Teacher value in student-driven learning environments

11/15/2012  |  CODY WHITE
classroom management

Imagine for a moment the kinds of things that make not just for an effective classroom experience, but one that is rich and rewarding for both students and instructor. Included on your list might be things such as captivating content delivery, students taking responsibility for their own learning, time for individual attention, and a sense that you have imparted not just knowledge but enthusiasm and curiosity as well.

It is easy to see how those first two wants are satisfied by 21st century classroom setups that de-emphasize the traditional “sage on the stage” approach in favor of arrangements where learners pursue content individually at technology-infused modular learning stations (usually multimedia computer stations). But what about the need to provide individual attention and the kind of intangible aspects that require human interaction? What, for that matter, about the experience of the teacher who wants to feel like more than just a process manager?

A setup like this is truly a Rorschach test. Scanning across a classroom or learning lab where students sit separately or in small groups, plugged into computers or working on hands-on projects without continual teacher oversight, onlookers are likely to have very different reactions. Some see this as the ultimate environment for the development of individual student potential. For these proponents, the great promise is in the ability of the setup to cater to individual learning styles, to allow learners to move at their own pace, and to permit students greater control over the curriculum they choose to experience. For skeptical traditionalists, however, this sight represents a move toward mechanization and the death of essentially humanistic elements in education.

Where lies the truth? Do student-led schemes and a heavy reliance on technology for information delivery shut out the personal touch that impassioned teachers crave to provide? The truth is that it can but that it doesn’t have to. In fact, now that these sorts of setups have existed long enough for patterns to emerge and for obscuring rhetoric to have died down, it is possible to see that such arrangements can actually amplify those very human, intrinsic components that make the educational process meaningful for both educators and learners.

Proactive vs. Inactive

Teacher Nikki Nalley has come to a few conclusions after three years facilitating her lab at Pike Central Middle School in Petersburg, Indiana.

Nalley’s lab is just the kind described earlier: a Modules lab from Pitsco Education. Her students work in pairs, rotating periodically through computer stations. At any given moment, students are learning about numerous disparate topics via separate multimedia presentations. The titles she has purchased lean heavily on hands-on projects, so students are often up getting supplies or discussing with their partner how to accomplish some goal. Nalley uses classroom management software to manage student rotations, monitor student performance and track equipment and consumables.

“Teachers have to be proactive in this type of class,” she states. “I am not afraid of being replaced or becoming obsolete in a classroom like this.”

Part of being proactive, she explains, is learning the material. Some teachers assume that because they are not delivering the initial content, they don’t need to know it. This is a misconception.

“After you get to know the material, it is easy to interact with the students because you can predict what questions they will have (and not want to ask me about) or what concepts will be harder for them to understand. When you get that kind of understanding of your curriculum then I think it is easier to interact with the students and help them learn and make connections,” says Nalley.

“Sure I could sit behind my desk and just let the students find their way through everything on their own, never interacting with them,” says Nalley. “ I have had some subs who have done it this way. Of course, in a situation like that, then the teacher wouldn’t be needed. However, I feel my role is to be active — if my students are up moving around getting supplies or discussing issues with their partners, then I need to be a part of that as much as possible.”

The descriptor “hands on” is often used in conjunction with curricula. But that term could also refer to the one ingredient that truly makes the difference between a lackluster lab and a brilliant one — an active, engaged teacher. Any learning system is a tool, not an end unto itself. That is true whether the system is purchased from a curriculum company or devised by a teacher for their own classroom. Like other good tools, they serve to amplify the work of the users that wield them — which means that what you get out of them is a product of what you put into them.

Teachable Moments

Considering the account given by teacher Antonio Bernabe of his experience facilitating his very similar lab in Miller Intermediate School in Pasadena, Texas, it is reasonable to actually expect increased opportunities for meaningful student-teacher interactions in a student-directed learning lab. Because he doesn’t have to spend time every class period lecturing, more time is available for students who need additional help.

“It’s our opportunity to afford students real depth in learning,” he says. “...We get to really know our kids because we find more ‘teachable moments’ with them.”

This is accomplished when the multimedia and technology resources of the lab are considered as a leg up on learning rather than a final destination. According to Bernabe, if you have a teacher in place who is familiar with the content the students are working through, you have an expert who can elaborate on the details that curriculum doesn’t cover.

“In my Chemical Math Module, students are expected to define, or explain, the law of conservation of mass. Most of my students can define it — verbatim. However, it isn’t until I explain that they can take a sledgehammer and shatter their desk into a million pieces and find that the combined mass of those particles will still be equal to the mass of the desk in its initial form that they truly understand the law,” he explains.

This underscores one of the most freeing aspects of the student-directed approach. Individual attention for students is no longer something that is squeezed in when there is time. It is the true focus of the teacher’s day.

Nalley wholeheartedly agrees.

“In my lab, there are so many opportunities to interact with the students and to take advantage of teachable moments. On most days, I feel that there is not enough of me to go around and help everyone as much as I would like.”

Partners in Education

A student-directed modular lab has its perils, of course, as both teachers are ready to admit. Bernabe says he has known of labs that failed because their teachers took a passive approach, leaving the students to find their way through the material on their own and failing to foster the human element that can make the process work. The truth is, no technology can replace what human interaction between a learner and a teacher brings. No educational technology worth its salt would even try.

This is not only because a computer-user interface can never realize the kind of individually tailored feedback found in face-to-face interactions, but also because the relationships that students and human teachers share — animated by expectations, feelings of admiration, needs for respect, approval and disappointment — are powerful motivators for students. And let’s face it. The desire many teachers feel to know they have personally imparted knowledge and wisdom to the young people they get to know in their classes is great motivation for them as well.

What a thoughtfully designed student-led environment can do is complement those strengths. In this way, teacher and environment become partners. As with any partnership, it is important that the partners get to know one another so that they can coordinate their efforts in accord with one another’s strengths and weaknesses. For a teacher in this setup, getting to know your partner means mastering the content that the students will be learning, becoming familiar with all software and equipment the students will use, and becoming acquainted with any activities the students will do.

Most teachers don’t come to their line of work seeking fame and fortune. Tangible success, too, can often be hard to come by. Test scores aside, when a student walks out of your classroom at year’s end, you might never know for sure the positive ways you have affected his or her life.

These truths underscore the importance of the intrinsic rewards of teaching, things like making connections with students and finding ways to bridge your world and theirs. Add to those the pride in knowing you are playing an indispensable role. Teachers who take an active role in a well-planned student-driven lab surrender none of these rewards in their pursuit to make a positive, personal impact on their students.

Cody White is a longtime writer for Pitsco Education. Currently he is writing and editing SySTEM Alert!, a publication aimed at middlelevel students featuring news and information on STEM topics.
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