Founder & Executive Director, Next Vista for Learning
Predictability breeds boredom.
I write as a teacher in a system where I was tasked with teaching five classes a day, one hundred and eighty days a year. No matter how good I am, I am unlikely to be able to vary my presentation of ideas so often that the students are always (or even often) off guard, which I believe is one of the best positions to be in to learn well.
Being able to introduce the unexpected is therefore something that requires more than simply speaking and writing. The more I speak and write in front of them, the more students feel they know what's coming, and the lower the gear they fall into. It's that predictability which leads them to a place they find boring, especially when they don't understand that they have control over such a reaction in themselves. What can I do to pique their interest, and do so as often as possible?
"I want to show you a picture," or, "I want to play something for you."
I've found introducing concepts via digital media is especially powerful for grabbing the attention of our digitally-infused kiddos, and a nice way to remove the pressure I used to put on myself so regularly when I was new to teaching. Free image and audio tools make this happen, and if we aren't using them to be more effective, we're not having the fun that we might doing the critically important work we do.
Comfort is a dangerous addiction.
It's awfully easy to do what I did before, even when I know it wasn't that effective. Am I taking time to try to improve? Have I asked my colleagues for ideas on how to make an activity better? Have I asked students what they think might work better for them? Do I limit myself to my own ideas?
We need food to live, and we'd better eat on a regular basis to remain among the breathing. Regularly eating too much, though, can sap our energy, flexibility, and self-control.
I think the needed balance is not so different from teaching and comfort. We have to develop a set of techniques and tools that we know can work. However, if we rely solely on what we think worked for last year's students, we may be missing the opportunity to see what is special about this year's group. The exploration that results in not staying comfortably satisfied can also be that which takes our efforts from good to great.
I learn as I teach.
This idea is a long way from original. We have known for geologic ages that one can quickly discover one's gaps when one tries to teach. However, my work at NextVista.org building a library of educational videos by and for teachers and students has given me new thoughts on how this can happen for me. Asking students to create a video explaining something has yielded an impressive number of videos that explain something badly. Helping them do better with their videos isn't so different than teaching well in general.
There are two steps involved. The first is to give students room to present topics (digitally or otherwise) by stepping aside myself. They do some research, prepare, and take a shot at taking the helm. The hardest part of this for them, though, may be learning both to know what they don't know and also to know what to do when they don't know.
This requires the second step: effective questioning. Teaching by asking students questions that probe their thinking even while conveying encouragement is not likely something that comes naturally. Instead, I suspect it comes through practice, and being okay with not always knowing where a conversation may end. While I want them to learn what I hope to teach, if how I teach inspires them to see new possibilities in their own thinking, I'm doing what I need to change lives.
I teach because I enjoy learning. I should teach in such a way that helps them do the same, and that likely involves what Dan Meyers* calls, "being less helpful."
The more I know, the more I know I don't know.
I was obnoxiously cocky as a young teacher. I felt that I was pushing students in my subject farther than I saw happening elsewhere, and I wanted my students to be the best. They performed well, and many were able to do great things.
Over time, though, I figured out that I was frequently promoting excellence in a few at the expense of doing all I could to help those that struggled. Reaching more students means remembering that there are so many things that go into their performance, mostly things over which I have little control. Rather than fatalistically assuming I can do no more than lead horses to water, I've come to understand that if I keep paying attention, I often find that there is something else—some connection—that can get them to drink from the trough. How do I get through to any given kid? I don't know, though with effort, I may learn, which is like how they can figure out that with effort, they may succeed in what they are asked.
Most of my work has been at the high school and college level, but I spent one year teaching one middle school class. They were the neediest group of human beings I'd ever met, but I kind of liked them anyway. They also made me a much better teacher. The experience helped me understand that high school is where my heart is as a teacher, but it was stepping out of my comfort zone that allowed me to see new possibilities in myself.
That comfort zone, perhaps by definition, is the realm of things we know. It will always be infinitely smaller than that realm of the things we don't know. I like the thought that by tapping into the insights of colleagues and students, I am allowing what I don't know to make me more effective.
There is strength in humility.
For years, I have taken a day each semester to hand out index cards and invite my students to write any question they want on them, anonymously. It's my thinking that teenagers carry all sorts of important and wonderful questions in their hearts, and that many or most of the students don't feel they have someone whom they can ask these questions.
For this activity, called Q&A Day, I would let them know that I couldn't promise a good answer for any given question, but that I would do my best to say something helpful. The cards were gathered, shuffled, and I'd read each one, providing what insights I could.
Their questions often revealed the far more nuanced and/or hopeful thinking than what I could see of my teenage students' day-to-day school life. My favorite question is one I got in 1998-ish, when a student wrote this question:
"What is the role of humility in a strong person's life?" It's a beautiful question with fascinating premises, and perhaps I like it in part because I think I see the world similarly.
If what humility does for the teacher is to keep the ears open more and the mouth open less, the natural outcome is to see better the bigger picture of our work, overflowing with the myriad life circumstances that make teaching and learning such complex arts.
May we regularly learn and revisit what we can and can't yet do. May our students push us in directions that make us see the world in new ways. May we always take strength in knowing that our service to children is a sacred task that can help us see the best in ourselves.
The views expressed on this site are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pearson Foundation.
Rushton is the founder and executive director of Next Vista for Learning, which houses a free library of videos by and for teachers and students at NextVista.org. His graduate research at Stanford University included using speech recognition technology with beginning students of Japanese in computer-based role-playing scenarios for developing language skills. In the 1990′s his work with teenagers at a high school in California led him to begin using internet and video technologies to make learning more active, helping him reach students who had struggled under more traditional approaches.
Rushton has trained teachers and other professionals in North America, Europe, and Asia, presenting at regional and national conferences. His fun and thoughtful talks center on the connection between engaging learning and useful, affordable technology, as well as professional perspectives in a changing world.