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Be Better: Change Is Good

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I’ve been working on an interesting consulting project for the IB, and part of that work has been taking a look at different instructional strategies.

Those of us who teach high school and college can easily fall into the trap of using the same instructional strategy over and over again. When I was a student, the most common approach I saw from teachers was lecture, or what I called “Death by Lecture.” Today I think we’d have a new winner: “Death by PowerPoint.” Lecture and PowerPoint may have their place, but all too often teachers use them as the backbone of their instruction. It begs the question: why come to school at all? Couldn’t the teacher just email the students the lecture notes or the PowerPoint and call it a day?

But those of us who fancy ourselves creative and innovative, using methods like Socratic seminar, lit circles, or case studies, to enhance learning shouldn’t be so quick to pat ourselves on the back. And even at middle and elementary levels, we can have our crutch approaches. I’ll be the first to admit that I abhor lecture and tend to shy away from it as a teacher. I feel false and incongruous — a square peg in a round hole — when I lecture to my students. I’m at ease and confident when I’m directing SPIDER Web Discussions, one-on-one assessment and feedback, and think-pair-share work, but I really eschew lecture (and I don’t think I’ve ever give more than two PowerPoint presentations to students in my whole life!) because it puts me far outside my comfort zone.

Bad teacher. Haven’t I learned that being outside my comfort zone is often where the best learning gets done, both the students’ and mine? Apparently, no. So I’ll keep trying. Recently, a colleague expressed surprise and a little alarm that I use SPIDER Web Discussion so often, but I brushed it off as just one person’s reaction. But I had to stop and pay more attention when a couple students gave me some anonymous feedback via my Survey Monkey surveys, saying that they would like more direct instruction or lecture from time to time. They were spinning their wheels without my specific, structured lead. So I had to buck up and give it a go. And the interesting thing was, as I delivered my lecture on Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself,” that I remembered how fun it was. I actually enjoyed the few lectures I gave on a series of challenging poems that the students struggled with on their own. And I believe they really benefited from it, too, able to see through the poem once I had opened the door to its nuances. Too much of anything is never a good thing, and I realized that I had been leaning too heavily on a few tried and true pedagogical approaches, writing off others as useless when, in fact, they weren’t.

So here’s a way to be better this month as another school year comes to a close: mix it up. If you always do lecture, try a few debates and a SPDIER Web Discussion. If you always favor large-group discussions, cluster the students and ask them to work in pairs or teams. If you fear you might be a Death by PowerPoint teacher, flip the roles — give students the PowerPoint notes and then ask them to make the quiz/test for that unit and to try to stump you and your colleagues when you take it.

Here is a nice comprehensive list of instructional strategies I came across in my research this week — print it out and keep it nearby as you finish classes this year and start your planning for next year over the summer. Choose a few that are new to you or even a bit scary and commit to trying them. Change is good — for the students and the teachers.

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