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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Teacher is the Driving Force

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

If something breaks at home, dad is the one to fix it. This was applied to me the other day when the dryer started making a clack-CLACK noise. I took it apart to see what was going on and I made a few adjustments to the drum and then put it back together. Low and behold, when my wife tried to dry some clothes, the drum would not turn. I knew immediately what the problem was.

When I was putting the dryer back together, I noticed the belt was flat on one side and grooved on the other. Initially, I took a guess at which side to put down against the drum, and a chose the flat side thinking that that would provide more traction.

When I opened the dryer up for the second time, I realized that the grooves running the length of the belt allowed the belt to compress slightly and fit snuggly into the pulley. It wasn't the traction on the large drum that was needed. The most important element of the dryer was the traction on the tiny motor pulley. It amazed me that such a small thing would cause the dryer not to work at all! It got me thinking about teaching...surprise! Typically when learning is not taking place, it is also just a small thing getting in the way.

In the anatomy of a dryer, the belt itself does not do the drying. The belt is part of the system that helps the clothes dry evenly by allowing the drum to turn and the clothes to tumble in the hot air. Without a functioning belt, it would be easier to dry the clothes on the clothesline outdoors because only the top of the clothes in the dryer would be exposed to the hot air.

This is exactly what happens in classrooms with maladjusted belts. Only the students at the top get the benefits of the teaching, while those on the bottom are never exposed to the heat of learning. So to continue the analogy, I learned that my thinking was faulty in assuming that the drum needed more traction in order for it to rotate. The key to making the dryer function well was making sure that the pulley that drives the whole process has the traction necessary to do so.

That pulley is the teacher.

If the teacher has the traction caused by a snug fit with the belt, the teacher can cause the learning environment of the drum to tumble and mix things up, which spreads the effect of the learning to each child.

Changing Your Point of View

Let's recap: We have the dryer that represents the teaching and learning process. The clothes are the students, the drum is the learning environment, and the pulley attached to the motor is the teacher. The hot air is the learning stimulus. So what is the belt? The dryer didn't cause the drum to revolve with the grooves on the outside. Simply turning the belt over provided the necessary traction where it counts -- at the pulley that provides power to the whole system.

Remember, the problem with the dryer was my thinking or point of view and I had the same problem as a teacher.

By experience I have discovered that it is a mistake to focus all my attention on controlling the students, when in fact for real learning to take place, what I really need is for the students to tumble around a bit in the learning environment, causing a little chaos and noise.

Teachers are faced with tremendous pressure for students to perform. Unfortunately the immediate inclination is to focus all the attention on student behaviors, how engaged they are, and how much they learn, much like how I incorrectly focused attention on providing traction for the dryer drum and was only successful when I targeted the driver pulley.

While monitoring student behavior is incredibly important, to make a classroom effective, the teacher is more important. The belt therefore, is the point of view of the teacher. Just like the belt, there are two points of view a teacher can adopt: create environments for student control, or increase effective teacher behaviors that drive student behaviors.

I have heard too many teachers complain, and, at one time, I myself selfishly complained about how poorly students behave in the classroom. It wasn't until I realized that I am not going to change students until I change myself as an educator that my effectiveness as an educator began to increase.

I had to realize the behaviors I exhibited to the students as an educator allowed the student behaviors to exist and flourish.

Taking Action

It was at that time that I turned the belt around and I changed my teacher behaviors. Instead of reacting to situations that arose in the classroom, I began to anticipate student behaviors and deliberately promote the behaviors I wanted to see:

  • I met the students at the door
  • I became confident
  • I allowed my enthusiasm to show
  • I had interesting work for students to do while I took roll
  • I diminished down-time, and increased bodily-kinesthetic activities
  • I increased student choice
  • I provided multiple forms of comprehensible input
  • I improved my discussion-leading abilities

I did a host of other learning activities that I calculated would bring me the behaviors that I sought -- and they did.

The message to all educators and educational leaders is straight-forward: In order to increase student learning, more attention needs to be focused on increasing the capacity and effectiveness of the driving power of the classroom -- the teacher. The lesson of the dryer is that one way works and the other way doesn't. I would be interested in hearing about what amazing results you have had by changing your perspective.

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