The Teacher Breakthrough


(The internet here keeps going back and forth between working and not working which is really driving me crazy, because all I need it for is blogging and the occasional research moment. Since it wasn’t working last night I wrote this post in my notes, so imagine that when I say “today” it is really yesterday.)

I did more reading today and I’m really enjoying The Falconer by Grant Lichtman. Today I read Step 0: Preparation. One particular part that interested me was what I believe was a personal experience of Mr. Lichtman himself from his teaching days in the Philippines. He talks about a college freshman earth science class where the students took studious notes, but they could have cared less about the actual information.

Heads down, their pencils would record, verbatim, any word that Mr. Lichtman said. No questions would be asked because no one cared to learn any more than what was going to be on the next quiz or test.

It was quite sad frankly. What is the point of teaching to students that don’t want to learn? They could just as easily be listening to a video and then taking a quiz if they aren’t going to ask any questions. You can memorize information that you don’t really want to know relatively easily, but it’s really hard to learn when you don’t want to.

Then there comes that great moment when a teacher decides for themselves, “What’s the point of teaching these students information they don’t want to know? I’m going to change that.” There has only been a handful of teachers that I have personally seen have this moment, but the ones that truly commit to trying to do something about it have been the greatest teachers I’ve ever had.

And let me clarify, there is a difference between acknowledging that you want students to care versus actually deciding that you are going to help them care. It’s the verb that really makes the difference. Lots of teachers can and do see the problem, but it takes a lot of courage to do something about it because that means going against everything they were ever taught at school. It means going against the status quo and hacking school.

When Mr. Lichtman had this moment, he told the students that they were no longer going to have class with textbooks, notes, and quizzes. Instead, he asked each of the students to write down and bring in one question that they were genuinely interested in knowing the answer to, and that would be what they spend the rest of the year discovering.

Hacking school scares a lot of students, and teachers too. Any time you venture into the unknown it is bound to be scary, but once you get passed the initial fear, there lies a beautiful, magical kingdom of possibilities.

I have finally reached the conclusion thought that not everyone is going to be okay with excepting this until they have experienced it for themselves. I know many people that simply don’t want a change in schooling, or they think a change is needed, but also think that we aren’t going about it correctly and yet don’t offer suggestions. I don’t understand this, but I don’t think my words can do anything but harm a tender situation, and they need to form conclusions on their own, so the best I can do is provide experiences and tools.

The students in Mr. Lichtman’s class do as they were told and bring in questions. Mr. Lichtman sorts through the questions and they just start discussing about everything from weather to dinosaurs. And the best part is that students start asking questions!!!! They want to know more!!!!! I would think that classifies as a successful teaching job; when the students want to know more.

Mr. Lichtman spends a particular amount of time focusing on one question: “Is gravity a concept or a principle?” My friend Kat had been reading this book before me, and during exam week she asked the entire ID cohort this exact question. I responded to the question because it intrigued me.

 First I wanted to clarify what we were using as our definitions of “concept” and “principle”. As Mr. Lichtman later discusses in this same chapter, “Despite our best wishes, we are not all on the same page” (34). Therefore, we can not all have this unspoken, assumed framework of communication that is often developed between close friends.

To make sure that everyone was using the same model for this discussion (all of which happened through google hangouts), we agreed that a concept is more of, “we think this exists, but we are not entirely certain,” and a principle is more of, “we are 100% sure this exists, no exceptions, we have tested every theory, you can’t prove us wrong”. While very basic definitions, these were needed to make sure that everyone was on common grounds rather than simply assuming everyone agreed on these definitions.

Once the definitions were set, I proceeded to respond to the question:

Well seeing as gravity is a force, I don’t see how it could really be a principle when you think about it. I mean how can we prove that an invisible phenomenon is actively present? To me it just doesn’t seem possible; therefore, if we do have it considered as a “principle” I would love to know why. 

It wasn’t until today that I finally understood that Kat’s inspiration for this question had come directly from The Falconer. And now I must wait until she returns from Europe to discuss it further with her. At the time I hadn’t done any real research further into what gravity is, but after today, I wanted to know more. (Then my WIFI had to go and stop working again…)

I must say that not writing his personal answer to the question was brilliant writing on Mr. Lichtman’s part, but it is also driving me a little crazy to not know how that class discussion went.

What I do know is that the student who asked the question got an A in the class that day and was told that he didn’t have to take any exams or do anything else to keep that A. He got the A because it was “a marvelous, thoughtful question” (23).

 For the rest of the year, everyone’s questions got better and better. In the end they had covered most of the major points in the original syllabus, and they covered a lot more information too. No one knows exactly what order they covered material in, but that doesn’t really matter because the students were engaged, active learners.

There’s lots to learn about the world and teachers can teach all of it, but if students don’t want to learn it, then what’s the point? Mr. Lichtman took a risk by letting the students create the questions which would dictate the class, but from what I have read, it payed off.

What bothers me is that I don’t think this would have been possible if it wasn’t in college. What if this was tried by a high school teacher? A middle school teacher? An elementary school teacher? I think the affect on the class would be just the same, students would be engaged in what they were learning, but I don’t know if schools and even parents would allow for a teacher to take such a big risk.

I wish I could take a class like this. Furthermore, I wish that a class like this wouldn’t have to be interrupted by my “core classes”. I wish, and I wonder what life would be like if my typical day consisted of this type of question class, ID, band, drama, and acro or soccer practice.

(I’m sure Mr. Adams and Ms. Cureton are reading this and thinking, “Why can’t ID consist of “questions class, band, drama, acro, and soccer?” But I think they are different. These other activities are more of the discovery moments, but I see ID as more of an application time where you work as a team to use this knowledge from other places to then solve problems. Yes these two terms would over cross, but I could embellish on this more if anyone really wants me to later.)

Hacking school is no easy task, and I think the hardest part is on teachers. If teachers aren’t committed to wanting a change, how can anything be expected of students? You can’t force students to care about information, but you can help them discover what they do care about so that you leave them wanting to learn more for themselves.


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