Saturday, June 14, 2008

14May2008 Old Fashioned Truths

When newer teachers refuse to even listen to how an experienced teacher does things or why, it can be frustrating. The colleges of education have so biased them against "old-fashioned" teachers, that they won't even consider tried-and-true methods unless it sounds super fun or flashy. Of course few of the tried-and-true methods are flashy, though some are fun once self-discipline is established. I would love to share the things I have gained both from my own experience and what has been shared with me from others. Unfortunately few are interested in taking the time.

Just one example: I have learned that P.E. can benefit academics in many ways. It can be a real incentive to get students to do the "work" part of learning, the part that can't be done away with and still really know, understand, and use that learning. P.E. can be used to discipline the mind, so that a student can think more clearly and logically. P.E. can develop the connections between the lobes of the brain. Dance, such as square dancing, develops rhythm and an ability to do complex thinking that translates to the academics.

Unfortunately many people (including many educators) want what they want and do not want to be bothered with facts, good research, or logic. They have "itching ears" that are attracted to flashy "experts" that tell them what they want to hear. If they don't want to be bothered with P.E., for instance, it doesn't matter that good research shows that students will do better on tests, or whatever indicator is used, if they get more than 70 minutes of structured, organized P.E. per week. They don't want to be bothered with it, so it becomes low priority. They don't have to disagree with the facts. They just prioritize it as of low importance. And with all we have to do, if something becomes low priority, it doesn't get done.

If some teaching method appears to be repetitious, many teachers discard it based on the constructivist inferences taught in their teacher prep courses. It is labeled as busy-work, low-level thinking, or worse -- "rote memorization" (the ultimate condemnation!). It doesn't matter whether it builds proficiency or develops the mental discipline necessary to truly understand a particular topic or subject. Of course it is possible to give assignments that truly are a waste of time. Many constructivist activities like "authentic" projects have a great deal of wasteful activities associated with them, such as much cutting and pasting and lots of counting. On the other hand activities like long division, labeled unnecessary in the calculator-age by constructivists, develop the mental discipline to follow-through and get accurate solutions consistently. This actually enhances a student's ability to gain the deeper understandings in math and other subjects in the long run as well.

There have been things I observed and judged to be, as a new teacher and based on my training, low quality activities, such as written book reports. I opted instead for easier oral reports. Other teachers have turned a book report into a visual project, which of course includes tons of time cutting and pasting. As I grew more experienced, I found that written reports were much more productive than either alternative. Among other things, it provides practice in summarizing. The point is, many things that teachers do, who have STAYED in teaching because they were good at it, are because they work. A new teacher would be well advised to listen and to try before judging.

Another point on this is that teachers change over time. What I discarded early on, I sometimes came to believe in later.

1May2008 Cooperative Learning

This brings up the topic of cooperative learning groups and group projects. When the problems created by grouping students are brought out, some teacher educators dismiss the objections by proclaiming that that is how the business world does things. They claim that students need to get used to doing things this way, regardless of the problems associated with it. They claim that it is the "real world". It is not. The real world demands accountability of the individual in a way that is not a part of student grouping. Students don't get fired or demoted. They aren't left behind as others are advanced. They don't become obsolete or laid off. Those demands on the individual are frequently not kind or considerate. Allowing some students to slip through on other student's work will not prepare them for the "real world" at all.

Sometimes teachers use grouping and "authentic" projects because they can be graded very subjectively. Oh, they don't think this consciously. They claim other reasons, but often the real motivation for doing this is the grading. This allows a teacher to not "flunk" a student. Each student was part of it, so they all get some kind of grade. Receiving a failing grade is not pleasant for the student, parent, OR THE TEACHER. However, sometimes it is necessary for all three to see things as they really are. Hiding or avoiding the truth is lazy and hurts the student far worse that the pain of the grade. Again grouping and projects CAN be a valuable tool, but like certain vitamins must be used sparingly or they do more damage than good.

30 April 2008 Grouping

There is another reason to organizing a classroom into individual desks. It helps a student stand or fall on his/her own merits. Teachers frequently pair up students to help those who are struggling. Used sparingly this can be a beneficial tool. Used too often, students find that they can lean on other students for answers. They learn to manipulate others into doing the thinking for them, instead of putting in the work necessary to develop their own abilities. Putting students into tables, or other configurations where their desks are together, imposes that situation. Not only does it increase the temptation to talk, poke, touch, or bother, it also makes it easier to cheat or at least use others instead of developing oneself through individual effort.

Some teachers use the excuse for grouping desks that they don't have room. They have filled much of the classroom space with things that are not nearly as important as having individual space for each child. Unwittingly they allow something of lesser value take priority over what is more important for the development of the student. A couch or "reading center" does not come close to helping the student as much as his/her own space and desk does. Shelves of books, manipulatives, or toys, tables of computers, etc., do not make up for the loss of the individual's space.

Is it wrong to place students in groups or tables? No, of course not, temporarily and sparingly. Salt really helps a meal, but a little bit goes a long way!

24April2008 Classroom Organization

I will start with the subject of the organization of the classroom. Professors proclaim sneeringly against the "old" teachers, who place the desks in rows and columns. "Kids work and learn better in groups!" "You don't want to be one of those teachers who place kids in their own little cubicles do you?" they say. Kids sometimes sound like they agree, but when they experience both ways and examine it in a thoughtful way, those who are trying to learn, and who want to be judged for their own work, want their own space. Even those who proclaim they want to sit in groups or at tables, because they want to goof around, or so they can lean on other's work, end up over time happier in rows and columns. Why? They are less tempted to bug others and get in trouble. They accomplish more. They concentrate better without others distracting them. They are more likely to experience success! That is why "old" teachers are more likely to organize their room that way. They have found that it works better. Of course there are many teachers who have been so browbeaten against this idea that they won't even try it, so they never discover that it works better.

23April2008 Blog Beginning

I have had the feeling that, instead of just carping, I should write down my thoughts on teaching in the hopes that it may help other teachers combat what I see as confusing and incorrect philosophies taught to teachers in colleges of education and inservice classes. I hope these expressions are helpful, and that you are charitable toward me for them!

Perhaps my first thought would be that many times people preach and push the opposite in philosophy from what they really are and really do. The art teacher proclaims freedom and imagination in expression and then criticizes any who do differently in their expression of art than he does. The teacher preparation professor, who proclaims forcefully the need for teachers to be caring and nurturing, is subjective and arbitrary in her grading.

In my own teaching I have been outspoken in my proclamations for firmness and discipline, yet a principal remarked that certain students were put in my class, because he knew I would be lenient with them. In reading anyone's philosophies, that principle needs to be kept in mind, namely that we do not always internally believe what we verily do think and say we believe. This may be because we are unconsciously pulling against our own perceptions of our own actions when we speak. Perhaps I say this as a disclaimer at the outset!

Much of what I have put forward for discussion is coming from an elementary setting, but is also valuable for consideration in the secondary setting as well.