Teaching Others How to Think

I attended a Tennessee Teacher Leader Summit last week and was joined by approximately 150 other teacher leaders from across the state. Some are members of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) Fellowship, others are members of the Hope Street Group (HSG) Tennessee Teacher Fellowship, the Governor’s Teacher Advisory Council, and highly active members of the Tennessee Education Association (TEA). Regardless of our professional teacher leadership affiliations, we united as one powerful group of teacher leaders for a day of collaboration and the opportunity to inform the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) of ways they can improve. 

The summit was opened with a short round table discussion with Jamie Woodson, the CEO of SCORE, moderating an education discussion with Governor Haslam and Candice McQueen, the state’s Commission of Education. Naturally, the news cameras were rolling, and Governor Haslam made headlines when he said “What scares me the most about our country right now is we don’t have people who are really doing the hard work to think–and I think you learn how to think in school...One of the benefits of education is understanding that there are different points of view. Whether you're teaching calculus or 2nd grade, it doesn't matter; you're teaching people how to think.” His comments got me thinking about my own classroom as well as the educational landscape as a whole. One of the main reasons why I chose to teach English, instead of another subject is because it organically lends itself to students developing and defending their own interpretations of the text. Am I doing a doing a good job of allowing them to do this? Are teachers in general doing a good job of encouraging students to think and to look at things from different points of view?

My answer to both of these questions is an unequivocal maybe. At times, I think I do an excellent job of standing back and allowing the students to fine-tune their own interpretations. However, I fully recognize that there are times when I talk way too much. I promise it isn’t on purpose. I just get so excited about the content that I want to jump in and take over. I have so much information that I want to share with my students, and this is the fastest way! However, research says that when I do this too frequently, their learning suffers. A recent Washington Post article cited “an analysis of research studies published in 2014 [which] found that ‘active learning leads to increases in examination performance that would raise average grades by a half a letter, and that failure rates under traditional lecturing increase by 55 percent over the rates observed under active learning.’”

The amount of active learning versus lecturing occurring in classrooms across the state traditionally varies by grade level. The unfortunate reality is that the further students progress in school, the more likely they will be exposed to long lectures. Would a 1st grade teacher be successful if he or she lectured all day? Of course not! It’s not developmentally appropriate to lecture 1st grade students, so they are involved in active learning activities. High school students have slightly longer attention spans (by about 10-15 minutes), but it’s not any more developmentally appropriate to lecture to them all class period than it is a 1st grader. Even as adults, we would have to be highly interested in a topic to listen to someone talk about it for forty or more minutes every day. Simply put, if teachers are getting students to think, then they (we) need to stop talking so much and get them actively involved in the learning! This is not an easy task, but few enter the teaching profession because they think it’s easy, and whose who do generally don’t last very long. 

Something else Governor Haslam said at the summit that stuck with me is: “If you can set high standards for your students, it might be the best thing you can do.” It’s human tendency to put forth minimal effort, and, last I checked, students are human. As teachers, we need to set the high expectation that students will think, that the answers won’t be spoon fed to them, and that learning new things is the most difficult, and fulfilling, thing we can do as a society. As the teacher, I want my students to view me as the lead learner. I want to exemplify natural curiosity and how to view things from different perspectives. As a high school English teacher, I want to stop talking so much, and transfer the burden of learning to them. Only then will I be successful in teaching my students how to think.