As teachers, we all have a desire to present valuable information to our students. We want them to understand the importance and the impact of our presentation. There is a desire to leave every class with a sense of personal accomplishment and the feeling that we presented the students with data that will better their lives.
Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case, is it? As an educator, what is your greatest frustration? Is it the crowded schedule? The required curriculum? The lack of facilities? The inadequate equipment? The poor financial support? Although all of these issues may bring about some anxiety, it seems that most teachers are concerned about the students’ comprehension of the material presented.
Did they “get it”?
Did they learn how to integrate the subject matter into their daily patterns? Can they draw upon this knowledge to improve their understanding of the subject? There is often a huge gap between the teacher’s presentation and the students’ perception of the material shared. How can we bridge that chasm and end the mutual student/teacher frustration?
Communication is not what we say, but what they get. Simply standing in front of a class and offering information is not teaching. The teaching process only happens when there is an exchange. Much like a computer modem, before there can be any transfer of material both the transmitter and the receiver must be operative, using the same language, and programmed to accept this process. If either computer is not properly set up, it will be an unsuccessful venture. (Those of you who have explored the high-tech world are well aware of the frustration when the process does not work!) The teaching/learning endeavor is much the same: both parties must be in the right mode if there is going to be the needed delivery and reception of the lesson(s).
When the computer transaction fails, we review the instructions and try again. If we still are not getting results, we call someone who knows about computer modems. When all else fails, we dial that magic “tech support” number and have an expert talk us through the procedure. In other words, we don’t give up until we have accomplished our goal. If nothing else, it is a good lesson in persistence and tenacity. The computer simply will not settle for less than “the right way,” and it doesn’t care if we are frustrated or not; the computer demands we be correct before it will accept our instructions. We can abuse it, confuse it, refuse it (and even threaten to lose it!), but it stoically sits there on the desk and awaits the input of the proper commands. (Computers are the master teachers of patience.)
Students are far less resilient and far less demanding, and we are never quite sure if they really understand. It is much easier to “give up” on the student than it is on the computer. Even if they do not comprehend the material we present, we can always say they didn’t fulfill their learning responsibility. Can you envision saying that to a computer? It’s pointless, isn’t it?
If positive learning is to occur, it requires a two-step process:
- The student must be mentally programmed and ready to accept the material.
- The data must be worthwhile and have substantive value.
It seems so simple, doesn’t it? Any credible teacher will make certain that the lesson plan is built upon solid information. The second step of the equation is a direct reflection of our own study, planning, and continued research. However, if we dwell only on this facet of the formula, we will be unsuccessful. If the student is not in the receive mode, the transmission of material will be futile.
With that in mind, let us look carefully at the problem that faces many of us: how do we get the students to want to learn? Noted educational psychologist Stephen Glenn says that when students are in an environment where they are encouraged to risk (and often fail), they are much more eager to become involved in the learning process. Failure is not something to be concerned about but becomes another stepping stone in the journey of goal attainment. However, if their failure results in reprimands, shame, guilt, pain, or blame, they quickly learn to take the path of least resistance and begin practicing self-defense rather than focusing their energies on learning. Once the walls of self-protection go up, there is little chance that new information can get to the student. You could well give the finest lesson in the history of humankind, but unless the student is ready, all is lost.
As teachers, when we address a student (or anyone), we must be certain we do not threaten their egos or violate their human dignity. This does not mean that we simply sit back and avoid any sense of discipline––quite the contrary. There can be no learning without discipline, but we must be wise in the way we create and sustain a healthy learning atmosphere.
When things are going awry, we often take the shortcut by addressing the character of the student rather than the inappropriateness of the behavior. This appears to be a solid solution, for it usually gets the student (as well as the rest of the class) to focus, and the behavior problems seem to disappear, at least momentarily. However, the student goes through the mental processes of resentment, revenge, and retreat. In most cases, the third option, retreat, is the best choice. They sit in class, well behaved, quietly going through the motions, and learning nothing.
If we substitute encouragement for criticism or praise, we then offer that same student the chance to fail, and immediately they try again, and again, and again, until they master the assigned material. They understand we are not going to judge their performances, but join them in the process of learning. The student, in turn, becomes encouraged (in the presence of courage) and their acceptance of our advice becomes much greater. They realize we are allies in the process and not threats to their egos or their dignity. We merely adjust their behavior so they can benefit from their efforts.
There is one major flaw in the analogy between a computer modem and student learning. We can become very frustrated with the computer and unload our wrath on its emotionless screen and storm out of the room in a fit of anxious frustration, but when we come back, the computer will forgive us and we can pick up right where we left off.
That is not the case with students. They remember. They carry the scars of our outbursts with them for a lifetime. Their sense of trust is damaged. They hurt…and often want to hurt us back. The computer doesn’t care; the human does, and that’s what makes us human.
Do you know any computers that can sing or play an instrument without being humanly manipulated? I don’t.
Perhaps the frustrations we experience as teachers should be the schedules, the curricula, the equipment, etc. It should not be the students, for they represent the ultimate in human potential. They are the thinkers, feelers, and doers. Unlike a computer, they do not have a set amount of memory. They are limitless.
Every day, we should be challenged to create an environment that is conducive to risk and failure so each student will be safe and secure in the learning process rather than retreating to a comfort zone where survival becomes a higher priority than personal growth.
This article is adapted from the book “Everyday Wisdom for Inspired Teaching” by GIA Publications, and reproduced with permission from Tim Lautzenheiser.