Three Shifts for Innovative Instruction

Three Shifts for Innovative Instruction

A Shift from Content Knowledge to Essential Learning Skills

Teachers love their content. The stuff they went to school to teach. They practice it, plan, and deliver content at a level of mastery that is astounding, and sometimes confusing to their students. They know their content inside and out, but have you ever asked a teacher why they teach what they teach? Ask them. Say, “Why do you teach that?” Their answer may confuse you. They may talk about how what they are teaching is in the curriculum; the common core. They may talk about how what they are teaching now relates to what they are going to be teaching later. They may give you my least favorite reason, “We have to cover the content.”

Shouldn’t every teacher know why they teach what they teach? Shouldn’t every teacher be able to concisely explain to another rational adult the purpose they teach what they teach? But, they can’t. They teach what they are told to teach, and ask few questions.

What if teacher gave as much time and devotion to teaching students how to learn better; independent of content? What if teachers felt it was the primary duty to help students become more comfortable with moving from a state of inability to a state of ability as they do with getting to a certain page in the textbook? What kind of student would that create?

Consider these Essential Learning Skills:

  • Work Ethic: the principle that hard work is intrinsically virtuous or worthy of reward; effort.

  • Collaboration: the act of working with someone through the combination of resources, skills, and effort to produce or create something.

  • Communication: the process of expressing information or ideas by speaking, writing, or printed word.

  • Information Management: the ability to research, analyze, evaluate, summarize, “opinionate”, defend, and share information, data, and thought.

  • Technology Proficiency: the ability to understand digital management, communicate digitally, leverage digital resources, and create using a digital landscape.

  • Critical Thinking: the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment.

If we devoted as much time to cultivating these skills as we do to remembering the names of Native American tribes, how to solve for Y, and the elements on the periodic table, what would our students be able to do? How would developing, practicing, and measuring these skills add to our student’s arsenal when they run up against “I don’t know?” They simplify expressions, label the parts of a cell, know what makes plants green, but they can’t independently advance their own learning. Schools kneel and pray at the altar of content failing to realize that learning is not the completion of directions, but the acquisition of skills. Students can worksheet, multiple choice, and fill in the blank, but their knee jerk reaction to “I don’t know” is “I quit.” The shift to fixing that reaction is education’s crucial reform.

A Shift from Know, Remember, Do to Create, Solve, Teach

This shift may seem like a reiteration of the previous section, but I will tell you it’s not. Whereas, Content to Skills focuses on teacher activity, this point speaks to student activity. If we can agree that education is something that is done to me, and that learning is something that I do; what are the hallmarks that differentiate between education and learning? What are the goals of learning that are not met by education. I believe it is simply that education wants students to know, remember and do stuff, and learning seeks to have students create, solve, and teach.

You can see education’s desire for know, remember, do in the way the system works. A typical school system will teach facts, have students practice remembering those facts, and then asses the students over those facts. Once all that has been accomplished (endured), that learning is done, and it’s time to begin what’s next. There is no connection between learning one set of facts and the next. You’re just done. Let’s move along.

It seems that education is focused on completion where learning’s goal is transformation. Where education can endure without any affect on the student, authentic learning fundamentally changes the learner. It does that because learning doesn’t focus on completion; it focuses on creation. For this to happen you need to evaluate what you teach. Now, I’m talking about content.

What is the next step of know, remember, do? What do I do next? Further, who decides what I know, remember, and do in a typical classroom? The teacher decides all of this, and students are relegated to passengers in an educational system that will function ignorant of any unique qualities of the people sitting in the desk. When you ask students to create, solve, and teach the distinctive nature of each student will shape the proof of learning. Personality becomes a necessary component of the result of that creation, solution, or teaching.

Lastly, what skills does it take to know, remember, and do? How much of that requirement is simply the movement of information from one place to another. A book to a worksheet. A worksheet, temporarily, to the student’s brain space. That brain space to a test. Alternatively, what does it take to create? How many skills must you master to make something out of nothing? I’m not talking about sugar cookies here. I’m talking about the creation of a well-reasoned opinion, the ability to converse in matters the student had to collect themselves, the creation of a complete summary. What skills do you need?

What skills are needed to solve a problem? A students must be able to understand the problem, but then have the ability to ask the questions to find the answers. And, to teach? Why is it that we never ask our students to teach? Is it not the highest form of mastery? We see preschoolers and kindergarteners teacher each other instinctively and, as quickly as we can, we teach that right out of them. We prove to them the teacher is the sole repository of information in the classroom by never offering the opportunity to know anything different.

But, what if we didn’t. What if we approached our content viewing the beating hearts in our room not as buckets to be filled, but as fires to ignite? What if we saw these humans as creators, and problem solvers, and teachers rather than pupils? Are you bold enough to try?

A Shift From the Front of the Room to the Student’s Seat

Learning’s proof is curiosity. As @willrich45 says, “nobody is an expert in something that bores them to death.” Authentic learning begets more learning. For that to happen the focus needs to shift from teacher to learner. When I talk about this to people, I usually reference my experience with learning to play the guitar.

Nobody told me how to play the guitar. I assembled the necessary equipment and materials, and set about learning to play the guitar. When I talk about this I usually interchange the word “learned” with “taught myself” as synonyms. What is the role of students “teaching themselves” in our hallowed halls of education? Is it not the role of the teacher to teach the students? Do we turn learning into something that is stagnant when it should be transformational?

In order for anything more than education to happen, teachers must allow for learning to occur. Let me say that better: Teacher must get out of the way for learning to occur. That means your laminated lesson plans may not cut it. Your expected outcomes will not engender curiosity. Curiosity finds its genesis when students are not required to find the answer, but encouraged to find the next question. Students must find agency in what they are learning.

Student agency should not be a novelty in our schools. Students should practice the process of directing their own learning, constructing solutions, and planning the next step in the task. When we go back and look at our students as creators, not just completers, it opens the possibilities of agency to our factory-style machine-like education system.

Most importantly, if we do not change from where we view education, we will continue to create 18 year olds that cannot independently advance their own learning. We will have graduated students that are not comfortable moving from a state of inability to a state of ability. And that scares me. We have wasted 13 years of this person’s life telling them what they are good at and what they aren’t. We have rewarded their inability to do stuff with making them do more of what they suck at, and we have done so under the auspice of “that’s what’s best” for this kid. We have scripted creativity and labeled giftedness. We have taken learning, which is something beautiful, and turned it into something that is despised. Don’t waste the gift of those students’ time in school.

So, what do you say? Are you bold enough to make the shift so that real reform can take place? Consider:

Shifting from content knowledge to essential learning skills.

Shifting from know, remember, do to create, solve, and teach.

Shifting from the front of the room to the student’s seat.

Your comments are welcomed and encouraged,

Dane Barner

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