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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Truth About Teaching and Learning

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

I would like to do an interesting visual exercise with you. I'd like you to imagine that on a blackboard with a piece of chalk, I draw a horizontal line all the way across the board. Then, on each end of the horizontal line, I draw a vertical one.

I scratch on top of the board the word continuum, pronouncing each syllable of the word as I go. On the left side of the word, I write "teacher directed," and on the right side, I put "student directed." I turn around and face you, and ask the question, "Where would you place an x on the continuum corresponding to your teaching style?" I then hand you the chalk. Let's say I did that with all of you now.

Into the Lesson

Afterward, I look at the board and ask why all the x's are in different places. You all respond in chorus, "Because we are all different!" You politely do not add the "Duh!" that you are all thinking.

Now, I take my piece of chalk (which is getting short because of all the x's), and I quickly create multiple continuums labeled from one end to the other: "efficient and effective," "quick and time consuming," "auditory and kinesthetic," "passive and active," "easy and hard," and "order and chaos."

As the chalk dust settles, I turn around and ask you the same question, "For each pair, where would you place an x on the continuum corresponding to your teaching style?" Instead of giving you the chalk, I direct you to create the continuums -- let's dream a bit here -- on your laptops and tell you to place the x on each as accurately and honestly as you can.

After a minute, you all hit the Send button on your laptops. In seconds, my computer has tabulated all the results, and I display those on an interactive whiteboard (more dreaming).

Through the Lesson

Imagine what that display looks like. I ask, "What do we see that jumps out at us?" One of you raises your hand. Rather than take the proffered answer, I respond, "Please talk with your partner and come up with two answers. You have 3.25 minutes."

The anticipation builds. You wonder exactly what answer I am looking for, and this goes through all your minds as you discuss with your partners. "What answers do you have for me?" Each partnership gives their analysis of why one side of the continuum has more x's than the other. All good stuff, mind you, but obviously not what I wanted.

With a smug look on my face, I go to the interactive whiteboard. Using my finger, I draw a fat red line around the ends of each continuum. I ask, "Did you notice that there are no x's on the ends?" You all "Ooh" and "Ahh" in unison as the lights go on in your brains. All right, you can stop imagining now. What? You'd like me to go on?

All right, let's keep our imagination hats on. "As you demonstrated earlier," I say, pacing back and forth in the front of the room, "we wouldn't expect each person to place their x in the same place, because we are all different. And, as you pointed out, there are more x's on one side than on the other because of various teaching truths that we are expected to follow."

"So, why aren't there any x's on the ends?" I raise my finger in the air and press on without waiting for an answer. "The truth about teaching and learning is that there are no absolutes. This data shows that teaching and learning are not about absolutes, nor are they about minimums or maximums." I touch the interactive whiteboard with my finger, leaving red dots as I emphasize the words. "They are about what lies between the ends of the continuums."

I circle the insides of the continuum areas. "They are about thresholds, plateaus, valleys, and peaks." I change the color to blue and draw dotted lines, horizontal lines, and jagged lines (prompting more "Oohs" and "Ahhs").

OK, now we really have to quit imagining, or we will get into the interactive part of the lesson and, of course, the evaluation.

Going Beyond

I'll just summarize the conclusion of the lesson for you. If teaching were an exact science, it would be a simple matter of finding the right formula and applying it. The truths about teaching and learning are that one size never fits all, and surefire works only some of the time.

Public school educators are starting to understand -- I mean really starting to understand -- that we have to blend chaos with order, easy with hard, and student directed with teacher directed in order to teach within the confines of standardized tests, limited time, and, certainly, limited resources.

Each teacher is different, and some teachers can get away with things that other teachers couldn't pull off in a million years. Both can be extremely effective. What is the common denominator? It is individualized, unique, blood-sweat-or-tears problem solving! Each successful teacher has to bring it down to the question "How can I help Myesha learn?" It is that simple.

So, what is the truth about teaching and learning? We don't know for sure. We just try our best, and that seems to work. I'd be interested in reading about what other truths you know about teaching and learning.

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Brandi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Brandi and I am a Kindergarten teacher in Pennsylvania. It is true that teachers do not belong to the "ends" of any continuum. We change our Xs on any of the given continuums daily, weekly, yearly, and depending on the students in our classrooms. We do not often prescribe to any one educational philosophy, but rather take the best and most effective pieces of varying philosophies and combine them for a teaching style that's uniquely our own. Teachers who have been in the profession for years often talk of the educational pendulum, swinging back and forth from philosophy to philosophy every five to ten years. It seems that the most effective teachers are those who remain fluid, constantly changing their efforts while blending the most effective parts of each "new thing" that comes along.

Shatrece Jenkins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My name is Shatrece Jenkins, I am a graduate student at Walden Unversity. I live in the Atlanta area and I have taught 2nd grade. After reading this article I must say that I agree with the author, we as teachers can teach all day and night but if the students are not learning then it is a waste of time. For this reason it is always essential for teachers to self reflect on their teaching styles, presentation and materials. Teachers must know that what is comfortable for us may not be the best way to reach the students before them. I have taken a great interest in using the multiple intelligence theory developed by theorist Dr. Howard Gardner. Learning the principles of this great theorist are solely what I use when preparing lessons and teaching them. I believe that all children can learn, we as teachers have to understand what type of learners we have before us so that we will know how to present the lesson. The truth about learning is that what ever skill is being taught has to be delivered in many different ways to meet the needs of all students. This skill takes time management, creativity and formative and informative observations. I strive to be a teacher that not only teaches but a teacher that students learn from my teaching.

Shatrece Jenkins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am in the Atlanta area and I have taught 2nd grade. After reading this article I must say that I agree with the author, we as teachers can teach all day and night but if the students are not learning then it is a waste of time. For this reason it is always essential for teachers to self reflect on their teaching styles, presentation and materials. Teachers must know that what is comfortable for us may not be the best way to reach the students before them. I have taken a great interest in using the multiple intelligence theory developed by theorist Dr. Howard Gardner. Learning the principles of this great theorist are solely what I use when preparing lessons and teaching them. I believe that all children can learn, we as teachers have to understand what type of learners we have before us so that we will know how to present the lesson. The truth about learning is that what ever skill is being taught has to be delivered in many different ways to meet the needs of all students. This skill takes time management, creativity and formative and informative observations. I strive to be a teacher that not only teaches but a teacher that students learn from my teaching.

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

Shatrece:

First off, I want to congratulate you on choosing to be an elementary teacher. The elementary teachers are so important in a child's educational career. I think everybody understands that, but we are just now starting to believe it and do something about it. As evidence of this emphasis, you know about Dr. Howard Gardener and his Multiple Intelligence theories. This understanding is a crucial piece of the puzzle for early grade educators in helping students find academic success before the fourth grade (after which in my opinion, students decide for themselves whether they will be good in school or not based on their experiences so far). Yet as I have stated before, too many elementary schools are so bent on "socialization" (ie taming the students to be timid, non-questioning, stand-in-a-straight-line, robots) and focus solely on academic intelligences (ignoring the fact that over 80% of the students are bodily kinesthetically oriented) which causes tremendous learning gaps between academic students (students who are successful) and students who do not like school(students who are unsuccessful in the "academic" focus of school). We've known about Howard Gardener for a long time (1993) and we still see teachers insistent on making students listen quietly, sit still, and copy (although this is very easy, only the academically inclined students find any purpose or motivation in this), when students should be active in talking, creating and discovering using their other learning intelligences. The biggest obstacle to Howard Gardener's theories are teachers themselves. They become teachers because they typically are the ones who were academically inclined in school and see no reason to change their perspective--it worked for them didn't it?

The big shift in really applying Multiple Intelligences in the classroom comes when the teacher realizes that the kids are intelligent and can figure things out, which learning is more permanent and comprehensive than a teacher just telling the student what they should know and be able to do even if the teacher does so linguistically, inter or intra-personally, musically, spatially, kinesthetically or logically. A teacher's real job is to set up learning environments and activities that inspire students to use their intelligences (we all have all of the intelligences--we just favor some more than others). Students learn best by doing rather than listening and teachers have to learn how to simply stop talking long enough for students to learn.

So, I applaud you for wanting to affect this critical population of students and encourage you to focus less on the teaching of students and more on their learning. I wish you the best of success in this endeavor!

Sincerely,
Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

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

Brandi:

Somehow I do not see you as the typical "stoic" kindergarten teacher with the patience of Job, waiting for the day to end as little Johnny and petite Suzy demand your attention. Rather I see that you might be the kind of kindergarten teacher that students follow around because they do not want to miss any of the exciting things that you make happen in your classroom. Thanks for all you do--which is more important than any of us will fully know!

I was a substitute kindergarten teacher and had a blast, once I figured out what to do. After my first hour or so of frustration in responding to student demands, I realized that I could turn the tables and use the art of distraction to turn the attention of the students away from themselves and each other, to learning and doing interesting things. Luckily, I had a few magic tricks that I could show them to get their attention, and then I found it easy to direct it to the classroom activity at hand. I suppose that the real teacher would not have tolerated the "white" noise so much or the ordered chaos, but I had fun and I think so did the students.

I would add to your fluid nature one element: rigid determination to push for excellence in all aspects of learning and teaching. To do this, you have an uphill battle especially for kindergarten students who are not expected to learn anything of value till they get to first grade. Kindergarten is for many children their first exposure to structured learning. It is awesome responsibility to get students set in the right way, nurturing them, encouraging them, and modeling a curious mind for them. If the teacher's drive for excellence rubs off on them (and their parents), reading and writing (the foundation of learning) will be mastered, maybe even in kindergarten. Third grade is way too long to wait for this.

So I propose a blend of fluidity and rigidity. Have fun with that!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Mary Kovari's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is true that teaching is not an exact science but then I ask you what is? Everything that is worth doing must be learned and perfected before it becomes an art form. One can learn to become a master teacher - just look at the Architecture for Accomplished Teaching. This model is not a formula as much as a framework and what goes on inside each of the elements is complicated and can be described as a craft or art form. However, that does not make good teaching a mystery!! Your article states the obvious and does little to move the profession forward.

Stephen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Ben,

Thanks for raising this issue! I have always felt a little uncomfortable with using the word "truth" when talking about teaching practice. Your entry highlights why this may be a contentious term.

In my own practice, I have learned to separate the ideas of teaching and learning, recognizing that learning takes place in many contexts and situations. I also think that, over the years we have sought to elevate the status of teaching by referring to it as a science (like talking about educational research and practice as some sort of scientific endeavor). In that way, we roll-out professional development with the idea that, if only all teachers could learn this strategy, or this approach, then our problems will be solved.

What makes teaching exciting for me is the fact that, while there is a body of accepted understanding about what works, there are no silver bullets that will always work everywhere. Its contextual, dynamic, organic and very complex!!!!

Thanks for the post.

stephen

Peggy Villars Abadie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love the delivery. Very illustrative and engaging. I am the Executive Director of Information and Instructional Technology in New Orleans at Orleans Parish School Board. I do not contend with your assertion that teachers need to be able to move about unfettered between the ends of all the continuum you discussed. My observation is that there is not sufficient movement. The outcome of much observation, conversation, and collaboration with faculties and staffs in my district is a shocking absence of reflective thought regarding the students collectively or individually. Although there is data available it is not accessed or analyzed. I do not see staffs reflecting on pedagogy or conversing with faculties regarding pedagogy. Of course there are exceptions to this observation, but the systemic practice does not include reflection, data analysis, and practical adjustments as outcomes.
We have been focusing gobs of professional development on our staff in an effort to alter the instructional model so as to maximize student ownership of the learning. The thinking is that if the students own the learning and the teacher becomes more the facilitator than the owner that learning styles and preferred intelligence will become much more diverse by default as students drive their own efforts to acquire the goal knowledge specified by the teachers. The frustrating thing has been the concert of distractions. So many songs are being sung by so many choirs in the district that teachers are unable to commit to any course of action. Thus they revert to familiar processes that allow them to check of the list of dos they have been given and effective teaching becomes a remote thought.
What is the solution? I am uncertain. I can assure you that strong leadership is essential. There is no room to argue that a unified mission is paramount. I believe a strong leader begets a unified mission. Then there is the need for cohesive effort among the players to constantly come together for reflection and course correction wherever appropriate. I realize as I am writing this that the cohesive effort is also the byproduct of effective leadership. That is not so easy. Decisions around leadership are often politically charged, and the turnover is frighteningly high.
Hmmmm....... Well, in the absence of the required strength of leadership, behind the scenes, I will hope that individual teachers will desire to succeed. If the desire to succeed is present then perhaps we can develop stronger and stronger pockets of reflective analytical interaction among teachers, parents, and students.

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