Recently, someone sent me the following editorial about students needing to be a participant in their own education. I read it and found myself agreeing. The author was saying things I had thought hundreds of times.
This opinion piece presents a commonly-held belief about students and educating students. I certainly have felt this way at times in my teaching career. I usually sum it up with this phrase, “I cannot want a student to succeed more than they, themselves, want to succeed.” In other words, it is unfair to expect me to work harder at a student’s success than that student is working, because sometimes it feels like they are doing NOTHING! So I invest my limited time and energy where it will actually produce some visible results that can be celebrated. I get a boost from teaching students who “want to be taught” and they get the attention they are so desperately seeking. It’s a win-win.
What I don’t always acknowledge to myself though is that I get to this point of giving up on a student or group of students when I feel as if I have tried my utmost to understand and provide for what that learner or group of learners needs without seeing any improvement in learning.
While looking for resources on collaborative study techniques, I came across the following TEDX video (you have to turn the sound up pretty far to hear it):
This video presents the idea that “Kids do well if they can.” This idea, supported by tons of epistemological and educational research, recognizes the huge impact the empathy and involving students in the problem-solving process can have on learning. In my own practice, I have seen this to be true. When I take the time to understand and work with a student towards his/her goals, I see tremendous jumps in learning. Generally speaking this requires all of my “teaching tricks and strategies”. Every student is different so it requires that I have intimate knowledge of the learning head-space of all of my students. It’s not easy.
I believe though, that the ability to understand students and help to remove roadblocks to learning is what makes us professionals as teachers. Anyone can stand in front of a room of students and present to them, but it is a professional teacher who finds innovative ways to understand where each child is at mentally and provide for them the experience that will help them reach the next level in understanding and applying the concepts they need in order to be prepared for life outside of high school. This is the challenge of teaching that requires of us that we constantly increase our understanding of the process of learning and teaching as well as our understanding of the disciplines we wish our students to leave us with.
Think about this. What behavioral skills do you want your students to leave high school with? Is it the ability to passively listen and take notes, or is it the ability to question, to research, to collaborate, and to own the learning process. Which behavioral skills does your class encourage students to learn? How do you set up the learning atmosphere in your classroom to encourage students and to help you diagnose the difficulties students have in learning? We, as professionals, are like doctors of the mind. We diagnose the difficulties students are having and then provide the resources students need in order to take the next learning leap. Only we are most effective when we engage students in their own diagnosis and learning process.
Our kids have been taught for years and years to sit and listen passively. Often, when we try to engage them in the process of diagnosing and overcoming difficulties, they have tremendous difficulty and they will not always easily engage. Learning to have agency in their learning is not an easy process where we ask them what they need help with once and then provide a worksheet or practice. It requires that we are there every day, asking and engaging in the thinking process with them. This is what it means to be a professional teacher.