Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Student Centered Pedagogies - Part 2

see part 1

The Underlying Problem: Overcoming personal bias:

For the first three years of my career as a teacher I was perfectly happy to do things status quo. I had an idea of what good teaching was based on how I was taught and thought my job was to emulate those who came before. The truth is I didn't care all that much about students. What attracted me to teaching was the content. Being an art teacher meant I could support myself while engaging in the field of study I loved. I expected that there would be a certain percentage of students that would fall through the cracks because I believed the system of school was designed in a way to weed out those who could not "play the game." Because I was successful in school I had a personal bias toward the style of learning that suited me. Since the methods my own teachers used suited me I felt these were probably best. And, since I was successful in this system I saw those who were not successful as somehow inferior and believed that the system sorted people out to either prepare them for future success or show them where their place in the world should be. It wasn't until I became aware of my own bias and saw my own world view from the perspective I just described that I began to change how I viewed the "system" and more so, how I viewed my own classroom.

The status quo works and is allowed to survive in environments where sufficient numbers of students do at least moderately well and a select few excel. Status quo views all learners as having the same learning style and says what is best for the middle child is best for all. This is how NCLB has been interpreted by most schools. However, if you take a situation where no student fits the status quo model you are forced to do some analysis. For me this was when I took a job at an alternative high school. For the first time I was placed in a classroom where all my students were like my prior low performing students. All students were students who did not learn well with established pedagogies. Each child had an extremely different way of seeing the world and processing information. Each child had something about their personality or background that did not make the status quo school a good place for them.

What I discovered was that while some of these students were low functioning, most were extremely bright. However, teaching them using the same methods I used in the status quo high school got me nowhere. If these students are this bright, why should the system return results placing them at the bottom of the ladder? This is how I came to the realization, a position realized by many before, that the problem was my teaching methods and the pedagogical exemplars I had. I had to unlearn what I knew about teaching and reconstruct my understanding of learning. Suddenly I was more concerned with my students than the content. Suddenly I felt more compassion in the classroom. Gradually I saw improvements.

Community Building:

In my time in alternative ed I found I got the greatest bang for my pedagogical buck by investing heavily in community building. It is far more important to establish relationships with students than get through the curriculum. Every time I had a discipline problem, an attendance problem, or a problem with comprehension it could be traced back to the student-teacher relationship. Those students I made an effort to know always were eager to do well and invest their attention in what I had to say. Those who for one reason or another I did not get to know very well were always the ones where I saw problems.

I would make room for this. First, I would not even approach my curriculum for the first 3-5 days of a term. I would take this week to also do some metacognitive reflection.

Metacognitive Reflection:

All of my students in the ALC were there because their learning styles conflicted with the pedagogies at the status quo high school. Much of the reason these students have been unsuccessful was due to either being unaware of their own learning styles or their teachers unaware of their learning styles. We would take this week to talk about times in their life when they felt they learned a lot (school or non school). We would brainstorm what qualities were present in those environemnts that contributed positively to them finding it effective for learning. We also discussed classes they have taken in the past where they did not feel they learned anything and tried to figure out why. From these two lists we established a blueprint for how learning was to occur in the classroom.

Curriculum Compacting:

Every teacher has standards they have to "cover" in a given course. What I see a lot in status quo high is teachers rushing through things to make sure they hit every point. What effect does this have if the student doesn't digest it? One trick I have seen and used effectively is curriculum compacting.

In a traditional classroom the teacher goes over the information, the students read the chapter and do their worksheets, then at the end of the week they take a quiz on it. With curriculum compacting you reverse this order. First quiz the students on what you want to "cover" that week. Some stuff the students will already know...why spend time on it? This is where online survey tools are useful. This diagnosis can be done quickly and results shown immediately. Results can be aggregated to show immediately which questions all students missed and which ones they all got right. This will drive the week's activities. In most cases this method will allow the teacher to go beyond the standards.

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