Thursday, October 23, 2008

Class Redesign #1

I've been reading a lot of educational reform and redesign materials recently. All of the literature speaks about the classroom of the twenty-first century. In this classroom, teachers and students will focus on collaboration, problem solving, authentic learning, and higher level critical thinking, among other important skills. I don't believe that this movement is a passing fad. I think that these skills are essential now and will remain so for a long time.

All of that being said, most of our current classes are currently running on an outdated model. Students sit in their rows, teachers are the fountains on knowledge, and every two weeks there will be a test (so grades exist for the parents to see).

I have not figured out how to successfully redesign a classroom for the next century. I do, however, have some ideas, which I at least want to add to the current pool of knowledge that exists on the topic. As I am an English teacher, I'm going to write strictly from an English class point of view. I am also certain that I will revisit these ideas many times, to refine them. I also hope to begin experimenting with many of them.

1). All reading assignments are completed in class. Yes, this means more class time. However, I think that I am currently doing about fifty percent of all of my class's readings during meeting time anyway. This at least ensures that the students will have actually read half of the course material. Whenever I assign reading for homework, at least half of my class does not complete the homework. Yes, I assign questions that I collect to perform a reading check and as of right now half of my class simply takes a zero. If we did the readings in class, we can ensure that one hundred percent of the readings are being completed.

2). In class reading is a great opportunity for collaborative education. If the students are going to complete their readings in class anyway, why not have them work together in small groups or teams? This would enable them to work on their collaborative skills as well as their reading abilities. The groups or teams could follow any model that is convenient. For example, students with similar reading abilities could work together. Or, each group would get one more advanced student who could help the others. Students love group work, but all too often it is because they use it to waste time. Perhaps the no reading homework guarantee would serve as an incentive to complete readings with their group members.

If I step back and look at the big picture, I see a lot of positives that can come from these first two steps. Step one would ensure that every student had completed every reading assignment, so that each student would have the background knowledge necessary for higher levels of discourse. Step two would provide a collaborative model to completing necessary work (without having to assign awkward group grades), and it would create an effective use of class time while students are still in the middle of a text. I get so frustrated sometimes with what to do in class while I'm waiting for students to finish a text so that we can examine it as a whole. Using steps one and two, at least students would always be working towards finishing a text.

3). Eliminate single lesson objectives. Why does something have to be "finished" at the end of each class lesson? I understand that it doesn't have to be, but this is the traditional method for teaching and observing. Each lesson has an objective that should be reached in order for that lesson to be ordained a success. I say we do away with these lesson objectives. We should replace them with unit objectives. If, for example, my class is reading Oedipus Rex, I would have a list of objectives (that I would provide at the beginning of the reading) that students should be able to complete by the time we are done discussing that text. This frees up time to go into greater detail in whatever topics the students feel are important, without feeling like lessons or lesson plans are being compromised. If we reach an objective on Monday, great. If not, we try again on Tuesday.

4). Fewer assessments and certainly none of the multiple choice variety. Teachers give multiple choice tests because they are as easy to grade as running them through the Scantron machine. However, in the grand scheme of life, they are useless. When will a person ever need to apply multiple choice test taking skills in his or her future life? Which person will you marry? A... Which house will you buy? A... B...C...D... I can't think of a time (I'm open to ideas, though). So let's tear up the multiple choice tests and replace them with assessments that challenge higher order thinking. Instead of asking students to provide definitions, let's ask them to apply those definitions. This should also reduce cheating, as we can allow them to use all of their notes and class materials. It would encourage better note-taking, as the students would feel that their notes will be of immediate benefit to them. It's also much less tempting to look at someone else's test, when you have lots of answers right in your own notebook. You just have to apply them.

That's all for now. More to come as I think of them. Please comment. This is an issue that can use as many voices as it can find.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm a fan of numbers 3 and 4, iffy about 1, and not in favor of 2. The potential pitfall I see with 1 is that it could ultimately lead to students not developing the skill of reading both on their own and on their own time. I understand the frustration that occurs when students simply don't read on their own, but I would redesign the class in response to that problem by being tougher with grades. If a kid doesn't read or if multiple kids don't read, you still teach your lesson, and if you sit there in silence waiting for a response, so be it. Ultimately, I feel like you can use the kids' grades as currency with which to buy their effort until the effort and motivation becomes intrinsic.

As for point 2, I have to disagree for two reasons: 1) a number of literacy studies that I am familiar with advocate that when students read aloud comprehension suffers because the students become anxious about pronunciation, etc.; and 2) as someone who was a faster-than-average reader in high school, I would not appreciate having to go at the pace of the weakest link in the group. My focus and comprehension would suffer.

In any case, it's good to be talking about and considering what can be done differently.