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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Hands forming a heart with the sun in the middle

There is no denying that public and non-public schools are different. Yet my interactions with public school teachers have helped shape me into the private school teacher I am today. I encourage you to reach out not just to teachers beyond your own school, but also beyond your type of school. Following are my experiences, which have shown me that best practices have a place in every classroom.

1. Differentiate Instruction

As a new teacher, I expected that each student learns the same way, mostly by reviewing the same assigned readings and class notes -- and I did a poor job of differentiating instruction to cater to an individual's unique learning style. Two summers ago, all of that changed when I spoke with Rick Wormeli, one of America’s first National Board Certified teachers. He told me, "I might teach the way that's uncomfortable for me, but that's fine. My success comes from my students' success." To foster greater success, I now strive to teach my students as individuals, not as a collective, and at times that calls for teaching and treating different students differently. As Wormeli also told me, "Fair isn't always equal," and I want to do what is developmentally appropriate not just for the ages and classes I teach, but also for each unique charge. I don't always succeed, but I strive to embrace differentiated instruction. I also plan to use time this summer to work on improving, and I will keep Wormeli's wisdom closely in mind.

2. Foster a Flexible Learning Environment

Along those lines, I also owe equal gratitude to Mark Barnes, a celebrated teacher and education author, for helping me rethink my classroom management skills -- or lack thereof. Up until a few years ago, I made ill use of classroom time by obsessively checking that students paid attention and made appropriate use of the laptop. I also expected that each student progress at the same pace, with the same resources. This bred lack of interest, mistrust, and animosity, but things improved after I spoke with Barnes. "I've got kids in bean bag chairs, and they're reading books," he told me. "I've got kids at tables, and they're talking to each other, and kids on their cell phones doing something, using a tool, and then kids on computers. It looks like it's crazy, but really it's just kids engaged." My classroom still doesn’t look like Barnes', but thanks in large part to him, I allow students agency over how they use classroom time, and what sources they use to master concepts and complete work. Still, I also plan to work on further improving my management.

3. Don't Harshly Penalize Failure

Until speaking with Barnes and Wormeli, I rarely allowed students to retake assessments or submit late work for credit. After a certain point, this rigid policy proved effective in just one way -- helping struggling students sense the futility in trying to recover. Teachers keep students "incompetent" by failing them for not submitting work on time or not completing work successfully, Wormeli told me. He asked, "Is that really the legacy I want to carry forward? Incompetence, but being able to tell all my colleagues in the larger society, 'Oh, I caught him. He couldn't get past me with missing a deadline, let me tell you.' Or is it, 'Hey, you screwed up, child. Let me walk side by side with you and develop the competence and the wisdom that comes from doing something a second and third time around, where you'll get your act together.' Both of those are greater gifts, in the long run, than simply labeling a child for a failed deadline." Following that advice, if a student approaches me within two weeks of receiving a disappointing grade, in most cases he can retake a similar assessment for full or partial credit. After all, the end goal is mastery, and I'm not nearly as concerned about when an individual masters a concept -- just that it is in fact mastered.

4. Encourage Problem Solving and Innovation

I've also drawn inspiration from Simon Hauger, a math teacher who in the 1990s grew interested in doing more to connect students with their passions and creative energies. A few years ago, he co-founded The WorkShop School, a part of the Philadelphia School District, which fully embraces project-based learning to help students learn about and solve real-world problems.

LIFTOFF TO LEARNING from Shorts: Simon Hauger and The Sustainability Workshop from PopTech on Vimeo.

"We need to be cranking out innovators, problem solvers, and creative thinkers, people that aren't afraid to take risks, people that don't want to just regurgitate answers, and people that are finding their passions in life," Hauger told me. "When you're working in an area that you're passionate about, you do your best work." I have Hauger to thank for reminding me to encourage my students to take risks and to question not only what they learn, but also how their curiosity and passions can help make the world a better place. Nevertheless, I need to do a better job of providing problem-based teaching, and I'm currently reworking several lesson plans to reflect those efforts.

What have you learned from sharing your experience with different types of teachers at different types of schools? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

So great to hear how just a few contacts with other teachers have impacted your classroom, David. And good for you for making changes to your routine -- I think that's the key to improving our craft. I agree with you that being too rigid with late or failing work just hurts our kids (especially when they dig such a deep hole that they can't possibly pass - then they have no motivation for doing any more work). After years of trying a variety of ways to deal with late work, I finally settled on always accepting late work, but they don't earn more than 60% (no matter how late). It saves me the hassle of trying to figure out how late something is, and it teaches kids the importance of being on time. And while 60% may seem harsh, the kids soon learn that 60% is so much better than 0%, and their grades jump way up when they turn in that late work. As you say, isn't it our goal that they master the content? I'm much more interested in students doing the work (and learning) than punishing them for not.

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David Cutler's picture
David Cutler
High School History, Government and Journalism teacher from Boston

Laura, thank you for reading my article. I really appreciate your thoughtful feedback. Offering students a chance to earn up to 60% on failed or late assignments is much better than a 0%, and I commend you on finding a way to make a revision system manageable for you. Your students are lucky to have you. At times, I have also considered revising my policy. Without question, allowing for revisions is a ton of extra work--and depending on the time of year, it puts me under tremendous pressure to return work in a timely manner. But time and again, I return to our shared conviction that it's much more important that students master content. I redouble my efforts and down and do the best I can.

Tsisana Palmer's picture
Tsisana Palmer
ESL Instructor/Intensive English Program

Thank you for sharing your experience, David. Very insightful! I can certainly relate to this quote: "I might teach the way that's uncomfortable for me, but that's fine. My success comes from my students' success." To foster greater success, I now strive to teach my students as individuals, not as a collective..." So well said! I agree that offering personalized/differentiated instructions can be quite challenging for a teacher, but it certainly takes a student's experience and success to an altogether different level. I also share your point of view regarding classroom management and late homework; the longer I teach, the less value I see in "policing" the classroom or students. Being able to reach to every single student and give yet another chance will be far more rewarding in the long run, to both the student and teacher!

haney_gerald's picture

From kindergarten to school teachers do play an important role understanding various academic principles. I would also mention a quote here by John Dewey "Education is not preparation for life, it is life itself". And yes teaching is a responsible and respectable profession that requires perfection that only a few can achieve.

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

The best teachers that tautght me in school had one quality that was that they worked hard to figure out how to relate to each of their students. Common interest can be hard to find, but these exceptional teachers found a way to connect with their students even if they had to fake it. Another quality that these teachers had was that they were willing to be creative and adaptive in their lessons, thinking outside the box on a continual basis. If a teacher tries to teach every concept in the same manner, there will be students who miss out on key factors because they aren't wired to learn that way.

GIna De Leon's picture

I am also passionate about my job and yes we do our best to do great. Thanks for sharing.

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