A Basic Teaching Template


Several times a week, when doing research or getting advice, we are reminded that making the complex simple is one of the magical things that good teachers can do.

Many people are familiar with that claim, but often there is a lot of uncertainty about what it is that becomes “simple” when it works.

The classic tale of The Blind Men and The Elephant is about the inadequacy of recognizing only a part of a whole. It tells us that one point of view can make something quite large and complex seem much smaller and uniform. But it also tells us that the danger of only one point of view is in not realizing that there are other points of view necessary to understand the whole thing.

So, simplicity may be deceptive. An additional idea comes from a closer reading of the story: when the understandings of the various points of view are not arranged together correctly, we still don’t wind up with a proper recognition of the whole. Getting simplicity from complexity probably calls for orderliness of some kind.

We take that story as a guide to curating a subject for learning. We want to provide an “all around” view of the subject that will allow the learner to see it from various points of view.

A general example of that plan is a setup that focuses on what is important about the ideas in the subject and how we can become familiar with their importance.

Our setup is a frame of reference. We use a grid-like table in which there are four columns and four rows representing the student’s concerns, not the teacher’s.


Columns: What are four things that I should know about this subject?

– What is distinctive about the ideas

– Where the ideas came from

– How the ideas are used

– What might change about the ideas over time


Rows: What are four ways that I can achieve understanding of the things about the subject?

– texts

– conversations

– demonstrations

– labs

This allows each idea to be handled in four different ways. Because we’ve already anticipated the key ideas and methods of addressing them, we can curate content ahead of time that is useful for handling each idea each way. The full collection of content gives the big picture of the whole subject.

How does this organization amount to “simplicity”? By reducing confusion and guesswork, the frame of reference simplifies the experience of being exposed to the ideas. It is essentially the same benefit that we get from a good map.

A simple way to start thinking through this mapping is to sketch the frame, on a whiteboard or in a notebook, where it is easy to quickly change your decisions about what kind of importance and methods you want to emphasize.

When your sketch begins to reflect the way you think your students should succeed, you can easily make your arrangement more permanent and do your actual content gathering in your online cataloging tool from eXie.

The more you use eXie, the easier you’ll find it to be where you go to do the initial design of your frameworks as well. All of your previous designs will be available there to consult as examples or models in the future.