“I never teach my pupils, I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”
Every teacher wants his/her students to be successful. In nearly thirty years of teaching and mentoring, I have yet to encounter a teacher who wants his/her students to fail. I believe it is the principal reason we all became teachers in the first place. We know the joy of learning and want others to experience the same excitement and pleasure we feel as we learn. Learning occurs best in a positive, supportive environment. The definition of that setting has changed radically over the last 20 years.
When I began my career, we were taught the basics of lesson planning, classroom management, and assessment. Our pedagogy instructors concentrated on teaching us to create interesting and informative lectures combined with assigned textbook readings, and summative assessments that tested retention of the material presented. Basically, we were taught to disseminate information and then test to find out how much our students had retained. For its time, the late ’60s and early ’70s, this worked pretty well. High school diplomas and Bachelor’s degrees indicated that the holder possessed a standard level of knowledge and competency. Extensive research was reserved for those who would go on to graduate school. Then, along came Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and the creators of the Internet, and everything changed….. except for classroom practices.
Students today enter our classrooms with the capability of finding information instantaneously. Using phones, tablets and/or laptops, they can access not only basic information, but also critiques, reviews, extensive research and opposing ideas concerning just about any topic. In addition, today’s employers want employees who can work effectively in the 21st century workplace. Thinking critically, working collaboratively, synthesizing large amounts of information into understandable conclusions, and communicating those decisions effectively are the skills necessary in be successful today and tomorrow. Our job as teachers necessitates that we create the classroom conditions and the instructional pedagogy that teaches and supports those 21st century skills.
Let’s clear the air about classroom instruction. Textbooks are on the way out. They are either too generic, too biased, or too outdated to be of much use. Students don’t read them, preferring to find out the “facts” from sources on the Internet. Knowing “2 times 2 equals 4” is less important than understanding how many different ways we can get “4.” Memorizing the Table of Elements is less important than understanding atomic theory and how it affects matter and energy. It is the substance of learning – how, why, to what affect, and in what way – that our students need to understand, and that our classrooms need to foster. So, what can we do? Here are two very important elements for your success and that of your students:
1. Create a classroom environment that allows for extensive risk taking.
2. Maintain the highest levels of expectation for every student
Regarding risk taking, make sure from the first day of class that you create an accepting and open atmosphere that treats mistakes as steps to learning.This does not mean that every answer is correct, or even acceptable. It does mean that every answer should be supported with evidence. “I believe the answer is _____, BECAUSE ______” works for Kindergarteners as well as college seniors. This approach allows for the greatest risk-taking. If the answer misses the mark, it is the process of coming to the conclusion that is in error, not the student. As the teacher, you can point out the missing link in the cause and effect, and allow the student to revisit the question, the evidence and the answer. This works for science, math and Social Studies equally well. It works in PE and Choir and chemistry and English composition. But, it only works if you establish the openness in your classroom that allows for mistakes. You must establish an atmosphere of support for students’ ideas, efforts and conclusions. Point out the steps in the process that resulted in a “wrong answer” rather than pointing out that the student was wrong. You are not rewarding incorrect answers as the student still needs to return to the process until the expected result is achieved.
Regarding high levels of expectation, the literature concerning expectations and achievement convincingly demonstrates that students rise to meet the levels of expectation that are established and consistently applied. This means that the burden is on you, the teacher, not only to establish and maintain the expectations, but also to demonstrate how those expectations can be achieved. Base your instruction on evidence supported conclusions. Show students how to assemble arguments and communicate ideas. Ask them for opinions and conclusions drawn from materials they have just read or studied. Will every student perform at the same level? The answer to that question is “no.” If they did, we wouldn’t need teachers, would we? You are the professional. You have been trained to identify the skills and the needs of each student. Use what you know to set the bar high for each student based on his/her potential. You already “differentiate,” make sure that your adjustments are maintaining your expectations, not diluting them. At the end of the year, look back on your instruction and know that you maximized the potential of every individual in your classroom. Nothing beats that…. nothing.