Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Five don’ts that might just lead to better learning

Habits take time to form...that’s how they become habits. And if  we don’t start to form new habits immediately, the old ones will take over because life will get complicated and we will fall back to our defaults to survive. So this month, for one full month, be bold and vocally and publicly declare new (soon-to-be) habits. Here are 5 suggestions for the first month:

  1. Don’t assign homework. Here’s what this will do: you will be forced to use your class time differently right away, demanding high-quality, rigorous, focused work during class. You will need to talk less (see #3) and let them do more. Students will learn what it means to work hard while you are there to guide, redirect, and watch their learning. You will have more time outside of class for high-quality, substantive feedback based on the work you watched them do in class. Ultimately, you will learn more about your students more quickly when you are present during their learning. When the month is up, decide if you want to start giving homework…but you may see you don’t want or need to. If you do decide to give homework, here’s a link to a helpful infographic called “Homework in a Standards-Based Class.”
  2. Don’t grade anything. Grades cause anxiety and anxiety leads to a variety of behaviors, all detrimental to learning. Some students will give up when graded, some will become obsessed with the grades (not the learning—big difference), and some will stop taking intellectual or creative risks. Allow students to learn safely for the first month, providing feedback, but no grades. Show the students where they are in relation to your targets, show them benchmarks, celebrate risk taking, and encourage redos and retries and retakes. After a month, if you must, grade away…but again, you may find you don’t need or want to. Curious about grading changes? Join #sblchat on Wednesday nights at 9pm ET.
  3. Don’t hog the learning. Limit yourself to 5 minutes of talking (to the whole class) in a 90 minute block. Why? Because the one doing is the one learning. If our goal is to have students learn and make meaning, then we need to make sure that we are setting them up to learn. And as the wonderful Dr Duke reminds us (see amazing video here), “Listening isn’t learning.”  Brain research has clearly shown that people need to play with content in order to learn content in a way they can use beyond simple recall. They need time to talk and to experiment and to write and to chart and to explore--all things they aren’t doing if they are listening to us. So rather than telling them about supply and demand or the functions of a cell or the themes of Macbeth, allow them to discover these things. It’s a lot harder to plan for what they will do than to plan for what we will do, but the learning (theirs!) will be worth it.
  4. Don’t focus on the wrong things. The more we focus on what we don’t want students to do, the less we focus on what we do want them to do. When we spend lots of time and energy making detailed rules about hats and gum and food and bra straps and cellphones in class, you know what’s going to happen? We’re going to spend lots of time and energy enforcing rules about hats and gum and food and bra straps and cellphones in class...time and energy we could be spending on learning. This does not mean allowing class to be a free-for-all; it just means being thoughtful about what really matters to us and to our ultimate goal: to improve learning.
  5. Don’t stand at the front of the room. In fact, don’t have a front of the room (this will help with #3 as well!). That means being really intentional about how we set the room up each class. Yes, this takes time, and yes, it may be a bit loud. But how we set up the room can make a huge difference in learning, attention, and engagement. So think about the purpose of each class, the tasks you are having students do, and then determine the BEST setup possible for that purpose.

These suggestions may seem extreme, but think about the underlying premise of each “Don’t”. Our goal as teachers is to maximize learning for all students, and so many of our teaching defaults get in the way of this goal. By being more intentional about daily decisions and structures and policies, and by doing these class after class after class, we can start to build practices and systems that become...well...habits.

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