We Must Meet Students Where they are — as Individuals

Here’s something I learned a few years ago as a teacher: not all time is created equal.

Right now in Vermont, proficiency learning says, “Time is a variable.”

And yet, time is most decidedly NOT a variable.  We do not have infinite time to educate our students.  The future is coming at them, hard and fast. Thirty-five years ago, “A Nation at Risk” called for more class time and a longer school year.  We got neither. Instead, we must make due with the time that we have — just 180 days.

But what if there was another variable we could adjust to make that set amount of time more meaningful?

There is.  Not all time is created equal.  Who says that we must always teach whole-class groups of students?  Why must we always meet together in full-sizes?  A few years ago, I started meeting with students outside of class, like a college professor might require for a seminar class.  The results were dramatic. Suddenly I had time to get to know students as individuals, to diagnose problems. Doctors don’t treat en masse. Why should teachers?

Don’t get me wrong, whole-class instruction is important.  Building community, getting students to practice speaking to and listening to each other, and teaching cooperation are all incredibly important, particularly in our age of a fraying social fabric.  In fact, knowledge, as a coworker of mine would say, is actually generated in these sessions — the purposeful yet unpredictable and exciting search for the truth through debate and conversation.  Talk helps us make sense of our world. You need that, and you need others to do it.

And let’s not forget that lectures (direct instruction, we call it today) is an incredibly efficient way to disseminate information.

But — must we meet in groups all the time?  As an introvert, I strongly disagree. The best talk, in my life, happens in deep conversations with one other person.  The people who I know and am known by best are those who see me away from others, when we’re one-on-one. Surely we must have some time for true face-to-face, individual attention — and not during the “drive-by” moments (as a coworker terms it) during work time in class, when you’re putting out fires, or closing illicit browser pages, or providing, at best, short mini-lessons, or brief exhortations to keep going, these are not the ideal time to get to know an individual student.  You need time away from the busy classroom, freedom to talk, to question, to understand where each unique human being is coming from.

I am not advocating some sort of therapy session, but a purposeful, work-based conference time during which you can focus not on telling the student the right answer, but on — as a doctor would — diagnosing the root cause of misunderstanding.  The errors we make on our way to true mastery are often highly individual, and the best correction is to make us comfortable enough to voice these misconceptions plainly, so that they can be addressed.

Ray Bradbury wrote, “If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn.” Yet the challenge is in probing deeply enough with students to the point where you are hearing them share their true points of ignorance.  Or — more accurately — not just their ignorance, but the blank space that exists in their developing brains where reasoning should be. So many students in high school have, quite literally, no script, no points of reference, no internal dialogue to regulate their actions.  This includes the usual teenage boneheaded-ness about booze, cars, and condoms, but it also encompasses just about every step in the academic learning process. How do you know how to choose a topic for an essay? Or how to factor a polynomial? Or how to study for a big test?  Or how to navigate your way through a complex project? We adults forget, but usually, for teens, there’s a big blank spot on the map where the metacognitive script should be. That’s okay. That’s normal. That’s what we’re here for. But we need to know.

That is why I strongly believe that you must make students comfortable enough that they will talk to you.  Not so that they will tell you their stories (although that can be helpful when generating topics for essays), but so that they will reveal their budding thought processes, and be open to gentle correction, augmentation, help with developing a “script” for future issues like this.  This is good teaching right where they need it most. If they do not open themselves, if you do not have private space with one student at a time for them to reveal where they are, you are probably only correcting the outward externals, the manifestations, not the root causes. You will see the misplaced commas, but you will not hear the reasoning behind them (“You’re supposed to put a comma in the middle whenever you have two really long words.”) How many times was a private misconception you had in your head addressed by a teacher’s lecture?  Or even by a discussion in class?

Want to be humbled?  A scattershot plot of your students’ brains following even your most dazzlingly clear lecture would probably shock all of us.  It would reveal some kids who heard and took us exactly as we’d hoped, but it would also reveal some wildly disparate, far-fetched interpretations, based on misunderstandings at such a basic level we’d have never expected it, or based on kids zoning out, or based on strong opinions or prejudices we’d not anticipated.  It’s all out there, vibrating in their heads, but how are you going to get in there and teach right into it?

How are you going to make the time (which is definitely not a variable) meaningful?

I realized all this when I learned how to fly airplanes a few years ago.  Far from the sort of informal, “Just go for it and see what happens and try not to do anything illegal” approach I’d taken with past hobbies (including the sister sport of hang gliding), learning to fly airplanes was an exercise in mastering heavy science content (meteorology, aerodynamics, mechanics) that I imagined I’d left behind the second I realized “Physics for Poets” class completed my completed my science requirement in college.  Again and again I found myself reading new terms in pilots’ textbooks but only partially understanding. There was a great blank space where full knowledge should have been, and instinctively I ran to fill this space with my own private explanations. Often this took the form of differentiating between two new terms I’d just learned. I understood the definitions, but not how one related to the other. In other cases, the definitions were so sparse that even my basic understandings were papered over by all kinds of places where I simply had to fill in the blanks with my own guesses.  For instance, I remember having some really wacky ideas about what the heck the dew point was. Sure enough, when I inadvertently uttered one of these aloud, my instructor, a mild-mannered many-decade veteran of the skies, gave me one of those, “What the hell gave you get that idea?” looks.

Keep in mind, I’m a well-credentialed adult.  I keep up with mortgage payments. I make lists before I shop.  I’m not driving my car into the side of maple trees from time to time.  I’m not playing Fortnite in lieu of attending to basic human needs. I’m not consuming whole bags of spectacularly colored Frito-Lay products directly before attending school in the morning.  I’m not 17 years old.

Imagine, in other words, how our students are doing with the dew point.  

Or more complex stuff like, say, the American Revolution.

But how are we to know unless we listen?  And how are we to listen if we’re meeting each child in groups of 20 or 25?  How are we to listen meaningfully if we are also supervising 19 others during class while conducting short “drive-by” conferences during class?  Wouldn’t it be more efficient to toss out some measure of whole-group instruction and trade it for private conferences — two or three per semester — five per year?  Couldn’t ten or 15 minutes with a student face-to-face mean more than whole semester’s worth of mis-timed and mis-aimed lecturing?

In the end, isn’t the discovery of better, more efficient means of reaching kids the whole thrust behind chucking the Carnegie Unit and measuring only a student’s proficiency?

In the end, isn’t that the true personalized learning?

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