A Look Back

It’s been not quite a month since I decided to overhaul my classroom, which is shocking.   It seems much longer than that.  Not in a bad way.  I just can’t imagine teaching any other way.  I’ve moved from a content-based, teacher centred-classroom, to a student-centred, 21st Century skills classroom.

Yesterday, we started a new unit in Bio, the endocrine system.  And we’re doing it a bit differently again.  Because this is a much smaller unit, they’re researching it individually, and on Monday will be placed in a team to solve problems with the information they have.  They really like this idea, actually using the information they’ve gathered for something. When said like that I think, “shouldn’t that be the point of everything we teach, that it’s used for something?”

My purpose for doing this is to see how well they learn individually.  In our two previous units, they were taught sections from their peers.  The feedback I’ve received from my students is that they tend to learn the information they’ve researched to teach better than the information that was taught to them.

I think the biggest reason for this is that they have no experience teaching each other.  One day, last week, I asked if they had ever taught each other in school.  They slowly looked around at each other, and shook their heads no.  I’m not saying they don’t have experience helping each other.  They do. Often, in class, someone who “gets it” will help someone who doesn’t.  But that’s a little different than preparing information to teach your peers, so that they learn it as fluently as you have.

Each unit we try something new, in an attempt to figure out what works “best”, as if such a thing exists. Consequently, my classroom feels more like an educational laboratory, than a traditional classroom.  Each unit I make a hypothesis, and we try things to see how, and if, they work.  Fortunately, much more works than doesn’t.  But trust me, there are days that are difficult.

Furthermore, I don’t believe for a moment that my students education is suffering because of this.  If I did, I wouldn’t do it. Oddly, it seems to work to the contrary.  My students seem to be learning more, and in ways that are more authentic to them, despite my inexperience with this whole enterprise.

For the first time, even though I teach science, I honestly appreciate the scientific method.

Some might ask does it work? Absolutely. After almost a month, and several assessments, I can honestly say, my students are doing better than before.

First, let’s start with their quiz scores.  In our days of assessment obsession, what do the numbers look like? I compared two sets of exams, one on DNA, with the content taught solely by me, and their last two exams, the content taught solely by them.  In addition, to their teaching, we have a whole class review, with most of the information coming from the students and at least one group assignment using what they’ve learned.

On the DNA exam, numerous students failed, which I honestly equated with being normal.  The class average was 54%.  I cringe typing this, wondering what it might say about me as a teacher.

Compare this with the scores from their “quiz” on neurons.  Every student passed.  For some, this was the first test they’d passed all semester.  The day it was handed back, there were literal shouts of joy. For some of these students, they likely haven’t been proud of an exam in a very long time. One of my students, who normally wrote very little on an exam, wrote two pages for this assessment.  Her mark was in the 80’s.  The class average, 76.  Trust me, it works.

Some may wonder if asking students to tell you what they’ve learned is a valid assessment. The thing that surprised my students, and me, is that most of their answers addressed the questions I had written for the original exam.  For me, this confirmed that they had learned the unit objectives.

But, to me, the most important results haven’t been on paper, it’s been in the attitudes that students have towards learning and the class.

One of the major assessments for these units is the creation of a 3-D version of one of the organs we are studying.  One of my students was so excited about creating a replica of the brain, she went to the store, at lunch, the same day it was assigned, and it was on my desk a day and a half later.

The surprising thing is, the project isn’t technically due for another three days, yet most of them have been handed in already.  I have been shown more pictures of organ replicas on my students phones, as they show me their progress, than all the other assignments I’ve given combined.

Another one of my students decided to create a kidney.  Actually, she created three kidney models.  You see, a kidney transplant saved her brother’s life last year.  His kidneys had failed for two different reasons, and she created replicas of each of those kidneys.  And then she created a replica of the new kidney that saved his life. Wow.  I will never forget that.

But I think the most powerful story I have is the transformation I have seen in one of my students.  When we started the semester she definitely did not see herself as academically inclined.

Several weeks into the semester she remarked that I was the first teacher who had ever been able to teach her anything in science.  I doubt that. I just think she has an external locus of control, where anything good that happens is the result of external forces, rather than herself.  In fact, I could tell, almost from the beginning, that she has a natural ability in this area.  She picked up concepts, as quick as, if not quicker than, students who had 90’s.  Her learning had more to do with her than me.

Often, she would answer questions in class, correctly, but always add the statement, “but I could be completely wrong.”  However, as we were reviewing our last unit, on the circulatory system, she spoke with complete confidence and authority while conveying the information.  She knew, beyond a doubt, that what she was saying was right.

But that’s not the best part. As they were teaching each other their parts of the circulatory system, I watched her teach with great passion and enthusiasm. And I had a fleeting thought, “She should be a teacher.”  Two days after this, she came up to me and said, “Last night I was talking to my uncle about becoming a science teacher…” And began speaking of different educational opportunities she is thinking about.

This really has been the most amazing experience I’ve had as an educator.  I’ve learned more about teaching and learning, my students and myself, not only as an educator, but as a learner, in the past month, than the previous six years, I’ve been teaching.

If you haven’t taken the plunge, you need to, not only for your student’s sake, but for your vitality and growth as an educator.

photo courtesy of creative commons – mischiru

About shelleywright

I love education & learning, which likely explains why I'm a teacher. My areas are ELA, Sr. sciences, and technology. My classroom is best described as a student-centred, tech embedded pbl/inquiry learning environment. Furthermore, I am Buck Institute for Education National Faculty member
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11 Responses to A Look Back

  1. Shannon says:

    Wow! Great post! I enjoyed reading about the way your approach created huge conditions in which your student experienced a transformation in her learning. Your point about her having an external locus of control is very astute. You are doing great stuff with your students!

  2. Pingback: Tweets that mention A Look Back | Wright'sRoom -- Topsy.com

  3. Cheryl Piotraschke says:

    I commend you for being a teacher that takes risks for the sake of student learning. Your blog has been inspirational and your students are lucky to have you. May you be a driving force for change at your school and beyond!

  4. Theresa Murray (@tamurray) says:

    A very nice reflection and a description of something that seems to be working! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Colin Jagoe says:

    It’s so nice to hear about people taking risks and having it pay off so highly. Way to go! Thanks for sharing your journey with the rest of us, it’s inspiring to say the least.

  6. Once again, you’re inspiring, Shelley! The thing that strikes me the most deeply in your blog, is its sincerity and honesty. You’re an explorer, not satisfied with being a static learner or teacher. Your statement, “Her learning had more to do with her than me” is a thunderbolt of an observation. Thanks, and keep it coming.

  7. Kyle Simon says:

    Congrats on your progress!

    A few questions… Have your supervisors expressed any concerns about pedagogic aspects of students teaching other students and if they’re doing it as best as possible?

    Also, has the content you taught changed at all through this process? Do you have the flexibility to change what the end learning goal is, if you feel it would be needed or beneficial?

    You mentioned that students seem to learn more when they are asked to teach it, and I think all teachers can attest to the fact that they know much more of their content after they teach it once or twice. But, are students learning more when they aren’t teaching it, when they are the recipient of instruction?



    • Hi Kyle,
      These are all great questions. I’m pretty fortunate to have a school division that’s incredibly supportive. One of my superintendents has been in to see this in action.

      Is it always the best teaching possible? No. Which is why I don’t leave it for my students to solely teach it. The projects they do with their learning, are often the things that make the connections for them. It’s also the reason we do a whole class review. Some of my students learn best that way.

      My students can attest, at this point, that they don’t learn the stuff as well when it’s taught to them. But they partially realize it’s because they need to take the initiative to ask questions, and be engaged learners, and it also is pushing them to become better at the way they teach, so their peers will learn better.

  8. I enjoyed reading your journey with your students in the driver’s seat. Sounds like you experience has been successful at this point, some project-based learning and collaborative learning. When we teach, we learn. I think your students experienced that firsthand. As a former science teacher, I know exactly where you are coming from with regard to teaching difficult concepts that students struggle with when they hear it through the lens of just the teacher.

    Keep up the work on 21st Century teaching and let us know where your journey leads you. Thanks for sharing!

    I have written some posts on 21st century teaching and learning at http//rryshke.edublogs.org.

    Center for Teaching

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