Tip #296: Lifelong Learning: Encouraged or Discouraged in School

My audit observations of two different third grade classes in the same elementary school exemplify the opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of teaching practices. At one end is a long-term teacher who simply does not care if the students in her class succeed. At the other end is a brand new teacher who does everything in her power to ensure that her students succeed.

Uncaring Long-Term Teacher

1. Does the teacher know how to write an effective lesson plan? Yes

A review of Ms. F’s lesson plan indicated that she knew how to write an excellent lesson. Unfortunately, she did not execute the lesson in a manner that resulted in any real learning.

2. Does the lesson result in specific, observable and measurable learning? No

Ms. F taught a lesson on story problems. Earlier in the lesson, Ms. F had apparently written clue words on the board that would help the students identify whether to add or subtract to solve the story problems. For some reason, she had chosen to erase this prompt.

As a result, once the students tried to read the story problems and determine the key words that would indicate whether addition or subtraction would be appropriate, they were unsuccessful. Ms. F moved from one student to another, saying essentially the same things to each student. At no time did she stop, recognize the necessity to reteach the lesson, and fulfill that need.

Since the class assignment included problems #1-4, it was obvious that Ms. F had not modeled any examples. Although she may have told the students what clue words or phrases to look for, she must not have actually worked with a complete story problem. It was obvious that the students did not know what to do or how to do it.

It then became apparent that a number of the students had difficulty simply reading the story problem. At least two of the students completely misunderstood what was expected of them and wrote out the entire story problem instead. Most, if not all, of the students did not know how to accomplish the assignment.

Although Ms. F made a number of references for the students to “remember our clue words,” it did not occur to her to write them again on the board to help the students.

When Ms. F attempted to debrief problems #1 and #2 of the class assignment, few if any of the students were able to give the correct answer to either problem. However, Ms. F never identified or addressed what might have confused all of the other students.

None of the students had the correct answer to problem #3, which was not surprising since this problem apparently had none of the clue words the students were supposed to find and use. None of the students had the correct answer to problem #4, either, so Ms. F did the problem for them and had the students write down the answers. She then collected their papers and assigned problems #5-#8 as homework. The students did not have the list of clue words. They did not have the class work that might serve as an example. They were totally unprepared to do the homework assignment, because they had been unable to do the class assignment.

When Ms. F asked if there were any questions concerning today’s lesson, one student said, “Yes.” However, Ms. F did not look to see if any student was confused and never responded to the student who spoke up. She closed the lesson by asking the students to summarize what they had done in class. It came as no surprise to the auditor when the students were unable to do that.

The students did not learn how to read and interpret story problems. Ms. F removed the useful prompts to cue the students as to whether or not the problem required addition or subtraction. She gave them homework that she knew they could not perform. She set the students up for complete failure.

During the feedback session, Ms. F freely admitted that she did not expect that the students would be able to read or do the problems, but hoped that there would be someone at home who could help them! In response to the auditor’s assessment that she had set them up to fail, she responded that she was where she was supposed to be in the syllabus. When the auditor mentioned the students’ inability to read at a third grade level, Ms. F retorted that it was not her responsibility, nor did she have the time, to teach them how to read.

The students did not have the necessary skills to learn the lesson. Ms. F knew this but made no adjustments to the lesson. She only cared about following the syllabus, not helping students learn.

3. Does the teacher create and maintain an effective learning environment? No

The learning environment was very stilted and unsupportive. Ms. F seemed primarily concerned with keeping order and discipline rather than ensuring that any learning takes place. She showed no warmth toward the students. She frowned during the entire lesson and spoke abruptly and sharply to the students if they didn’t do what she expected. At least twice she barked, “Get busy!” She threatened to put the names of two boys on the board (for future punishment) if they did not throw away their gum. The names of half of the class were already on the board!

Ms. F was perfectly willing to set the students up to fail and had absolutely no qualms about this. She does not belong in the classroom.

Excellent New Teacher

1. Does the teacher know how to write an effective lesson plan? Yes

A review of Ms. K’s lesson plan indicated that she knew how to write an excellent lesson.

2. Does the lesson result in specific, observable and measurable learning? Yes

Ms. K is a very talented teacher. She made every aspect of the lessons relevant and interesting, drawing answers from the very eager group. She helped the students define every key term and concept, providing one example and drawing two more from the students. She wrote their answers on the board, and in order to model the meaning of the word “imitate,” acted out (with great humor, fondness and animation) student behaviors. When a student had the wrong answer for what a tradition was, she coached him to discover the correct answer. At the close of the lesson, she checked for their comprehension of the definitions of each new word. She continually related what they were currently learning and doing to previous learning.

3. Does the teacher create and maintain an effective learning environment? Yes

Ms. K had every student actively engaged in the lesson. She used a very light but firm touch when it came to handling over exuberant students. She redirected their attention with simple countdowns and calm statements: “Still my turn, excuse me,” or “Put that away. It’s a very good drawing, but put it away. It’s time to read.” During the discussion to define “honor” as a way to show respect, she asked “Do you respect me?” and discussed their answers. Later, in response to a student, she said: “If you’re going to ask me that during the lesson, you’re not showing respect.” During transitions, the students worked quietly.

Ms. K also had the room set up so that she could walk entirely around the student desks. She changed where she stood to create novelty and interest.

Since many of the students cannot read at a third grade level, Ms. K has incorporated phonics to improve their reading skills.

Ms. K is clearly committed to the success of her students.

Two Different Ends of the Spectrum

It is easy to tell which students are likely to value lifelong learning and which students are likely to associate learning with failure and humiliation. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated event. It is happening in schools across the country. Please understand that this is not intended as a denunciation of seasoned teachers. There are many excellent teachers out there. This is also not intended as a commendation for all new teachers. Some are excellent, some are working hard at getting better, and some do not know how to effectively manage a classroom.

It is the teachers who do not care about the students who most concern me. I am also concerned about the seasoned teachers who have given up.

Next week’s Tip will look at an example of a long term high school teacher who has completely given up, so that no learning takes place.

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