How to miss the point

Many teaching strategies can produce outcomes that are exactly the opposite of what they are supposed to achieve. It’s especially true with constructivist activities, when the teacher isn’t accustomed to them and doesn’t know how to proceed. This danger doesn’t mean, however, that the teaching strategy is bad per se, no more than a medication is bad per se because a doctor has overdosed it and killed a patient.

Increasing the work force

Let’s take group discussion. If done correctly, it can multiply student involvement several times, compared to a more teacher-centered activity, easily. Or, if poorly implemented, it can divide it by 4 or 5. If oral skills are a major objective, for instance for foreign languages, grouping students can multiply the number of children who speak at the same time. Instead of questioning one student at a time, you can make 10 or 5 pairs prepare a role-play simultaneously. Of course, you need to spend some time to make a few pairs perform in front of the class and correct them. That’s why the final figure isn’t a multiplication by 30. It’s safer to assume that the real speaking time is around 6 or 7 times higher. And listening time is even better, because the students have a much better incentive to pay attention when the others are speaking. And no student is totally idle.

On the other hand, if you group students to do simple application exercises in mathematics, you divide the number of working students, because there is basically nothing to discuss and only the smartest student in a group do the calculation. You would get a much better outcome with individual work. A simple precaution is to ask yourself if there are enough tasks for each member of the group. In general, a workgroup shouldn’t comprehend more than 4 participants.

Increasing critical thinking

Problem-solving and projects are great ways to increase student motivation, to boost creativity and critical thinking and to provide everybody with a sense of purpose. Or the exact opposite. By focusing on one specific problem, it’s easy to miss the broad picture and to fail to understand the underlining principles of the problem. Let’s say that you want to organize a big exhibition about the protection of environment for the city hall. In theory, it’s a good opportunity to develop knowledge in various fields, for instance biology, chemistry, economy, as well as cross-curriculum skills in communication or public relation. However, it is easy to forget the learning objectives and to perform with relatively low academic achievements. Instead of examining scientific evidences, students tend to accept any communication coming from one of the major NGOs working on ecology, like the WWF or Greenpeace. Some of them think that a pretty presentation is all it takes. Others just pretend to be interested. Sometimes, young activists speak against physics, when they are asking for the replacement of both nuclear power and fossil fuels with solar panels or windmills. Sadly, those politically correct solutions are short from several orders of magnitude, when compared to humanity’s needs. There is no real critical thinking but arguments of authority. We are training our students to think like Dr Lyssenko. Another approach would be to teach the students about a benefit-risk balance and the components of risk management. With good statistical tools and solid scientific knowledge, they could evaluate the solutions proposed by the NGOs.

Defining a consistent progression

If you introduce new concepts in your subject-matter only when there is an opportunity, it’s much harder to preserve a clear progression. You can, indeed, explain some grammar through story writing and other inspiring activities. But you’ll be stuck very soon, because complex lessons might require a lot of previous knowledge that you haven’t had the occasion to introduce. To learn the degrees of hypothesis in French, you need to recognize the tenses and to know how to conjugate different verbs. In the first place, you need to recognize a verb. These lessons are not easily done on the fly, during writing activities or readings. A more straightforward approach is probably better.

In mathematics, it’s even worse. To solve a quadratic equation, there are lots of things you absolutely need to know, from basic additions to fractions and square roots. Almost each previous step in the algebra curriculum is a prerequisite for that kind of equation. That’s why it is so hard to help weak students in mathematics. There problem can depend upon anything in the 4 or 5 previous years. If you get a bad start, you are very likely to struggle with this subject until the end of your studies.

A teacher who forgets to check for the prerequisites and launch a complex project will put himself in an awkward position. Instead of making students think by themselves, he must give them many pieces of information and beg them to trust him, because the underlying reasoning are out of reach. They should absolutely resist the temptation of doing in the place of the students. I know it’s difficult sometimes, especially when you are bound with some external deadline. If you are to present the robot made by the students at a parent night show, it isn’t comfortable to look at poor performances, and you’d want to “cook the book”, finish the robot yourself and pretend it is student work. But the robot itself is not the real objective. Learning is. By cheating, not only does the teacher hide the real level of the students, but he creates very bad incentives and teach students how to cheat. It’s a mistake from both academical and moral points of view. It is better to let the students now the basic deal. If they are not ready for the show, there will be now safety net. They will share the shame. Brace yourself and face the truth.

Memorizing what you need

So far, I’ve talked mostly of constructivist activities, but to be honest, it is also possible to miss the point with more traditional approaches. I’ll take only one example. Memory. When the lesson relies on memory, not only will you miss opportunities of learning critical thinking and other higher skills, but you might memorize poorly. It is not only a question of understanding, but also of purpose. In their book Make it stick, Brown, Roediger and McDaniel narrate a terrible example. A policeman who was train to disarm an assailant did it perfectly during a real intervention. But he made the worst mistake you could imagine. He gave the weapon back to the wrongdoer. Why? Because during his training, that’s exactly what he had done. Taking the weapon and giving it back to repeat the action as often as possible. “The training regime had violated the cardinal rule that you should practice like you play, because you will play like you practice.” This cardinal rule applies almost everywhere. I witnessed the mistake in many occasions in primary schools. They read sentences in such a fashion that the students can memorize them instead of actually reading them. In reality, you don’t read after a classmate, you read new texts by yourself.

To be safer…

In short, a few clues to make sure that you are on tracks:

  • Observe the classroom and see how many students are actually working.
  • How would the lesson transfer into real life, in an unexpected situation?
  • Does the lesson require some real thinking from the students?
  • Did I do things that the students were supposed to do, even unwillingly?
  • Do the students think or are they only guessing the answer?

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