Teaching Without A Net

Recently, I read an article about what gifted children need in the classroom to excel. I smiled throughout; wishing I’d have been identified as a child, yet I still may not have received the support I needed. Local gifted support in my area these days is minimal and even gifted teachers are being handed a curriculum.


Years ago, the push for differentiation happened in education. It was an attempt to differentiate learning for a wide array of learners. Mary created a video, while Johnny wrote a report and Susie took a paper test. Or, students chose an individual focus under the same general concept. Sounds great; huh? Though the buzzword lumbers on, it isn’t feasible in most classrooms. There’s too much standardization, benchmarking, and testing as outside forces now control what goes on in the classroom. When you’ve got to hit those goals on a timetable, it limits your flexibility. Instead of changing those roadblocks to learning, education as an entity proclaims that “teachers don’t understand” and “more training” is needed. Education is better at pretending to make changes. Mandates tend to outweigh brilliant and common sense approaches.


If you go back 15 or 20 years, it wasn’t always this way. When I began in education, I was handed a textbook and told, “Here’s what you teach”. No one came to observe. I was never questioned about what or how I was teaching or my testing plan. In retrospect, it was a teacher’s heaven in contrast to the current schooling hell. I used the textbook as a resource; not as a curriculum. Even prior to the internet explosion, we somehow managed to investigate topics and produce truly independent products combining learning across subjects. That was the heyday of differentiation.


Fast forward a few years and standards worked their way into classrooms. Textbooks were aligned (albeit, haphazardly) with state standards and as teachers we hit the sparse amount of topics and then moved on supplementing with interests, throwing in artistic and hands-on activities, and connecting learning along the way. It was manageable and the end-of-the-year testing barely registered. We could predict which students would do well by September (and still can) and not much was said about the under-performers or over-performers. We knew we’d have both and did our best to engage and enlighten all students. Basically, education was left up to the teachers.


Boy, have times changed.


It’s interesting though, because until recently, I taught the way I wanted to teach. I taught solely from an exploration/discovery model whenever possible. I never realized that there was any other way. Sure, I’d known several regurgitation-style teachers whose main goal seemed to be to pump students full of information (seemingly unconnected), but most teachers I respected taught on the fly grabbing educational opportunities as they arose. That, to me, is the essence of teaching. It’s like juggling. After a while, you just know.


Here’s your topic- what’s interesting? What do you want to find out?


Sure, I hit the highlights of the curriculum, but truth be told, I always preferred to work without a net. There’s SO much to learn about EVERY topic; so why limit yourself? I went where my students led me. Some years I taught similar content and other years the content was vastly different. That’s okay; so were the kids.


I guess I was born 20 years too late or 20 years too early. I want to discover and have always wanted the same for my students; gifted or not, low, middle, or high achieving. The thought of learning for a grade was almost sacrilegious (and still is) in my mind. I wanted to learn what I wanted to learn and up until a few years ago, I never knew that I was really any different.


I want more autonomy and less standardization, more flexibility and less structure, more technology and less textbook, more curiosity and less algorithm. I want to slow it down and speed it up. I’m a paradox…. I know.


That kind of teaching is difficult to test. Yes, I’m not a standardized kind of person, but I hope I’m interesting. That was always my aim in the classroom too. Keep it interesting. Isn’t that how we learn?


Give me a “prepositional phrase”.


Odds are that some of you have forgotten what that means even though you use them every day, or even every few minutes. Why are we quizzing students on this concept? Do we really think they’ll never figure out how to use it in conversation or writing without direct instruction?


By using open-ended standards, we can identify a multitude of concepts and information. Give me a concept and 10 kids and I’ll give you 10 approaches with 10 different, valid, and worthwhile outcomes. Take away my autonomy and throw a mandate along with a test threat and my students are out of choices. I’m also out of teaching. I can’t be a robot and that’s what they’re looking for these days.


Open-ended works for high achievers, but it also works with low achievers, and everything in between. Robert Marzano’s scoring scale even gives us a flexible and easy way to assess learning as the teacher, but also as the student.


Educational research is exciting, but oh, so frustrating. Schools are 20 or more years behind. How can we have “cutting edge” research for our scientific community, yet schools are still back in the Industrial Revolution mindset of “making workers”. How many people (not counting children at school) still work an assembly line model?


We took a major step backwards implementing so much testing and tightening up education all in the name of “better learning”.


It’s time to give it up and evolve.


What better way is there to customize education? Take away current testing limitations and it’s really quite simple. Throw a net underneath and open up a world of possibilities.


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