This past summer, I turned 61. I’ve been in the fields of education (including athletics) since I graduated college in 1970. Maybe I’m a slow learner, or maybe I just was fearful of jumping to conclusions, but the beginning of this school year has enlightened me and I truly believe I understand the secret behind successful teaching (or at least successful learning).
In the classroom, I have always dealt with with the fairly good to poor student (mainly based on standardized test scores, as well as past grades, but more so from the scores). However, when the classroom was the basketball court, I dealt with some “advanced students” in their field - that being basketball. So, this theory works for nearly all levels. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that there do happen to be some students who are mentally incapable of learning the subject matter due to a disability of some sort.
Disregarding that group (who are taught by a segment of the teaching population whom I couldn’t be more awed by - in terms of their patience and kindness), the remaining (the overwhelming majority of) students can, and will, learn if they will do one thing - allow themselves to be taught. I’m speaking of even those who are not so skilled in the subject matter, but truly want to “get” what you’re teaching, be it because they 1) are so competitive, 2) fear failing, 3) need to learn so that they can advance to a further goal, e.g. the next class (possibly yours is a prerequisite or admission to college or 4) are attempting to do well for ulterior motives, e.g. a prize of some kind for certain grades. There may be other reasons I’ve left out but I believe the reader understands where I’m heading.
These are students who will approach the class with an open mind, realizing the person at the front of the room holds the key to their achieving the goal. The main characteristic for this kind of student (with the possible exception of the one participating solely for the “prize”), is maturity. This trait is seen so seldom, mainly because the kids are so young. Sure, they do stupid things and act the fool a good deal of the time, but . . . are they really that different from us when we were that age? My memory is getting worse and worse, but it’ll be some time before I forget what I was like in high school.
The most plausible reason we think we were so much better, as in better behaved, better students, had better manners, is ego, I mean, who wants to view those kids today and think we acted like such jackasses? Undoubtedly, discipline is handled differently today than it was “in our day.” Has the discipline improved with today’s (much more) tolerant methods? You can find many an old-timer who will tell you emphatically, “Hell, no!” You happen to be reading one of them but that will be another topic for another blog.
I have begun imploring the students in my classes that, if they will pay attention to me, keep an open mind, i.e. that what I lecture to them (about math) is not a debate, but a lesson in how to solve problems (because, after all, what is life but solving problems?), do the assignments (and I have always given less homework than most teachers because if a student will give 100% of his/her attention for a lesser amount of time, they will learn and enjoy the subject more) and ask questions, I will guarantee they will learn - at least enough to accomplish their goal.
A mighty big pledge and I discovered why it’s so - just today. My Tuesdays and Thursdays start out the way every teacher would like the day to start - with a two-hour preparation period to get ready for the onslaught of another day in the classroom - one that, especially in California, is becoming more and more cramped.
My actual teaching day begins around 10:00 am with a class that, for the time being (about 2-4 weeks) is composed of ten (10) students, all juniors and seniors. This is followed by lunch and then a class of about 30, mostly freshmen (who in past years, i.e. BBC or Before the Budget Crises, was capped at 20). The amount of individual time, naturally, is greater with fewer students, in this case, the older kids, but even in that class, it is so evident that the kids who really want to learn - for whatever reason - will get it - sometimes, I can swear I see the light go on. One other kid in that class has (already) decided that this class is not “it” and has shut down. With that few, I have a chance to undo the attitude, but one thing I have always told students is, “If you are bound and determined that, no matter what I do, you will not, under any circumstances, learn math in this class, you will achieve success in your pursuit of that goal.”
In the class with 30 - and all of them being younger (and acting younger still), it’s even more apparent. This is where, as a teacher, I have to dig deeper to continue to preach to them, time and time again, that if they will only keep an open mind, they will get it! Every problem has an answer and I’ll show you the way to find it. But this is a sport where there must be active participants. The giggling, the person who makes the cute remarks throughout the class, the distractions (phone calls, people walking into the class, kids asking to go to the bathroom) are instant attention-breakers and hurt the person who’s the distraction, but even worse, the one who isn’t that skilled, but is giving it his/her all.
BUT, I’ve seen after about two weeks into the new school year, a quote by the most highly quoted name I’ve come across when researching these, i.e. Anonymous, that summarizes the secret to success in student learning:
“An open mind leaves a chance for someone to drop a worthwhile thought in it.”