Remember your most favorite classroom experience? The teacher probably possessed three main qualities:
- Strong grasp of the content
- Ability to relate information to novices that inspires desire to learn more, and
- Intuitive managerial skills.
But even this best teacher of yours likely struggled to engage students each and every day. Usually, good teachers mix it up each day or week by using a little bit of this (perhaps lecture or note-taking exercises) and a little bit of that (some group work or a game) and even a little bit of something else (maybe a student-directed long-term research project or some journal writing). What all good teachers realize, usually with some classroom experience under their belts, is that the same way of learning over and over will lead to boredom and restlessness, regardless of how innovative or engaging or proven the method is. Routine in teaching is to be avoided.
Two "revolutions" in teaching and learning have caught my eye lately. Both are touting their methods as the Way To Teach All Kids and The Future Of Education. While I think these methods can be done very well and effectively, viewing them as a panacea for what ails us in schools is likely going to disappoint everyone eventually.
The first revolution is the Khan Academy, which features a guy named Sal Khan who puts together videos of him teaching lessons on everything from history to art to physics. Sal has an easygoing way about him, and he does explain ideas really well to novices. He got his start by doing some vidcasts on basic algebra for a cousin who lived on the other side of the country. Those videos helped her do well in her algebra class, and they became a hit on YouTube. So, Sal quit his job as a hedge-fund manager and started Khan Academy, which boasts over 143 million lessons delivered so far.
In a recent 60 Minutes piece, we see Sal at his computer, creating a podcast with colorful, hand-drawn graphics of various lessons in different disciplines. Sal says that when he is teaching about a subject that he is not as up-to-date on, he will get "like 5 textbooks" (like any good teacher) and study up before he gives his lesson. He says his lessons work because of his humanity - showing people the "real time" workings of problem and how the solution is sometimes messy. He hopes that one day, teachers will be able to allow their students to work on Khan Academy videos at their own pace. He sees his videos as "taking the passivity out of the classroom" as students work enthusiastically on the video modules to earn badges that prove their learning.
The second revolution is the notion of "flipping" the classroom, which is loosely tied to the Khan Academy video approach. Two Colorado teachers, Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, taught chemistry to rural high school students. They worked well together and shared basic beliefs about teaching and learning. They lamented that their students had to spend vast amounts of time on buses traveling to and from school, so they happened upon some technology that allowed them to video lectures and lessons for students to view on their own time. So, the teachers then began using class time to do practice problems and labs and left the reading and direct video instruction for students to do on their own time. Thus, their classroom became flipped.
From what I'm reading, folks are frothing at the mouth over Khan Academy and flipping classrooms. Bill Gates became a fan of Khan Academy as he used the "unbelievable 15 minute tutorials" with his kids. Google's chairman, Eric Schmidt, says that if Sal's approach works, it will "completely change education in America." Pretty strong, and powerful, fanboy love here.
I applaud Khan and Bergmann and Sims for implementing ways to reach kids who needed help. Certainly, the "old school" ways of teaching and learning were not working for those kids, and Khan and the Colorado teachers came up with solutions that used modern technology and social media to get the lessons out there. There is no doubt in my mind that students everywhere are benefitting from Khan's videos and from teachers being willing to give students responsibility for getting some information on their own.
But, folks, this is not revolutionary teaching. It's just good teaching.
Giving students videos to watch at home instead of droning on in a classroom while they sleep or doodle is just giving students responsibility for learning something on their own. In my own classroom, I would assign readings from the textbook and expect students to look at least at the vocabulary terms before coming to class. I would tell them that I couldn't lecture to them about everything they needed to know, so I expected them to read about stuff and come to class with questions, which we would discuss. I would make sure to instruct directly about topics I knew kids struggled with (negative reinforcement in psychology is a bugger!). I wouldn't go over stuff the textbook author explained well, unless students had questions about it. That way, my class was about tackling tough topics and questions, and we had time to do activities and demonstrations that were illustrative and hopefully fun. So I guess I've been flipping classrooms for a long time, but I didn't know to capitalize on my "method." I just thought it's what good teachers did.
There are some misconceptions about teaching that I hope to dispel in my lifetime:
1. Lecture is bad.
Lecture, when done well, is not a bad way to communicate information. Heck, lecture is essentially what the Khan videos and the flipped classroom are all about - they just deliver lectures in a shiny format. Recently, Princeton Review named my friend Charles Brewer of Furman University in South Carolina one of the 300 Best Professors in the Nation. Brewer is this charming, and a little crotchety (don't worry, we Southerners think this is a compliment!), ol' Southern gentleman who lectures to students, pretty much day-in and day-out. The thing that makes Brewer a good lecturer is that he is a good storyteller. Sal Khan should visit Dr. Brewer's class and see just how engaging his lectures are. A good lecture done well is just as engaging as any other teaching method. It shouldn't be banished from our repertoire simply because some folks do a poor job of it.
2. Any one method is the only method.
As I've written about in a previous blog post, some teachers confuse their assignments or way of teaching with their content. They believe that if their method works one day, then it will work any day with any group of students. One of the most salient things I learned in the classroom was that the best-planned lesson may work with one class, but it may bomb with the next. The most challenging aspect of teaching is to figure out how to be flexible enough to adapt the mode of instruction without compromising the content. I often found that students would eventually grumble and complain with just about any method I used, especially if I used it too often. One day, my students were complaining that we did too many in-class demos. Now, you'd think kids would want to do demos every day, but they were asking me just to give them notes! I remember thinking that I could have supermodels teaching the class, and after a while, the kids would complain about how the supermodels had funny accents and how they were always relating concepts to supermodeling.
It doesn't matter how shiny the method is, kids grow tired of it eventually and desire something new - or desire something comfortable and safe. Learning, regardless of method, challenges us to change in some way. Sometimes, kids don't want to change. The videos and flipped classrooms that are all the rage right now do reflect a good teaching method, but to claim they are the future of education is a bit of an oversell. Kids do like videos and interactive web-based experiences, but I can guarantee they won't like it all the time. They also like a good story every once in a while. And they enjoy group projects and a worksheet every so often, too.
I appreciate folks trying new things and engaging in a conversation about good teaching. But what we should learn from this is that mixing it up is the best teaching strategy of all. Keeping the kids, and therefore us, guessing what will come next will maximize learning for everyone. Our kids will learn how to learn, and we'll learn right along with them.