Just shut up and work with us, Weinberg

I have an issue with talking too much in class. I think many of us do.

I've already done some focused work identifying what my students need me to show them for a given topic, and it's a lot less than I initially think. After a conversation with some smart educators, I decided to commit this week to not do whole class instruction unless it was absolutely necessary.

Sometimes I confuse necessity with convenience. The problem is that it's always convenient to do whole class instruction. You look out and see eyes staring at you, and it seems at the moment to be maximally efficient to communicate to the entire group at once. The quality of that attention is never what it seems.

In my biggest class, I've been continuing to put direct instruction into videos. As I've written previously, these are videos (three minutes or so) that have the information distilled down to small chunks. In doing this, I get around to every student and make sure they are somehow engaging with that video through writing down important information, trying the problem being demonstrated, or completing the challenge I usually put at the end. It's impossible for me to be instructing at the front of the class (or anywhere for that matter) and be aware of what every student is doing. With the video at every student's seat, I can be there. I can ask them questions one-on-one to see what they understand. I can make notes of the students that are struggling. I can assess every student at some point while I walk around, leave alone those that are doing just fine without my dictating their attention, and focus on those that need more guidance.

This increased time away from blabbing at the front of the room means more assessment time. The class starts with a quick quiz (1-2 questions) that I can get back to students during the period. I can give every student some bit of feedback, and it ensures that I have a conversation with every single student during the class. That is awesome. It means I can ask higher level questions of the stronger students and push them forward. It means I can see what students are writing down within seconds of doing so.

Though I occasionally think to myself that the reason this works is because my students are well behaved and will stay on task when I am not directly focused on them, I don't think this is why it has been successful. I'm in the middle of my students (rather than in one location) the whole time. I can see what they are all doing. If they do get off task, they know that I know if because chances are I'll be there in a minute or so. The class is noticeably less structured, and I don't feel as productive as I think I would if I was marching through a lesson plan. This is more a reflection of how I now have a more realistic awareness of how my students are doing with the material, rather than in ten minute chunks of independent work between lecture.

The students benefit most from interacting with each other. They do occasionally need help from me one-on-one, but the nature of that help varies greatly between students. I can give that help when I'm not spending so much time talking. The inverse is more powerful there - I can't give that help if I'm talking too much.

I decided to give students a quick exit survey on whether they liked the new format, whether they wanted to go back, or whether they wanted something different from both classroom structures. Here's what they said:

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I've gotten this sort of strong message before, but I unfortunately go back to the old ways, for the old reasons. It's easier to talk. It's easier to do a developmental lesson. It's easier to ask a question and conclude from a one or two student non-random sample that the class gets it. It just isn't necessarily what works best for students. I need to keep that in mind.

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One Response to Just shut up and work with us, Weinberg

  1. As a math teacher at an alternative hs, I implement this method quite regularly. Being honest, I totally understand what you mean when being in front of the kids helps manage, and being off to one side you can see non-productivity. However, mirroring what you have said about gains, the kids really are learning more this way. They have that chance to dig in, and try it with each other.

    In order to help manage the behavior, I actually turned all of my desks in to whiteboards (they were the 8ft tables you can buy at nearly any hardware store / party supply store) and use the whiteboard as my instructional component to target the smaller groups of kids in order to help manage my time and to help pull some of my "off-taskers" back in. That way the kids can manipulate right infront of them what it is you are working with.

    So far that approach has brought engagement with the content up, and better yet overall scores. But realistically, that could change with next years group!

    I wish you the best of luck, and look forward to hearing more of what you're planning on working on!

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