Obviously May is a bit of a crazy month and therefore I have not blogged. However, I have been writing. I am honored to share my thoughts via the Milken Family Foundations Connections online magazine. When Whitney Friedlander, the editor, asked me to send some pictures to accompany the story, I shared we were having Superhero Day at school to promote our book fair. The graphics guy ran with the idea and I am now a cartoon! Check that off of the bucket list.
While I wish I could rock a superhero outfit as well as my caricature does, I do believe teachers have super powers and I am so thankful for all of the superheros who have passed my way and the way of my daughters. I hope you enjoy the article and spend your summer recharging your powers. The enemies of ignorance and illiteracy are awaiting our return to the battleground.
During my second year as a teacher I worked in a small rural school teaching math in grades 6th -8th. I had convinced the principal I knew what I was doing. I did not, but I had a book. I was teaching the students how to find the percent of discount in “real” world problems, when a very bright, but often difficult student asked, “You know this is just like what you taught us in chapter 3, except we are finding a different piece of the equation. I am not sure why you did not just teach it all together. That would make way more sense!” He looked at me very defiantly and smirked. I took a breath and looked back to chapter 3 and replied, “You know you are right. Put up your books.” We began a three-day quest and amazingly they all mastered the concept.
Mike changed my teaching completely in those few seconds. I seldom took out the textbook for more than a reference again in my career, but rather began thinking about how to teach math in a logical manner as to allow students to make connections and meaning. The advice of a 13 year old boy was beyond value and became the foundation of my entire philosophy for teaching mathematics.
Expert teachers are constant learners. In the previous blog I recommended reading everything you can find to read, but reading is only the beginning, because books are not in the moment. Students are in the moment. Expert teachers learn from their students and should be the chief learner in the room.
The first step of learning from our students is to create a culture in the classroom where questions are encouraged and mistakes are acceptable. A proactive and supportive classroom culture is obvious from the focus on learning and the willingness of students to take intellectual risks. Effective teachers create this culture by placing the focus on learning rather than right or wrong answers (Good & Brophy, 2008). I believe one of the key methods to developing this type of classroom is to modeling learning for your students by discussing your own learning pursuits, by not always having the right answer, and by being open to discussions and the opinions of students.
The second step of learning from our students is to offer lessons focused around thinking and problem solving rather than simple regurgitation of facts. These lessons require students to analyze, evaluate, and justify their responses. Students can look for new solutions to ideas. Students will often show us new ideas or new ways of thinking about things if they have a chance to develop and share their own thinking. For example, offer students a problem with three correct solutions and ask them which solution is the best and to justify their responses. Then when students solve problems, they have the idea there may be more than one solution, but also are more focused on the reasoning why they chose the solution they chose.
Effective teachers’ classrooms are full of thoughtful discourse with students sharing opinions and considering alternative solutions to various types of problems. In classrooms with thoughtful discourse, students not only can say what is, but also explain why and make suggestions for further exploration. The discourse is facilitated by the teacher as well as by students (Good & Brophy, 2008).
The final step of learning from our students is to understand them and all of their complexities. Each student brings with them to class their unique backgrounds, both educational and personal, learning styles, and various emotional and behavior characteristics. The culture and lessons which encourage thinking and problem solving open up a microcosm for a teacher to observe learning and to learn how to respond to students needs in a very pure environment. In this environment, the teacher is learning to become a problem solver. An expert teacher has a deep ability to solve problems, because he or she seeks further information, whereas the non-expert teacher focuses more on directly available data. The expert is driven to solve problems with respect to individual students’ performance in the class, whereas the non-expert teacher generally focuses decisions on the entire class.
Flexibility (Costa & Garmston, 1998) is key to the expert’s ability to solve problems instantly in the classroom. Hattie (2003) supports the idea by explaining experts are more opportunistic and flexible in their teaching as they take advantage of new information, quickly bringing new interpretations and representations of the problem to light (Shulman, 1987). This flexibility as opposed to the knowledge of possible scenarios makes the difference between experience and expert.
An expert teacher’s ability to anticipate, plan, and improvise in given situations is critical to student success. Hattie (2003) found experts to be more adaptable at anticipating problems and then improvising. By spending a greater proportion of their solution time gaining an understanding of the problem, experts are more likely to monitor their ongoing solution attempts, checking for accuracy, and updating or elaborating problem representations as new constraints emerge (Larkin, 1983; Voss & Post, 1988).
Look for new ways to learn from your students this week. Keep you mind open to what a 6 year old or an 18 year old can teach you. My “students”, the teachers in my clusters, have taught me so much in the past two years. I have been blessed to call them my colleagues and my teachers. Expert teachers are expert learners. Be an expert!