Monday, March 05, 2007

Teaching Strategies: Scourge or Savior for Education

How many professional development seminars have you sat through and heard the people around you say:

“Here we go again….”

“That won’t work with our kids.”

“I can’t believe they spent money on this.”

Yes, I know. There’s at least one I’ve said, but I won’t tell you which. Most of what frustrates me about professional development and particular strategies being mandated is often educators are not given sufficient time to study the proposed strategy, to analyze the data behind the strategy, to practice with the strategy, and to reflect on the strategy. Too often new mandates in content delivery including the use of new curricula materials are thrown at teachers in a haphazard, hurried fashion and on the way out the door a manual a foot thick is thrown at you for you to digest “when you get a minute.”

What if we treated our students this way?

I don’t remember very many strategies being taught in my education school when I was a a candiate for my student teaching. I remember lots of information on Dewey, Piaget, the history of education in American (I lapped that up, of course), and unit after unit I had to plan. When I look back at those units I don’t see any variation for learning difficulties, learning styles, or any variance of strategy other than sit, get, and regurgitate. I would hope anyone who has read my posts regarding how I teach my classes understands that I do engage my students with relative content and meaningful learning experiences. This wasn’t always the case. Most of what I know today I’ve picked up in bits and pieces from those dreaded seminars, door-stop binders I’ve lugged home, and basically self-study.

So, are teaching strategies that important? Well, Socrates used a strategy. So did Plato and Aristotle, and they are educators who are remembered. I like to think of a teaching strategy as a plan…..a plan to meet the goal, and the goal, of course, is to meet the objective.

As I mentioned before the introduction to specific teaching strategies are often minimally accepted in a teaching community because of the manner in which they are presented. Teachers aren’t given sufficient time to practice, to plan, or to implement the strategies in their classrooms. Even with the advent of standards most state curriculums are still a mile wide and a foot thick. The ever present knowledge of “that test” looming in the spring inhibits teachers from using certain strategies that take a large amount of classtime. Also some teachers choose to ignore certain strategies because of the content itself. From grade level to grade level the content is fragmented which means a strategy that is high on the inquiry side might not be used if the teacher wants to lead students away from delving too deeply into content that won’t eventually be tested. Another factor that inhibits the use of various strategies is assessment. Like it or not paper and pencil assessments are still the norms in most school systems including “that” test. Unfortunately, strategies that employ sit, get, and regurgitate fit nicely with that type of assessment. Finally, supervision and evaluation of teachers inhibits the number of strategies that are used. Many districts are opting for content delivery models like Max Thompson’s Learning Focused Strategies that basically do the evaluation job for the principal. They come in and have a nice little check-list on which to evaluate the teacher. Does the teacher have a word wall? Check. Does the teacher have essential questions up on the wall? Check. Does the teacher begin the lesson with an activator? Check. Does the teacher employ one of the approved Learning Focused strategies for content delivery? Check. Are graphic organizers used in the lesson? Check.

Do you get my meaning here? Check.

I would like it to be known here, however, that the Learning Focused model is like any other model out there. There are good things and there are things that should cause concern as well.
If teachers know principals are looking for particular strategies then those are the ones certain teachers will use with no deviation.

In the book A Place Called School by Goodlad it was noted that in elementary schools only three or four different teaching strategies were ever employed. Middle school students rarely saw more than two different strategies, and by the time they reached high school only one strategy was used….the ever popular lecture.

Think for a minute. Can you identify at least five students in your class or classes that the current design of school is not working for them? I can. I know you can, too. These aren’t just the kids who disrupt and disturb our learning environments every day. These should be our bubble kids as well. What I mean by that is the kids that seem to hover right at the magic score on “that” test, but they never seem to break through the bubble. It’s obvious our past efforts with these children have not worked. What will?

While I strongly feel that there are extremely dangerous children in our schools mainly because I’ve witnessed them many of our unmotivated and uncooperative students simply aren’t being served to meet their needs. I guess you can think of it as the Leave It to Beaver or Family Affair generation meeting up with Wife Swap, Jerry Springer and Jack Ass. Children from my day are eons apart from children of today. Children today have more choices due to technology and a parenting style that isn’t June and Ward Cleaver. Mr. Sabastion would be aghast.

The world of work has changed as well, and we need to make sure students are ready to enter the workforce. Over a twenty year period the Hudson Institute did a study where they analyzed the tasks involved in various entry-level jobs accoring to Blooms Taxonomy. During the same twenty year period they asked high school teachers to provide assignments that they routinely gave their students. At the beginning of the study 20% of entry-level jobs required skills at the higher end of Blooms. By the end of the study in the 1990s over 65% of the entry-level skills required higher-order thinking skills. However, the high school assignments only increased 8% over that twenty year period regarding the use of higher order thinking skills.

It’s clear to me that we need to teach better than we were taught. We need stategies that will engage all learners not just a few. As educators we may not agree with the state our world is in today, but our job is to prepare our students to meet that world and be successful in it. A strong look at teaching strategies may be the answer


teachergirl said...

EHT: You're the best! I was totally frustrated over at Dennis Fermoyle's site. Thanks for the comment. I truly think that some days you've got them, and other days you just don't. Unfortunately, my days are particularly long this year.

Mrs. Bluebird said...

Wow, what an absolutely outstanding post.

EHT said...

Teachergirl, I've got your back!:)

Mrs. Bluebird, I thank you very much!

The Tour Marm said...

Be prepared for my usual long comment because you pressed a ‘button’:

As you know I'm not a classroom teacher; I am a 24-hour educational tour guide that teaches on buses and on site.

Some years ago, one of the student tour companies I worked for became, 'accredited'. (Please understand the nuances attached of the quotation marks.) As a result of this, all of the tour guides (we're independent contractors) were required to go through a half-day 'accreditation' course through a representative of Fred Jones.

There were about twenty-five of us (many without college degrees or courses in education) crammed into a boardroom to learn how to manage our bus (classroom) and to implement various teaching strategies and promote critical thinking skills in order to keep students interested. We were all open to this and I have always welcomed new approaches.

Most teachers don't realize that tour guides spend their 'off' time going to historic seminars, classes, educational trips (busmen's holidays), exchanging information and stories with other tour guides, and discovering new ways to interpret memorials and monuments. We learn a lot from one another and develop our own curricula. A good guide will spend at least a thousand dollars each year on ’teaching’ aids and collect curriculum material from various museums and historic sites.

So this Rep was dealing with many tour guides who had been in the field over ten years conducting all sorts of groups from 3rd graders on, and every conceivable socio-economic background. The addition of the 'vacation' atmosphere away from the structure of home and school can make things a bit dicey. Some guides even conduct two groups per day (morning and afternoon) from different schools. And we need to keep it fresh!

But he started out by informing us that the students that run to the back of the bus will probably be 'troublesome'. DUH! Tell us something we don't know.

He continued to describe various ways to stimulate students through different teaching strategies that might have worked in a classroom, but not on a tour! We don't have the leisure to spend 45 minutes on a topic! We need to make our points quickly because the attention span for students on tour is just so long. And we don’t spend that much time on the bus!

Educational tour guides in DC (who are more than the normal city step-on guides) develop several teaching styles and strategies and are prepared to change tack at a moment's notice. We need to be intuitive and flexible. Don't underestimate the power of intuition! This trip can open all sorts of vistas for the students and several of us have been told that even a half day with us has made a difference in their lives. That's a huge responsibility!

I'm usually with my students from five to fifteen days; that's 24 hours a day, folks! Pacing is everything!

The Fred Jones Rep then went on to describe, 'contingency behavior'. He suggested that we throw candy to the students for correct answers, promise more time for swimming etc. This infuriated me! It was tantamount to bribery! Tangible rewards for learning are offensive to me. Education is its best reward. And promising things that one has no direct control over (suppose the pool was closed for swimming that night?) is wrong.

Anyone who has ever traveled with me will attest that I have the best groups. I take great pride in this. Truthfully, I have the same sort of students on my bus as anyone else. They learn a great deal. But I don't need to bribe them; that's demeaning!

The difference is that my students know from the get-go that I love them, and respect them, and I want to open a new world to them. They are my first priority. I discuss some of the challenges in conducting a large group and ask ways that they might be able to help me. They take ownership of the boundaries and some of their rules are stricter than mine! (Rewards are given for different reasons but they are always unannounced and ‘spontaneous’.)

I teach them, in a short time, the worth of education.

I couldn't stand it any longer and lashed out at him. I thought the seminar or 'certification course' was 'bogus' and realized that the teaching strategies being presented were precisely what was wrong with our current state of education.

I hated the fact that because of this 'accreditation', we were required to teach exactly from a specifically approved curriculum that was not relevant to every group. (In fact, it was a baseline approach that did not foster higher order thinking, although it purported it did; it was pedestrian and an insult to intelligence.)

I walked out and I refused to ever attend another such exercise and eventually quit the company.

Thankfully, I don’t have the same pressures from administration, parents, and NCLB that classroom teachers have. I am not teaching to tests and don't have to be obsessed with scores. I am independent and unencumbered. I can actually teach!

You have my sympathy.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. My own experience with education courses did involve slightly more allowance for different learning styles, etc. than what you describe, but was still way too heavy on the theory. I usually walked out thinking "Neat. Now when will I use that?" And eventually I dropped out of the ed. program and decided to get my M.A. in history instead.

Anyway, I've just joined the blogosphere myself--hope you'll check out my site ( I actually just posted about a new report from the AHA on "The Next Generation of History Teachers"--you may find it interesting.

EHT said...

Thanks for the perspective Tour Marm and the support. I find it amazing that you have some of the difficulties you do in YOUR profession.

Matt, thanks for the link. Your site looks interesting and I'll be around soon.