Friday, January 10, 2014

Working With the Students

Well, we returned to school this week after a break that was extended two days by the polar vortex. I thought I was rested, refreshed, and ready to return to school, but have decided since that I do not like my alarm clock, regardless of how much I really do like my job. In any case, it's good to be back to school and working with the kids.

It occurred to me over the break that one of the real differences between what is being advocated in education these days - specificaly, student-centered classrooms, regardless of how they are structured - and what is going on in far too many classrooms can be found in how the teacher describes what they do for a living. For instance, in the paragraph above I said it was good to be working with the kids. And that's how I would describe what I do: I work with the kids. I talk with the kids, discuss math with the kids, sit at my makeshift Harkness tables with the kids...every day I'm actively working with the kids. And in working with them, I have a feel for how well each individual kid is grasping the material because I've spent time with and spoken with them. Unfortunately, I know a lot of teachers who do not do this. They tell the kids what they need to know, show them how to accomplish a task, or whatever, and then assign homework. And that's how they would describe teaching: give the kids the information and eventually check whether or not the information stuck. They are not actively engaged with the kids, but instead are actively engaged in dispensing information. They teach, but they don't get the kind of daily feedback I do about whether or not the kids are learning.

Another thing that occurred to me is this: I cannot make sense of the material I teach for my students. Even if I were lecturing, the students would need to make sense of the material for themselves. This would happen more easily if I presented the materail in a way that "worked" for them, but even so they need to take was is given and work it through for themselves. And in a classroom of 30 kids, there isn't time to present the material in enough different ways to reach the majority of the students. This is why discussions, small groups, peer teaching, and so on, are so effective. The kids can ask for the material to be presented in a way that works better for them and they quickly learn which of the other students "think like they do" and can work through the material with them. Unfortunately, there are still teachers who seem to think that all, or at least most, of the students think like they do, and therefore a well-prepared lecture is all the students could possibly need to prepare them to successfully accomplish the homework. Even a cursory glance at this statement reveals its absurdity. A few students might think in a way that might come close to the way we do, but by and large their lack of experience with the material prevents them from seeing the material with the kind of clarity we now take for granted. What's worse is that many, if not most, of the students expect the teacher to make sense of the material for them, so that all the student needs to do is return to the teacher what the teacher gave them, regardless of whether or not any actual learning has happened. Granted, we've trained the kids to expect this, and this above all else, in my opinion, is why making the transition from a teacher-centered to a student-centered model can be so difficult.

My conclusions from this: student-centered classrooms, regardless of whether we're takling about flipped classrooms, team-based instruction, or the model from Exeter, are more effective because they encourage, and in many ways require, the kids to make sense of the material for themselves. The teacher's job is to help the students make sense of the material in a variety of ways, to guide them to an understanding of the material that, ultimately, is their own. Anything that interferes with this, whether it's the teacher refusing to ask the students to make sense of the material for themselves, the students refusing to do so, or whatever else may be going on in the life of the student, is, I believe, at the heart of why students are not successful in a particular class. Changing this general attitude toward education is not going to be easy. It has not been easy in my room for my students. But it needs to happen, in the classrooms, in the schools, and in the communities, if we are to have any hope of the students, all of the students, being successful in our classes.

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