As educators we understand that teaching is complex. When done well, teaching relies upon not only the science behind making sound pedagogical choices for our students, but also the art of reaching each student wherever he or she is on the learning continuum and sparking a learning flame for a lifetime. As accomplished teachers, we have our toolbox of tools, strategies, and data from which we can pull to meet the needs of each of our students.
Unfortunately, many individuals outside of our profession fail to see the multitude of mind-boggling choices and decisions we make every day to make learning relevant, authentic, purposeful, engaging, and (dare we say) fun for our learners.
Those of you familiar with my classroom know that it is student driven and usually supported by digital tools that meet the needs of my learners. Often the questions that I am asked are “What happens to your students next year when they are in classrooms that are much different? Aren’t you putting them at a disadvantage?” After some reflection, I realized that there was one element missing from our student-driven learning environment: Students were pushing themselves to grow, trusting the choices that we made without truly understanding the “why” behind them.
As teachers we assign projects, centers, or hands-on activities. We explain, demonstrate, or model all of the instructions and then send students on their way. Our students exhibit different levels of engagement and motivation. It’s not uncommon for behavior problems arise. We've designed amazing things for our students' learning. We might ask ourselves, “Why aren't students actively engaged and thrilled to be learning?”
I believe the reason is because we left out the most important element; we didn't share the "why." Learners need to understand why we make the choices that we make our classrooms. They need to understand the complexity that is involved in all of the choices that we make for them. Learners must understand that although a particular activity may not be their favorite, there is a legitimate reason why they are dedicating time in that endeavor.
Learners today are savvy. Students of all ages want to have a voice and choice when it comes to their learning. So when we talk to our students, we need to share the research on which our choices are based. We need to teach them the language of learning so they not only understand the why behind their learning, but also so they are able to articulate it to others.
At the beginning of the year, I begin sharing with my students what I know about how the brain works and what it needs to learn. The first time I did this I was surprised by how fascinated they were by this information. We talk about things like learning styles, personality traits, schema, mastery, standards, and cognition. This becomes the language they use when they discuss learning with one another, their parents, and other teachers.
The more we as educators discuss these things in class and transparently share our pedagogical choices, the more students will be able to articulate not just the action that they want to take to meet a goal, but also why that is a sound choice. They are equipped with the tools to advocate for themselves.
This result happens only when we become transparent to our students. This makes you rethink every choice you make because you are going to have to justify it with your students. It can sometimes be scary. Your students will come to expect it...which they should. Because if we can't justify or defend the choices we are making with our students, we probably shouldn't be doing it in the first place. Our learners need to see us critically analyze challenges, draw from our knowledge, reach out to others to deepen our understanding, and apply what we know and what we've learned to solve problems. Our example is more powerful than just our words.
The fact is that our students will not be with us forever. We will not always be there to advocate for them. Learners need this knowledge because they need to become their own advocates for their learning. They need the tools to communicate successfully with educators and other adults how they learn best. They need to be equipped with the terminology and research to argue for the types of learning experiences that they need to get the most out of their education.
Are we only equipping students for success in our classrooms, or are we preparing them for a lifetime of learning? Like the old proverb, if we give a child a fish, he will eat for a day, but if we teach him how to fish, he will eat for a lifetime.
It's time to hand our students that fishing line.
Julie D. Ramsay is a National Board Certified Teacher and the author of “Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?” Collaborating in Class and Online, Grades 3–8. She teaches ELA to sixth graders at Rock Quarry Middle School in Tuscaloosa, AL. She also travels the United States to speak, present, and facilitate workshops in applying technology to support authentic learning. Read her blog, eduflections.