Heather Wolpert-Gawron

“If a child can’t learn the way we teach…”

By on March 12, 2008


“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.” 
– Ignacio Estrada

What’s our goal?  Everybody say it with me: to teach students.   

Unfortunately, there are many teachers who end that statement with, “…in the way I was taught.”  Gosh, wouldn’t life be easier if we could all do things as we once did them, in the way that was familiar and comfortable?  How easy teaching would be if we could all ignore what we know about the science of how our brains work, ignore the data supporting using student-centered classrooms, multi-modalities, collaboration, formative assessments, reflection, and differentiation.  If only we could teach how we were taught.  Sigh.  Wouldn’t life be grand?

Let’s flash back to the teaching of yesteryear.  Because if we go back to how we were taught, then surely the teachers who taught us wish they could return to how they were taught.  Heck, since we’re already time traveling, let’s just head back to the teachers who taught the teachers of our teachers…

As late as the 1800s, the majority of children’s books were dry primers or horn-books punctuated every page or so by an illuminated, biblically-themed letter.  Then Kate Greenaway came along with her watercolor illustrations of playing children (scandalous!).  

The critics of the time were up at arms.  The pictures, they claimed, would distract from the lesson. Greenaway’s educational reform, the theory that engaging the students with illustrations that they might actually relate to, shocked the more traditional educational community.  But without such education revolutions, we wouldn’t have had David Shannon, Arthur Rackham, Howard Pyle, Maurice Sendak, or Mo Willems.  And still there are those who believe engaging students in a way that they can relate to is somehow doing the students themselves an injustice.  

You know, sometimes I gage how to root on an issue by looking around at the people who support the side I’m standing on.  Do teachers now really want to be on the side of anti-reform as the critics were then? Wrong team, guys. 

We can’t ignore that we have evolved in our understanding of how the brain learns and how we acquire knowledge.  Consequently, we must evolve in our teaching habits to reflect this knowledge, despite the fact that it adds to our job.  Because while it may add to our job, it does not alter the initial goal.

But there are still many in our profession, from politicians, to administrators, to even some of the teachers in the classrooms themselves, who still believe a student needs to be taught in the methods that we ourselves were taught.  “If it was good enough for me, it will be good enough for them.”  Some teachers even believe that the fact that a student might not enjoy learning is a lesson in itself.  Ten bucks says those teachers have the most detentions and send the most students up to the office for disrespectful or defiant behavior.  I bet they also sigh in longing for a hickory stick every now and then. 

Anyway, back to our objective, “to teach students.”  The data in this country shows that our students are not learning at the level and at the depth that we would like.  If the data says that, is it not our job and our duty to adapt our methods?  Why are teachers so notoriously disinterested, no, repulsed by change? 

Look, change is hard.  But the ability to change is like a muscle and muscles need to be worked out or they become less pliant.  If you don’t ask change of yourself, then change will be thrust upon you, and if you haven’t excersised your ability to evolve, you will lose the ability all together.  This thought stays with me and encourages me even when I’m frightened of change. 

People around me professionally believe that I embrace change with joy.  Not so. I’ve just learned from doing it so many times, that statistically, shaking your dice and trying something new brings reward more often then disaster.  In fact, stagnant education ensures disaster.  And in a school’s case, the reward is student comprehension.  And when a student understands and appreciates what they are learning, they are less likely to spend their day losing more instructional time sitting in the front office.

Remember, our objective is to teach.  Don’t qualify that statement.  It’s not to teach easily.  It’s not to teach as you were taught.  It’s to teach in ways that shine the light of comprehension down onto a student’s desk, not yours.  


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