Sunday, February 16, 2014

Why I Made the Switch

A few of the other teachers in my building have begun to implement some discussion-based teaching in their classrooms a couple days each week.  During a conversation this week, one of these other teachers made the observation that teaching this way is exhausting.  This came as no surprise to me, but it often comes as a surprise to many to whom I try to explain the way things are run in my classroom.  My assumption is that they imagine me just sort of sitting around watching the kids work.  Or worse, that I sit at my desk while the kids flounder, and every once in a while I descend from the heights to make sure the kids are still working.  Of course, the reality is that if you're running a discussion-based classroom "correctly", you're constantly walking around the room, constantly listening to the conversations, constantly assessing how well the kids are understanding the material, and so on.  The walking is not necessarily physically exhausting, but it's certainly more physical activity than I experienced when I used to lecture.  The real exhaustion, though, comes from how mentally taxing running a discussion-based classroom is. When lecturing, I could prepare the "script" for the day pretty well, especially after teaching a course for a few years and gaining both a solid knowledge of the material and the ability to second-guess the common questions that would come from the students.  Realistically, I wasn't doing a whole lot of daily assessment, and certainly wasn't doing the kind of constant analysis of the students' understanding I'm currently doing.  So, in this regard, running a discussion-based classroom is definitely more exhausting.

Interestingly, during a phone interview this week one of the questions I was asked was, "Do you find this way of teaching to be more difficult?"  My first reaction was that the interviewer clearly understood what actually happens in my classroom, because this is the first time I have been asked if teaching this way was more difficult.  I don't know if I would qualify running a  discussion-based classroom as being more difficult, though, since preparing a lecture can be fairly labor-intensive.  Although, after teaching a class for a few years, the preparation portion of a lecture-driven class can get easier.  Similarly, the preparation portion of a discovery-based class is fairly labor intensive; however, in my own experience, this year has been easier than last year in terms of preparation, and I can directly attribute that to the fact that we have the year of experience behind us.

All of this then begs the question: Why?  Why make the switch from a lecture-based classroom where I was comfortable?  What reasons could I give someone to include at least some discussion-based activities in their classroom?  Ultimately, I don't think it comes down to how the material is delivered to the students.  As I have said previously, I firmly believe that I cannot make sense of the material for any of my students, and that ultimately they need to make sense of the material for themselves.  In this, I firmly believe that discovery-based exercises followed by discussion is the best way to make this happen.  But to try to "sell" this to someone who is not including any discovery or discussion in their classroom can be difficult if not impossible.  Instead, I believe the more important distinction lies in the depth and the amount of the assessment I am able to do.  The big advantage from my perspective is that I get a much better feel for how well my kids have understood the material on a day-to-day basis.  The one thing I never realized was missing from  my classroom in the past was the day-to-day pulse of the learning that was happening (or not happening) in my classroom.  In particular, I never really knew how well the kids had caught what I had thrown to them until the next day when we went over the homework.  And even then, I really only knew that a few specific kids had trouble with a few specific exercises.  I didn't get the depth of understanding about where the kids were having trouble, where specifically they were making their mistakes, where precicely the holes in their understanding were...not even close.

The other question that commonly comes up is whether or not I think someone could include some discussion-based activities "tomorrow".  Honestly, I would say yes.  Even someone who uses a lecture-based format for delivery of the material could break the lecture up into smaller pieces and have the kids do an exercise or two in groups based on the short lecture.  The exercises could be discussed, with someone putting the proposed solution on the board while the teacher circulates among the students to assess whether or not they understood the new material.  The only additional preparation necessary would be having a few practice exercises on hand for the students to try.  And even in this it may not be any extra prep, since the teacher could simply take a few of the examples they had planned to do during their lecture and let the kids try them instead.  Would this be easier? Nope, it would be exhausting, since there would be a sharp increase in the amount of analysis of student work being done.  But sitting on the other side of this fence, the information gathered from this analysis would be more than worth it.

Thinking through all of this during the week, I came to the following conclusion: the goal of education is not for me to explain the material to the students.  The goal of education is for the students to correctly explain the material to me and to understand what it is they're explaining.  Running a discovery and discussion based classroom allows me to see, day-by-day, how well this goal is being met in my classroom, and this, more than anything else, is why I made the switch.

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