Moving beyond teaching the “what” to teaching the “where” and the “how”

In the career exploration program that I facilitated for high school girls, there always seemed to be a lot of what that they needed to know – what careers are emerging, what college and universities included in their application process, what jobs are available for specific degrees, what documents you need to complete the FAFSA.  For the students, it basically feels like a vast information network with checklists to complete, no matter what direction you choose.  For most of the students, it felt paralyzing to have to pick a direction that would determine the course of your professional life; particularly since time, money, and resources would be “wasted” if you changed your mind along the way.  It is incredibly challenging when there is so much they need to “know,” if they are to make informed decisions.  Students would often show signs of anxiety and stress from the sheer pressure of making the “right” choice and the many barriers that could prevent them from successfully pursuing a particular career.

I realized early on, that knowing their options and even knowing where to look for information and resources were just a small part of what students would need to learn in the program.  For Thomas and Brown (2011),

“(i)n a world where context is always shifting and being rearranged, the stability of the what dimension of knowledge also comes into question. Only by understanding the where of a piece of information can we understand its meaning.  This perspective also reshapes the notion of expertise.  In the new information economy, expertise is less about having a stockpile of information or facts at one’s disposal and increasingly about knowing how to find and evaluate information on a given topic.  Again, this is a where question, both in terms of where the information is found and in terms of where it is being deployed to communicate something” (Chapter 7, para 10).

Throughout each program cycle, I was able to develop some methods for shifting from the what that students needed to know, to exploring the where and how that they really wanted to know.  I had four strategies that worked for me:

1.  Keep asking questions – every program cycle inevitably started with questions, lots and lots of them!  Students had questions about everything related to college and careers and their primary motivation for participating in the program was to get help in figuring it out.  When I realized that their questions could actually drive our process, it became clearer and easier for us to learn the what.  Gallery walks to write questions related to our content would generate hundreds of important and valid questions that not only gave me an understanding of what the students needed and wanted, but also helped each student connect with others in the group around shared questions and concerns.  After some refinement, we sorted and categorized the questions and after each student selected three (3) then finally one (1) burning question to answer, we then had a room full of PBL (project-based learning) topics to explore.

Our questions would drive our inquiry process throughout the program cycle and as students would share their progress in answering their burning questions, other students would share related content from their own research process.  When we would explore a new topic or resource, each student would specifically be looking at it from the perspective of their own question that needed answers.  The concerted effort seemed to motivate students as they realized that others would answer an important question that would benefit the entire group and some of that weight and pressure they felt at the beginning of the program began to get lighter.  It might seem like this process of pursuing 20 different burning questions can get a little chaotic and difficult to manage – and yes, it is.  However, these are all burning questions around the content of the program which makes it my role to facilitate our research into answering these questions and supporting the inquiry that is led by the students.  Dora Bechtel is a teacher using SOLE – self organized learning environments with her students to explore a “‘messy question,’ something that doesn’t have just one right answer” (Schwartz, 2015, para 5) and letting the students follow their curiosity to find answers.  These are the types of learning environments where ideas and concepts “stick” in the minds of students and they walk out of the classroom continuing to wonder, reflect, and share what THEY were able to do.  For more about the SOLE movement and its founder, Sugata Mitra, watch this:

2.  Expand your circle – an important aspect of learning is growing and expanding your network of people, rather than hoarding information and resources in your own bubble and limiting your influence and the impact of others on your learning process.  For the students, their social and family circles were the dominant forces surrounding their lives but expanding these groups was not as complicated as they realized.  We started by identifying all the different people they knew and came into contact with on a regular basis; we looked at what careers and interests those people had and whether or not it could be helpful to tap into those resources.  We then expanded the circle to include others who were connected to people in their circles and now we were on to something.  Making connections through mutual friends and family was not something new to students; they clearly can do this very well through social media and are in fact connected to many people they barely know or have even met.  Applying this same concept and skill to their exploration of a career was often a new experience and we supported this through activities and events that would help them understand its benefits.  We worked on establishing and maintaining connections with adult role models who could serve as mentors and references when needed.  We discussed what students needed to do to maintain and sustain their network – after all it’s not always about the sheer number of “adding” friends to your circle but the quality of those connections.

We hosted career nights where professional women would share their experiences in selecting a career and where their educational and career paths have taken them.  Students would engage the women in small groups and begin expanding their circles.  We took field trips to various companies and organizations to take a look behind the scenes and spend time with professional women in their workplace to think about what types of work environments existed and what issues women dealt with in the workplace – again expanding their circle.  Some of the connections made in these types of settings led to internships, interviews, mentors, and almost always impacted a shift in perspective for each student.  As students began to develop the habit of expanding their network, they would see it happen in other areas of their lives outside of the program – on the bus, at church, at the community center, on their basketball team, etc.  We already knew students could expand their digital, social, or online networks, we need to help them connect with those around them that can often help them in ways that their online contacts cannot.

3.  Try new things – if there is one thing that learning should be about, it’s this.  Learning should be about engaging something new, exploring what we do not know, and not only that, but being willing to see where it goes and what might happen if… Thomas and Brown (2011) write about Mimi Ito’s concept of messing around, that follows when learners are able to hang out in a space and establish their social identity.  Trying something new does not just apply to completely new experiences but a “rediscovery that causes a shift in perspective” (Thomas & Brown, 2011, Ch 8, para 6).  It’s more about that willingness to try something new or to explore a new concept from a position or place you already inhabit.  We begin to discover what else could happen and realize other skills or abilities we are capable of developing in a new context.  With high school students, I found that while they were bored with the same old things, they were not as willing to try new things particularly if there was an audience – the social impact of failing was too great and too real to take risks.  Giving students permission, agency, access, and time to try something new, several times might be needed, was incredibly powerful in the context of my program.  Supporting an environment that cultivated this attitude of trying but also made it emotionally safe for students became an important role for me in facilitating the program.

4.  Keep it real – Perhaps the most important aspect of transitioning to the where and how from the what, is that learning needs to be authentic; this is why learning facts and figures from long, long ago does not always resonate for students – they cannot comprehend or make a connection to what is being “taught” to them.  Larmer (2012), identifies four qualities that I often use to ensure that any project we undertake in the program is authentic:

    The project meets a real need in the world beyond the classroom, or the products that students create are used by real people. In my program, this is the easiest to meet; obviously students need and want to know more about college and finding a meaningful career to pursue.  The knowledge they gain and products they create are shared with their peers and relevant to a wide range of people.

    The project focuses on a problem, issue or topic that is relevant to students’ lives — the more directly, the better — or on a problem or issue that is actually being faced by adults in the world students will soon enter.  Again, not difficult in my program; each student hones in on a burning question that is most relevant to their life or situation – How will I pay for college? How can I gain work experience without getting a job?  How do I prepare for an interview?

    The project sets up a scenario or simulation that is realistic, even if it is fictitious.  A great example of this is in our activities to help students prepare for interviews.  We have fashion shows to discuss what and what not to wear to an interview, we conduct mock interviews, write 30-second elevator speeches, and focus on communicating their skills, abilities, and interests beyond what can be included on a resume – which for most high school students, is pretty sparse.  

     The project involves tools, tasks or processes used by adults in real settings and by professionals in the workplace.  By providing events such as career night and company visits and simulating work environments while working our projects (answering our burning questions), we learn project management, collaboration, communication, research, presentation, public speaking, and many other important skills and processes that are used in the work environment.

One of the greatest takeaways that my students gained from the program was the understanding that pursuing a meaningful career is a lifelong journey and not a destination that you must choose when you are in high school.   Over and over again, they met professionals who stressed the importance of following your curiosities, expanding their horizons, meeting new people, trying new things, and most importantly being true to oneself.  If students are to prepare themselves for the unknown careers that will exist in the future, they will need to learn in a context that affords them these opportunities.


Larmer, J.  (June 5, 2012).  PBL:  What does it take for a project to be “authentic”?.  Retrieved from:

Schwartz, K.  (October 7, 2015).  Messy Works:  How to apply self-organized learning in the classroom.  MindShift at  Retrieved from:  School in the cloud teaser [YouTube video].  Retrieved from:

Thomas, D. & Brown, J.S.  (2011).  A new culture of learning:  Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change [Kindle book].  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

One thought on “Moving beyond teaching the “what” to teaching the “where” and the “how”

  1. “It’s not about making learning happen, it’s about letting it happen.” I loved this final quote from the above YouTube video. It is so wonderful to see this innovative approach being explored in India and England. It is nice to see that they even see the benefits of this way of teaching in those smaller communities. When a child understands the way of the world like that little boy did it opens so many doors for him. He knows that by learning English it will open up so much more possibilities for him in the future.
    What you explained in your blog this week sounds like Place-Based Learning. It is the wave of the future.


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