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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

3 Ways to Teach Less and Learn More

By Zachary Walker — October 11, 2015 5 min read
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Today’s guest post is written by Zachary Walker, a faculty member at the National Institute of Education (NIE) in Singapore.

Who works hardest in your classroom? ......... waiting for you to really think about it........ still waiting patiently.............. If a visitor walked into your class unannounced and watched what was happening for 30 minutes, who would they say worked hardest? What if they watched for an entire week? Or a month? Or a school year? In education, we work very hard. And we take pride in working hard. And we talk about working hard.

But maybe we should stop working so hard.

Maybe it is counterproductive and actually hurts our students. When we are in charge, students can watch, observe, listen.... all passive activities. But when we step back and put them in charge, they can become active learners. And this is critical in the classroom. This is, of course, easier said than done. But here are three simple ways to teach less so your students learn more.

1- Adopt the Three Before Me Policy

Participants in workshops I conduct or students in my classes use a lot of technology during the day and we cover a lot of content. We constantly have our mobile devices out and use them for any number of exercises. So I have adopted the age-old “Three Before Me” policy for all content and technology questions. Participants must ask three people around them the question they have before they can ask me. If they ask me a question, my first reply is always, “Who else did you ask?”. This does four things:

  1. Most importantly, it establishes an environment where they depend on each other for knowledge and not just me.
  2. If a question does reach me and at least four people do not know the answer I know that I need to re-teach that or review it for the whole class.
  3. It helps keep the pace of the class moving along and doesn’t stop the class if only one student has a question.
  4. It takes the pressure off of me to know everything about participants’ devices and tools- the class is relying on our collective funds of knowledge- not just my own. While I emphasize to my participants that I am very happy to help them, they need to rely on each other as teachers and learners as well.

2- Use Technology to Create Authentic Content

Students and participants in my sessions are always taking photos, recording videos, and creating content on their devices because this provides a much more authentic and relevant learning experience. They literally create every resource we use in a class or session.

For example, during traditional instruction, if a student is asked to study a photo of a plant provided in their biology textbook, they may learn a few things because they are following the directions of the assignment. But when the teacher asks them to find that plant in their own community, snap a photo of it, post it on a whiteboard app, and label it, then it becomes personal and relevant. They have a relationship with the content because they took the picture. When they see that particular plant in the future, they are more likely to remember it because it is part of their “real life"- not just some photo in a book.

This relevance and relationship are critically important to establishing meaning for students. There are literally hundreds of ways to do this in every content area- but we have to allow students to use their devices and go create. This is important in a couple of ways. First, instead of us working to find the content, the students are required to search for it, capture it, and use it in class. Second, I have found that I spend less time motivating students because there is more engagement when they have created the class examples themselves.

3- Help your students find their voice.

We have all had the students who dominate discussions in class. But how often do we do that ourselves? I realized early in my teaching career that I was the one dominating the classroom. It was comfortable to be in control and flattering when all the eyes were on me... but it was not best for my students or for their learning. Soon after I recognized this, I tried to cajole my students into talking more by allowing more wait time when I asked a question, using random name callers to get more students involved, and giving anxious students silent cues before I called on them so they could prepare their answer. It worked many times but still took quite an effort.

Now, using backchannel discussions and twitter chats, we have another way to give the quietest students a voice and create enriching, engaging discussions. Whether in a workshop with teachers or in the classroom with students, I will often “host” or moderate a chat using a tool like TodaysMeet or Twitter via my classroom accounts. The audience opens up a page I have prepared for them and participates silently. We will discuss issues, review take-aways from lessons, analyze videos, or preview upcoming topics in class all through the online chat.

The best part of using backchannel discussions for classroom conversations is that some of my quietest, most introverted students contribute with really thoughtful, insightful posts. It is amazing how much of a difference this has made in my classroom and how much closer the classroom community can grow when everyone has a voice. One thing we constantly talk about in education is students finding their voice. If that is truly a goal of ours, we have to allow them to use that voice in our classrooms. Finally, I don’t have to work as hard at motivating students to contribute; instead, I watch the students discuss topics and I can facilitate their discussion and contribute when necessary.

Stepping back and allowing students to be active learners is just good teaching. We have to work less and allow students to do more in our classrooms. Mobile technology allows that to happen since most students have a device that gives them an automatic voice in the classroom and tools to create authentic content outside of it. They can figure out answers together, find examples of what we are teaching in their own community, and participate in class discussions in more ways than ever. It is our job to give up control and allow them to use mobile technology for all it is capable of doing for learning. Watch the transformation of your teaching and the increase in student learning as you step away... and work less.

Zachary is the author of Teaching the Last Backpack Generation.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.