Hey You! Step Up!

Last week I stood up for teachers, calling out the rest of us who are making their job untenable. Okay, now, teachers, in return it’s also time for us to step up. Yes, the past few years have been unimaginably difficult, and yes many are working in environments that are at best dysfunctional, and at worst toxic. So, I’m not questioning dedication and commitment to our children. That doesn’t negate our responsibility. Our job is to make it as easy as possible for as many of our students as possible to learn as much as possible to their maximum potential.

Doing things how we’ve always done them, or how we were taught as part of a need to get back to normal isn’t going to cut it. As a profession we haven’t done an acceptable job of utilizing what we know about how the human brain acquires, stores, recalls, and applies information. Telling students exactly what they are going to learn, then showing it to them, and then asking them to repeat it back to you might be the historical norm, but it is not effective. Breaking their world into siloed subjects and worse yet, now spending a majority of our instruction on simple decoding language skills of reading comprehension and math computation (without a meaningful context) is also not going to cut it.

Students need to learn as mammals learn—by playing. Playing involves examining, questioning, and experimenting. And what they are “playing” with needs to be relevant, authentic, and meaningful in context for them as they are right now—not some abstract future. This becomes less so as students get older, but not entirely.

Of course, we know this. We know this because we all have experience with schooling that resulted in temporary learning in which we rented the knowledge and skills long enough to pass a test, but then it soon faded away and we never really got to “own” it. You own it when you assimilate that knowledge/skill into prior experiences and knowledge, and/or connect it to an emotional or meaningful experience. And we all know this, because those are the things we became passionate about, the things that stuck, the schooling that worked.

Many of us teachers seem to forget this when we get in the classroom. We forget how we truly learned something and think that all we must do is just tell it to students. The result is most students only learn something as an approximation of the teacher’s constructed, meaningful understanding of the concept, but don’t get to really make their own meaning. A few do for the topics they find fascinating and so they internally do more than simply memorize and rent it.

We can no longer expect students to be engaged in school if their experience is primarily listening to a teacher tell them about things, practicing basic skills, but never applying them, and never getting opportunities to playfully explore, ask questions, and discover. Yes, this is difficult. But it is imperative. It’s imperative for our students, but it’s also imperative for public education. If public education is going to survive the current onslaught of criticism, some justified, much not and a trojan horse used by the farthest extreme of the libertarian philosophy hoping to do away with as much government-run activity as possible.

Resources exist to do this, despite our addiction to simplified standardized testing data driving much or our instructional practices and curriculum content decision-making. Our job is to build (or rebuild) our understanding of constructivist learning theory and how the human brain learns and then choose and use curriculum that adheres to that research. Most (not all) current standards align to this. Most recent curricula (again not all) as well.

The resources are available to make this shift in your teaching from teacher centered and teacher directed, and thus promoting passivity among students to student-centered, learner-directed teaching that promotes students’ active engagement with meaningful learning.

I can help you with this, either directly, or directing you to useful resources. Send me a message or leave a comment for other teachers below with resources you’ve found that increase student engagement, inquiry, and playful learning.

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