Teaching for Coverage vs. Teaching for Understanding

Focusing on Understanding and Mastery through Online Learning

Joseph F. Johnson, Jr., Ph.D. and Cara Riggs

(#2 in a series of blogs focused on equity and excellence in on-line learning)

Attend the free webinar on September 23rd, 2020 at 10:00 am PDT. 

Why did you teach the lesson you taught yesterday morning? Did you feel compelled to teach it because the lesson was specified on the district’s scope and sequence chart? Were you confident that your lesson was the best way to ensure your students really understood a concept that was critical in building their understanding of a major academic standard? Did yesterday’s lesson just happen to be the next lesson in the textbook? Or was your reason some combination of the above?

 In schools that achieve outstanding learning results for all demographic groups of students, teachers decide what to teach, primarily based on what they believe their students need to understand and master in order to learn the most important concepts and skills associated with their grade levels and subject areas. While teachers might pay attention to district scope and sequence charts or other guides that suggest important topics students should learn, school leaders expect teachers to be thoughtfully attentive to what their students need to understand in order to master challenging standards. Most importantly, teachers understand that their fundamental job is not to cover the content. Instead, their job is to help ensure that all of their students develop deep understandings of the content (Johnson, Uline, & Perez, 2019).

 In one high-performing urban high school, a social studies teacher challenged colleagues from other schools who emphasized the content they were covering. He jokingly asked them, “Covering? What are you doing? Making blankets?” Skillful educators know that the number of concepts covered by the teacher has little relevance if students don’t develop any real understanding. In fact, in many high-performing schools, teachers “cover” fewer objectives, but their students achieve more impressive learning results because teachers focus deliberately on ensuring that students develop deep understandings of critical concepts.

 Excellent teaching is a dance between the partners (the teacher and the student) that coincides with the music (the lesson content). If a dance partner is listening to the music, but ignoring their partner, it is easy to envision something less than artful. Conversely, if the dance partners are wonderfully in sync, but they ignore the beat of the music, the results might not be any better. In high-performing schools, educators exhibit great clarity about what they want their students to learn. Simultaneously, they focus acutely on where each student is as they move toward understanding and mastery.

 Today, the rush to “cover” the curriculum may feel more intense than ever as schools grapple to provide online learning opportunities for students. As many schools face concerns about academic losses incurred during the spring of 2020, it is easy to understand why many educators might feel compelled to emphasize the coverage of content, even when “coverage” provides little evidence that students are acquiring any real understanding of the content and skills being addressed.

 We are convinced, however, that now, more than ever, students will benefit from instruction that focuses clearly and unambiguously on what students need to understand and master. Students are much more likely to thrive academically when synchronous and asynchronous lessons are designed, not merely to follow a district pacing guide, but to maximize each student’s understanding of critical academic concepts. So, how can teachers utilize e-learning in a way that maximizes a focus on understanding and mastery?

 Planning Online Lessons to Promote Understanding and Mastery

A sign in the teacher’s lounge at Bonnie Brae Elementary in the Fort Worth Independent School District reads, “Make a shift from… ‘I taught it’ to ‘Did they learn it?’” Teachers who are focused on building understanding deliberately consider what they will “teach,” but they also deliberately consider how they will determine if their students understood. In the shift to online instruction, outstanding educators work together to thoughtfully identify the building blocks that can help students construct a solid understanding of a concept or skill. They might plan recorded lessons (asynchronous instruction) that help students position those building blocks firmly in their minds. Additionally, however, outstanding educators work together to plan synchronous instruction that helps them know, “How are my students understanding this concept? Is Khaleel making sense of this? Does Maribel see the relationship between these ideas? Is Jeremy’s image of the building blocks upside down?” In such classrooms, teachers believe that they haven’t “taught it”, unless they have evidence that their students have learned it well. 

 Designing Objective-Driven Lessons

In far too many schools, teachers post objectives in order to comply with the expectations of their administrators. In too many classrooms, the posted objective has little impact on what teachers or students say or do. In those classrooms, the posted objective is nothing more than a wall hanging. In contrast, in high-performing schools, the lesson objective is a statement of commitment. The objective (whether posted or not) tells students, “I am going to do everything in my power in the next 50 minutes to make sure you understand this specific concept, inside and out.” The objective drives every teaching move. As well, the objective drives how students orient their thinking, their questions, and their work. Often, teachers ask students to explain, in their own words, what they are expected to learn. In excellent e-learning, teachers exhibit an urgency to lead students to understand what they want their students to learn. Great online lessons provide students multiple cues to remind them (and their parents) about what they should be learning, why they need to learn it, and how they can determine if they have learned it well. 

 Generating Depth of Understanding

When teachers merely “cover” the content, the covering is usually thin. Often students are taught some general ideas, a few details, and a few vocabulary words, but their understanding of key concepts is shallow. In contrast, in high-performing schools, teachers focus on making sure students acquire a deep understanding of concepts. Interestingly, in struggling schools, we have heard teachers argue that their Black, Latinx, and low-income students “are not ready” to engage in deep conversations about challenging ideas. In contrast, in schools like P.S./I.S. 171 in Harlem or Maplewood Richmond Heights High School in St. Louis, teachers find that their Black, Latinx, and low-income students are highly motivated when teachers push them to dive beneath surface-level facts and draw connections between the academic content and their lives. Teachers in high-performing schools recognize that learning is more powerful and more likely to be retained when students are pushed to discuss, explain, debate, problem-solve, and relate academic content to their lives. Online learning provides many opportunities to help students develop deep understandings. In high-performing schools, teams of educators plan how their students can use the internet, video, and other technology to interact with the world. Excellent e-learning is often project-based. Teachers help students feel empowered to use what they have learned to improve the world for themselves and others. 

 Focusing on All Students

In high-performing schools, educators persistently work with all students to ensure their progress toward understanding and mastering lesson objectives. Teachers are not content to have a quiet “audience” of students. Instead, they want to see evidence that each and every student is progressing toward mastery. High levels of achievement for Black, Latinx, and low-income students, students who are emerging as bilingual, and students with disabilities do not occur by accident. Learning success occurs because teachers carefully monitor to ensure the engagement of students from all demographic groups. Creative educators use electronic breakout rooms, chat features, discussion boards, and an array of other e-learning tools to engage all of their students and encourage students to reveal what they understand and what they are yet to understand. 

 E-learning provides some great opportunities for teachers to intensify their focus on understanding and mastery. We hope you join us for our webinar on September 23, 2020, at 10:00 a.m. PDT where we will offer a deeper discussion about how educators can use e-learning to maximize their focus on understanding and mastery to promote both equity and excellence in learning results.


 Johnson, J.F., Uline, C.L., & Perez, L.G. (2019). Teaching practices from America’s best urban schools: A guide for school and classroom leaders. New York, NY: Routledge.


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