Getting Students To Move to a Deeper Understanding!

Published on November 6th, 2016

What a privilege it is for me to be able to visit our Lutheran schools and observe teachers in their classrooms.  I am always appreciative of the preparation that precedes the lesson as well as the depth of content being taught.  Whether visiting early learning centers, elementary or high school classrooms, teachers are intentional to vary their instructional approaches and provide a medley of instructional strategies that promote creative thinking and innovation.

Fostering a classroom that encourages creativity and innovation serves students well.  Furthermore, students who can study a topic in a bit more depth and breadth, draw conclusions, make predictions, or possibly draw associations among content areas are more likely to be more engaged, interested and motivated.  Research suggests (Drapeau, 2014) that activity and thinking of this quality utilizes and strengthens the cognitive capacity of the executive function of the brain – processing, attention, memory capacity and sequencing.

As Christian teachers who readily strive to enhance their teaching skills and abilities through professional book reads, article summations, courses, conferences, or workshops, such activities are not necessarily on our daily schedules because of the normal demands of teaching.  But different approaches, activities, and strategies like those mentioned below are integral for student success in their respective classrooms today and may instill in students a love for learning.

What follows are just some ideas and resources as you continue to engage and move students toward a deeper understanding of content:

Promote Inquiry

When you generate questions that encourage your students to make predictions, identify patterns, and evoke some emotion, questions of such involve the different lobes of the brain that generate ideas and form judgments.  Such questioning jumpstarts your students’ creative thinking and reinforces their learning because how you are teaching is likely to move information from short-term into long-term memory.  Drapeau (2014) and Brookhart (2014) provide examples of different kinds of questions for different content areas.

Encourage Convergent & Divergent Thinking

Are you in a pattern of accepting one answer to a particular question or problem?  Well, I know I did as a principal/teacher.  Just to get a correct answer from a student was rewarding and gratifying.  In hindsight, I would have prepared for more opportunity to teach and practice divergent thinking among students.  Teaching divergent thinking encourages students to generate multiple solutions to a problem or provide their reasoning why one solution may be better than another.  Balance your lessons so you educe both types of thinking for your students.

Employ Creative Strategies

How often do you get time to reconstruct state standards for particular content?  Time, or the lack of it, probably does not afford you much time to engage in such a process.  But when you do identify and reconstruct state standards, “Are you substituting creative verbs or adding qualifying words.  Doing so engenders more opportunity for creative thinking and innovation.  Sparking Student Creativity Practical Ways to Promote Innovative Thinking and Problem Solving (Drapeau, 2014) offers good guidance and a variety of strategies for different content areas.

Revising the standard so as to incorporate verbs and qualifying adjectives is a practical way to scaffold students to a deeper level of understanding of content.

Develop Independent Learners

As teachers, we seek to be life-long learners.  We encourage our students to develop a love for learning too.  We will not always be present to answer a student’s question or partner with them to solve a problem.  But, we can incorporate different ways that encourage independence for learning.  Below are just a two suggestions:

Gradual Release of Responsibility (Fisher and Frey, 2012) fosters independent thinking and learning.  The process promotes four components:  Focused and Guided Instruction; Collaborative and Independent Learning.  The four-step approach suggests shared responsibility among teacher and his/her students – “I do it.”, “We do it.”, “You do it together”, and “You do it alone.”

Creative Defining Process (Drapeau, 2014) is a three-step process leading students toward self-reflection and self-assessment.

Establish a Design Rationale

Storylines or design rationales piqued my interest and hopefully it will for you as well.  A rationale for a particular lesson design, or defined by (Ermeling & Ermeling, 2016) as the ‘overall sequence or progression of elements’, will couple together activity and engagement.  Storylines or lesson design rationales propel forward a fundamental question for teachers, “How will this sequence of learning activities support the learning goal and advance students toward deeper understanding?”

When having the opportunity to plan my lessons as a classroom teacher or as a principal/teacher, I often included section headers like an essential question, textbook pages covered, additional resources, and possibly an assessment component; however, little additional narrative was included in the plan book.  Storylines add more depth and breadth than a simple lesson plan outline would.

As Ermeling and Ermeling (2016) posit, lesson preparation becomes an explicit process because the storyline, or carefully written design rationales, in one’s preparation encourage one to reflect on those integral aspects of teaching.  Seymour and Seymour (2006) report similar successes regarding student and teacher narratives in their longitudinal study regarding the teaching of mathematics.

The authors (Ermeling and Ermeling) provide additional questions to explore when constructing a lesson design rationale and further encourage teachers to start simple by strategically selecting a key unit when penning out a lesson design rationale, or possibly trying only one a quarter.  Their article appears in the 2016 October edition of Educational Leadership and is entitled, “Every Lesson Needs a Storyline Planning for coherent instruction not only engages students but also leads them toward mastery”, is an insightful article and helpful resource for teachers.

Genevieve Ermeling served with me on the AdvancED/NLSA accreditation team at Faith Lutheran Middle and High School and now serves as assistant head of school for teaching and learning at Concordia International School, Shanghai.  Her husband, Brad, is an independent education consultant and member of the research team from the University of California-Los Angeles and Stanford.

Some concluding thoughts…

As principals and teachers partner together and strive daily to enhance teaching and learning, the above ideas and listed resources below may be helpful and encourage further interest and discussion.

Look for and affirm instruction and lesson preparation of this magnitude when observed in your respective school buildings.

Thinking about one’s lesson and instruction to this degree can and will impact student learning and is effective professional development for your teachers and you.

I take this opportunity to commend and affirm Christian principals and teachers for their daily diligence in providing such quality instruction for their students.  And thank you for that long-lasting impact you have on your students and for your continued Christian professionalism that you continually project to parents and students!

Dr. Jon Mielke


Drapeau, Patti (2014). Sparking Student Creativity Practical Ways to Promote Innovative Thinking and Problem Solving.  Alexandria, VA:  ASCD.

Brookhart, Susan, M. (2014). How to Design Questions and Tasks. Alexandria, VA:  ASCD.

Ermeling, Bradley A. & Graff-Ermeling, Genevieve. (2016). Every Lesson Needs a Storyline.  Educational Leadership, 74(2), 23-26.