Learning is More Than a Textbook or a Test
I think we can all agree that classrooms today look very different than the classrooms of 30 years ago full of Gen X students. My core classes, for the most part, consisted of our teacher standing in the front of the room, explaining a lesson, and then I would work at my desk to demonstrate my learning by writing a paragraph or working a math problem. It wasn’t until high school chemistry class where I actually got to do something with my hands. Even then, the steps to follow were outlined for our labs. “School” consisted of a teacher who gave us the info, and as a student it was my job to demonstrate that I understood. I was a good student. I did my work. I paid attention in class. I was a traditional student in a traditional classroom setting. However, it didn’t occur to me until many years later when I was teaching that not everyone was the same type of student. What happened to the learners in my classes that were struggling readers? What happened when students struggled with math? Our Science and Social Studies consisted of reading from a textbook answering questions at the end of a chapter, and taking a test. Basically, it was just another reading class and for a struggling reader, it probably wasn’t very enjoyable.
Not enjoyable…until we went to “specials.” Related arts, related studies….whatever your school calls them. In college, they are electives, but really they are classes where ANYONE can excel! In fact, I don’t know that I was ever as proud of myself as when I accomplished something in one of my related arts classes. Creating a piece of art, designing a house, building a lamp, following a recipe and baking a delicious cookie, or speaking a sentence in a foreign language were some of the best times in school. Even PE. I was not the fastest and I was never chosen first. I loathed PE until high school. I loved dance fitness and gymnastics and so our PE teacher would let me lead the warm ups. I doubt she realized it. As I think back, it was probably because I was in the front row and ALWAYS participated, but that small act encouraged me to try all of the sports thrown at me that year. Football, tennis, badminton, volleyball, basketball….all the sports that year I felt like I could try because a teacher encouraged me in a different way. I began moving more at home and exercising on my own. The following year I chose a weight-lifting class instead of standard PE. Throughout my adult life I have always come back to exercise. Part of it is because of the endorphins, but could it also because a teacher believed in me and gave me a push and encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone? I think so. I think that when we are challenged in a different way, sometimes we realize our true potential. I’m not a world-class athlete. I’m not a competitive athlete, but I’m most confident in an exercise class! Disclaimer: That doesn’t mean I’m the best dancer though!
Several years ago, Project-based Learning became all-the-rage in districts around the country. I am always fascinated to know the lingo of the “next big thing” in education. It’s usually something good teachers have done for years, repackaged and branded! Project-Based Learning, or PBL, is a style of teaching and learning that has been researched and developed further by the Buck Institute for Education. This non-profit is now called PBL Works, but its mission involves supporting teachers to design and implement learning that meets the needs and motivates a diverse group of learners. While this isn’t the first time projects were used to guide learning. This is the first organization to research methods and materials to use projects in a more meaningful way and present it to districts. Teachers of various subjects work together to plan a project where students create their own learning opportunities. The teacher is just the guide. This is VERY different from the way my reading and math teacher taught, but it isn’t very different from my related arts classes! PBL was EXACTLY what my 7th grade related arts classes were doing. In fact, I am going to reach out to some of my peers from that year and ask what they remember about 7th grade and I’ll bet you’ll see some of the same responses about related arts! I’ll do this on my Teaching and Beaching Facebook page!
In 7th grade our related arts classes were on a 9-week rotation, which made it a pain for the teachers since our year was broken into 6-week reporting periods! I had to take a class called Industrial Arts. It was taught by Mr. Centimole (haven’t seen him since then, but I remember his name!). He introduced us to architecture and the tools that architects use when creating a design for a home. It was so fascinating and I was turned on to a whole new world of creativity. He gave us the background, but then our project was to use what we had learned to create and design a home. He gave us the parameters, but we had to rely on ourselves to complete the project. I loved going to his class and feeling like I was working towards something, like I was creating a masterpiece. I had to include my math skills, I had to be able to read charts and graphs, I had to be able to communicate what was in my head onto paper, and to seek out the answers when I had questions. It was probably the most challenging thing I’d done in school at that time, but I finished it and I received a decent grade on it if memory serves me correctly! Am I currently an architect? No, I’m nowhere near an architect. However, can I read a schematic and understand a design? You bet! Did I feel good and accomplished after that 9-week class? Absolutely! I also remember the amazing drawings I did in Art, the baking I did in Home Economics, and the Latin roots and artists I learned in a class called Foreign Language Survey (I have never seen this class reproduced anywhere!). These classes were hands-on, creative, and appealed to ALL types of learners.
Not too many years later, those classes were cut due to “budget constraints.” I’m still wondering how we continue to think public schools are for EVERYONE when we don’t teach for ALL types of learners! It makes me so angry that classes that sparked passion and interest, even after 35 years, aren’t important enough to include for children that NEED these types of classes. Schools have to scrape for art classes, music classes, and band. PE also comes out of this budget. As for supplies…well, that’s why so many fundraisers are needed and why so many organizations, like Donors Choose and LP Pencil Box (MNPS), are important.
Unfortunately, these types of classes aren’t a priority for districts. If research shows that we all learn in different ways, why then are we only using one or two programs to teach reading and math? Why are we only testing using standardized tests? This has never made sense to me. We tell teachers to be creative, but you can only use this program. We know that people learn in many different ways, but we only measure learning “officially” in one way. Then to top it all off, part of a teacher’s evaluation (and in some places their income) is based on that test. Meanwhile, students are becoming more and more frustrated with school. Districts should really think about how our students learn best and realize that we already have everything we need before they go and spend millions of dollars on the next boxed program.
We also have lawmakers who continue to figure out ways to siphon money away from public education in the name of “failing schools.” How about we put all of these funds back into the public schools and support the structures we already have! This exercise in “backscratching” by public officials and trying to pass it off as “what’s best for kids” turns my stomach and is destroying what little creativity and autonomy is left in our schools. It’s part of the reason these types of Related Arts classes are cut and the ones that are left have huge class sizes. You can’t be as creative in an art class of 32. If you’ve never taught, there’s a bigger difference between 20 and 30. It’s obvious which lawmakers have never stepped foot in a classroom when they say that having 36 students is as easy to prepare for as 20! Even with a second adult in the room, it’s a nightmare! Don’t believe me? Go try it!
PBL isn’t a new concept, but it does change the game in the classroom for your students. It isn’t a boxed program, and you don’t have to pay a fee to access the website. A simple internet search will turn up lots of articles, projects, and ideas to get you started. Not everything you teach can be part of a PBL and I know there’s no bubble sheet that it can be measured on. However, the idea is to give kids confidence in their learning, to know how to apply their learning, and to help them view learning in a different way. One of my favorite projects that I did with students in my classroom involved creating their own arcade game! I had seen a video on YouTube about a kid that turned his father’s auto parts store into an arcade with games made from cardboard boxes. The story went viral from this documentary and a flash mob showed up one day setting in motion not only a movement and foundation, but changing the trajectory of a 9-year-old’s life. Watch Caine’s Arcade. I used the video as a jumping-off point. How could we create a fun environment for learning without adding to the environmental problems? The students researched different types of games and how they worked and designed their own games, built totally out of recycled materials. The students had to teach a concept we had learned about in Science, and they had to share it with an audience. It was the BEST project I had ever created. The students worked in small groups of their choosing. They designed their game. They brought in materials from home. They integrated knowledge and they created prizes. On the day of the presentation, we invited other classes to our arcade and the students had to work out a plan so that everyone had a shift, because they wanted to see what everyone else had created! Also worth mentioning is the lack of discipline issues I had all during this project. When students are engaged, their focus is on their task, not what they’re missing out on!
Finding new ways to engage learners is part of teaching. I’ve heard the argument of how students should just do it the same way everyone else is, but everyone else might just be going through the motions of the classroom and not really learning. If you are a teacher and expecting all of your students to learn in the same way, you need to rethink your profession. I want my students to become learners, lifelong learners and finding ways to keep them engaged, and not just try to entertain them, is a shift that I hope you’ve made or are beginning to make. Remember back to the greatest moments you had in school. Was it sitting and listening and memorizing? Or was it thinking, doing, and creating?
As always, I love to read your responses and thoughts. If you have questions or are wanting more guidance on this topic or any other classroom topic, I would love to help! Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org