Quality over quantity

When I first started teaching at college, students were overloaded with lecture notes and handouts. The contents for a semester-long course took the space of the whole D-ring file, which is at least five inches thick. Students had to submit at least eight reading reports, along with fulfilling other short and long-term projects, daily quizzes, unit tests, mid-semester and final examinations. Looking back, I wonder how students endured such a hardship. I am pretty sure that they perceived me as an insensitive professor whose goal was to show off his knowledge. How much of what I taught made sense remains a mystery.

How much is enough?

Completing a textbook that contains hundreds of concepts, some entirely new and some re-visited for the second or third time within a specified time frame is a challenging task. Teachers, in their attempts to complete syllabus rush through the standards-based contents touching only the surface, and sometimes not even that. Students, in their attempts to score well in tests memorize as much as possible to regurgitate when the time comes. To make things worse, textbooks come with additional resources, worksheets, and guide notes that supposedly enhance understanding of the subject. But when taken together, they eat up learners’ cognitive capacities.

Once I was approached by an English teacher who asked for assistance in teaching vocabulary to second language learners. When inquired how many new words she teaches her kids during a lesson, she gave a figure that shocked me. On average, she teaches twenty to thirty new words per lesson. She tells and students follow, memorize, and reproduce by applying these new words in sentences.

This English teacher didn’t just steal kids of their learning opportunities but also encountered a lot of classroom management related difficulties. Practically speaking vocabulary isn’t something teachers need to teach in isolation to other subjects or life experiences. Secondly, vocabulary can be learned effectively only when new words are perceived as useful and actually applied in the right context.

Before parting ways, I recommended that the teacher teaches only two or three new words per lesson. I also encouraged her to do a variety of things to learn the few new words – act them out, write and sing a song out of them, draw pictures to represent them, connect them to students’ native tongue and allow them to express the same, etc.

Just-in-case learning

There is a reason why the traditional school system advocated quantity over quality. In the factory model of schooling, people were given as much knowledge as possible so that when a need arises they would qualify with entry-level education to undertake a particular job. As long as one had the pre-requisites necessary for a job, he or she was okay. Curriculum developers arbitrarily decided upon which subjects and corresponding contents were important. The decision was almost solely based on the job market and what was needed in industries.

This system required that children learned everything so that by the time they go to college or university, they could specialize in one or two subjects. Even at tertiary level students are required to learn everything just-in-case some of the things learned could be used at work. The greatest weakness of the just-in-case learning approach is its detachment from practice. People learn theory so that they could apply it when needed. Individuals never knew for sure if they would ever apply a particular knowledge. In other words, they took chances – making education a socially acceptable gambling?

Just-in-time learning

On the contrary, new forms of schooling do not give importance to quantity. Rather, they focus on ensuring that whatever little is learned, it is learned well through qualitative extension and application of knowledge.

Since knowledge is freely available, easily accessed, and thoughtfully created and re-created, anyone and everyone can learn about something new provided that he or she has the right tools, which are not difficult to find or own. An individual who does not know anything or much about, let’s say “cloning” could do a full-fledged presentation on it if allowed time and appropriate information technological tools and facilities.

All of a sudden, teachers and students do not have to rely on curriculum developers to specify what knowledge is important to learn. They can collaboratively decide upon what contents could and should be learned together. They can also set their own pace for how much knowledge is to be absorbed and utilized. They can be selective of many teaching and learning variables that affect education significantly.

Children become inspired to learn when schools provide just-in-time learning experiences, where children learn only when they want to learn – a purposeful and meaningful learning indeed.

Quantity overloads, exhausts, and diffuses meaning in learning. Quality on the other hand relaxes, increases understanding, and innovates.

Cultivating an Environment of Trust and Respect

Teachers face many challenges in the classroom on a daily basis, from classroom management to lesson delivery and assessment. Getting students on the same page can be a difficult task indeed, but it is not an impossible one. Cultivating a positive learning environment of mutual respect and trust goes a long way toward getting desired results from your students.

Creating this environment in your classroom is not unattainable, but with all of the daily challenges teachers face, it sometimes becomes difficult to realize that making a few changes can make a world of difference for you and your students. Read on for a few tips on creating the ideal classroom environment for you and your students.

Common Courtesy

Whether you think this is important or not, keep in mind that many students’ parents haven’t devoted much time and effort to help their children develop habits of common courtesy. Saying “please” and “thank you” goes a long way when you want something done. If you are wrong, admit that you are wrong. this helps students to mirror your behavior. This is not to say that you should apologize unnecessarily, but students follow in their teacher’s lead and will be more open to share with you if you are more open with them.

Active Listening

When you ask students questions, listen to their answers. This applies to questions that have a right or wrong answer, as well as the deeper questions you may ask in a classroom discussion. Students are always dropping hints and clues about their lives that teachers often miss. If you want honest feedback about a lesson or classroom activities, ask for anonymous commentary. Naturally, there must be some rules to keep the comments short and relevant, but if you are getting a lot of the same types of comments, listen to what the students are saying and make changes where appropriate.

Open Door Policy

Let students know that you are there for them, both in class and outside of class time. This doesn’t mean that they are your “friends” per se, but allowing them to communicate with you when they feel most comfortable can be an amazing tool in getting more out of your students. If they know that you are there for them, they are more likely to do what you ask of them. Keep the lines of communication open (including email), and see how things change for the better.

Be Flexible

Don’t be a pushover, but be realistic. High school students especially have a very full day, followed by activities after school. Keep in mind that when in college students may have only half the class load that they do in high school. Maximize classroom time and keep homework to a minimum within reason. Don’t overload students if you want to see them succeed. Too much work can result in burnout and reluctance that can affect your entire class. When possible, be willing to work with students regarding homework and give time for projects that will give you higher quality work, rather than a large quantity of activities that simply keep students busy.

This post was contributed by Kelly Kilpatrick, who writes on the subject of How to become a teacher in Texas. She invites your feedback at kellykilpatrick24@gmail.com

Fixes that Last

Quick fixes have been a primary approach to problem-solving at schools. Quick fixes take care of an issue for a time, but after a while the same problem emerges, only to attack the system more fiercely. Quick fixes stem from individuals who are reactive. A reaction, as compared to a response, involves little reason and more emotion. Hence, teachers and school leaders who are driven by reactive behaviors toward problems face greater chances of destroying whatever working relationship there is among the individuals in the system. When reason is suspended and emotion reigns supreme, the outcome of decisions is invariably regrettable.

Nature of quick fixes

Quick fixes are symptomatic in nature. They operate by the medical model. When one gets sick, he goes to the doctor to be treated. In the hospital, the doctor asks the patient for felt symptoms. The doctor also checks if there are physical manifestation of the same. He then puts the symptoms together, decides on the ailment, and prescribes a cure. This is the same approach used by traditional psychology, a field called behaviorism. Under the influence of behaviorism, human behavior was viewed to be symptoms of internal conditions of mind.

Missing element

Have you wondered why doctors always tell you to re-visit them for a follow-up? Since they decide on the condition of your body based on the symptoms that you manifested, they can only establish the correctness of their intelligent guess about a particular diagnosis if the treatment prescribed worked. No one knows the actual cause and/or cure for any one medical condition, unless a more comprehensive test-diagnosis is conducted. In other words, treatment does not guarantee alleviation of an ailment. The root cause(s) of the problem go(es) unexplored; hence creative solutions are not tapped into as they should be.

Systems approach

Systems approach encourages individuals to respond (not react) to problems that arise at school. When one responds to a problem, he/she takes a few steps back, looks at the whole situation objectively, considers all the possible factors that may be responsible for the issue, prioritizes and selectively tackles interrelated issues to amend the situation. Responding to a problem requires a broad view of the various events, people, experiences, and operations in the school and putting them in the right contexts.

An example
Let’s say a child is found to be chronically skipping school. Once his case is identified and classified as problematic, the formal disciplinary process begins. The process requires that the child is held accountable for violating school regulations. The disciplinary committee of the school would eventually administer some sort of punishment to discourage the problem behavior. But does this solve the actual problem?

The opposite is true of the systems approach. The same child would be treated differently and the problem behavior becomes an opportunity for the school to explore and identify ways to help the child become a better person. This is possible because the individuals handling the case do not prematurely jump into fixing the problem. Rather, they are genuinely interested in understanding the child and altering his experiences in a positive way.

Systems approach in action

1. First and foremost, ask the following questions: “What are some of the factors that may be responsible for a particular behavioral pattern in a child? What is the actual cause of the problem? who, why, when, how, etc.”

2. Exhaust all possible answers to these questions by including as many individuals as possible (collaboration) – people who identify with and understand the nature of the problem and who are passionate about uprooting the actual cause(s) of the problem.

3. Often, the best solutions to problems come from the individuals who are experiencing them. So, in the case of skipping school, the child may be the right person to recommend a solution.

4. Take time; in other words, do not attempt to quick fix. Quick fixes yield short-lived results. When a solution is well-thought of and come from extended reflection, it tends to truly repair the existing problem.

5. Put the problem in the context of the personal, physical, social, and economic realities of the one experiencing and affected by the problem.

6. Resolution of a problem involves the commitment and collaborative action of the whole system. For example, when a child faces a problem in reading, it is not just the responsibility of the English language teacher to help and support the child. Teachers of other subjects need to be involved in the process too. Otherwise, others will undo what one has done. This will spiral into series of frustrating experiences and eventually discourage the child until he goes back to square one.