I just planned a workshop I will soon be presenting at an educators’ conference. I presented a previous workshop, on student-centered discussion and protocols to use to structure it, at two national conferences in the US and at a local and regional (South American) conference last year. I still believe in that workshop– in its ideals and the relevance/importance of the practices I’m teaching in it- but I wanted to challenge myself to teach something new. The original title of the workshop I am presenting in a week or so was ‘The psychology behind the pedagogy: making students do the work’.
I wrote the proposal in just a few minutes, inspired by conversations with colleagues. The intent was to share the psychological truths that I believe underpin student-centered teaching. My brag (originally to be published as part of the conference materials) was that “student discussions, group work and problem-solving are not just a fad. Modern research in neuroscience supports progressive pedagogy.” I do believe is true, but I realized in my research and reading recently that presenting this information may be better suited to the format of a book, or a TED talk, or some other venue for summarizing dozens of psychological studies and research in the various arenas of child development, classroom practice, and children in the classroom and outside of it. I am just not ready to do that work and to present it in an engaging educator-attended workshop. Maybe if I had a few months, or a team to help me talk through the research, I would, but not now.
Instead, I went looking for a set of principles, based on research, that summarized numerous findings about how people learn. I found one by the APA here, but they weren’t potent enough for my purposes. Finally, I found an excellent list created by the Eberley Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation, here. The research cited is that by ‘big names’ in the field (Carol Dweck, Grant Wiggins) but also includes meta-studies and research both in and outside the field of educational psychology.
In looking for the content in the format and quality I desired, I was waylaid in my search. I started reflecting on my reasons for being so committed to this belief in student-centered teaching. Why do I defend it so strongly?
It’s partly because I experienced it, to some extent, in my Coalition of Essential Schools – model high school, with projects, rubrics, young and dynamic teachers, no textbooks, and group work up the wazoo. And I continued this, with more freedom (and responsibility) at the wacky, awesome, beautiful and open Bennington College. I felt inspired and energized as a student in these experiences. I loved being able to explore my own interests (puppetry, the Russian Revolution, storytelling, alternative education, drumming, the language and experience of music, social movements and protest, localism, etc. etc. etc.) and to connect with others in the pursuit of doing so. I loved not really caring about grades and honestly working for my own enjoyment in the work. I loved discussions with teachers one-on-one and with a class. It wasn’t only invigorating and empowering, it was fun.
I wish I could create this better as an educator. In my first few years as a teacher, back in a traditional public school setting, I basically went backwards, and aside from a few discussions, debates and limited projects, I acted the part of a traditional-model educator. I gave lectures, showed videos, gave worksheets, gave tests. Even though I was inspired by my teaching program at Bennington, I had a hard time implementing the alternative pedagogies of John Holt, John Dewey, Grace Llewellyn, John Taylor Gatto, Neil Postman and the like. It took me 5-6 years to find a school where I felt I could teach in a more authentic way and become more responsive to the students and more relevant in my curriculum. I wouldn’t have been able to do that, however, if I wasn’t challenged to think about my own practice and supported in being able to change it.
Now, through a combination of new leadership roles at my school and my school’s general current push for whole-school improvement, I have the opportunity to discuss practice with my colleagues. I’m modeling my workshop on my classroom- instead of aiming to change people’s minds, I want to structure an experience that might encourage it. I am not “teaching” the principles of learning-centered teaching; I am structuring a discussion that will allow teachers to reflect, connect, discuss and think on how to apply them. The new title is “Back to Basics: A discussion of learning-centered teaching’. The description: “Participants will take place in a structured discussion of research-based learning principles. You will be invited to reflect on your own experience as a learner and to consider how these learning principles and your own experiences apply to your practice in the classroom.”
I hope that participants can think about their own learning experiences and, for a brief time, step away from the immediate responsibility of using these ideas in the classroom. I want to have them remember what it is like to learn a new sport (for me, tennis), a language (for me, Spanish), or a new city (Buenos Aires), and to think about what has helped and hindered that process of learning. What are our motivations for learning? How do social groups play a role? How do we practice? How do we ‘test’? How is feedback useful, or not?
As teachers, I think sometimes we get very removed from the experience of learning, and end up being driven only by the push to communicate content, or to practice skills determined by outside agencies. What I want is a class of students who still ask questions, make connections, and have fun. What I want for my fellow teachers is to remember that joy, and try to create a classroom which facilitates it.