Over the 23 years I’ve been teaching English, I’ve learned some things about learning. I try to keep my eyes open, observe the ways my students learn best, change my methods to give them the best opportunity of learning broadly and deeply.
For the last few years, I’ve been using a method I call “Start with Create.” I wrote a post for TechSmith’s education blog on this: Learning by Creating: Turning Bloom’s on It’s Head. It’s about Project Based Learning and I use the ideas in my Dual Credit English class and I also do trainings for teachers often on this topic. The core idea is this: If we begin learning at the highest level, and design the project well, students will then learn all the lower level stuff–remembering, understanding, applying, etc.–on their way to completing the assigned project.
I really believe this and my students love to learn this way. They work hard, create great products, and usually learn at a higher level than they have done in the rest of their school career.
Last week, I was working with teachers at a tech conference. I was actually presenting on this topic and my session was titled, “Start with Create.” But I found myself back-sliding into traditional methods even as I was helping teachers learn a better way of teaching and learning.
What happened? Well, I had a project I wanted the teachers to do in Google Drive. I ask them to respond to the video and to collaborate with people sitting near them. They learn about the powerful sharing properties of Drive and how well it works for student projects.
It was a really good idea except for one thing. I placed this project at the end of my presentation instead of at the beginning. I did this presentation twice during the day, and the first time, I started with a series of slides that showed my audience all of the features of Drive and the Create tools inside of it. That took so long (there’s a lot of good stuff for teachers in Drive) that I didn’t get to the project.
I was reflecting on that during a break between sessions and I realized that I had failed to come up to my own standard. I should have started with the project. Fortunately, I did that particular presentation twice that day. The second time, I gave a brief intro and then gave the assignment. If you would like to check out that project, click here.
So what was the difference between the two sessions? In the first one, teachers listened politely and there were few questions. I must have done a creditable job of presenting the info, because some of them came to a later session on a different topic. In the second presentation where I “started with create,” the teachers not only understood the capabilities of the resources better, but they also experienced a method of learning–academic learning–that actually works. Instead of learning in an artificial way, with someone standing before them and lecturing, albeit with an engaging presentation, they learned by creating something of value. If you look at the assignment, you should see that they learned something about what doesn’t work as well.
The great majority of teachers are so steeped in the industrial education model that we, yes WE, have difficulty thinking outside of that box. This pattern of instruction>worksheet>quiz>test seems right because, in the classroom, it’s all we’ve ever known. Outside of the classroom, however, when we are learning something we want to learn, something that inspires us or seems important to us, we choose other methods of learning. We watch a YouTube video, call a friend, find a tutorial online, or just start to work and figure it out.
As teachers we’re also very often distressed that our students don’t retain what they have learned even when they pass their tests; they don’t remember what we worked so hard to teach them last year; we try to build on what students learned last week, and they don’t have sufficient grasp of the principles we thought they learned to move forward with the next step.
That’s why we need to try something different, something perhaps radically different. Let’s start with create.
I was very fortunate this week to hear Dr. Nelson Coulter’s keynote address at the @LITE for Administrator’s Conference, and event I help to sponsor as Area 8 TCEA director with ESC 8. During his talk, Dr. Coulter showed us the Guthrie Common Schools Graduate Profile.
Of course, the profile includes goals for graduates’ learning, for skills and abilities that will lead to career success. It also lays out clearly defined goals for the character of those graduates, for their personal qualities as leaders and citizens. You can read the profile here: http://www.guthriejags.com/profile.html
Every now and then, you run across something that just endorses something you are already doing. Reading the Guthrie Graduate Profile made me think about some assignments I’ve been doing for a while with my senior Dual-Credit English students. The first essay I assign is about the concept of the hero. Students have to think about three or four important qualities of the hero and develop an idea of the character a true hero should demonstrate. We discuss the difference between someone who shows those qualities on some occasions or even for one event and a hero who displays these qualities continually in his or her home and in society.
Students do online discussions in which they propose and defend what they believe to be the “most important” quality of the hero. Then, in their second essay, they write about a personal hero, someone they know well and who they respect. They have to apply the qualities they have defended in the first essay to the personal hero they have chosen.
In a later project, students create a digital photo essay about the community they grew up in. They have to take 25 pictures that represent the history and atmosphere—morality, work ethic, character—of their town and its people.
These assignments have developed over the years, and I make modifications to them each year as I observe what works, and what might work better. The essays must be well-developed, with a sound thesis, good support, clear descriptions, appropriate exemplification, and reasonable conclusion. I want my students’ writing skills to grow with each project, and this does, in fact, happen. My students leave my course as competent college writers.
The point of my musings on these assignments is this: In many cases, we can help our students grow, not just academically, but emotionally, morally, in character. Many of our students come from rough home backgrounds. They may be lacking a moral compass. They may not be respectful and they may have a very poor work ethic. Why should we give just any writing assignment when we could help them think about how they can become good citizens and caring parents?
And could we apply this idea of adding a moral component, teaching young people to become caring adults in other subjects? I’m not talking about preaching in class or trying to influence our students to become staunch conservatives or good liberals. I’m talking about inculcating qualities that just about everyone can agree on through the work kids do in class.
Could we teach them to be financially responsible in math class? Could we help them become educated, discerning voters in social studies? We certainly need these qualities in our leaders—and we’re educating the leaders of the future now.
I read a great many articles about education reform. During this political season, the conversation is heating up. Sadly, though, the conversation is about the wrong things. One one hand, there are conservative and business leaders who talk about vouchers for private schools, about merit pay for great teachers, about getting more for the taxpayers’ money (on average education costs about $10,000 per student per year in the U.S.). On the other hand, many educators and learning innovators want public figures to get off the back of teachers and support good things that are going on in schools while stopping the trend toward high-stakes testing that has become the enemy of deep learning.
I see both sides. I’m a taxpayer and a staunch conservative. I’m also a teacher who is passionate about learning. I can’t help observing that, although I know many teachers who are outstanding, creative, intensely committed stimulators of learning for their very fortunate students, I also know many teachers who are unwilling to change to employ the best research on how 21st century kids learn, who will not put forth the effort to learn how to be better tomorrow than they were yesterday, who, if they use technology at all, are stuck in the past using only what they are comfortable with, usually tools that have been around for 10 years or more–and yes, I know that large percentage of teachers are limited as to what technologies are available to them.
I think the education reform we should be calling for is a reform in every classroom. I think that teachers can improve year-by-year. I think I can improve, and that I need to improve. I think that at the state level, we need some of those visionary teachers making policy and leading innovation in the way we view the whole structure of education. I think we need to stop testing so much that we don’t have time to teach. I think we, as teachers, need to change methods that evidently are not working so that our students’ progress is so evident that legislators and other state leaders recognize that there is real growth in every district and school.
I’m encouraged when I see the talent and ability of so many teachers. But I’m discouraged when I see that talent often wasted because teachers don’t get the training and administrative support they need to explore new ways of helping students learn with real mastery.
Mostly, I think we need to change the conversation. We need to talk about ways to really change education for the future of every child and our whole society.
I’ve been teaching at the secondary level for 18 years. Add another couple at university level, and it makes an even 20. Here’s the kicker: I’m still learning. I can’t imagine that I could continue teaching if I ever stopped learning.
This summer, I presented at a conference at a university and did several workshops at the local education service center for teachers. As I shared at those events, I asked some questions I thought were important. I asked, “What percentage of your students are good ‘pencil and paper’ learners? That is, they learn well in our traditional classroom environment?” The answers kind of surprised me. They ranged from 0% to 20%, and most of the answers were at the lower end of that range.
Then I asked the teachers, “How many of you were good ‘pencil and paper’ learners when you were in school?” More than 80% of them raised their hands.
Now, first, these responses ought to give us a pretty good idea why many teachers can’t comprehend why students are not learning well, with retention, from the methods they use in the classroom. The more intriguing question, however, is: If we know students don’t learn with mastery with the methods we are using, why do we continue to teach the same way?
I also asked, using Todaysmeet.com as a back channel tool, “What’s the last thing you learned that you were excited about and wanted to tell someone else?” Of course, the answers varied widely, from new recipes to how to paint a straight line to new web tools for the classroom and many more. Then I asked, “How did you learn it?” Again, a wide variety of answers, many of them having to do with learning from family or peers, lots of collaboration with others with similar interests, and a number of technology tools, from Wikipedia to Pinterest.
Most interesting in all the answers to the “how did you learn it” question was that not one involved sitting in a classroom, using a textbook or worksheets. What was uniform was that all of the teachers enjoyed learning in the ways that they had used. Now, remember that most of these teachers had said they had learned well from traditional methods–yet when they want to learn something new, they seek out opportunities other than the classroom.
So here’s what I learned this summer: When humans are allowed to learn in ways that appeal to them, they choose means that not only appeal to them, but also means that, for that individual, creates learning that is not only retained, but also leads to an excitement about what they have learned.
I have heard teachers say things like, “My students don’t want to learn anything.” Of course, that’s not really true. All human beings enjoy learning. In fact, the survival of the race has always depended upon the capacity of humans to learn. Students are simply bored by traditional classroom methods and, even more, most of them are not very good at it. They don’t learn well from the “sage on the stage/sit and git” teaching model, and are often discouraged because they can’t retain Algebra or World History or Physics.
That’s why we, as teachers, need to learn. We need to learn how our students learn best, and then find ways to adapt our methods to the ways humans really learn deeply and with retention–that is, that brings about true mastery. Let’s get to it.
There is a difference between teaching and learning. Every teacher knows that, in some situations and on some days, you can teach your heart out and no learning occurs. Those who pay attention know that anyone can learn with no teacher present. This is especially true with teens and technology. In fact, an attempt to teach them is sometimes met with, “Just let me figure it out.” Of course, this does not mean that teaching and learning are mutually exclusive. Only that they are not necessarily consecutive.
So, then, if teaching and learning are not the same thing, then which one of them do we absolutely want to occur in school? This question is complicated by the clear fact that not all teaching, or, indeed, all teachers, are created alike. I’ve often heard teachers complain that they really try to teach their students the content, but they just won’t learn. So the big question is: If I’m teaching and my students are not learning, or not learning as well as I would like or expect, what am I going to do differently?
Here’s a companion question: Do I need to tweak my teaching a little, or do I need to approach the task of helping my students learn in a radically different way? I started teaching 18 years ago with the idea that I would lecture and my students would listen and take notes. Then I would assign an essay and they would write intelligibly on the topic I assigned. I look back on those assumptions and laugh.
As I learned more about my students and watched the way they learn, I began to give up my cherished notion that I would hold forth and they would meekly soak in my erudition. Didn’t happen that way. I was astonished to learn that students think lecture is boring. Really? Even when I’m talking about a subject I love, like Arthurian Legend? Yea, they don’t learn much if they are nodding off while I’m talking.
So, then, I’m teaching but nobody’s learning. How can I change that? I recently heard a teacher argue that students should listen respectfully, and they should do their worksheets, and they should want to learn. Yes, and I should have been born rich and good-looking, but I have to deal with what is, not with what should be. If my goal is to help students really learn–learn so that they retain and can make use of the knowledge, then I have to facilitate their learning in a way that kids can engage with in A.D. 2011.
Actually, although kids may have been a little more compliant in the 1950’s, I don’t think they ever have learned much differently than they do today. We just created a didactic method that favored teachers rather than students and we’ve been using it for a very long time, even though it hasn’t served us well.
So here’s how my teaching changed. I started viewing every assignment as a project, and every project as an avenue to teaching more than one knowledge or skill set. Rather than students learning one objective today, demonstrating “mastery” of that one with a worksheet or quiz, my students now work on projects that last 1-3 weeks and often have several steps. So I’m doing project-based learning in the English class. It works much the same way it does in an Ag class: I show my students the project, often using a past student’s work as an example. Then I give an assignment for the project with a rubric built in and in which steps are given that will yield a final product.
The key to this approach, of course, is designing the project so that completion, according to instructions and under my direction, will result the students developing knowledge and skills I want them to learn. I also do my best to design these projects so that they both teach the TEKS (standards for my course) and give real-world skills.
For instance, for many years, I assigned a process essay as many writing teachers do. However, when I asked myself if my students were likely to ever use this skill again, I had to honestly say that, for the overwhelming majority, the answer is “no.” However, it is likely that some or even most, may need to show someone off-site how to do something some day. So now my students create a tutorial. Each one has a different topic, and they are given a start and ending point. One might compose a tutorial on building a Prezi (check it out http://www.prezi.com), another might do his on editing a video in Real Player. Check the example included here. Tutorial-Excel
They are still writing an essay, down the right side. They are learning to work with graphics in a productive way. They learn to use MS Publisher to create a truly helpful document. They devise a project of which they are justly proud. Most of these tutorials will actually be used later in the class to teach programs or websites we will use for other projects. What did I do? I just gave them the assignment and showed them how it works, then facilitated when there were questions. They actually did the learning on their own.
And here’s the kicker–they liked it. They even argued with me that this project was easier than writing an essay. It wasn’t. It was certainly more work than a process essay, and yet my students thought it was easy. Why? Because they were learning something for which they could see a future, and they were fully hands-on with every step of the process. And I can guarantee that they will remember the skills and knowledge next year and be able to teach someone else how to do it.
In other words, learning actually occurred. Not much teaching, but lots of learning.
Teachers are the key to quality education!
Sounds like the speech you get at the beginning of each school year from the superintendent, or maybe a politician’s speech to an education organization. Actually, though, this tired phrase is true. Teachers really are the key. If the teacher does his/her job well, real learning will occur in the class room. But this assumes that the teacher is creative, innovative, enthusiastic, making use of the best tools, committed to excellence, cares about the success of students, is unwilling to accept poor performance from any student, and is willing to change when the methods he or she is using are not working–then real learning will occur in the class room.
Some teachers are like that: Truly excellent at their work. Willing to learn and grow. Seeking out change that will accelerate learning. Giving themselves without reservation to the success of their students. Unwilling to accept failure from themselves or their students.
Some are otherwise: Stuck in printed text and paper quiz mode. Strenuously objecting to change. Stuck in the 1850s. Always blaming students when learning does not happen in their classes. Shrugging their shoulders when students fail (and they can pass the grading period and still fail at learning). Looking for any opportunity to avoid the serious task of educating a generation to be better, smarter, more prepared. Loving neither the subject they teach nor the students for whom they are responsible.
I somehow doubt that any of the second group will be reading this blog, but if it happens and you are unwilling to become one of the teachers in the first group, please resign your job at the end of this school year and go find something to do that doesn’t affect the future of our nation.
There is much we could complain about as teachers. The students, the parents, the administration, the system, the state agency we answer to, the excessive standardized testing, classroom disruption and/or interruption, the general state of youth in America. I’m sure you can add some to the list. But complaining accomplishes nothing. We do it to excuse our failures and make ourselves feel we have done enough. Hey, we put it out there–it’s up to the kids to learn, right?
We already know that national standards and federal agencies can’t solve the problems of American education. More money and increased teacher salaries would be nice, but increased state and federal funds have not saved us nor made our students better learners. More high-stakes testing evidently doesn’t help, either. It only diminishes the number of hours we have for learning. And students are not going to suddenly get better, become more attentive, stop acting like kids. Even the addition of billions of dollars worth of technology has not made a real and quantifiable difference. So the only thing teachers can really change is ourselves.
How? Think about a few challenging questions: When is the last time you actually read an article about how to improve your teaching? If students are not learning as you would wish in your classes, what will you do that is drastically different to change that? Are you willing to give the kind of time out of the classroom to learning that you expect your students to give to your assignments? Are you willing to explore and try technologies that will fundamentally change the way learning occurs in your class? And here’s a big one–Are you up for designing lessons and projects in a way that allows students to take charge of their learning, to give up control in favor of growing true life-long learners, to work side-by-side with kids to create a new and more effective environment for learning?
I recently commented on a social networking site that teachers could help their students learn at a much higher level than the standardized testing requires. One reply told me that my idea was not realistic in some situations. I don’t believe that. Of course, if you are teaching special ed, you may encounter some limitations, but even sped students can learn at a higher level than many teachers believe they can.
I encourage you to be better. Never accept the norm. And, as Churchill said, “Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.” Our enemy is our own mediocrity. Never give in.