We are currently reading Yong Zhao's Counting What Counts at our district office, which will give us some more research-based ideas to support our continuing focus on competency development. The part that has caught my attention the most so far is on Short-Term Instruction vs. Long-Term Education starting on page 171. Here is a quote describing just one of the studies:
Another study conducted by researchers at the University of California-Berkeley, also with four-year-old children, found similar results (Buchsbaum, Gopnik, Griffiths, & Shafto, 2011). When the experimenter did not provide direct instruction like a teacher, the children did more exploration and found out a more intelligent way of getting the toy to play music. However, when the experimenter acted like a teacher, the children merely imitated her without discovering any novel solutions to better play music. Children in the latter setting became less curious and less creative, although if their learning as acquisition of what the teacher instructed had been measured, they probably would have done very well. (pg.172)
This quote speaks very directly to one of our three tenets from Dr. Tony Wagner, which encourages us to move our system from "compliance to engagement." It also speaks to better instructional design. It is relatively easy to tell students what to do and when to do it and guarantee reasonably good specific short-term effect. It is harder to design activities that shape constructive exploration which will lead to better long-term outcomes.
Looking back at my own teaching career, I certainly recognize my tendency to be controlling. The students were to do my things my way and on my timelines. We didn't do project-based learning or inquiry, of course. Those concepts were not on our minds at the time, unless we were gifted enough to get there that far out in front of everyone else.
My overbearing nature really showed when I was coaching basketball. I focused on fundamentals, stingy pressure defense, ball control, and careful shot selection. Some old coach had described his style as, "We play a 'run and shoot' system. If my players run, I shoot them." We were a little like that. My philosophy was effective in regard to keeping us competitive with the often larger schools we competed against, but was it fun? No, and in fact, it probably felt stifling. Did it inspire my players to become ballers who just wanted to play all the time and develop their craft on their own time? I would say it did not. I remember often telling my players, only partially in jest, "Now, don't go thinking on your own. That just causes trouble." While this may have been true in regard to their short-term learning, it certainly wasn't helping them with their long-term basketball education.
My English class did have some exceptions to this compliance model, though, and I want to point them out. My Romeo and Juliet unit had some lessons that allowed for a certain amount of autonomy. Paragraph and essay writing was done in a writer's workshop style, with lots of choice and peer review opportunities, and though the timelines may have had some flexibility, the processes were still a bit lock-step. The most creative and engaging activity, however, was something I called Poetry Game Show.
In Poetry Game Show, students would assemble themselves in groups and take turns performing improvised poems for the rest of the class using criteria on cards drawn from three different piles. One pile would contain the style of poem, one would have a topic, and the third would contain a poetic device or two that had to be included. They might have to create a haiku about a pet dog with onomatopoeia in it. It might be a limerick about construction work that contained personification. How about doggerel about a watermelon containing with a cynical tone? The piles rarely matched well and it was often more fun when they didn't. If we did this activity a few times the level of challenge would grow, and it was best when the students added to the piles, knowing they too might draw the card they contributed. No marks were assigned. Sometimes we had team points and sometimes we did applause and sometimes we showed appreciation by snapping our fingers beatnik-style. It was loud and messy and never the same twice, except for one factor:
They always wanted to do more.
If I were to look at Poetry Game Show in regard to the two or three Ministry potential exam questions on figurative language, it probably wasn't the most efficient way to master them. If I were to look at Poetry Game Show in regard to developing competencies like creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking, it was pretty good. It also had the chance to create a love of language and love of learning and long-term educational impact in a way that most of my other activities never could. It's tough to reflect back on my own practice like this because it typically leads to regret.
Like Oscar Schindler said in that great Spielberg movie, "I should have done more."