computers, classroom, climbing, etc.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A good teacher

A bit unstructured – but I’m going to throw this out there while it’s still a little rough.

Been listening to Erling Roland from the University of Stavanger’s Centre for behavioural research , hired in for our last PD day before summer.

Mr. Roland’s recipe for a good teacher is fairly simple: organization and an ability to see individual pupils. He claims a solid research basis for these claims. Students do better with organized teachers who notice them.

What’s my problem? Well, I’m a very disorganized person and I’m no good at seeing people. Now what? There seem to be four options:

1. Accept that I am not the right person, do the moral thing and look for another job.

2. Accept that I am not the right person and humbly try to change.

3. Ignore all this and carry on as usual.

4. Reject this ‘recipe for a good teacher’ despite its empirical basis.

Let’s look at 2. and 4. (1 and 3 just seem too wimpy). Why would I think that I have anything to offer my pupils anyway? What does an unempathic, messy person have to give? Well, I’m good at learning things, so not only do I know a lot, but I have a lot to say about how anyone else can get to know a lot as well.

So, if I can learn things, why can’t I also learn to be a good teacher? It’s true that much of one’s personality is stable as an adult, but specific behaviours can be learned. This is one of the attractive things about being a teacher, actually: the job offers almost unlimited potential for personal growth. It takes a deal of humility, of course, to think like this, but I have got to the point where I can’t imagine going into the classroom without seeing it as an arena for my learning as well as the pupils’. I have a deal with myself. When I stop thinking this way, I will start looking for another job.

What about point 4 above? Mr. Roland praised a colleague of mine who had his pupils rise and stand silently by their desks when he entered the room and again at the end of class. There is good evidence that such clear structure around the school day (and around who is in charge) helps pupils learn better. There is also some time and stress to be saved by simply insisting on a certain way of doing things.

There is a danger here, however. I remember waking up every school day when I was a teenager and feeling nauseous. Because I had to go to school. Stand, sit, ask to go to the bathroom, not use the hallway (or my locker) except during breaks, etc. etc. The whole institution seemed geared to getting us to toe the line, behave and conform. No-one was interested in us learning anything, just in us sitting in our desks and doing what we were told. It’s no wonder I didn’t learn anything there. I’m congenitally unable to learn anything while sitting down anyway, and I felt the rigid structure of our school day was fundamentally disrespectful to the pupils. Feeling constantly insulted made it hard to learn anything.

A predictable routine can help create security, and a tone of respect for the teacher and the institution is important to establish, but I’m worried about an overly formal and rigid atmosphere being inconducive to learning. The trouble with empirical evidence for learning is that learning is hard to measure. The easiest thing to measure is rote memorization, so unfortunately, much of the research on what helps learning is actually research on what helps rote memorization.

It’s easy to believe that a rigid, military-style school atmosphere is a good atmosphere for learning facts by heart. It’s harder to believe that it is a good atmosphere for nurturing things like creativity, critical thinking and personal growth – and that’s what I’m interested in.

1 comment:

  1. Some comments from Facebook (Good Lord)

    Lisa Sansom at 2:37am June 27
    Students are unique, just as teachers are unique. Structure doesn't work for everyone - not all teachers, and not all students. As a teacher, there are, of course, certain basic structural requirements: attendance, evaluations, etc. But apart from that... well, keep it legal and ethical and moral and just about anything goes. We have moved a long ... Read Moreway from rote repetitive learning, and fewer kids fall through the cracks. Yes, I think you do need to "see" the students, but you do that with your own eyes and in your own way. Not necessarily the way Roland "measured", but you can connect with the heart, and not just the mind and eyes, and it's very meaningful for your students. Just the fact that you care enough about this study to reflect on it personally demonstrates to me that you care for your students, you see them and want the best for them, and that makes you an excellent teacher already. IMHO.

    John Marchant at 4:27am June 27
    I must agree with your concerns about how they measure success in students. Standardized testings do little to catch true teaching or learning and rather just reinforce that bright self-controlled students do well in structured learning environments. I know the youth I work with tend to flourish in "messy environs". I have a problem with your second proposition in that, unless you have changed beyond reasonable expectations you have never HUMBLY considered doing anything. Can always come back to Canada and teach my messy kids.

    Fun to get feedback from you guys, but I'm not quite sure what John meant about point two.

    I also have to find a way to integrate Facebook back here as seamlessly as this content shows up on Facebook.