A conversation with a colleague inspired me to think about how to know what is best for our students. It would be nice to think that we can figure it out, create a model that does what we want and then simply implement. But more and more I think we need to see our teaching as fluid and nimble. I started teaching thinking that I could simply refine and hone and someday I would be a really good teacher as I continued to make improvements. It was a very linear view.
I now realize that linearity is not best practice. Learning is not linear; teaching should not aspire to be linear. The mix and balance of how I teach any course should shift in response to the students in front of me and their needs. At the same time, I know that it is my responsibility to determine those needs, which may or may not match up with their desires. I need to push them out of their comfort zones at times, in order to encourage growth and development. At the same time, I need to detect when there is a true disconnect.
I asked students who documented their final research projects for an elective course in the form of a blog what they thought about using that format. They responded by saying that they loved the process and gained a lot from working through their research and reflection in blog form. Then they said that they would not like for that to replace the more formal writing they had been asked to do in history courses. While analytical essays are not what most students enjoy doing at any given moment, my students recognized the value in that process as well. They would not have traded their research paper experience for more blogging. For students who were accustomed to writing formal analytical essays for their teacher, the blog pushed them out of their comfort zone. If I shifted exclusively to blogging, it would be the essay that was unfamiliar. So, in this case, balance seems right.
An example of disconnect would be the “objective” multiple choice tests I have given over the years. More often than not, students have done poorly on them. I viewed those assessments as useful in holding students accountable and challenging the students. Even those kids who did well on the tests carried very little forward. I spent far too long trying to fit the students into that form of assessment, rather than modifying the assessment to reflect what I care most about, which is demonstration of learning. I have come to see multiple choice questions as interesting class exercises to get students talking about the issues and doing some practice for those College Board tests they face. I no longer want those to measure the teaching and learning in my classroom.
So, in the end, my challenge is to help students manage if not embrace discomfort and to modify areas where it is really disconnect at work, not discomfort.