Sunday, April 14, 2013

Teaching for Learning

As Statewide Testing approaches, teachers are beginning to bite their nails and fret about how well their students will perform.  After all- the results are a direct reflection on them, right?  Well, that can certainly be debated.  We do know, though, that two hot issues in schools lately are teaching for understanding and assessing appropriately.  Teachers constantly feel pressured to teach so that students' standardized test scores thrive.  For many, this means making use of the materials created at the state or national level to cover standards.  This could also mean attempting to “get through” an entire textbook in a short period of time to be sure students have been exposed to everything necessary for the next course in the sequence.  But is this really the best practice?  Can students really learn through mere exposure?  Well, that depends.

Studies have found that students who connect with material in a deeper manner perform better on tests and need less review time.  It isn’t about “cramming” for them; instead, it’s about transferring connections made in class (or life)  to the materials on the standardized tests.  This can even be applied to subjects which do not undergo mandated testing.  If the district/state doesn’t evaluate us, we should evaluate ourselves.  We are in this profession for the students, not for personal gain.  So, how can we be sure to be the best for them?  

Give ample opportunities for students to learn
Do you spend a lot of time designing engaging lessons?  Or are you more comfortable sticking with one tried-and-true teaching method?  Unfortunately, our comfort usually leads to student discomfort.  Our kids crave excitement and new opportunities.  If they feel stuck and bored, it is unlikely that they will truly learn the material.  Sure, they may be able to complete a worksheet for a grade and even fill in a few correct bubbles on a test, but they will not walk away from our classes with real knowledge or interest in our subjects if we fail to engage them.

Teach students how they want to be taught
Know your students.  Most are great with technology, and should be given chances to use it when they learn.  Listen to them if they suggest or reject a teaching method or learning opportunity- sometimes we like to be the boss, but sometimes going overboard causes them to retreat from us and the content.  Keep an open mind!

Ask yourself: Can students recall what you taught them yesterday?  Last week?  Last quarter?  ...etc.
If the answer is no, they are not learning the material.  Perhaps our scope and sequence isn’t aligned, or perhaps we weren’t invested in what we taught.  Maybe we taught something too fast and didn’t allow for enough practice time.  But if you are seeing a pattern of classwide amnesia, it’s not necessarily the students’ fault.  Start asking real questions, seeking real answers, and designing real assessments, and they will remember!

Listen to student questions
Hearing “I don’t understand” can be a momentum killer in a class.  Hearing follow-up questions that the students are using to gain deeper understanding can be momentum builders.  But both cases require the teacher to respond appropriately.  Saying “we just covered that” doesn’t help the struggling student; instead, it pushes them into a shell that is difficult to escape.  Redirecting content to meet the needs of our students ensures that the material is flowing the way that it needs to for them to truly understand.

Inspire engagement outside of class
Most of us can agree that the subjects we best understand are the ones we’re interested in.  Our jobs as educators do not end when the bell rings or when school lets out for the summer.  If the kids are motivated to continue working on our content areas for fun, they will shine.  Simply handing out another worksheet or asking students to go to a performance for extra credit isn’t enough.  “A” students will take advantage of these every time, but the others will not.  We know if we are really reaching our kids when they come to class and inform us of something they learned about our subject that we did not ask them to; and this is where the real learning begins!

Assess appropriately
Memorizing is only temporary.  Those of us who were required to memorize the Preamble to the Constitution or Shakespeare can attest to this- you learn it for a week, prove that you’ve got it, then throw it out the window.  If there is no real use for an assessment, why would we do it?  If we are tempted to say “to see who was paying attention,” we are doing a disservice to our students (besides- look to see how many of us are fully engaged when sitting at staff development workshops, etc.).  Now, if students are asked to make connections with what they’ve learned, they are forced to think their way through it in a way that makes sense to them.  They will remember real learning opportunities, but they will forget every question on every multiple-choice test they are ever given.

Keep learning=keep changing
Good teachers never consider their jobs to be done.  They look for and implement new ways to teach.  They may draw from previously taught units and lessons, but generally are not happy simply copy-pasting from old lesson plans.  Ask yourself each Friday: what did I try this week that I’ve never tried before?  If you say “nothing,” beware!  We can only improve if we keep trying, and even (or especially) if something doesn’t work, try, try again!

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