I’ve heard it said that teachers tend to teach they way we were taught. That was probably true for me, and I wonder why that happens. I think (though I have no research beyond my own experience to back this up) that many teachers liked school enough that they decided it would be a good place to spend a career, and liked at least some of their classes enough that they look at their (now former) teachers as role models or standards to aspire to. I know that I went to a very good school and had talented and creative teachers, and I’ve on occasion said I would be doing well if I could be “as good as” some of the teachers who taught me. Having a good school experience, positive feelings about school, and role models is a good thing. However, I think that we as a profession need to realize that…
- We are (for the most part) the group that school worked for. For far too many others, school was a less positive, less successful experience. For some, it still is. We need look no further than the the drop-out rates to confirm this.
- Things have changed since we were in school as students. (Yes, no matter how recently you entered the profession; the changes will no doubt seem less drastic to new teachers, but things have still changed). The classrooms we are in front of are not the same as the classrooms we were in. “inclusion” wasn’t really on the radar 25 years ago. The Internet and computing technology generally were in their infancy. The demographics of our country and our province have changed. And the world has changed, socially and economically. Moreover, the changes aren’t likely to stop anytime soon.
What does realizing these things mean? A lot. One of the things it means for me is that our profession should let go of some things that might seem familiar or perhaps even sacred. Things such as:
- Worksheets. The students that can do them don’t need them. They won’t help the students that can’t do them. That’s not to say that reviewing and applying what students learn is a bad thing. But the sorts of higher level critical thinking and real-world application that we should be looking to develop are rarely found on a worksheet. Some might say “but they need to practice the basics first”. I don’t doubt that there is a need to practice key skills… but surely this “practice” can be done in a more engaging, authentic way than (most?) worksheets.
- Averaging marks. If a student writes the test for his or her driver’s license, and for whatever reason gets a 20% the first time, a 35% on the second attempt, and an 80% on the third attempt, what’s the outcome? a. 20% + 35% + 80% gives an average mark of 45%. The student needs to write the test again to “bring up his average”. or b. The student has successfully demonstrated the required knowledge to obtain his or her driver’s license. That’s a drastic example, here’s a more likely one: if a student scores 60% and 80% on the assignments in a particular unit, and 90% on the test, assuming the assignments and the test focused on the same knowledge and skills, what should the student’s mark for the unit be? 77% or 90%?
- Assigning projects to the class that result in 30 of the same thing. Once upon a time, the ability to rigidly adhere to standards was important. We needed workers that could follow specific directions and reliably do the same things over and over again. Today we need citizens that can be creative, original, and innovative. If there are rules for doing (making, creating) something, those rules can be discussed in the context of what students choose to work on, or they might come through in the process and through meaningful feedback. Or the rules weren’t that important to begin with. I’m not suggesting unlimited possibilities. That can be overwhelming to students and might be as big a problem as only one possibility, and many students need some structure to hold on to. But surely there is room for some choice (perhaps to allow students to demonstrate their understanding using more than just the typical verbal-linguistic and mathematical intelligences that school traditionally favours).
- Not meeting the needs of some of our students. To be clear, this isn’t happening on purpose. In my experience, the vast majority of teachers (think 99.9%) are caring, dedicated, and do their best for every student. When governments and the education movement in Manitoba and across the country embraced a philosophy of inclusion, they did a good thing… but there wasn’t a really good answer for how to actually make inclusion work in the classroom. What this often looked like was teachers planning and running one program for the (imaginary) “regular” students, and then “adapting” and “modifying” that program to account for students with individual needs, and managing an increasing number of educational assistants to do this. So teachers often found themselves called on (and legally mandated) to plan and deliver 5, 10, 15 different variations of their classes while directing 1, 2, 3, more other adults. Basic truth: ask anyone to do 10 things at once, and the quality is going to be less than that same person would have been able to deliver if he or she was only doing one thing at once. Another basic truth: there is a limit to how many balls even the most talented juggler can keep in the air at once. Add to that planning, monitoring, and reporting mechanisms which hold teachers accountable for keeping all the balls in the air at once… no wonder things like teacher workload and job satisfaction have become more common issues (well, there are many reasons, but this is consistently in the top 5). The good news? We’re starting to figure out how to do inclusion without killing ourselves. For me, the answer to this “how do I meet the needs of all my students” question is Universal Design for Learning. I’m sure that topic will get its own blog post some time soon. I’m not saying that inclusion, even with UDL, isn’t a lot of work. I’m saying that we don’t have any choice but to be inclusive, that in my experience UDL makes inclusion easier, and that there’s some pretty compelling research to support this philosophy and approach. I like UDL (a lot), but whatever answer works, we need to teach all the students in our classroom.
There are other things I’m thinking might need to change too. I wonder whether we should have marks at all. And I wonder whether tests and exams should be a part of school today. But for now, at least, the system requires both of these, at least for some teachers in some grades and subjects, so I can’t very well say we need to scrap them. That, and I’m still in the “wonder” phase about both of these (though I’m leaning towards a thumbs down for both).
The other things, though? Worksheets. Averaging grades. The same project from every student. Not meaningfully including all the students in our classroom. They need to go. I doubt they were ever good practices, but they’re certainly not good practices today. I understand the attachment to them. The way things have been done in the past has tremendous inertia. That’s why brakes were invented, though, and I think it’s time we stopped.