As an instructional coach, I have the privilege of visiting classrooms all over districts and schools – every content, grade, socioeconomic background, etc. And here’s what I find: We don’t instill the value of education and thinking; we assign it. Answering the questions in the back of the book, taking notes on a lecture (or just staring at your teacher and zoning out), and filling out a graphic organizer don’t help students to see the power and value of thinking and its correlation to writing. It makes writing seem like a chore – a means to an end. They copy and paste information from the teacher or book onto a page without much thought of the words they are choosing. They are rarely asked to do something with these words beyond memorize them. Teachers are so content driven come middle school and thereafter that they lose focus of what made them love the subject they are teaching in the first place, and thus take the love out of it for their kids as well.
What if we were to take the time to delve into the greater purpose for the learning?
We study Ancient Greece because their government has drastically influenced ours. However, Ancient Greece fell. Why? How might we be able to prevent succumbing to their pitfalls?
We study scientific theories, like motion. How can studying this help us improve at something we are passionate about? Or better understand the world around us? Affect our choices?
We study novels for their themes. Why not look at how this can better help us understand the world around us? Or ourselves? Or make choices in life?
What good is knowing something but not being able to do anything with that knowledge?
If kids are being asked to use their knowledge and produce something purposeful and meaningful, they now will not only better understand the knowledge, but it will also become transferable. And when we write, and really think about what we are writing, we are more likely to commit something to heart. Understanding is “doing”, which is far more than just knowing.
For example, I know how to measure. You take a ruler and count how many notches long or wide the object is. However, I literally cannot measure correctly! In school I was asked to measure objects that were on worksheets. However, in real life, OBJECTS MOVE or are longer than the ruler, or sometimes come between the notches, or you have to then convert the measurement…or, or, or…!!! So, yes, I know “how” to measure, but I LITERALLY CAN NOT!! (Sorry, husband…)
We have to get our kids to go past knowing and get to DOING. And sorry to break it to you, but answering questions where there is one right answer is NOT doing!
But, this is old news! Middle school teachers have been lectured on “the need for kids to write across the content” or “we are all literacy teachers” or “raise your DOK” eight million times! So why is this problem still so prevalent? Maybe it’s because of the old myth that “When your kids are silently working, an angel gets its wings“? Or, “If you cover all of the content in your text book, all dogs go to heaven“? (Great movie, btw! I mean, depressing as all get out, but real movie magic.)
So the million dollar question is: How do we get change to occur?!
First of all, we need to realize the repercussions of us teaching the way we currently are. Think about recent events on social media platforms like, say, oh…Twitter?! I mean, not being specific or anything, just saying that maybe the news has been following someone who uses their Twitter account to bully others? But that could be anybody, really. But regardless of which incident (of many!!) I am referring to, Twitter rants and Facebook bullying are kind of rampant these days. Why might that be? Well, at what point in their educational career were these people taught the power of their words? Or taught to understand the world around them? To challenge their perspective? Or understand the consequences of their actions by seeing themselves in others? Probably never. They “read” MacBeth in school, and took the test. They “studied” the rise and fall of the Roman empire, and took the test. They wrote that “really profound” essay explaining what the scientific process is. But do they understand any of this? Clearly not. And they don’t respect them either.
I am not saying that having purposeful learning will solve the world’s problems. That would be a lie – OR the easiest in for the Nobel Peace Prize ever! But perhaps it could help curtail some of these issues in the future. And, knowing how middle schoolers work, it will probably help create buy-in for learning as well, because the learning will be purposeful beyond a test.
So what about the time factor? Let’s be honest, doing takes more time than memorizing. And I could argue all day long that the investment is worth it, but that will win over like .01% of you (if anyone actually even reads this…). Yes, time will be an issue. It’s a matter of prioritizing what your kids need to know and determining how to best get them there.
Example: You may loooove discussing all of the nitty gritty details about some scientist and his/her (yes, her!) work on [fill in the blank], but will all of these details help your kids understand the theory? So you may have to pair down this learning. Focus your roadmap of instruction.
Another time saver that a lot of teachers take for granted is wasted time repeating information. Teachers regularly assign reading, then their kids come in the next day and the teacher lectures on the reading, reiterating every single detail that was already supposed to have been read. There goes an entire day of instruction that could have been used for DOING instead of KNOWING! Yes, it is our job to curtail misconceptions, but couldn’t you use a bellringer to determine if there were any misconceptions in the first place? Or circulate during the lab to determine which groups may need some remediation before they continue? Or allow kids to discuss parts they were confused about and try to come up with a greater understanding?
In my classroom, I made this mistake numerous times early in my career when I was trying to imitate the “greats” of my past – or at least do what I thought I was supposed to do so I didn’t get fired.
Some of my top moments included:
- having my kids spend a week drawing pictures to recount a chapter of a story, comic book style (Bye bye, instructional time!);
- giving my kids a laundry list of questions of basic recall level about their novel due on such-and-such unreasonable a date for a test grade (What was I really testing here?!);
- and, my personal favorite, throwing in random activities because they seemed “cool” – like the time we built imaginary temples for gods and goddesses during our mythology unit. (WHY?!)
We are all victims of our preconceived notions about what teaching should be, but it’s time to become what teaching can be. We need to trust our students enough to allow them to think for themselves as opposed to us being the keepers of the knowledge. Dude, did you forget about Google?!
Using purposeful instruction, mapping ourselves towards our standards and goals, and having our kids DO something with their knowledge will change these results. And hopefully our kids will be able to think before they speak (in person or virtually) because they will see the world and others just a little bit differently and better understand the power they have over their thinking.
** On a side note, if you have never heard of UbD (Understanding by Design) or PBL (Project Based Learning), these may be places to start. They have planning resources, sample units, etc. that can help you to see a different way of thinking about your units of instruction. If nothing else, I highly recommend thinking about the following:
- What is my content?
- Why am I teaching it? (NOT just because it’s in the book/stds.)
- What do I want my kids to be able to do/know at the end of the unit? How will they demonstrate this understanding? (Knowing your end task and rubric help focus and narrow your instructional path)
- What background knowledge/skills are required of my kids to access this?
- What knowledge/skills will they need to acquire along the way?
- What roadblocks might my students encounter? How can I prevent these? What resources do I have when we come upon them?