Teaching Them to Teach Themselves: How Do Your Students Learn?

What if you could tailor each lecture for your students’ needs? The twin challenge of the teacher is to know the content and know the student. Spencer describes practices of individualized instruction that, though born out of his work in a small school, suggest principles that can enhance the effectiveness of instruction in classrooms of any size.

I’m in the process right now of developing what I term mini lessons. And one of the advantages of my classroom is that I meet with my students one-on-one every day. And so every day I’m getting immediate feedback on whether they have grasped the concept because I try to ask review questions that demonstrate whether they mastered it or not. And I also can learn to know how my student learns. And so because of that immediate feedback and paying attention to how my student learns, I have lessons that are tailored specifically to that student. And I have the ability then to put a lesson together fairly quickly because I know what my student needs. I can glance at my teacher material, the review questions, and then pull a lesson together, whether it’s in the afternoon before or the morning before school starts. And then I can use that to just talk with my student.

And I try to just understand the subject long enough that I can talk to my student about it, give them some exercises on the board until they’ve got it. And then I send them to work on their own, and I move on to my next student.

Part of my teaching is a lot of asking questions. And so that is the reality of how I run my class is asking questions, because I find if a student is thinking about a question, they’re doing work. And so that’s one of the big things that I work for in my class is that the students are working. And so I do what I can in my classes and lectures, and I try to structure them in such a way that the students are with me and working.

And so, if I’m teaching a new concept, and I realize that the student can’t get it, I then will have some kind of visual or diagram or a bit of a lesson plan so that I can show them the answer.

Okay. So, this is the third dimension, right? So, there you would go two different directions. Here, we could go how wide it is: 2. We can go how high it is: 2. And, we can go how long it is. Three dimensions. Okay, how many squares would be there? What do you think?

 Okay. What we’re going to do is we’re going to actually build this, okay? So, take the blocks, and let’s see if we can build a 2 X 2, and then we’ll go back…

Okay. So, is it 2 wide?


Are there 2 long?


And two high?


Okay. How many squares is that?



I like to present them with a problem before I’ve taught it, and work through with them what we already know, and see if they can start coming at the new concept before I even teach it to them. Because I find if they’ve done some of that work of wrestling through the problem, and if they get close, they tend to remember the concept better because they’ve solved it themselves.

And so, if I can, I will have the students teach themselves the problem by presenting them with a problem, and they might give an answer, and then I’ll ask them questions to evaluate. “Would that make sense with how we’ve done everything up to this point?” And I love when the student can be, “Oh no. That wouldn’t make sense. I need to think about that again.” And then I can maybe suggest that you consider whatever it is. And then we work through it like that until the student comes at the answer themselves.

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