Monthly Archives: November 2011
I know a secret teaching technique, which I can share with you.
With this technique, I can get any students to pass any standardized test in any subject. Not only will they pass, they will do exceptionally well. I guarantee a 95% or better. I can use this technique even in subjects that I don’t understand very well.
The technique is very simple. It requires only a few components. It does require a lot of time on the part of the students, but we won’t need a classroom or any special materials.
All I require is a few copies of the test, a copy of the answer key, twenty days, and a stack of flash cards.
At this point you have probably guessed the technique, but wait – I can do more.
I can also harm these students’ understanding of a complex subject. I can wreck not only their comprehension of fundamental concepts, but their long-term recall, their motivation, and their very understanding of what it means to “do” that subject. I can ruin their ability to do well in that subject so badly that others will spend years trying to undo the effects if the students don’t just give up first.
I can do this very thoroughly.
And I can do it in twenty days.
The same twenty days. Without changing my approach at all. It’s like a two-for-one sale.
Having run and assisted teacher training in a variety of situations, I can safely say: teachers make the worst students.
Oh, we may look innocuous and attentive, but we’ve learned from the worst. We pick up habits from every bad student we’ve ever had. The next thing you know we’re passing notes – “Do you like me? Circle one.” Or talking during class, or grumbling about what we’re asked to do, or working on something else when we should be learning. We decide that whatever’s going on isn’t worth our time, and that our side conversations are more important. Oh, let me check this text message, it’ll only take a second.
Don’t even get me started on role-playing exercises in a teacher training session. Talk about a minefield. Left to their own imagination, everyone brings in the worst attitudes from the snottiest kids from every class they’ve ever taught. Three jerks can ruin a class; imagine when everyone in the room is channeling twelve years of dissatisfied students. If you train teachers, and your intent is to run a class on classroom management, this is simultaneously your gold mine and your Hindenburgh – a gold-plated, explosive gasbag, if you will. Student attitudes begin to bleed over into teacher attitudes, and feelings get hurt as someone embarrassedly slinks back over the line of decorum. If your intent is anything but dealing with attitudes, you’ll need to set some explicit guidelines before you start.
Why are we like this?
After all, we’re adults – we get to be the “deciders” now. Why do we end up making such poor decisions? What makes us think that the things we’re doing are more important?
Who did we learn that from?
Who did they learn it from?
Imagine someone with a deep southern drawl, or a strong Boston accent, the sort of thing you have to grow up with. If you move away, as people point out (i.e. make fun of) your accent you will likely start to pick up a “General American” or “Midland” accent; what most of us think of as “no accent.” The more time you spend away from home, and the more schooling you have, the more likely you are to drift away from your original manner of speech. Spend a weekend at home with your family, however, and you’ll be pahking the cah in Hahvahd Yahd in no time (which, as many Bostonians will tell you, is a good way to get towed). It’s not just a mannerism, it’s a deeply ingrained pattern of speech. You talked that way when you were a kid, your parents talked that way, all your friends talked that way, and it just comes back naturally.
Teaching is similar. All teachers have gone through a substantial amount of schooling, and most of our schooling was by lecture. Unless we spent time in the most progressive of schools and avant garde of colleges, we ended up spending a lot of time with teachers talking at us en masse, and us taking notes or working problems. Lecture is how our teachers were taught themselves, and they’ve passed it on to us.
And because of that, it’s comfortable. To someone who has been lectured to for a dozen years and more, lecturing feels like teaching. Active engagement, directed discussion, contract evaluations, even laboratory setup, all those things take work and can feel strange. Lecturing (especially if you’re very good at it or very bad at it) is practically effortless compared to constantly watching ourselves and correcting our actions and words to fit into a new pattern. It’s not really that the methods themselves are that much more difficult for us; it’s the change. Changing to adopt a new mindset takes years of work.
Some of that inertia we have to overcome when we want to change education? Some of that is inside of us.
This is what makes a “community of practice” so vital. If you want to shed your old accent, you can’t do it while living at home and talking to your relatives. You can do it by moving out of the house and socializing with new groups of people. At times it will be uncomfortable and difficult. Teaching is the same way – you can’t give up an old mentality by surrounding yourself with people who still think and work that way. You know you want change, but the old ways are just so comfortable. We need people to kick us in the pants and remind us to put down the PowerPoint and start giving students time to really respond to our questions.
Think of it as grass-roots change. I would propose that it’s easier, even faster, to get most of the teachers in a school system on board than it is to attempt to change the system directly. Teachers don’t have to want to teach things your way, they just have to want some room for innovation, the chance to stretch their wings and be creative. Our practice is not about carving words in stone; our practice is giving people the tools to be intelligent. Each of us has something to add when it comes to that. Creating pockets of modern teachers, these communities of practice, is something we all need to spend time working toward, for our own benefit as well as for the students.
For those hoping to make a mark on future generations of teachers, I’ll leave you with a quote: “In every book of history, it is written how it’s done: if you want to change the world, you need only change the young.” If you teach with innovation and creativity, your childrens’ teachers will teach with creativity, and that’s a good thing.