Nobody’s Teaching if Nobody’s Learning

Man #1: I taught my dog to whistle.

Man #2: Really!?  Can I hear her?

Man #1: Well, I taught it, but she didn’t learn it.

Of course, Man #1 in that joke is very silly.  If his dog can’t whistle, then he didn’t teach her to whistle.  But sometimes we forget this simple truth in our own classrooms.  If nobody’s learning anything, then you didn’t really teach anything (just like in the picture at the top, if no one’s in the room you can’t really claim you taught a lesson.)

Scenario #1: “I taught it, they just didn’t learn it.”

Sometimes you’ve explained an objective every way you can think of, and your kids are still totally confused.  This can be incredibly frustrating, because it can cause you to start to question your own competence or your kids’ capabilities, both of which are dangerous paths to go down.  They can learn, and you can learn how to teach them.  If something isn’t sticking or making sense, you might need to take a step back so you can think it over, study the curriculum materials, or talk about it with a colleague, but don’t give up.  You haven’t taught it until your kids have learned it.

Scenario #2: “We’re drawing Pilgrims”

As elementary teachers (heck, this is probably true of all teachers), we need to incorporate some FUN into our day.  We have to make sure kids get to do things, talk to each other, and move around.  We have to make sure that what we offer kids is engaging, or they will direct their boundless energy elsewhere.  Plus, with huge number of minutes we must put toward literacy and math each day, we have to find ways to sneak social studies, science, art, music and P.E. in during the day.  However, we have to avoid scheduling activities just for the sake of activities.  Activities must be in service to learning objectives that are aligned to standards.  Maybe instead of having kids “just draw Pilgrims,” you’re having them practice an art standard about color and shading.  Maybe it’s a social studies standard related to learning about life long ago vs. life today.  Maybe they have to read for details and then draw to show they’ve understood the text.  In any case, whatever you’re doing has to have a learning verb attached to it.

Scenario #3: “We’re doing worksheets”

Just as teachers can go a little too carried away with “creative” activities, we can sometimes lose sight of our real goals for kids as we focus on covering the material.  Our job is not simply to finish the math workbook before June, or to have kids fill out the cause-and-effect graphic organizer correctly (“It’s EFFECT because CAUSE, not CAUSE because EFFECT!!”–me).  Our job is to ensure they master the core concepts of the grade-level curriculum, that they advance significantly in their reading and writing.  They need to use cause-and-effect understanding to make sense of text; filling out a worksheet correctly may or may not mean they have the fundamental understanding.  That’s why we need to step out of our comfort zones as educators and become more adept with practices that promote critical thinking: open-ended questions, peer-to-peer discussions to build knowledge, having kids speak and write to argue from evidence, giving kids real books to read and write about.

Next time I’ll talk about how to tell if your kids are learning anything.  For now, remember: talking to kids, giving kids fun things to do, or giving kids worksheets are not the same thing as learning.  Your teaching is successful when your kids understand or are able to do something that they could not before your teaching.