Let Them See the Wizard

A few years ago, I started letting my students see behind the curtain, if you will. In addition to teaching them the content of the science I was teaching, I started to share my thinking about why I was teaching them what I was teaching them in the way that I was teaching it. It wasn’t really a strategic decision. It was more a decision out of necessity. It was a few years ago that I made significant shifts in my teaching from a more traditional, teacher-centered model to a more student-centered model that embraced a philosophy of constructivism (or progressivism depending on who’s doing the defining).

It was a few years ago that I started designing all of my courses around essential questions instead of the more common practice of using objectives. When I think of a teacher starting out a unit or lesson by telling their students the objectives of the lesson, I hear the voice of the adults in the peanuts cartoons. “Wa wa, Wa Wa, Waaa.”I also stopped using points in my grading system and switched to all essay exams and project-based assessment.

Some of the students (and some parents) got a little twitchy. So the simplest answer was to simply tell the kids straight up, not dumbing it down for them at all, the reasons I was teaching in this manner. It became a part of my normal routine to explain how grading in this manner increased student engagement and reduced cheating; before exams I explained that writing an essay allowed them to show me what they knew in their own language instead of interpreting my questions; and by using questions at the beginning of the lesson to uncover their prior knowledge and comparing that to what the thought they knew at the beginning, this allowed them to construct meaning which better matched how the brain actually works.

And in the end, they became better engaged in my class and (for many of them anyway) they became more partners in learning with me than pupils. Of course they still were the students, and I as the teacher still set the agenda, most of the time anyway. But I did not realize that for many of the students, the simple act of telling them why we were learning what we were learning and in the way we were, this would make them better students. Nobody, even kids–more maybe especially kids–likes to be left in the dark and feel like they are not in control. When we pulled back the curtain, they found there wasn’t a wizard back there. Just a guy doing his best to make it as easy as possible for them to learn as much as possible. And that made all the difference.

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