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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Why Asking the Teacher Isn’t Always the Best Course of Action

By Peter DeWitt — December 16, 2020 5 min read
Independent Learning
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Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the election, COVID-19, Carl Rogers, and the “Today Show.” I know the “Today Show” is an odd addition to the list, but the reality is that it had a story about the level of learning loss during COVID, and a suggestion made by one of the commentators is an example of a cycle of teaching and learning that we need to break.

First of all, the predictions of learning loss are coming in fast and furious these days. By now, most of us have heard about or read the results from the nonprofit assessment organization NWEA. When it comes to COVID learning loss, NWEA found:

  • In fall 2020, students in grades 3–8 performed similarly in reading to same-grade students in fall 2019, but about 5 percentile points to 10 percentile points lower in math.
  • In almost all grades, most students made some learning gains in both reading and math since the COVID-19 pandemic started.
  • This fall, students scored better than NWEA’s projections in reading, while math scores were in line with NWEA projections for grades 4–6 and slightly above NWEA projections in grades 7–8.
  • Some differences by racial/ethnic groups are emerging in the fall 2020 data, but it is too early to draw definitive conclusions from these initial results. Student groups especially vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic were more likely to be missing from our data.

These early projections are something we need to keep our focus on, but I believe there is something a bit more glaring that we need to think about as well. That is where the election; Rogers, the late psychologist; and the Today Show come into the equation.

Ask the Teacher!
During the “Today Show” segment on the learning loss (which you can watch here), a parent was interviewed about the distress she and her daughter feel during these days of hybrid and remote learning. No doubt we all understand that remote is not the same as in person, and during COVID, even in person hasn’t been the same as our in-person times before COVID.

However, at the end of the segment, the parent talked about how there must be a better solution for remote learning, which is something just about every teacher, school leader, parent, and student have been asking since March. From there, the topic turned to what parents and students can do when students struggle understanding some of the work they have to do at home.

Anchor Savannah Guthrie brought up the suggestion/question that if a child is struggling, is it a good idea, if the parent can afford it, to bring in a tutor. “Today Show” commentator Vicky Nguyen responded that the first course of action when a student doesn’t understand the work is to talk to the teacher about providing extra help.

Although that is definitely one suggestion, there are a few considerations that we need to think about here. The first is that many teachers do offer office hours, so perhaps that is a time when students can gain extra assistance on something that they are struggling with in school. The other consideration is that there are many teachers who are working countless hours trying to engage students in person and remotely (remember that some parents have chosen the full-time remote option in their child’s school) and may not have the time to offer extra help.

There is another intervention to consider, and it brings in the work of people like Carl Rogers and also highlights the importance of our recent presidential election. The reality is that one of the biggest concerns we should have about school during COVID has been the fact that so much of the conversation about learning is focused on what the teacher controls. There is a picture that has consistently been painted that parents and students are sitting at home waiting for the teacher to tell them what they should learn next, and that is an unhealthy dynamic to keep promoting.

These questions, especially coming from the mainstream media, about what students should do when they struggle, is a good one. However, the quick answer of “Ask the teacher” is something we seriously need to change.

Independent Learners
As we approach the selection of a new education secretary, and think about learning during COVID, what we need to focus on in U.S. education is providing a space in school and fostering growth at home, when it comes to self-sufficient independent learners.

Students need to learn what to do when they don’t know what to do, and they also need to realize that asking the teacher is not always the best course of action. The best course of action students can take is understanding the resources they have around them and how to use those resources to guide their own learning. Let’s face it, if they have an issue with a video game they are playing, they will find a way to figure it out. Why is it that if they have an issue with schoolwork, their first reaction, and often the first piece of advice adults give them, is to go to the teacher?

The reality is that all students are learning on their own right now. The sad part is that what they are choosing to learn on their own is not always what is valued in school, because of our continuing conversation around state and national assessments and what will be on the test. One of the biggest learning lessons I thought we would have during COVID is that what students choose to learn on their own is just as important as what they learn in school, and how both home learning and learning in school can intersect.

We need to foster thinking for ourselves!

This idea of students controlling their own learning is certainly not new. It brings up the work of Rogers. The other day on LinkedIn, 21st -century learning expert Will Richardson shared the work of Rogers, and I have read this document three times since then. A few of the points that Rogers brings up are:

  • It seems to me that anything that can be taught to another is relatively inconsequential and has little or no significant influence on behavior. That sounds so ridiculous I can’t help but question it at the same time that I present it.
  • I realize increasingly that I am only interested in learnings which significantly influence behavior. Quite possibly this is simply a personal idiosyncrasy.
  • I have come to feel that the only learning which significantly influences behavior is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning

Partnering with students so they understand how to figure their problems out will help them change their behavior. Unfortunately, it will only happen if we change our behavior from “Ask the teacher!” to “What can you do to solve this issue yourself?”

In the End
The best teaching we can do is to partner with students and help them maintain or create an understanding of what to do when they don’t know what to do. The cognitive conflict we go through when we are stuck creates a challenging moment that if we learn how to get through successfully can lead to growth in our own self-efficacy.

We shouldn’t stop talking about COVID learning loss, but we should certainly partner that conversation with how students can better control their own learning, especially when they are stuck.

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.


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