Learning to Teach from the Red-Eyed Vireo

“What day is it?” It’s today squeaked Piglet. “My favorite day,” said Pooh.

                        -A. A. Milne

 Though, most have heard their call, most probably cannot identify the red-eyed vireo by sight. It has a bold face pattern with a white eyebrow, bordered above and below with black, and a ruby red eye. The body is blue-gray contrasting olive-colored back and wings. Except for the eye and the white eyebrow, this bird blends in with the leaves of a tree.

No matter where the vireo goes, his song follows. If you have walked in the woods, or even a park or neighborhood in North America, you are familiar with this bird. His call is so ever-present that it might be simply the “sound of the woods” to many people. The red-eyed vireo is the optimist of the woods. He never stops singing! Incessantly, he fills the woods with his short phrases: sawee, sawitt, cheer-o-wit, cher-ee, chit-a-wit. Not only is his constant chatter present, it is always cheerful. No matter if building his nest in the crotch between tree trunk and branch, foraging for caterpillars and aphids, or stuffing his mouth with berries, building fat before migrating as far south as South America, he just does not stop singing. Each male can sing up to 30 different calls of cheer. On May 27th, 1952, Louise de Kiriline Lawrence counted the songs from a single vireo at 22,197 songs during the 14 hours of daylight. If you break that down, that little guy sang for 10 hours out of the 14 hours of daylight. Phew! That is some serious stamina for cheer.

Optimism seems to work for the vireo. This little optimist has certainly found success in the world, with its range covering nearly all of North America, spreading into South America during the winter, and even hopping across the pond to Europe.

A few years ago, I made a conscious decision in my professional life as a teacher that I would purposefully approach all my students, my colleagues and the parents of my students with the naïve assumption that when I was dealing with them they were “bringing their best.” I recognize that this is indeed naïve and that in many cases, this is not the actuality. They are not doing the best they can with what gifts they have. But if I assumed they did how would that change my outlook toward them? And if I did not adopt this paradigm, what is the alternative? Frustration and anger? Maybe on that day, the best a student, colleague, or parent could do is simply to show up. Instead of greeting that effort (or lack-there-of) with frustration or worse yet anger, thus effectively creating a barrier between me and him or her, what if I were to greet him or her the same way the vireo greets me every time I walk through the woods? Maybe naïve, but what if we all took a lesson from the vireo, whether a teacher, spouse, cashier, doctor, or politician? It is not about lowering expectations or standards, it might be more about meeting someone where they are at, in that moment, and then rising up from that point, together and in collaboration.

Crazy optimism I know, but what if…?

A rising tide raises all boats (or standardizing education to maintain structural racialization and worker bees)

A rising tide raises all boats. This is a Reagan-era phrase referring to trickle-down economics. The idea was that as those with the resources (the biggest boats floating on the economic ocean) poured their capital into the economy, the economy (the tide in this metaphor) would grow and all the boats floating on the water, be they luxury liners or rowboats, would float higher and higher. It didn’t work and the metaphor is wrong. Let’s just get that out of the way. The evidence is in the growing division of wealth in this country. Many boats sank.

A better metaphor is this. The water in the metaphor is not the economy, but instead the majority people—those in the working and middle class. In the old metaphor, all had boats, though some were larger than others. Now, the boats represent those that hold the majority of the resources. Applying this new twist on the metaphor, the majority of the people, with just enough resources (food, shelter, and maybe health care) are the ocean upon which the boats are floating. Notice in my twist on the metaphor, many don’t have boats at all. However, eventually the fewer and fewer, but larger and larger boats will be too heavy (loaded with more and more of the resources and wealth) to be supported by the ocean. It isn’t sustainable for the boats to grow larger and larger, leaving fewer and fewer with any purchasing power. Eventually, those with capital and resources making the goods will have no customers except themselves.

A more sustainable approach is the following. If the majority of the people (the working and middle class) acquire more resources also, then they will have more purchasing power. This results in a growing economy, which will lift and support the floating boats. Currently this is more and more just luxury liners. A strong middle and working class will actually still keep the rich wealthy and comfortable. I frankly cannot understand why those with the most wealth continue to allow the financial divide to grow as they are reducing their own customer base for the products they produce. Evidence for this is in the stores that have grown profits during the recession, luxury item stores and discount stores. The stores that cater to what used to be the majority of Americans continue to see less and less profits.

Henry Ford recognized this when he created his assembly line factories and began paying his workers many times the going rate for factory workers, who because of the economy and competition for work were at the mercy of those holding the capital. The prevailing wisdom among the producers of goods was to pay as little as possible to maximize profits on goods produced—and because of the times, that could be very little. What Ford recognized was that if he paid his employees enough to be able to actually buy what they were making, his Model T, then he wasn’t just creating a product for the wealthy, but was instead increasing his market share. The workers made a decent living, bought more and more of his cars, and with each one he made more money. He might have made less per car due to the increased labor costs, but the increase in volume of sales made up for the difference in spades.

We have forgotten this lesson in history. And so the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to widen. This has affected education as well. The American Psychological Association has recognized and now recommends that teachers adopt progressive and constructivist practices in education. This is the recommendation because it is this type of teaching, using more essential questions, open-ended questions, project-based learning, and a more individualized approach that creates students with creative problem solving skills and a love of learning. Simply put, the type of individuals we want as leaders in the future.

However, this kind of education is often reserved for those with the means to send their children to private schools that exist without the burden of 30 – 40 students in a class and without the burden of a litany of fact-based standards. These hurdles hit the inner-city the hardest. So, to get students to attend school despite socio-economic barriers and to have success on standardized tests, we have created models the opposite of what we know leads to creative thinkers and leading problem-solvers.

I have heard educators state that the progressive, constructivist education can’t be done in these schools until the basic skills are achieved. I am revolted and offended by such statements. This is simply an example of structural racialization. Structural Racialization is when structures are in place that are not overtly racist, but yet help to maintain past damages done by overt racist practices. It should be unacceptable in education structures and policies, but sadly is not.

The result is that students in these over-burdened public schools (i.e. urban and mostly minority and/or poor) often never get past the basic skills—though we might effectively improve standardized test scores and graduation rates. Meanwhile, their peers (i.e. white and/or upper class) get to excel with smaller classes, in-depth project learning, exploration of their own questions, and creative problem-solving. Based on this scenario which class of people will (still) be the next generation of leaders and therefore power brokers? That’s a rhetorical question.

Returning to our original metaphor, the rising tide may raise all boats, however, I fear that the rising tide is made up of the poor working class, educated with just enough to work in the factories providing the resources for the few in the boats floating atop the labor of this working class. And from their viewpoint, dry in their boats, those few holding more and more resources will have to beat back the hands of those trying to scramble into their boats to survive. As the power brokers sit in their boats will they be wondering why those below them aren’t grateful for the work scraps that have been thrown to them? As competition for survival grows, and maximizing profits is the norm, workers will have to work more and more in which the best they can do is toil to survive and only dream of a better day when a day’s wage would allow them to buy the very products they are producing. This is not a sustainable economic or education system. As educators we need to rebel against this basic-standards education for the masses, and creative-problem-solving education for the wealthy—be they attending private schools or schools in wealthy neighborhoods with the benefit of a higher tax base of funding for public education. This will not close the achievement gap, only widen it, and eventually all boats will not be rising, but will have sunk—or been pulled down by the languishing “tide.”

Fast Food Education

Recently I broke down and got lunch at a fast food place. I know, I know. Ick. I won’t say which to protect their identity and to protect my pride. I was struck that when handed my meal in a bag, the cashier didn’t say, “enjoy your meal,” but instead said, “enjoy the rest of your day.” There was no pretense here. I wasn’t really going to enjoy the meal—so why pretend.

Most of us “break down” and eat fast food. We know it isn’t good for us. We know it isn’t really that good either. Yet we do it. When in a hurry, when traveling, when the pantry is bare, and a trip to the grocery store is not in the cards. We also do it because we know exactly what we are going to get. The standards are set and we know that the hamburger from McDonalds in Bemidji is going to taste just like the hamburger in Atlanta. That is the great strength of fast food. However, even if fast food was modified to be a healthy option, it still wouldn’t be the first choice for a meal for most people, because what is its strength is also its greatest weakness. It is standardized and predictable. There is no creativity involved.

In our efforts to increase the rigor and “teacher-proof” education we have adopted a litany of standards. What works in Bemidji schools must also work in Atlanta schools right? We have successfully standardized education. Education is now quite standardized in regards to the curriculum. In our attempts to teacher-proof the education system we have made education predictable and, well, quite frankly, boring.

When I started teaching, I had complete academic freedom. Probably too much. The teachers I am training today have very little academic freedom in regards to what they teach. Probably too little. Some will not even have any academic freedom in regards to how they teach and how they assess their students. If the paradigm for teaching is a matter of any person opening a book and assigning an assignment, giving a lecture, and then providing the mandated objective test, then yes this paradigm might work. This kind of people-proofing an industry, be it food, retail, engineering, or art only results in one thing—predictability and mediocrity. Then, why do we want this for our education system?

Imagine our greatest scientists, artists and thinkers in today’s education setting. Would they have a chance to shine, to explore their passions, to fail safely and learn from mistakes, to dream and to create, or would they be studying for AP exams and taking SAT prep courses? Would they have graduated burned out and sick of learning before entering their first years of college or graduate school? Would they have taken the safe route to get training for a good job and sacrificed dreaming up the theory of relativity, the transistor, or ipods?

Our efforts to standardize the curriculum have not closed the achievement gap, nor have they “teacher-proofed” the curriculum against mediocrity. In fact, I believe they have increased mediocrity, because the introduction of the standards have shut down the “art” of teaching. Roland Barth said that the job of the administrator is to provide a safe place for teachers to fail. If you do that, then the good ones will rise to the top as they try innovative and creative ways to teach, reach and inspire children. We will never “people-proof” an industry that relies so heavily on people and the relationships that are formed between students and teachers. If we want to “teacher-proof” the curriculum we need to provide better teachers, and then put those teachers in a place where they can innovate and create. Instead we are putting them behind the metaphorical fast-food counter, saying “enjoy the rest of your day.”

Reflection, Reflection, Reflection!

If you ask a realtor what the most important factor in home sales is, many will say, “location, location, location.” I believe that the most crucial step to learning is reflection. Reflection, reflection, reflection! This is when new skills and knowledge are cemented into place and the learner moves from “renting” the knowledge to “owning” it.

Ask any teacher when they really understood a difficult concept they teach and most will say, “after they have taught it a few times.” Teaching something is by nature a metacognitive activity that requires a great deal of reflection. To effectively teach something, you have to know it, yes, but to get other’s to understand it you have to think about what it takes to understand the concept and how you learned it (or might learn it). These are acts of reflection.

Most young teachers, in my experience, have significant gaps in their content knowledge. This is not for lack of schooling on the subjects, but for lack of application of the knowledge, or simply opportunities to reflect on that knowledge. The act of teaching and the reflection involved in prepping to teach a topic greatly enhances one’s understanding of complex topics. It is in this metacognitive act that the learning finally crystallizes. It is during the act of thinking about your thinking, or knowing how you know that one really, truly knows something.

Looking back on my schooling, and on a majority of my teaching, I find that reflection, however, is woefully lacking—both in my own practice and within the daily activities that I had students complete during class. This has become apparent to me now that I am teaching new subjects at a new level, having moved from teaching high school biology to college level education courses. Boy, have I learned what I don’t know! As I conclude the first term of this new teaching experience, and prepare for the next term, I am becoming quite practiced in the act of reflection simply as a means of survival. My experience is that the really great teachers are constantly engaged in reflection about the content they are teaching and the method of their teaching. It is because of this reflective practice that they continue to learn and improve. So I reflect.

Yet, how often do teachers purposefully have students reflecting on their own learning. Generally, teachers teach something, students complete activities, and then they complete an assessment. The teacher grades the test, paper, or project, and provides feedback. Hopefully feedback that provides a student some useful information for reflection on their learning, but how often does this really happen in the classroom as a regular part of the learning process. Learning is like a cycle. Begin with a question to consider. Construct meaning and understanding of new knowledge. Confirm what you learned through reflection which can lead to new questions and begin the learning process again.

So I challenge my colleagues. What practices do you do as a regular part of your teaching to get students to think about how they know what they now know? This reflective practice not only will increase retention of new content, but is also quite an effective critical-thinking exercise. Reflection, reflection, reflection. It is crucial for the learning that teachers find the time in their curriculum to have students doing this essential part of the learning process.

Do You Have Homework Tonight?

How many of us as adults have regular assigned homework as part of our jobs? If you do, do you like it? Imagine this pattern: Every night, you sit down and do an hour (or more) of assigned work for the next day after already working 8 – 10 hours during the day. If this was the norm, how long would we stay motivated about that job? What creative interests would we not pursue because of doing homework? Granted, many adults pursue no creative interests, except as potato chip/primetime TV connoisseur. Many kids also show a proclivity for these same skills. However, that alone is not a compelling argument for keeping kids busy with homework.

I’m not going to argue for an abolishment of homework, though I cringe when I hear parents’ stories hour(s) of nightly homework assigned to their early-primary-age child completed after tears, conflict and pain. I do think that practice should be abolished. There just is not evidence supporting such the value of homework (especially for younger students) to be worth this cost.  

When asked, teachers will give two reasons for homework at young ages—to increase achievement and to develop study habits. The research evidence does not support the former, and my own experience does not support the latter. Do we need to start practicing doing homework at age 8? Second, hours of tearful, painful, confrontational homework experiences certainly cannot be good for the family dynamics, nor for the child’s motivation to keep going to and enjoying school and learning. I suspect a child’s love of learning is inversely proportional to the amount of time spent in school. This is a problem that the education profession must address.

In fact, since the early 80s, time in organized sports and outside activities has steadily declined. Additionally, independent reading time is more limited. During that same time, there has been an increase in the amount of time children spend on homework. This is an example of correlation, and correlation is not causation. In fact, it might be easier to link the proliferation of cable and satellite TV as well as home video game consoles to this decrease in outside time as much as homework. However, as both of these elements of children’s lives increased, outside time, reading for pleasure, and involvement in organized activities has decreased. Our children are missing out on an essential means of learning.

All mammal young learn by playing. Play is essential. Time to tinker and have authentic experiences in which the imagination is engaged is crucial to cognitive development. Creative thinking is developed when solving problems, getting out of jams, making new playthings out of everyday objects, and inventing one’s own games and private little worlds. Joyful, unstructured playtime is the stuff of becoming a creative, thoughtful, happy adult. Of this, I have no doubt.

So again, I recognize that homework is not going away. But we as teachers need to be cautious how we use this teaching tool. Indeed, some wield it is a weapon instead of using it as a tool, and too many children go home each day and sit at their dining table with the sword of Damocles hanging over their head.

The homework experience that many students have is in direct opposition to their playful experiences in which they are involved in authentic activities fueled by intrinsic motivation. Before assigning homework ask yourself what the purpose of the assignment is. Is it necessary for students to have guided practice that couldn’t be done in the classroom? Is this necessary for students to prepare for the next lesson? Is the purpose to teach content that couldn’t fit into the classroom time? If so, is it really necessary content? Also, ask yourself about the nature of the work. Is it authentic? Will students know why they are doing this, or is it going to be busy work to them? Does it require any creativity and problem-solving, or simply skills of googling and copying? Maybe the rote learning work can be done in class, and the creative application and playful exploration of topics can be the homework? Maybe homework that allows for student choice in what direction to go with new content learned in class would have a chance of being an authentic task with intrinsic motivation.

Lastly, ask your students and their parents about the homework experience. How much time are they spending on the homework? Are students’ spending an hour on something you intended to be 20 minutes? Were there tears, gnashing of teeth, yelling and slamming doors involved? Does the child have hours of homework because all his or her teachers are independently assigning an hour of homework? Do they have time to play? The most advanced species on the planet apparently has forgotten that in our desire to get ahead of all the other humans on the planet, we learn best through play. It might be time to re-think this pattern.

Educating in an Age of Fear

A few years ago I was with my family in a national park and we attended one of the presentations by the Park Ranger. I have fond memories of these as a child in the early to mid-seventies. The presentation I saw with my daughter was reminiscent of my childhood experiences. It was mostly information about the park, the animals and plants—a general presentation about the complexity and beauty of the geology and ecosystem. The recent version of the presentation included a disturbing new element. The concluding message this time was a dire warning that all of this was in danger of being lost and it was really up to the next generation to rescue. I didn’t think much of it at the time until I started noticing the same message in nature programs such as “Nature” or “Nova” on PBS, and at other parks, information boards at science museums, etc. That’s an awful big load to put on the shoulders of an 8-year old.

We are educating in an age of fear—fear about pollution in our air and water, global warming, terrorism, lock down drills, endangered species—hell an entire endangered planet. How many adults are paralyzed by these fears? Should our children be as well?

Buddhism teaches to stand with a strong back and a soft front. The strong back is needed to stand up and face the difficulties of the world, but the soft front is needed to embrace the world. I fear the next generation(s) will not have the soft front. Will they retreat into hard-shelled cocoons in order to protect themselves from the onslaught of burdens put upon them by our generation?

Students today have access to the global information network like we never did as children. This is an awesome gift, but also a heavy burden. As educators, it is paramount that we maintain our soft front so that we can teach with compassion and empathy as children of younger and younger ages are cognizant of the global village and not just their local “tribe.”

But there-in might be the answer. Not only do we need to teach with compassion and empathy, I believe we must teach compassion and empathy. Social theorist, Jeremy Rifkin gave a talk at the Royal Society for the Arts called the Empathic Civilisation in which he puts forth an interesting idea.

Consider this. 50,000 years ago the empathy one felt was to their blood ties or clan. Anyone further away than “shouting distance” was outside your sphere of concern, or empathy. As time progressed, the world became smaller as individual’s “tribes” grew. Agriculture, written communication, and religion expanded one’s empathy beyond clans to tribes. Nation-states formed and one’s empathy was extended to those sharing national identity which at times superseded tribes. Here we are in 2013 and social networking as the potential to expand empathy beyond national borders. Consider the nearly instantaneous global response to a natural disaster. Images and information spread within minutes! The rest of the world offers help within hours! Rifkin we are actually “soft-wired” for empathy and this soft-wiring can and is stronger than hard wiring for individual survival.

Maybe teaching our children (and the adults too) compassion and empathy for the global tribe, which should also include other species as well is the answer. Bombarding our children with fear may be oppressing and dangerous as it might kick in the hard-wiring for survival (think cocoon mode), but fostering the soft-wiring for empathy and compassion might actually be life-affirming and empowering.

Here is a link to the RSA Animate of Rifkin’s talk

Standardization, The Hunger Games, and Broad Generalizations

Warning. This blog post is filled with broad generalizations. However, the point is to spark some dialogue and thinking, so here goes. I stumbled across an excerpt from a George Carlin monologue about education reform. It is amazing what seemingly random things appear on youtube. I was actually looking for an interview by Alfie Kohn about progressive education. At least it wasn’t nude kittens gone wild. Carlin was speaking about why education reform will never happen. In a nutshell, he said that education reform will never happen because the owners of the country (those with the money and power) don’t have an incentive for it to get better. In fact, the opposite is true. They don’t want well-informed well-educated citizens who can critically think about the growing divide between the haves and have-nots. They want obedient workers smart enough to do the work, but just dumb enough to continue to pine for the jobs with increasing hours and responsibilities and decreasing pay, benefits and retirement plans. He used more colorful language. Quite a conspiracy theory I dismissed as the rant of a cantankerous old man. But then I started thinking (which was his point I suppose).

Let’s compare two schools. In the first one, 35 students are quietly listening to the teacher perform a fabulous lecture in front of a Smart™ Board. They take their notes. Some come up and interact with the board and answer a question or two. Eventually they will take an objective test on this material that is organized in scope and sequence to prepare for the state exam on that subject. The teachers use multiple choice tests because they need to prepare their students for the state exams, AP tests, and college entrance exams like the ACT or SAT—and because they couldn’t grade 180 essays.

Many of the students do well on these tests. Many don’t. However, what data we don’t have is how many of these students complete college, love learning, and end up fulfilled with what they end up doing in life. Tough data to collect. In the second school, 18 students are in small groups discussing a topic or working together on an activity. The teacher is moving around, stopping at each table and checking in with each group. At the end of this unit, the students will present the results of their research in a “conference” to their peers. These kids also take AP tests and college entrance exams. Most do well on these. Most go to college. However, what data we don’t have is how many of these students complete college, love learning, and end up fulfilled with what they end up doing in life. Again, tough data to collect. Maybe we should find a way to collect this data?

In case you haven’t guessed, the first one is your average neighborhood public school. The second is your average neighborhood private school. Okay, here begins the broad generalizations. Most people would choose the second school if they could. Many politicians continue to try and pass vouchers to allow public money to allow some students to go to these private schools because, well, they must be better. They must be better because the teachers aren’t teaching to a test, the class size is almost half the public school, the teacher can spend more time with each kid and require more writing and project-work which builds critical thinking skills, multiple teaching days a year aren’t lost to testing, and the teachers don’t have to follow the state curriculum of the state standards. They can be creative. They can be progressive.      Here’s the broadest, most sweeping generalization. The “owners” of the country, or the decision makers, are more likely to send their child to a private, progressive school for the reasons I just listed above. However, when in power and they want to improve the public schools, they pass laws to make public schools better that make it ever harder to do the things the same way as in the private schools, which they would prefer for their children. They mandate tests, a national curriculum (standards), and reduce funding (increasing class size). I don’t think it is a conscious conspiracy like George does, but what if the system has evolved to the same result? Does it matter if it was conscious our not?

A few years ago I was at the “Progressive Educators Network” annual conference. Most in attendance were private school teachers and administrators, because the majority of truly progressive schools are private. One of the speakers said that as private school leaders we had a responsibility to help the public schools do the same because not just the wealthy students deserved an education that fostered creativity, love of learning, and critical thinking.

The “owners” of the country have the money and therefore the power and therefore the divide between those with access to resources and those without continues to grow. They have access to a cleaner environment and living situation as the toxic waste dump won’t be in their back yard. They have access to better health care. They have access to ever more and more expensive energy resources. They have access to healthier food instead of processed food. And, they get to send their kids to schools that have smaller classes, require more writing and critical thinking, have academic freedom, etc. which furthers the divide for the next generation. OMG! Are we heading toward a future of The Hunger Games where a majority of the population works to provide resources and goods for the few that live in the Capitol City? Kind of sounds like a return to the time of castles and fiefdoms.

Well, now I’m the cantankerous old man with the rant aren’t I? I do know this; all children deserve an opportunity to be in a place that develops their creativity, their critical-thinking skills, and a teacher with the time and means to focus on them as individual learners, treating them with dignity, compassion, and humanity. I also know that the rush toward standardization is not producing schools that do this, so something must change or I do fear dark times ahead for the generations to come.

Educating Those on the Margins

I think there are two kinds of educators. There are those that are educators because they are passionate about a subject and they wanted to share that passion. Then there are those that are educators because they love kids. They could and would teach anything. To generalize, the former tend to be in secondary education, and the latter tend to be in elementary education. However, I believe the great teachers are educators for both reasons.

I have to say, I have generally been the first type. I see the world through a biology lens and as a Jehovah’s Witness is to evangelizing their faith, I am about evangelizing my biological view. But I’m trying to grow as a teacher.

There are students in every classroom that operate around the margins. They are those that have not fit in, been bullied, carry baggage into the classroom that prevents them from engaging with the other students, or in other words, are hidden in plain sight. I wonder how many of these kids I have not seen and not reached out to during my career as a teacher? In what way could I have served as a better mirror for him or her to see them in a new way, instead of in a way that limited their hopes and dreams?

Please watch this Ted Talk by Shane Koyczan and reflect and dialogue with colleagues about those students hiding in plain sight.

Why Are Essential Questions Essential for Good Teaching?

Most teachers are taught to write objectives for their lessons or units. Most textbooks (which drive most teachers lesson planning) have objectives written at the beginning of each chapter. Let’s look at an example:

  •  Students will understand the taxonomic classification system used by scientists and be able explain the phylogenetic relationship among organisms.

Technically, it is a good objective. It clearly states what the student will know and do. If I was 16 and reading this at the beginning of a chapter or on the syllabus, I have to admit that my first reaction might be, “wanna bet?” This objective is essentially useless to a student. By the end of the unit it might have some value. However, as the first thing a student reads to introduce a new topic it doesn’t work. It requires use and understanding of topic specific terminology to understand what the topic is about. That should be your goal for the lesson, not the starting point.

Teachers are taught to use objectives as a means to communicate to the student exactly what the point of the lesson and what expectations the teacher has for them. However, if you can’t understand the objective, the objective statement no longer has any value to the student. It might be a very useful tool for the teacher to organize and prioritize what lessons need to be done. This is emblematic of the problem with much of the teaching that occurs. Closed circuit announcement to the teachers: it isn’t about you! You already know it. It is about the students. Everything you do is to make it possible for the students to learn as much as possible as efficiently as possible. Instead of the above objective, what if the teacher started with questions such as these:

  • “How are living things organized into groups?”
  • “What can the organization of living things tell scientists about their relationships?”

Why waste the first day of instruction explaining what the objective means? Why not ask the students questions they can begin to answer right away? Admittedly, they would not be able to answer the questions using the correct terminology, but they could begin to form an answer to the question within the first five minutes of the unit of study. Beginning with the objective initially marginalizes any students struggling with the course. Beginning with the questions doesn’t exclude any learners. Anyone can fashion an answer that is their best guess. Your job as the teacher is to not accept “I don’t know.” Everyone knows something, because they have experienced life. The journey into a new topic should always begin here, with what they already know. They might be surprised by what they have already observed and learned. Contrary to what many may believe, students are not blank slates, or in more modern imagery, empty hard drives waiting to have new data written on them. As the unit progresses, they can then juxtapose what they thought they knew with what they know at the end. Your job is to then help them refine that knowledge by allowing them the time for cognitive dissonance between what they have already observed with the actual.

Also, essential questions provide the students a practice test question. Reading the objective as they study for the exam elicits passivity on the part of the student. It’s either “yep, can do that” or “nope, don’t get it.” The essential question elicits active work as they actually answer the question, but this time in much more detail than at the beginning of the unit. It also allows the student to see how much he or she has learned.

Maybe most importantly, beginning with the question creates a culture of mutual discovery and exploration, which I believe is a much more inviting learning environment than a statement that communicates an intellectual separation between the teacher and the student. Yes you are the expert on the topic, but in a culture of mutual discovery the student is empowered to learn. In the other the student is the compliant receptacle of information from the teacher. This might make for a quieter, more orderly classroom, but also makes for shallower learning and less meaningful construction of knowledge on the part of the student. So, again, I ask, why are essential questions essential to good teaching?

Let Them Have the Cookie!

Do you know the children’s book, if you give a mouse a cookie? A boy gives a cookie to a mouse. Then the mouse needs a glass of milk. Then a litany of requests: a straw (to drink the milk), a mirror (to avoid a milk mustache), nail scissors (to trim his hair), and a broom (to sweep up). After that he wants to nap, which requires a story read to him, time to draw a picture, and to hang the drawing on the refrigerator. Looking at the refrigerator of course makes him thirsty, so the mouse asks for a glass of milk. And what goes better with milk, than a cookie?

If you give a child the love of learning….

Except children already have a love of learning. As they grow and go to school, we manage to take that away from many of our students. I had a recent conversation with a teacher about when to start having students investigating their own questions and doing their own inquiry. I got the answer I so often get. “We can’t do that until we get the basic skills down first—then in more advanced classes students get to do that kind of learning.”

No. No. No. No! This is backwards. The American Psychological Association has recommended teachers reconsider constructivist methods, contending that students are active learners who should be given opportunities to construct their own frames of thought. Students need to be put in learning situations where they are doing the work of learning, not the work of listening to and memorizing the teacher’s understanding of a topic. They need to be free to infer and discover their own answers to important questions. To enjoy learning.

To dig deeper into what this might look like, see my recorded presentation, Thematic, Inquiry-Based Biology.

There is a notion among many educators that we can’t do progressive or constructivist education until we have “taught” them the basic skills. Do you see the contradiction here? This is especially the practice with students who are disengaged or disenfranchised from school and worse, from a life of learning. It is especially true that as these students get older we need to use these methods. Why does the learning in school look less and less like how children learn—asking questions, making mistakes, seeking guidance, exploring, and play?

Ask most teachers how they learned something complex, say for example how to teach, and they won’t cite a great lecture where they were told how to teach. They will cite doing it and figuring it out, hopefully with the help of a good mentor. Why do they then assume their students can’t do this until they are “taught” the basic skills? I’m not saying there aren’t times for teacher-centered, direct instruction. But, it should be the exception, not the norm. Students would learn the basic skills much better if they weren’t memorizing another’s understanding of those skills and basic content, but instead were applying those skills and concepts as they were investigating something that had meaning, with the help of a good mentor. That’s where the teaching comes in. Don’t lecture about a topic, then have them look at it, and then tell them again what they saw. Instead have them consider what they already know, explore it to construct some meaning, and then lecture, or better yet dialogue with them, to allow them to confirm what they saw and deal with the cognitive dissonance with what they thought would happen.

The problem isn’t that we have gone away from or quit teaching the basics. The problem is that is predominantly all we are doing—especially for students on the wrong end of the achievement gap. I think we don’t so much have an achievement gap, but instead a learning gulf that we have created. It mirrors our country’s economics. The rich get richer. The poor get poorer. Those engaged with school, get the fun learning. Those behind get the boring learning. If this was you, would you want to keep learning? Why take students that haven’t succeeded in learning the basics through teacher-centered models and slow them down even more and continue to do more of the same that didn’t work the first time? How will that catch them up?

Instead of decreasing the amount of inquiry, exploration, and play, our students are doing, we need to increase it to keep them loving learning. For Pete’s sake, give them a cookie. Who knows what will happen next? Well, maybe that is what scares most teachers.

%d bloggers like this: