A Brief Post About Types of Teaching and Kinds of Teachers

I got a recap from a friend of some of what Dr. Schmoker presented this week and the recap included phrases like “he’s for traditional learning” and “he thinks constructivist learning is misguided.”  Through future posts I’ll be sharing my own vision for effective classrooms and schools and I’d like to think that this vision defies description by any shortcut labels (otherwise, why spend time blogging about it when I could just write on my About Page that I  believe in constructivist learning).  Furthermore, as I consider excellent lesson ideas and classroom philosophy, I’ll be referring to many of these styles of teaching.  So for the sake of my own clarity, here are some terms I may use regarding classrooms and what they mean to me:

Traditional classroom, traditional methods, traditional teaching

All of these terms mean to me that the teacher knows something that the students need.  The job of the teacher is transfer this information to the students, give them an opportunity to practice it (hopefully working higher and higher up Bloom’s Taxonomy), and assign grades based on how much they learned and how quickly they learned it and to what extent they can transfer their learning to new and creative situations.  This does not exclude the possibility that teachers are flipping classrooms, using rich technological methods for student to practice and demonstrate understanding, or using a variety of strategies to make learning engaging for students.

In my opinion this approach emphasizes learning content at the expense of creativity, inquiry, and self-directed learning.  Which if you are suburban school or a school serving mostly high income families with highly motivated students then this approach will likely lead to students who thrive.  And if you feel your job is to fill your students with facts so they stand out on AP tests, and can succeed in rigorous college courses, then chances are these methods will work well for you.  However, I believe that the disturbing drop out rate in urban high schools will never fully be fixed until urban middle school teachers let go of these methods.

Differentiated instruction (mostly a synthesis of what I’ve taken from the books by Carol Ann Tomlinson)

Students come into a unit of instruction with different levels of readiness, different interest in learning and using the content, and different ways that are most effectie for them to learn and demonstrate learning.  A classroom that effectively uses differentiated instruction is frequently assessing these three things about students and then differentiating either the content that students are developing in their work, or the process through which students learn, or the products that students create to demonstrate their understanding.  Differentiation and traditional teaching are not exclusive of each other.  It is reasonable and likely in today’s classrooms that a teacher can believe that they hold the content that students must learn, and that different students will acquire this knowledge through different content, process, or products based on their readiness, interest, and learning style.

Inquiry Learning/Constructivist learning

The key difference between what I’m labeling as inquiry learning and what I’m labeling as traditional learning is that in inquiry learning the subject matter content that students are working with is less important than the deeper understandings behind the content and the methods used to explore those deeper understandings.

For example, if I’m teaching an algebra class as an inquiry/constructivist teacher, then I would approach the content “students can solve systems of linear equations using a variety of methods” differently than a traditional classroom teacher would.  This classroom would focus much more on what it means to find a solution.  There would not be any example or problem given in class that did not have an authentic context around it and students would start by being given a guess and check strategy from the teacher.   From there students would work through examples of increasing complexity, finding shortcuts to guess and check methods, keeping track of solutions that seem to work, and situations where a strategy is no longer effective.  Then, students and teachers would work together to communicate the working strategies as a set of rules.  There may not be time to construct the methods of graphing, substitution, and elimination through inquiry and collaborative problem solving, so maybe students can’t use the elimination technique as well as students in the traditional classroom.  However, math class is suddenly about a lot more than learning techniques for solving equations.  It’s about exploring why equations are used in the first place and how to effectively understand and communicate mathematical processes.

Project Based Learning/Problem Based Learning (PBL)

The technical distinction between these two terms aren’t too important to me, and I believe mostly based on the titles of books that help teachers effectively use these methods.  PBL classrooms or PBL units are designed to ensure that the instruction and assessment of students involves students working on creating a project or solving a problem and then presenting their solution to an outside audience.  In order to create a high quality product, students are required to explore the necessary content.    If modeled and explained poorly, project based learning is easy for traditional teachers to dismiss, but if implemented faithfully the best aspects of traditional learning, inquiry learning, and differentiated instruction are naturally included.

Standards Based Assessment/Standards Based Grading/Mastery Grading

I wrote above that a traditional classroom assigns grades based on the amount of the required content learned, and the time in which it was learned.  Standards Based Grading (SBG) is based on the idea that grades should be solely based on how much of what a student needs to learn, the student learned.  So students are given a list at the beginning of grading period of what objectives they are supposed to demonstrate mastery of.  The teacher teaches the objectives and when a student is able to demonstrate mastery (or when the teacher recognizes a need to assess), they complete an assessment task assigned by the teacher.  Students who aren’t successful on a given task can get more instruction and then try again.  Participation in class activities, and completion of homework do not contribute to the “grade” a student earns (although a teacher should be giving significant formative feedback about the quality of student work) but rather steps that are required to be completed before a student can attempt an assessment.

I believe I first learned about SBG from Rick Wormeli and his book Fair Isn’t Always Equal about effective assessment in a differentiated classroom.  I further refined my understanding of SBG from Dan Meyer who fully explained his methods in his blogs.  I’m proud that two colleagues of mine are converting to SBG this school year, and I’m a little ashamed that in my own AP Stats class, I decided not use SBG because I didn’t feel comfortable changing the grading policies that I felt were effective for this class in previous years.  Essentially, I may have allowed what I felt was good enough in my classroom to prevent me from a change that may have made my classroom great.

Wrapping up

Every year I have been teaching, I can generally point to a significant change in my practice that led to an improvement in student learning in my class.  The biggest philosophical question that drives me to consider a change in my practice is:

Are students using the time in my classroom well?

Because of this question, I’ve sought out lessons that increase the rigor of my class. I’ve sought to ensure that in every class every student has a chance to read, write, and talk about what they are thinking and learning.  I’ve paid attention to what kinds of activities engage students and increase intrinsic motivation for learning math and science.  And I’ve paid attention to the classroom culture and establishing norms that allow everyone (including me) to do his or her best work.  In my vision for a well run classroom, the needs of the teacher, student, and content will require changes in how instruction takes place and a teacher should feel like they have the licence and ability to shift instructional strategies based on their professional judgement.  This is what I consider the Art and Science of Teaching, and I hope this blog can facilitate a conversation among professionals about how they serve their students well.

Your comments are always welcome