With the classes running relatively smoothly this year, and with the course exercises in need of far less revision than they were last year, I have had a bit more time to try to “spread the word” about running a discussion-based classroom to the other teachers in my building. As you can imagine, there has been a great deal of variation in the reactions and responses.
Some teachers are very interested, seeing the discussion-based classroom as a method that fits well with an emphasis on problem solving. While interested in trying it out, there is a hesitation that seems to be based on one recurring difficulty: “We were never shown how to teach this way.” And I completely agree with them. For all of the talk about problem-based learning, project-based learning, and other such ideas that are really just repackaged and expanded versions of ideas that have been floating around for a couple decades, there have not been substantive changes made in the way teachers are being prepared for the classroom. Admittedly, I have not been in a “college of education” classroom in a while, but there are currently several student teachers in our building and the first round of observations has begun. Based on the way they are being evaluated, it’s easy to conclude that things haven’t changed. The things for which the observers are looking make it evident that there is an assumption the teacher is at the front of the room leading the class the vast majority of the time, and if that’s what the evaluation form is looking for, then it only makes sense that the training the student teachers are receiving puts them at the front of the classroom the vast majority of the time as well. While I would hope that an ambitious student teacher would be rewarded for doing the kinds of cooperative learning and discussion-based activities researchers are telling us are best, someone going strictly by the forms could easily count any and all of that against the student teacher.
That being said, “we were never shown how to teach this way” shouldn’t stop us from doing what is best for the kids. Changing my classroom over to a Harkness classroom has taken a lot of time, effort, and energy, most of it very much behind the scenes. The classroom management portion of running a discussion-based classroom for 30 students was not something I found in a book or article, but instead relied on me figuring it out. This isn’t a matter of bragging...it’s simply a matter of fact. My point is that if we truly believe that running a discussion-based classroom the best way to teach the kids, then we who are currently in the field should be willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen. To their credit, those who are interested in doing so in my school are actively seeking out the information, and the administrators in my district have been and continue to be incredibly supportive. It is truly a blessing to be able to call these wonderful people my colleagues. In addition to this, we should expect the schools of education to be showing those who are about to enter the field how to actually implement the best practices touted by the research.
Put simply, the time for the chasm that has existed for decades in education between theory and practice to disappear is long overdue. But those of us who are willing to do the hard work and make the necessary changes in the classroom, both in the schools and in the colleges of education, are few and far between. And the same is true of administrators at both levels as well.
This, in my opinion, is one of the fundamental problems with our education system as it currently exists.