By Christian Ehrhart
I would guess that whether you realize it or not you teach to a product. I was included in that group when I began. In fact, the hardest ideology to instill in others is not to teach to a product. You expect a certain level of quality on a project, you expect a grade on a test, you expect a certain quality in an essay, or standardized test, the list is endless. If that is the case, you teach to a product – something at the end of a lesson that demonstrates to you what a student learned. Along the way, any number of factors affected the learning of that student. We are all educators, if you can’t make an infinite list of the obstacles to constant concentration amongst adolescents you should take a long look inside. I honestly have started to believe that extra credit, notebook checks, and all those behavior grades were invented to inflate grades because the teacher was teaching a product, and when the students struggled the teacher needed to do something so the students’ grades would be successful. We are focused on the end product grade, not learning. Keep in mind what I am talking about – your instructional time. Many of us spent countless days providing information, and having them answer worksheets, or complete projects. And at the end, when they produce their learning product or assessment and the students don’t do well we say “I don’t know how they could have gotten that wrong, we went over it” – IT IS BECAUSE THEY NEVER LEARNED IT! Sorry to be a bit harsh, but as they say in sales ; De-nial is not just a river in Africa. I am not saying we didn’t instruct them, but we didn’t provide a means to affect their learning. The instructional accountability is on you, the accountability for learning must be on the student.
I no longer teach to a product – I could care less about what the students produce. The reason – I know what they have learned along the way and in most cases and provide pinpoint summaries of each student’s performance on the product while they are completing the product. In other words I already know what they know before they show me. The assessment has been taking place the entire time, the product is more of a way for the students to show themselves what they have learned. It is a shift in the accountability from teacher to student. I teach a process – an endless cycle of questioning, remediation, and enrichment that has become so individualized the students start to become accountable for their learning. But, how? There is only so much time – Myself, I use a highly structured scaffolding that is reinforced with intense questioning techniques that is designed to remove layers of the onion. The onion is an analogous statement I learned in my prior career. If you think of the root cause of the confusion, or the optimal level of understanding as the center of the onion; than the focus of your questioning should be such as to remove the numerous layers that surrounds it. I have found that the personality of the individual being questioned determines the level of complexity needed to arrive at the center. As well, a more conversational technique with remedial tasks often has proven to be helpful in determining the real reason the confusion exists.
Let’s use a basic project experience to demonstrate the difference:
The What & The How
Teaching to the product: Students will be broken into multiple groups most likely assigned by the teacher. The structure follows a number of cooperative learning theories; either assigns each student a role or jigsaw the group into a variety of expert groups and use heterogeneous grouping to share the information. The purpose of the project is to reinforce the concepts of the unit either in review for an exam or in place of the exam. In many cases, students present these projects to the class. The teacher uses a rubric to grade each group and subsequent member. Throughout the activity the teacher moves around the classroom checking for understanding, and intervening when redirection is needed.
Teaching a process: Taking the same project and cooperative theory but place that project in a classroom focused on learning – students will be broken into groups, with one group is a remedial group for those who are not proficient on the information needed recently assessed. Day one is about fact finding, gathering rudimentary information and a closure follows that is used as an assessment. Once those students have shown proficiency they join a group assigned by the teacher with the basic skill set to contribute. The second day focus for the teacher is on the groups who are obviously struggling from the closures (essentially another remedial group). This small group of students reviews what is needed to understand day 2. On the third day students turn in a product – difference being some students have completed Stage 1, Stage 1 and Stage 2, or Stage 1 – 3. A grade is assigned for each day’s work; because each day is scaffolding dealing with the content. Students who did not complete the other stages are exempt for the enriched activity.
The simplest answer: forced learning, the students have nowhere to hide. At the point they are confused or frustrated they are remediated and assessed. Consequently, each students works to their ability and assessed accordingly to ensure learning has taken place. The key is to set the minimum understanding expected for the class at stage 1. Therefore, if a student at the lowest cognitive level needs all three days to work they accomplish the task and learn what is expected to help ensure success. Essentially, each student is taught at their level of understanding. More importantly they are assessed at their level of understanding. This situation causes an increased intensity within the classroom because each student knows they will be expected to show understanding, and those who may need motivation to work often show you more than you ever expected to avoid spending time with intensive remediation.