How Do We Help Students Realize Why We Do What We Do in the Classroom?

Looking back on my middle and high school years, I don’t ever recall a teacher explaining the purpose for what we were doing in the classroom.  Why did we have to take such copious notes during class lectures?  What was the purpose of memorizing a huge chunk of text or the meanings of useless vocabulary terms?  Why did I have to label the parts of a frog’s anatomy?  How did any of what I did in school prepare me for my future?  It didn’t.  I don’t ever find myself wondering about what the red mass in a frog’s stomach is.  As far as taking notes, recent studies have proven that taking notes during a lecture prevents you from being able to effectively process the information conveyed.  Instead, what my teachers should have done is chunk the lecture and have us take notes after each major section.  This way we would have been taking in the information and having time to process what it means before we put the knowledge into our notes.

As a teacher, I want to make sure that my students understand the purpose of everything we do in and out of the classroom.  Before new units or activities, I almost always explain why they need to learn the information or practice the skills covered.  Knowing the whys of life helps foster motivation.  If my students understand that they need to learn how to effectively discuss ideas and concepts because the socratic model of discussion is used in the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades here at Cardigan, they will be more apt to put forth greater effort because they see the purpose and value in practicing the skill.  Over the years, this practice of explaining why we do what we do in the classroom has helped the students better comprehend the overall experience they receive in the sixth grade.

Sometimes, however, a few of the students get stuck and frustrated.  They don’t seem to understand why we have them work in small groups to complete a task.  Why do I have to work with a partner to participate in the Stock Market Game? they say,  why can’t I do it by myself?  Despite offering insight as to the value and importance of being able to effectively coexist with their peers in order to become a vital global citizen, a few of the students, each year, don’t seem to understand why they have to complete certain tasks in a certain manner.  How do we help them see the light?

Today in Humanities class, we provided those non-believers with some concrete evidence of why we place so much emphasis on the habits of learning and core values of our school instead of content and knowledge.  For today’s current event discussion, I introduced an article found on the Newsela Website.  It detailed a study conducted by Duke University about the value in teaching “soft skills” such as teamwork and collaboration and critical thinking.  The study proved that at-risk students who were introduced to and practiced applying the “soft skills” in elementary school, were less likely to develop behavioral problems and get into trouble with the law in the future.  This article made it glaringly evident as to why we, in the sixth grade at Cardigan, focus on the habits of learning and important life skills that we do.  When the students discussed, in small groups, how learning these “soft skills” in school impacts students in the future, they almost all mentioned how much more effective our classes in the sixth grade are compared to their previous schools where the focus was on testing, work, or grades.  They felt pressured and were unhappy having to spend almost every waking moment studying for tests or completing homework for what seemed to them to be futile.  They feel safe, secure, and happy in the sixth grade at our school because the focus is on the crucial life skills needed to be effective global citizens.

It was encouraging to hear the students discuss how much they are enjoying their experience in our class and at our school this year.  It made all the frustration and preparation totally worth it.  When the students see the value in what we do in the classroom, it leads to stronger student engagement and dedication.  Even those outliers who seemed to struggle buying into our sixth grade program, now can see the purpose in why we place so much emphasis on learning the “soft skills” and habits of learning.  It’s really nice when everything works out just right.  I kind of felt like Goldilocks today.  Everything was just perfect.


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