Watch out for the Either/Or Trap

I continue to see articles comparing teacher-led and student-centered learning.  While not rising to the level of the chicken or egg, the discussion about how to structure the classroom learning environment continues.  Many educators fall prey to the temptation of either/or, failing to achieve balance in the classroom; research shows that classrooms need active student learning to improve achievement.  Are you intentionally seeking to improve student engagement and create an active learning environment in your classroom?

In the traditional classroom, information largely flowed from teacher to student. Students had a smaller portion of designated work time to absorb and apply the knowledge gleaned from the teacher.  The problem is the skew towards teacher-led instruction, with averages often above 75 to 80 percent of allotted class time devoted to teacher talk time.

The truth is that students only stay engaged in listening for short bursts of time. One study I saw recently noted that students could recall about three-fourths of what the teacher taught in the first 10 minutes of a class; however, retention dipped to 20 percent of material presented in the last 10 minutes.

Jensen (2005) noted in his Teaching with the Brain in Mind that appropriate amounts of direct instruction time for kindergarten to adults only varied from 5-18 minutes.  While lower grade levels obviously have much shorter attention spans, Jensen found that direct instruction time for new content even for high-school age students should not exceed 15 minutes.

So what are you doing to improve student engagement in your classroom?

Here are a few reminders as you plan upcoming lessons:

  • Plan multiple short bursts during the allotted instruction time. Research shows student achievement and retention increase when instruction is segmented into smaller, “bite-sized” time frames. Early childhood teachers should think in burst of 5-8 minutes, grades three to eight in segments of 8-12 minutes, and high school teachers 12-15 minutes.

 

  • Plan multiple types of activities designed to engage various learners. Like Peter in encouraging believers to “add” to their faith, virtue; to virtue, knowledge; etc., teachers should add to their verbal (linguistic) approach, visual (pictures, images, objects); and to visual, aural (auditory) or music; and to aural, kinesthetic (physical).

 

  • Plan multiple strategies to deliver important concepts. Teachers should remain aware of how students are grasping concepts so that concepts can be repeated, reinforced, or perhaps lessons can be accelerated when students “get it.”

Some say that “variety is the spice of life.” Some educators, however, seem to take refuge in “consistency;” change and variety seem to scare them.  Immutability is part of the nature of our God; however, it should not be part of our instructional model.

Are you intentionally structuring learning activities in your classroom to control the teacher speak time?  What learning activities are you including in your instructional planning to increase student engagement?  What instructional strategies do you find effective in reducing students entering a zombie state?

WHAT MAKES A SCHOOL A GREAT SCHOOL?

Part 2 of 4

What are the unique qualities all great schools share? We have observed that schools may appear to be organizations, but they are in fact organisms – living, breathing, dynamic, growing relationships between teachers and students, among teachers, among students, and so forth.  We can properly conclude that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  In other words, a great school is more than isolated great parts.  What makes up the glue that transforms the parts into a great whole?

The first is an overarching MANDATE – a vision that fuels and directs the activity of administrators and teachers. This should be reduced to a very short statement, such as “Know, Love, and Serve Christ”. If we fail to train our students to serve Christ and to lead in the workplace and the churchplace, the fundamentalist strain of Christianity will soon cease to be relevant or matter very much at all.

The second is a clear MISSION – to enroll, educate, and equip tomorrow’s leaders. Attracting these young people is a “marketing” strategy in business terminology: our students are the very best advertisement for our school and word-of-mouth is the most effective recruitment tool.  Providing incentives for our friends to recommend the school to others is appropriate and productive – as long as prospective parents see in our students what they desire for their own children: Godly people of inner character and outer kindness.

Once they enroll, we must provide a solid academic education, and that means something traditional at its core but relevant in its content and delivery. Students need a broad and deep liberal arts education, and the STEM courses are essential if the secondary and even the elementary schools are to be competitive. Upperclassmen, for example, expect dual enrollment offerings. Christian educators need to know what is available to students in the ever-expanding variety of public schools.

Of course we need to insure that our Bible curriculum teaches content and doctrines.   But we had better be emphasizing and integrating a Biblical worldview through which to understand the other courses we teach.  Kids can retrieve this and infinitely more with two clicks on an iPhone.  We must teach them to read critically and to discern Biblically.  Bible worldview must be integrated on every grade level and for every subject (the writer will share his “Blue Papers” upon request), including math, and should culminate in a capstone senior course.  Graduates need such training in order to defend their faith and to attack error.

The fine arts, in particular music, are ministry tools and life skills. We must provide all the instruction possible on every grade level.  Additionally, intramural and interscholastic competition teach Christian conduct in a pressure-cooker unavailable in the classroom.  We need to do more with younger children.  Arts and athletics contribute mightily to a well-rounded, useful graduate.  They help us complete our mission.

Part 1: Mandate (Feb.21)         Part 2: Mission (April 18)          Part 3: Method (Coming soon)         Part 4: Remember the children (Coming soon)

Questions, Questions Everywhere

For some reason my recent reading has taken me to several selections that discuss the art of questioning.  Experience reminds me that questioning is often friend or foe, depending on who is asking the challenging question.  Even in reading the New Testament, I have again noticed that Jesus’ teaching included adept questioning.

Research shows us that questioning is closely linked to critical thinking.  For that reason, teachers should give attention to the questioning techniques implemented into the teaching process.  Observation reminds me that many times teachers carefully prepare to teach a lesson but that preparation does not include carefully crafted questions.

So when I happened upon an article in Education Update about questioning, my interest was piqued.  Jeanne Muzi, a teacher from New Jersey, began the article by connecting classroom questioning to critical thinking.  However, upon closer examination, I noted that she took a completely different tact than I had taken to that point.  Her article was entitled Five Ways to Strengthen Student Questioning (emphasis mine).

She offered apt reminders like “all students need to generate purposeful questions” and “a significant instructional shift takes place when a classroom culture is transformed from one where the teacher poses the majority of questions to one where a community of curious wonderers offer up their own.”

Improving Student Questions

What are you doing in your classroom to improve student questioning?  Muzi offered five classroom activities that a teacher can use to improve student questioning; I have shared on three below:

Pass-Arounds

Circulate a unique object (photograph, antique, item from nature, etc.) around the classroom.  Ask students to develop questions that “uncover more information about” the object, not identify it.  After students have put together their list of questions, discuss which questions will be most helpful in learning about the object.  Of course, take time to answer the questions.

Q-Stems

Using a set of sentence-stem cards developed by the teacher, students draw a stem card and try to generate as many questions as possible about a concept using a single Q-stem.  Stems could include starters like:  Why…? What is another way to describe…? Are there…? How…? Is it possible that …?  After questions are developed, take time to go back and answer the questions before moving on to another stem.

Whose Eyes?

Distribute or project a copy of a photograph (famous illustration, historic setting, current event) and allow students to thoughtfully look at the item.  The, ask students to develop a set of questions that might come from any character in the photo.  It could be a prominent character but might work better to choose a lesser character.  Then ask students to pose their question(s) to the class and provide a rationale for the question.

As teachers, we must continually hone our questioning skills.  Why?  Because effective questioning cannot be separated from the critical thinking.  However, as we seek to improve our questioning skills, let’s not forget to strengthen student questioning skills as well.

Can you share a technique that you use in your classroom to strengthen student questioning?

 

Muzi, J.  (2017, January).  Five ways to strengthen student questioning.  Education Update, Vol. 59, (1).  ASCD: Alexandria, VA.

WHAT MAKES A SCHOOL A GREAT SCHOOL?

Part 1 of 4

We have already defined the characteristics of an excellent teacher and one might assume that a great school is simply a collection of great teachers.  Nothing could be farther from the truth: many great teachers do NOT a great school make, and some great schools have few great teachers.  So, what are the unique qualities all great schools share?

Schools may appear to be organizations, but they are in fact organisms – living, breathing, dynamic, growing relationships between teachers and students, among teachers, among students, and so forth.  That being said, we can properly conclude that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  In other words, a great school is more than isolated great parts.  What makes up the glue that transforms the parts into a great whole?

The first is an overarching MANDATE – a vision that fuels and directs the activity of administrators and teachers.  For our school, it is simply “Equipping Tomorrow’s Christian Leaders”.

We believe in the depths of our soul that almost all the leaders of the church 20 years from now are sitting in Christian school classrooms and home school study areas today.  For decades our churches, colleges, missionary force,  and day schools have been aging and decreasing in size and number. If we fail to train our students to lead, the fundamentalist strain of Christianity will cease to matter very much.

So we teach them that there is no difference whatever in the value of God’s calling to churchplace vis-à-vis workplace ministry.  We show them this principle in the Bible from the lives of Moses, Daniel, and many others.  We model it by having church members in business and the professions speak in our chapels. We also invite school parents in the professions, and sometimes believers not connected organically with the school, to inspire the kids.  When Christians exercise political influence, we have a much better chance of living quiet and peaceable lives.

Training the next generation of leaders

The next mayor of North Charleston has to go to high school somewhere.  Why not this school?  So does the governor, congressmen and senators, supreme court justices – listen, the president of the United States will go to high school somewhere.  Why not my school?  How literally awesome would it be to have dozens of men and women like Asa Hutchinson in Washington!  The faculty must live and breathe this high expectation for every student, and the kids must embrace it.  This is the first hallmark of a great school.

Great Expectations

3 R’s of a Positive Classroom Culture

Creating a positive classroom culture goes beyond classroom management.  Even the word “management” implies handling or controlling.  However, as teachers, our job is not merely to manage our students while they are in our classrooms but to prepare them to leave our classrooms ready for the next challenge.  If we only manage our students, we do them a disservice.  Our classroom culture should be one that equips our students for life-long learning and success.

It’s always a great moment on the first day of school each year when I announce to my sixth graders that there are no rules in our sixth grade classroom.  The boys’ eyes widen, and they begin to cheer.  The girls look somewhat terrified, and their face belies their belief that I am, indeed, the craziest teacher they have ever had.

It’s true, I tell them.  Our classroom will have no rules.

Rather, we will operate by three guiding principles – three “Great Expectations”
that apply to us all.  Everything we do (and how we do it!) will be filtered through these three principles: Respect, Responsibility, Restraint.

Respect

As teachers, we tend to see disrespect when it is directed toward authority, particularly our authority.  However, it is vital that we help our students learn respect not only for authority, but also for truth, others, property, boundaries, human life, beauty, goodness, and everything that God holds as worthy of respect.

Responsibility

Responsibility is the hallmark of maturity.  Responsibility comes from a proper understanding of our place in God’s world and an ability to see the long-term consequences of short-term decisions.  At an age-appropriate level, we need to foster responsibility in our students.

Restraint

This elusive quality naturally flows out of respect and responsibility.  Too often, however, we teachers correct lack of restraint but ignore the underlying lack of respect and responsibility.  As students begin to internalize a proper respect for their place in the world, they will begin to exhibit self-restraint, not mere conformity to a list of rules on the classroom wall.

“Great expectations can lead to great opportunities as we seek to instill in our students principles that will equip them to find their identity in Christ, esteem others higher than themselves, and fulfill the purposes God has for them.

What “Great Expectations” do you have for your students?

Should We Forget Memorization in the Age of Google?

Dr. Jeff Walton serves as executive director of the American Association of Christian Schools, headquartered in Chattanooga, TN. He is the editor of Journal for Christian Educators.

This is the fourth in a series of five posts by Jeff Walton commenting on “five truths” of progressive education identified by Maya Thiagarajan in an Education Week blog on August 15, 2016.  Thoughtful Christian educators reject many of the practices of progressive American education because progressive principles and practices sometimes conflict with biblical truth about the nature of children and the nature of learning.  Maya Thiagarajan is an American-educated English teacher who has been teaching in Singapore.  She is the author of Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting in the Global Age.  In her Education Week guest blog on August 15, 2016, Maya frankly discusses five “universal education truths” that as an American teacher she believed and “religiously” followed until her move to Singapore in 2010.  In earlier articles, I commented on the first three truths.

Truth #4: “Making kids memorize stuff is not just unnecessary in the age of Google, it’s downright bad pedagogy. Twenty-first century learning is not about ‘knowing’ information, it’s about analyzing, synthesizing, applying, and creating. ”

In Singapore, and perhaps across Asia, many parents and teachers still harbor a deep reverence for the power of human memory….In his defense of a ‘knowledge rich’ curriculum, the former Singaporean education minister Heng Swee Keat said, ‘If creativity is about connecting the dots, you need to have solid dots in the first place, or you will have nothing to connect.’ Kids here memorize a lot of information, and they know a lot. Perhaps the emphasis on memorization in Singapore is excessive and comes with opportunity costs, but it has certainly challenged my paradigms.

In American education, the memorization-application pendulum swings, and debate (healthy, in my view) continues.  This is true in Christian education as well as in public schools. I have many times heard or read some form of the “students no longer need to learn facts in the Internet age” statement. To that statement I echo Dr. Keat’s response–How will students connect the dots in learning if they have no dots to connect?  On the other hand, I have many times observed in Christian school classrooms and have come away discouraged by the complete reliance on memorization and regurgitation of facts and missed opportunities to lead students to comprehension, application, and deeper understandings.

Often, students are memorizing multiple “dots” and struggling to retain the information about the “dot” with no connecting information to provide structure and understanding.  I have particularly observed this in math classes.  I have observed scores of classrooms where teachers required students to memorize an algorithm (a step-by-step process) for solving a type of math problem while missing excellent opportunities and making no effort to help students understand why the algorithm works. I have even sometimes witnessed teachers refusing to answer the why questions of inquisitive students, telling them to “just follow the formula.” That’s a tragedy. In those classrooms, only those students with excellent abilities to memorize and retain will make progress. Most will flounder, frustrated and confused because they can’t keep all of the dots straight and have no structure of comprehension to connect them.

So, do students need to automate information (memorize), or do they need to comprehend and apply factual information? I hope your answer is “yes.” Students need both. Learning facts provides the dots the student will connect. Comprehension and application and higher-level learning activities provide the connective structure that allows students to make sense of and retain the dots.

By itself, memorization is a form of learning and is a skill that students can and should develop. Wise teachers and school leaders will judiciously select the important factual content and will provide age-appropriate explanations and activities for comprehending and applying that information. For instance, when teaching junior high and high school history classes, I required that students memorize fewer than ten really significant dates in a school year, but they also memorized some key paragraphs from notable historical documents (more significant and worthwhile learning, in my view). We also thoroughly analyzed and wrote about those passages. In my high school math classes (most of my teaching experience) students memorized only a few commonly used formulas and spent a good amount of class time in completing exercises (automating fundamental skills) and complex problem-solving activities. Interestingly, my ninth- and tenth-grade students also spent time doing flash cards involving basic operations with fractions because many had not automated processes with fractions…so they struggled with more advanced math because they didn’t have the more basic dots to connect.

I’m sure the memorization-application debate will continue.  Wise teachers will reject the notion that we can “forget memorization” in a digital age but will also understand that memorization merely provides the dots that students must connect with more complex learning.

Reference:

Thiagarajan, M. (2016, August 15). Five lessons from teaching in Singapore. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/global_learning/2016/08/five_lessons_from_

teaching_in_singapore.html?qs=teaching+in+sigapore

Should You Be “The Sage on The Stage”?

Thoughtful educators continuously engage in reflective practice.  They read professional journals and articlesTeacher reading to class of teenagers (14-16) about education.  They listen to their students and the parents of those children.  They evaluate their instructional methods and classroom practices in light of classroom or school-wide assessments, standardized test scores, and other measures of student progress.  They are aware of current trends in education, and they weigh the value of new methods and tools for student learning.  They reflect on their practices and their beliefs about education, and they strive to make their classroom the very best place for meeting the very individual needs of the children God sends to them and parents entrust to their teaching and care.

Be a Critical Thinker

Thoughtful Christian educators engage in reflective practice but reject many of the practices of progressive American education because the practices and the principles those practices reflect conflict with biblical truth about the nature of children and the nature of learning.  Recently, Education Week published a blog by Maya Thiagarajan that questioned some of those progressive principles and practices.  Maya is an American-educated English teacher who has been teaching in Singapore.  She is the author of Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting in the Global Age.  In her Education Week guest blog on August 15, 2016, Maya frankly discusses five “universal education truths” that as an American teacher she believed and “religiously” followed until her move to Singapore in 2010.  I am going to consider each of the “five truths” in a series of posts, beginning with the third in Maya’s list.

Role of the Teacher

Truth #3: Good teachers are always “the guide on the side.”  No good teacher should be “a sage on the stage.”…With phrases like “sage on the stage,” American educational rhetoric literally ridicules the idea that a teacher has wisdom to offer young kids.  In every way, the rhetoric exhorts teachers to stay on the sidelines and play only a facilitating role while empowering kids to take the lead.

While I think that playing the role of a guide or facilitator has its place in a 21st century classroom, I’ve also started to think deeply about the Singaporean belief that the elder not only has wisdom to offer the child, but also has a responsibility to be front and center in the child’s life.

When I read American rhetoric exhorting teachers and parents to empower children by giving them more choices and greater freedom (and in the process, less explicit guidance), I can’t help but wonder whether it makes sense to marginalize the role of the elder.  When we let machines and peer culture teach our children, aren’t we devaluing our own wisdom and expertise?  Aren’t we abdicating a central responsibility that the elders in communities around the world have performed for millennia?  Don’t children benefit from some explicit guidance?  And shouldn’t there be some times when we are “the sages on the stage”?  (Thiagarajan, 2016)

What is a Sage?

Consider the meaning of sage—a wise and venerated elder.  Consider the pattern of learning repeatedly emphasized in Scripture—an elder (parent, grandparent, pastor, teacher) instructing, guiding, and mentoring one who is younger and/or uninstructed in truth.  Consider the example of Christ with His disciples.  Isn’t it apparent, then, that Christian school teachers should be the “sage on the stage” in their classrooms?  If you think that means a daily lecture in every discipline where students are passive listeners to your continual droning, then I pity the children in your classroom.  If you think that means a classroom without digital resources, online connections, and multi-sensory experiences for learners, then you are misunderstanding the real meaning of sage.

If your classroom is a place where you wisely direct active learning experiences for your students, connect to digital and online resources that enrich and reinforce student learning, share your knowledge of a subject with engaging lecture that sparks student questions and discussion about significant topics, and lovingly shepherd children and teens through their many social, emotional, and spiritual crises – then I think you truly understand what it means to be “the sage on the stage.”

Reference:

Thiagarajan, M. (2016, August 15). Five lessons from teaching in Singapore. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/global_learning/2016/08/five_lessons_from_teaching_in_singapore.html?qs=teaching+in+sigapore

This article will be included in the Winter 2017 issue of The Journal for Christian Educators, a publication of the American Association of Christian Schools.

Upcoming Articles

Five week Series

We are excited to announce that Dr. Jeff Walton will be writing a five-week series for us at FOCUS.  Each week Jeff will be discussing a “universal education truth” for educators in today’s world. The first post will be discussing the role of the teacher in his/ her classroom.

Get to know Jeff

He serves as the executive director of the American Association of AACS staff member, Jeff Walton, photo by Hal Cook, 2015Christian Schools headquartered in Chattanooga, TN. He is the editor of Journal for Christian Educators. He has served in Christian education ministries for 33 years as a high school teacher, school administrator, college administrator, and association officer.

 

The Fixer-Upper

Keeping your classroom exciting

The school year is half over, and most classrooms are in need of an update. Teachers and students have been working hard, but monotony can set in. Consider whether any of the following seven elements of your classroom need to be remodeled.christmas-tree

  1. Environment: Every old barn needs a new coat of paint. Does your classroom still look exciting and vibrant, or does it look like a tornado blew through it? Straighten, file, spruce up and keep your classroom looking like an organized, well-oiled machine.
  2. Learner: Are your students still engaged? As the school year continues into the second semester, student behavior will be more challenging.  To counter their energy, they will need many more brain breaks, hand-on-learning activities, and ways to stay engaged in the day-to-day activities in the classroom.
  3. Pace: John Kotter reminds us that urgent activity is “Action which is alert, fast moving, focused externally on the important issues, relentless, and continuously purging irrelevant activities to provide time for the important and to prevent burnout.” Through the year, the pace within a classroom can begin to slow down. Teachers need to intentionally keep up the pace so valuable time is not lost.
  4. Lesson: Use memory hooks to help the students remember the material and connect the new concepts to the old, creating meaning. Engage the students in the lesson using movement, music, emotion, discussion, drama, and visuals.
  5. Execution: What is your style? The teacher’s style is completely in the teacher’s control. Your style can be fluid to change with what the class is needing. Maybe you are in need of a style change. Make your style memorable!
  6. Assessments: Know where your students are physically, academically, socially, and spiritually. Observe! Observe! Observe! Know your students so well through observation and engagement with them that you know exactly what they need and how you can help them. This gives every child a better chance to be successful.
  7. Culture: The culture of your classroom should be exciting, engaging, and intriguing. Even in January, students should still look forward to coming to school because they can’t wait to see what the teacher has planned for the day.

Willa Foster reminds us that “Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction, and skillful execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives.” Use this Christmas break to update any areas in your classroom that need to be refreshed so your year can be successful.