Listening Opened My Eyes
As a high school math teacher, I have spent the last five years trying to meet the challenge that I face daily. The challenge of teaching students mathematical concepts that most of them will never use, with context they know is contrived, mostly because the state requires them to pass a test and meet a core requirement so they can graduate. To really ramp up the task, in choosing math, I chose a subject that the vast majority of my students hate long before they meet me.
As a new teacher, I set out to use inspiring stories, cool videos, state of the art technology, and innovative, research-based instructional strategies to hook my students and show them that math really isn't that bad and that they were all capable of doing it. After my first year, I realized that my supposedly compelling lectures and class demonstrations were nothing more than a dog and pony show designed to get me good teacher evaluations without ever really considering whether or not the students were actually learning the material (and I mean REALLY learning ... not just performing on a test).
I decided to give my students a college-esque teacher evaluation sheet (link at the bottom of this page) to be filled out confidentially at the end of the year. As I poured through the student reflections, I realized, none of the responses mentioned any of the compelling lectures I had given, the cool homework we did, or the well designed tests I gave them. However, several of the responses referenced projects we had worked on, products we had produced, and discussions we had engaged in.
After three years of similar responses, it finally occurred to me that I needed to listen to what they were telling me. Whether AP Calculus or repeater Algebra, my students were clearly telling me that they understood things they actively participated in. They engaged in things they did. They needed an expert in the room to help guide them, to provide them with the tools necessary to complete the next task, to answer questions when they got too far off base, and to hold them accountable to reaching the goals, but they did not like, nor did they retain anything from my thoughtfully designed lectures.
This is not a new concept. For at least a decade, research has suggested collaborative, immersive techniques are are more effective. However, when I observe teachers, and when I reflect on my own classroom, I realize just how easy it is to fall into the trap of regurgitating my learning experience as a student instead of innovatively teaching for true learning. I realize that I am often guilty of making sure my kids can pass a series of tests but routinely fail to teach them how to actually learn. I spend too much time thinking about ancillary school things and not enough time planning quality units and lessons that truly inspire deep, meaningful learning.
To break this cycle, I have forced myself to take sometimes grueling feedback from my students and listen to it. I have started designing my lessons with the end in mind. Focusing on what it is I hope my students can actually do instead of hoping they can perform on some test. I have come to understand that the test scores take care of themselves. It's a giant leap of faith, but I now truly believe that if we teach for deep, meaningful understanding, we don't have to do much in the form of test prep to have good scores. Of course, this type of teaching produces much more than good scores on arbitrary, mandated tests. It produces students who are self-directed, self-sustaining learners who are eager to prove their mettle instead of eager to find a good reason to avoid my class.
4/30/2014 08:06:09 am
Excellent piece and reflection Michael! So often we, as administrators and teachers, give lip service to what is truly important....teaching for understanding rather than test items. Students are lucky to have had the opportunity to study with you. STEM is the next big step in your career.......carry on, Michael, carry on!
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