Are You a Thought-Provider or a Thought-Provoker?

I have the upmost respect for catechism/CCD teachers. They volunteer their time to teach students after the kids have experienced a whole day of school already. I had the opportunity to be a fly on the wall of one class recently. I was working on work in the church lobby while my son was with his class, when a group of 8th graders herded into the same area as me. My presence was not noticed. The posturing, the flirting, determining the pecking order…such an awkward and social age. The CCD teacher joined them a moment later. She stepped to the front and got started, showcasing her built-in filter to ignore the hormone-induced behaviors and focus on why she was there.

What happened next really caught my attention. Amid all the chatter, the teacher informed the students to get ready to say the Lord’s Prayer. She listed several intentions for the students to consider before they got started, such as for an ill relative or a friend in need. Once the prayer started (“Our father, which art in heaven…”), every teenager spoke in concert. No one was out of sync. This ritual, augmented by the stated and important reasons for their practice, seemed to make all the difference. Unfortunately, once the prayer was done, the chatter commenced. Getting every student to turn to the same page in the workbook was much more of a challenge.

Do we notice this in our daily instruction? When we ask our students to read the chapter and answer the questions on page 70, what is the typical reaction? What would be your reaction if you were the student? Learning intentions do not mean just posting the target on the board. It is more important that the students are a part of the instruction and see meaning in their work. What if, instead of going to page 70, the students were given a question that had more than one answer, that delved into the grey area of a moral issue that learners, especially teenagers, are developmentally equipped and highly motivated by to handle? Maybe after some modeling, students could start future lessons with a provocative question of their own. Their own questions would probably elicit better answers and deeper understanding than anything we or a textbook could provide.

This line of thinking leads to a very important question that we should ask ourselves as we prepare learning for students: Why am I doing what I am doing? If the answer is difficult to find, we need to either find a different approach or consider whether the topic is worth our students’ time at all.

Technology seems to be the answer that is given to some of these quandaries. “If I could hand each student a laptop, then they could type their answers on a Google Doc, and peers could provide feedback.” Maybe this will engage our students, at least for a while. But the intent of the learning is still unclear and devoid of meaning. If the student’s work could be done on paper and pencil because what they would produce lacks any benefit for a broader audience, then technology is just a replacement.

Our jobs as educators is to be thought-provokers instead of thought-providers. Students can find the answers to the questions on page 70 by doing some simple searches online. An often-shared concern by some educators is that technology may replace them. Teachers are only at risk of being replaced by technology if they continue to operate using outdated practices. Technology has not solely created this condition; it has simply provided the access to a world of knowledge that was formally sacrosanct. We as educators have needed to change our roles from teachers to learners for some time. Technology has accelerated the process. Some of us weren’t ready.

Our students will make meaning if what we present is meaningful to them. This means taking advantage of strengths that may in the past have been seen as problems. “Talking” and “arguing” are fine examples. Students’ social skills have quickly become just as important as their academics, maybe even more so in some cases. If all learning is social, let’s ritualize these practices. Make social protocols such as Socratic seminars and value line ups a regular part of how we learn. Teaching how to find and make meaning, instead of waiting for understanding to be delivered, will benefit our students in ways that the questions on page 70 will never attain.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District ( Matt also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD ( and Lead Literacy (

8 thoughts on “Are You a Thought-Provider or a Thought-Provoker?”

  1. You raise some really important and timely issues here! Education is changing now in a big, big way and if we can’t redefine the role of teacher, we might be in some trouble!

    I love the reflection here, too. The lesson you gleaned from witnessing that moment of prayer is a powerful one. I’m thankful for your analogy; I’ll remember it often!


  2. When you think of technology as the provider, it ferrets out those teachers who aren’t provokers It helps define our purpose as well. Thank you for providing this lens to view our lessons through.


    1. Thanks for commenting Julieanne. I do want to note that ferreting out teachers isn’t the purpose of this post. My objective was to simply point out two things:

      – Layering technology over outdated practices doesn’t improve instruction.
      – There are times when technology is not necessary, and could even be a distraction to learning.

      I think just about all teachers can move themselves to implement better practices, including me. Technology can help make this happen when it fits. For this to work, I have found teachers need clear intentions from school leaders, lots of feedback, a community of support, and opportunities to celebrate their learning along the way.


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