This week, I had the chance to read about the philosophical underpinnings of the Responsive Classroom. Among the many wise tenets of this educational framework is a simple observation about what really counts in school: how teachers teach. It echoes the bedrock principle elaborated in John Hattie’s Visible Learning series, where Hattie aggregates global educational research to pinpoint which exact teacher practices have the greatest impact on student learning.

I fully agree with both Hattie and the smart people behind Responsive Classroom: it’s not what we teach, but how. But I didn’t always feel this way. Years ago, as a novice in the classroom teaching Kafka’s Metamorphosis, I felt much the opposite. In fact I remember thinking, if I can just show them how interesting this story is, they’ll like it and do well. 

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yes, the substance of Kafka’s work is definitely interesting. A man wakes up one morning to find that he is a human-sized bug. He has all of the feelings and thoughts of a human being but not the appearance or the capacity of one. He just wants to get up and out the door for work, but it’s no longer possible. His parents and sister try to remember the man within the insect, but they just can’t. It’s sad. And a little funny. And gross. And confusing! How are we supposed to feel about this person-no-longer-a-person? What is Kafka’s overarching message? It’s a tough reading experience for most students, with its advanced vocabulary and its absurdist humor.

Knowing then what I know now about Responsive Classroom and Hattie’s research on the effects of teacher practices on student learning would have improved my teaching dramatically. Rather than think about my own engagement, I would have thought instead about how to make Kafka’s text accessible to all of my students, to slow and quicken the pace where needed, to take the time to let students co-create the story’s meaning, and to allow them to experience the text in groups during and outside of class. I might have known to send a note home to parents inviting them to read the story, too, to have given some talking points for the dinner table.

It’s not what, but how. Sometimes the content we are delivering to students is so interesting to us that we forget our main purpose as teachers: to engage our students and teach them what they really need to know.



Jessica is a doctoral candidate, education consultant, writer and editor. She is the founder of bookclique, a collaborative of English teachers and students working to promote book culture, and a co-founder of Well-Schooled, the site for educator storytelling, dedicated to sharing first-person educator stories. All Rights Reserved - What I Learned Today in School.


  • Susan Fine says:

    Yes! I might even rework that final sentence to something such as, “…to engage students and drive learning…” but might even go further in terms of how we empower them to become increasingly independent learners…? I’m also thinking about something our director of teaching and learning emphasized in a recent video: how do we use competency-based learning to ensure that learning at Global Online Academy is “relevant, authentic, and student-driven.” I find myself more and more talking just about “learning”; of course, teaching is essential, but I read something that noted how there can be teaching and little to no learning, and there can be learning (and increasingly so in these days of such access to information) that didn’t come out of traditional teaching and traditional classrooms. A lot to think about! Here’s Eric’s video: and something else recently done to explore:

    • says:

      I love the work you and GOA are doing together, Susan! I consider it a beacon in this dizzying educational marketplace.

  • Rebecca Yacono says:

    The other elegant characteristic of Responsive Classroom is that it teaches students and teachers how to create and function within an environment and setting for learning. It’s easy to forget that middle schoolers are so young because their physical appearance so dramatically outpaces their social and emotional development. Yet middle schools often have enormous expectations for students, particularly with regard to their executive function. Responsive Classroom’s middle school module is still fairly new, but I would argue it has been long in coming. At a time in their lives where kids are completely preoccupied with those basic needs of belonging, engagement, and significance (per RC), teaching them how to get those needs met in healthy ways can only help them as they manage their own learning as well.

    • says:

      I really love how you put this, Rebecca! I do think that the advent of educational technology has upped the ante for us as teachers and school leaders. We have more responsibility, not less.