Sunday, March 16, 2014

Teaching or Learning, What’s Your Focus?

Teaching or Learning, What’s Your Focus?
As an educator, do you focus on teaching since you’re a teacher or do you focus on learning?  For me, I focus on learning which is student-centered verses teaching which is teacher-centered.  A focus on teaching is focused on the teacher, what the teacher is doing, the teacher as the center of attention, and the teacher as the gatekeeper of information.  Students often develop an attitude in a teacher-focused classroom that the teacher needs to teach me; in a student-centered classroom students become empowered and take more ownership over their learning.
So what does a focus on learning look like?
A focus on learning considers the students: what the students are doing, if they are learning, and what can you as a teacher can do differently to help them learn better or more effectively.   A classroom focused on student learning employs active learning strategies like peer instruction, mastery learning, project-based learning, and inquiry-based learning.  The teacher is there to assist students in learning and is often working one-on-one with students or in small groups.  The teacher does not care if the students learn from him/her but only that they are learning.  This means students could be getting help from another teacher, peers, watching videos on the material that are not made by their teacher, reading a textbook, researching material online or learning via something online.  Who or what the students are learning the material from is irrelevant as long as they are learning.  However, if a student is not learning for whatever reason, the teacher is then very concerned and looks for ways to help learning get going again.
A teacher that is focused on student learning is always looking for way to improve student learning.  I have four main ways that I use to try to improve my student learning.  The first and primary way I do this is by surveying and listening to my students.  Sometimes I survey my students anonymously using a Google Form survey; while other times I dialogue with my students face to face towards the middle and the end of course.  Students often have good ideas on how to improve our courses and learning.   When you take their input and implement their ideas, it really makes them fell valued and respected.  When students feel valued and respected, they tend to value your class more and put more effort into the class and more learning will occur.  Plus, their ideas that you implement for improving the class tend to improve the learning.  So this is a win-win situation.  Here is a quote from one of my students, “I so appreciate how helpful and responsive you are to our ideas, concerns, and needs. It makes this difficult course less stressful and the ability to learn the material easier. Thank you for the extra effort you put in for your students. It truly makes a difference!”
A second way that I try to improve learning in my classes is by attending various conferences.  For me being a math teacher, I find our state mathematics conference very valuable.  Sometimes I learn things at various sessions that I can implement.  There have been several times that I show up to a room early to get a good seat from the session that I am interested in but the prior session is just finishing.  I sit down, and even though I was not initially interested in the session that is just finishing up, I pick up a great idea.  That happened twelve years ago when I picked up the idea of guided notes (a basic outline of all the vocabulary and all the math problems so that students can focus on the math rather than trying to copy everything down) that I then ended up implementing my classes and my whole department ended up implementing.  Many times when I am at a conference I learn things that can improve my students’ learning, not from the various sessions but by networking and one-on-one conversations with different teachers I meet.  A second conference that I have found to be very beneficial to improving my student learning is FlipCon’s annual conference on flipped learning.
A third way is to listen, observe, and learn from my amazing department characters.  See “Amazing Departmentblog from February 10, 2014, for the entire story.  By working and sharing with your colleagues, good ideas become great and a culture of student-centered learning can be built.
My fourth and final way to improve my effectiveness as a teacher is social media (reading various blogs and following key educational leaders on Twitter like Jon Bergmann and Eric Mazur).  Again, the idea of sharing and learning is the key; as teachers we must be willing to take risks and learn ourselves if we ask our students to do so every day.
What lead me to focus on learning?
My former superintendent of twelve years, Dr. Wendy Shannon, brought the idea of continuous improvement to our schools.  I have taken this continuous improvement approach to trying to improve my effectiveness as a teacher.  Dr. Shannon also had a strong focus on student learning with our school’s vision under her being “Maximizing Learning Opportunities for All” from which I adopted the personal vision of “Maximizing Learning for All.”  I want to help all students learn and do whatever I can to get learning to occur.  Sometimes this is just providing an opportunity to learn and letting students choose that opportunity.  When students are not choosing opportunities to learning, I work to give then some choices.  Choices always have consequences, positive or negative, and students often make choices with the positive consequences which still empowers them because it is a choice they are making.

Additionally, see the immediate and long-term benefits over the last few years has encouraged and motivated me to keep working to provide the best learning opportunities I can; because I embrace continuous improvement, there is always something more to be tried to be just a little be better.

What are the results of focusing on learning?
Students are actively involved in the learning process.  Students are often less stressed.  Students typically learn the material better and take much more ownership of their learning.  Students appreciate being treated as a valuable person rather than just a body in a desk for a certain class period.   When students see the teacher working hard at improving the learning, they are often more willing to put in equal effort in learning the material themselves.  It shows the teacher cares enough to also be working which motivates the students to work.
I view the purpose of education to help students learning material rather than merely to teach any particular lesson.  So rather focusing on teaching (I could give that “great” lecture or lesson to an empty room but that would be meaningless), I focus on students’ learning and improving student learning.  If you focus on student learning, your students will appreciate and learn more, plus your person satisfaction with your job will increase.  A teacher's focus should be on learning (student-centered) rather than on teaching (teacher-centered).  Because our students’ futures are so unknown, we must prepare them to be self-motivated and self-reliant; we must prepare them to be active and dynamic learners, not just passive consumers.  Their futures depend on it.