Traditional methods of teaching have long been successful. They are known by parents who “succeeded” in classrooms of this type, they are comfortable for many teachers and some students thrive on this type of instruction. It should come as no surprise then, when there is resistance! It is difficult to argue with a teacher, parent or student who has experienced success from traditional practice.
But there is a changing landscape in our schools and the goal of our current education system is to ensure success for ALL not just some students. Part of the changing landscape involves a different type of student in our classroom. A shrinking middle class and high levels of poverty are creating an opportunity gap and overly protective parents are spawning students with high anxiety, fear of failure and little resiliency. Compliant students (those seen and not heard) are not as common in our classrooms and teachers are expected to provide high levels of engagement. These factors and many not mentioned have produced an extremely diverse classroom today. To prepare students to be successful in this century, there needs to be a premium placed on developing a committed learner as opposed to a compliant student.
While this may a little bit general, traditional practice supports the needs of the compliant student. While they may be academically engaged- give me the information so I can get the marks, they are not intellectually engaged. They respond as consumers of knowledge rather than creators of learning. While those skills may have led to success in the 20th century and were well supported by traditional practice, the students of today need an education that is far greater in scope. The focus in today’s classroom must be the development of competencies with a high priority on learning and not just learned!
The so-called educational purist often only sees the importance of “reading, writing and arithmetic.” I’ve never suggested that the focus on foundational skills should ever be lessened. Literacy and numeracy must be at the core of a strong education system. But a well-rounded education and one that prepares students for their future must offer opportunities for students to learn “soft skills.” Now, I know this really irks our educational “back to the basics” pundits because competencies like communication, creativity, communication and collaboration don’t measure well on a standardized exam. But just because it is difficult to measure does not mean it is not essential for today’s classrooms.
Earlier this week, I witnessed some master teachers creating opportunities for students to learn soft skills. Students were provided ownership by scheduling part of their timetable, given autonomy to choose learning activities or the choice in projects to demonstrate outcomes. And by the way, the curriculum was being covered but so much more learning was occurring. Students were intellectually engaged; they were creating; they were having fun and yes, they were learning! The learning involved not just aspects of the curriculum but the development of self-regulation, time management, leadership and collaboration. By providing some student autonomy, students were highly motivated and resiliency skills (which are often under emphasized) were being developed.
In each of my conversations with these teachers, they talked about “letting go or giving up control.” And each of them commented on the difficulty of doing this but also on how positive the change had been for the students. Remember, these are all master teachers who could continue with traditional practice and remain successful. They chose however, to go beyond their own comfort zone, give up some control and let students become a part of their own learning.
Maintaining traditional methods or giving up control is not an either/or decision, it is both/and! It is also not something that teachers can do at the flick of a switch. It requires significant planning, honest reflection on personal practice and must fit within the context of the students in the classroom. To really develop the soft skills necessary however, we can not allow ourselves to always default to the traditional. Giving up some control to develop competencies in our students should be a focus of every school improvement plan and teacher professional growth plan. The impact is not only a greater sense of efficacy for teachers but improved whole scale learning for students.