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Teaching that Matters: Engaging Minds, Improving Schools

reviewed by Laura Vernikoff & Erica Colmenares - July 16, 2015

coverTitle: Teaching that Matters: Engaging Minds, Improving Schools
Author(s): Frank Thoms
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 1475814135, Pages: 160, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

Frank Thoms' Teaching that Matters argues that teachers and administrators must change and adapt their teaching to meet the needs of 21st century learners. Thoms claims that new technology, particularly computers, smart phones, and tablets, have radically changed today’s students and must be used to re-imagine teaching for the 21st century. Thoms draws from brain research, non-Western philosophies, and educational history to re-imagine classroom and school practice. This book, intended primarily for teachers and administrators, offers concrete, specific examples of alternatives to the traditional work of teachers.

The book is divided into five sections: Re-Imagine Teaching, Seek New Perspectives, See Things as They Are, Write Letters, and Build Trust and Respect. Every section is divided into short, engaging chapters filled with advice and detailed anecdotes, set in schools and classrooms, illustrating said advice. Each chapter within the sections follows a similar pattern: it begins with a short, italicized statement of a theme or strategy, followed by a vignette, where the reader can see the theme in action.

Chapters end with “Points to Pursue,” including four to six concrete strategies for teachers to try in their own classrooms, and notes on where to find more resources, such as books or websites. Finally, Thoms ends each chapter by inviting readers to log on to the book’s blog, to further join the conversation, adding a multi-modal element, aligning with his argument that technological innovations require new ways of engaging with the world.

This book is appealing, filled with relatable anecdotes about teachers and students, but it lacks a coherent vision of why teachers should teach differently or how his recommendations will promote that vision. In addition, Thoms frequently fails to offer a critique of status quo teaching examples beyond that they are traditional ways of teaching material. Instead, he seems to assume that new and different is always better. His lack of a stated goal is particularly problematic when his advice contradicts itself at times. For example, Thoms argues that some new technology, such as word processing or iPads, can revolutionize the teaching of writing. Later he claims that new technology can be used without purpose “as a substitute for thinking” (p. 116). He does not, however, offer advice on how to use technology wisely in general. Education is complex enough that strategies that work some of the time may not work at other times, but Thoms fails to address why that may be the case with the practices he suggests.

Although he never names or describes it, Thoms implies that there is a single correct way to teach. As an example, he states that “the chapters offer a smorgasbord of best practices” (p. xxiv). This notion of “best practices”—a key concept that the book hinges upon--is problematic. When our nation’s schools are so varied, with such vastly different resources, populations, and contexts—ranging from rural to inner city to private schools that educate only the elite few—is there really such a thing as best practices? Again, some of the traditional teaching methods that Thoms describes may wind up working as well or better in some contexts, with some students, than the new ways that he re-imagines teaching.

Unfortunately, Thoms does not fully consider the differing contexts, in which teaching occurs, or the varied ways that diverse students learn. For example, Thoms’ recommendation to use computers, iPads, and other expensive new forms of technology to teach writing, in a way that is “natural for students” (p. 84) assumes that all schools have the ability to purchase these resources, and that all students have access to the latest technology. Students who do not have computers and iPads at home may find writing with pen and paper more “natural,” although those students may certainly benefit from learning how to use new technology at school if their school has access to that technology and skilled teachers who know how to use it.

Thoms’ view of education also reflects a White, Eurocentric vision of schools and classrooms. His references to other cultures seem superficial, and frequently serve to exoticize non-Western cultures. Many of his descriptions of how other cultures think are mediated through other (frequently male) Westerners (and frequently also male) writers. For example, a de-contextualized teacher named “Mark Norris” re-writes his social studies curriculum, linking his lessons “to the wisdom of Confucius, Lao Tzu, and Buddha that he loved to teach in his Chinese history course” (p. 97). Thoms does not seem concerned about how Mark Norris has learned about this wisdom or how it is being conveyed to students. In particular, Mark Norris links his understanding of Chinese history and philosophy to the teachings of Carl Sagan.

This link has the potential to be reductive and even misleading. However, Thoms seems to assume that including a non-Western perspective is an easy thing for anyone to do. Furthermore, Thoms does not take into account the wider, national educational landscape—an environment that is deeply enmeshed within an audit culture (Taubman, 2009). Where teachers and administrators have little agency, and where changes are frequently dictated by directives from policy makers or entrepreneurs (Zeichner & Peña Sandoval, 2015). Within this context, how can teachers and administrators possibly re-imagine teaching? For example, Thoms’ suggestion that teachers need to “let go of the fear of being watched” (p. 13) seems easier said than done. In districts with high-stakes evaluation contexts, Thoms’s suggestion appears naive and detached from reality.

The book’s lack of consideration for the wider context notwithstanding, a particular strength of the book is that it has the potential to appeal to a broad audience. It gives readers tremendous flexibility, introducing them to the basics of innovative research, while also providing readers eager to delve deeper with the necessary resources to do so. The book does not rely on educational or theoretical jargon to make its points; rather it incorporates clear, specific examples of classroom practice, even including realistic descriptions of potential student resistance to change, and how to deal with that resistance. We imagine that this book could act as a toolkit for teachers and administrators, in need of inspiration or in search of respite from the current accountability context that often shames or berates schools and teachers.


Taubman, P. M. (2009). Teaching by numbers: Deconstructing the discourse of standards and

accountability in education. New York: Routledge.

Zeichner, K., & Peña Sandoval, C. (2015). Venture philanthropy and teacher education

policy in the US: The role of the New Schools Venture Fund. Teachers College Record 117(5), 1–44.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 16, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18030, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 4:30:28 AM

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About the Author
  • Laura Vernikoff
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    LAURA VERNIKOFF is a doctoral student in Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. A former high school special education teacher, her research focuses on the school experiences of young people who have received special education services and been arrested. Ms. Vernikoff has presented at national conferences in the areas of culturally relevant education, teaching for social justice, and teacher use of data.
  • Erica Colmenares
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    E-mail Author
    ERICA COLMENARES is a doctoral student in the Curriculum and Teaching department at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is interested in international education, preservice teacher education, and learning to teach for social justice. Her current research involves looking at the circulating affects in a university-based, social justice-oriented teacher education program. She is a former elementary classroom teacher and is currently an instructor and field supervisor at Teachers’ College Elementary Inclusive Preservice program. Ms. Colmenares co-authored a piece that was published in a recent special issue of Education Policy Analysis Archives titled, Making All Children Count: Teach For All and the Universalizing Appeal of Data.
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