my 23 years as a teacher, instructional coach and educational consultant, I have not met an educator who didn’t want their work to ultimately help students.

Unfortunately, we often lose sight of the student. Caught up in our day-to-day work, we assume that programs, initiatives and curriculum will result in student learning, but that is not always true. Sometimes we get so focused on implementation that we forget to see if the result is helping our students learn.

How does this happen? Let’s look at an example.

At the beginning of the school year, a principal announces: “We’re going to focus on student talk.” A team draws up a list of activities designed to increase student talk like giving kids more opportunities to turn and talk, small group discussions, book clubs in literacy classes and a few more. Soon, teachers are including these activities in their lessons and the principal is impressed with the implementation of the strategies.

The — often completely unintentional — problem with this example is that as instructional leaders, we can get so focused on whether or not a teacher is doing a certain practice, we do not check if that practice is having the desired effect on student learning.

So what can we do to make sure the effect of teacher practice on student learning is kept front and center? As you can imagine, there are many ways to tackle this issue and we’ll look at them in depth in a three-part professional development webinar series.

But if you want to get started right away, here are a few steps instructional leaders can take to ensure that what teachers do in the classroom actually results in student learning.

Get in the habit of looking for outcomes

If we go back to the example about encouraging more student talk, it’s not enough to just visit a classroom, see if a teacher is offering more opportunities for student talk and checking it off a list.

While this might be a good change in practice, as instructional leaders we should go a step further and get into the habit of finding out how the practice change affects students.

Let’s say we observe a social studies teacher explaining the events leading up to World War I. The social studies teacher knows that student talk is important and asks all students to turn to a partner and explain in their own words what led up to beginning of the war. We observe all students talking and feel good about the focus on student talk. We walk out and say, “great, teachers are providing more opportunities to talk.”

What we didn’t look for was the impact of that opportunity on student learning. Did that opportunity allow for students to find gaps in their thinking? Did some students realize they couldn’t explain the events accurately? Were some satisfied to find they clearly understood the relation of the events to the outbreak of war?

If we start looking for the connection between teaching and learning more rigorously, these quick observations can give us evidence to see if certain strategies are making a difference for students.

Be specific and evidence-based

Making the connection between teaching and learning is not a long-standing strength of our education system. For the last decade or so, we have challenged statements like, “the kids are bad, it’s a poor neighborhood, it’s after lunch, they don’t like math” — all explanations for poor student results that don’t have anything to do with teacher practice. On the flip side, teachers will often not take credit for their positive impact on students. Teachers will often say, “this is just a good class, they are better in the morning”, and so on.

As an instructional leader you should support teachers in making a clearer connection between their teaching and their students’ learning. One very effective way to do this is to be more specific in feedback to teachers.

Instead of just telling the teacher that he or she did a good job and the students seem engaged, try to point out some of the specific actions the teacher took that resulted in better engagement. This kind of specific, evidence-based feedback gets a teacher’s attention and often helps them understand better how their teaching directly impacted a student’s understanding of a topic.

So, if the instructional leader would give feedback to the social studies teacher mentioned above, it might sound like this: “I saw you ask students to explain events that led up to World War I and I saw all students begin to explain events. About half of those students were able to explain the events specifically and three students asked for clarification of their understanding.”

Plan PD around student learning

Like losing sight of the students when we observe and give feedback, we can also lose sight of the students when we are planning teacher learning opportunities.

Professional development can be ineffective for many reasons. It is often not well-planned, not engaging, and not relevant. But very often it is also unsuccessful because it is not planned with student outcomes in mind.

One important thing instructional leaders can do to support the connection between teacher learning and student results in professional development is to expect outcomes that focus on student results. When planning a long-term strategy, a session or personalized-development approach, the outcome should always be about the students.

So when planning professional development, make sure your approach follows this sentence frame: “We’re going to learn _________ and because we’ve learned ___________, we expect to see students improving in ____________ ways.”


All of us in education are constantly thinking about what we can do to improve our practice. That’s a good thing and this focus on growth is important to provide students with a better learning experience. But our focus on growth and improvement must be rooted in the needs of the students.

As instructional leaders, we can’t assume that what we are doing is automatically making students better. We need to constantly check that our efforts reach students and that teachers know what to do to make this connection.

About the author

Jennifer McDermott joined CEL full-time in June, 2011. She has been consulting for CEL since 2004. Jennifer's work focuses on supporting teachers in secondary literacy, supporting literacy coaches with their coaching practice and helping schools and districts design professional development. Prior to her work at CEL, Jennifer taught high school English, coached middle school literacy teachers and worked as a secondary literacy coach for Center for School Improvement at the University of Chicago.
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