Strategies for Effective Teaching from Stanford’s Dan Schwartz

On the Summit Sparks Podcast: Dan Schwartz

This month on the Summit Sparks podcast we are highlighting Content Knowledge, one of Summit Learning’s four student outcomes. This week we talk to Dr. Dan Schwartz, the I. James Quillen Dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Dr. Schwartz is also the Nomellini-Olivier Chair in Educational Technology, and an award-winning learning scientist who spent eight years teaching secondary school in Los Angeles and Kaltag, Alaska.

Dr. Schwartz studies student understanding and how they show their learning, and explores the ways that technology can help facilitate learning. His 2016 book, The ABC’s of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use, translates the latest science of learning into 26 strategies for educators to use in practice. Dr. Schwartz has a doctorate in Human Cognition and Learning and a master’s degree in Computers and Education from Columbia University, as well as a bachelor of arts in Philosophy and Anthropology from Swarthmore College. 

The transcript below is a condensed version of Dr. Schwartz’s full interview. Find this and all episodes at

Can you provide an analogy that helps [the audience] understand the difference between Content Knowledge and Cognitive Skills?

Great question. In general, before the analogy, content knowledge is kind of the facts and procedures. It tends to be very specific to an area, so I would have content knowledge in history, content knowledge in English. People think of cognitive skills as things that you can apply across different content areas. Things like concentration might be a cognitive skill.

What’s an analogy? I’m going to steal from Plato. Content knowledge is like the sun. It is what enables you to see the world. Cognitive skills are more like your vision, which you control, that enables you to make connections across things you see in the world. Look for incoherence, look for inconsistency, how you pay attention, what do you say, look at for quite a while? Knowledge is the sun, and cognition is the process of trying to make sense of what is the information.

Are there different learning strategies for Content Knowledge and Cognitive Skills, and/or how do they relate to one another?

When I teach, I want them to engage in the cognitive skill that’s appropriate for the knowledge learning. If I’m teaching science, I give them data for them to try and figure out sort of what is the pattern. This turns out to be a very good way to both teach them how to look for pattern, but also to really understand the content knowledge better because they’re closer to the phenomenon instead of the abstract theory. So you can bring both together nicely.

When I think of cognitive skills… we’re all pretty good at them. We’re all sort of endowed by nature to be pretty good at listening to a person, and then listening to somebody else. In school, a lot of the issues, except for very young children, is do you choose to do it? Do I choose to engage in critical thinking, or do I just accept what authority has told me? That’s I think what we don’t know how to teach. We don’t know how to teach people to choose to engage in processes which tend to be more difficult.

Trying to find content or projects that interest students so that they are more motivated to make that personal choice, to choose to engage… I would think that that would be a big part of [choosing to learn].

All of choice is a big input. If there’s more choice, at least in American culture, it’s more motivating. This is not true in all cultures.

More choice is demotivating if you’re really precision-oriented. It drives you nuts. So choice is a good motivator, but it’s also an outcome of education. So developing children’s interests, you’re sort of helping them learn what sorts of thing to choose and be interested in. You don’t want to just pander to the child’s interests so that they’re motivated. You also want to help them develop new interests so they can have a better space of choices as they go forward…

When I taught in Alaska, it was quite interesting. It was a very isolated village. This was about 250 miles from the nearest radio signal. No roads in or out. The only professions they knew of were to be a teacher or a bush pilot because they just hadn’t seen the spates of possible choices. When I got there, there was no TV yet. So you want to help them realize that there are just spates of possibilities.

Can you talk about why social interaction is important in learning content?

It’s everything…we’re designed to socially interact. Another example of this is if you think of your mouth. The number of things it does for you, it eats; it chews; it tastes; it kisses; it talks. So social is like that, it’s everywhere. All our content is inherently social. It was come up with by people; it’s people’s theories; people chose what to include; so social shows up in the content.

What you’re probably asking about is…at the moment of learning. Again, there’s lots of reasons. Take the case of peer tutoring, where an older kid tutors a younger kid. This is really successful. The reason is, it’s a confluence of all these great social features. The kid is getting immediate feedback. He is having a chance to explain his or her reasoning to a peer. The peer is an older student, so they look up to them and kind of want to be around the older student. There’s all these things that are conspiring for very effective interaction, but you’ve got to get the social stuff right.

peer tutoring summit learning
Summit Public Schools students tutor each other on a math concept. Dr. Schwartz says peer tutoring has a “confluence of great social features” that make it an effective teaching strategy.

Can you provide an example or two of what optimal social interaction in learning might look like in today’s secondary classroom?

I’ll pick one that I’ve studied a lot in learning about teaching. What you do is you have a student responsible for teaching another student. You see this in jigsaw. Jigsaw is a set up where different groups learn different things, and then you mix the groups so they can teach each other. This has a lot of benefits. We eventually made a technology called a teachable agent where the student teaches a computer character who has some artificial intelligence. It can reason based on what you’ve taught it.

From that, we’ve discovered a whole bunch of things. We’ve discovered that students will study twice as long in preparation for teaching somebody else than they will for taking a test for themselves. When they see their student perform, they learn a lot more than when they just perform… The students, when they are teaching someone else, they have to be prepared for any kind of question as opposed to what they might see on a test. There’s high responsibility, so they take it seriously.

If there was one thing you would change in order to best support all students’ learning in today’s secondary classrooms, what would you change?

I’m going to do it in order of difficulty. I’m going to give you three. Here’s something that people don’t do that’s really easy. Give two examples, and ask students to figure out what’s the same about the two examples. This is called ‘A is for analogy‘…

This is an easy thing to do, but in general, we tend to give one example in an explanation. Turns out that’s just not nearly as effective as giving students two examples, and having them figure out what’s the common structure…

The next up is to come up with tasks that students do before you tell them how to do it. So you want to have them experience the problem that suddenly you’re going to give them the solution to, so they’ll be eager to hear the solution. This can be theoretical questions, it can be mathematical, it can be science. In science, give them data and say, “How do you explain this?”…

The third one is the hardest, improving the feedback systems. People spend a tremendous amount of time making their perfect instruction, and then feedback is a second thought. There is no instruction that’s so perfect that students will get exactly right. They need to self-correct because otherwise, you’re just going to have to make a second lesson and teach it again. You need to think about how you’re going to get the feedback in there so that they can self-correct.

How do you think [various] learning apps and technologies will shape the role of the teacher?

It used to be that technology was you have a row of computers in the back of the room, and the kid finishes early and you send him off to the computers. Or, the kid’s not learning the way you’re teaching him, so you send him off to the computers, and not very social learning.

But you know, the new technologies have much more of a product, they help students make things. Like an Excel sheet helps you make things; a Word document helps you make things. Some of the games help you create, [like] Minecraft. So I think this is a direction that is a very powerful way to learn… 

If you’re trying to make something that you’re being held to some accountability that other people will see it, and you’re given some guidance, this is a great learning opportunity, if the teacher delivers formal content mixed in. I think the technology that is moving that way is very helpful. You can see teachers using it a lot, and they use it to make their lessons. They go to YouTube and get that video that shows something that there’s no way they can explain.

So augmenting, or perhaps its expanding our reach, as teachers. We’re able to bring in more of the world than we were able to do by just standing in front of a classroom.

I think that’s right. So, again, it goes back to this problem that it’s a tough marketplace to figure out what you want. Brigid Barron did an interesting study with her students where they gave immigrant families, there are ten of them in a room, living, and they gave them iPads. Nobody used them, they didn’t go anywhere. Then they realized, we need to pre-load the iPads with good stuff, and then suddenly everybody used them. The hardware is not enough. You need to have the content in there that’s good and teaching.

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About the author

Lauren Faggella
A storyteller and former educator, Lauren Faggella is dedicated to turning the Summit Learning community's stories and ideas into great content that informs and inspires a range of audiences. Prior to joining Summit Public Schools, Lauren was a professional freelance writer and third-grade teacher in Rhode Island. She earned her MEd from the University of Rhode Island and BA in English from Elon University.