What are you learning?

“What are you learning?” It’s one of my favorite questions to ask kids when I am visiting a classroom, or when I see them working in the hallway.  More often than not, their answers will relate to the specific content they are working on in that moment.  The reality is though that they are learning so much more than the math, social studies, science, or whatever the content area may be.

We ask so much of our students when we put them to work.  We expect them to pay attention in class, to be engaged, to think critically, to work collaboratively.  Just think about how much work we are expecting our students to do.  All in the service of learning and growing.

Your role in the learning process of our students is so important.  They need us every day in order to learn, grow, and find success.  It’s such an important job!

But stop for a minute to think – when someone asks you what you teach, what is your answer?  Do you respond with your content area?  Do you respond with your grade level?

I’m going to share something with you that you may not like to hear though – the content is irrelevant.  That may be an uncomfortable thing to think about, but let me share with you why I believe this.  In my role, I get to walk into a lot of classrooms, I get to see a lot of lessons, and I get to see a LOT of GREAT TEACHING!  But in my role, I also get to notice some things that as a classroom teacher you might not get to see.

This year I saw a 6th grade science class doing a lab activity that was identical to something my daughter did as a 2nd grader.  Even the paper that went with the lab looked the same.  The teacher who was leading the lesson was teaching as though the students had never seen anything like this before.  I asked one of the students about the lab, and he shared that he did the same activity when he was in elementary school.  I can’t imagine the depth of knowledge on this activity was as great as the teacher might have believed since the student had already done it.  Another time I was visiting a junior high classroom and I saw a lesson on scientific method being taught in an 8th grade classroom as though the students had never seen anything like it before – it was identical to one I had just seen in a 5th grade classroom.  I know that when I taught 6th grade, my scientific method lesson was very similar as well.  Where’s the rigor in a lesson that is being taught to our students so many different times in basically the same way?  Where’s the depth of knowledge?

If the content was truly relevant for our learners, we wouldn’t be wasting our student’s time teaching them things that they already know as if they have never seen it.  I know what some of you are probably thinking though – maybe some of the students forgot!  Maybe there are students that weren’t in our district who have never done this before!  I’m going to push back on those ideas – what about the students who didn’t forget?  What about the students who were here, did this exact activity, and are bored out of their mind?  Even if the lesson is fun or one of our favorites, how are we serving the learning of our students?  A good formative assessment at the beginning of the unit may lead you to realize that what you were planning to teach isn’t valuable because the students already know it.

And that’s the thing, the most valuable commodity we have is time.  In education we are always asking for more of it.  One of the biggest complaints I hear from teachers about innovation and change is we don’t have enough time to do new things.  If we can gain some of our time back by not teaching a lesson of material that our students already know as if they have never heard it before, we might be able to do something new and innovative.  Instead of continuing on that lab that a student did in elementary school, what could we have our students do that would develop creativity?  How could we let our students communicate the knowledge they already have?  Is there some way they could work collaboratively?  The image below is one that I have seen shared on Twitter by so many people, I can’t even begin to guess exactly where it came from, but it’s an important reminder of the things that our students need to know for their future.

6 Cs of Learning

If the image above isn’t enough for you, what about some research?  According to the National Association of Colleges and Employees in a recent job outlook survey, reported in 2016, these are the top 5 attributes that employers are looking for: 1) Leadership; 2) Ability to work in a team; 3) Communication skills (written); 4) Problem-solving skills; 5) Communication skills (verbal).

As I was researching this post, one of the other topics that kept coming up is the ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

Hopefully, like me, you notice that none of the things listed in any of this research is specific to content knowledge.  That should challenge us to think a little differently about the question what do you teach.  I think the answer to what do you teach should probably be something like this: “I am teaching my students to have strong dispositions of learning.”

Our students don’t need to be able to recite back the scientific method.  They need to be able to use the process to solve problems they encounter in the world.  Our students don’t need to be able to solve stand-alone multiplication or division problems.  They need to be able to apply those math skills in real world situations.  If this is what our students need, what does that do to the way you might plan a lesson?  Assess your students?  Create a project?

I would love to hear your thoughts.  How do you get your students to have the dispositions for learning?  What would you do if you found that several of the kids in your class had already done the activity you had planned for today?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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