Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Creating Balance for Teaching and Learning, Part 2

In Part 1 I felt compelled to do a slight bit of educational archaeology, delving into a bit of exploration of Constructivism and what happened with NCLB and its subsequent iterations.

I started thinking more about how to find this balance between teaching and learning, especially as we're thinking about pandemic-era teaching and learning. I asked a lot of questions about understanding rigor more, contemplating the impact of cognitive load, more effective use of technology, being more mindful about the use of formative assessments, how standards apply and matter, and more.

But I realize I have to back up a bit to get to the root of why thinking about creating balance for teaching and learning matters, at least to me.

In 2009, Robyn Jackson wrote a book titled Never Work Harder Than Your Students (ASCD). I have confessed several times that I've never actually read the book though I've never forgotten the title, obvs. 

Here's the thing: teachers DO work harder than their students. They have prep, they have grading, they have SEL concerns that linger long past the school bell and start well before it, and they have managing all of the "other duties as assigned" for which they volunteer or get voluntold. So let's just get straight that most teachers will work harder than the majority of their students and do so throughout the calendar year and well after dinner time, whenever dinner times happens to be on any given night.

Creating a balance for teaching and learning is NOT trying to balance the ration of how much time and effort teachers exert to how much time and effort students exert.

In my meanderings, I found several articles and posts in which people said what I've often said and that is that we need to focus more on how students learn rather than how we teach. Which makes sense in some ways and is completely preposterous in others.

In 2011 David Truss wrote a post titled "We aren't in the 'teaching business,' rather we are in the 'learning business.'", and which is where I found that nifty teaching/learning scale image. Go ahead and read the post if you like though I don't think you'll find anything new. Part of his argument is that teachers are also learners. True.

Many of us have attended professional development that has been useful and helped shaped our practice. We have also attended PD that has been less helpful and useful. You can describe your experience however you like. My point is that our learning is not always been even, elevating, engaging, and entertaining. Huh.

I have several scattered thoughts here I'll try to gather into a coherent point.
  • I worked with a teacher who was so frustrated with her students when they were reviewing some content because she had just taught it to them the day before.
  • Teachers talk about "covering" content.
  • It's been several years since I first saw the question "Would you want to be a student in your classroom?", but, like the title of Robyn Jackson's book, I can't forget it. 
Which leads me to this:
  1. Teachers learn about strategies and resources to become better teachers.
  2. Teachers want to become better teachers because better teaching will help their students learn.
  3. Students need to acquire information, which may become knowledge and actual learning, because they need to do well on assessments.
  4. Students need to do well on assessments so scores suggest that students are learning.
I think that's the logic; I know that's how my mind has worked anyway. Nothing wrong with that except I've realized and learned that some of us have never really bothered to tell the students. . . or their parents.

Go ahead. Tip your head like a dog listening to a funny sound or hoping that crackling noise will lead to a treat. You're processing.

Here's the big question: ARE STUDENTS ACTUALLY LEARNING?

See, I don't remember being taught how to learn. I learned because of the lessons given to me and because of the assessments and because of the grades I got and whether or not those grades mattered to anyone. (I was an ambivalent student; let's leave it at that.)

It wasn't until I got to college that I realized I had truly badly developed, let's say underdeveloped, study skills. But I also realized I was reading, taking notes, synthesizing, and summarizing to prepare for tests. It wasn't until I was in graduate school that I figured out to apply the learning thing to academics.

Yes, I learned a lot of things before graduate school, especially since I was in my early 30s before I went to graduate school. I'm sure there were plenty of things of actual use I learned during my undergraduate years of college because there were things I'm sure I managed to retain. Please don't try to test that theory.

Back in 2013, my friend Kevin Honeycutt (@KevinHoneycutt) started sharing out #Learn2Learn. Some of that was directed towards teachers, but some of it had to do with his own story, which you should hear from him, especially if you want to be inspired as an educator.

But Kevin also wants to inspire kids to become and be learners. To realize that a lot can happen in the classroom that is important, powerful, engaging, electrifying, relevant, useful, helpful, and so much more. I think all educators want that but too often we get bogged down by expectations and demands beyond our control. Like standardized tests, and that's all I'm going to say about that.

Because to find that balance for teaching and learning, we have to be designing teaching for the purpose of student learning. You're muttering about how obvious that is but hear me out. Yes, most teachers do think they are designing teaching for the purpose of student learning. Teachers are thinking about standards, SLOs, and more. They are trying to design lessons with the end in mind, but exactly what is the end in mind?

A bunch of years ago people got all excited about multiple intelligences, and then excited about learning styles, and then excited about teaching styles and dedicated hundreds of hours of professional development to learning about those things and how to apply them to their teaching. Some teachers had students do surveys of their learning styles. So on and so on. You may have lived through this.

When I think about that question "Would you like to be a student in your own classroom?", what I think about is whether or not I can design lessons--activities, tasks, lectures, and whatever combination of whatever--that provides opportunities for students to want to do more than be compliant.

I want to design lessons that not only build on student background knowledge, but entice them to continue construction. I want to create or frame out activities that encourage them to dig deeper, to wonder, to ask questions and then allow them the freedom and the time, whenever possible, to pursue their curiosity. And if they're not curious or very much interested in that particular lesson, that doesn't mean there won't be something later that entices them to want to know even a little more.

In other words, I think where I land in creating this balance for teaching and learning is that I provide them with resources, with background information and context, and maybe a few starter questions. I make sure they're aware of the learning objectives and how they will be measured against those standards and then, wherever possible, give them options to achieve those objectives. And when I can't give them too much or any choice, explain why.

Now those of you who teach certain concrete things are wondering how this can apply to you, and with good reason. Some months ago I was talking with a middle school math teacher. We were talking about the importance of students understanding the math processes. She was talking about problems she wanted them to do to demonstrate their understanding and that they needed to understand the importance of showing their work.

I had an epiphany and a multi-part idea. Here was the epiphany: showing my work is as much for me as it is for the teacher. Only took me a few decades to get there.

Here was the multi-part idea: 
  1. Give students a few problems to complete. There is no point in giving them a whole bunch of problems if their inability to do one tells you something. Decide the role of each problem or task in informing you about their misconceptions, their understanding, and maybe even the connections they've made with prior learning.
  2. Give the students a few problems and each problem has a part or parts of the process missing. Their task is to figure out the missing part of the process.
  3. Give the students a few problems to complete and make sure there are a couple of errors. The students have to find and correct the errors to determine the correct solution to the problem.
I think variations of that could work in a number of content areas.

Take a moment to reflect on what students have to do to complete each of those problems and how it reflects not only what they've actually learned, but what they've recalled, what they can replicate (all DOK 1), what they can synthesize, what they can reason, and probably more. If you give them three problems of each "category," that's nine problems and then you can give them a 10th "bonus" problem. I'd have three more problems, one from each category, and they have to choose which one to complete. That choice will tell me something about each learner as well.

All of that might be sufficient as we think about this balance of teaching and learning, but all educators know that the work accomplished in a classroom isn't only about content. I'll approach that in the third and final part of this particular journey.

Thank you for coming along.

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