Many of us like to set a goal, intention or focus for a new school year. The chance to do so is a wonderful aspect of the annual teaching cycle. I want to offer a possible goal that could make a big difference in the quality of this school year for you and your students: teach less!
Yes, I’m being purposely provocative, but hear me out. I’ve been thinking lately about what we consider teaching to be. Our definitions of teaching are still so rooted in an old factory model of education, in which the teacher delivers a fixed body of knowledge directly to students, who listen passively and learn.
Over time, methods have shifted somewhat to be more interactive, with varied formats for the teaching-learning relationship. However, many modern instructional strategies are, at core, just more creative ways to get students to match their teacher’s thinking. I still see the dominant culture in schools today putting teachers in the role of the “chief thinker” in the room. This limits what students learn and turns many young people off to academic learning before that even becomes an issue. Students who are successful in this model often emerge without having developed the capacities to create, collaborate, connect, problem-solve, and think and write critically, needed to survive in the 21st century economy.
Thinking broadly here, I believe many of the instructional strategies and lesson plan formats we commonly use rely heavily on teacher thinking and teacher talk. In practice, the teacher talk tends to go on for a long time--longer than the lesson plan even calls for. Behavior issues are often students just reacting to the difficulty of remaining in this passive position for too long. Students who appear compliant and focused may have just found less obtrusive ways to zone out until it is time to do “the work.” That might be only ten or fifteen minutes by the time the lesson is over.
Just because we are talking, doesn’t mean they are learning! The big picture shift I’m suggesting is to dramatically cut down on our teacher talk, and increase time for students to be doing meaningful work that engages their minds through the disciplinary lens of our subject area. In some ways, this will mean imagining our selves “teaching less.” But by that, I just mean moving away--literally and figuratively--from the traditionally defined role of the teacher.
Teach less. Influence more. Design learning experiences that directly involve students with compelling content. In ELA, students should spend a ton of time actually reading; a ton of time actually writing; a ton of time actually using their voices to discuss what they think. Humans learn by doing. If we think carefully about the things we want students to do--we can involve them in that decision making as well--and then give them plenty of time and support to get into that work, they will learn a lot more.
Take time to observe students working collaboratively. Have conversations with them about how it’s going, what they notice, what they find challenging. After a learning experience, ask students to write reflectively on what they did, what they noticed, what they learned, what they wonder, how it connects to something else they see or know. Make time for students to share their reflections. Have a discussion, in which students speak the majority of the time.
We really don’t need to be in the front of the room talking--pointing at a slide, rapidly firing questions at students and cold calling to make sure they are paying attention--in order to be “teaching.” We know this, yet we still do it so much of the time. Just take a quick walk through the halls of your school and peek into each classroom. Where is the teacher? Who’s talking?
SO... If we can’t quite shed old definitions of what teaching is, maybe we can trick our brains by setting an intention for ourselves this year to “teach” less. Then go about designing and influencing more.
The opinions expressed in Teaching for the Whole Story 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.