Sunday, August 25, 2013

Two Theories Diverged...

This past week I had somewhat of an epiphany as I was working with a large number of Juniors and Seniors at the College of Education from our local university. They'd asked that I give a three and a half hour overview of literacy, Common Core standards, and anything else they thought might be helpful to kids at the beginning of their careers.

Three and a half hours is a long time, especially to the students who were hearing a lot of information all at once. But I tried to build a foundation from the beginning by starting with educational theory. It was the discussion of theory that led to my epiphany.

My basic approach was to talk about two major theories of learning that teachers tend to have - the transmission theory and constructivist theory. Transmission theory holds that the teacher possesses knowledge that must be transmitted to students, who are simply receptacles. This is also called the banking method - the teacher makes “deposits” in the students' knowledge, slowly adding to their overall understanding over time. The students' job is simply to receive the knowledge and remember it. The problem with this approach is that it views the learner as passive and uninvolved, and doesn't value the knowledge the learners bring with them. It also tends not to stick, because the learner doesn't value or relate to the information. Teachers who believe in transmission theory will often say, “I don't know what's wrong with these kids - I told them what to do and they just won't do it.” The implication is if the students don't learn there must be something wrong with them because the teacher did her job.

Social constructivist theory, on the other hand, holds that learners construct their understandings by combining new knowledge with old knowledge. In order to understand a concept at a deep level, such as how to infer character motivations in a classic novel, the learner must draw from both the text (new information) and previous experiences (old knowledge) to infer, for instance, why Atticus Finch chooses to defend a black man in “To Kill a Mockingbird”. A teacher believing in the transmission model would explain the character's motivations to the students, while those using social constructivist theory would ask students to talk about it, drawing on what they already know about the time period and human nature. Social constructivist teaching takes longer, but it's relevant learning that remains with the student after the teacher is gone.

I'm beginning to realize, as a coach working with teachers and other coaches, that oftentimes what I see as stubbornness or resistance to new ideas is actually a clash between my learning theory and theirs. Underlying all instructional moves, assessment decisions, or classroom management strategies is the instructor's theory, and if I don't first understand that, I can't hope to effect change.

I need to think about this further, but so far I have several things I wonder about:

  • Does everyone consciously know their own theory of learning? My guess is they don’t so then, as a coach, how do I help them tap into that?
  • Is constructivist theory always best? Are there times when transmission is the preferred method?
  • What language can I use as a coach that is the least threatening, and allows people to freely examine their learning theories without feeling defensive?

What about you? What is your theory of learning?

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Fair Isn't Equal

It's the time of year when students and teachers are cramming in last-minute vacations before the fast-approaching first day of school. If you're a teacher, then most likely you're already dreaming “school dreams” at night and having day dreams as well. I always love the planning part of summer, when anything is possible and my optimist self foresees all my plans going perfectly in the upcoming year. Yep, THIS year I'll be organized, efficient, and downright inspirational to the best group of kids a teacher could hope to assemble in one place. Then reality hits as soon as every kid arrives bringing a bag of notebooks, folders, and reams of paper, none of which have their name on them, and somebody's crying and another one's mom wants to stay for the first 3 hours and my best laid plans are out the window before 8:15.

I do know, however, that however chaotic those first hours are in the classroom, one of the most important things I do during that crucial beginning time is to establish through my words and actions what kind of place this classroom will be for the 25 or so kids and I who inhabit it. Everything I say and how I say it is watched ever so carefully by kids those first hours, and so no matter how messy the pile of notebooks and folders, I have to prioritize and spend time creating community. My actions and words need to communicate that this is the kind of place where you'll be expected to think, where we value what you think even if we don't understand or agree with it, and where it's safe to be different and creative and even wrong.

Something I love to do on the first day, after everyone is settled and I've gathered everyone on the rug to tell them a little about myself, is to share with them an anonymous quote written large on chart paper: “Fair isn't equal. Fair doesn't mean everyone gets the same. It means that everyone gets what they need.” We talk about what this means, and how my job is to figure out what each one of them needs and their job is to help me find that out. Everyone in our classroom is different and has differing needs. One person might need me to help them come up with ideas for writing while another person might have plenty of ideas but need help organizing them. Some of them might love multiplication but need help with fractions, while others are just the opposite. People are complicated beings, which is why teaching isn't easy, but it's always interesting.

As I'm explaining this, all their faces are turned towards me, listening intently, not really sure what I mean. Some of them want to trust me, but if they've struggled in school they may be wary of being the one that's “different,” the one who sits in the special desk or sees the teacher every day for interventions. They don't really trust that I'll treat everyone's needs differently or that I'll ask their opinion about why they feel the need to distract other kids in circle time or that I really do want to hear about the fort they built behind their house during a writing conference. That will come later.

For now, they have homework: find out from their parents at exactly what age they learned to walk, say their first word, and lost their first tooth. We spend the next few days charting these facts so that I can once again reinforce the idea that we're all slightly different, just like snowflakes. And if our bodies grow at differing speeds, reaching these milestones at different times, then our minds and how we think develop the same way: at different speeds and at different times, but we all DID eventually lose our first tooth, right? We all did learn to walk and talk. So too will we all learn the things we're setting out to learn this year, but it won't happen at the same time for each one of us. And that's perfectly okay, because that's only natural.

It's my job to find out exactly what they need as students, and it's our job as a classroom community to help each other get there. It should be what being in school is all about.