Tip #301: Lifelong Learning: Snuffed Out by Incompetence

This week’s Tip looks at what happens when a poor rural school has difficulty finding competent teachers. Individuals who are subject matter experts but lack teaching skills create a recipe for disaster in the classroom. The high school honors Chemistry teacher in this example clearly knows her subject matter. She simply does not know how to teach.

A Subject Savvy Teacher With No Teaching Skills

Does the teacher know how to write an effective lesson plan? No

A review of Ms. V’s lesson plan indicated that she wrote the lesson primarily from the standpoint of what the teacher would do. The lesson for Senior Honors Chemistry was exactly the same as the lesson for all of the other chemistry classes that Ms. V taught.

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

Ms. V had a lesson about matter and change, but was unable to execute it. The auditor observed the entire lesson, in which Ms. V did all of the work for the students and answered all but three obvious questions easily answered by reference to a wall chart.

There were two questions on the screen as the students entered the room: “Why do alpha particles have 2+ charges?” and “Why do gamma rays do not have mass or charge?”

She gave them time to answer the questions, with very few students focused on the assignment. She proceeded to tell them the answers to both questions, even though she said, “We have covered this before.” Ms. V then told them to finish their papers (which they could do by writing down what she had just told them!) Clearly, they understood that they would not be held accountable for learning this information because she would tell them the answers. Ms. V moved around the room checking their answers.

She then showed an 8- minute video covering the discovery of radioactivity. However, she gave the students no directions regarding what to listen for or to note down during the video. Ms. V also did little with the information in the video once it was completed. She only asked: “Who discovered radioactivity?” and answered the question herself!

Ms. V proceeded to lecture on how elements transform themselves. The three questions she asked of the students were easily answered by their reference to the Atomic Elements chart posted on the wall. She instructed the students to “Listen. Later you can write down.”

The key focus of her lecture related to how an atom becomes part of another element.

At no time did she give the students guided/monitored practice or independent practice. The level of learning was so low that it was absolutely inappropriate for a seniors honors class. No appreciable learning occurred during this entire lesson.

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

Ms. V had no control over the class and the students treated her with disrespect, disregarding anything she said. Since she did not expect them to know or do much of anything, they fulfilled her expectations.

The students were entirely in control of the classroom. A few minutes after the students came into the room, one student complained that she couldn’t see the screen with the two questions and needed Ms. V to turn off the lights. The class remained in the dark for the next ten minutes!!!

When Ms. V spoke, almost no one listened. During the video (while the classroom remained in the dark), few students watched the video while most of the students talked or worked on other things.

A few students paid attention to her lecture sufficiently to be able to answer the simple questions she asked. At the end of the class, a few students listened, a few took notes, and some students actually slept when Ms. V told them what would be covered in the next class.

Ms. V had no classroom management skills. She avoided any confrontation with the students about their behavior, never redirecting or refocusing their attention or reminding them of acceptable behavior in the classroom. She never actively engaged the students in the lesson, made it relevant or interesting to them, or recognized that some students do not learn aurally through lecture. This environment guaranteed that no learning would occur.

Specific Recommendations

Content Recommendations:

1. Create a lesson plan that achieves a level of learning appropriate for a senior honors class.

2. Focus all content on the main objective. In this case, the video about the discovery of radioactivity had no bearing on the objective, which was to explain how an atom becomes part of another element.

3. If a video is used, make sure it is age appropriate. This specific video was very elementary in concept and delivery.

4. Provide three different examples to model the process.

Student Activity Recommendations:

1. Hold the students accountable for answering the questions and doing their work. Do not spoon-feed them the answers.

2. If a video is used, give the students an assignment. For example, ask them to listen for certain key points or answer specific questions. Then make sure the students report out their observations or findings.

3. Give the students a worksheet on which to practice what they are learning.

4. Have the students come up to the board to work out the problem and explain their process.

5. Use learning activities that check for student comprehension, rather than constant lecture that only achieves knowledge.

6. Once it is clear that the concepts are understood, then have the students work independently on several examples on their worksheets.

7. Check individual student’s worksheets to ensure that they are working on the problems and understand how to do them.

8. Use a variety of learning activities to meet the needs of different learning styles.

Learning Facilitation Recommendations:

1. Teach and adhere to signals to modify behavior.
2. Create and adhere to rules of engagement.
3. Stop the lesson and constructively address behavioral issues where necessary.
4. Ensure that all students are quiet and paying attention during the lesson.
5. Separate students who goad each other into disruptive behavior.

Ms. V should seriously consider whether she wants to continue teaching at this school at this level. It does not appear to be a good fit at all. Consider the detrimental impact her incompetence is having on the students’ potential interest in lifelong learning.

Next week, we will conclude our discussion of the positive and negative impact that elementary and high school teachers can have on lifelong learning.

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