Think back to a time when you were a student in a classroom.
Yes, I know some of us, including myself, don’t want to think back that far, but for the sake of this discussion, let’s try it.
I remember, quite vividly, sitting at desks which were all neatly lined up in rows, with the teacher at the front of the room. I would stare at the back of someone’s head, with very little eye contact. And forget about communicating with my peers because that was a no-no during most of my years of schooling. The teacher would write letters, numbers, or facts on the chalkboard. I was expected to repeat and recite them. This “drill and kill” activity might have then been followed up with a task of copying these same facts onto a piece of paper. Later, I would take them home and memorize them for an upcoming test.
Occasionally my teacher would say, “ok we are going to play a game today.” I would get so excited because something different was going to happen. My teacher would pull out a set of flashcards, and hold up each one as we called out the correct answers. The child with the most flashcards at the end of the game was the “winner.”
This would take place week after week, in each of the subject areas, and we’d be tested on these same facts each Friday. If you, like myself, were really good at memorizing facts, you would ace the tests. You would then get your report card with all of those A’s, and everyone knew you were going to succeed at life because you were a good student. Sound familiar?
I think it’s safe to say this was probably a pretty common scenario for many of you. You, like many students across the U.S., would work your way through school, memorizing information in each grade level, but were you really learning it?
The answer is most likely no, or at least not in the way that would actually promote critical thinking and communication. This focus on memorization has obstructed true learning, where children learn to solve problems, to analyze, to reason and think, and then to apply this new-found knowledge to their everyday life. If information is applied or actually used to solve problems, students will leave school with a much richer education. This transfer of knowledge (rather than just memorization) is crucial to getting students ready to succeed in the modern world.
Have we moved entirely away from this traditional model of rote learning? From my experiences of being in the classroom as recently as two years ago, I can say that the answer is no. There has certainly been a great deal of progress and the shift has been made in many areas, but I don’t think we are entirely there. I have begun to see less rote learning and more of a focus on cooperative group learning where children are expected to solve problems, to design projects, and to use knowledge learned to deliver a presentation.
So the question is, where do we go from here? How can we make sure that we are doing more than rote “drill and kill” activities and encouraging our students to become critical thinkers?
Close-ended question: “What color is this?”
Open-ended question: “You used a lot of blue on your painting. What does it remind you of?”
Close-ended question: “How many teddy bears are on the block?”
Open-ended question: “What are those teddy bears thinking about?”
Close-ended question: “What’s your doll’s name?”
Open-ended question: “Your baby is so beautiful! Tell me about her.”
You can use this method to identify areas where your students need assistance and areas where they are doing well. Collaboration should be followed by a group discussion where students can converse about their perceptions and findings.
The more intentional we are about encouraging students to explain their thinking, to solve problems, to analyze situations, and to apply knowledge to their everyday life, the better off we will be at preparing our students to succeed in the modern world.
The time has come for hard conversations.
That’s the feedback we have been receiving from educators across the country. There are plenty of tough conversations educators are trained, taught, or feel equipped to handle with children and families - gently bringing up a developmental concern, facilitating a disagreement between students, or explaining what happened with the classroom goldfish are all part of a day in the life. But in the last year, since the killing of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police, educators are increasingly asking for help in communicating more comfortably with young children about diversity and difference.
I was supposed to be an architect, instead I was a teacher of young children; it felt like my calling.
When I started my coursework, they tasked me with visiting multiple classrooms. It overwhelmed me when in some classrooms, children were crying, teachers were frustrated, and no one seemed to enjoy the day. I thought I had made a mistake. Thankfully, I had a professor who inspired me to continue. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the behaviors I observed in both children and teachers, the professor charged me to uncover the root of those behaviors.
And so, my journey to support social-emotional development began.
This past year of hybrid and virtual learning due to the pandemic highlighted the gaps in learning and the inequities that we already knew existed. It is apparent, now more than ever, that there needs to be a narrow focus on bridging the divides (e.g., digital) that exist and meeting students where they are in order to promote growth and put less emphasis on standardized testing. This would allow teachers to concentrate on curriculum with greater impact, differentiate their instruction, and utilize effective strategies that they know make a difference for children’s outcomes.