Three misleading assumptions about teaching and learning

Jeff Winokur Kim Farris-Berg wrote a recent blog post by about the Mission Hill School in Boston, an exciting place to be for students and teachers. Ms. Farris-Berg and her first-grade daughter Ruby were surprised to hear that a 2 nd /3 rd grade class would learn about bees  “…via discussion and reading, but really…watching.” As in watching real bees, from an observation hive in their classroom!  This differs from Ruby’s own school experience, which as described consists of a preponderance of worksheets in all subjects. Ruby and her mom were also struck by the independent thinking in which students were encouraged—expected—to engage. “Ruby was intrigued by the idea of adults trusting her to guide her own learning at school.”

I share Ruby’s wistfulness for more school settings that treat students as thinkers and doers, worthy of respect. While Ruby as so many others do will surely survive first grade and the rest of her school years, I hope she will experience first-hand the kind of learning she was drawn to at Mission Hill. I saw the same video clip that Ruby and her mother watched ( A Year at Mission Hill—Chapter 3: Making it Real ). I too was struck by how engaged students were, and also by what the teachers were doing and had already done to make this engagement possible. Ms. Ferris-Berg noted that at Mission Hill the teachers are the ones who “call the shots” in terms of curriculum and other critical areas. Teachers are empowered at Mission Hill. However, it is not enough to empower teachers—teachers also must be knowledgeable about content, how students of various ages tend to interact with this content and be familiar with teaching strategies that support deep independent thinking on the part of students.

“I share Ruby’s wistfulness for more school settings that treat students as thinkers and doers, worthy of respect.”

As an elementary science educator I’m personally pleased by the prominence of science in a number of Mission Hill’s school-wide themes. When one begins with science it is much easier to integrate subjects such as math and literacy. Talking, writing, measuring, all were abundantly evident in the video clip. Also notable is that students were engaged in a number of the 8 practices as set forth by the National Research Council in their 2011 book, Framework for K-12 Science Education Standards. For a variety of reasons not all teachers are familiar with these practices or how they can be modeled and taught in a K-8 setting.

Some people who view this video might conclude that the students at Mission Hill are not applying themselves fully; that the teachers aren’t really teaching; that teachers are just letting the students run the show; or that students should just sit down and learn. And there are others who might say that the schools they know or those in which they teach employ some of the same teaching methods–such as hands-on experiences or an absence of worksheets–visible at Mission Hill. Those who carry these opinions often make certain assumptions about teaching and learning that can be misleading. Here are a few to consider:

Assumption #1: Hands-on or first-hand experiences are the best way to teach.

Hands-on experiences are indeed a major component of good teaching and learning. As important as experiences are to the learning process though, the experiences do not teach by themselves. Students must be challenged to articulate the thinking that has been stimulated by these experiences.  Colleagues of mine often refer to a quote from George Forman, a professor emeritus from the University of Massachusetts:

Experience is not the best teacher. It sounds like heresy, but when you think about it, it’s reflection on experience that makes it educational.” 

A teacher must be skilled in knowing how to encourage this reflection—she must be knowledgeable about the content herself, knowledgeable about how her particular students are likely to understand this content, adept at asking open-ended questions, and willing to challenge students’ thinking. Such skills do not come easily. In the brief video clip we see Mission Hill teachers interact with students in a variety of ways that support reflection. One teacher discusses the “habit of mind” of using evidence to support an idea. These interactions go beyond the hands-on; they encourage the “minds-on” as well.

Assumption #2: Worksheets are bad

Ruby’s experiences with worksheets—in school and for homework, day after day—probably accomplish little for deep learning. But students do need to record for all kinds of reasons. If a worksheet is carefully chosen and constructed to support student thinking, then it can be a valuable teaching tool. We hear a teacher mention his not wanting to photocopy a sheet on organelles for the purpose of memorization. And we see students writing on blank sheets in notebooks. It is the teacher’s judicious use of worksheets or other venues for recording information or thinking that determines whether a particular strategy will push for student thinking or simply be busy work. Here again, the skilled teacher must know how a given strategy will provide the scaffolding necessary to help students become independent thinkers.

Assumption #3: The teacher is really not teaching when students are left to fend for themselves.

Sometimes this can be true. But despite how it might appear, providing time for students to work on their own requires careful observation on the part of the teacher. It is not a “hands-off” approach. For students to be trusted to begin to take responsibility for their own learning, adults must carefully monitor their learning. The astute teacher, as we see with the 7 th and 8 th grade teacher at Mission Hill observing students using a balance, carefully and gradually releases responsibility to the student when he or she is ready. It takes teachers who know how, when, and why to guide, and when students are ready for increased responsibility.

The relative effectiveness of any teaching and learning environment hinges on the skill of the teacher. Much of what the talented teacher does is not immediately obvious, especially to those who think teaching requires an adult do most of the talking at quiet students. It becomes clear that what makes Mission Hill special is a group of teachers who are active, thoughtful, knowledgeable and intentional.

Jeff Winokur is an early childhood and elementary science specialist. At Wheelock, he works with schools and districts to develop their capacity to improve the teaching of science to children. This has included serving as consultant to many schools in the Boston Public Schools as well as to Boston’s science department. As an instructor in education at Wheelock, he teaches both undergraduate and graduate-level courses in teaching science to children. Winokur’s work in science education includes having been a co-author of The Essentials of Science and Literacy (2009), and Science and Literacy: A Natural Fit (2009), and co-host of the video professional development series for educators, Looking at Learning… Again (1997) produced by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics for Annenberg/Corporation for Public Broadcasting.