Classroom Principles

Robyn R. Jackson writes about principles of great teaching (Never Work Harder Than Your Students, ASCD). Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe write about great learning (Examining the Teaching Life, Educational Leadership). In many ways their assumptions are similar. Both Jackson and the team of Wiggins and McTighe describe how the instructional model can be engineered to create independent, lifelong learners versus docile vessels dependent on the teacher-guru.

The authors concur that a deep sense of the student’s prior knowledge is fundamental. For Jackson, this knowledge facilitates the teacher’s ability to find a common agenda from which to instruct. Wiggins and McTighe see the prior knowledge as a way in which the learner attaches or transfers new knowledge or understanding. Both texts highlight the importance of the worthiness of the academic tasks; the ability to make it “real” is dependent on its meshing with what the student already brings to the classroom.

The biggest tie-ins between the two texts are the teacher’s ability to “sell” the value of the new learning. and the student’s ability to make connections and create their own understanding. The authors illustrate how the teacher can break up and arrange content in ways that students can use, digest, and transform.

In the section entitled “Nothing Personal, But…”, Wiggins opines  that the his principles can promote best practice and “depersonalize” the feedback given to teachers. I support this theme – too often poor mentoring offers feedback that serves more to put a teacher on the defensive than it does to improve learning. In Jackson’s book we see narratives in which Jackson does just that (see page 55) while making a point about curricular alignment. In this vignette, the teacher is very much on the defensive (“Kristine shifted in her seat uncomfortably”). I imagine, given the theme of Jackson’s book, that she would entirely agree with Wiggins’ premise. But her own words reveals how difficult it is to marry our grand ideas with the fast-paced realities of classrooms and people.

Wiggins, himself, contradicts his opinion that his principles can serve to “depersonalize” feedback. To support this idea, he states, “We defend many comfortable school customs by saying, ‘Hey, it worked for me and my kids’ or ‘We’ve always done it this way.'” His very rationale is personal and puts the reader on the defensive.  I have taught in high-risk, as well as high- income districts, and have traveled to impoverished countries as an instructor, yet  my experiences with hundreds of teachers over the twenty years of my career would not support that they “too often revert to defensive postures.” Pardon me for getting defensive, but this is another case in education where a mirror would be far more helpful than yet another theory.

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