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Subversive Teaching

Telling is Not Teaching
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I always wanted to be one of those teachers who got her papers graded while her students worked quietly at their desks, and then headed home when school was out. But I didn't want it badly enough. Even more than that I needed to see my students learning, and to do that I just could not leave them alone. I had to be interacting with them constantly -- leading, but not dominating discussion, encouraging them to contribute, to think, and above all to provide me with the constant feedback I needed to adjust my teaching "on the fly" as well as monitor their learning while they were in the process of doing it. This is an article about that process, and why I think it is not one that is commonly practiced in many classrooms.

A study by the Texas Center for Research shows that as students progress through the grades, more of their instruction is delivered by lecture. "Lecture" can mean a variety of things, some of it good. But sometimes it boils down to "telling", and "no feedback". Then we try to explain the comparatively lower TAKS scores by chalking it up to lower student motivation.

Many of those elementary students are really no more intrinsically motivated to learn than their older counterparts. The instruction is delivered differently, for a number of reasons. First is that elementary teachers have been held much more accountable for student progress: a student can fail every single subject and never turn in a paper, but if he passes the TAKS, he is certified to be prepared for the next grade level, and will likely be placed in it. TAKS is THE determinor of success for elementary students. Teachers cannot give a student "A for effort" on the TAKS - it is only learning that counts towards success. In high school, the credits necessary for graduation are earned only through grades; except for the exit tests, which until recently were not too difficult to pass, the TAKS scores have no bearing on student progress toward graduation. When high school grades are given out for good behavior, for compliance with school policies, and "completion", the results can be very subjective, and not necessarily a reflection of learning.

Secondly, elementary teachers are more likely to have received, and on an ongoing basis continue to receive, intensive instruction on best instructional practices validated by research. Everything in a teacher's instructional arsenal must be applied in her teaching if her students are to be successful on an objective measure of learning such as TAKS. There is no way to fudge. Effort and completion count for nothing, but only learning.

Third, elementary students in certain grades cannot pass to the next unless they demonstrate a minimum deficiency on certain TAKS tests, after being given several chances to do so. Except for the 11th grade exist tests, failing TAKS does not affect high school students in any way -- and they know it.

Fourth, up until now, the high school exit test, which students had to pass to graduate, was easy for most students to pass: it was first given in 10th grade, and most of it included skills from past grades more than 10th grade. If a student failed, he had several more opportunities to pass. However, this has all changed dramatically. Now, students take 9th, 10th, and 11th grade level TAKS. The 11th grade TAKS tests are much more difficult than the old 10th grade Math and Reading exit tests, and there are four of them, one for each core subject area. No matter how good a student's grades, if he cannot pass these four 11th grade tests, he will be stopped in his tracks.

So far, as far as I have been able to tell, this change has not made an appreciable change in the culture of secondary instruction. While in elementary school "time on task" is the constant drumbeat, in high school the pressure to use every minute in productive instruction is not yet evident in many classrooms, certainly not in those for which there is no TAKS. "Telling" -- often once, in passing -- is considered sufficient for students to learn the material. Often no direction instruction is provided -- students are simply given an assignment, for example, to write an essay, and it is assumed that they already know how to do so. Or they are given a worksheet to complete, with no direct instruction on how to do so. Everything has the quality of what in elementary school is called "independent practice", but without the preceding steps of direct instruction and guided practice. Students are expected to practice what they are presumed to have been taught in some previous year in some other classroom, and should therefore already know. Instruction is replaced by cursory "review" -- reminding students of what they ought to know, without making the effort to ensure that they in fact do.

With only the vaguest idea of how to proceed in completing an assignment, and far from convinced that any efforts to teach themselves how to do so would impact their lives in any way, many are content to take a zero. They come to school because the law or their parents compel them to, but no one can compel them to do work that is incomprehensible to them. They sit in class, sometimes with their heads on their desks, and try to tune out the classroom chatter which serves only as a reminder of how unequipped they are to succeed.

Elementary teachers understand "No Child Left Behind" to mean this: regardless of how unmotivated a student is, or how little his parent cares that he is not learning, the teacher is still responsible for making sure the student learns. The teacher is aware that even if she is the only one who cares if the child learns, which is too often the case, she is not off the hook. Therefore, she must have all students' attention during instruction; she must permit no off-task behavior; and she must not allow students to disrupt instruction. Of course, if a student is bent on disrupting instruction, no matter what a teacher does to handle it, the teacher must rely on administrators to swiftly intervene. And because administrators are under the same pressure as teachers to make sure students learn, they cannot permit a student to disrupt instruction for an entire class. Often they will remove a student to a "time out" place, such as another classroom or the office, so he can work without disturbing others. Administrators who allow students to stay in the classroom disrupting instruction will find themselves explaining why their schools are not performing adequately.

In many high schools, students are free to sleep in class, or write notes, as long as they are not disruptive. To insist on their attention only invites disruption, and neither teachers or administrators want to do that. As teachers and administrators begin to feel the pressure of increasing TAKS demands, however, this may change. When teachers and administrators are held accountable for raising test scores, they may discover that they can no longer afford to allow students to habitually ignore or disrupt instruction. Students who choose to be disruptive will have to be removed from the regular classroom into some alternative setting where they no longer have the option to sleep or be disruptive.

But in order for this to be effective, students should prefer to be in the regular classroom rather than the alternative setting, and often this is not the case. Part of the reason may be that the self-paced, often computer-based instruction they receive in alternative settings may provide them with the feedback they need to receive tangible evidence that they can and are learning -- something they may rarely receive in the regular classroom.

In secondary schools, feedback and assessment are often seen as discrete processes. In all types of learning, all through life, feedback is essential -- and the more frequent, immediate, and unambiguous the feedback, the more effective the learning. We learn to ride a back by receiving the feedback of falling off when we don't do it correctly. We know we are jumping rope correctly when we stop tripping on the rope. Feedback of some kind is essential to any kind of game or play -- kids will tolerate much failure in learning the skill necessary to being successful in a game, as long as they are provided with enough corrective feedback to help them improve and progress. Conversely, any endeavor in which feedback is effectively provided has the potential to be experienced as having a game-like quality. The difference between activities that are intrinsically rewarding and those that are not might be defined as those that have feeback built in, and those that require it from external sources. When we say that learning is its own reward, we mean that the feedback that tells us we have suceeded is all the reward we need.

Anything with the potential to provide feedback for learning is also, for the instructor, a form of assessment, which in turms gives us feedback on how effectively we are teaching. Therefore classroom instruction should be a process of constantly interactive feedback and assessment.

Usually, assessment during instruction consists of calling on several students with their hands up. Since their hands are up, they are likely to provide correct answers. The teacher has the impression that the class as a whole has a good grasp of the subject, and, now that they have heard the correct response, those that may not have, now do. Teachers sometimes call on students without hands up, but that proves to be a waste of class time because those students refuse to respond at all. They have learned that if they don't cause trouble, they can zone out and pretty much be left alone.

In a typical English classroom, the class reads something aloud (guaranteed to stupefy avid readers), then are handed a couple of pages of dull questions to answer. If the teacher is feeling benevolent, she will read the questions to the class, and when someone answers correctly, the other students write down. This, of course, is tedious, and for some students not even the threat of failure can keep them from just putting their heads on their desks and trying to block it out.

Then at a predetermined time, a test or quiz is given. And quite often the teacher is disappointed to find that once again students have not taken the opportunity to learn the responses that they were provided.

However, feedback can take a large variety of forms, in any classroom at any level, some high-tech, but most low-tech to the point of being antiquated. I will give some explicit examples of what I mean.

My favorite is a throwback to the times when paper was too expensive to waste, and students were all supplied with little slates on which to work. However, those slates were also good for providing feedback. I give little whiteboards and dry-erase markers to my students so that they can provide me with feedback, and I can provide it to them, all during a lesson. They work with any kind of lesson, but I will give examples of how they work in math.

When students arrive, a "warm up" activity is on the overhead. Usually there are two problems to solve, each with four lettered answer choices. (It is important that they be lettered, so I can assess and provide feedback instantly without having to do much reading. It is important to have two answer choices so that they can't just guess the other 3 possible answer choices.) Students hold up their whiteboards and I either give them a nod if both are correct, tell them they got one right (though not which), or give them a shake of the head if both are incorrect. I give lots of encouragement: "On your first try!" "You are so close!" "Great, you got one right!" It doesn't seem to matter to them how quickly they get the right answers, although they are thrilled if they do so quickly. They want to keep trying until they get it, even if I want to call time.

During lessons I put all kinds of problems on the overhead -- or arrange various manipulatives -- and have them give me feedback on their whiteboards. In this way I can tell what kinds of problems they are having and adjust my teaching. I can also tell when everyone has a concept, and they also know the exact moment when they have it. At that point I know I can make the problems a little more challenging, in just the right increment, at just the right moment, and leave no one behind. For example, in one early lessson on place value, I place base-ten blocks -- hundreds, tens, and ones, on the overhead for them to write the number value. Then I mix them up in different order, until it is clear that students understand that despite the configurationof the blocks, the digits must go in the correct place. Then I put up a configuration with only hundreds and tens, and students must figure out that they must use a zero in the ones place. Then I use only hundreds and ones, and students must figure out that they must put a zero in the tens place. Thus through discovery with feedback they discover the meaning of place value for themselves.

This goes on throughout virtually every math lesson -- a constant interaction between the feedback they provide me, and that which I provide them. This informs when I will give a more formal assessment such as a test or quiz -- another valuable form of feedback for them, as well as official certiffiction that they have in fact accomplished their learning objective.

This is effective with older students as well, in any subject area. Students can use white boards, or, if the group is small enough, they can write their answers on paper and the teacher can go around and put a check mark on correct answers or provide feedback about their errors in thinking to help them solve problems. They can also vote on answer choices, then defend those choices. The important thing is to invite them to give a response; once they know it is expected of them, everyone appreciates having responses solicited, rather than simply being treated as passive recipients of information. Otherwise they will remain passive, and let a handful of students give all the answers while they tune out, and teachers will have no way of assessing their learning or giving them feedback.

There are an infinite number of ways to make teaching and learning an interactive, interdependent process, in all subjects, at all grade levels. At the heart of this kind of teaching is respect and esteem for what students are thinking and what they have to offer in the process of learning and teaching. It may not make for quiet classrooms, but it makes for ones in which learning is intellectually stimulating and emotionally satisfying.

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