Friday, December 19, 2014

Healthy Tension in the Classroom

If you want to accelerate learning for your students it is helpful to create a little tension in the classroom. Tension needs resolution and the process of trying to resolve a problem and ease the tension opens up the mind to learning new things, not just remembering old things. I am not speaking of tension between people but the tension of ideas coming together with enough force that we must deal with them and figure out what they are saying and what it means to us. Here are two examples:

1. I was recently in a very good class where the lesson was a part of the book of Daniel from the Old Testament. There are a couple of stories that are very familiar in that book. One of them is of the three young men who are ordered to bow down to an idol or face the consequence of being burned alive. The highlight of the story (for me) is their statement of refusal, found in verses 16-18 of chapter 3. In essence they state that they are not going to do this and they know that their God can deliver them but even if He doesn't they still won't bow down.

Well, you could read those verses and simply say "What a great example of faith" and move on. No one would disagree with that and it would supply some inspiration but give you very little to think about besides 'I need to be more like that'. We need to find a way to leverage the inspiration into action and creating some tension with questions is the way to do that. You could ask some of the following:

  • Why do they use the word 'careful'? Shouldn't you be careful when you speak to a king especially if you are not going to obey? (remember that 'careful' means "full of care" and what they are saying is that it doesn't bother them to say this. How can they be that strong when their lives hang in the balance? What do you consider worth dying for?)
  • Where did they get the idea that their God would save them? They are looking at a very hot furnace, directly in their view. That is a reality and still they cling to the idea that God can pull them from it. How did they arrive at this point? Can anyone arrive at the same point? How?
  • Is it faith or ignorance to suppose that although God can save them but He might choose not to?
All of those questions, and others like them, can create some healthy tension that will enhance learning.

2. In the Shakespeare play King Henry the Fifth we are treated to a well known speech ("we few, we happy few, we band of brothers") by the king as his forces prepare for battle against the French at Agincourt. They are greatly outnumbered and yet the king refuses the idea of more help and more troops, even offering to send home any that are afraid to fight:
"O do not wish one more 
Rather proclaim it through my host
That he which hath no stomach to this fight, 
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us."

At the end of reading that you could say "Wow, that is a powerful speech" and just move on. It is inspirational, but again, if that is all it is we won't be moved to action, to deeper understanding, and ultimately to change our lives for the better.

What if you asked a couple of questions just to create some healthy tension, to stir things up, questions like this:
  • Is Henry confident or cocky?
  • Does Henry have a death wish not only for him but for his men?
  • Would you be more or less willing to follow a man like that?
You will get discussions, thoughts, more questions, and ultimately more learning if you clearly give your students a reason to think and give them some tension to resolve.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

In Praise of Students

I once visited a teacher's class that did not go well. We talked afterwards and we both knew it was weak. A month later I visited and it was a much better class. I asked him if he could pinpoint the difference and what had happened in the last 4-5 weeks. I was surprised that he could answer so quickly. He did not hesitate to say that the difference was in his own attitude. He had previously looked at his students as objects, things to make him look better. He stayed frustrated when they did not act like he thought they should so as to maximize his performance. Then he realized what he was doing and decided that he didn't care how he looked, he only cared about their learning. Things changed almost overnight for him.

So what do you see when you look at your students? In the worst case scenario you could see the enemy, those that oppose you each day and tend to make your life miserable. Of course there are days like that, but if that's really how you feel then you should polish up your resume and look for other work. If not, misery will be your constant companion as you attempt to teach. The other end of the spectrum is to see nothing but soaring scholars winging their way towards life long successes. Both extremes are misleading.

Here is what we really see: we see people, young and old, just like us who have questions and wonders and worries. They have a whole life outside the classroom.They grow and develop at different rates. They are anxious and are trying to find their place not just in the classroom but in their culture and social circle. They don't want to fail. No one starts out to fail and our students don't either. Even if they can't articulate it, they want to succeed, they want to do well and they need to do it with pressures on them that we may or may not be aware of. We are instruments to either help or hinder them.

There are many books in my library about teaching and I've read them all. Some I've read a second or third time. One of those is What the Best College Teachers Do by Ken Bain. He has a whole section concerning what the best teachers expect of their students. If you are not expecting anything of your students other than just showing up you are hindering the learning process. Expectations stretch us and having high expectations begins with the attitudes of the teacher and what she sees as she surveys the students.

Here are a few thoughts from the book. I'm inserting them without comment so that you can just think about them as they come. Where do you see yourself in these quotes?

  • "The best teachers tended to look for and appreciate the individual value of each student."
  • "Students will be buoyed by positive expectations that are genuine, challenging yet realistic, and that take their work seriously."
  • "The best teachers tended to set high standards and conveyed a strong trust in their students' abilities to meet them."
  • "Trust in the students depended on the teacher's rejection of power over them."
  • "They looked for the diamonds in the rough, took all their students seriously, and treated each one with respect."
  • "The very best teachers had a deeper vision of ultimate quality that left them with a strong faith in their students' abilities."
I know that I have both hit and missed each one of those standards. And I think that time and experience and age help us all move towards the goal of seeing and treating each student with respect. It is interesting now to see former students who are adults and parents and see the goodness in them. They really were diamonds in the rough and they got polished up and now shine. The shine was hidden when they were 15 or 16 but it has come out now. When I have seen certain students I am grateful that I never said what I really wanted to say in a fit of frustration. For those to whom I actually did say what I was thinking I am embarrassed. I think the students have long since forgotten it, but some of those things have stayed with me.

If you are like me at all you will realize that we need to be slower to judge and quicker to embrace the goodness that is present in the students that come to our classes. Some of my very good friends are former students. My life has been enriched by them and I always hope it has been a mutual relationship.