5 Things I Finally Understand About Teaching and Learning

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By Rita Platt

What is your philosophy of education? This was the question that the professor asked us in my second year of my teacher education undergraduate program. Philosophy of education? I had no idea. In fact it wasn’t until very recently that my philosophy was anything but an inchoate slush of ideas, inclinations, and questions. Though I know that my philosophy will grow and change, almost 20 years after that question was asked, I think I have an answer. Okay, I know. I’m a little on the slow side.

I have taught grades 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, and remedial classes in high school. I have worked as a mentor, a cooperating teacher, a professional development coordinator, a reading specialist, and a librarian. I have loved students in tiny Eskimo villages on the Bering Sea Coast, in inner-city Las Vegas, and in rural Wisconsin. I have sat on every possible type of committee and attended more meetings than anyone should ever have to attend. I earned National Board Certification, published in journals, and presented at conferences. Most importantly each year I have loved my profession more deeply and each year has been seminal in my growth as an educator and as an educational philosopher.

Students will learn if they work, they will only learn if they work, and they want to work.  A teacher’s job is to lend students their expertise and allow them to get busy.

Today my philosophy boils down to a list of five things I know to be true about teaching and learning. In my experience these are among the most important truths for successful educators. If I had to distill them into a few sentences it would read something like this:  Students will learn if they work, they will only learn if they work, and they want to work.  A teacher’s job is to lend students their expertise and allow them to get busy.

Without further delay, I am happy to share my list of the 5 things I finally understand about teaching and learning. For each I will give a brief overview and link to resources when possible. All of the resources are quick and easy-to-read. Teachers are busy. I respect this.

1. The brain can be exercised and grown! EVERY single student can grow, learn, and achieve at high levels.

All children want to learn and all crave challenge. This comes from the research of the brilliant psychologist Carol Dweck. Dweck teaches us that our brains are malleable and that humans can actually get smarter. She also reminds us that failure is a part of learning and should be celebrated as part of the process.

2. Motivation is key, but the way we think of motivation must change.

Motivation comes from success. Motivation comes from feeling good about your work. Motivation comes from “seeing” growth with hard data. Motivation is not something we give to students is something we teach to students. Daniel Pink and John Hattie have done outstanding work in this area.

3. Classroom management is absolutely foundational to teaching and learning.

Excellent teachers know how to run a classroom, how to manage children, how to differentiate instructional experiences, and how to proactively ward off poor choices. Differentiated instruction is a big part of classroom management.

4. The answers are out there.

There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Years and years of research by our professional leaders have given us some solid answers about what works. We must let go of our egos and allow ourselves to be open to the possibility that someone else might have better answers. Teachers are trained in colleges that mostly subscribe to a problem-solving approach. The thing is, you’re not in college anymore, you’re in a profession and professions are defined by shared knowledge and resources. Thinking as a professional means using the body of knowledge that is out there. Of course, each of us has something to add to the body of knowledge but we don’t have to and shouldn’t treat all of education as a do-it-yourself endeavor.

5. The best teachers are coaches not facilitators or bosses.

Okay, despite what I said in number 4, this comes mostly from my own head but also seems to be emerging and converging from a variety of sources as we move from the teacher as facilitator model. But, if you’ve ever watched a coach work with her/his team. You know I’m right. Coaching can be defined as the art and science of helping someone achieve their goals through explicit teaching, modeling, hand-on guided practice, and lots of independent practice. That just oozes good teaching.

That’s it. A full 20 years after I was asked about my philosophy of education I finally know the answer. Too bad the brilliant old professor who asked this of my cohort of novice educators isn’t around to hear it. His only possible response would have been, “Duh. What took you so long?”

Before I close this essay I’ve got to talk about Finland. Finland public education has gotten a lot of press recently for the amazing international test scores they’ve been posting. Last week the Finns shared what they consider the reasons for their great success. In a nutshell they cited the following as foundational: universal social services (health care, extended maternity/paternity leave, free quality education), allowing students to grow in developmentally appropriate ways (kids learn when they’re ready not when a grade or age says they should be ready), and treating teachers as professionals (paying them well, respecting them, and offering them generous planning time.)

These are not things America is yet prepared to consider, much less do. While the philosophy I’ve outlined above still holds true, I believe that no systemic change can happen for our public schools until we start taking lessons from Finland.

We will come to realize that fair is fair and equal is equal and we must do right by our most precious American resource, our students.

That may sound negative, but it’s not! Think about understanding number 1 and 5. Idea number 1: Americans can grow their brains!  We will come to realize that fair is fair and equal is equal and we must do right by our most precious American resource, our students. Idea number 5: The answers are out there all we have to do is implement them! Finland found some answers and they’re willing to share.

Now, the question is, what is your philosophy of education?

For more information about the Finnish school system, link to the articles below.



Rita Platt is a Nationally Board Certified teacher. Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergarten to graduate students. She currently is a Library Media Specialist for the St. Croix Falls SD in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, and consults with local school districts. 



  1. Peter Wilson says:

    I especially resonate with the “Coaching” approach. For me, teaching children to THINK FOR THEMSELVES is crucial and apparently lacking. For this world to become a better place, every individual will need to sharpen their ability to discern between dogmatic assertions and evidence-based assertions. The skill of cutting through RATIONALIZATIONS must be sharpened-lazy minds allow for absolutely immoral actions without questions.

  2. Peter,
    Thanks for your comments! I totally agree. In my classroom we have a motto, “We are mature, independent, responsible, successful learners.” Thinking is the number one goal.
    : ) Rita

  3. Marilyn Brissett-Kruger says:

    A powerful summary, Rita. For me, there’s a bonus because I have had the privilege of observing you in action. The “no ego” message is so natural to you. You make it look easy! Thank you for modeling your beliefs by including resources that have helped you. I’ll be sending this essay to my son who is a beginning teacher. What a gift for all children if, during his career, America begins to accept best practices from Finland. Thank you.

  4. Marilyn, you are such a dear lady! Best to you son as he begins his journey in the best profession in the world!

  5. Rita, fabulous article! I’m so thankful I was able to work with you for a few years and learn from such an amazing teacher. Everywhere you go, you touch so many lives. Miss you.

  6. Steve Platt says:

    As a teacher also (20 yrs HS science your brilliance is something I admire and love you for!

  7. Steve Platt says:

    Brilliant- as a teacher myself I admire and love you- wish I had been so insightful in my 20 years of HS science teaching!

  8. Motivation is the area that fascinates me most at this point. I love the Daniel Pink information and I often reflect on how we so effectively destroy motivation without meaning to. We are so keen on finding external motivators and we fail to identify what motivates kids and people in the first place. Success without false praise is one sure fire way.