Teaching Opinion

It’s Time to Let Go of Tired Teaching Habits

By Starr Sackstein — April 15, 2018 4 min read
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Guest post by Aric Foster

The first time a grading guru told me that points and percentages were unhealthy and perhaps immoral, I was first shocked, then resistant, then insulted, and then dismayed. What a plethora of emotions just because someone highlighted how a specific practice of my craft could be outdated and ineffective.

While this expert actually said, “Having 100 points of measurement leads to inaccuracy and inefficiency when measuring student learning,” what I heard him say was, “Foster: you are a terrible teacher, and an awful person and that thing you think you were doing so right for so long is actually hurting your children.”

After discussing these emotions with my digital and in-person PLNs, I realized I was holding on to traditional practices for several reasons.

First, I did not know any other better alternative. Second, I thought that this traditional practice must be effective because teachers had been doing it for so long. Third, I saw it as a criticism and attack of my being and personal worth. After all, I don’t just teach, I AM a teacher. If I was doing teaching ineffectively, I was doing Aric Foster ineffectively.

It was so challenging to “Get over myself” (as my students would say) and realize that analyzing my job performance and to “do better when I know better” is not an attack on Aric Foster, but a highlight for Mr. Foster to see and amend.

Doctors no longer believe there are four humours running through our bodies or use bloodletting; they analyzed their practices, did not take criticism about the vocational craft personally, and then pursued researched based best practices for the benefit of their profession and those they serve. Especially if we as educators want to elevate our status in American society, we should mimic this process.

One important first step in this vein is refraining from holding onto my past practices so strongly that I let my emotions dictate my response to a colleague who suggests an alternative to my current teaching practices.

I realized that I was holding on and retaining outdated educational practices because I was letting emotions be a barricade to my growth. This “retention disease” was affecting the learning of my students. I have seen another effect of this retention disease in my work as a learning consultant as well.

This is most common when I talk to science and social studies teachers. I help them shift from quizzing students over Googleable content for a certain number of points to measuring student learning in either the Next Generation Science Standards or AP Historical Thinking Skills. Typically when working in small groups, one or more staff members emphatically states, “But the kids need to know the content!” I enthusiastically respond that I agree but challenge these teachers to think about content as the vehicle through which they are teaching different kinds of thinking: cause and effect in history, developing a model in science, citing evidence to prove a claim in both classes.

A few ardent advocates of holding on to the content have replied with a version of, “But I have acquired so much knowledge about my subject area, and it is my job to make sure the kids know content facts.” When I pull out my smart device and argue that I (and the students) know as many facts about the content as the teacher, it is eye-opening and unnerving to these teachers.

I quickly follow with, “While I may know all the parts of plant & animal cells, I cannot compare the two systems to each other in a meaningful way...but you can” or, “While I may know as many facts about the American Civil War as you, I cannot evaluate different causes and effects of the war in a meaningful way...but you can.”

More often than not, a more fruitful discussion happens about using our time with students to measure and facilitate learning rather than testing students’ memory. This tension and conflict and hesitancy to place content as the driving force in the classroom more than likely comes from a recognition that the teacher has attained many facts through college classes and years of teaching experience and an innate but baseless urge to be the sage on the stage rather than the guide by the side.

This tendency to hold on to the content is also true with the student-teachers I work with. It seems as if they are still instructed to teach with the mindset that they are the sole perpetuators of knowledge in the room. They tend to think that if they are not doing something in the front of the room or telling the students something, then they are not “teaching.”

In fact, when our vocation is boiled down to just content deliverers and multiple-choice question checkers, then a computer or an untrained adult can do our jobs in less time and for less money than we can. In that sense, “letting go” of the content is a priority to make sure we are still employable in our ever-changing 21st century

Should we retain our passion for learning, and should we retain our compassion for the kids? Absolutely! Should we “hold on” to all of our content facts so much that they command our pedagogical perspective, or should we hold on to the hesitancy to discuss changes in teaching without feeling personally attacked? Certainly not.

How can we evaluate what we retain as priorities and what we are willing to ‘let go’ of? Please share.

Never complacent in his own teaching and ardently passionate about student learning, Aric has been teaching English 11 and AP Literature since 2001 in a rural town 35 miles north of Detroit. Committed to the growth mindset and Standards Based Learning (#sblchat), Aric has also taught using #TG2 (Teachers Going Gradeless) for multiple years. He is also a coach of track and wrestling, a contributing author of Hacking Assessment and Start.Right.Now., an adjunct professor at Concordia University, Student Teaching Liaison at Oakland University, and co-founder of STEM and Flower Learning Consultants (stemandflowerlearning.com).

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