Thinking back on my days in school, I often asked the question that millions of students do every day: “Why do I have to learn this?” This question swirls through most classrooms, particularly when the learning gets hard or the engagement of the students starts to wane. Teaching is both an art and a science. I believe that the art of teaching is bringing relevance to the work that we do each day. In today’s society, teaching and learning have changed dramatically. The practice of teachers spending their time bestowing their knowledge of information in lecture is all but gone. With the advent of Google and other search engines, students are literally seconds away from having that intelligence in their hands. In education, we use the analogy that teachers are no longer the “sage on the stage,” but now a teacher works as a “guide on the side.” This is where relevance comes in. Technology can produce facts and some examples within seconds; however, it is the teacher that makes the learning come to life by providing a relevant example or an authentic environment to have students see, feel and touch what they are learning about. Teachers are now facilitating inquiry-based learning, where we encourage students to ask questions, test hypotheses, and — the best part — learn through their failures and difficulty. After all, failure and difficulty is nothing more than a form of feedback.

A recent example occurred while observing at McKinley and Washington elementary schools. I was able to observe a McKinley fifth-grade classroom documenting their observations regarding the natural environment. Students wrote these observations and then compared them to the biology learning within their classroom that coincides with their observations. The students will be logging their observations on a regular basis to learn about how the environment changes with temperature and other factors. At Washington, the students were accessing their new prairie learning area and found interesting insects, plants and animals. The students were at first fearful of the environment, but through their learning, they quickly became fascinated by what they were seeing and feeling.

It is my belief that we have been making a migration away from students simply being able to regurgitate facts and figures. Students need to interact with what they are learning and be cognizant of the process of learning versus the product of learning. In his book, Start with Why, futurist Simon Sinek, tells us that the “why” has become far more important than the “what” and “how” of learning new information. It is up to us to encourage inquiry learning for our students and this comes through providing relevance and authenticity to our curriculum and instructional strategies.

We are also transcending the old methods of assessment such as multiple choice and true/false, and moving into an interactive way of assessing learning through the use of technology applications. We have been learning that the most effective learning happens when students are given immediate and constructive feedback. The immediate feedback allows students to adjust their thinking process to look for ways to improve their understanding. At Owatonna Middle and High Schools, teachers are using technology-based applications to gather on-going assessment data to determine student understanding. This sort of assessment allows teachers to adjust the delivery of instruction mid-lesson instead of waiting until a final test or the next quiz to provide that same information.

These are just a few examples of how teaching and learning has changed. It will continue to change as we move forward. Our staff is committed to providing relevant and authentic learning and assessment within our classrooms to prepare our learners for their future.

In closing, last week we celebrated American Education Week. I consider it a great honor to be an educator and serve with over 1,000 staff who commit themselves to inspiring excellence for every learner, every day. I encourage you to reach out to a current or former educator who has had an impact on your life and let them know how much you appreciate them. I guarantee your positive message will leave you both filled with gratitude.

Jeff Elstad is the superintendent of Owatonna Public Schools. He may be reached at the district office at 444-8610 or via email at

Jeffrey Jackson is the managing editor of the Owatonna People's Press. He can be reached at 507-444-2371 or via email at

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