EdTech / Pedagogy / Professional Development

“Teaching” Less, Learning More

I’ve written before about how technology should make us slow down, not speed up. Considering education pedagogy (especially in grades 6-12), a similar dichotomy, and nontraditional solution, has arisen.

Teachers are continually asked to cover more ground, faster. This has caused many to focus more time on direct instruction, drilling the necessary information into the students’ heads. Furthermore, teacher evaluations, even in many of the most forward-thinking schools, are based around observations in which department chairs and administrators want to see “active” teachers at the center of the classroom, imparting their knowledge (on content or skills) to the students.

But we’re all wrong. Again.

Given the manner in which students learn, the teacher who spends his/her days at the front of class, engaging the students in lectures, or even lecture/discussions, is doing a disservice to his/her students. Students literally have the world at their fingertips with technology, but have little to no understanding of how to wield the great power they have just sitting behind a computer screen. Teachers who spend their days conveying information to students through lectures and/or Q and As commit the students to a place of passive consumer of information. This unintended lesson to the students is “wait for the information to come to you. If you don’t understand it, just ask the expert to explain it.” There is no agency granted the student in this process. While the content and/or the concept behind the skills will be bestowed upon the students, how to best acquire these things in the future are ignored.

But in a world in which teachers are asked to “teach” more, the answer to this problem is to actually “teach” less. Spend less time in front of the class–or create a class without a “front.” Ask students to discover on their own, using carefully selected guiding questions to push them to find out interesting and engaging information. Resist the urge to answer their content-related questions. Take a more hands-off policy towards the acquisition of information, and a more hands-on policy towards the development of learning qualities in students.

For example, I recently started a unit teaching Cuban history. Like many students, mine knew almost nothing about Cuban history, aside from the anecdotes they may have heard from parents, tv shows, and other popular sources. I could have spent three days giving them a long lecture/discussion about the history, from colonization to Jose Marti, to the Platt Amendment, to Batista, Castro, Che, the Missile Crisis, Angola, the Special Period, Elian Gonzalez, etc., etc., etc. in an attempt to make sure they “had a base of understanding” before we got into a project or activity. Instead, my unit plan looked like this:

Day One: Introduce the Question: “Given what you know about Cuban history, was Fidel Castro a net positive or net negative for the country?”

Days 2-5: Let the students figure out an answer.

That’s it. I assigned them a question and got out of their way. In the meantime, students came upon all the information I listed above naturally, and in ways that allowed them to “discover” the information. One student in particular could not believe the history of colonization in Cuba, and was constantly shouting out different terrible things that happened to the Cubans. This, of course, inspired others to look up the same information, and they inevitably found something else interesting that they shouted out. I’d prime the pump every now and then (for example, when the student found out some useful information about the end of the Spanish-American-Cuban War, I simply said “you might want to look up the term ‘Platt Amendment.’ There might be some interesting stuff there.” After he read it, chaos ensued.)

I encouraged students to share particularly useful information on our Edmodo group, and threw out some other sites they should check out for further study (the charts/visualizations at Gapminder were a huge hit). Homework was minimal (1-2 nights), students were less stressed, and while not every student got every piece of information, anyone who believes that all students will remember everything about a topic simply because you covered it in a lecture is kidding himself. Of course there were gaps in some students’ learning, but in three days, the majority of students in the class had covered about 200 years of Cuban history without so much as a sentence of lecture on my part. I spent exactly zero time doing what many consider to be “teaching,” but the students spent nearly 100% of the time doing what we all consider “learning.”

Of course, it’s fairly obvious at this point that the title of this post is a bit of a red herring. In fact, a teacher considering these methods is committing to teaching significantly more than one might using a teacher-centric strategy. But as a culture, we’ve developed a very narrow definition of “teaching,” and it’s a definition that may be irreparably damaged. It may be that the term “teaching”  should be simply thrown away for good. The focus of education shouldn’t be on teaching at all. It should be on learning. Simply put, we need to know better how to get out of our students’ ways. Teachers need to understand better how we can help students become learners in an environment that is 180 degrees different from the one in which we first became learners. Information is ubiquitous and easier to find than ever in human history, but analyzing, synthesizing, comparing, and evaluating that information has never been harder. We teachers need to shift our mindset away from what WE do (if that is teacher-centric instruction) and towards what the STUDENTS should do, or else we risk becoming less and less relevant with each passing day.

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