January 7, 2014

Teaching to the Edges

This video has been out on You Tube for a while now, so it may not be new to any of you.  But as I took the time to listen to it the other day, it really resonated with me.  If you haven't seen it, take 18 minutes to enjoy it and absorb the message.  The message isn't profoundly new, but I love the way he relates the difficulties found by fighter pilots to the difficulties students face in today's classrooms.  Fighter pilots were being forced to use a cockpit that was designed for the average pilot.  A predetermined height, width, arm length, etc.  What a researcher discovered was that no pilot, none, was actually the dimensions that the cockpit was designed for, thus the myth of average.  The air force discovered that they would need to create jets that were adjustable, especially since some of their best pilots were no where near the average dimensions.

Then Todd makes the leap.  He connects this story to classrooms in America, and he does it with a photo of a typical classroom.  Does that photo show the story of adaptability?  Does it say flexible learning environment?  To me it looks sterile, rigid, and the same as it has for over 100 years.  It appears that sit and listen is the main instructional method in use, and that information comes from the teacher in front, the textbook on your desk or the problems written on the board.  He goes on to share how textbooks are designed to meet the average. How they are designed to be age appropriate for the students.  The question is, are all the students in your classrooms at the same age appropriate level?  Even if you are an elementary teacher with leveled texts are we really being flexible with our students and their interests and passions?  Does it push their vocabulary strength, their knowledge level, or is it just their reading level?

The question is, are we teaching to the edges?  Are we flexible enough in our approach that we are meeting our students where they are, and are we pushing them to grow in all areas?  Students have a jagged learning profile (as shown above).  They all do.  They have strengths in some areas and weaknesses in others.  And they all have different interests.  Can a consistent dose of stand up front and lecture, or sit in a small group and read, or even can a single textbook or set of leveled readers, meet our students varied needs?  Don't we need to fundamentally change our approach to instruction and the tools we use to facilitate learning?

I think we all know that different people have different strengths.  But are we focused on fixing weaknesses? Does the system set us up to make that our focus?  Even if that is true (and I believe it is), is it possible to develop weaknesses by focusing on strengths?  I believe if we let students pursue passions/interests and we let them use their strengths to learn about those things, then they will slowly develop their weaknesses as they passionately pursue knowledge of their interests.

So how do you set up your classroom?  What tools do you use to allow students to engage with their interests?  Are you willing to break the mold?  Willing to move away from the factory model we all grew up with?  If you are a teacher, will you allow this kind of student choice and voice into your classroom?  If you already desire it, will you become the impassioned voice for it?  Will you be willing to be the experimenter?  Can you ride it out, even when it doesn't always go perfectly?  If you are an administrator, will you advocate for it, even if your supervisor or the school board doesn't see the benefits? Can you advocate for it when everyone else is focused on quick ways to raise test scores?  Can you be the voice that says we need to prepare all kids for the global workforce, the ever advancing technology growth, the flat-world economy, and the creativity and solutions focused skills that jobs now demand?

Our students need and deserve a hands on education that involves little sitting and filling out worksheets.  They want to engage in the activity, collaborate with their peers, work on things together and get into the mess of learning. Even as adults we know how we learn and interact as team members, and we certainly know how we prefer to learn. There is a great graphic below that shows how we learn best.  The question is, when will we learn to step away from the textbook and let learning happen through life-like experiences?  When will you be ready to step away from comfort, embrace change and the uncertain, and let kids learn in a way that fits them?

Are you ready to teach to the edges, or will you stick with the safety of averages that really fits none?

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