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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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High-Gear Instructional Strategies: Using the Tools Available

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

A while ago, I had the opportunity to spend some time with a group of young men in Boy Scout Troop 304. They had spent a few weeks getting prepared for a challenging 17-mile bicycle ride from Castroville, Texas, to Lytle, Texas.

In preparation for this trip, they made repairs to their bicycles during their Scout meetings: They fixed flat tires, oiled the chains, and adjusted the seats and handle bars. When they had their bikes ready, they zoomed around the parking lot of the church where they had their meetings. We even had short races and a shakedown 2-mile ride to make sure the bicycles, and the boys, were OK.

On a beautiful, misty Saturday morning, we headed out on our ride. They chose me to be in the lead. I guess they figured they could keep an eye on the old man more easily if he was up in front. Invariably, after reaching cruising speed, I would notice that the boys were falling behind. Either someone's handlebars were loose, a tire was flat, or a pedal had fallen off.

Finally, it appeared that we had worked out all the kinks and we would be able to ride for a while without stopping. But to my dismay, once again the boys lagged behind. When I asked them what was wrong this time, they said I was going too fast. In my view, we had been going at a modest clip, and it should have been easy for the boys, who have much more energy than I do, to keep up. I was the old man, after all -- and their bicycles were fine. What was the problem? Then a curious thought struck me. I asked them whether they had been shifting to the higher gears. I received only blank looks in response.

Then it hit me: They did not know how to change gears. They had never been on bicycle rides long enough to necessitate changing gears, and so they had never learned how to do it. It only took a few minutes for me to help the boys understand how to shift to higher gears and to downshift when going up hills. The rest of the bicycle trip was a breeze, and in the end, I was the one trying to keep up with the pack.

There's a parallel between this bicycle ride and our situation as educators. We know our students are capable, and their home conditions are no worse than that of students in other communities who are doing much better academically. We certainly have been working hard. Why, then, are we struggling to keep up? My question is, Have we learned how to shift gears?

Just like the boys on their bicycles, we need to understand that it is a question not of working harder, but of working smarter. It should come as no surprise that just as the boys had the right equipment with them all along, so do we.

You probably already realize that Edutopia.org has a lot of tools that can help you kick your teaching into high gear. Engaging your students in more than mere bookwork and worksheet drills and taking them to the application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation levels of Bloom's taxonomy is perhaps the most powerful gear of all.

By adopting more effective teaching strategies, we can change to a high gear and maintain that pace indefinitely. Investigate Edutopia.org's project-learning resources: Everything you wanted to know about project learning can be found on the site's Core Concepts page about project learning. Learn exactly how to do project learning by checking out the site's teacher-education coursework on project learning. You can also look at the features found in the other Core Concepts and Teaching Modules sections.

Interestingly enough, the most important thing that happened on the bicycle trip was not related to shifting gears at all, because after a mile or two, that became second nature to the boys. What truly mattered was that they were able to actually enjoy the trip and have fun with their comrades, just as students engaged in project learning soon forget they are learning as they become involved in their projects. If we are going to teach, we might as well enjoy the ride in high gear.

I am curious about what other "high gears" you have found in your teaching that have helped you enjoy the ride. Please share.

Postscript: Because of this positive experience, the boys later took a bicycle excursion to Corpus Christi for a 25-mile ride along the beach and then a longer ride up to the hill country, which nearly did me in.

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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Jessica's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After reading many professional books and diving into the reading workshop in my classroom, I learned how to kick things into high gear for my students in reading. Rather than assigning them tasks that are my choice for them to complete, I began facilitating their learning rather than solely directing their learning.
Second graders are always wondering about the world around them, and at this grade they are also beginning to read independently for information. So I decided to take a chance and do some inquiry learning and research. Students brainstormed all kinds of questions about the world. Then they researched their questions and found the answers they had been wondering about. Once they found their answers I set them free to do projects. I did not give them a "book report" project, rather, I gave them an outline of what they needed to include for an effective project.
They quickly learned how to switch gears as the students got busy creating 3-D diaramas, posters with large pictures displaying their answers, poems about their question, hats that showed their answers in a unique way, etc. No project was the same and no project was what the teacher wanted the student to complete. Those that had trouble getting started absorbed what the students around them were doing and quickly took charge. And while all of this was going on, I was simply facilitating and providing support and guidance.
The projects came out better than I could have imagined and unlike sending projects home to complete, they were completed by the students alone.
I learned that when I give my students the tools to succeed and the knowledge they can use to apply, they will produce work for which they can be proud. And I will not be disappointed!
Because of this positive experience, the students have the desire to do more inquiry learning and have a sense of independence for their work. It has been an amazing experience!

Kelly Miller's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I actually have two high gear strategies that I imiplemented this year. The first one is in regards to AR (Accelerated Reading Program). This program was initially implemented to encourage students to read so that they beat their peers with points. However, by sixth grade they hate the AR program. This year our middle school teachers implemented multiple intelligence strategies with our AR program. Instead of AR, we call it SSR (Self Sustained Reading). Students will read a grade level appropriate book then have a variety of ways to show their comprehension. Power Point projects is among the favorites. However, we do allow summaries, dramas, drawings, text talk (teacher and student discusses the book), ABC list are just to list a few. We have seen such an increase of books being read by students so that they can do projects, tests, etc.
The second high gear strategy I implemented this year was giving my students a multiple intelligence and interest inventory. I am a graduate student and we have been reading from the book, "On Being a Teacher". It discusses the importance of teacher and student communication and the positive impact it has on student's learning. While I was reading chapter 3, On Being a Relationship Specialist, I realized that the time I spent implementing those inventories was not wasted time, but time that I can utilize for my instruction and activities.
I plan to continue both of these strategies as long as they are effective.

Ben Johnson <author>'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Jessica:

All I can say is: Way to go! That is what engaging students is all about! You have taken the plunge where many teachers still totter on the precipice. As I ready your response, it is obvious that you didn't simply throw your students into the water and told them to swim. Rather you were in the water with them and grappled with new teaching and learning mode as they grappled with them. Sometimes we do not give our students credit for what they really can do, especially in the early grades.

I had a great experience with inquiry learning while I ran a summer program for the University of Texas at San Antonio. We used the Ford Pas curriculum, which is entirely inquiry-based, on 30 high school freshmen (http://www.fordpas.org). At first these students did not know how to handle themselves. They were quiet for the first week and had to be shown how to work in groups and how to "inquire". After six weeks, however, we could give these students any problem and they would come up with a creative and collaborative solution. The transformation was dramatic.

When we as educators understand that learning cannot be accomplished by sawing open a student's skull and pouring in knowledge and skills, then we can begin to see the true potential of these students. We need to know in our soul of souls that learning is a process that the student has to undertake deliberately and methodically. The process can't be shortcut, and it can't be skipped. In order for a student to really acquire knowledge and skills, they are both the teacher and the learner. The classroom teacher creates the environment for learning, sets the stage for learning, provides motivation and encouragement for learning, models the learning, and holds the students accountable for learning. That is what you did, Jessica. Congratulations!

Ben Johnson Natalia, TX.

ben Johnson <author>'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Kelly:

One of the best ways that you are already kicking things into high gear is that you are continuing your own professional development. I liked how you saw a trend and tried to come up with a solution for reading. Your idea has two effective, student-centered principles: student choice and multiple assessments. Way to go.

Your inventories on multiple intelligences was probably very enlightening. In your quest to create a high performance learning team in your classroom, this will help you differentiate your activities to play to the students' strengths. It will also help the students develop strengths in other areas. Don't forget that the only purpose for a teacher in being a "relationship specialist" is to be able to help the student achieve at higher levels academically.

Best of luck.

Ben Johnson Natalia, TX

Jessica's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have found many ways to improve student learning and my instruction in reading. Teaching the strategies of good readers and allowing students to choose the texts they practice the strategies in has been very effective. Any time the students are able to take some kind of ownership over their learning and begin to apply seems to increase their retention and the likelihood that they will move into higher-order thinking. In addition, with my high school students, I make them very aware of what our end goals are. I do not need to be the only one in the room that is aware of what higher-order thinking is. So we talk about it and we practice questioning one another so that we can improve upon the way we learn and approach things.

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