Listening to John Spencer’s podcast (Seven Reasons to Geek Out on Educational Theory) today made me nostalgic for my grad school days and the deep dives into theory. I always geeked out on theory, both as an undergrad and in pursuing my masters, but the latter was so much more valuable, because I had more context to work with. After spending years in the classroom, the theory had a life and purpose. I could connect the theory with students and teachers and the practicality (or impracticality) of it all. Balancing theory and classroom experience made me a better teacher.
To design a truly successful classroom, lesson, unit, or any other educational experience, you need to combine theory with practicality. You need to know your students, the content, the school culture, the environment, to apply the theory successfully. With all of that knowledge, a teacher is able to boil down to the essentials of the teaching and learning.
All of this thinking led me to an exciting question (at least I was excited about it:
What if we designed our teaching for students who would never pursue a career in our field? Science for students who will never be ‘scientists’? Writing for students who will never be ‘authors’? History for students who will never be ‘historians’?
While this idea is not completely novel, it struck me as new today, and may do the same for you. As a former elementary teacher, I rarely envisioned my students as applied mathematicians, archaeologists, minerologists*,,or anything else other professional -gist or -ian. I coach basketball at the high school, and do not expect any invitations to the NBA draft anytime soon.
Simplicity to me is the greatest sign of success for a teacher. A room bereft of all excess items. A lesson void of unnecessary details or activities. A unit completed in only a few lessons. Anyone can teach about a subject for weeks at a time with no end in sight (I’ve definitely done this), but how many of us can zoom in to the core learning experiences in a way that engages students, inspires them to do more, but doesn’t feel excessive. I’m not sure I ever found that peak.
Usually, viewing our work through a different lens allows us to cut out some of that excess. Instead of starting with all of the things I would want a student to know in a given area, or envisioning some distant future in which a prize pupil becomes a world renowned genius, I need to simplify. At the end of this year, if my students could only walk out of this classroom with a few basic ideas, what would they be? What should they really know about math? What should they remember forever about history? What will they learn that will last them a lifetime?
While I wanted my third graders to end the year reading Level P books, it is more important that they find books they love to read. I can’t sit idly by if they are struggling with reading and say it’s okay as long as you find a book you love, but a Level N reader who visits the library every other day for a new book is going to be more successful than a Level S reader who can’t enjoy a single story.
Most of us have forgotten more than we’ve learned. If we recognize that our students will do the same, what do we want to make sure they remember?
*Probably not a word, but it should be the name for someone who studies minerals; I liked it, so I kept it. No I didn’t do a google search to check. I didn’t want to be disappointed by it’s probable lack of existence.