Friday, April 29, 2011

The Most Important Word to Use in Your Classroom

One of the toughest jobs that a teacher has right now is to overcome the culture of standardized test prep.  The pressure to pass state tests has lead us to a place where more importance is placed on memorization of factual nuggets, learning test taking tricks, and following memorized procedures than real critical thinking.  For many teachers, it's tough to remember that we entered this profession to inspire the next generation to greatness when we spend the majority of our time filling our students' heads with unrelated facts.  The term "problem solving" used to mean the ability to actually come up with practical solutions to real problems.  It has evolved to mean "coming up with the right answer to a math problem that is written with words." 

That's not problem solving.  That's not critical thinking.  That's the ability to read and make a calculation.

It doesn't take real thinking.  It won't help you figure out how to solve the problems that will face you in life.

When it comes to reading and social studies, our demands on students are no better.  We still ask for the main idea of a passage that students have no interest in reading, but never insist they read something they feel strongly about and give them a change to motivate their fellow students to action.  We ask for the date of the American Revolution and the cause of the Civil War, but never insist that they find parallels to current world events. 

It's as if those in power want us to pump out automatons that blindly follow orders instead of innovators who can mold the future. 

Can we rise above these pressures to inspire students, demand critical thinking, and at the same time prepare our students for state tests? Is there something that can be done which doesn't take a ton of professional development, training, or an overhaul of current practices?  Is there something we can do right now?

Yes.  Start asking "Why?"

When your students tell you the answer they came up with on your math assignment, don't tell them whether it's right or wrong.  Ask them why that's their answer.  When your students tell you that the main character in the story was "friendly", don't let them off the hook.  Ask them to prove why he was friendly.  When your students tell you that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, ask them "why?"  Make the use of "why" so ubiquitous in your classroom that your students know it's coming before you even ask.

Your students will hate it at first, and for a while it will probably be uncomfortable for you.  They'll look at you with blank stares, speechless at the fact that you are making them think.  After all, they've been convinced by our standardized testing culture that this type of real thinking is unnecessary.  They'll hope that staying silent for long enough will convince you to give them the answer.  They'll tell you "because the textbook says so."  They'll hope that telling you, "I don't know" will shut you up.

Don't let them get away with it.  Demand an answer that shows real understanding. Do this until the culture in your classroom is one where critical thinking is expected.

Do this, and your students will be able to do more than just pass "the test."  They'll start to evaluate and judge.  They'll start to wonder and debate.

Something else might happen, too.  You may start to remember "why" you chose the profession that creates all others.  Along with inspiring your students, you may find renewed inspiration yourself.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Good Day

I wanted to write about something profound for my first blog post.  For well over a year now I've been thinking of entering the world of blogging.  There are ideas, questions, arguments, and research bouncing around in my head that I've wanted to write about.  I've wanted to share opinions on ed-tech, teacher motivation, standardized testing, teaching math, and a variety of other hot topics.  This morning I decided that I would start today and choose an issue that I feel passionate about.  But something happened that changed my mind and forced me to write this post instead.

I had a good day.  

It wasn't one of those days where all your students listen quietly, hand in their homework, and smile politely.  I dealt with several minor discipline issues in my room, a couple of kids didn't have homework, and I definitely got at least one scowl (after one of the discipline issues).  Those things tend to happen every day.

What made this day special was that I know I made a difference today.

Example #1:  Math class - We were going over an assignment on linear, square, and cubic units.  It's the kind of lesson I loathe:  poor examples out of a textbook, little practical application, and rather boring.  Most of the time I shun these lessons, ignore the text, and develop something much more interesting, but with a test coming up in a few days I figured I'd do a little personal white-board formative assessment w/ boring textbook problems to make sure my students knew what I thought they knew.  

After a few minutes, I could tell that my students were starting to get a little bored, and I saw that all of them knew to use cubic units to measure volume, square units for area, and linear units for distance.  So I asked them, "If we measure 1 dimension in linear units, 2 dimensions in square, and 3 dimensions in cubic, is it possible to come up with a unit that measures 4 dimensions?"  It was something I hadn't really thought about before, and I was curious.

It was like the classroom hit with lightning.  Suddenly there was a buzz.  Little arguments broke out.  Discussions were going on.  After a few minutes we figured that if "time" was the 4th dimension, then measuring the output of an air conditioner in "cubic feet of air per hour" might be the kind of measurement we were looking for.

Great.  I figured we'd had our fun, and we'd go back to the boring text problems.  They'd have none of that, though.  The next few minutes went something like this:

"Mr. Soskil, if time is the 4th dimension, what's the 5th?"
"I'm really not sure.  You'd have to ask a physicist."
"What's a physicist?"
"Someone who studies physics.  Some of them study particles, and there's a theory called the 'String Theory' that some of those particles exist in multiple dimensions."
"WOW!  Tell us more about that!"
"I don't really know enough to tell you.  I just know that the theory says that there are something like 10 different dimensions.  I'm not a physicist."
"Then how'd you know about this stuff?"
"I watch the Science Channel.  I think I saw it on 'Through the Wormhole w/ Morgan Freeman'"
"Can we watch that in class sometime?"
"Sure.  It's math.  I'll find some time for us."

Two students then told me that they now want to be physicists.  I told them that they better continue to really understand math.  Awesome!

Example #2:  Lunch - At the end of math class I told my students that I'd be happy to have lunch with them if they needed help with anything we've been doing in class lately.  I've made this offer before, but none of them have ever taken me up on it.  Today I had six join me for lunch in my room.  

One wanted me to go over a few test questions that she missed on her last test and one had a question about the Million Dollar Project we're working on.  I think the others wanted to discuss particle physics some more, but we never got around to that.  We reviewed the relationship between perimeter and area, and then talked a bit about their project.  When we were done, I sent them out to recess.

Then something really cool happened.  One of them stayed behind for a minute, and sincerely thanked me for taking the time to help.  That totally made my day!

Example #3:  Reading - My students were genuinely excited to start their reading assignments.  After months of reading short textbook stories, I decided to organize in-class book clubs and allow them to choose what they wanted to read.  Today, I saw genuine excitement.  I heard good discussions on tough questions.  I saw learning taking place, and not "I can meet standard 5R.1.3.6" learning, but genuine critical thinking learning.

I guess those deep thoughts and discussions I mentioned earlier will have to wait for another post.  Today, I'm not worried about the state of education, how to get teachers to teach 21st century skills, or whether the teaching methods of Singapore and/or Finland can be used effectively in the United States.  Those discussions can happen some other time.

Right now, I'm happy that I got a reminder of why I teach.  Today was a good day.