Friday, April 11, 2014

It Only Helps to Cripple Them

Social Studies - Our Socratic Symposium on the fall of the Roman Empire, Feudalism and Manorialism lasted a class and a half. During that time, we had a lively discussion about those learning topics, with the kids relying on the research they did during the previous five days. Just about every student had a computer or device and was either using their notes (or the summary paper they'd already completed) for the discussion or using the discussion to take notes. Either way, they were learning. I think the conversation went a long way toward helping them understand the material.

After we finished, I had the kids fill out a quick survey on Google Forms. I wanted to know how they felt about the new way we are conducting class. 20 of the 38 kids who responded to the survey said they liked the new student-driven class format better than the more traditional class format. Here is one student's response that I thought was interesting.

What I thought was most interesting about this student's response is that he/she didn't like the new format but thought that one of the benefits was that "We learn how to be more independent." In my mind, that makes the format change a success for this kid. My goal is to make these kids more independent because, oh my my, they need it! I read a few times in the surveys that some kids prefer the teacher-lecture model where they passively consume information. Additionally, they thought I was making the change because I was lazy and didn't want to teach anymore this year. The fact that the kids equate lecturing with "real teaching" is not surprising. This is the model I grew up with as well, but that was 35 years ago! Certainly things must have changed! Well, maybe not so much.

The survey responses revealed something that my teaching partner and I realized early on this year, particularly with our group of kiddos. Many students come to us having been spoon-fed information in order to regurgitate it on a test that has no meaning to them at all. They want to acquire the content, put it on a test, and get "their" A. We have made them believe that learning is quantitative and can be measured on a content-based test and that once they have produced on that test, they are finished and free to do other things. Thus, "learning" for them is just something to be done with so they can move on to something they would prefer to do. It's like eating your vegetables before you can have dessert. What I want is for them to view the learning as dessert!

This viewpoint is sad but not unexpected. What we are trying to do through our student-driven learning model is show kids that learning is qualitative, not quantitative. Learning never ends. The sooner they figure out how they best learn and cultivate a sense of independence, the better off they will be in school and in life. We teachers have been guilty of making things too easy on them, parents have swooped in at the last minute to try to "save" them from themselves, and students have sat back and let both teachers and parents take responsibility for their learning. No more! Both teachers and parents must stand back and, with united front, send the message to kids that we do them a disservice when we make things easy on them. They will never learn two important skills we learned as kids: self-reliance and perseverance.

We as teachers may love the idea that if we make it easy on the kiddos, they will score higher on the tests we give. Parents may like the idea that if they hover just a bit closer, their child will be well taken care of. Both ideas are wrong-headed and the antithesis of learning. When we do for them, we teach them that they don't have to do for themselves. When we make things easy on them, they believe the world will be easy for them. When we treat learning like a penance through which they must suffer in order to be done with it, we teach them that learning is contrived and not relevant to their everyday lives or their futures. In short, spoon-feeding material to kids only helps to cripple them. The only thing they really learn is helplessness.

All of these are reasons why we will continue to run class with a student-driven model even though almost half of the kids don't "like" it. The fact that they are learning to be more independent, and they recognize that point, makes it worth continuing. If I can teach these kids one important skill over the last six weeks of school, that one skill would be learning independently. After all, that is what they will have to do for most of their lives. The earlier they begin to acquire those skills, the better teacher I will have been for them.


  1. Enjoyed your post. It's interesting that many students equate good teaching with a lecture format perhaps more than a teacher facilitated lesson. Kudos to you for giving students voice by using the survey.

  2. Thank you. We're trying to change the concept of learning among our kiddos. We'll see how it works out!