Photo of a man walking infront of brightly colored graffiti mural that says courage.

Photo by Oliver Cole on Unsplash

I think all teachers must have times when they’re faced with the decision to continue on the safe road that they know, or radically depart on a way that they believe to be better, but the specific route and outcomes are unknown. At least I’ve been faced with this decision. And in all honesty, sometimes I’ve chosen the former, and sometimes the latter. Although for the last five months, I’ve consistently chosen the latter, and they have been the most challenging and fulfilling five months of my career.

What is the path I’ve chosen? Changing to a student-centered, skill-based, technology embedded classroom. A mouthful, I know.

One evening, last semester, I decided to take the plunge, and I haven’t looked back. Instead of a teacher-centered, textbook based Biology classroom, I shifted mine to a collaborative learning network. Instead of lectures, my students researched each unit. Sometimes individually. Sometimes in groups. Often they were responsible for teaching their peers. For in-class assignments, they often had to apply their knowledge to solve problems. Additionally, we created our own on-line textbook. How did it turn out? I’ll let you be the judge:

However, it still isn’t easy to change the new classes I’m teaching this semester. I continue to be faced with the same questions. Do I risk changing my teaching practices to reflect 21st C. skills and technology, or do I go with what is safe? Or in some cases, what is easier? Do I fall back on what I know “works”, in the most basic sense, even though deep down I understand it’s not what my students need or what engages them? Or, do I accept the challenge and move forward on a new path?

A voice inside my head whispers, “You don’t need to take this chance.” “No one will know, if you don’t.” I will. And that’s what matters. I know that if I don’t take this path, the part of me that is courageous is somehow diminished, and next time I’m less likely to do what I know I need to do. And I believe in all honesty that I’ll be failing my students if I don’t at least try student-centered learning.

Why do I believe in this?

My students need the kind of education that requires them to think critically, problem solve, and learn skills of collaboration, rather than memorize for an exam and forget everything the next day, or believe that there’s only one answer to a problem. In our 21st century world, any problem that is significant requires complex answers, none of them necessarily “right.”

Furthermore, the top 10 jobs in 2010 didn’t exist in 2004. How do we prepare our students for jobs that don’t exist now, that will use technology that hasn’t been invented, to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet? By teaching them skills, not solely content.

Content is easy. Google it. We live in a world where content is ubiquitous. And in a wi-fi, 3G world, accessible almost anywhere. We need to teach our students skills to be able navigate and make sense of such a world.

How am I doing this?

First, my science, technology, and English classes are paperless. This is a big change for me and my students. All the information for our class is housed on our wiki. My students are in the process of adapting to being responsible for their own education. Instead of having things handed to them, whether it be the answer, or a piece of paper with their assignment on it, they are now required to take initiative and access all the information they need.

This semester we’ve also switched from a traditional Holocaust novel study Q & A, to a framework that scaffolds group discussion. Some weeks they’ll meet in homogeneous groups, with those who have read the same book. Other weeks they’ll meet in heterogeneous groups, with those who have read a different book from their own.

Today was their first day of novel discussions. One word for it — painful. Many of my students lack the skills necessary for an insightful conversation surrounding their book’s characters and motivations. They’re not familiar with the kinds of questions that don’t necessarily have a right answer, let alone more than one. And so, haltingly and awkwardly, they answered the questions that were set out for them. Few poured forth deep, poignant insights. There was no critical dialogue. Yet.

Sometimes when we’re changing, success can look like failure

What did I do? I walked around the room and listened. And thought, “wow, there are easier ways to do this.” Easier, yes. Better, no. Even though I know what the beginning of this process can be expected to look like, it still feels like today’s class was a failure. But I know it’s not; it’s the first step in skill building.

I wonder how often, as teachers, we have classes that feel like failures, but they’re really not. Instead it’s a messy, awkward success, given the stage that our students are at. How often do we want the end result — engaged, articulate, deep discussions — without being willingly to do the hard work to get there? Instead of seeing all the struggling as the necessary first step, we see it as a failure and don’t try it again. I know I’ve been guilty of this.

I find in the beginning that it takes as much work for me not to jump in and rescue the conversations as it does for my students to have them. So today I walked around and listened, and told myself over and over, “This is painful, but next week it will be a little bit better. And the week after that will be a little bit better still.”

My students are in the process of developing the skills they need. It’s not quick. It’s not even efficient or easy. But it is necessary for their development as creative, critical problem solvers who will live, and work, in our complex world.

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgement that something else is more important than fear — Ambrose Redmoon

Read all three posts about our Holocaust project:

3. Powerful Project Learning: Outcomes & reflections

2. The Nuts & Bolts of 21st Century Teaching

1. Finding the Courage to Change

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