I love baseball. The pace of the game may be too slow for others; it’s just right for me. I can sit behind one of the dugouts in any stadium with a soda the size of an ice bucket, slather my hot dog (and my shirt) with sauerkraut and mustard, check out the lineups, and enjoy the game. I don’t kid myself, however, about my role in the proceedings. I’m an attendee; I happily paid for the privilege of watching the professionals display their talent on the field. The manager is not going to ask me to participate in the game, and that is fine with me. On those occasions, I’m content spending the better part of three hours watching someone else do the work.
I also love teaching and working with teachers. Between 1994, when I became a social studies coordinator, and today, after almost eight years on my own as an author and consultant, I have visited almost 600 K-12 classrooms as an instructional specialist and coach. Sitting in the back or side of the room, I spend most of my time observing students. Is their role passive in nature, or are they participants in active learning? Are they meaningfully engaged in their own learning?
In too many cases, students are attendees (without the soda and hot dogs), as they watch teachers do most of the work.
Students become used to their role as passive learners, and they can look their teachers in the eye, smile with their pencils or pens poised for action…and go to a better place in their minds. They are, after all, veteran students, and they understand—and perhaps come to accept—their role as passive observers. Theirs is a supporting role in classrooms where the teacher often delivers information to students who are no longer there. They are physically in the room, of course, but they may well be psychologically absent. They are there, but not there.
The most effective teachers I have observed and coached at every level are themselves coaches who make it a point to get students off the bench and into the game – physically and mentally. After observing one of the best teachers I have ever seen, language arts teacher Kathy Galford (2013 Virginia Teacher of the Year), two of her sixth graders came up to me and shared that they loved coming to Galford’s classroom, and they appreciated the way she ran the class. On the day I observed Galford and her students, she had them participate for a solid 50 minutes in pairs and quartets. Their level of student-to-student interaction was incredibly high, and they went about their business with energy, enthusiasm, and efficacy. They were in and out of their seats and engaged in meaningful work – and they loved it. This is active learning.
Kathy Galford and other incredibly effective teachers understand something I didn’t begin to comprehend in my early days as a teacher in the 70s: He who does the talking does the learning, for the simple reason that talking is thinking. Looking back on my first year of teaching, I learned more about the history of the United States than I did in four years of college and two years of graduate work. The reason for this was that in my classrooms I did most of the talking; it was not until many years later I realized talking is not teaching. The only interaction my students had when I began teaching was with me. I asked closed questions for which there was one right answer, and that answer was what I sought. If I found it I was happy. Once in a while I had a longer conversation with a student, something that gave me some satisfaction, but left the other 30-plus students on the bench and, therefore, out of the game.
Truly powerful classroom discussions need to be between and among students, in which case the teacher’s role is to observe and listen to what is being said. Listening provides valuable feedback for teachers. In this way, listening is teaching. In these classrooms, at every grade level and in every subject area, students are up and moving, sharing and building on what they know, while demonstrating an understanding of what it means to listen—truly listen—to what a partner or group member is saying. They develop communication skills that will serve them well in life and in the workplace.
Increasingly, businesses seek students who can communicate and collaborate. The ability of employees to work effectively in teams may make the difference between success and failure for the organization. Students who for thirteen years from kindergarten through graduation are actively learning to take turns, give others time to think and respond, analyze what they hear and see, paraphrase in search of understanding, and otherwise work effectively with partners and in teams, will be better able to function in the workplace and in life. A vibrant democracy needs a citizenry able to identify and use evidence in support of this or that position, and to make thoughtful and informed decisions.
Teachers can help by creating opportunities for students to wrestle with course content in pairs and quartets. Structured conversations between and among students allow them to present and wrestle with varied perspectives in respectful and thoughtful ways. Accepting and attempting to understand the perspectives of others helps students build empathy. Talking through something with someone else builds knowledge and accelerates learning. Teachers can reduce the amount of teacher talk in favor of student-to-student conversations and an increased number of collaborative opportunities. In this way, classrooms shift from passive to active, and in the process pull students off the bench and into the game.