I read many articles, posts and tweets that are based on the assumption that a teacher-centred classroom is simply a model for disempowering students and giving them minimal ownership in their learning space. This is mostly considered a ‘given’, a fact if you will and not something that needs to be discussed in any shape or form. For educators who believe this, the mantra might be, “That’s always the way we’ve thought about it”. In this post I will briefly outline my evolution from so-called progressive to so-called traditional educator. (If you are not worried about the labels that’s fine with me. I say so-called because the lines are blurred but I think we need some framework). Lets bounce!
When I started teaching 16 odd years ago I had only been taught a decidedly progressive mode of teaching. During my teacher training it was considered heresy to praise any form of traditional teaching, and we sat around in tutorials chuckling about how horrific the ‘old’ ways were. How the traditional teachers sucked the life out of children and their amazing talents. (We did a Sir Ken before Sir Ken. If only his appallingly flawed seminal Ted talk had come out earlier. Oh how we would have bowed and scraped to him and thrust hate-filled daggers into the hearts of those hopelessly misguided traditionalists. They deserved nothing less). It was indeed a progressive mantra at all costs, although I privately queried why it was all so cut and dried. But I quickly moved on, I was going to be a great teacher damn it!
As soon as I started teaching I followed what I had been taught religiously. I was the very model of the progressive student-centred teacher. By the time Sir Ken’s awe-inspiring 2006 Ted Talk arrived cracks were appearing, but I papered over them and felt dutifully inspired. Onwards and sideways I forged, all the while becoming evermore concerned about my teaching. I was frequently lauded with praise by administration, parents and most of all students. This made me feel good but I felt strangely empty, and most of all disappointed that some students were entering my class with poor basic literacy and numeracy skills and leaving at the end of the year with the same. Yes there was improvement, but I knew I could do better. We did all the right things. We covered the curriculum top to bottom, we had collaborative group work, we had discovery learning and I felt wonderful being given the go ahead to do ‘Genius Hour’ on Fridays. The students took control of their learning and some ended up producing some amazing work. I started to think that maybe I was a bad teacher doing progressive teaching poorly.
Around 5 years ago I started to change tack. By this time many hours of research and soul-searching encouraged me to challenge the status quo and quietly run a more teacher-centred classroom. I made the decision to have the whole thing completely flipped by 2015. (Yes, I flipped the classroom although not as you know it). Last year was my most enjoyable and professionally satisfying of my career. This doesn’t and isn’t meant to prove anything other than I believe I became a better teacher.
I now run a decidedly teacher-centred classroom. I control everything. I decide what we are going to do and when we are going to do it. I decide when I will be speaking and when the students will be speaking. I decide the classroom rules and I set the consequences which are very clear and applied dispassionately and consistently*. There are warnings and timeouts and no discussion with students who have disrupted the learning. (If a student is unsure how they have broken a class rule I discuss it with them alone during a break. I think that is more respectful and they don’t have the right to interrupt the learning of others while we chat about what happened). There is none of those ridiculous ‘reflection sheets’ where students write down what the teacher wants to read, and not actually what they are thinking. I don’t think you can force someone to reflect on his or her actions. They either want to or they don’t. Students on timeout are expected to keep working.
There are no prizes for students doing what they are expected to do. In fact there are no prizes period. I try like all good teachers to make my praise very explicit. I want the students to know that when I give praise I really mean it. It’s definitely not ‘every child wins a prize’. It’s a work in progress.
The learning is very much an, I do, we do, you do model. I explicitly teach and model what new concepts I want the students to learn. If I’m honest I am the centre of the classroom, nearly everything revolves around me. It is not a democracy. I call the shots. If there is any discovery learning, it is pretty much mandated what you will discover. I do use Minecraft and coding software in the classroom because I believe they are powerful tools for teachers to model what they want the students to know, and for students to demonstrate what they do know. I explain to parents it’s not a free for all by any means. The students are still blogging to an ‘authentic audience,’ although with Facebook, Instagram and Kick etc being used at home, that’s where the real authenticity lies because the students choose their audience. It is a very fluid arrangement because what may be considered a good audience one day is out the door the next. Have some students got time to be blogging at school if they still haven’t mastered basic literacy skills? Am I wasting time and letting them down?
I wont keep rambling but I have been asking myself some confronting questions in the last few years. If students have been leaving my classroom at the end of the year with gaps in their literacy and numeracy foundations, without some good basic knowledge in science, geography and history. If they are exiting without a much-improved vocabulary to express themselves, then they don’t have access to what students with strengths in these areas have. We all know that, but I have come to the conclusion that I desperately need to do more explicit instruction in class. I can’t count the number of times High School teachers have told me that many in their classes can’t read, write or spell, or even add to the required standard to access their curriculum. They are set up to fail. Maybe the 10 years of discovery learning hasn’t worked for many. Maybe we can leave the discovering learning until after they have a great mastery of the foundations. If we can get that right, they will discover so much more.
As a final note I’m guessing that people may feel I am creating a compliant class but not necessarily an engaged one. I believe engagement is directly related to the teacher’s relationships with the students much more so than what you are actually doing. I’m not a great teacher, but I’m getting better every day. I wish I had ‘flipped’ my classroom much earlier.
*children with a disability often work under a personalized behavior plan.
If you have read this far, thank you and well done.