As my beard turns from rusty red to silver and grey, I realize my physical form is not the only part of my being that is changing as I age. As a teacher, my ideas and routines are constantly evolving like a great oak tree sitting in a hardwood forest amongst other lofty trees.
I used to be from the school of thought that believed we need to spoon feed our students everything. So, my classes were once teacher-directed. The students did very little talking. I just thought that the students needed to have everything given to them so that they could comprehend the concepts or content being taught. I looked at myself as a UPS worker. I needed to personally deliver the packages of information to my students. Then, I needed to have them sign for the packages to be sure they received them. This, for me, came in the form of standardized tests or quizzes.
Clearly, this was not an effective method of instruction or even slightly sound pedagogical approach to teaching. Even auditory learners did not really benefit from this method of teaching. I didn’t come to this realization until I did some probing, thinking, and learning.
I realized that this way of teaching did not allow my students the opportunity to think about, engage in, process, or practice exploring the content. No genuine thinking was involved. After learning about the neuroscience research completed in the educational realm, I realized that I needed to provide my students with the chance to “play” with the content before I should ever expect them to “get” it. Students need to see the content as relevant and find it interesting or engaging in order for it to be learned and imprinted in the long-term memory bank.
How do I do this? Do I provide the students with projects? Do I give them group work assignments? Do I have them discuss it? What can I do to better meet the needs of my students?
I struggled for a long time. I wanted to be in control of my classroom. If I tried independent work or group projects, I would lose control. The students would be in control. I can’t handle that, I thought. Then it hit me. I needed to rethink my role as teacher. I am more like a mountain guide, aiding a group of climbers through a treacherous mountain range. I show them the way, make sure they get there safely, and help them when they need it. They do the climbing for themselves. They solve their own little problems in order to keep up. I needed to know that the classroom should be student-centered.
After many anxiety attacks because I was worried about giving up the reigns to my classroom, I started to switch my mindset. I needed to have a growth mindset as Carol Dweck suggests. I did more research and investigating about how to make my classroom more student-oriented.
One easy switch was to ask questions and allow the students opportunities to ask questions. Instead of providing all of the answers to my students, I needed to allow them the chance to process information and formulate their own responses and answers. If they were thinking about what we were learning in order to answer a question or participate in a class discussion, their brains would fire neurons and make connections like nobody’s business. While this was difficult for me as I was so used to saying it all, it proved to be very beneficial for my students. They started thinking and processing the concepts and content. They had to make decisions about what was important, valuable, and necessary. This forced them to be actively engaged in the class and material covered. I was no longer in charge. The students were running the show. I started implementing Socratic Circles as a way of discussing and contemplating the material. The boys asked questions, made connections to prior knowledge, and summarized what their peers said. They were really learning. I also allowed them the chance to ask questions and create inquiry questions that they would research further. It was an amazing transformation. “Why?” is now the most frequently heard word in my classroom. Thinking = Learning.
Although I do wish I had come to this realization earlier in my career so that I could have helped more students, being able to now teach this way has made me a better teacher. So, now what?