Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Road to Damascus--or simple exhaustion?

Sometimes I wonder whether student-centered learning is driven not just by Progressive ideology and Constructivist learning theory, but also by plain old expedience.

I wonder this, in particular, on Thursday afternoons when I find myself standing at a whiteboard in front of a group of restless 11-year-olds. The program is an afterschool enrichment/remediation program for disadvantaged elementary school children, and this year I’m teaching them the fundamentals of sentences and paragraphs.

The kids are understandably restless: they’ve already been at school for 6 ½ hours, they’ve had hardly any recess, and they’re hungry for the warm meal that awaits at the end of the program. And so, while there are plenty among them who are eager to please and learn, they are constantly distracted, constantly asking to go to the bathroom, constantly wondering how soon dinner will start, constantly squabbling with one another, and constantly getting out (or falling out) of their small plastic seats and wandering around the room.

And so, as my voice gives out and my energy drains and as my ability to keep the kids focused on my questions diminishes, I think to myself, wouldn’t it be less exhausting if I stopped being the Sage on the Stage and instead become the Guide on the Side?

And then I wonder: how many teachers choose guidance over stagecraft not because of Progressive ideology and Constructivist learning theory, but simply because it’s so much less exhausting?

Unfortunately, what reduces teachers’ exertion also reduces students’ learning. Nor is it just that Sage on the Stage instruction is quite often the most efficient way to teach and to learn. In the long term, the less practice students have attending to Sages on Stages, the worse they will be at it later. Attention is a muscle that atrophies if unused; classroom cultures develop and solidify over time. Each year that a teacher opts out of exerting the energy needed to hold students’ attention for major chunks of class time, whoever teaches these students the next year will find this even harder. And so each succeeding teacher will be even more tempted to step down and take a breather, um, I mean, experience that much-lauded conversion from Sage to Guide.

And their students, along with much of the edworld, will be none the sager.


Anonymous said...

The cynic in me thinks you have stumbled upon something. It is definitely easier to be lazy being the guide on the side, isn't it?

Auntie Ann said...

I think poster-style assignments are assigned instead of essay-style ones for much the same reason. It's much easier to grade 20 posters than it is to grade 20 pages of bad handwriting, bad grammar, bad spelling, and weak content.

lgm said...

>>Unfortunately, what reduces teachers’ exertion also reduces students’ learning.

That is only true for the teacher that is teaching in the students' zpd. All else is a waste of time.
Classic sol'n is for kid to read his book in his lap, or the parts of the textbook that the class will never get to, while teacher is exerting himself reviewing for others.

Katharine Beals said...

Great point about poster assignments, Auntie Ann!

lgm, it strikes me that the classic solution is harder and harder these days because kids sit in pods facing different directions and teachers tend to wander among those pods making sure that kids are interacting with one another.

lgm said...

Yes, if the child is a '3' or a '4' there isn't much for him to learn academically. All the effort goes into bringing '1' and '2' students up to '3', and that includes a lot of time spent on peer tutoring, which helps the children who are giving instruction develop their social skills if they get enough feedback. Personally my child found it difficult, as the impaired language skills of neglected children make it hard to communicate with them.