Dear new teacher, now may not be the time…

A preservice teacher asked an interesting question in the NCTM forum this week. She cited progressive approaches to learning and asked for advice about implementing them in her new classroom. A year ago I would have cheered her on, but now is not the time. Here’s my response:

NCTM is not the only one advocating these principles.  The same ideas are part of National Board Certification, the Presidential Award for Math and Science Teaching, the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice, the Next Generation Science Standards, the Six C’s of deeper learning, STEM (broadly defined) and ISTE.  HERE is a map of the connections. Yet it might be wise to just write examples from the book on the board, literally, particularly if you are working with older students.  I’m serious.   

I only have my own observations from the region in which I live and my Educator-Twitter feed; but since Covid, there appears to have been a dramatic shift in priorities that has affected schools to different degrees around the globe.  Instead of a constant stream of ideas and a joyful celebration of growth, the conversations seem to be largely centered around survival and doing the best we can with an awful situation.  Typically, a new employee has a probationary period that helps employers answer the question, “Does this person fit?”   So while all good teachers want to do what is best for students, no teacher is helpful to students if they are removed from their position as a “poor fit.”  So for now, I recommend getting as much information about what teachers in your school are doing so that you can do the same and avoid upsetting students.  It could be that your school is very progressive, doing inquiry learning and modeling.  The students may be seamlessly switching from face-to-face collaborative teams to Zoom breakouts.  If so, then you will want to do the things you are learning about because your students are used to “student-centered learning.”  But if your students are not used to progressive strategies, then you could experience a tremendous amount of push-back.  Those strategies require more mental effort and the students will likely feel that you are making learning “harder than it needs to be” which can feel like child abuse during a pandemic.

Another important idea that was not on your list is “interleaving homework.”  There is a large body of research that supports interleaving for stronger retention.  However, students in a traditional setting are typically given a large block of questions to rehearse the day’s lesson, step-by-step, over and over, and are not expected to flip back in their books or notes to practice retrieving concepts from a day or so before.  With today’s low rates of recall, students may be very frustrated when their homework doesn’t closely match what they were taught that day.  With good interleaving, students don’t need a “review day” because they review every day.  But if they are not accustomed to interleaving, they are likely dependent on a “review day” to cram information into short-term memory for a test. As awful as this is, I wouldn’t want to make waves if I were a new teacher.

I am hoping that as Covid-19 goes away, we can go back to improving student learning and retention.  An article I read today sees hope in pairing vaccines with complement-inhibiting drugs to be available within the next two years.  For the time being, I would try to stay under the radar.  

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