Wednesday, August 13, 2014

7 things that are not teaching

It's back to school time, so what better occasion for a reminder regarding things that are not teaching than now? This is not meant to be a bashing-on-teachers post (I've been guilty of everything on this list at least once in my teaching career), but an encouragement not to settle for easy pseudo-teaching practices.

1. The Ass-Ass method of Writing Pseudo-Instruction
Early in my teaching career, I was intent on my students writing. A lot. However, I was not as intent on actually teaching them how to write.  Because I was a voracious reader and enjoyed creative writing as a kid, I was able to figure out academic writing when I was a student without receiving too much instruction on it. So my preferred "teaching" practice was to assign and assess writing. My subconscious theory of writing instruction was apparently that a few guidelines at the front end and some feedback at the back end would turn my students into writing maestros. This of course resulted in me having to grade some pretty frightening student writing. Eventually I stopped blaming the students and took a look in the mirror. I saw a teacher who didn't actually teach writing. Once I started providing targeted instruction on writing, including both its form and substance, I found the quality of my students' writing improved. Analyzing samples of student work in small groups and as a class, developing effective peer editing routines, and providing earlier feedback on drafts, among other techniques, all helped my students actually learn to write.

2. Reading a powerpoint aloud

No explanation needed on this one. Don't do it, people. 

3. Saying "Because I said so," when a student asks "why?"
Some students will ask the "why" question in an attempt to distract or get under the skin of the teacher, but regardless of their intentions, shouldn't we always be aware of the reasons behind our teaching, and what our goals are? Plus, in my experience, the students who might try the "why" question to distract the teacher quickly give up this ploy when they realize that the teacher has a legitimate answer. If we aspire to teach, we should know the answer to the "why" question.
4. Placing students in groups and then leaving them to ostensibly work together while you grade papers / check e-mail / etc.
Fact: if you put students in groups to work and then do not monitor them, then they will go off task. Engaging students in cooperative learning can benefit them in many ways, but requires thoughtful organization and scaffolding by teachers. If you want students to collaborate effectively, you need to teach them how to do so. Consider how hard it is for most adults to collaborate. And yet we often expect students to work together effectively with very little guidance. This often leads to:
Maybe if we actually taught cooperation skills like goal setting, active listening, and constructive criticism, and then actively monitored cooperation, the outcomes of group work might be more consistently positive.

5. Threatening to replace an enriching learning experience that presents more classroom management challenges with something duller and more easy to control
Classroom management is part of teaching. If you withdraw enriching learning opportunities because they are more challenging to manage, and substitute less enriching activities that are more easily controlled, then you are affirming your role as a babysitter, not as a teacher. Real learning can sometimes become chaotic and loud. Rather than blaming the students for this fact and depriving them of rich experiences, perhaps we can reflect on ways that we can scaffold their appropriate participation.

6. Students watch movie, teacher catches up on e-mail
Hitting the "play" button is not teaching. Video and film can play an important role in teaching and learning, but teachers must use such content as part of a coherent teaching and learning process, not as mere entertainment.  For example, teaching might provide a specific purpose for watching video content, or ask advance questions to activate student thinking. Backchannel tools such as and allow students to discuss the video as they are watching it. Or can be used so that students take notes that are time-synched to video content. And there is always the simple approach of pausing video at key moments to analyze content or make predictions about what is to come. 

7. Assigning Presentations
Many teachers require their students to do formal presentations in front of their peers. Not as many teachers actually teach their students how to be effective presenters. In an echo of my writing "instruction" experience, my students and I suffered through some pretty painful student presentations (death by Powerpoint, anyone?) before I realized that I was in part to blame. Because some of my students came to my class already fairly talented public speakers, I apparently assumed that the others should be able to figure it out too without much explanation or guidance on my part. I eventually realized that if I thought presentations were worthy of precious class time, then perhaps they were also worthy of some instruction. When I began providing information and tips about public speaking and the visual organization of information, and allowing students to do "rough draft" presentations with me as the only audience, the quality of my students presentations went up. It's amazing what a little actual teaching will do!

Share other things that are not teaching in the comments section below. I have probably done them too at some point in my career.