Today, I learned a valuable lesson. I presented at a local high school with a math class. We were working on the Pythagorean Theorem and why it is important to be able to use it. I used the approach of satellite imagery and how satellite image pixels of land cover can be ground truth-ed by the students (and why ground truthing important to begin with). So, we studied GPS, compass use (Lat/Lon), and how to find the distance from the center of a square to the corner of it if you know the length of the square's sides.
As part of the presentation, and using the instruments we had just learned about, I asked the students to build a mini-satellite pixel in the classroom (before we go out into the field and do it for real on Thursday). No one wanted to volunteer. And it wasn't because they were not engaged or interested. They were interested, but I saw that they have a major challenge in that if they don't know exactly how to do something, they are too scared to try it and perhaps fail. I watched it in their eyes. For some reason, these kids have had the desire to strive to new heights even if they risk falling on their butts, beaten out of them. They seemed to fear censure from their teachers, the other students, or society at large, and they were all too afraid to start.
But then, I asked them to do a part that they recognized (using the compass to find a cardinal direction, which we had just covered and they had gotten it very well) and a bunch of them volunteered. Honestly, I don't know if there is causality here, but I saw the light in their eyes when they felt like they could do the task at hand and a fair number of students got up and tried it. They were excited to try, but only if they had an idea of how to do it, if they understood the whys and wherefores, and if they had had a chance to practice it a couple of times beforehand.
Once we had covered the concepts and they were able to apply putting the "mouse" in the "house," of the compass, they got it and kept trying to find different directions on their own. The energy in the room was palpable. They worked together, they helped each other, and they wanted to strive for more. But the second we got into unfamiliar territory, I found them much more willing to blow off the activity and start denigrating it, themselves, and each other. That happened over and over again until we worked together to make it more familiar to them and kept stressing the concepts behind what they were doing. Once again, they were focused, the only talking occurred because they were discussing what to do and how to do it and the reasons why they needed to do it in the first place. Then, things went smoothly and they all had fun.
It leads me to believe that the concepts behind what we are asking these kids to learn need to be stressed much more than teachers currently have time to do. If the kids learn the concepts (in a fun way and I can't stress how important it is that it be fun), and then apply those concepts and really get a chance to practice different scenarios behind those concepts, they can extrapolate and progress to new heights. But if they only learn how to do the one thing they are taught, then the second they are in unfamiliar territory, they will retreat either into a shell of quiet, or a defensive posture of talking, yelling, and otherwise being disengaged. (I will leave the discussion on what it means to spend more time on concepts for another post, but believe me when I say that the students are learning more, and more varied, science, math, and language arts this way than if they are just learning for the test. They are learning more and then can recall, reiterate, and apply it better. This, I promise you.)
Please don't get me wrong. I am not in any way denigrating teachers or how hard they work. I have the utmost respect for how much time and energy teachers put into what they do. I don't believe it is the teachers' fault. I believe the system makes it very hard for teachers to have time to fit everything in, and I think that needs to change in order for our kids to have a better chance to find that curiosity that will lead them to push boundaries and reach for the stars.
I am blessed in that I am always a guest at these schools. I don't have to do all of the myriad things teachers have to fit into their days/class periods. It's incredible how much they have to do and I am grateful that I can come in, do my presentations, and help the teachers implement various projects and activities.
They have the tough job. Me, I'm like an aunt. I swoop in (to the classroom). I rile 'em up on sugar (or concepts, or fun activities), and then I leave and the teachers work with their students to continue what we started. I hope that the education system makes more room for what I do. I think we need more time spent on fun in the classroom (Yes, Timmy. Science and math are fun and let's work together so we can see just how fun they can be!!). I think students need to approach concepts from different perspectives and see where those perspectives lead. (If they get the chance to do that, they can then apply what they have learned to other situations and that will give them knowledge they can take into the rest of their lives.) I think we need more time spent on inquiry (Let's let the students become curious. Once they are curious, the sky's the limit!). And I truly believe that if we keep moving away from teaching to the test, students will know more, learn better, and excel. They will succeed beyond our (and their) wildest dreams.