I have been taking departmental learning walks, examining teaching and learning. In my position as Director of Middle and Secondary Instruction, I have access to eight schools and probably about 450 classrooms. Because I truly enjoy being in classrooms, this represents a significant upgrade from my days as a principal.
But alas I am disheartened by what I see in several classrooms, particularly at the middle school level. Teachers aren’t teaching, they are re-teaching. Kids are being exposed to stuff they already know. They sit through what the teacher perceives is effective use of technology (a PowerPoint presentation), elbow on desk and chin in the palm of their hand. Are they even awake? If not, who would blame them? I was in 11 middle school math rooms last week, and not one invloved new learning. The kids talked about learning the concepts in previous years. Even where kids were learning a concept or skill for the first time, the amount of practice was overkill. (Why do kids need to find the percent of a number 35 different times? And why in the world would a teacher not connect that concept to a life-skill, like determining how much Circuit City had marked up their merchandise to realize only a 30% reduction before they announced that it was 50% off?)
Surprisingly, high school was a different experience. (I say “surprisingly”–my middle school bias is showing. I always assumed high school teachers took the “stand and deliver” approach, but they are proving me wrong.) In a pre-calc class, kids were collaborating on problem-solving. They were allowed to explain concepts to one another. Sure the teacher circulated and helped when asked, but it really was more of a student-centered classroom. In an Intro to Algebra II class (a decidedly different type of student from those in the pre-calc class), kids were working out problems and again collaborating on the process. It’s hard to come up with a real-life example of finding the value of variables in two different equations, but even with the process-type task they were talking through with one another trying to get clarification on the concept.
My point is this: We don’t have time to keep waiting for certain teachers, certain levels, or certain content areas to catch up with the 21st century. We need to make a significant shift now. In my next blog post, I will describe a visit to a local university’s engineeering department. What I saw put me in awe, but what I heard from the professor and students inspired me. Perhaps others will be surprised to learn what a major university is looking for in their engineering students…