Learning the Game of Teaching

One concept that seems to be essential to the game of teaching is that the teacher is a learner.  Something that Perkins writes seems to sum up how I feel about my own professional learning. Perkins writes that a good learner, “…persist(s) to relish incremental progress rather than expecting everything to fall into place all at once” (Perkins, 2009, p. 194).  In my fourteenth year of teaching I’m still striving to figure it all out, at the same time knowing that it will never happen.  At the same time, I relish each little success.  Recently, inspired by reading Perkins’ book Making Learning Whole, I began an attempt to have students take center stage in learning about the atom.  While walking around encouraging and coaching various groups, one student had a revelation about the relationship between the number of protons and electrons.   She emphatically said, “Knowledge!”. I think I felt just as excited as she. It is important for me to remember as a teacher that students are definitely dynamic. They are more than the sum of their parts, more than sponges to soak up knowledge, more than empty jars to be filled.  It is their physical and biological makeup along with their interactions with their environment that will determine what and how they learn.  Teachers cannot control a student’s many mesosystems but can strive to set the stage for an effective social situation.  Perkins writes that for learning by wholes to work, teachers can make their classroom a, “…natural  (environment) for encouraging students to take charge of themselves as learners (2009, p. 208).  In order to do this, students cannot be “passengers”.  Part of being in the driver’s seat for a learner is knowing how to seek out help.  As a teacher, I need to encourage students to use one another as sources of learning.  As I was putting students into groups for their atom project, some students were commenting, “we want Lucas, we want Lucas” and although I could not put Lucas on every team, why shouldn’t he be used as the classroom expert?  If student’s want to learn from him, why shouldn’t they?  When I need computer help, I ask my husband, when I need parenting help, I ask my mom and my friends in addition to reading or doing research.  This is not to say that I expect my husband to take care of all things technical in order for me to do my schoolwork or job and I don’t expect my mother or friends to raise my children nor should my students expect Lucas to do their project or individual assessments but is there any harm or shame in them learning from him in order to complete their own project or test?  In the same vane, I think that Perkins’ assertion that students need to become “proactive learners” is especially relevant to me.  In an age where teachers are urged to connect every lesson to the “real-world”, Perkins seems to take a much more realistic approach to the idea.  He writes that, “…proactive learners work to make the game worth playing for themselves, not depending so much on hit-or-miss inspiration from others nor on coercion with rewards and punishments” (2009, p. 203).  I think that students will fail to make these connections if they are not put in charge of this.  If they are spoon fed the supposed “reason” for learning everything.  First of all, as Perkins points out, since every student is different, it is impossible to define why each and every student should learn anything.  We have no crystal ball to see what or when a student will use the knowledge from any experience nor should that be the goal of learning. Students should, however, be encouraged to make these connections for themselves.  Perkins writes that students should be asked, “…to explore and articulate individual connections, ways they might put (a particular study) to work or to play” (2009, p. 210).   Putting someone in the drivers seat is the only way to know what they can do.  This holds true not only in classroom learning but in life in general.  Parents would never consider feeding, bathing and washing their children past infancy and toddler-age.   Why then do we as a society expect children to be taught how to play the game of learning without missing or messing up before finally figuring it all out?   A newly wed person may drive themselves crazy thinking that they alone must be in charge of managing all the household responsibilities.  One has to give up control in order to realize that others are or can become capable.  With an emphasis on students earning particular grades rather than improving or being able to show what they have learned, teachers are cajoled into teaching in order to project an image of learning.  Teachers need to be coached on being a coach and given the freedom to allow learning to happen without being judged for the messiness of learning by wholes. Teaching students to be able to solve real-world problems is, “… first and foremost a shift in the way we expect our teachers to teach and our students to learn” (Holt, 2013). I am hoping to transform my own teaching by giving up a large amount of control and using punctuated instruction (Perkins, 2009).  I am prepared to mess up along the way! The Ultimate Education Reform: Messy Learning and Problem Solving by Tim Holt, April 19, 2013 I think that one of the most important things to remember is that learning attitudes are not “indelible characteristics”, that teachers can foster change and improvement in attitudes toward learning (Perkins, 2009, p.198).  I feel that in order for teachers to embrace learning by wholes, they need to be allowed to be in the drivers seat themselves.  Standardized testing has taken away much of the autonomy of teachers due to a lack of trust.  For teachers to be able to encourage broad questioners in their classroom, they can not be limited as to what can be investigated.  Teachers are given many mixed messages, “use formative assessment” but “make sure there are an ample number of grades in the grade book”, “use collaborative learning” but “give individual grades for individual work”, “allow students to investigate” but “cover all the material by the end of the semester”.  Only the bravest of teachers in the bravest of school systems will be able to become the teacher they want to be.  I hope that I am one of the brave ones.  By reading and reflecting, I am figuring out what the hard parts are for me and intend to inch my forward toward becoming the teacher of my dreams.

Holt, T.  (2013). The ultimate education reform: Messy learning and problem solving.  Retrieved from http://plpnetwork.com/2013/04/19/ultimate-education-reform-messy-learning-problem-solving/

Perkins, D. (2009).  Learning by Wholes: How seven principles of teaching can transform education.  San Francisco, CA. Jossey-Bass.

One thought on “Learning the Game of Teaching

  1. Perkins writes that a good learner, “…persist(s) to relish incremental progress rather than expecting everything to fall into place all at once” (Perkins, 2009, p. 194).

    I think you hit on a very true reality of teaching. We would rather like everything to be in order and to follow as we planned, but in real life, this seldom ever happens, especially in a teaching environment with anywhere from two to twenty something students each with their own previous experiences, approaches to perception, and learning styles. Dynamic becomes more of chaotic in most learning environments :). And yes, it is indeed essential to get messy before we can get organized. My mom could never understand how I would insist that I could find exactly the book or notes I wanted under any one of the random piles of academic mess all around my bedroom floor. But I always could.

    I also like how you are currently implementing the Perkins model in your classroom. The use of teams and of student experts for the teams is a highly collaborative approach that allows us to leverage the talents and skills of others for our ultimate learning goals. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We just need to make the next superior one ;).

    Great post!

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