Six things my students teach me


Don’t think the kids do all the learning at school. Teachers get their very good share of it as well. These are some of the most important things my students have taught me.

1. Curiosity fuels learning (Passion can take you a long way)

It is extremely difficult to teach bored brains – but it is nearly impossible to keep aroused minds from learning. For too long I strived to make my lessons perfect, structured and uneventful. I’m a recovering control freak, and those carefully planned lessons made me feel safe. But it was the times when something wild happened – usually by accident – that my students enjoyed and learned the most. Eventually, I began to plan my lessons in a very different way. Instead of thinking by means delivering content, I asked myself: How can I make this lesson enlightening and irresistible?

2. Movement wires the brain

Just about every time I tried to arrange my tiny students in a quiet and peaceful circle for reading, 3 year old Carolina would decide to run around us, her little feet pounding as fast as her heart. I tried everything to get her to sit and join the group, but most of the time I failed terribly. I gave up to her, mostly out of tiredness and fear of losing the rest of the class. It was my first year as a teacher and I was struggling to survive.

As weeks and months went by, I realized that even if apparently distracted, Carolina had listened to every word of the stories and remembered many details that even I had forgotten. At the same time, I began to notice a surprising pattern: the kids who moved the most in my class not only had better motor skills but also seemed more articulate than their peers. Movement feeds, grows and organizes your brain.  And better brains allow for better learning.

3. Curriculum must meet the child (not the other way around)

Too many classrooms resemble a frantic race in which all students must meet the curriculum as fast and efficiently as possible. Children are judged upon their ability and compliance to do so. Teachers are measured against how quickly and how many of their students achieve that goal. Curriculum becomes the ultimate god: the reason for schools’ existence, the shrine of the enlightened few and the penance of the troubled many. We push our kids to meet the curriculum, when we should be harnessing the curriculum to meet the individual child.

Our students are alive and changing, each one exquisitely unique. Shouldn’t they have their own path and pace to experience learning and knowledge?

Teaching for the curriculum (or the test) is not only ethically wrong, it is also pedagogically inefficient. Children, and the relationships we form with them, are much more important than the curriculum. I am not saying that content is irrelevant, and I am not implying than schools are little more than social clubs. But, if we are willing to go slow to then go fast, as Armand Doucet describes in our book “Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution”, the time spent developing relationships will pay off – and we may end up in much better terms with the curriculum as well.

4. School is Life

Have you ever noticed that we tend to speak to children in future tense – a lot? We tell them to eat well because then “you will grow healthy and strong”. We ask them to stop horsing around because “you will fall and hurt yourself”. We insist that they study because “school will prepare you for life”.

But school is life for our students -and they are living it right now.

I learned from my students that “now” is as important as “tomorrow”, if not more. Adults tend to live either howling the regrets of the past or shouldering the anxieties of the future. Children know better. So learn from your past and let it go. Allow your dreams and goals to propel you in motion. But live in the present, and be your very best today.

5.Teachers are still important. Technology is not a one-size-fits-all resource. Sometimes, plain old good paper, scissors, glue and tempera paint will awaken creativity more than any app could do. Screen time is no replacement for climbing a tree. And while technology surely empowers us to connect in many ways that were not possible before, there is still a world of unbeatable non-digital experiences – and no computer will ever replace teachers.

When I first designed my online History and Geography lessons for secondary school students, part of the plan was to eliminate classroom time completely for those subjects. Students would interact with me and among them exclusively online, much in the way I had completed my graduate degree. But very quickly I learned that my 12 to 15 year old students still needed live mentorship, and that they did better if they had it. My online course became a flipped classroom –technology is still big, but the teacher is still important.

6. Every child bears the seed of genius within. Each day I am reminded of just how amazing children are, and I marvel about the great privilege educators have in helping them achieve their dreams. And in doing so, we also grow into our own, never-ending human potential. In other words, learning makes us grow, but teaching makes us great.

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