Saturday, 29 September 2012
Learning to Get Out of the Way..... of Learning
My return to the classroom this September has me learning all sorts of things both from colleagues and students. I've always loved teaching but the whole 21st Century learning model has me rethinking and reworking some of my professional practice. Students past (and present) tell me that my teaching style is enthusiastic and engaging. I like what I do and who I work with, and hopefully it shows. That won't change. What's changing is my role within a class.
Many of us have heard the old saw about being a guide on the side instead of a sage on the stage. Priming the learning pump and getting out of the way however can be harder than it sounds. English is one of those subjects that, if presented well, should excite and engage students through literature, composition, critical thinking and considered discussion and debate. Getting the ball rolling is the easy part. Extricating oneself from the discussion and letting the students really get into their work is the hard part.
Recently my class examined the Robert Browning poem, "My Last Duchess". After an initial reading of the poem and a short discussion for meaning and clarity, students broke into groups of three and began to really delve into the work analyzing structure and content as it related to our theme of identity. Listening to discussions between students about the characters of the poem, their identities and how they interacted or might have responded to one another was both exhilarating and exhausting. I really wanted to jump in several times with some nugget of knowledge or a clever redirecting question, but without exception the groups all managed to work deep into the themes, structure and content of the assignment without needing my assistance. Instead they sparked off of and came to the assistance of one other, with the result being that every student achieved a top grade. The fact that I was present and available to help if needed, provided students with the structure and confidence they needed to achieve the task without overt guidance or instruction. My job was to set the assignment and spark the initial discussion. I was there to provide structure and support, but more importantly I had to stay out of the way as students discovered things for themselves. The time flew by, and before any of us knew it the class was over, the assignments were complete and I was worn out from the effort of keeping quiet and out of the way.
I'm not alone in this experience. The website plpnetwork.com (Powerful Learning Practice - professional development for 21st century educators) recently posted a blog by science teacher Marsha Ratzel entitled Teaching by Getting Out of the Way. It relates a similar experience to my own in the context of a middle school science lesson. Ms. Ratzel calls her inquiry based teaching style being present without hovering or hammering home the message. She relates that, "By the end of the period, I think they were shocked at how well they were capable of managing their own learning. And it was a revelation to me. I gained so much insight into what my students, individually and collectively, were capable of doing." Such knowledge helps teachers to build a strong sense of community and caring within the classroom. Students know that their teacher values both them and their efforts, and in return the teacher gains insights into the students and is better able to tailor lessons to meet their needs.
A month has passed and together, my students have done some great work. Absenteeism is not a problem and nobody is falling behind. Positioned, as it is, at the very end of the day, our English class could very quickly become an irksome challenge if it were not interesting and engaging. So far, by structuring interesting and challenging lessons and then getting out of the way of student learning the class has been something all its members enjoy and look forward to!