Dear passionate teacher,
“You become the teacher you hated in the school.” This is a famous saying in education. I’ve been teaching for almost a decade now and I have to confess, I was slowly turning into the teachers I despised in my school days. Only after I joined the M.Ed. program in 2012, I realized how bad of a teacher I was. And since then, I have been trying to improve my attitude, skills, and knowledge about how learning happens and how teachers can help students learn better in a meaningful way. Now, I am also passionate about helping other teachers to become better at what they do.
So dear teacher, here is a list of 17 small changes you can bring into the classroom this 2017, and hopefully create awesome learning experiences for your students, and for yourself.
- Understand how learning happens:
As teachers, we must understand at least these three insights from the field of Mind, Brain, and Science:
- learning happens best through social interaction;
- learning happens when students actively participate in the learning process; and
- learning happens when students experience an event (directly or indirectly) and then reflect on it.
So the question for us is: are we simply teaching them or are we creating facilitative environment which allows them to interact, work actively, learn, and reflect on their learning.
- Give them a big picture:
“Why do we study Geometry, sir?”. I had once asked my math teacher. I got the reply in the form of his slap on my cheeks. He could have instead said to me, “When we understand shapes, we understand the importance of balance.” I never figured out the purpose of memorizing those theorems and calculations because my teacher never painted the big picture for us.
Don’t make that mistake. Give the students meaning before details. Leadership guru Simon Sinek tells us to start with ‘why’. Help the students see the ‘why’ – the big picture and the subjective value of the course. Tell them how challenging the course is and tell them ways to overcome the challenges.
- Help them connect the dots:
And then, help them connect their learning to the real world. Help them understand, remember, analyze, synthesize and develop solutions to real life problems. Push them to explore and persevere. Guide them to come up with new ideas. Let them dream. And, support them to nurture their dreams.
- Start strong, end stronger:
Be mindful of the first few minutes and the last few minutes of the class. Students usually remember the first moments best, and the final moments next best. This phenomenon is called the Primacy-Recency effect. Don’t have a clumsy opening. Rather, start your class with something that’s unexpected (story, joke, strange facts, drama) but not with something boring and usual. Similarly, end the class with an activity that’s memorable. Don’t say, “Well, that’s the bell. Time’s up. See you in the next class.” Doing that is a lost opportunity.
- Let them teach each other:
I believe that peer teaching can be far effective than lectures in so many cases. As the popular saying goes: when you teach, you learn better. Ask students to teach each other in pairs and in groups, usually for revision works. Besides, this is one of the best facilitation techniques. We all need some relief here and there.
- Let them review each other:
Give them a rubric and ask them to grade each other’s works. Teach them the art of giving constructive feedback and then have them critic each other. There are tons of research that confirm peer-feedback as an effective learning technique. Also, this gives students a great opportunity to learn the essential art of building and maintaining relationships.
- Tell stories:
We may not remember facts and information. But we remember experience. Story is the best weapon to provide unforgettable experience (vicariously) to the students. There’s a myth: stories are just for the literature classes. Well, not true at all. Even if you are teaching math or physics or finance, you can always wrap your content inside the stories and deliver your lesson. Try it. Human brains simply love stories, and every teacher must be a storyteller.
- Reduce lecture time:
Decrease teacher talk time. And instead, increase student talk time. When the teacher speaks, the students have nothing else to do but to listen (assuming the students can stay focused). Unfortunately, listening is the least effective way of learning and retaining knowledge. Also, the one who talks gets more practice time, which means, the teacher is getting to practice explaining the information. If your dominant method is lectures, you are not giving students enough opportunities to analyze, interpret, and create their own knowledge.
- Mix up different methodologies:
So, how to reduce lecture time? Simple. By mixing different teaching methodologies. Try this mantra: an effective learning happens in a teacher-led-students-centered class. Get them involved in activities. Pair works, group activities, problem solving exercises, student presentations, stories, debate, quiz, panel discussion, interview, and many many more. Important tip: don’t do the activities for the sake of doing them. Always finish off an activity with a reflection. Make them write and share reflections.
- Revisit 3X3W:
Retention is a big issue in teaching/learning. How do we make sure that students understand and remember what we teach? One of the ways is to implement variations to teach a single concept (especially the difficult ones). Here’s my rule of thumb: teach a concept at least 3 times in 3 different ways. Suppose you are teaching the concept of photosynthesis. Tell a story about how plants work throughout the day to produce oxygen for the living beings. Show them a process diagram and have them practice drawing the diagram. Then show them a video of how photosynthesis happens. Well, you get the idea behind it. Unlike drilling, this sort of repetition is helpful because students will have a chance to encode at least three versions of the same information in their brains.
- Emphasize on Reflective Writing:
As mentioned earlier, learning happens when students experience an event and then reflect on it. Simply experiencing an event (listening to a story, doing a pair-work) is not enough. The students must reflect on the experience and make a meaning out of it. For this, reflective writing is an amazing tool. Before the class ends, ask students to calm down and reflect on the day’s learnings and write freely for about 5 minutes. What do they remember and how will they use the knowledge in their lives? How did they feel? Why did they feel the way they felt? And so on. This short closing activity will help students cement the experience and meaning in their long term memory, and they can easily retrieve the insights when they need them.
- Make students draft their classroom constitution:
Why not let them write their own classroom constitution? They will feel the ownership and teachers won’t have to enforce rules in an autocratic way. Also, students will feel that they have autonomy over their learning process/environment. It’s best to do this on the first day of the class. Divide the class into several groups and tell them to come up with a certain number of rules. Then, each group leader will present their versions of the constitution and through voting, they finalize the draft.
- Modify classroom setup:
We like changes. We love novelty. In life and in classrooms. And when students spend their entire semester or a session in the same classroom, they surely would love to see some changes. Studying in the same set up day in and day out for months is not motivating (and is not fun at all). Change the seating arrangement. Change the layout of the benches/desks. Change the posters and wallpapers. Better yet, assign a group of students as Change Police Officers every month. They’ll have to implement new ideas for change in the classroom.
- Go beyond the four walls:
John Dewey had said, “Community is the curriculum” and I interpret this as a call out to all the teachers to take their teaching beyond the four walls of the classroom. A lot of teaching and learning happening inside the classroom, sadly, do not reflect the realities of the communities and the society at large. We’re still teaching subjects in isolation however learning becomes meaningful when students get opportunities to integrate their subject-skills (say – language, calculation, social studies) and apply the skills to solve the problems of a community (say – write a narrative of people on how they are earning through poultry business). When students get to interact with real issues, their learning becomes real learning.
- Manage the Affect in the classroom:
One of my inspirations, Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa writes about how teachers should take control of the affect in the classroom. Affect (a subjectively experienced emotion) directly influences attention and learning. What she means is that we should take charge of the ‘feeling’ in the classroom. Walk with positivity into the classroom and you can help students feel better, learn better, and retain better every single time. (See: Pygmalion Effect). Also, let the students know that they can count on you if they are facing any problems.
- Take risk:
If we only do what we can do, we will never be more than what we are right now. Great quote, right? Therefore, challenge yourself. Many teachers (especially the ones who have taught for many years) I know are reluctant about, for instance, class observation. They might have valid reasons for such reluctance. Nevertheless, request your colleague to observe your class and listen to their suggestion. Ask your students to anonymously evaluate you on your strengths and weaknesses. Be ready to face the worst comments. You can pick on one area of improvement and work on it. If the rules allow, take your friends as a guest into the classroom.
- Make your own list:
[This space is for you. I’m sure, you must be doing these already in your own ways. Think about how you can add on to the above ideas and personalize them for your students.]
Popular blogger Seth Godin once said, “If you want people to become passionate, engaged in a field, transformed by an experience — you don’t lecture them and you don’t force them. Instead, you create an environment where willing, caring individuals can find an experience that changes them.” Fellow passionate teacher, teach we must but let us also create awesome learning experiences for our students. Let’s keep trying.