Tools of the Trade


“In teaching as in carpentry, the selection of tools depends on the task at hand and the materials one is working with” (How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice, 1999, p. 18-19).

Device for doing work, a means to an end, something used for a job- instrument, implement, device, means, utensil, apparatus, contrivance, and gizmo (Microsoft Word Reference Tools). However one chooses to frame it, educators often refer to the existence of a personal tool kit as a metaphorical vessel in which they house their “tools” or instructional strategies. It is reputed that a veteran teacher’s tool kit is chock full of these tips and tricks of the trade motivating the novice teacher’s scramble to assemble their own personal arsenal. The perception is, at least for novice teachers, that one can pull one of these tools out at a moments notice to wield in the face of insurmountable teaching odds, (an unmotivated student, teaching particularly difficult vocabulary, addressing learner diversity) and everything will end happily ever after. However, the acquisition of a haphazard cache of instructional strategies absent of a deep understanding of learning theories does not a master (or effective) teacher make. Hammond, Austin, Orcutt & Rosso (2001) tell us that:

“Integrating theory into practice involves an iterative process of developing a deep understanding of how people learn and what influences motivation, what influences development, what counts in the social context, and how family and culture and teaching all make a difference. For teachers, theory provides some guidance in making decisions about curriculum and teaching strategies. Perhaps more important, it supports some sensitivities that enable a teacher to ask useful questions about what may be going on with his students and some indications about hypotheses that might be helpful in solving particular problems” (p. 17).

This understanding of how people learn is fundamental to being an effective teacher. But how does one move from the novice stages of being an educator towards mastery? While most teachers pull from a variety of strategies, different ideas about the purposes of education fuel the debate about what are the best practices (Hammond et al., 2001). Clearly, experience is a key element. But experience that is undirected can lead to misconceptions and an entrenching of dispositions, “I’ve always done it this way, so it must be the correct way.” Reflective thought regarding the how and why of instruction and assessment are crucial as well but also benefit from guidance in the form of continuous, high quality professional development. Donovan, Bransford & Pellegrino (1999) suggest the following list of essentials in supporting teacher’s development in understanding and applying the theoretical research of how people learn:

  • Research findings need to be organized and communicated to teachers and other educators in a way that is easy to comprehend and to integrate into their current thinking.
  • The model of how people learn needs to be presented as a standard, stable model
  • Teachers need curriculum materials and support to adopt new teaching methods.
  • Collaboration between teachers and researchers will require a change in the relationship between the two groups.
  • Teachers need time and incentives to reflect on their practice, as well as opportunities to use that time to learn about new research and curricula.
  • For teachers to change their practice, they need professional development opportunities that are in-depth and sustained
  • The communities that interact with teachers on a regular basis, including parents and administrators, must be persuaded of the value of change.
  • Changing teaching practices will require an alignment with assessment practices.

(p. 26-27)

So, what does the research as iterated by Hammond et al. (2001) say about how people learn?

The brain plays a role. Bransford, Brown & Cocking in Mind and Brain (2008) point to the key neuroscience and cognitive science findings that 1) Learning changes the physical structure of the brain 2) These structural changes alter the functional organization of the brain; in other words, learning organizes and reorganizes the brain 3) different parts of the brain may be ready to learn at different times.

The learning environment makes a difference. Bransford et al. (2008) point out “…the quality of information to which one is exposed and the amount of information one acquires is reflected throughout one’s life in the structure of the brain” (p. 94). This point is support by Hammond et al. (2001) “Reinforcements from the environment and the nature of feedback from significant others can stimulate or undermine great effort” (p. 11). As teachers, we see this every day as we notice the difference that a supportive parent or guardian that takes the time to model and provide appropriate feedback can make to a young learner.

Learning is based on associations. “For learning to occur, facts, concepts and ideas must also be stored, connected to other facts, concepts and ideas, and built upon” (p. 11) This is where some of those tool box strategies can come into play to support associations and connections; graphic organizers, concept maps, inductive thinking models; the list goes on. The key is by knowing the how and when of utilizing each instructional practice contextually.

Learning occurs in cultural and social contexts. “The associations people make and understandings they develop are dependent upon and influenced by what is valued and what is experienced at home, in the community, and within the classroom learning environment” (p. 11). It’s interesting for me to notice how my young learner with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) modifies his situational vernacular, based on whether he is with me or with parents. Within our classroom he knows that I don’t tolerate certain words or phrases (shut up, I hate you, I’m going to kill you) even during playtime, even though these are words that are bandied about in his home environment.

109881542I like to begin the school year with a simple class discussion; what is culture? It usually takes a bit of time to brainstorm the various components of culture with students (language, beliefs, values, social norms, the arts, a sense of shared history) before we are able to hone-in on the idea of social norms and interactions. We brainstorm in small groups what a positive classroom culture “looks, sounds and feels like” and report back to the whole class. This is the sum of student ideas from my Grades 6, 7 & 8 last year and is an example of what I believe is the beginnings of establishing a positive student-focused learning environment: Class Culture. Simply discussing then posting signs is not enough. A way that I like to support

People learn in different ways. “Learners have processing differences that influence how they handle visual, aural, or kinesthetic information” (p. 12). Prior to working with my students with autism, I had a difficult time understanding what it looks like for a learner to process information in a different way. The first few times I took my kiddo outside for a “discovery” walk, the sensory stimulus was a lot for him to handle; he began stimming (shaking both hands repetitively) as a means to off-load some of that information. Apparently, what I have casually observed is referred to by Grandin (2008) as a distorted salience landscape or emotional map “that details the emotional significance of everything in the individual’s environment” (p. 442) and “self-stimulation may somehow damp the child’s autonomic storms” (p. 443). As he has had more exposure to being outside and is familiar with his neighborhood, the stimming has stopped. But, I’m sure that presented with a novel situation, the behavior would return as a coping mechanism.

People think about their own learning, and their feelings matter. “Both thoughts and emotions shape the learning process” (p. 12). I have noticed with all of my students that their attitude acts as an inhibitor or catalyst for their learning. A student’s willingness to engage in metacognition about their learning and learning behavior to a large degree determines their success. This is where the explicit teaching of learner dispositions is of benefit to students.

Another way that I support the classroom environment, specifically through empowering student learning, is through the practice of peer mentoring. I have engaged in peer mentoring both as a Grade 5 classroom teacher and with my Grade 6 language arts students. Both years that I taught Grade 5, I had my students engage in “lunch buddies” with grade 1. On Fridays, my students would pick up their Grade 1 buddies and have lunch with them, eating together and playing during lunch recess. Afterwards, they were responsible for engaging with their student in an academic activity to support their buddy’s learning. Students kept a weekly journal detailing their interaction. At the end of the year, the Grade 1 and Grade 5 classes had an assembly with parents from both groups and the rest of primary, to celebrate their relationship and mentoring skills. It was a special day.

At the beginning of the year 2011, I felt that my Grade 6 students would benefit from some explicit opportunities to develop their leadership and empathy skills; they were very immature! I put out a call to the primary teachers asking if anyone was interested in my peer mentoring idea. The Grade 2 teacher was thrilled; it seems she was having a lot of behavioral issues in her classroom and was looking for an opportunity for her students to model older kids. Every seven days (we were on a 7-day rotating schedule) my students went to the Grade 2 classroom to work with their assigned student on language arts assignments. My students were responsible for helping their student with their work which varied from writing poetry to short stories, grammar skills, reading aloud and basically any type of language arts activity they were engaged in. There was a twenty-minute recess break for the Grade 2 that my students accompanied their buddy to. They were responsible for getting their buddy safely to and from recess, then refocused once we returned to class. In order to frame the importance of this year-long task, I had my students write a metacognitive essay GoodMentor_Essay that had them explore the importance of their role as mentor and what skills and dispositions they brought to the task. We had a great on-going discussion about how they could see the tangible results of their work. We brainstormed ideas of how to deal with inattentive students (they were working with seven year olds!), how to best teach reading strategies, and how they could take their experience performing a reader’s theatre play and apply it to teaching their student’s oral performance. It was well worth the diversion in terms of instructional time and I had many parent and teacher comments on the difference it made in my Grade 6’s attitude and behavior.

My Tool Box

As I think about what may already be ensconced in my teaching tool kit, and what I would like to add, I find the following thoughts by Hammond et al. (2001) helpful in framing my thinking, “Learning to teach thus demands that we weave delicate webs of the general and the particular, finding ways to enrich our personal experiences through studying the experiences of others, seeking theoretical insights that give meaning to what we do, or raising skeptical questions about what we think we know” (p. 15) because a tool is just that, a device for doing work, a means to an end, or something used for a job. My tool kit will be influenced by my own prejudices and predilections, how my brain is wired and the social and cultural contexts from which I derive and live within. For me to make sense of what could become an unwieldy bag of instructional strategies, I must first understanding the fundamentals of how people learn, then I must refresh these understandings often with the latest research. A step that I am taking in this direction is the beginnings of a collection of scholarly resources in my Delicious account; this is a place that I can collect and share research and articles on the brain and learning. It is through the conscience and deliberate filling of my tool kit that I hope to select the appropriate materials for the task at hand.


Bransford, Brown & Cocking. 2008. Mind and Brain. In The Jossey-Bass Reader on the Brain and Learning. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Donovan, Suzanne M., Bransford, John D., & Pellegrino, James W. (Eds). 1999.

How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice. Washington, DC: National Academic Press.

Darling- Hammond, L., Austin, K., Orcutt, S., & Rosso, Jim. (2001). [Episode#1 Introduction Chapter]. In How people learn: Introduction to learning theories. (pp. 1-22).


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