Students teaching students: What can we learn?

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After reading the last two posts on pre-service teacher education (here and here), I began to reflect on an experience I had before any formal knowledge of teaching. When I was in college, I spent several summers teaching with Summerbridge Hong Kong (SBHK), an English summer program that provided a low-cost English immersive experience to low-income local students.

Like many overseas language programs, SBHK hires relatively inexperienced high school and college students from the US, UK, and Canada to help local students improve their English skills and increase their exposure to international cultures. Unlike many such programs, SBHK focuses on the development and empowerment of its teachers as much as of its students.

Looking back, after graduate study and several additional years of teaching, I continue to wonder what more I can glean from the program’s philosophy of education and model of teacher training.

Rather than prescribing a curriculum, the program’s administrators scaffold teachers towards designing and delivering their own 4-week lessons. Before arriving in Hong Kong, teachers work with a prior SBHK teacher as a “virtual mentor” to begin developing a final project for their class. Once they arrive, they participate in a series of training workshops designed to introduce them to basic principles and techniques of teaching, as well as to help them break their final project into 3-5 themed “mini-units.” Each mini-unit focuses on a skill that students will need to complete the final project. Throughout the summer, teachers use a similar backwards approach on a smaller scale to develop individual lesson plans, each of which works towards the focus of the mini-unit as well as the final project for the class.

Every step of the way, the Dean of Faculty, an experienced teacher or graduate student in an educational field, provides feedback that is intended to support teachers in meeting their own and students’ goals in the classroom. Just as students are encouraged to think of English as more than just a school class, teachers are encouraged to think of teaching as more than just a job. This is facilitated by encouraging teachers to try new strategies and techniques and to learn from their mistakes rather than fearing consequences. Celebrating such attempts allows teachers to develop as teachers and to take pride in their teaching.

Despite its seemingly loose structure, this program transforms some 300 low-income Hong Kong high school students from disheartened English language learners into dynamic language users who by the end of the summer communicate with confidence on stage in front of hundreds of people. Over 90% of program graduates consistently pass the HKCEE (Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination), compared to the 65% average of all Hong Kong students. While there is no such quantitative survey of teachers’ progress, in my years of working with this program I have yet to meet a single teacher who has described a negative experience. Regardless of how unrealistic it seems, such a model seems to work, at least for language education.

While there are obvious limitations to duplicating this exactly in the K-12 setting, structuring an environment in which teachers and students alike are encouraged to take ownership of their own classroom and education seems both productive and intuitive. Such a program can be structured enough to prescribe end goals for students and teachers through a semester, while remaining flexible enough for individual teachers to develop strategies optimum for their own classes or contexts. However, doing so requires parents and administrators to treat teachers as professionals and afford them the trust and respect such status deserves. In the same vein, it encourages the implementation of policies that increase teachers’ resources and confidence and encourage them to engage students and facilitate learning to the greatest degree possible.

However, such an approach is impossible to standardize. While every student in the country certainly deserves to benefit from the best teaching methods on hand, standardization assumes that there exists a singular optimal approach to teaching regardless of region, student demographic, income level, familiarity with US culture, etc. Standardization and scripted lessons can result in lost learning opportunities because such segues deviate from the script or in inefficient teaching methods that neglect students’ personal interests or previous knowledge. One of the most memorable and enjoyable lessons I ever taught was on body parts and illnesses to a night class of adults, each of whom had multiple tattoos and piercings.

Encouraging teachers to adapt their teaching to fit their own contexts rather than penalizing them for doing so provides spaces in which they and their students can have agency – and interest – in their own classrooms.

 

Geeta Aneja

ganeja@gse.upenn.edu

 

 

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The Cost of the Data

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Teaching is delicate work.  What’s inside a student’s head is invisible, unique, and constantly evolving, and as teachers, our job is to know what’s in there and craft our instruction to match.  Figuring out exactly what a student is thinking and why is hard, but I suspect most teachers are, like me, inveterate junkies for the process.  It’s like careful detective work, a sort of cognitive investigation, in which we uncover confusion and map out the current state of understanding in order to build on that understanding. 

This detective work is fundamental to the teaching and learning process, and good teachers have been doing it since the dawn of time.  We currently call it lots of things (“data-driven instruction,” “responsive teaching,” “formative assessment,” etc.).  We put it front and center in many conversations about effective teaching, and rightly so: you need to know what kids know in order to help them know more. 

When we recognize the importance of up-to-date, accurate data on student understanding, we are faced with a tricky question: how frequently should we test students?  Let me point out an important factor that I believe is often overlooked in answering this question.

We must admit that the balancing act between instruction and formal assessment is a zero sum game.  Put bluntly, we have ‘em for eight precious hours a day… how do we want to spend those hours?  In my experience, decision-makers outside the classroom (administrators, researchers) often overlook the cost of the data, and in cases where this trade-off is considered, the arithmetic can be faulty.  What do I mean? 

Well, sometimes calculating the cost of test data is as straightforward as it seems: if a particular test takes 45 minutes and class periods are 45 minutes long, then that data costs one period of instruction.  Easy-peasy, right? 

But sometimes simple arithmetic doesn’t work.  What if a test takes 25 minutes and needs to be administered in the computer lab.  Lining up, trekking to the lab, finding seats, booting up computers, logging on, and getting settled… maybe 5 minutes.  And then logging off, lining up again, trekking back to class, and getting re-settled… another 5 minutes.  (This is all if we’re lucky and if we’re talking about older kids.)  Now we have 10 minutes left in the period, and the classroom zeitgeist is likely a bit jumbled.  Several kids probably need to go to the bathroom because of testing nerves or excitement over the disruption in routine.  Someone is crying because they’re worried about the test.  Someone else left their jacket in the computer lab.  Let’s face it: the period is over.  A 25-minute test cost 45 minutes of instruction. 

Or consider the phrase, dreaded by every classroom teacher ever: “oh, I’ll just be pulling kids to do some testing throughout the morning.”  Sure, each individual assessment might only last 15 minutes, but can we say that only 15 minutes of instructional time was lost?  Nope.  The constant movement of individuals in and out compromises the learning community that naturally forms over the arc of a lesson: each kid is missing a different chunk of learning, and (for young students) the distraction and novelty of classmates coming and going can be critically distracting. 

What I’m saying is that assessment data is not free.  We pay for it in instructional minutes, and it behooves us to think long and hard about whether the information we obtain is worth the cost we pay for it.  

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