Advice on Teaching with Paradigms Materials

by Elizabeth Gire

Over the last year, I've had the opportunity to do what amounts to a teaching apprenticeship in the Paradigms. I co-taught the first six “core” Paradigms with a group of amazing teachers, and gained some insights to what is needed for successful teaching with Paradigms materials. These insights make for good teaching practice generally but are particularly relevant in the Paradigms context.


You need to believe that what you're doing is effective and worthwhile. Paradigms materials call for behaviors (from both student and instructor) that go against the “standard” classroom norms. Instructors are asked to use toys as props, stand on furniture, act silly, and spend a lot of class time listening to what students are saying. Students are asked to speak aloud about their emerging understandings of difficult topics, make errors in front of others, act silly, and relinquish detailed note-taking as a record of classroom activities. In order to orchestrate unfamiliar norms, you have to have confidence because your students look to you for cues on how seriously to take the activities. You shouldn't do anything in the classroom that goes against your core beliefs about teaching and learning. To some extent, you are selling your course to the students so that they buy-in to what you're doing. It's much easier to sell something you believe in.

I want to say more about “you shouldn't do anything in the classroom that goes against your core beliefs about teaching and learning.” In my experience, most people have strong beliefs about what constitutes good teaching and what is required for learning (and that most teachers give preference to techniques that serve best the students who are similar to themselves). While you should be open to new ideas and techniques (especially those supported by education research), you should always feel like you're doing the best by your students. As an example, I personally don't believe that taking copious, detailed notes is a particularly effective way of learning, so I use the blackboard as a discussion space - jump around, use multiple colors, sometimes jot down something wrong that a student proposes for the consideration of the rest of the class - as opposed to an elegant transcription of my lecture notes. There are times when detailed notes are useful to students, but I'd rather spend class time on engaging students in a discussion because I think it's serving them better. If you try to do something significantly misaligned with your beliefs about teaching and learning, it will be very difficult to have a positive experience.

Listen and Watch

A major result from cognitive science is that people's emerging understandings of a new idea are influenced by what they already know. This means that in order to instruct well, you need to know what it is that your students think. There are numerous ways going about this and I will discuss three. The first is years of experience - excellent, but not very helpful to new teachers or when you're teaching something new. The second is to make assumptions based on your own educational experiences. This can be immensely helpful but be careful - everyone has different experiences, there are probably many differences between how you were and how your students are. Plus, you probably won't be able to remember exactly what your ideas used to be. The best way to know what your students think is to ask them and listen to what they say. This can be done in office hours, but there, the sampling is small. Employing “active engagement” techniques helps accomplish this in class with a larger number of students.

Professor Corinne Manogue taught me something valuable about the experience of listening to students, and I will offer it to you as a caution. (Here I will use the general “you”.) When you are lecturing and you solicit an answer from the class as a whole, your experience of student knowledge is summed over all the knowledge in the room: if one person knows the answer then the class knows the answer. However, when you start doing activities that invite each student to provide an answer, you're now summing over all the ideas in the classroom and you might have the impression that no one knows anything! Don't be discouraged - this is a case of things getting worse before they get better.

The other piece of advice I will share is from Professor Charles de Leone on the subject of asking questions. If you ask your students quiz-like questions, students will likely give you short answers and tell you what they think you want to hear: “What is Newton's 2nd law?” (“F=ma”), “What law of physics is relevant for this problem?” (“Ampere's Law”). This does not yield particularly revealing dialog. Instead, ask your students questions you don't know the answers to and that you're genuinely interested in: “How are you thinking about this problem?”, “How does your answer make sense to you?”, “What was difficult for you in solving this problem?” These questions are asking the students for information they are certain to have and the answers will help you to help them (with the added bonus of helping them be more reflective learners).

Be a Reflective Practitioner

In grad school, a classmate of mine was teaching his very first course, and because he wanted it to go as well as possible, he sought advice. I suggested to him that he keep a teaching journal. He looked at me with what I would describe as extreme skepticism: “Honestly, all I would think of to write would be 'today went well' or 'today didn't go so well'. How would that be useful?”

In my experiences observing some truly gifted teachers, I've noticed that each one was extremely thoughtful about their teaching. After class, they ask themselves “What went well?”, “What didn't go well?”, “What would I do differently next time?” and they would often try to determine why something went well or badly. These teachers are much more likely to improve their classes, and unsuccessful activities/techniques are much less likely to persist.

One of the most valuable parts of my Paradigms experience has been being mentored. Although it was somewhat terrifying to have an expert observing my first attempts at using Paradigms materials (to make matters worse, I was video-taped - watching video of oneself is awful!), the feedback has been enormously helpful. When I was given a course of my own, I found it immensely useful to go to my former co-teacher and chat about my experiences. Every class meeting got better, and I got in the habit of self-evaluation.


Curriculum developers constantly tweak their materials to be more effective, and there is no reason why instructors shouldn't do the same. Nothing is going to go perfectly the first time through, and you should have the freedom to try out new materials/techniques/approaches to see what works best for you and your students.

One significant result from education research is that it is very difficult to adopt someone else's curriculum. It is thought that the key to a successful implementation is to not “adopt” but “adapt”. Each institution/department/classroom/community has its own structures, constraints and affordances, and your curriculum needs to accommodate your specific situation. Keep the things that work well, but make necessary changes. Make the curriculum your own.

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