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Exorcising the Ghosts of Classrooms Past
By Ron Nash, author of The Power of We.
At a recent workshop in Virginia, one of the participants, a secondary teacher, approached me at the break. She pointed out how difficult it is for veteran teachers to shift from a decidedly teacher-centered classroom to one that engages students in more productive ways. We agreed that both of us had followed the lead of our own high school teachers and college professors, laboring under the assumption that talking is teaching. This is no doubt the case for many thousands of teachers who spent time—or felt they did time—in classrooms with talkative teachers and wall clocks that ran perpetually slow. In this way, it could be said that the ghosts of classrooms past help drive instruction to a greater or lesser extent.
I have often said that tradition can be a hard taskmaster, and that was certainly true for me as I began my career in education in 1972. I had seen my own teachers and professors do many of the same things for years; I assumed what I experienced was accepted practice—and it was. A steady flow of words from the front of the classroom in a largely passive environment served as the status quo for centuries. After all, I survived six years of junior-senior high school and four years of college. What was good enough for me and my classmates was good enough for my own students. I think Good Enough! was my motto back in the day.
Around the country, in fits and starts, classroom roles are shifting. In student-centered classrooms, teachers do less talking and more listening. In those classrooms, students spend less time listening—or pretending to listen—to teachers talk as they take on a more active role. Student desks are moved into configurations that allow for movement and student-to-student dialogue on a regular basis. Teacher’s desks, which often serve as repositories for stuff, are being removed from classrooms to make more room for the things that kids need to do as part of the learning process. Teachers are moving from lecture mode into learning mode as they work alongside students in classrooms where teachers know they are not the only teachers in the room.
SHIFTING PRIORITIES FOR IGEN’ERS
Today’s students spend many hours per day looking at screens—and not at people. This means “iGen’ers are not practicing their in-person socials skills as much as other generations did” (Twenge, 2017, p. 91). Developing skills related to communication and collaboration takes practice, and lots of it. Baby Boomers and their kids (Generation X) spent a great deal of time outdoors and in face-to-face contact with friends outside the schoolhouse. The development of social skills thus came naturally as a part of growing up in the neighborhood. In the age of texting, tweeting, and managing multiple social network sites, the opportunity for face-to-face contact outside of school is a great deal less frequent than with previous generations.
Yet these skills are important outside of school and after graduation. For today’s students, not only is the capacity to communicate effectively and collaborate with peers important, affirm Robinson and Aronica (2015), but, “Outside schools, the ability to work with others is critical to the strength of communities and to meeting the challenges we collectively face” (p. 138). Moreover, modern employers in a global marketplace value those very skills, and this includes writing. “The world demands that our students write, speak, and present with precision, skill, and persuasiveness,” write Wagner and Dintersmith (2015). And, they assert, “We’re doing a horrible job of teaching these most essential skills” (p. 103). If students are to have an edge in the world of work, and if they are to become thoughtful citizens in a vibrant democracy, classrooms and schools must choose to disrupt the status quo. To the extent that they are in the way and gumming up the works, the ghosts of classrooms past must be exorcised.
Change brings risk. Risk may bring failure, and that is part of what keeps teachers from disturbing the status quo; better to proceed with caution. Come to think of it, the fear of failure is what keeps many kids quiet and disconnected in classrooms. From an administrative point of view, risk may turn quiescent classrooms into noisy ones, and for many veteran building principals, that is simply not on. That fear of failure may mean the difference between an increasingly ineffective traditional methodology and a vibrant and highly successful learning-centered classroom or school environment where students can be students, students can be teachers, and teachers are willing to take a risk and become students again.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
One of the most effective and powerful classroom environments I have had the pleasure to observe over the years was a high school science classroom where the teacher admitted to me that her aha moment came when she realized she was not the only teacher in the room, and that she could learn with and from her juniors. Those same students told me near the end of that block that they knew they were in a classroom that was special, one dedicated to learning where they were in continuous-improvement mode every day. They also admitted that their other classrooms were not like the one in which I sat—they often nodded off in those largely passive environments.
Many teachers I have met over the years, like this science teacher, admitted to me that there was something that happened that made them decide to take a risk on behalf of kids. In one case, it was a two-day workshop that helped two elementary teachers realize that they were in a rut, and their students were right in there with them. They took considerable risks as they shifted from teacher-centered to student-centered—and they never looked back. Their attitudes improved along with the test scores and the number of highly satisfied students and parents. A foreign-language teacher told me he took a considerable risk in making substantial adjustments to his curriculum—trading breadth for depth, with excellent results.
Winston Churchill liked to say that success is not final and failure is not fatal. Rather, it is the courage to continue that counts. A principal in a simply incredible elementary school once told me he encouraged his teachers to take risks on behalf of kids. He told them to quit worrying about going out on limbs. If they fell, he said, they should get up, dust themselves off, and find another limb. Another of the finest elementary principals I have known told her teachers they should take risks that benefitted the children they served. That was her bottom line—what was best for kids.
Continuous improvement requires the taking of risks in districts, schools, and classrooms on behalf of kids. By so doing, we are modeling for students that risks are necessary—and failure is nothing but an opportunity for growth. We learn from our mistakes, and that is an excellent life lesson for a generation of students who may be more risk-averse. They need to know that when it comes to a willingness to disturb the status quo in the service of continuous improvement and the attainment of critical life skills, their teachers and administrators are quite willing and able to lead the way.