How to teach about learning

Alternative title: what should I do about kids who don’t like my class?

-One problem I am currently working on as a teacher is how to get kids to understand why I teach the way I do. It is difficult because it is a personal and emotional problem as well as a conceptual one: in my student feedback, some students say that they don’t like how many projects I ask them to do or the fact that my ‘entire class seems built on student projects and presentations’. Some dislike that they are asked to learn from each other instead of via teacher lecture. Some dislike that they are routinely asked to work in small groups. Some dislike open-ended student discussion and student-generated questions. Needless to say, it is hard to receive this feedback– I feel defensive and sometimes a little hurt when I read some of these comments. Of course I want all my students to love my class and to feel that it’s valuable; of course I want them to think I’m a great teacher! But, I also want to (and need to) understand and address their critiques.

My psychological understanding of student comments like these is that they’re scared- scared that they are not ‘getting’ ‘all’ the ‘right’ information. Some of them have indeed expressed this fear, and I have responded to it, when I can, with reassurance. I think are truly ‘getting’ ‘all’ the ‘right’ information- enough of it to meet the expectations I set for them, enough to ‘do well’ in class.

Some students also seem to be (and some have expressed being) resentful of being asked to do so much work. Part of it is that some of these students may be uncomfortable with the shift in responsibility- in my class, typically, there is more expectation that students will pursue understanding more independently than in a more traditional teacher lecture-driven classroom. I often ask my students to find sources on their own, to ask their own questions, to find information on their own, to teach their classmates, to make connections, etc. All of this is structured and supported by me (but obviously I can and do seek to improve how I structure and support it). But some of them find it new, and some of them don’t like it.

It’s OK with me if they don’t like it (sort of- I can’t help but judge their dislike), but I do want them to understand my methods better.

I believe that the way I teach is a better way to teach, and a more authentic and meaningful way for students to truly learn. I believe that because of my understanding of research and theories of teaching and learning- from my own teacher education at Bennington, to my own observations in the twelve years I’ve been teaching, to my  continual reading of current thinking and research about teaching and learning, and to my work with colleagues and administration at the six schools where I have taught. But my students haven’t done the research or reading, or seen the classes or colleagues I have. I need to somehow translate to them my conviction, or my faith, that what I’m doing does work. My hope has been that my class itself serves to do this– that they enjoy the projects, and that they see the result of my methods in their own learning. But because of their discomfort and to some extent, resentment, some of them can’t: they may not be as successful, partly because they don’t enjoy the methods. It’s a vicious circle; a self-fulfilling prophecy. As my Psychology class hopefully has learned, we make our own reality.

How do I address this negative feeling and some students’ negative experience of my class without the magic (/ evil) of mind control? Should I work on my patience? Communicate my philosophies better?  Enlist previous students and offer up testimonials? Just wait until they go to college, or graduate college, become more thoughtful adults and reflect upon learning (but does this ever actually happen to most people??) and realize how cool it was that they had more autonomy and control in my class than in others’? No no no- I want to fix it now, or at least address it so I see fewer responses like this in future student feedback, and I can feel more assured that more of my students are having a positive experience (and recognizing that they are indeed learning despite (!) our ‘crazy’ methods). I know they are. I want them to know it too.

The action step that seems clear to me is that I should communicate my teaching and learning philosophy more clearly at the beginning of the year, and offer a venue for student feedback throughout the year. It will be difficult, though, to express my ideas about pedagogy in a neat summary without sounding like an impassioned, self-righteous sermonizer. In fact, it’s a synecdoche (an autology? what is the word for this?): the essence of my personal pedagogy is that no one else can teach you anything, you have to learn it for yourself. If I ‘teach’ the essence of my pedagogy, I don’t think they’ll really learn it. So, I guess the best I can do is to introduce them to it at the beginning of the year, let them see how it works by being in my class for nine months, and hopefully they will understand by the time June rolls around. Better, before then.

This metacognition is messy; but I think teacher self-reflection is hugely important. Class is for my students to learn and my aim should be to address obstacles to this, even if the obstacles are created by the students’ own thinking about learning.



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