By Teachers, For Teachers
“I teach, students learn” is the old mantra of the classroom teacher. This mantra supports the idea that the teacher’s job is to dispense information, then test students on it. The students’ job is to absorb everything the teacher offers and then pass the test.
But the reality of education is far different than the binary teacher-learner division of labor that has defined the landscape for so long. Students cannot just absorb a new skill in the same way a mop soaks up spilled milk from the cafeteria floor. Teachers cannot just teach and assume that, weeks later on the test, students will have recorded or understood everything they needed to.
Instead of thinking of education as a fixed system of teach-then-test-then-repeat, let’s use our teaching strategies to reflect on how we can consider education as a process, and improve it each step along the way.
Before just dispensing information, we need to tell students what that information is for in the first place. If a student is expected to learn a set of skills or content, then it’s helpful for them to understand why expending effort toward it is important.
Consider how you might help to establish a purpose behind the learning that students will pursue. Tell students why what they’re pursuing is useful, or facilitate time for students themselves to connect learning to their personal aspirations. Doing so prior to the onset of new material helps students develop a stronger sense of understanding and ownership.
For any particular skill or set of knowledge we want our students to acquire, there are tried-and-true methods for helping them acquire it. Do you know the best practices for the skills you’re focusing on? Lecturing while students take notes is one method of information delivery, but consider how technology, gamification, collaboration, problem solving, and other memorable interactions with content can lead to genuine skill building.
Also consider not just how you lead the whole class, but how you help instruct students one-on-one or in smaller groups. When we talk to or lead whole-class activities, this is a markedly different manner of communicating than sitting beside a few students and coaching them through the task. And when it comes to homework, if you’re assigning any, you must consider how exactly it fits into the goals and curriculum of your course. If we’re going to demand students take time out of class to complete work, there’s no doubt that this work must be meaningful and that students have what they need to successfully complete it.
After students engage in learning tasks and complete supplemental work, how will they grow? We want to avoid a one-and-done sort of approach to learning, since this encourages a fixed mindset and gives students little opportunity to reflect on their process and outcome. Instead, we want to consider how student work has a feedback loop where we don’t merely justify the grade we’ve given, but emphasize what students can do to improve in this task. Feedback also implies that there is time is provided for reflection, and that the feedback is retained and implemented on the next relevant task.
Often I have students hold up their most recent assignment with my grade and comments on it, asking, “Can I throw this away?” Students don’t see the value of feedback unless we teach them how to use it as a tool for growth. If we help students learn how to learn, study, and persevere, then they may be more likely to value feedback as an essential part of the learning process. But like so many things, if we merely assume students know this already, we may be inadvertently setting students up for failure.
One increasing critique of the traditional education model is that all students are expected to learn at the same pace. Topic X is covered for one week, and if a student doesn’t “Get it” by the end of that week, then they fail the test. But is there something we can do for students who need a little longer to learn something other than failing them?
The first thing to determine is which students are getting it or not, and we must determine this before the test. The traditional model puts the onus on the student, as teachers scold, “They should have studied. They should have asked for help. They …” While it is important for students to advocate for their own learning, it’s also important that teachers meet them halfway. Sometimes it’s difficult for a student to self-assess their own progress, or they may not know what to do should they in fact fall behind.
The effective teacher, then, is equipped with a range of formal and informal formative assessments that help determine at any point how on-pace students are. This formative feedback can then be leveraged by the teacher to make appropriate adjustments for students. In some cases, the teacher can help students advocate for their needs; in other cases, the teacher can provide a direct intervention to help bring those students to where their learning needs to be.
Whatever the case, we cannot merely wait until a summative test to find out if students get it or not. The combination of formative assessments and interventions will help education adjust to students’ needs, rather than falsely assuming the opposite will happen on its own.
A summative assessment is meant to be, finally, the end of the journey. Often we leap to this step, ignoring the other elements of purpose, instruction techniques, feedback, and interventions. If we have successfully spent time building the other elements of learning into our curriculum path, then we will likely look forward to the summative evaluation of student progress.
The design of the summative assessment is important, as it must directly test what it is that students have been learning. This may sometimes lead to a multiple-choice test, but there may be other forms of assessment that more meaningfully relate to student learning. The design should directly indicate the exact extent to which students have successfully mastered the skills and content we have expected them to.
And of course, a summative assessment never means “The End.” The results of the assessment give feedback to both the student and the teacher. For the student, they can see their results, reflect on their process through the curriculum, and consider how to make adjustments for future learning. The teacher can likewise reflect on the process of instruction, feedback, and intervention they presented and make adjustments for strengthening it in the future.
There are plenty of factors a teacher can reasonably blame for the outcome or failures of students. Their attitude. Their parents. Their socioeconomic status. Their work schedule. Their interests.
The truth is that many of these factors play a strong role on a student’s overall learning; however, they are never excuses for teachers to justify their own teaching approaches. The key for teachers is to consistently reflect on their instructional process. Some practices are fantastic; others are in need of adjustment and steps must be taken to improve the process.
Hopefully the above guide helps you to consider the various aspects that go into your instruction and student learning. Reflect on where the current strengths and weaknesses are, and consider how you can continue to modify your instructional strategies to benefit student learning!
What else would you add to this list of reflective topics and questions? Share your ideas with our TeachHUB.com community in the comments below!
Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.