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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Learning to Teach by Uncovering Our Assumptions Part 3

by Judith M. Newman

A Learner-Centered Classroom

Since the uncovering of our assumptions often reveals a contradiction or imbalance within us as teachers, this revelation is usually a prompt toward not only new understanding but also toward change on our parts. A direction in which many teachers are currently changing is a way of teaching alternative to a traditional teacher-centered approach. Uncovering our assumptions through critical incidents can help us understand the nature of this learner-centered alternative and how to practice it.

Trying to be what Douglas Barnes (1976) calls an "interpretive" teacher is not easy. Few of us have any experience with other than "transmission" teaching where much of what the teacher does is based on three assumptions: the meaning of things in the world is immutable and independent of observer and circumstances, reality consists of discrete elements or building blocks which exist independently of one another, and reality as a whole can be known by understanding each of its constituent elements. However, Barnes' notion of teaching as "interpretation" presents a quite different view. From an interpretive perspective, reality is inseparable from the individuals who construct it, the meaning of a situation is determined by the situation itself, and knowledge is an artifact of our continuous encounters with the world. From an interpretive stance the educational focus is on learning and on ways of creating contexts which allow learners to make sense of the world collaboratively.

For example, Susan Settle (1986), a second grade teacher, explored a situation which helped her see her interpretive role more clearly. She told the following story:

One particular child, Carrie, had been reading her story called "Mom's New Vase." It caught my attention immediately because it was one of the best stories she'd written to that point. She had included several new elements in her story creating an interesting opening and plot. However, it wasn't until she made a suggestion to another child that I discovered something else she had done. She had told Shawn that he could change some of the "said" words to make his Story more interesting. I saw, then, she had done exactly that herself. Later, I asked Carrie how she had decided to use such a variety of words. She explained that she had referred to the chart posted in the classroom. Chart? It took me a moment to realize she was referring to a chart I had started a week or so before. The children and I had been reading about trade between countries. One child had asked what the word "coaxed" meant. Matt had responded that it was a word used like "said" and we then carried on with our discussion about trade. At the end of the day I had listed "said" and "coaxed" in a chart titled "Words Used in Dialogue" and posted it, thinking I'd use it later when I had the opportunity to "teach" about dialogue. Then I'd promptly forgotten it.

Writing about the incident helped Susan realize that, instead of delivering "lessons" in a formal structured way, responding to her students' queries let her offer information that was directly relevant for what they were doing. What surprised her was the fact that a passing comment and a titled chart could have such an impact on what the students learned. Without further assistance from her, in fact without her even being aware of it, the students engaged in what could be called a "vocabulary lesson." The original lesson had been only incidental. What Susan began to realize was that she didn't have to be teaching from the front of the classroom at all times. She could, instead, lead from behind.

Like Susan Settle, Wayne Serebrin (1986) learned about the resourcefulness of his students and their ability to solve their own problems with just a hint of support from him. He describes a brief encounter with Kristen, a seven-year-old first grader who liked to write about her guinea pigs, Olga and Boris.

... on this day her writing was not coming easily. Kristen wanted to "make a funny story about Olga and Boris" but was having trouble getting started. She squirmed uneasily in her seat. Shrugging her shoulders, she looked up at me from her heavily-erased page. "Well," I ventured, "how would one of your favorite authors make Olga and Boris seem funny?" For a brief moment she puzzled over the "help" I had offered. Then, with a confident "I know," she stood up and pushed past me on her way to the book corner. She emerged clutching a well-worn copy of one of James Marshall's George and Marsha stories. I was no longer needed. I returned to the table where I had been writing and watched her.

This incident helped Wayne discover the importance of a timely question. Rather than launching into a dissertation on how to write comedy, his question put Kristen in touch with a favorite author who could show her how to do what she was trying to do. Notice he didn't suggest a particular book or author; instead, in response to her difficulty he merely asked her to think about how one of her favorite authors might create such a situation. The rest he left to Kristen.

These are just some of the powerful insights to interpretive teaching which critical incidents can provide. A number of other incidents yield a more extensive and systematic listing of some of the key characteristics or traits of a learner-centered approach to teaching.

Leading from Behind

This question of what kind of support we should be offering is a crucial one. A comment made by a teacher recently made me think about the issue once again myself. I had just read an article by Allan Neilsen (in press), "Critical Thinking and Reading: Empowering Learners to Think and Act," in which he discusses a problem many teachers have with their changing role. He points out that

One of the most disturbing interpretations of learner-centered education is the one which sees any action on the part of the teacher as interference with the student's right to be independent and to determine her own destiny. When accepted uncritically, this notion can cause teachers to feel sufficiently guilty or at least sufficiently uncertain about their role that they become paralyzed into inaction. They not only "back off" for fear of being interventionist, in effect they often back right out of the classroom.

Neilsen's comments about the role of the teacher in a learner-centered environment came immediately to mind when Christine described something occurring in her classroom. She explained how her first graders were doing quite a bit of writing—writing in journals, sending mail, and so on—but she was bothered that they weren't actually writing in the writing center. The children would go to the writing center, take out the markers, crayons, and paper and draw like crazy, but they weren't doing much writing there. I suggested she remove the blank paper and substitute lined paper instead.! predicted the invitation extended by lined paper would be different from blank paper. "But I didn't think I was allowed to do that," she said.

Here was precisely the problem Neilsen is addressing: the belief that learner-centered teaching means "hands off." I explained that I believe teachers have an important role in the classroom, most aptly described by Montessori (1948), I think, when she deals with "the prepared environment." She's arguing that teachers have a responsibility for creating a context which offers as many of the desired opportunities as possible; that means building in as many subtle constraints as we can so students are guided by the obvious aspects of the situation.

Take the example of the lined paper. Lined paper, unlike blank paper, says "Write on me!" I'm certain many of the children will create and not draw on lined paper if it's offered.! realize I may be removing some aspect of student choice with my paper selection. If I want to reinstate it, I can create a drawing center with materials which obviously invite art efforts. Nevertheless, I have a responsibility to set up situations that make invitations as clearly as possible. If the invitation is misinterpreted, then I need to play around with the situation to see in what ways I can influence how the children use it. What keeps this "experimenting" from completely removing the element of choice for the learner is that I haven't said the children can't draw in the writing center; what I've done is increase the probability they'll write instead. If that doesn't work, I'd experiment with other ways of making the invitation stronger. I might place photocopies of wordless picture books on the table so the children could compose their own text for the stories; I could also offer shape books (small blank notebooks, again with lined paper—perhaps with occasional blank pages for drawing—and a cover of some sort, cut into different shapes: hearts, squares, Christmas trees, houses, and so on). My point is, it's perfectly legitimate to set up the environment so that specific invitations are being extended.

Sustaining Learning

I've thought about my role as teacher a great deal in the last year. I'm beginning to understand how extending invitations or creating a prepared environment is only a start. We also have to think about how to sustain engagement, how to support students' struggles, how to celebrate their accomplishments, as well as to help them examine their strategies more closely. During a recent workshop with some junior and senior high school teachers I had some useful insights about how I do all of these. The focus of the day was on writing and reading for learning. I'd offered the teachers a difficult text passage to work with, something none of them knew anything about. I'd asked them to read the passage quickly, trying simply to get a feeling for what it was about, and then had them jot gist statements on a small piece of paper. Next, they collaboratively identified what they saw as the elements of the argument. As we went along it became apparent to me, not through anything specific anyone said, that what I was doing as a teacher was quite different from how they perceived their role. They saw themselves concerned primarily with content while I was more interested in initiating and sustaining processes. I was using material with a definite content (in this case about the growth of soot particles in wood stoves), but what I was trying to help these teachers discover was what reading and learning strategies they themselves used and to explore how writing could actually enhance their handling of difficult material. While apparently a rather loose learning structure, what became obvious to me was how much of the situation I was maneuvering to sustain them at the task and to help them talk about what' they were finding out both about content and about their writing and reading strategies. I was helped to see how I was constantly evaluating what they were doing and saying, how I was sustaining their engagement in the activity by asking a focusing question, making a procedural suggestion, or offering a bit of background information to help them out.

Responding to something a teacher wrote in a journal let me clarify further what I think sustaining engagement entails. Adrice commented on the difficulty she was having trying to be an interpretive teacher. She wrote that she was never sure about how much direction to offer. In my reply I commented:

What I'm seeing more clearly in my own teaching is that I give a lot of direction, I take responsibility for setting things in motion, for doing enough preparation so that the jumpoff invitation will catch as many students as possible. I monitor their reactions, try to follow what's going on so I can help them over hurdles, work to keep them interested, involved, and in touch with their own investigations, and attempt to bring closure by helping them reflect on what they've been finding out, both about content and the tactics they used.

I assume considerable responsibility for initiating experiences and provide a great deal of direction during class. However, the "control" I exert is procedural. I rarely talk about content myself, although I build in loads of opportunities for the teachers to read and discuss material on a range of issues. They become familiar with what major researchers in the field have to say and have considered how these ideas might be implemented in the classroom. I don't tell them what to know or believe; that part of the enterprise is their responsibility.

I try, with everything I do, to leave students enough room to make sense for themselves; yet at the same time, nudge them toward a collaborative interpretation. I don't refrain from "telling" when I'm asked a direct question, or when I think I have something to contribute to a discussion. I also share my musings about class happenings so the teachers can reflect on how I'm teaching them and how they might take on a similar role themselves. As I wrote in one journal:

Even though I play a prominent role in what's going' on, I would argue that we have an interpretive," "transactional" context going because I'm not expecting you to come up with my meaning—I'm pushing you to sort out your own. I admit I'm attempting to structure the experience so that you may come to value the things I value—the point is, however, I can't ensure you'll end up knowing or believing what I know or believe; that's impossible.

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