I have to share a quick story from a colleague that frustrates me. [A quick note – this is my frustration, not his. He was telling me about this class and I asked him what this past week was like, thinking it must have been an amazing teaching opportunity. He was, and is, quite professional about the whole thing and is wise enough to recognize that he has no choice but to move on. I, on the other hand, remain perturbed on his behalf.]
There is apparently a class at the high school called “20th Century War and Terror.” It sounds like a fascinating class, covering everything from the Armenian genocide and World War I to the Desert Storm conflict. If this class had been an option at my high school, I would have signed up in a heartbeat; looking at history through the lens of warfare fascinates me.
Needless to say, the last week could have been an amazing opportunity for students to study the subject matter in real-time as the Osama bin Laden story unfolded in front of their eyes. Talk about relevant learning – it would be like teaching a class on theatrical tradition when Shakespeare or Christopher Marlowe died, or studying music history when John Lennon was killed. I can only begin to imagine the possibilities.
I say “could have been,” though, because the class was not allowed to use computers this past week. 8th graders in our district were taking the online version of the state’s standardized test all week (and into next week), so teachers and students across the district (including those in this class) were asked to minimize internet use as much as possible.
So rather than analyzing the reactions from different parts of the world, discussing the ramifications on international relations, or researching similarities to other historical deaths, students were left to quickly gloss over the topic and then continue on with their regularly scheduled programming.
So I’m left with the nagging question – which one is real education? The state (and federally) mandated testing or the clearly relevant current event intricately connected to the course content?
One of the more interesting truths I’ve learned during the first couple years of teaching is that I have learned so much more by having to teach it than I ever did in school.
I think my favorite example of this is my experience with Romeo and Juliet. When I was in high school, I’m pretty sure we read it (I know I knew the basic story), but that’s about all I remembered about it. In college, I read it again for a Shakespeare course, and I vividly remember the sort of literary reawakening that happens when you see something in a deeper way for the first time.
But a couple years ago, I was asked to teach Romeo and Juliet, and I realized I didn’t really know that much about it. I realized that if I wanted to teach it effectively, I had to get a better understanding of the play. I reread the play, highlighting and making notes in the margins. I did research online for different explanations and interpretations about the play. And I surfed the web and tried to find some interesting lesson ideas and/or plans.
By the time I ended up teaching the play, I felt much more competent in my understanding. But perhaps what was more interesting to me is that, as I was finishing the play, I had inadvertantly memorized several of the lines that I highlighted for the students.
When I taught the play for the second time (this time to five classes simultaneously), this only became more obvious. It was surprising how much I knew off the top of my head – how many lines I could recite without trying to memorize them, how quickly I could find specific events in the play, and how much deeper my understanding of the play became.
That was really enough evidence for me. It has become abundantly clear that people learn infinitely more about something by teaching it to others than by listening to a lecture.
I began to think of ways I could apply this fascinating reality in my classes. I wanted to help my students experience this in the classroom – where they learn more about a subject by teaching it. I experimented with a group teaching project, which failed miserably. I tried individual teaching projects, with marginal success (the higher-level students did well, the rest did not).
I’d really like to incorporate learning-by-teaching more, but I’m at a bit of a loss as to how to do it successfully. Any suggestions?
Carla at the English Teacher Blog posted on rethinking our assumptions about integrating technology. The first assumption she critiques is one that I’ve heard a lot and have a pretty strong opinion about: that “students know more about technology than teachers do.” I wholeheartedly agree with her position that this is proving to be further and further from the truth. I just want to make three very simple points about this.
1. Students knowledge of technology is very limited in scope. As Carla mentiones, students are generally fluent in the things their friends are fluent in – MySpace, YouTube, etc. However, when they need to use technology with specific, school-related functions (i.e. Word, wikis, etc.), they still need to be taught how to use it. For example, I have to spend time each year teaching 9th graders how to use the basic functions in Word – double-spacing, margins, indenting, and so on. Obviously this shouldn’t be surprising; when have they ever needed to type an MLA formatted essay before?
2. Students still need to learn how to learn – just watch them try to learn a new tool. Last year, I tried to use a wiki for my students to post book reviews and other class-related information. It was surprising (because I fell victim to this assumption) that students struggled to use the wiki. Again, I had to try teaching them how to use it. However, some students still struggled to learn. That was yet another example of students who need to learn how to learn – they still need to develop the thinking skills and habits of mind we try to focus on.
3. While they may show some skills in using technology, students very rarely know how to use technology ethically. The students we teach are typically more adept at using and learning how to use technology. They set our VCRs for us because they’re not afraid to hit all the buttons. They navigate the web quickly because they’re willing to click on just about anything. Of course, while these are positive behaviors (taking responsible risks is one of our habits of mind), they can also lead to some less desirable, and often illegal, behaviors. Look at the preponderance of music and movie piracy and the ease and frequency of copy-paste plagiarism as evidence.
Of all the things our use of technology in the classroom should focus on, it seems that this last one should be the most important – we must find ways to teach our students how to use technology in a morally responsible way. Any suggestions?
I’ve added a couple of great feeds recently – Webware and ReadWriteWeb – that I’ve been following. They have been talking a lot about the different “versions” of the web. There have been some fascinating discussions, particularly as the Web 2.0 Expo has been going on in San Francisco. As I’ve read these blogs, it’s been fascinating to see how techies envision the web evolving.
Recently in our district (as in, during the year that I’ve been here), there’s been a good discussion about employing Web 2.0 tools in the classroom. This is a great discussion to be having, and I’ve had a lot of fun partaking in the discussion – using wikis and Shelfari (a book/social networking site), as well as trying out some other stuff like this blog. But as I’ve read these blogs, I realize that what our speaker (Ian Jukes) said in a day-long workshop before school started – technology is evolving at a rapid rate. In fact, much of the things he talked about – using various interactive web technology – is already becoming obsolete in the face of what they’re calling Web 3.0. Without getting into the nitty gritty, Web 3.0 is the next big advancement in the way we understand the internet – the internet as a platform for other applications and services (think GoogleDocs). So what does all this mean? I like what one ReadWriteWeb entry said – there is no Web 3.0. There is no Web 2.0. There is only the web as it exists right now.
But how does this fit in with the classroom? My theory is fairly simple: we must understand the “web” as a platform. It is not the be-all, end-all, it is not the answer to all of our problems. The web is simply a means to an end; the end being understanding and skill development. However, this understanding of the web as a platform for education leaves us with another implication: it’s part of our job to understand what platforms we have available. We should know about Twitter, Shelfari, Facebook, MySpace and other important web tools, and we should be innovating ways to use those to enhance learning. As educators, we should be able to recognize tools that have educational potential (I’m a fan of Shelfari, myself) and those that probably do not (Twitter strikes me as lacking in this area).
But even with the web as a platform, we must continue to remember an important truth about education – being new and being “hip” does not mean that something will enhance learning in schools. Just because PowerPoint is used in the business world doesn’t mean that we should forego learning how to write sentences and paragraphs. There is still great value in reading real books, writing math problems with paper and pencil, and doing experiments with physical materials. The key is simply finding what tools will best help students learn what we want to teach them, regardless of whether they fit into Web 2.0, Web 3.0, or Web 0.0.
One of the things that I’ve enjoyed most about our current unit – Mythology – is the opportunity I have to be passionate about learning with students. While I’ve certainly read and studied a lot of these myths before, I continue to discover that there is so much I don’t know. This allows me to experience the power of learning together with students.
In order to make this happen, I make myself answer the focus questions I give them, I try to read the same stories that they are reading, and I try to do all of the assignments that I make them do. This cooperative learning seems to be much more effective use of time than the glorious task of grading.
In relation to that, I think it is equally, if not more powerful, when I actually sit at a table and work in the same environment as the students, rather than at my all-powerful desk. Not only does it help them see that I’m doing what they’re doing, but it also chips away a bit of the power-crazed leader paradigm. Instead, I’m just trying to learn more, just like them.
I think this is something I need to convey more often and more explicitly – that we’re all learning together, myself included. I always tell myself (but probably don’t really tell students explicitly) that I don’t know all the answers, but I can help them figure out where to look. But I think if there was one nugget of wisdom I should share on this subject of learning and knowledge, it would be Switchfoot’s epic line:
“It’s a contradiction – the more we learn, the less we know.” (“Golden”)