When I was in school, most of my teachers subscribed to the belief that students should be seen and not heard. They felt as though they were the only ones who should be speaking in the classroom. Those same teachers thought it was all about feeding students information and making us regurgitate that information in written form on tests. In those classrooms, students didn’t talk for fear of being yelled at or having to sit in the corner. Things were different back then. Luckily, times have changed and a lot of those, what I like to call old-school teachers, have retired or passed away. Schools are now hiring teachers who believe in a student-centered approach to education. When the students do the learning, questioning, and teaching, engagement increases exponentially and learning becomes relevant and genuine. In classrooms around the world, teachers are guiding students by talking less and allowing students to talk more. This is how all classrooms should be structured and run. When this approach to teaching and education happens, it’s often hard to tell who learns more on a daily basis, the students or the teachers. The students teach the teachers sometimes more than what the teachers are trying to convey to the students. This is what effective teaching is all about.
Today in Humanities class, I was able to experience, first-hand, the value in empowering students to talk, think, question, and reflect in the classroom. At the close of class today, I provided some time for the students to reflect on what worked really well for them during the mapping activity that we spent the last three days working on. After I shared some observations with the students about what I noticed regarding their work habits as they crafted their maps in class, I asked them the following question, “What do you need to remember to do when tackling or completing a challenging or lengthy project or activity such as the mapping activity we completed today?” The students shared some awesome insight with the class: “I need to use a growth mindset when working on projects like this,” “I need to persevere and never give up even when the work seems hard,” “I need to ask questions to be sure I understand what I need to do,” and “I need to focus on my work and not compare myself to others.” Wow, I thought, they really understand themselves as learners and students. I was thoroughly impressed by their contributions to the discussion. However, the best part was yet to come.
First, an aside so that the next part of my story makes sense. To help my students focus on positive attributes and fully understand what is expected of them, I find that I try to point out what students are doing well so that others who are struggling to meet the expectations might be able to learn from a role model. This generally helps those students who seem confused, figure out what to do and transition or redirect themselves. I make sure that I’m also using different students as examples every time so that I make sure not to play favorites. Until today, I felt as though this strategy was successful and effective. I’ve used it for years as a way to highlight the good and not point out the negative behaviors.
Now, for the best part. So, following the class discussion about positive behaviors to utilize when working on a challenging task, a student asked this powerful question, “If you say that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others, why do you point out role models in the classroom during transition times?” Wow, I thought. That is insightful. Although I felt put on the spot, I also started to realize that maybe this practice of highlighting the role models in the classroom isn’t an effective practice to help the students focus on themselves. While comparing and contrasting ourselves to others can be a fruitful task to hold the bar for ourselves high, it can also be detrimental to helping us develop our individuality. In a society that is constantly bombarded with pictures, chats, and messages, about what everyone else is doing, it’s nice to be able to block out this white noise and focus on us as individuals. So, my response was this, “You make a valid point. Perhaps I will have to keep this in mind when I’m trying to help others see and understand what they need to do. I shouldn’t be forcing you to compare yourself to others. This is very interesting. I never thought about it like that.” I wanted the students to see an example of how one might respond to critical feedback. I took it in, acknowledged what I had done, and pointed out what I will try to do moving forward. While I was trying to help teach the students the value in using a growth mindset, persevering, and problem-solving when working on challenging tasks, this one student taught me something about my teaching practices that will cause me to reflect and adapt so that I can best support and help my students grow and develop. Sometimes I wonder who the real teacher in the classroom is, me or my students.