I think all of us get caught in a whirlwind of minutia as the year progresses. We have many students. They have multiple needs. We try to differentiate. We have activities and lessons to plan. We have materials to gather. We have assessments to create. We have assessments to evaluate. Feedback to give. Meetings. Phone calls to make. Events to attend. Family we love that deserve our attention. Homes to maintain.
Whew! I’m tired thinking about it. As the saying goes, sometimes “we can’t see the forest for the trees.” By the end of the year we are so busy trying to survive that it is difficult to reflect on why we are doing what we are doing, much less change anything in our classrooms. Summer break gives us valuable time to do that reflection. I have been out of school for almost a week now and I have had an epiphany of sorts – we worry too much about the wrong things. We worry and stress too much about what to teach. We believe that if we deliver our content in just the right way the clouds will part and angels will sing and knowledge and understanding will be bestowed upon our children. Yeah – riiiiight.
Upon reflection, I think what we teach is among the least important of the variables that we juggle as an educator. I know that sounds insulting; it’s hard for me to say, so give me time to explain myself before you send me hate mail.
I started by thinking; what has to happen in my classroom for true learning to occur? Forget about Common Core, your district curriculum, and your precious content. Regardless of your grade level or content area, what has to happen for learning to occur? I have settled on three fundamental “pillars” for lack of a better word.
There are three major areas of concern in our classrooms:
1) Student behavior.
2) Student thinking.
3) Content delivery.
Of those three pillars upon which learning occurs, which ones have the student at the center versus the teacher at the center? It is my hypothesis that student thinking and student behavior must be addressed before our content delivery matters.
We all want students to “be nice” and act “act right.” If they don’t we give them consequences. Simple isn’t it? Or is it? Who decides what it means to “act right?” What does it mean to “act right?” Is it the same standard for all teachers? I think we must take a step back and think about behavior in the context of norms – both social and cultural.
Norms are group-held beliefs about how group members should act in a given situation. They are incredibly important in our classrooms. Our classrooms are an estuary where students that represent a diversity of beliefs are mixed together. There are differences in socio-economic norms. Anyone that has read the work of Ruby Payne is aware of the different ways people from different socio-economic backgrounds act and think.
I believe we sometimes forget that behaviors and beliefs are connected. People act a certain way because they think a certain way. Conversely, if we can change the way someone acts we can influence the way they think.
There are many social norms present in our schools. As much as we try to discourage labels, there is a reason they persist; they represent different norms. We have jocks, band kids, cheerleaders, preps, Goths, gang bangers, nerds, country kids, … you add to the list. Good or bad, fair or unfair, we must at least admit these stereotypes exits for a reason – there are identifiable behaviors that are often exhibited by members of each group.
There are also cultural norms at play in our classrooms. We often have students from diverse ethnic or cultural groups. We must acknowledge that education – or school – is often viewed differently by different ethnic groups. Sometimes there are particular differences in the expectations held between boys and girls depending on culture and ethnicity.
If you seriously consider all these influences, “sit down and be quiet” doesn’t quite cut it. We have to establish the norms and expectations for our classrooms. We also have to understand that achieving those norms is a process that takes time. We have to craft our language and actions carefully as we respond and react to students who act outside of our acceptable norms.
Probably the most important point is that we have to separate how we deal with behavior and academics in our classrooms. Yes, I know they are related – but they are not the same. When a student fails to complete homework, that’s a behavioral issue that’s norm influenced. Students who don’t study, don’t care, aren’t organized, messy,… these are all issues that are normative. It is my belief that we should work on the norms and try to change the behaviors. When students change their norms; when we “get their mind right”, then we have an opportunity to get the academics addressed that were not being taken care of. I think the following quote is entirely about norms.
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
All students think in our classrooms, right? Bwaahhhaaahhhaaa – as Larry the Cable Guy says, “That’s funny right there, I don’t care who ya are.” Yes, our students think, but not necessarily the way we want or about what we want them to think about. We need to take a close look at the schema of our students.
Schema is our mental structure that we use to organize current knowledge as well as the framework we use for future understanding. Our schema is separate from, although influenced by our norms. Have you ever secretly wondered, “How could that child sit in my room – and breathe the same air as everyone else – and NOT KNOW that” (whatever that happens to be). If so, then you have experienced the influence that a student’s schema has on the way they learn and retain content.
We have to remember that just because a student hears what we say, that doesn’t mean that they understood it or that they will retain it – much less be able to apply it. Schema and student thinking is the home of comprehension strategies, reflection, and formative assessments. We must acknowledge that students come to us with a mental model of how the world works. We also have to understand that those models are often flawed – students have misconceptions. It is our job to discover, or have them discover, what their models and misconceptions are and then help them to change the model.
To me, this is where the magic of teaching happens. We provide situations that require students to take in new information that may conflict with their current view of the world, and work through the confusion of assimilating the new information. They have to develop a new schema that allows them to see the world in a new way. This process does not always happen automatically and should not be left to chance. We have to be professionals and guide students through this process. This is true differentiated instruction; instruction that varies according to content, process, or product as needed to help students construct new understanding.
This is also an area in education where classrooms can become derailed and train wrecks happen. I often think of homework discussions. At some point in the past a very successful teacher designed and a tool specifically designed to help a student or group of students comprehend and process some concept or idea. It was highly successful because it was created in response to an evaluation of student needs. This tool may have been a KWL chart, an anticipation guide, a guided reading, etc.
No – wait, those are evil worksheets aren’t they? Well…, it depends…
They are tools when they are used intentionally and surgically to target a specific need. When they are crafted by the teacher to take a student from a schema that is unsuccessful to one that is successful, then they are great. Unfortunately that is often not the case.
Here is what I think happens: A great teacher creates a document/strategy or a situation that is specifically designed and targeted for a specific purpose. The students learn. An administrator or other teacher notices the success and copies the lesson or practice. This probably also works because the lesson is repeated in the same school containing similar students (with similar norms and schema). The lesson is so good someone (like Pearson or CSCOPE) takes the lesson and tries to scale it – so that everyone can benefit from it. And then the wheels come off…
Some teacher in XYZ district has the students read chapter 3, section 2. They also assign the aforementioned KWL, anticipation guide, or guided reading. Why? Because it’s the worksheet that goes with chapter 3, section 2. There is no reason behind the assignment; no cognitive goal or need determined by a professional educator in the classroom. When this happens then that useful document or tool just became a bludgeon that harms students and makes them hate school.
Just like atomic power, guns, and narcotics – how you use them makes all the difference. The manner in which some strategies are used and for what purpose determines if they benefit students or inflict harm.
I use many formative assessments and comprehension strategies with my students. I hope I use them appropriately. My goal for this next year is to have students do much more reflective writing. I want to develop a routine of regular reflection and teach students how to intentionally consider what they understand and how they are learning.
We must also remember that altering student schema is a process. It’s a lot like losing weight or getting in shape; it’s less important where you start than it is where you finish. I believe we need to consider this when we think about our grading practices. If we go on a diet and lose 100 pounds do we tell folks we lost an average of 50 pounds ((100+0))/2)? If we are a runner and we begin the summer running 15 minute miles and end running 9 minute miles, do we tell everyone that we average 12 minute miles? Of course we don’t – we celebrate the 100 pound loss and attaining a 9 minute mile. So why are our grades averages?
I think this often heard quote is entirely about schema:
“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you always got.”
Content. What we teach. Yes, it is important. Vertical alignment, scope and sequence, the depth and complexity of our content – it IS important. I teach science; I’m a nerd – I admit it. I love the physics that I teach. I get all excited about my content – my students laugh and say I’m easily entertained. I also understand that my content is not exciting for everyone. People can still live successful lives if they don’t remember kinematics. (I can’t believe I just said that – ouch!)
What I have come to realize is that our content – what we teach – is just the medium in which we work with our students. I said earlier that our classrooms were estuaries, places where a diverse group of learners converge. If our classrooms are estuaries, our content is the river that they move in. The life lessons I teach are how to learn; how to assimilate new information and alter schema. The important gifts to my students are helping them adjust their norms so that they are productive, accepted, and successful members of society. If they learn those lessons while we explore Newton’s Laws or investigate how electricity moves through a circuit then woo hoo! – it’s a win!
I firmly believe that I need to build a relationship with my students. I need to teach them new norms without demonizing their old one. I need to learn how my students think. I need to guide them in new ways of learning and thinking. When I do those things – then my students will learn physics. They may even enjoy it. They might develop a love of learning.
Earlier I made the remark that we worry about the wrong things. Here is what I really mean: We don’t need perfect lessons to be successful as educators. Lessons that are good enough – are good enough. When we make a connection with our kids and design activities and experiences that differentiate to meet their needs then production quality does not have to be exemplary. It’s a little like being a parent; you don’t have to be perfect to be a great parent; you just have to be good enough.
I believe this is why flipped instruction has such potential for success. In the traditional model of instruction the teacher would lecture and deliver content. The students sat in their desks and copied notes. Students received their homework and then had to work on it outside of class. This is a problem because while students are sitting in desks copying, it is difficult to build relationships and influence their norms. All you can do is punish behaviors that are not aligned with your class norms. Students figure it out – or not – on their own.
Students then have to deal with the homework on their own. The assignment that is supposed to help them assimilate the new information has to be completed with no assistance from the teacher – no wonder kids don’t do it or cheat. In a traditional model of instruction the acquisition of content information – the easiest part - is done in class. The hard part – reconciling conflicting mental models and developing new skills – must be done in isolation.
In the flipped model students watch archived videos (or use other material) to acquire information. They then struggle and grapple with this information in class where you – the expert – can guide them. Since the teacher doesn’t have to spend all their time delivering content, they can build relationships and influence those norms and behaviors students have that need modifying. In this paradigm the video lesson doesn’t have to be great; it just needs to be good enough. A screencast made by the teacher can be as effective as an expensive video produced by a large education company. The magic isn’t in the content; it’s in what the teacher does with it.
I believe when we lay a good foundation and build relationships with kids, then differentiate according to their needs – learning will occur. The content sort of just works out. Have you ever seen someone try to duplicate someone else’s lesson and have an epic fail? I have seen it (and done it). The problem isn’t the lesson – it’s the foundation – the relationships that are missing.
Do we stop building relationships as students get older? Maybe because they are sometimes harder to love?
“Elementary teachers love their children. High school teachers love their content.”
If there is any grand conclusion to be made from this post it might be to remind us to focus more on our students than our content. I really like this quote from The Social Animal by David Brooks:
“The only point of being a teacher is to do more than impart facts; it’s to shape the way students perceive the world, to help a student absorb the rules of a discipline. The teachers who do that get remembered.”
We read over and over that our goal is to inspire our students to become lifelong learners. “Lifelong Learner” is a label – just like jock or nerd. It suggests a norm, a pattern of behavior and habits. Therefore I believe our highest priority is to wage norm warfare; to struggle to change the habits, behavior, and thinking of our students. We need an arena in which to wage this war, and that’s our content. Standardized, high stakes testing has the potential to make get our priorities mixed up.
I often think about my high school experience from (ahem) 30+ years ago. We didn’t have high stakes testing. Somehow I managed to graduate from a small rural 2A school and be successful at a large D1 university. I must have learned something in high school. Could it be that my teachers focused on my thinking and my behavior first? They taught me how to think and learn first? I can tell you my high school science teacher was and still is one of the most beloved members of my community. Could it be I learned to love science because he taught me to love learning?
I invite anyone that has stayed with me through these 2800 words to leave a comment. This post is a personal reflection and therefore has no purpose other than to help me process my own thinking. If it makes you think as well, then we both win.