So many of us teach the way we were taught. We may not even realize we’re doing it. And that means certain practices get passed down year after year without question, methods that are such a normal part of the way we do school, we perpetuate them without realizing there are better alternatives.
Today I’m going to roll out five of these for your consideration: five teaching practices used every day that are not backed by research. In many cases, these practices are not only ineffective, they can be downright harmful.
A few caveats before I start: First, I have used every single one of these methods. Every one. I’m going to tell you why I used them, and why I would avoid them in the future. Second, I don’t believe in all or nothing when it comes to teaching. An argument could be made for the occasional use of any of these, even #3. The point is that in most cases, better options exist. You don’t necessarily have to give up any of these methods entirely. But if you want to see better results, replacing them with more powerful strategies will get you there a lot quicker.
1. POPCORN READING
A.K.A.: Round-Robin Reading, Volunteer Reading
What it is: A teacher wants her class to read a text—a short story, a chapter in a textbook—so she has each student take a turn reading out loud while the others follow along silently. Sometimes students read in seat order; other times the teacher selects students at random to keep everyone on their toes. And in some variations, kids actually call out the word “popcorn” at the end of their turn and choose the next person to read. (I never knew this part. Honestly, I always thought the term came from the image of different students reading around the room looking like a pot of kernels “popping” to life, one at a time.)
Why I did it: I used popcorn reading occasionally as a language arts teacher, when we were doing a whole-class novel, to “get through” the text. I didn’t do it a lot, but I definitely did it. Here’s why: (1) It consumed class time. Sure, in theory I wanted to pack as much high-quality instruction into a class period as possible, but some days I just wanted to fill the time. (2) It kept students quiet and controlled. Interactive, engaging activities can be loud and messy, but an activity like popcorn reading lets you convince yourself you’re accomplishing something. (3) It “covered” the material. Because everyone is ostensibly looking at and listening to the text, it stands to reason that everyone is digesting it in some way. (4) It allowed me to hear my students reading, acting as a kind of formative assessment for fluency.
What the research says: If the Internet was a yard, and articles that criticize Round Robin were dog poop, your shoes would be a mess. The main criticism of this strategy is that it simply does nothing to improve student comprehension or reading skills. On top of that, it embarrasses students whose read-aloud skills are behind those of their peers, offers only a tiny window of time for each student to actively read, and often reduces comprehension, as students who are not reading tend to check out when it’s not their turn. Plus, listening to their classmates read at varying levels of skill can actually teach students to read more poorly as they begin to pick up the habits of their peers. When I was a student, I hated popcorn reading. My comprehension plummets when I listen to something read out loud, rather than reading quietly to myself, so any time a teacher had us do Round Robin, I knew I would have to re-read the whole thing later.
What to do instead: Consider where you want students to end up. If you are working with younger kids and want to build fluency and proper expression, try a teacher read-aloud, a choral reading, or a method known as FORI (fluency oriented reading instruction). If you are working with older students and want them to eventually be able to do rigorous, challenging reading on their own, schedule regular periods of silent reading scaffolded with a KWL chart or an anticipation guide, or have students do reciprocal teaching in small groups.
2. GIVING STUDENTS PREPARED NOTES
What it is: When a teacher delivers content (often via lecture), he provides students with a handout that contains pre-written notes on that content. In many cases, this takes the form of notes pages that can be generated automatically from a PowerPoint presentation.
Why I did it: As a college instructor, I usually delivered some portion of my content via PowerPoint (I would approach this differently now, but that’s another subject for another time). Because I wanted students to pay attention to what I was saying, rather than scrambling to write everything down, I just gave them notes straight from the PowerPoints and made the slideshows available online as well. This system, I felt, made it easy to catch up students who had missed class, and it prevented students from missing important points made during the lecture.
What the research says: Since reading Make It Stick this past summer, I realize I was doing my students a big disservice by making things so easy for them. The book’s authors, who pull together years of brain research, maintain that when no effort is required in the learning process, learning doesn’t last very long. They cited one study where students were allowed to copy notes word-for-word on some material, but made to rephrase other material in their own words. When tested later, students did a far better job of recalling the latter—the material they had to put into their own words. Although it’s more convenient to provide notes for students, the lack of effort inherent in this arrangement handicaps them.
What to do instead: Teach note-taking skills. It’s going to be slow, but in the end, it will be worth it. Provide students with a variety of options for note-taking methods. Let them try a few and decide what’s right for them. Allow students to compare notes with each other, discuss them, and revise them. Another powerful way to support students in their note-taking is to provide them with pre-lecture diagrams, visual structures that help them understand the relationship between the concepts you’re about to teach.
3. WHOLE-CLASS PUNISHMENTS
What it is: The teacher punishes the whole class for some behavior infraction committed by only some students. Often, this takes the form of a lost privilege, like recess.
Why I did it: I can’t even count how many times I did this. I would promise some kind of reward to the class, something along the lines of “If everyone works quietly for the next ___ minutes, I’ll give you five minutes of free time at the end of the period.” Then, as middle school kids tend to do, around half the class would fool around or get too noisy, and I’d announce that they had lost their free time. I did it because it was faster and easier than trying to figure out exactly who caused the disruptions; I knew it wasn’t everyone, but there were too many to count. Also, honestly, I often issued the threat of whole-class punishment hoping I wouldn’t have to enforce it. I wanted to motivate them, to get them to behave in order to earn the reward. When it didn’t work and I had to crack down, I hoped the memory of the loss would get them in line the next time.
What the research says: In looking for research on the effectiveness of whole-class punishment, I came up empty-handed. There’s plenty of public opinion against the practice, but no formal research. (If readers of this post are aware of any, please post a link in the comments.) Still, some parallels can be drawn: Research on economic sanctions—where the government of one country penalizes another, often by withholding necessary resources from the whole country—has shown it to be largely ineffective, often creating new problems. Another study on collective punishment concluded that it is “fairly ineffective at best and strongly counterproductive at worst in shaping group behavior.” Even though specific research on whole-class punishment is lacking, it’s hard to argue with common sense: Many of us have been that kid who tries to behave but gets punished along with the class. Or maybe it’s our own child who has been put in that position. Even if you’re the one who causes the trouble, the weight of “ruining it for everyone” certainly won’t lead to healthier relationships with your peers.
What to do instead: The best way to deal with a rowdy class is prevention: If you have a lot of days when your whole class feels chaotic, this is symptomatic of a larger problem. It may be that your directions aren’t clear. Your students might be bored. You might need to build more opportunities for interaction and movement into your lessons. Or it might be time to re-establish clear behavior guidelines and consequences. When small disruptions do come up, it’s best to deal with them quickly before they grow into bigger problems; to achieve this, the Distract the Distractor method worked well for me. And on days when things did get out of hand, I started using a notebook strategy that got my emotions under control and allowed me to accurately pinpoint where the trouble was coming from. The two articles below offer other productive methods for dealing with large-scale disruption.
4. USING LEARNING STYLES TO PLAN INSTRUCTION
What it is: Because we were taught that every learner is either visual, auditory, or kinesthetic—learning best through seeing things, hearing things, or experiencing things, respectively—teachers may attempt to differentiate instruction by separating students into groups based on these tendencies. Other learning styles models also exist, each one offering labels to define how students process information. Once a student has been labeled with one particular learning style, the teacher attempts to adjust her teaching style to reach students through their identified learning mode.
Why I did it: This one I didn’t really do too much. What I did instead was beat myself up for not doing it. I was aware of learning styles, yes, and I’d even heard of diagnostic tools, tests you could give students to figure out what their style was. You could then take those results and plan instruction that perfectly fit each student’s preferred learning mode. I thought this was something I was supposed to be doing, but I never quite got around to it, and I felt bad about it. To be fair, I was always mindful of the need to present information in different ways. One case in point: As someone who has a lot of trouble following spoken instructions, I have always tried to include written instructions as well. Still, I never really felt competent in this area.
What the research says: Researchers in a 2008 study set out to find evidence that matching our teaching style to our students’ learning style results in greater learning gains. They looked at study after study and ultimately found nothing. No proof that this practice has any impact at all. Since then, other studies have confirmed these findings. Although personal experience may tell you that you do, in fact, learn better through different modalities, this is actually just a preference. There is no research that supports the idea that you actually learn better through that modality. And attempting to label students and narrow our teaching strategies with them can ultimately limit them, making them believe they are only capable of learning in one way.
What to do instead: Provide a variety of learning experiences to all students. Instead of spending time on learning styles inventories and stressing about how to evenly divide instructional time between the different groups, plan your instruction to reach all students through different pathways: Teaching students to recognize text structures will help them develop mental models for understanding challenging texts. Using culturally responsive teaching strategies will help students from all backgrounds absorb material more fully. The mind’s eye strategy has students visualize rich vocabulary in a text before they read it. And the concept attainment model requires students to begin constructing concepts before you even tell them what they are. In the same way that eating a variety of foods helps ensure you get all the nutrients you need, using a variety of instructional strategies will help you reach every student.
5. “DIFFERENTIATING” BY HAVING ADVANCED STUDENTS HELP STRUGGLING STUDENTS
A.K.A. Peer Tutoring
What it is: The teacher plans a lesson aimed at his “middle group” of learners. Then, to provide extra assistance to students who need it and extra challenge for students who grasp the material quickly, the teacher plans to have students who finish the assigned task early help those who are behind.
Why I did it: It just made so much sense. I couldn’t be everywhere to help all the students who needed it, and my more advanced kids were just sitting around with nothing to do (red flag!!), so it seemed like an obvious solution. The kids who needed help got it, and the advanced kids got to learn the material really well by teaching it to someone else. Easy-peasy. Two birds killed with one stone. Differentiation, yes?
What the research says: No. Not differentiation. Although mixed-ability groups and tutoring can benefit the students who need the help to some degree, these arrangements do very little for the advanced student. In order to receive appropriate challenge, high-ability or gifted students need regular opportunities to be grouped with like-ability peers. Having advanced students do this kind of tutoring doesn’t necessarily do them any harm, but if this practice is overused, it takes the place of true differentiated instruction, offering learning experiences that would challenge these students at an appropriate level.
What to do instead: It’s perfectly reasonable to have higher-ability students help other students occasionally; all students should share their unique gifts with their peers. Just don’t call this differentiation. To meet the needs of all learners, try strategies recommended by Carol Ann Tomlinson in her book, The Differentiated Classroom, including learning stations, tiered assignments, orbital studies (3-6-week independent investigations), and learning agendas, where students are given a list of tasks to complete in whatever order they want over a period of several weeks, much like the kind of personalized agendas given to students in Montessori classrooms.
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