I don’t remember much about what I learned in elementary school, but I do remember how much I cared about my teachers, and inversely, how much they cared about me. The teachers that meant the most to me were the ones who understood that I was a very active kid who could not sit still for anything; and if you look back at any of the pictures that I had to colour in as a student, you would find many unfinished pieces of art. To say I became bored easily would be an understatement and I constantly needed to move on to the next challenge.
AN ASSIGNMENT WORTH REMEMBERING
Then in grade three, I had an assignment that I will never forget. Actually, I could not tell you much about what the “assignment” was, but I could tell you a lot about the process and product that I created. We were asked by our teacher to do a report on a country that we were interested in other than Canada. She did not give us a list of countries, but she laid out a lot of images of different countries and asked us to look around to figure out which ones we were interested in writing about. (I often wonder what she would have done with the Internet during this project.) As I looked through the images, I was totally drawn to the country of Brazil and knew that was what I wanted to learn more about. Instead of sharing what things we had to write about for our grade, she asked us to develop questions of what we wanted to learn.
“Huh? You want ME to develop the questions? How will I know what you want me to show you if you don’t tell me what you want?”
I was actually a little upset about the assignment at first. At a young age, I had already seemingly mastered school. You tell me what you need, and I will give you that. You ask the questions, I give you the answers. A very simple process and probably why I don’t remember much about my “learning” in elementary school.
Mrs. Sloane, who was our social studies teacher that year had thrown me off. This seemingly was way too much thinking and not enough doing. So as I started to go through a ton of encyclopedias, books, pamphlets that I picked up from a travel agent, and basically anything that I could explore, I started asking more questions. In fact, 40 pages into the project (this was grade three remember), every page started off with a question that I had asked and then continued to explore. Brazil became my obsession. For someone who lost interest quickly in every assignment, I was taking this project home at night and could not stop working on it. Even after I had handed it in, I still continued to explore the country and wanted to know more. To this day, Brazil remains on my bucket list of countries I would like to visit because of that project. To be honest, I know that I did very well on this assignment, but I have no idea what my mark was. This was my grade three masterpiece!
PRACTICE WHAT I PREACH
Fast forward to my own teaching career where I started doing what I expected a teacher should do. I give you the information, ask you a question, and give me the answer. As I had mastered the system of school as a student, I also had mastered it as a teacher. My classes were always in the highest percentile for our standardized exams because I drilled and destroyed their love for learning. No time for questions, just show me you know the answers. I was very personable and kids like being in my class, so I really had no idea what I was doing long term to these kids.
Then one year I was asked to teach the “Health” curriculum to students which I was not too excited about. At this time, Health was meant to be taught 40 minutes a week, and there was no provincial exam for it. It drove me crazy that I had to teach a class where my student’s weren’t measured. I was angry not because it measured them as learners, but really, it measured me as a teacher. High marks equaled good teaching. Pretty simple.
So since the Health curriculum was the least of my concerns and a subject that most of our kids hated, I decided to take the lazy way out and try something different. I took all of the curriculum objectives, put them on a board and told the kids that we were going to try something different. They would pick one of the objectives that they were interested in, and teach it to the class. My time would be more focused on planning for the “important” subjects and in reality, they could do the teaching for me. The kids looked at me as if I was crazy when they should have looked at me as being lazy. They asked me how they needed to present it and I simply told them that it would be up to them. I would expect them to do what they need to learn about their curriculum, explore some questions that they had about the objective, and present in a way that they thought would be compelling to others. I also told them that instead of doing this for 40 minutes a week, we were going to spend every afternoon on it for a few weeks. To me, this was a way to get through this curriculum so that I could do the other stuff.
Then a weird thing happened. Kids everyday were coming to class and asking, “When are we doing health?”, and it became their obsession. They were spending their lunch hours, home time, and any minute going over their topic. I was no longer the teacher but acted more like an academic advisor providing help along the way. Way less time teaching and a lot more time learning. They were curious about their topics in a way than if I stood in front of the room and shared with them my knowledge, I could not replicate.
WHEN LEARNING IS THE FOCUS
Everything changed for me after that assignment. Learning had become the focus, not my teaching. Giving students the opportunity to ask questions and explore on their interests took me back to grade three and my project on Brazil. I have never taught the same way again and I look back at some of the powerful elements of my classroom environment that Mrs. Sloane showed me years ago:
- Give students the opportunity to explore what they are interested in.
- Help them ask powerful questions.
- Give them time to explore.
- Students should be able to share what they have learned in a compelling way.
As I travel and speak, I often look at what would be termed “best practice” but I often wonder if that practice really serves the teacher or the learner? For example, a rubric on what a student should learn often give kids your ideas and doesn’t help them develop their own. Does this serve our kids after they leave our school? Will they see rubrics anywhere in their life? These are just some of the questions that I have and to be honest, continue to explore. As I focused on my students’ learning, my curiosity on what works in education has developed. Luckily Mrs. Sloane taught me how to explore these questions in grade three.