Thursday, September 8, 2016

On Stepping Back and Watching

For a lot of my teaching career, I have been told that I must be doing something with the students. That maximizing time with me is what will make the difference for students. A buzzword that some principals and other leaders like to use is "direct acts of teaching." Our days are structured by how many groups we can see, as if this makes all the difference in the world.

But I'm here to ask if perhaps we've got it backwards. I'm not saying just let children be all by themselves the whole day - that has the potential for disaster (though I am somewhat interested as to what would happen if that were the case). I'm talking about pulling back and letting students have a go; letting them have a chance to make their own meaning and work through problems their own way.

A big focus of my teaching the last couple of years has been using the problem solving approach in mathematics. In it, I give my students some problems. We discuss what they might mean beforehand, then I let them have a go. Often I just step back and go help the other learners in the class and let them struggle. I've even gone so far as to ban children from asking me questions during their work time. I will drop in and out of each group, asking them to explain what they're doing (and sometimes even doing those - unplanned - direct acts of teaching, if necessary).

The struggle itself is what helps learners learn and grow. I could tell them what they need to know, but a) I doubt very much they're all listening, b) they all need to know different things, even learners who have achieved to a similar degree, and c) learners can and want to learn anything, so who am I to dictate what they should be learning by completing any given activity. There's even evidence that this gives bigger gains in the long run.

More recently (probably in the last few months), I've started doing this more, in other areas. Passion projects are a great way to do this. I've also stepped back in writing and have allowed my students to complete a writing project of their choice - which can range from writing a book to making a stop motion video. Everything we do, I want my learners to grapple with the ideas themselves, experience failure, and then move forward. We are risking the creation a generation of students who merely want to please someone else by spoon feeding them what they need to know.

In writing, I have also begun getting students to evaluate their own work. It was very successful this week. I had taught a quick mini-lesson on improving our vocabulary in our writing and the students went off and wrote on their own. Afterwards, I had them work with each other to identify the interesting words they had used. I watched the whole thing, but the conversations and debates they had ("Is Palmerston North an interesting word?") were much more valuable than me telling them or giving them a worksheet. I even joked during this time to them: "I'm not doing anything". But one student said to me: "Yes you are." They get it. They know it helps them.

There are definitely some interesting perspectives on this. Oftentimes, as teachers we need to feel like we are doing something, as explained in this article. However, I think we need to realize that we can be extremely effective by putting learners into positions where they will struggle and be able to figure it out for themselves.

I also came across this story a while back about WALTS (learning outcomes, objectives, etc for those not down with the lingo) and how they limit learning. Letting students learn their own way means that we shouldn't be dictating the learning outcomes. We can give them a task, but what they learn can be different from one student to the next. Just some more food for thought.

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