Confession: I read teacher-related blogs on my Saturday afternoon.

As I was browsing my Google Reader and Diigo Education Group links today, I felt myself inspired by a number of ideas from some educational bloggers. Here’s just one of them in a weekend round-up of some fascinating perspectives and ideas.

Teachers, Have the Courage to be Less Helpful: In this blog entry by educational consultant Peter Pappas, he makes the case for a less teacher-controlled, highly structured learning environment, or, for those of us in the educational world, less spoon-feeding. (Side note, I work with a wonderful group of colleagues, one of whom is famous for walking around with a wooden spoon and when students ask questions to avoid thinking for themselves, she comes over and asks them “Do I need to spoon feed you this answer or are you going to use your brain to come up with your own?” Love it!). Pappas makes the case that our students are constantly working in tightly controlled environments where tasks are sequenced in small steps for students and they are given rubrics with a definitive end product–little is left to creativity, problem-solving or uncertain outcomes. While this allows our students to feel in control and successful to some extent, Pappas begs the question: Does this environment prepare our students for a rapidly changing, unstable and evolving world?

This entry struck me particularly today as I had a personal experience in my classroom this week that shook me. I teach two sections of a junior English class in which my students are not necessarily college-bound. Many have IEP‘s (individual education plans–usually this is created for a learning or physical/mental disability or challenge like autism, dyslexia or another processing issue) and many are unmotivated students for a variety of reasons. I love this kids. In some ways they are more in touch with the “real world” than their sheltered peers, but in many ways unfortunately they are actually less prepared to be successful in that same world. My heart sometimes aches for the challenges they face post-high school. Many times; however, they make me feel as though I am beating my head against a wall. They simply don’t care about the learning I’m offering, and they actually work against themselves and me constantly.

Anyway, my smaller section of students and I got into a discussion about the class, and one of them said “You make this so easy for us.” Wow. Um, do you know me? I have NEVER had a student say I make ANYTHING easy. In fact, I’m known as a bit of a hard-ass with occasionally far-reaching expectations. I was shaken. Was I “dumbing” this down? Was I providing too much scaffolding? Was I going too slowly? This didn’t seem possible as so many of them still didn’t seem to understand a word they were reading of our current excerpt of Frederick DouglassMy Bondage My Freedom. Yet, when I thought about it, I could see how this class may be perceived as “easy.” I slowed down when I felt like I was losing them; I provided up-front vocabulary lessons with pictures and review; I read out-loud to them to hopefully boost their understanding because I would keep the fluency and inflection correct…was I simply doing too much work and not forcing them to take their fair share? But when they weren’t even turning in the assignments I already assigned, how could I raise the expectations? I was flummoxed, frustrated, and feeling more than a little out-of-my-league.

Reading Pappas’ article, I am challenged again to re-think my expectations for myself, my students, and my learning environment. Can I allow myself to create an environment that embraces a certain degree of frustration, calling it “cognitive dissidence” instead? To what degree do my students need the security of clearly worded learning goal and expectations and to what degree do I need to build in some intentional ambiguity? Much to think about.

This entry rolled a bit longer than I expected. I’ll save the next idea for the next entry. What do you think about this proposal of less structure and scaffolding? Even if you aren’t in education, all of you were a student at some point, and many of you are immersed in your own “real-world” careers now? What level of uncertainty and ambiguity would be healthy for current high school students to prepare them for our uncertain and changing world?

3 thoughts on “Confession: I read teacher-related blogs on my Saturday afternoon.

  1. Brianna,

    I have subscribed to your blog and look forward to reading more of your work. I enjoyed your review of the Pappas article on teachers having the courage to be less helpful and your creative article on innovation.


  2. My first thought, and this is only related to your blog as a tangent, is how complex education really is. Since I started, this has been my ax to grind; I really believe people don’t know how complicated this stuff is. Even when you’re functioning at a high level, you never really KNOW you’re doing everything you can. At least not in all capital letters: the kind of knowing you get if you build houses, say, or sell insurance. You always have this nagging feeling in the back of your mind that you could be doing it better. That seems to be the real curse of teaching. But I bet it’s also what keeps the good teachers coming back to grapple with ever more hard to answer questions.

    As a second year teacher, I think I’m starting to have a sense of what my strengths and weaknesses are. A frustration of mine is that I have to work really, really hard in places to break skills down into their discrete steps. I tend to be a global thinker and the minutiae of the “what” doesn’t come as readily as the big picture “why.” And so I read your blog envious of your ability to break things down into pieces that make it easy for your kids. That sounds like good teaching to me.

    This is something that doesn’t get talked about much in curriculum meetings (at least not any ones I’ve been to), but I think student buy-in is almost the most important thing in education. Getting students to see why something is relevant and literally buy into the class flicks on switches I don’t believe otherwise would be on. And I think if you can motivate kids to care about what you’re teaching — not just for the grade or some other extrinsic motiviation but because they’re able to make a legitimate connection to it — you can turn the learning over to them a little bit and ask them what THEY want out of it. Then it becomes less a guided tour of the museum and more a purposeful walk through (and maybe even for some a hanging of their own work, although I know this is taking the metaphor too far).

    I recognize that sounds like a tall order, and it is. I haven’t been able to achieve anything close to that, and who knows if I ever will. But if someone asked me what the perfect classroom scenario would be — if we could blow up the whole institution and start from scratch — I think it would start with kids engaged enough to want to take their learning to places the teacher by design could not pre-script or pre-meditate.

    1. Damian, I think you are absolutely right. Many days I imagine what I would and could do if I “could blow up the whole institution and start from scratch,” in fact most days this is exactly what I want to do! I liked your museum metaphor, but the issue I’m having now is between the concept of self-guided learning and all of the other stuff out there on telling kids up front what their learning objectives are, sticking to the standards, and having objective, reliable “data” to measure growth. I see the value in both camps, because as you said, we have very little by which to measure “success” in this profession. How do we know we are actually helping kids to learn unless we have all of the clear-cut objectives and tightly connected end assessments?

      Thanks for joining in on the discussion. Even though we work in the same department, in the same building, these types of discussions happen too infrequently!

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