The Most Boring Lesson Ever

Today I taught the most boring lesson I have ever taught in my teaching career. What accentuated the boredom was the forced attention the students gave me. They forced themselves to focus on my words and drawings for an hour. No talking, no rowdiness, just forced attention. It was a weird victory. They were controlling themselves to engage with something not worthy of their engagement. Thats not what I want. And the results? About half the class got the concept with the rest just feeling exasperated. 

I want to take note of my response because it felt right. While they were lined up waiting to go out for lunch, I apologized to them for the bad lesson. I commended them for their attention and admitted their frustration was valid because the lesson was poorly designed. They stood silent, staring at me. One student timidly replied, "It's okay, Mr. Fereday." Broke my heart. 

I spent lunch redesigning the lesson. It had been on equivalent fractions. I made up a quick template, cut some construction paper, and picked them back up. The new lesson involved them designing/coloring a strip of paper that had been partitioned into different fractions, all equalling one whole. After they spent a good amount of time designing theirs, they cut up their whole, then exchanged pieces with others. The exchanges had to be the same size (equivalency). They then took their new whole and glued it onto a piece of construction paper, to be marked up tomorrow. 

The second lesson was more dynamic, perceivably enjoyable, and seemingly significant. We had a great class discussion with evidenced understanding of how fractions relate to others. What made it better was the creativity, the interaction, and the reality of being able to see that two one-sixteenths equaled one-eighth because they both created shapes of the same size. 

Why didn't I start with that? Because I wasn't considering how to best meet my students where they were. Instead, I was asking them to meet me where I was. It was easier to just talk and draw pictures, ask at the end, "So, do you get it?" then hand them the problem set. I refused to care for them. Nel Noddings argues that educational care, displayed by assessing the student's needs, then meeting them in their need, is crucial if there is to be beneficial learning.

Selfishness. Pride. Laziness. Many things get in the way of effective education. We just have to be clear that those are faults on the teacher's end, not the student's. I hope we move away from blaming our student's inabilities and instead have the courage to examine our own practices honestly. I get it--its scary. Especially if you have been doing it one way for so long. I'm continually learning that flexibility, adaptation, and creativity are central qualities of great teachers. The foundation for those though, I'm realizing, is a brutal honesty with oneself--to expose every area of your practice and hold nothing as sacred, to have the courage to admit you were wrong and the same courage to try again.

I want to be honest.

Educational Lessons from Chinese GDP Projections

The Economist recently ran a story based on a Duke/University of Colorado, Boulder study that found a correlation between reported population growth and promotion of Chinese bureaucrats. It seems that the bureaucrats most effective at suppressing population growth had a higher chance of being promoted. The only problem is that the figures reported by the bureaucrats to their higher-ups didn't align with the census data. Essentially, the government officials were fudging numbers to make it look as if they were doing a better job than they actually were--and were being rewarded for it. The extrapolation of this information leads to questions of whether the country's reported GDP is subject to the same fiddling of statistics in order to appear more prosperous than it really is, which would spell major problems for the global economy.

I wonder if the moral compromises or frustration shown by our children comes from the same pressing for results by promise of reward or threat of punishment illustrated here. 

You cant go out to recess unless you finish your homework; you get to go on the field-trip once you have read fifteen books; if you don't change your behavior I'm going to call your parents.

When we make freedom, play, enjoyment, contingent on performance, does it result in a less than desirable product? In the same way, does harshly punishing stealing or lying prevent it's resolution? I would much rather have a child confess to lying or stealing than keeping it hidden. I want that because it encourages the development of character, what David Brooks identifies as an individual's strategy in overcoming their internal weakness. If the punishment is too harsh or the reward too great, it seems that we deny children the opportunity to develop that character by facing their weakness and choosing to overcome it, instead forcing them into a punishment-avoidance or reward-attainment state. The means get lost in the end. 

Pasi Sahlberg, in Finnish Lessons 2.0 argued the same thing to a degree. He stated that the absence of attaching raises, school budgets, job security, and praise to standardized testing, is one of the factors that has lead to Finland securing some of the top scores on the PISA assessments during the last decade. The Finnish school system, he argues, is a system built on trust, not accountability. 

Perhaps its a issue of giving too much weight to data or asking students to perform tasks they don't have the skill sets or scaffolding to achieve. I'm learning that a good amount of student frustration, "apathy," and cheating that I witness in class is due to my lack of equipping or preparing them for a task, not their actual unwillingness. They just don't know how to begin and so then sit there, staring.