How Messing Up Helps Us Become Better Teachers
Teaching done right is a constant feedback loop. Feedback on student learning, or lack thereof, provides the feedback necessary for teaching, which when used constructively leads to more effective teaching the second time around.
Let me explain.
Yesterday was a hot mess. My chemistry lesson was crap. It simply sucked. Students had a difficult time focusing and learning. Today's warm up activity was confirmation.
Yeah it was Monday and students were catching up. Yeah it's getting nice outside and they're getting squirrely. But, while it's easy to blame the kids when a lesson bombs, I have to own my part of it. I did not think the lesson plan through and am responsible for the suckfest that followed.
Luckily, teaching is a constant feedback loop. I expect to stumble and make mistakes. I encourage my students to take risks and make mistakes so that they can really learn, and I am learning to give myself a little grace every time I mess up too. I always strive to do my best, but realize that screwing up does not make me a bad teacher as long as I define the mess, reflect on what did not work and why, fix what needs fixing, and do it over better the next day.
I use blended learning and designed the ineffective lesson to be self directed. I uploaded a hyperdoc with links to a presentation, a video, and a reflection activity to Google Classroom. I asked students to take notes on the presentation and then watch the video before our daily brain break.
The presentation consisted of 44 text heavy slides, but I told students to go through "only" 20 of them. Although 10 or so slides were meant as review of last weeks concepts, many students mindlessly copied too much text or flew right through the slides without processing the information.
There was a lot of distraction, confusion, and motivation lacked.
What a waste of time.
It's always hard to see students struggling. Sure some responsibility falls on them, but it is my job to motivate and help them learn by learning about them myself. This involves understanding their educational experiences, habits, learning preferences, brain development, and limitations and using this knowledge when creating lessons. I took it all for granted, didn't do my thinking homework, and failed spectacularly.
Not only did I start with a crappy demotivating activity, but I made it a perfect vehicle for cognitive overload and shutdown by including too many slides in the presentation. What the hell was I thinking anyway when giving them a 44 slide presentation? The fact that I wanted them to go through just 20 of them and mentioned that the beginning 10 are just review probably made things worse and more confusing.
In addition, I did not take the time to alter the presentation slides so they'd more conducive to information processing and learning. I did exactly that which I despise. I used technology to replace the teaching without changing the teaching tool.
Traditional education has conditioned students to become copiers and regurgitators, not thinkers and problem solvers. Add cognitive overload to that and you have pupils who shut down. They divest themselves of their learning. They take notes and multitask to detach from the pain or skim the surface and move on.
I believe this is what I observed in the case of my students; some looking at and transferring text from screens to paper while talking about random things and others moving on to the video activity way too quickly for any meaningful processing to have occurred.
Note to self... (and anybody else who'll listen)
If it's a Monday, start with something chill. Let students get into the flow with something easy. Tell them something that happened to you last weekend that somehow connects to the subject. Go ahead. Make it up. Fake it. They'll take it. You'll make it.
It is important to keep the number of presentation slides low. Do not go over 10 slides, and if at all possible, reduce it to 8 or fewer slides. The young brains will perceive it as very achievable and as a result of being more receptive to the content, they will learn more.
Images are preferable to text, so prune text to the basics. There are two reasons for this. First, the information must be applied to make meaning, and the more times the better, so rather than having students copy concepts from one place to another, plan time for using them. Second, if students cannot put the pieces together or the information seems incomplete, they will be more inclined to ask questions and collaborate with each other to complete the puzzle in their mind.
The Do Over
I had an entire day's worth of feedback and the themes repeated, so I identified what happened as best as I could, I reflected on it, and decided to reteach the content. I confess that in the past I would have put most of the responsibility on students; maybe even lectured to them about the need to rough it and tough it out in life sometimes. Today was different.
First, I told my students they have 3 minutes to draw a group T-chart on their table* and fill it in with answers to 2 questions I gave them. I did not pay attention to time, I just used it for urgency and students went to work right away. Some groups did quite well despite yesterday's mess.** Others struggled. I was able to walk around and point them in the right direction. Then, I asked the class to help me fill the chart I drew on the board, and as we did that, I made sure I explained each point.
Then we watched a short, informative, and fun video together and played Kahoot for review. After the brain break, I dared to show my students a presentation! But this time, I did my homework. I used 4 slides with visuals and very little text and I connected the information to real life. I think a few neural connections formed and we'll revisit it tomorrow.
Here's what I knew, but did not use the first time...
Images supported with limited text are easier to handle than paragraphs or bullet points. In general, the human brain processes text much less efficiently than visuals and is unable to remember most textual information. As a result of the text overuse in teacher presentations and the cognitive overload it causes, students become programmed to copy verbatim and the illusion that learning is indeed happening in such situations occurs.
I realized after the lesson that I provided a lot more guidance today. I am often too quick to let my students take the reins and learn on their own. That's still the ultimate goal, but I must slow down and scaffold more. I cannot undo 10+ years of conditioning in a few lessons. But, I will keep at it.
I've been noticing that quick 5-10 minute activities and alternating between student-centered and teacher-centered learning during the same class period works quite well with the group I have this year. Mixing things up is usually a good recipe. Does it work with all students? I don't know.
What I know is that I must teach the students I have now and not the ones I expect to have. They have different needs and group dynamics and it's important to reflect on the feedback my students give me and find the sweet spot and roll with it. I know it'll never be perfect. I'll never be perfect. But as long as I keep getting better, I'm okay with that.
And you should be too.
You have the power to change lives. Use it often.
* I painted my Starbucks style tables with whiteboard paint so students can use dry erase markers to answer questions, draw diagrams, write summaries etc. and I can get instant feedback.
** I always say many students learn despite crappy teaching.