Some classrooms just aren’t effectively facilitating student learning, this blogger observed when visiting 21 high schools last fall. In the previous post I wrote about many of the classrooms that I admired and appreciated very much, more than thirty in all, (and I named the schools where this excellent teaching was happening). In this entry, however, I am going to share times when I observed what I believed to be quite ineffective teaching. Although I will not be naming the schools at which these ineffective lessons took place, I should emphasize that all comments below are based on first-hand observations of actual classrooms at the 21 very good high schools I visited.
Classrooms that Aren’t Working for 21st century Students:
- The Too Much of a Good Thing Classroom
- The Distrusting Classroom
- The Ill-Will Classroom
- The One Student at a Time Classroom
- The Uninterested in Motivation Classroom
- The Trying his Hardest but Unprepared and Unsupported Teacher Classroom
- The Teacher-Centric Classroom
The Too Much of a Good Thing Classroom: At several schools I sat in on English and History classes with teachers who were nothing short of brilliant, and they conducted class discussions which were intellectual and sophisticated, and entirely engaging and illuminating for students — for the first twenty minutes. But by minute 25, half the kids in the room were gone, and by minute 30, two thirds of the kids have detached. I love seeing a good class discussion, but no matter how engaging the teacher is, you have to manage the time and recognize that there just will not be sustained attention after 25 minutes. Some students, maybe a quarter, may have just the right chemistry going on inside of them to hang with the lecture or discussion beyond thirty minutes, and this can be misleading to teachers; I watched as teachers narrowed their focus to just those few who were still with them, disregarding the rest. I know the temptation; I know I have been there so many times myself as a teacher, but it is just not fair to disregard the majority of students for whom more than 30 minutes of sustained listening is more than enough.
The Uninterested in Motivation Classroom: In one math classroom, after a period composed of highly traditional teaching at the whiteboard, and where I observed the students to be particularly disengaged, I spoke to the teacher during a break: she told with me had been teaching for 16 years, and that this was the only way she knew how to teach. She said to me that this technique was working just fine for her honors students– no problems there– but in her non-honors classes, the students were really un-motivated and she just didn’t know what to do about it. She then went on to say that really the problem was the fault of the school’s administration, because recently it had begun expanding its outreach and admitting a wider range of kids, some of whom just didn’t respond well to her style of teaching.
The Trying his Hardest but Unprepared and Unsupported Teacher Classroom: At another school, the history teacher had the kids spend an entire period reviewing their lecture notes from the previous day, and answering questions based on their lecture notes, questions that had very little critical content to them– largely just recall and regurgitate. This young and bright teacher, a recent Ph.D., had had no teacher training at all, and no direction from the school administration, so he was doing what was most familiar to him. He wanted to develop his teaching, but seemed to have no support for it. Ironically, at this same school, I watched an administrator explain to a touring set of prospective parents that the school had a progressive educational approach in which no lecturing was allowed in the school.
The Distrusting Classroom: In another case, an administrator was covering a class, where he lectured in a dry way on chemistry facts, and then had the kids doing some problems. I noticed that there were no computers in this large combined classroom/laboratory, no laptops available to the kids, and that I couldn’t get online myself, because my laptop wasn’t registered into the school’s network. So I asked: if a student wanted to bring their own laptop and use it, would that be allowed? No. The teacher/administrator explained to me that they had tried that once– allowing students to bring/use their own laptops– but it was just too distracting for the students, they just didn’t pay attention to lectures, and so he didn’t think they were going to try that again.
The One Student at A Time Classroom: In several foreign language classes, and occasionally in a science or math class, I have seen a very conventional instructional technique, whereby the teacher calls on students one at a time (usually going around the room) asking them to recite their answer to a homework question, or respond in conversational dialogue with the teacher. Thereupon the teacher and the individual student whose turn it is have a one-to-one dialogue of some 1-5 minutes. Meanwhile, the other ten to fifteen students in the room wait their turn, patiently, or increasingly impatiently. I know what the teacher is thinking, because I have thought it as a teacher, and I know that I have sternly lectured my students about it: “everyone should pay attention because you all can learn by listening to me have this one-to-one interaction with this one student.” But in practice, from my observations this fall– it just doesn’t happen. While a teacher engages a single student one-to-one, and every other student is receiving no attention, these others check out, they wander, they are distracted, they chitchat. Only then, when the restlessness grows, do the other 14 students in the room get some attention: the teacher glares and admonishes them for not being disrespectful. I am sorry, but this is just entirely an unrealistic expectation of the teacher; as an adult, I too completely check out when a teacher and student are having a one-on-one. I have to report from my research that this format just doesn’t work in a classroom setting. Please give the other kids something interesting and productive to do in that time.
The Ill-Will Classroom: One of the most striking events in my observations occurred in a classroom where the teacher and students displayed and demonstrated such obvious, blatant ill-will toward each other. Learning is made more effective considerably with strong personal relationships between teachers and students.
But let me tell you about this one classroom at a school which will remain nameless, but which I admired greatly. My host student warned me right from the beginning of the day that his foreign language class was a disaster– the teacher just didn’t like the kids. I entered the classroom expecting the best only to find a level of hostility in the room you could cut with a knife. The teacher was flip, curt, stressed; you could read it in her face. The students challenged and criticized her openly. It was a bit like a scene from a movie, one displaying a hostile high school classroom. Our teacher asked little of us that was engaging or challenging it; rather it was rote, second year foreign language tasks. About halfway through the period, she distributed tests, and students got to work answering a series of deathly dull questions. Then, she looked at me and asked if I would watch them while she left the classroom to get some materials– to “make sure they don’t cheat.” I of course agreed; she departed; and immediately, more than half the students in the room began asking each other for help with the answers to the test. They called across the room, shouted out different things, looked at each others’ papers. I asked them once, twice, thrice to stop; finally after some pleading the “cheating” died down, just as our teacher returned.
What to make of this? I realize some would quickly denounce “these kids” for their dishonesty. Myself, though, I think that there is more depth to the dynamic than that. This is a matter of students not respecting what they are doing or whom they are doing it for. If you ask students to do something without their understanding its importance, and do so in an environment of ill-will for which you have responsibility to elevate, you can’t expect them to “honor” the assignment with good will. These very same students, in another class where the teacher was respected and the work they were asked to do of depth and significance, didn’t “cheat” when the teacher left them unsupervised.
The Teacher-Centric Classroom: Let’s conclude with the classic, far-too-common classroom, the one where teachers stand at the front of the room for 45-60 minutes and talk to students about what interests the teacher. A variant on this is the classroom where the teacher does math or science problems on a whiteboard in the front of the room for the entire period. The teacher, to this blogger’s observation, is entirely engaged throughout the hour– he or she is getting to work out interesting problems, or talk about interesting things, but for those of us sitting in the chairs, the experience ranges from the boring to torturous. A particularly glaring example of this is the chemistry class where the teacher very effectively entertains himself by doing an experiment, a really fun experiment, for everyone else to watch: that is right, the kids all sit and watch while the teacher does something cool. Now I recognize the underlying tension: modeling is a good thing to do, and it is better to demonstrate some chemical reaction than to have students read about it. But teachers should be very wary when they choose to do this, because it can have an alienating affect of giving the students the message that only the teacher gets to do the fun stuff.
A physics teacher lectured for 40 minutes of a 50 minute class, doing problems himself on a whiteboard. I asked him if he did many labs, and he said they would be, but had only done one so-far. (This was mid-October). The problem is that they hadn’t been delivered yet– and he only does has students do labs from a kit, he told me when I asked. Then I asked if he had students doing any independent projects that they could design and execute themselves, and he said oh-no, that doesn’t work, you have to be in grad school to do that.
Another variant is an a conversational or seminar style class. In one:
an AP foreign language teacher had only six students in the class, and for 45 minutes, she would ask the students a 10-15 word question, to which the student replied with 5-12 words, and then the teacher responded with a 100 word disquisition on the topic. Speaking to me after class when I asked her how she was trying to refine her technique, she told me that there is no way to innovate in the way the class is taught because it is an AP class and she has to cover all this material.