Battling Against Traditional Perceptions of Teaching and Learning

My goal with blended learning has always been to shift the focus from me to my students. I want to place them at the center of learning. I want them to ask questions, conduct research, engage in conversations, collaborate with peers, and make meaning for themselves. I believe this is the best way to prepare them for life.

However, the truth is that

being a student in a student-centered classroom is hard & some kids just don't want to work that hardClick To Tweet I teach 9th and 10th grade, so my students have been in school for 10 years before they walk through my classroom door. They’ve been conditioned to think that “teaching” is a person standing at the front of the room explaining information.

This perception of what a teacher should do and what I actually do are very different. I see my primary role as two-fold: 1) I’m an architect of learning experiences designing engaging activities and projects so my students can discover and create, and 2) I’m a coach providing regular, real-time feedback as they work. The disconnect between their perception of what I should be doing and my actual role is hard for some students. They want me to spoon feed them information and I want them to be drivers of learning.

My students’ role in the classroom has largely been to listen, take notes, and complete individual practice. Unfortunately, this traditional student role does not demand that they develop the key soft skills that people entering today’s evolving workforce need to be successful.

A recent Forbes article titled “Why Soft Skills Matter And The Top 3 You Need,” states that “soft skills—specifically interpersonal skills, the ability to manage and control your emotions, communication skills, leadership, adaptability, and problem solving—are critical.” These soft skills are developed and honed when people work together and face challenges. This is what makes project-based learning hard for students. They have to use and improve these skills to work with a diverse group of individuals to complete tasks, negotiate responsibilities, and execute large-scale projects.

Because my classroom is project-based, technology-infused, and student-driven, it demands that students take an active role in the learning happening. They cannot be passive bystanders. Some rise to the occasion and thrive; while others flounder and want to place the blame on the design of the course. As a teacher, I want to see every student succeed. However, I realize that my class demands that students grab the learning and embrace their roles as drivers of learning.

So, the challenge for me continues to be the battle against my students’ perception of both my role as teacher and their role as learners in our classroom.

  • How can I help my students to appreciate the skills they will need when they graduate?
  • How can I engage even my reluctant learners and inspire them to want to learn?
  • How can I help them to see the value in my roles as an architect of learning experiences and a coach?

I have this sneaky suspicion that many of my students will not fully appreciate the skills they have developed in my classroom until long after they’ve left school. I imagine them being presented with a challenge at work and using the skills they’ve honed in N.E.W. School to rise to the occasion and address the problem, whatever it is. At least, that’s my hope.

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25 Responses to Battling Against Traditional Perceptions of Teaching and Learning

  1. I get the same thing with my 6th graders! Those that struggle with taking charge of their own learning accuse me of not teaching. It’s hard to hear but what’s worse is having them think that me talking at them is the only way they can learn. It leaves me with the same questions you ask. I wonder what it would be like if student-centered leaning started earlier in elementary.

    • Hi Alfonso,

      I have to believe that the sooner these shifts happen, the better. I work as a blended learning coach for elementary teachers and I marvel at the students’ curiosity and engagement. I think catching kids when their young is best.

      Catlin

      • I believe most children are naturally curious, some more than others. And it’s all through experience – we try things, touch and feel things, even taste things; it’s how we initially learn about the world and our environment . Then, we’re brought into a (traditional) classroom where we are told to sit still and listen and the curiosity and is stifled and smothered. For some, it smolders like an ember, waiting to be reignited by an energetic teacher or innovative learning environment. For others, the spark wasn’t strong enough and it’s snuffed out entirely.
        So, yes, if we can eliminate that initial learning environment that constrains curiosity instead of encouraging it, then maybe we can change the entire system. The Leaning Tower of Pisa can’t be truly fixed until the foundation is fixed…

  2. Sara says:

    I’m nowhere close to where you are on this path but I am trying to go down that way and I am struggling with the same difficulties you describe here. Thanks for all your posts, they inspire me and make me feel less lonely on this journey… above all you make me think that I am doing something right, though not everyone appreciates it right now!

    • I’m so glad my post made you feel less alone and more validated, Sara.

      No one ever said changing the status quo was easy, but it sure is nice to be connected to other educators giving it a go! As much as I love teaching and feel so passionately about the changes I’m making, I also experience the exhaustion, frustration, and disillusionment that so many other educators face. I’m glad that sharing my experience helps others 😉

      Catlin

  3. Barbara Paciotti says:

    Two statements really jumped out at me:
    “They’ve been conditioned to think that “teaching” is a person standing at the front of the room explaining information.”
    “My students’ role in the classroom has largely been to listen, take notes, and complete individual practice.”
    When we train students a certain way for 10 years, we can’t expect a new kind of interaction to be easy. I worked 8 years in an alternative at-risk high school in the 90s, and our students were successful because we did make them the directors of their own self-paced learning. Often we’d provide opportunities for projects that combined 2 or more subjects so they could learn and receive credit in multiple classes. And we weren’t easy–kids had to show mastery as a B before they could move on to the next set of lessons. So many students who had “failed” in the regular “listen to the lecture” classroom were thriving in our school–some even graduated earlier than normal!
    I’m so glad that you and teachers like you are implementing real world learning opportunities in your classroom. You are recapturing those students at the start of HS who would otherwise end up in alternative programs thinking they were the problem.
    Thank you for reminding me how powerful self-guided project learning can be!

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response, Barbara!

      I absolutely agree that we cannot expect students to adjust to a totally new approach to learning without some bumps. As a teacher I want them to be as excited as I am about learning but I know that’s idealistic. All I can do is continue to push the envelope, articulate the value and support them in the process.

      Your point about students who have floundered or failed in traditional courses being successful resonates with me. I have so many students thriving who had previously struggled. Conversely, I have some students who did well prior to my class flounder. When the conversation is focused on developing skills instead of accumulating points, students who were successful in the old model push back. It’s a challenging shift for sure!

      Catlin

  4. Marilyn Scherer says:

    I enjoyed hearing you speak today at FBISD’s Digital Learning Conference “Learning Under Construction” At the end of the day I won a door prize and I chose your book “Blended Learning in Action” and a wireless keyboard. Thanks for the inspiring words you wrote in that book. I look forward to implementing some blended activities in 2017-18 with my students with special needs.

    • It was my pleasure, Marilyn!

      I wish you luck using blended learning models to support your special needs students! I hope you find my book useful to you as you implement!

      Take care.

      Catlin

  5. Janice smith says:

    Gtsjes3@gmail.com
    I applaud all of the teachers above. I am a retired 7th grade teacher who was a “project-based teacher my entire career. I completely understand the position you are facing with students. I found that students, especially brighter ones, became much more frustrated than others. This was a result of the fact that traditional boring, dumping information into their heads with notes, lectures or films and power point was much easier than having to communicate, problem solve or build, research or create a project with a community of leaders.
    Problems that I faced were with other teachers who were either jelouse of the fun my kids had coming to school every day or the fact that they were clueless and just bad-mouthed me. The other problem I began to face during the common core , data drive obssession was the administration and parents. Parents began to worry that they were not taught this way and the administration was correct to be questioning my teaching.
    Well I have always said, I knew that I believed in what I was doing because number one, my kids were happier than other classrooms and their grades were just as good. Number two, the quality of learning far exceeded other students, number three they were better prepared for the world. Number four, they became life-long leaders!
    I still work 4 days a week loving every day of teaching and I have to say the kids love me too but in 2012 I left teaching before my 30 years and retired early at 26 years! I don’t regret a moment of my entire career!
    May the force be with all teachers who are brave enough to do what is right for kids!!

  6. Ken Brown says:

    Kudos Catlin and well done!
    This is exactly what I focus on at the corporate level with adult learners.
    But the sad reality is that one day – as folks like you do your awesomeness in preparing younger students – my focus with adult learners may become less relevant…because they will already be prepared!!!

    So…thanks?

    Ken

  7. Tiffanie Douglas says:

    I am having very similar issues. I teach 9th and 10th grade math and when I hear my students talk about my class or when the students do evaluations which our administrators, county, and state use to judge our performance they say I am not teaching. I feel that my students are learning so many life skills as well as the math they need to learn (they ALL passed their end of course test), but students and, therefore, parents complain that the my class is too hard when their student has to work for an A and they say I am not teaching. This has resulted in my being asked to reduce this type of teaching and learning especially in the first semester. I wish other teachers would increase this type of learning sooner instead.

    • I hear you, Tiffanie! If I had a dollar for every kid or parent who said my class was too hard, I could buy Chromebooks for all of my students!

      If we give students grades that do not reflect their skill levels, I don’t think we are doing them any favors. That said, I know how hard it is to be constantly questioned.

      Catlin

  8. NORMA A GONZALEZ says:

    Dear Catlin
    I read your post. I am a retired teacher from Argentina. But I want to tell you that in the other hemisphere, in the southern and far country, many teachers ask the same things.
    I love feeling that those of us who love our students are strongly questioned. That way we will build a better world. A world of peace.
    Norma

  9. Linda says:

    A case for Montessori education in the public sector. From pre-order through 12.

  10. Leigh Hynes says:

    Hi Catlin
    The struggle is real! Moving students from differentiated to personalised learning is a process and some say that students (especially older ones where flip lid learning is more ingrained) go through a grieving process when they make the transition. Barbara Bray and Kath McCluskey’s work on personalised learning help us allow students to move through the stages. http://www.personalizelearning.com/p/toolkit.html

  11. Carl Kohns says:

    I have wrestled with this as a 5th grade teacher and have encountered the “learned helplessness” of my students, waiting for me to tell/show them “how to do.” Next year I expect to continue on this path, helping my students relearn “how to learn,” as I move to the middle school to teach STEM to grades 6-8.

  12. Courtney Adams says:

    Great article Caitlin, and the struggle is definitely real. We just received new laptops from STS Education (https://www.stseducation-us.com/second-life-hardware/laptops/) an edtech provider and I’ve been struggling to weave the technology into the classroom a good amount, all while developing soft-skills within my class, and not just standing in front of the classroom lecturing. This was a great post and really mentioned some good points in education nowadays. Thanks again for sharing it!

  13. Amanda Alford says:

    I face all of the struggles you stated. As a 7th grade Science teacher, I use blended learning along with hands on learning. The first 9 weeks, I’m constantly asked when I’m going to “teach” them something (stand up in front of the class and lecture). Then at parent conferences the parents ask me the same question. When I explain how my class works, they just mumble about how it wasn’t done that way in elementary school and their child easily earned an A then. This past year it seemed as if all the students, even advanced had “helpless learner”. They were so use to being spoon feed, they didn’t want to collaborate (unless cheating off one another) or wouldn’t put any effort into student led discussions or projects. At the end of the year, I still had students telling me that if I “taught” normal they would have made honor roll or Jr. NHS.

    • Keep the faith, Amanda! I know how frustrating that can be. I honestly feel like many of my students won’t truly appreciate the skills they developed in my class until long after high school. Just because “teaching” looked a certain way for 200 years doesn’t make that the best way to learn. I hope you can stay confident in your resolve to develop learners who are capable of problem-solving and learning long after they leave your class.

      I hope your summer is relaxing and rejuvenating!

      Catlin

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