Wednesday, August 10, 2011

10 Ways to Re-Imagine the Classroom: 1. The Role of the Teacher

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /
Over the next few days, I want to offer some ways that we can work together to re-imagine our classrooms so that students are more engaged, our work is more relevant, and student learning is more enriching. This list of ten comes from a workshop I help facilitate on Transformational Teaching.

#1 We can transform the role of the teacher from Content Provider to Learning Sherpa, Literacy Swami, Exploration Coach, Lead Learner.

There are a few ideas here that I would like to focus on. First, in today's world, information is cheap, and honestly, I don't think that we should be telling kids anything that they can find out for themselves via the Internet. I did not always feel this way. 

When I was in fourth grade, I had a teacher who refused to tell students how to spell words. I'd ask, "How do you spell 'photosynthesis'?" and she would point at the dictionary cart and say, "You know where to look." She may or may not have had the smirk that my memory is supplying, but the point was clear. Do it yourself. I remember finding her steadfast refusal to help maddening. After all, she was a teacher. She was supposed to help. I needed help, she knew the answer, but instead I had to go through the much longer procedure of getting a dictionary, searching through it for the answer based on my best guess for the spelling, and confirm that the pronunciation and definition matched my expectation for the word I was trying to use. Grrrrrr. What I didn't understand at the time, was that she was teaching me the skills it takes to learn on my own.

My wife had a similar experience last year with her students. She switched to a project-based model of teaching that placed the ownership of learning squarely on the shoulders of her students. She provided them with an entry document, placed them in teams, and refused to tell kids anything that they could learn themselves. She was there to listen, offer advice, and ask the types of questions that could nudge kids toward success, but only when they were really stuck or needed to be protected from their own bad judgement. 

At the beginning of the year, only a few kids embraced this type of learning. It was not the model of learning that most were accustomed to, and it was hard work when the teacher could have made it easier. Some of the students openly accused my wife of teaching this way because she didn't want to do any work. 

This is what we've done to kids. They perceive any work beyond rote learning to be the teacher's job. Their job is to jump through the hoops and collect the grades. No wonder kids are bored. They are being asked to grab the low-hanging fruit, and are being told "good job" for doing it. And no wonder many teachers are bored as well. We signed on because we are passionate about learning. We are not passionate about grading 30 McWorksheets, delivering the same PowerPoint over the course of 35 years, or arguing with kids about a single point in the gradebook.

However, as the year progressed, my wife's classroom transformed. There were still small pockets of resistance, but most of her students much preferred the project-based model. The engagement was obvious, and the collaboration, authentic learning and choice that her students experienced helped to prepare them for a world in which there is actually very little low-hanging fruit. The rewards were obvious. Kids became better thinkers. The learning was challenging, but fun. Discipline issues were easier to handle. Her relationship with the students was collaborative and joyous.

If you had asked my wife what was hardest about this process, she would have told you that it was letting go of the control. We all have the impulse to help kids be successful, but that impulse can be destructive when we lower the bar for success, micro-manage the direction of learning so that everything is standardized and personally irrelevant, or refuse to allow students to make their own mistakes (or worse punish those mistakes with grades that depend solely on achievement).

When we act as content provider. Or when we draw a too-narrow and too-simplistic path to success, we aren't teaching. We are no better than a textbook. We're actually worse than a YouTube video,  in that our student's don't view our information critically (they trust us to be the font of knowledge) and they didn't select us as teachers (usually) based on their own design for learning.

Our role as teacher needs to be that of learning sherpa. We've done the learning. We know the information. We've already walked the path. We can help our students do the same safely and more wisely. Thus, our contribution to their learning should include guiding students away from unsafe learning behaviors, developing students' powers of critical thinking, challenging students with real work for real audiences, giving students honest critical feedback, encouraging students to follow their own learning interests, and helping students develop skills such as leadership, collaboration, communication, curiosity, and problem-solving. This can be done in any content area, and should be done in every classroom.

I look back to my fourth-grade teacher with appreciation. She made me use my brain in her class. She gave me the opportunity to believe in myself as a learner and a problem-solver. I hope our students will say the same of us one day.

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