Recently, some of my students have accused me of “not teaching”. You see, when we give the students the keys to their own education, they sometimes resent our shifting roles. Teachers are sometimes disillusioned when they experiment with some research-based teaching strategies like project-based learning or inquiry-based instruction that give students more control. It is an odd experience to hand over the keys to the students, only to have them thrown back at you with an accusation of laziness. Aren’t the students supposed to enjoy their newfound freedom and become instantly engaged?! Problems of practice like this need our attention because we want to prepare students for the global economy, which increasingly values flexible thinking, collaborative skills, and creative self-starters more than obedient workers with specific content knowledge.
Meanwhile, ironically perhaps given the “laziness” accusations, I feel like I’ve been working harder than ever before. Our school recently decided to implement school-wide, co-taught projects that ask students to weave in material from each of the subject areas. For instance, our current student-designed Law and Order project requires students to focus on three different historical cases and build evidence for a mock trial that will not only persuade the jury, but also draw on all the core subjects to reinforce the standard course of study. It’s been exciting to hear how students will use trigonometry and soil science to analyze footprints at a crime scene, or look at how historical forces and unique environmental conditions led to the Salem Witch trials. We can’t wait to watch the upcoming trials where students will be lawyers, expert witnesses, and jurors after having learned experientially about how justice is carried out in a creative, rigorous way.
The trade-off for this school-wide emphasis is that I only have my students in a subject-specific class for 30 minutes every other day. Moreover, because every student has chosen different standards customized to their court case and course progress, I would be wasting my breath to try to address subject-specific content to the entire room. Indeed, my lecture on genetics or the atmosphere may only be relevant to 5% of the students because the rest are focused on anything from cell biology to the hydrosphere. Instead, I focus my attention on double checking and assessing their learning, setting them up with peer tutors, guiding student-designed labs, and providing resources for them to master the content on their own (like CK12.org and explorelearning.org). I often feel like an air traffic controller in my classroom because of the intensity, excitement, and multi-layered nature of my new role as a “learning guide,” not a “teacher.”
Interestingly, students will often say they “aren’t learning anything,” this way, because it’s so unfamiliar, but I can unhesitatingly say that I have had deeper, more meaningful content-specific conversations this year than ever before, despite the fact that students have less time and instruction focused on mastering the content. For students accustomed to traditional instruction, they don’t realize how much they are learning because it isn’t assessed on an exam, and they are often having fun because they have creative license and ownership over their work. Instead of focusing heavily on core subjects in isolation, we give students half of our school’s daily instructional time to work with a group of their peers on their project-based learning projects, which require them to apply all of their content. Paradoxically, “teaching” less is leading to deeper content mastery.
This observation manifested itself unexpectedly with two particularly unfocused students this year – we’ll call them John and Ron. We had to remove them from the school-wide projects due to a lack of progress and a penchant for distracting their group members. We assigned them individual, subject-oriented assignments with plenty of structure. Interestingly, halfway through the quarter they rebelled from the traditional method. They pitched a new project they had designed themselves that could help them learn all of the content goals, begging us to let them do that instead of the alternative assignments we had provided. After two weeks, they had developed more ambition, excitement, and content knowledge than we had ever seen from them previously.
At our school, we view the skills and application to the project as paramount because they will lead to success in college and the workplace, while the content knowledge is viewed as a fringe benefit of the journey. Because of our desire for student success, we focus primarily on the seven survival skills identified by Tony Wagner in The Global Achievement Gap while using the standard course of study for the content focus to teach those skills. Though it may appear counterintuitive that less time focusing on the abstract content leads to deeper knowledge of it, we have seen firsthand how shifting the priorities and culture of the school towards application to relevant projects leads to astounding success with content acquisition as well. Indeed, our school regularly performs impressively on standardized tests despite our at-risk target population and almost complete lack of test prep. The apparent trade-off of content mastery with PBL versus subject-oriented instruction is a false dichotomy that unfortunately deters many educators from fully committing to the PBL process and other promising, yet non-traditional methods.
So next time I get accused of not “teaching” enough, I’ll take it as a compliment and rest assured that the awkward redefinition of the student / teacher dynamic will ultimately brighten the future of each student who experiences a “learning guide” instead. I’ll remember that when given the opportunity, students like John and Ron relish the opportunity to own their education!
Adam Haigler has spent more than nine years working in educational settings as an outdoor educator, international educator, energy conservation educator, and classroom teacher. A member of the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory, Adam currently teaches at Tri-County Early College in Murphy, NC. He has been a lead instructor at NC Outward Bound School, an 8th grade science teacher at The Learning Center in Murphy, NC, a contributing author for The Gap Year Advantage, and the Executive Director of an educational program he cofounded with his wife.