OK, so let's say you're an archer. Put aside our myths of Robin Hood, William Tell, and Oliver Queen for a moment. You are not a supernaturally accurate archer, but a normal, everyday member of a great troop of warriors. The target before you is constantly moving, and you reach up behind you into the quiver on your back and pull out the only arrow that you carry at all times. You've only got one shot to hit that moving target.
That's what it's like to be an educator who invests in only one style of teaching. That's also what it's like to be a teacher in a school that puts its faith in only one theory of educating students.
The fact is that the ideal school -- and the ideal classroom -- is one that can pull from a quiver of many different arrows.
We hear a lot today about the silver bullets. It's not that each bullet isn't successful or engaging or data based. It's that it might not hit every target. So the argument I want to make is that it's vital for us to throw lots of paint against the wall to see what sticks. A single paint pellet won't paint an entire wall. (Enough of the metaphors.)
A Quiver of Strategies
I love project-based learning (PBL). I teach with it. I write about it. But I don't, by any means, believe that it's the only answer for every teacher or every student. I know people who teach using only Howard Gardner's theories or Montessori's. We know charter schools that are themed around character traits or magnet schools that wrap their walls around STEM. There is legitimacy to it all.
But wouldn't a school be more successful if it spun its students in multiple strategies? Wouldn't a teacher reach more diverse learners by having many tools from which to pull? It's about student achievement, sure, but it's also about having new ideas and strategies that keep learning and teaching fresh.
As project-based as I am, I do not pretend that it is the answer for every student. Some students need more linear teaching, so I shoot that arrow when I can or scaffold my units to allow for those needs. Some students desperately need me to tap into lessons based in social and emotional learning (SEL) while others respond to a more Bloom's Taxonomy-based theory of learning.
If I were an administrator, I would strive to develop a staff of many different kinds of specializations without putting all of my eggs in one strategy's basket. If I were a superintendent, I would not invest in only one program as the end-all-be-all while neglecting the possible reach of other programs.
The article, "This is Your Brain on Writing," was featured in The New York Times. It posed that after using MRI technology, neuroscientists discovered that the brain is engaged very similarly when playing sports, playing an instrument, and writing creatively. This got me thinking about how a teacher needs to tap into multiple strategies versus specializing in only one, and about how a school or district can encourage multiple outlets of learning rather than investing in only one.
What Does an "Arrow-Based" School Look Like?
So what might our system look like if it took on a "multiple arrow" philosophy over a single trajectory one?
1. Teachers are trained in a variety of methodologies.
With this training, they can select those that best fit the kid or goal. Students might then experience different strategies from unit to unit or week to week. Teachers should be tapping into different strategies throughout the year, and there should be evidence in the classroom to support that the teacher is adept in being flexible with multiple methods of educating their students.
2. Classrooms reflect different theories of learning.
This might allow students to experience different styles of teaching and learning from classroom to classroom. One room may encourage PBL. Another might be more traditional. So long as it is research-based and student-centered, there should be a variety of strategies from classroom to classroom.
3. Money is invested in different areas of engagement.
This would include sports, arts, sciences, music, etc. There must be an understanding that by encouraging multiple outlets, and not just one, more students will experience success.
4. Administrators embrace the vision of their predecessors.
Faculty hired by a former school leader have value in contributing to a different vision than the current administrators. Embrace the variety of teaching styles on any given campus.
5. Districts support and celebrate multiple programs.
This should happen without disbanding one for the sake of committing entirely to another. There needs to be variety in what we offer to our students, a depth in different modalities, or we are only targeting a certain percentage of our student clientele.
Casting a Wider Net
I know people panic sometimes if there is too much diversity of teaching styles on a campus or in a district. I know it feels like you are casting a wide, shallow net of strategies versus a more focused, deeper one. But here's the real secret: If what you do is student-centered, allows for some student choice, thinks about the child's brain development as well as the standards, tries to provide engaging lessons, helps students communicate the content and research solutions collaboratively and independently, you will have hit the elements found in every successful strategy.
It's important that districts and schools develop a culture where trying something new is considered "cool." From there, that attitude trickles down to our students as well. That means not only are risk takers encouraged, but failure is shrugged off as par for the course.
You want to develop a class of risk takers? Permit teachers to try new strategies, too. Create a faculty that models risk taking, flexibility when failure happens, and unabashed praise when something hits home.
Think about your own quiver. What strategies do you find yourself pulling from your toolkit most often? Of the few that you rarely use, which ones are still indispensible as an accessible strategy? Please share in the comments section below.