“Is this going to be on the test?”
This question has become the ultimate filter for students to determine whether learning should be discarded or stored temporarily. If the answer is “yes,” content is put in short-term memory so it can be produced again on the test, only to be forgotten hours later.
The recent high stakes school and teacher accountability movement has increased the priority of test scores and has unintentionally created this scenario in U.S. classrooms. As a result, teachers hyper focus on standards and questions covered on these tests. Creative lesson plans with multiple paths to construct knowledge are replaced by lessons with systematic, efficient delivery of content. Teachers give direct instruction of the content and then students practice individually. The end product is graduates that don’t have the critical thinking skills necessary to contribute to our ever-changing society.
In my first few years of teaching, I subscribed to this model. My students sat in neat rows. I modeled a math problem solution, gave students similar problems to practice individually, and monitored progress. This approach produced outstanding scores; my AP Statistics students were passing the standardized AP Exam at a rate of 97%. With this “success,” it was hard for me to consider taking instructional risks.
This focus on right answers might produce citizens that know how to solve a quadratic equation, but these same students often lack skills that can help them towards their own success. They are unable to apply learned knowledge to problems encountered beyond the classroom. I want my students to be lifelong learners who appreciate learning as a tool to better understand the world around them. They must be supported in their development as educated thinkers and communicators so they can maximize their own potential after they graduate.
My desire for continuous improvement, along with the support of my colleagues, allowed me to challenge my subscription to “standardized teaching.” Each lesson now starts with students working with their peers in real world activities that are accessible to all learners. This “Experience First, Formalize Later” approach allows students to engage in mathematical thinking before being presented with formulas and definitions. I also use strategies like “Read, Discuss, Write” to get students collaborating, asking them to communicate their understanding with one another. This discussion allows each student to find their own individual path to constructing new learning.
Abandoning my traditional lecture-style instruction has had a lasting impact on my students’ later success. I receive emails, letters, and return visits from former students who are thankful for the way that my class helped them approach their education more holistically. This new approach has not been at the expense of academic performance: My students’ pass rate on the AP Statistics Exam has held strong at 97% throughout the transition from boilerplate instruction to authentic construction of learning. More importantly, they have redefined the meaning of learning, and are now equipped to actively construct meaning and understanding – qualities that are far more important to their future success.