Improving Education: Let’s Not Lose the Conversation


With the new Common Core, teachers are unpacking standards, adjusting instruction, incorporating technology, and sifting through new piles of educational stuff. But whether these resources are “gifts” or “distractions” depends upon whether teachers use them to spark or inhibit meaningful conversations.  In essence, teaching means understanding and responding to the needs of learners in our classrooms. We do this when we talk with the students.

In the 1967 Musical Film, Dr. Dolittle, an adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s classic series, Rex Harrison portrayed the eccentric doctor who could talk to animals.   He declared:

…It’s a fairy tale worthy of Hans Anderson and Grimm

A man who walks with the animals, talks with the animals

…And they could squeak and squawk and speak and talk to me!

As human beings, teachers and students certainly do not need magic to communicate. But, as Dr. Dolittle found, talking can bring about amazing discovery.

In fact, one day I talked with my fourth grade math students, and the conversation went like this:

Me: “So, what units did we use to measure length on this quiz?”

Students: “Centimeters!”

Me:  “So why would you write ‘5 cubic centimeters’ on your quiz to measure a line segment? How did you picture yourself doing this problem in your mind?”

Student Response: “I pictured myself taking my unit cube [a plastic one-by-one centimeter block] and counting how many cubes would fit on the line segment.

I had assumed that these were careless errors! Yet, by asking and listening to the students, I discovered the “little cube in their minds” that they were using to measure length. So, rather than tell them to slow down and check their work, I gave them what they truly needed–more “hands-on” practice with appropriate measuring tools and with using units to show what they measured — length, volume, or area.

Another conversation happened in my fifth grade Reading class. In order to develop research skills and creativity, my students were starting a project we call “REAL” time–“Read, Explore, and Apply knowledge about a subject that you Love.” (“REAL” time is inspired by the “Genius Hour,” which is an education initiative to increase engagement, motivation, and learning by setting aside time for students to research and develop “passion projects” on subjects of their choice.)

As we brainstormed research topics, some students struggled with the open-ended question—“If you could learn about anything, what would it be? What would it really be?”

Finally, after lots of talking, asking, and listening, the REAL topics started flowing. Movies, Alternative Energy Sources, Vikings, Cars, Baseball…

In fact, one morning the students were so engrossed in learning about the subjects they loved that I had to remind them, ”Kids, class time ended ten minutes ago! You really need to leave!”

Although the results can seem magical, unlike in Dr. Dolittle, there is no “fairy tale” process required for talking with students.   It is simple, natural, and essential for learning.  Data, technology, and assessments  can’t get us there.  Let’s accept the truth: To truly improve education, we need to recognize, nurture, and enrich the conversation inside our classrooms.

“What are you picturing in your mind?…Is there another way to solve this problem?… If you had a choice, what would you love to learn?”

We need to talk with the students. And we need to listen.

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