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Volume VII Issue III

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It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop

Anyone who has spent time working with students in a classroom setting understands that teaching is a complicated, multifaceted endeavor. When we make our teaching decisions, we usually rely on the practices that are in current use, documented research findings, or, in some cases, our gut instinct. As we go back in time and examine teaching practices that were followed in the past, we find that certain conditions were prevalent. “Back in the day,” many teachers viewed themselves as independent entities; teachers were much more private about their teaching decisions than they are today. There was little or no collaboration between teachers who taught the same grade level or subject so teachers often had no idea how their peers taught similar content. There may also have been a scarcity or complete absence of teacher training in best practices or exposure to current research findings. Without standards and the No Child Left Behind legislation, teachers often did what they wanted to do once they closed their classroom doors. The methodology they followed often mirrored what they experienced when they were students or the way their college professors taught their courses. If we look into the classrooms of the past, we discover a number of practices that were commonplace at the time but now warrant a closer examination in light of new findings about how students learn. Teachers in the past cannot be faulted for their teaching conventions because they were operating with the best information they had at the time. Perhaps a statement that best describes past teaching decisions is “They didn’t know what they didn’t know.”  What seemed like an acceptable idea in the past may not be best practice in the 21st century classroom.

Today’s teachers have extensive knowledge about their students and how they learn as well as ways to meet the learning needs of all students. Print publications and the Internet have provided an abundance of solid information which teachers can use to make their instructional decisions. As well, many teachers participate in professional development aimed at honing their teaching skills. One way to shed light on what today’s teachers should be doing to promote learning is to examine teaching methods from the past and compare them to what today’s teachers should do to better guarantee that student learning is taking place. To put it concisely, we will examine some routines that were in use then, and contrast them with practices that should be in place now.

The seven contrasting ideas below may serve as a self-assessment for readers to use in examining their belief systems and teaching practices.

THEN: Some educators did not hold all students to high standards.
Prior to the standards movement and the requirements of No Child Left Behind, there were classrooms in which some students were not held to the same standard of learning as other students. These reduced expectations were based on the belief that some students simply were incapable of learning the required content or skills. The curricula was sometimes watered down or omitted entirely. The students were rarely given different learning experiences, alternative ways to demonstrate their learning, or one-on-one instruction.

NOW: Today’s teachers apply methodology that leads to learning for all students.
As professionals, teachers today must believe in the capacity of all students to learn and act on that belief. Thus, they must add new ways of thinking to the planning and implementation of their units. More and more teachers have become educated in the specifics of differentiated instruction, and as they collaborate with their peers, they add new teaching strategies to their repertoires. They understand that teaching is both mentally and physically taxing but they keep open minds as they seek strategies or approaches that will lead to learning for everyone. It is not a matter of if each student will learn but how that learning will take place.

THEN: Some educators planned learning experiences with no clear outcomes in mind.
As teachers planned lessons, they often included activities which were experiential in nature but which had no clear connection to learning outcomes. Simply put, they were activities for the sake of activities. Assignments often included seat work, packets, centers, or, in some cases, group work. The goal was to keep students busy and focused on whatever the teacher had given the students to do. Teachers who planned this way failed to determine how the experience fit into the overall learning scheme, or what specific skills or knowledge students were expected to develop by completing the exercise.

NOW: We have become much more goal-oriented as we plan units and lessons.
With the advent of the standards movement, teachers fully understand the importance of providing meaningful, active learning for their students. They also know that they must connect all lessons to the standards and benchmarks. Educators have also become much more cognizant of their use of time since they are always seeking enough time to teach the many required standards included in the mandated curricula. In today’s classroom students are apprised of the purpose of their learning as well as how the experience will help them master the content or concept they must learn.

THEN: Teachers followed the one-size-fits-all instructional approach.
Not only was lecturing a common teaching practice in classrooms of the past, but students were also required to receive the instruction as a united entity. All students were expected to do their best to “get” whatever the teacher delivered. It was a sink or swim environment in which all children had one common experience with little or no variation or attention to individual learning needs.

NOW: Differentiation of instruction should be the norm.
The legal requirement to ensure that all students are taught the same standards necessitates that teachers address the learning needs of a wide variety of learners. Using pre-assessment and task analysis, today’s teacher can determine which students may require small group or individual instruction, or the need to show what they have learned in a different way. With an ever-growing diversity of students, it is paramount that a teacher sees students as individuals and understands that one single approach to learning does not work.

THEN: Teachers taught whatever they wanted to teach.
Until the standards movement took effect, individual teachers could often determine how to chunk the content they were expected to teach. As a result, selected content, which might coincide with a teacher’s personal passion, might receive an inordinate amount of attention while other content might receive a cursory look or be neglected altogether. From classroom to classroom, students enrolled in the same course might have a completely different experience from their peers.

NOW: With standards, all students have access to the same content.
With the introduction of curriculum mapping, pacing guides, and collaboration through professional learning communities, it is much more likely that all students will have access to the same curriculum. Many teachers do not simply plan units and individual lessons; they map out their curriculum for the entire year. Teachers have the big picture and are able to share the year-long scope and sequence of the content with students. The standards movement has eliminated “hobby teaching” and better assures that all students have a common learning experience regardless of who their teacher might be.

THEN: The best classrooms were quiet with straight rows.
There was a time when “quiet” and “straight” were considered valued assets in teaching. Straight rows were synonymous with order and quiet students indicated that they were either giving their attention to the teacher or engaged in individual seat work. A teacher’s evaluation was often based on control of the class and the students’ compliance with classroom rules.

NOW: Active learning is the name of the game.
When students are actively involved in the learning process they are likely to learn their content more quickly and retain it longer. In today’s classroom, we want students expressing opinions, working with peers in pairs or small groups, interpreting data, dealing with current real-world issues, and exploring topics of personal interest in greater depth. Class time spent on practice exercises and learning factual content should not lead simply to retention of the content but to a deeper understanding of that content in order to transfer its use to new situations. Teachers should also be planning lessons which challenge students to think critically. None of the descriptors noted above can be achieved when students are quiet and still.

THEN: The teacher used lecture as a primary source of information.
Over past years, much of the curricula teachers were required to teach was content-heavy; as a result, teachers spent much of their instructional time lecturing to their students. The students, in turn, were expected to take notes which they eventually used to prepare for their upcoming test. The teacher occasionally asked questions of the students to determine if the students were following the lecture. There was very little opportunity for students to interact with one another to process or summarize their learning and understanding of the content under study.

NOW: We have learned a great deal about the importance of a learner-centered classroom.
Today’s classroom should be rich with student interactions with both the teacher and fellow students. Lecturing should only be one of the options for teacher delivery of content. A typical classroom should be alive with dialogue, students making personal connections to the content, as well as the opportunity to use content to form opinions, reach conclusions, and offer solutions to complex, real-world problems.

THEN: Educators used assessment practices that were in conflict with student learning.
Assessment practices used in the past often did not result in an accurate measurement of student learning, and, in some cases, reduced student motivation to learn. Conversations about how student learning should be assessed were virtually non-existent and schools did not have a uniform grading and assessment policy. Hence, teachers were often left on their own to give student grades. In some instances, students were graded not just on their achievement but on their behavior as well. When students were uncooperative, their grade suffered. In other scenarios, a grade of zero was given when work was incomplete or late. Other practices, such as pop quizzes, trick questions on tests, or grades based on tardies to class were practices in some classrooms. The thinking at the time was that these flawed practices kept students “on their toes.” There was also the belief that students had to suffer the consequences for their decisions, and, as a result, they would become more responsible.

NOW: Today’s teachers base student grades on the achievement of standards.
Decades of research have concluded that when teachers use grades as a form of punishment, those grades often cause students to withdraw from learning completely rather than serving as the intended “wake-up call.” In the standards-based environment, it is essential that teachers eliminate any barriers that hinder student learning or discourage students from putting forth their best effort. Accordingly, teachers should be totally straight-forward about how learning will be assessed so that students can adequately prepare when their learning is evaluated. As Thomas Guskey wrote, “Grading requires careful planning, thoughtful judgment, a clear focus on purpose, excellent communication skills, and an overriding concern for students.” Furthermore, schools as a whole must engage in honest dialogue about how student learning is assessed, how grades are determined, and eliminate practices that have not worked in the past and will not work in the present or future.

In conclusion, it is imperative that as adults who are provided with the extraordinary responsibility of teaching children, we must examine our belief systems, eliminate outmoded practices, and rethink how we educate our youngsters in light of what we know about good teaching and learning. Gone are the days when we can operate on flawed thinking or methods that inhibit student progress. We owe it to our kids.

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:

Oliver, Bruce. “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.” Just for the ASKing! March 2010. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2010 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.

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