When I step back and think about my own evolution as a teacher, I am struck by how dramatically different my approach to teaching is today compared to 14 years ago. When I first stepped into the classroom as a new teacher, at the age of 22, I felt I had to be the expert on everything. In retrospect, this is, of course, ridiculous.
Even after 14 years in the classroom, I do not claim to be an expert! Instead, I’ve learned something much more valuable: I should not strive to be a fountain of knowledge but rather an architect of learning experiences.
In first few years of my teaching career, I prepared mini-lectures to help my students understand concepts, vocabulary, grammar, writing, and literature. Unfortunately, this approach, which involved me talking and them listening, kept my students firmly in the role of passive consumers. As a result, it failed to yield meaningful learning. It also failed to capitalize on the collective intelligence in my classroom.
Today, my classroom is a more chaotic space where students collaborate almost constantly to learn from and with one another. It isn’t that my role is less valuable. However, the focus of the actual lesson is not on me; it’s on them. My energy is spent in two specific areas: building lessons that challenge students to construct knowledge together and providing support/feedback throughout the process as needed.
Many educators refer to the role of the teacher today as the “guide on the side”; however, that title feels too passive given how challenging our jobs are! I like the analogy of the architect – one who designs a building and as needed supervises its construction. That is how I view my role as a teacher. I design lessons with the goal of providing meaningful learning experiences that demand students be curious and creative. Then I am a presence in the classroom to lend support as their interactions drive the lesson.
Shifting to the role of the architect is challenging. The truth is it’s easier to stand in front of a classroom and tell students everything we know about a topic we have been teaching for years. It is exponentially more challenging to design learning experiences that allow students to construct knowledge. Conversely, it’s easier for students to sit passively staring at a teacher while taking notes; it’s harder to be an active and engaged member of a group. However, being an active participant in a classroom is much more socially and mentally rewarding.
The more we can make learning an experience and engage our students as active generators of information using the tools at our disposal and the collective intelligence in our classrooms, the more likely we are to cultivate students who are intellectually curious and armed with the skills needed to succeed in a rapidly changing world.