The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Are You Sure Your Students are Learning?

on October 12, 2015

Today’s post is about the difference between using academic exercises in the classroom that  produce grades, but not much else, and authentic classroom experiences that generate true and lasting learning.

I certainly do not discount the importance of students reading complex material in the classroom, as prescribed by the Common Core Standards, holding class discussions, or analyzing texts. I just believe that those actions do not go far enough. So, if your students have read Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery” and identified its theme as “the evil in blindly following cultural traditions,” but they aren’t bothered by traditions that harm people in the real world today, such as female genital mutilation, honor killing, or the refusal to validate same sex marriages; they haven’t learned anything.

If your students have no trouble with the math problems you assign, and most of them scored “Proficient” on last year’s math test, but they can’t estimate the total cost of the items in their shopping cart before getting to the store’s checkout counter, and only then realize that they haven’t enough money to pay for everything; they haven’t learned anything.

If your students wrote strong argumentative essays last week on why or why not the U.S. deal with Iran is a good decision, but then put together a dull and unpersuasive letter to the local school board on why they should adopt a new system minimalizing school suspensions and expulsions, they haven’t learned anything.

Unfortunately, School classrooms are not the real world, so most of the time teachers cannot provide students with tests of real learning like the ones I’ve mentioned above. But they can enable students to come close to reality by providing activities that simulate actual life experiences or explore a topic beyond the assigned reading and ordinary lessons.

Let me help to make my argument for real world learning clear by describing some ways I have seen teachers move students at various grade levels away from academic exercises and toward authentic life experiences.

Gr. K-1 When the teacher reads her class a fairy tale or folk tale the children often ask her to read it again another day. After a couple of readings and some discussion about what happened, she often asks the children if some of them would like to dramatize some part of the story. Often there are several volunteers who want to act out the scene where Hansel and Gretel fool the wicked witch or the scene where the Little Red Hen tells the other animals that they can’t have any of the bread she baked by herself.  As performances are repeated by different children, they grow longer and more detailed, and the children’s portrayals become more complex.

Gr. 2 in this classroom the teacher sets up a terrarium and has children plant clover seeds in it, water them as needed, and move the terrarium from time to time to make sure it is getting enough sunlight. When the plants are well sprouted, the teacher adds several grasshoppers to the terrarium. Then she sets up an observation schedule for pairs of children to observe for five minutes at a time, discuss what they see, and write down some notes that include the date and time of their observation. At the end of each day the class discusses changes they are seeing and what they think is happening. As the plants shrivel and die over time, the students conclude that the grasshoppers are eating them and also absorbing their moisture.

Gr. 3-4 After reading several of Aesop’s fables and discussing their meanings as they might apply to their own lives, students write and illustrate fables of their own and then compile them into a book for the school library.

Gr. 5-6 After reading about the problems early American settlers had traveling west in wagon trains and discussing them, teams of students play a board game in which they encounter various problems, such as running out of drinking water or being attacked by a native tribe. Each team’s job is to make decisions about their actions after each mishap in order to get to their goals successfully. Some teams succeed, and others fail.

Gr. 7-8 While studying plant biology in their science class, students start their own vegetable garden next to the school playground. They plant some of the same seeds in different areas with various exposures to sunlight and using different fertilizers. As the plants grow, they measure their growth and compare the size and color of the vegetables that emerge. In class they draw conclusions about the factors that work best for producing good vegetables and those that do not.

Gr 9-10 In their English classroom students are given time to read parts of the local newspaper once a week, including the comics. The teacher has them analyze and discuss a different type of article afterward, moving from national politics, to sports, to local elections. Each month they also put together their own newsletter for parents, based on what they’ve learned about newspapers. A few students volunteer to write informative articles about what is going on at school. Other students  choose to create comic strips focused on their own experiences, and two students collaborate on a health column. Anyone is free to contribute other features that might be interesting to parents.  When the writing and drawing are finished, some students write headlines.  Another group assembles the material produced and prints it out. All class members take home several copies for their family and friends.

Gr: 11-12 After reading and discussing Shakespeare’s play, “As You Like It”, students break into small groups and choose short scenes to rewrite the dialogue into modern colloquial English. After working on their scripts for a couple of days they are ready to perform in front of their classmates. Most of the performances are quite funny, but also true to Shakespeare’s intentions. The teacher praises their work and suggests that they might want to take it to the next level by molding it into a public performance for the whole school.

I could go on listing examples of real learning experiences, most of which I ‘ve seen in classrooms over the years. But I think these are enough to help you understand what I mean by “learning” and persuade at least some of you that learning, as I’ve defined it, is an important part of every child’s education.

One response to “Are You Sure Your Students are Learning?

  1. Jane Watson says:

    if only teachers had time to do that…….


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