Learning at school can seem like a simple equation: teacher presents material + students listen (including taking notes) + students complete the homework assignments and tests = learning. Yet, in practice, learning can be more complex. The following is the first in an on-going series of posts that will discuss the intricacies of learning in contemporary classrooms.
Starting with “the presenting material” portion of the equation, let’s talk about the teacher. A teacher must be credible, not only through his/her experience and credentialing, but also in the eyes of the student listening. For youth, the personality of the teacher can be the primary standard for judging the teacher’s trustworthiness. Although, as adults, we’ve learned to set aside personality differences to hear the content of what our colleagues are saying, children and teenagers may be more sensitive to personality quirks and differences. Often, a kid’s objection to a personality conflict can be a “willful not learning” (hat tip to Herb Kohl) of class material, and purposefully not completing homework. (Parents and teachers know these reactions only hurt the student and his/her grade, but that reasoning can be lost on a kid who’s simply trying to register a complaint in their youthful, a-few-steps-up-from-a-tantrum-like protest.) The teacher’s ability to adjust accordingly, given the various personalities in his/her classroom, can define the effectiveness of the presentation, and ultimately, learning.
The ability to shift presentation style given the personalities of the students can depend on the teacher’s knowledge of the subject matter. The more thorough the teacher’s knowledge, the more s/he can explain the information in various ways, given s/he will be facing 35 teenagers at once. Often, once the bell rings, teachers are the ultimate improvisors, simultaneously keeping order, while finding attention grabbing ways to make the Federalist Papers or some obscure mathematical concept appeal to individuals who are both interested and not interested in the subject matter being discussed. An effective presenter also can “read” when his/her audience’s attention is waning or perking, then react in his/her presenting style and tone so the audience stays or re-engages. No one class period reacts the same to the presentation. As a teacher, I often discovered that the core content presented didn’t change from period to period, but how we discussed the concepts did.
Lastly, one high school and middle school teacher is responsible for 160 students in a typical teaching assignment. Of course, not all together at one time, but even at 35 teenagers during a class period, a teacher’s attentions are bound to be split. The skillfulness of classroom management–which can be roughly defined as behavior directing, while presenting complex subject matter in easy to understand bites, systematic paperwork completing, like taking attendance, simultaneously correcting incorrect understandings, interruptions by announcements through the public sound system–can also influence the effectiveness of the teacher’s presentation.
The learning process is a complicated endeavor, subject to the humanity and character of both teacher and students. The confluence of conditions conducive to learning can be fragile, thus bound to pose challenges from time to time. The willingness of students, parents and teachers to continue negotiating their learning relationships will help address any difficulties over time. Starting with the understanding that learning can be complicated will help address any sticking points, as well as build the trust needed to learn throughout the school year.
Look for the next post in the series to discuss the factors which can influence a student in her/his part of the learning process.