Monday, August 15, 2016

The Well-Mentored Educator

Diane Hunt, No Failing Students: Seven Teaching Strategies I Used as a Substitute Teacher to Take Smart But "Problematic" Students From "Failure" To Success In One Academic Quarter (45 Days)

As Common Core educational standards, originally murky to outsiders, have come more into view, initial resistance has translated into grudging toleration. Acceptance as normal must surely come next. But while standards give teachers important landmarks of achievement, they don’t necessarily provide guidance in turning those standards into lesson plans. A nascent cottage industry of lesson design has arisen, in print and online, to close this very important gap.

Educational consultant Diane Hunt brings a very nuts-and-bolts approach to educational design. This book, which runs under 100 pages plus appendices, focuses exclusively on designing lesson plans that encourage learning in the K-12 environment. She invests no time in theoretical underpinnings or the psychology of learning. Instead, she keeps attention focused on what specific classroom activities translate directly into measurable improved student outcomes.

Hunt’s product begins with that oft-disparaged classroom classic, the pre-test. (She calls it “pre-assessment.” To-may-to, to-mah-to.) This lets teachers get an accurate baseline reading of where students begin; it also cues students into important concepts in future lessons. It shows students what they need to know, not in some abstract sense (“This is a right triangle”), but in a concrete context that invites students into the germane discussion.

Once teachers grasp their students’ pre-existing knowledge base, Hunt guides them into the process of “multiple intelligences.” Here’s where I get somewhat leery. In my teaching days, I’d often hear students say: “But Mr. Nenstiel, I can’t really learn from books and classroom discussions. I’m a visual learner.” Whatever the science, this actually meant they wanted more videos, PowerPoint presentations, and other passive learning tools presented in darkened, nap-friendly classrooms.

Diane Hunt
By contrast, Hunt provides fact-based evaluations of the different intelligence types, how they respond to different stimuli, and how to approach their respective needs. This is especially important in contemporary public school classrooms, which are organized to be cost-efficient, not really to provide desirable outcomes for particular students. Veteran teachers already know they have to teach against the system; Hunt’s approach provides important tools in how to do so.

Hunt also avoids the kicker that many teachers find off-putting about multiple intelligences. Because every student learns slightly differently than every other, teachers often fear getting sucked into a vortex of very fine hair-splitting, essentially running separate lesson plans for each individual student. Anybody who’s ever had to design side projects for even one student knows how frustrating that is: it’s functionally a whole other course load, without commensurate pay.

Not so here. Hunt writes: “Students like choices. I would come up with two choices from which students can select. In addition, I would offer choices in areas where my students would be having the most difficulty.” In other words, by offering students just enough autonomy to delve into their own problem spots, Hunt gives students power to customize their experience. Solo or group work? Book reading or hands-on experience?

As an aside, former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss, now an independent consultant like Hunt, writes that inexperienced negotiators often come across high-handed, offering authoritarian, unconditional demands. This doesn’t work, and mostly shuts discussion down. Negotiations proceed when the participant with the weakest position has the illusion of control. If education is similar to negotiation, giving students some control improves the outcomes, even if teachers tacitly control the choices.

Hunt’s seven basic steps dismantle the learning process into bite-sized chunks which teachers can make fit their forms. This stretches from pre- to post-assessment, including vocabulary, which looms large in her process. It even goes into post-post-assessment, why she believes giving students opportunity to change their grades matters. The process seems best customized to STEM subjects, but this ex-English teacher sees where it applies to the arts, too.

As I mentioned earlier, Hunt doesn’t discuss the empirical science behind her lesson design. She simply lays out a structure which teachers apply to their discipline and their classroom. However, what she writes is entirely consistent with recent advances in our understanding of human learning. This includes both external experiments in psychology, and internal observations in neuroscience. Anyone interested in learning the “why” should consult Benedict Carey’s How We Learn.

It’s become downright axiomatical today that teachers are overburdened and undersupplied. While legislators speculate on paying teachers more money, teachers themselves continue to want what they’ve always wanted: parental and community support, enough supplies for every student, and continuing education. This book won’t, of course, supply all that. But it may provide the classroom management skills less experienced teachers need to fully fortify their students.

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