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The Teachers Are Watching (or should be)

blog_newWow! Who knew that the answer to the question of what to do with our schools lies with our students’ experience of those schools? Last week Grant Wiggins posted a blog written by an Instructional Coach who followed two students for two days and then wrote about it. Most notably she became aware of how tiring school could be for students who are forced to sit for hours a day and who spend most of their time listening to their teachers talk. In education circles, the article has gone viral. Over 10 years ago, my Critical Friends Group (“CFG” – a type of professional learning community) did a similar activity so I thought I would share our observations and analysis.

We decided to have 3 teachers follow and observe 3 different students – a straight A student, an average student and one that was in danger of dropping out – on one day and then the following day we would use a protocol to discuss what they saw and experienced. We informed the classroom teachers ahead of time, but assured them that we would not mention their names in the discussion and that the focus of our talk would not be on any specific classroom practice, but on the students’ overall experience. At the end of the day, each of our students assured their shadow that the day was fairly typical – that no teacher constructed a lesson plan that was out of the ordinary to try to impress us.

A little context – our school was an average sized comprehensive suburban high school. At that time the school had flirted with several national reform models, but for the most part it was a traditional school with a strong reputation for excellence commensurate with schools in similar socio-economic communities.

Like Grant Wiggin’s teacher, our teacher-observers ended the day feeling exhausted. However, they did not attribute their exhaustion to sitting at desks all day. Instead they were impressed – for good and bad – at the input that was bombarding the kids. Almost every class started with bell work and students worked consistently up to, and sometimes even after, the bell rang. Teachers all had a variety of activities planned, often fairly engaging, and always back-to-back with no down time. In between classes, students had 6 minutes in which to traverse busy halls – filled with friends and acquaintances – and cross large expanses of the campus that is situated on several acres. Most students didn’t even use their lockers, because of the time it would have taken to walk to it, instead carrying their textbooks in their backpacks that could weigh up to 50 pounds.

We wondered how we could expect them to think deeply about their learning when they were ping-ponging back and forth between important and disparate topics. One teacher-observer reported being in a class that was having a moving discussion about the atomic bomb and then having to pack up and rush to a class where she then had to quickly refocus her attention to work on a difficult proof.

We had often heard complaints about our students and their lack of initiative and intrinsic motivation when it comes to their education, but now we asked ourselves if our schools actually train our students out of those habits. How would we treat a student who decided, for instance, to skip that math class in order to journal about his reaction to the atomic bomb discussion? Where do we encourage, even allow for processing time and reflection?

Our CFG decided to videotape our discussion and they gave me permission to show it to my Contemporary Issues class. My students’ reaction was equally instructive. First, they were truly surprised to see their teachers engaged in collaborative inquiry around teaching and learning. They were intrigued and I think touched, when I explained the work we did in our Critical Friends Groups. Second, they were mystified by our analysis. They jokingly wondered what we were talking about when we spoke about giving students an opportunity to reflect on their learning.

“What do you imagine, that we would just wander around the desert thinking?”

“Yes. Why is that weird?   Isn’t that what people have done throughout history? Why does it seem strange to picture yourself thinking great thoughts without it being prompted by an activity or punctuated by a grade?”

I was really struck by how foreign this concept – reflection – was to my kids, students who were bright, eager, at times brilliant, in my classroom. I am now one of the founding Principals of Paulo Freire Freedom School, and a National Faculty member of the Buck Institute for Education. Both these organizations work to make students’ learning authentic, connected to their lives and the immediate world around them and to provide them with opportunity for reflection. Here are three suggestions I have to how we can increase student reflection in our schools:

1. Students Need to be Asked (and to ask) Better Questions

No student is going to, on their own, wonder what is the capital of Belgium? But they just might ponder, “Why is it that so few people in the U.S. own so much of our wealth?” Having compelling Driving Questions guide units of instruction and asking high order questions daily will make our classes more interesting and worthy of post-instruction contemplation.

2. Students Need More Voice & Choice

When students are co-constructors of their education, they will experience more ownership of their learning.   As an example, I taught the Holocaust to my 8th graders and in order to not overwhelm them, we focused on resisters and rescuers. However, one of my students was deeply interested in learning about the major Nazi criminals. I gave her permission to change her focus and she was so invested she created an entire museum exhibit on her own. Obviously, teachers need to guide student learning to ensure standards are met, but we can do a better job at providing a menu of options and encouraging students to develop their passions.

3. Students Need To Be Aware of and Be Participants In Formative Assessments

We need to involve students in assessing their learning. Assessments are not equivalent to a grade and should not be given only at the end of the learning process.   Teachers need to design classrooms where their feedback is specific and immediate and offer students opportunity for improvement. Additionally, students should be included in the process through peer and self-assessment opportunities. Teachers need to understand that peer/self-assessment are skills that need to be taught, practiced and refined and that these skills will help students to use important evaluation and analysis skills.   Finally, we can help students adopt a growth v. fixed mindset (Carol Dweck). In a fixed mindset, learning is a known quantity – either you are good at something or not good at something, case closed. Students with a growth mindset necessarily are involved in reflecting on their learning, monitoring improvement towards achieving short term milestones and long term goals.

I am aware that I am guilty of being über-meta – I am now writing about teachers discussing students discussing teachers discussing students – but, still I want to encourage teachers to take part in this dialogue.  I heartily support the idea that more of my fellow educators should participate in Grant Wiggins’ Shadow a Student protocol, then discuss the implications of what they learn with their colleagues. Shadow A Student

We cannot float above our students’ lives without understanding what they are going through intimately, and we can’t continue to conduct school business as we always have, just because we always have. Our kids deserve better.

The Buck Institute for Education creates, gathers, and shares high quality Project Based Learning instructional practices and products and provides highly effective services to teachers, schools, and districts. BIE

Paulo Freire Freedom School is now two schools, both focusing on social justice and environmental sustainability and using project based and experiential learning opportunities to create powerful, supportive learning environments. PFFS Mission

School Reform Initiative creates transformational learning communities fiercely committed to educational equity and excellence. They specialize in work done by SRI Critical Friendship groups. Their annual Winter Meeting was in Tucson this year on January 15, 2015. School Reform Initiative

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