Thursday, February 7, 2019

Forward In All Directions

I've been thinking about direction in terms of teaching. When I was an undergrad a lot of time was spent on creating lesson plans that were very directed. "SWBAT" was the acronym that ruled the day, standing for "Students Will Be Able To..." and especially in my field of Art, we were taught to be very specific about what would happen and have very specific guidelines for how to measure and grade students. Even at the time I thought the notion of stating emphatically that students would do this or that was a little presumptuous. How did I know what exactly they would do, at best I could hope or guess. I wasn't even thinking about what students really needed to be able to do. Over the years as a general education classroom teacher as well an art teacher I've found there's fewer things that students need to do and many more things they can do.
These days I do teach specific skills, although they tend to come more from student's requests. To paint with watercolors you need a brush, paper, paint and water - that's what you need to know. "Oh, you want know how to make this kind of textured look that works well if you're trying to show a grassy field? That's called "Dry Brush", here, I'll show you how that works..." That's a typical teachable moment. Who "directed" that particular lesson? I can tell you that I don't write that sort of thing in any lesson plans, so it must have been the student. Perhaps I've changed that old phrase to "Teacher Will Be Able To Explain What is Needed In The Moment".
Another word that is used a lot in education is "Control". Teacher evaluations place a lot of emphasis on control. Is the classroom or are the students "Under Control"? There are many good reasons for paying attention to control. Out of control is almost always unsafe. So while I am always attending to control in that way I've also started thinking about the word as it applies to how the students go about their learning.
I'm perhaps most interested in controlling the class in terms of motivating them to be focused on learning, on the serious work of exploring, questioning and collecting ideas and experiences. What direction they will take with their work is of less interest to me. I would rather see a student in control of their learning experience, focused and engaged even if what they produce seems to be a random collection of ideas. A student who, in the art room, is really exploring ideas may not create a single finished, beautiful piece of art that will hang in the family's living room. They may have been going in many different directions, but the work they did can still be worthwhile assuming they were in control of the process.
I realize that I value control over direction. It's asking more of the students to develop their ability to control, their self control and accept that the direction their work takes them might not be known at the start but I think the experience is much more fruitful, both in the moment and long term.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Prize Box Solves Everything

Every day I have students who come to class carrying clipboards, tickets, popsicle sticks in a cup, charts and other means of tracking and or modifying their behavior. It's not uncommon to have three or four students in a class who have some sort of a behavior plan. Yesterday afternoon one class had two students with popsicle sticks in a cup, one loses a stick every time he blurts out, another loses a stick anytime they are not paying attention, two other students have charts where they are scored on various behaviors either positive or negative. At the end of the day, remaining sticks are counted or score sheets tallied and if the score is within a certain range the student gets a reward. All of this makes me wonder if the estate of B.F. Skinner collects royalties on the use of his basic theories, or does Pavlov get a cut as well?
We talk a lot about 21st century learners and curriculum designed for the digital learner and yet there is much in schools that looks the same as it did in the early 20th century. Behavior modification practices are especially noticeable. Should we consider how much more work we expect students to do, or how much more time is given to testing and test prep? Should we consider student's lives outside of school, the increase of planned activities such as sports, drama, dance, etc.? Perhaps it's worth considering the increased time spent on laptops, video games, cell phones or watches. Is it possible that with all these changes to student's lives, that the same old ideas about how to alter behavior, especially when there are legitimate questions as to whether those ideas work in the long run.
Is it possible that we, in schools today, are in such a headlong rush to do more faster, test more, finish more and so on that we grasp at what appears to be the easiest answer for a child who can't or won't sit still, finish math, stop screaming, play nice or have a positive attitude?
When I observe teachers and administrators still waiting for students to line up quietly before going outside for a brief recess repeating the same "We'll wait here until you're all quiet, you're wasting your recess" lines in May, after having spent the entire school year on the same routine, I have to ask if the methods we're using to alter behavior work. Of course it's also fair to ask if these expected behaviors really line up with our overall goals for students.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Play Day

Schools across the country are participating in the Global School Play Day . It seems that educators, child psychologists, doctors etc. have noticed that kids need unstructured play time, a lot of it in fact, much more than they get in their normal day to day experiences. Like most of life, the reasons for this shortfall are many and often complex. The available menu of enrichment activities has mushroomed over the years and who doesn't want to take part in gymnastics, soccer, orchestra, drama, sculpture classes, rock climbing and dance in between visits to the local museum or national park? The average curriculum of your local elementary school has changed over time as well. Some of you may remember taking a nap in kindergarten. Those days are long gone as students practice for the tests which take up an ever increasing amount of the day.
Yes, children need unstructured play, a lot of it, far more than the average child experiences. Yes, it's great that schools are showing some awareness of this fact and wouldn't it be nice if it happened more than once a year?
Here's a modest proposal - why not devote most of one day a week to inquiry and play at school? Who knows what might happen.