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Student-Centered Teaching, Teacher-Centered Leadership

BY MIKE FISHBACK

The first journal entry I wrote as a brand new apprentice teacher is dated September 13, 2001. Two days earlier, my fourth grade students and I had witnessed the collapse of the World Trade Center on live television. I wrote, “My instinct was to answer the children’s questions by supplying as much information as I possibly could… My political science background gave me keen insight into the context of the events… I saw that my students were confused and worried, and I have found that, at least for me, information is the most comforting way to relieve confusion.”

When I recounted my handling of the terrorist attacks to my school’s director later that week, he responded by shaking his head and asking, “Have you ever read Piaget?” I replied that, being a political science major, I had not. This launched him into an impromptu lecture on the virtues of Piaget. That evening, I wrote defensively in my journal, “It did not occur to me [on 9/11] to ‘respond to their questions with questions’ or to ‘let their developing minds work through the answers’ or whatever… I felt it was my duty to be there protecting those children from fear and confusion, and to tell you the truth, I think I did a pretty damn good job.”

And so, with a thud, I began my education in student-centered education.

At this progressive school, I learned along with my fellow new teachers about how we did things differently, about how we rejected the top-down, one-size-fits-all view of school and instead embraced our students’ inquisitiveness, creativity, and intrinsic desire to be good people. I also began to recognize the paradox of this approach: Our profession attracts those who find comfort in a sense of control and who enjoy dispensing wisdom and advice, yet to be student-centered is to deliberately cede control to those who, by definition, have less experience and knowledge and maturity than we do.

As I spent more years in the classroom and studied constructivism in graduate school, I immersed myself in the challenging questions that progressive education poses: Why share your own observations when your students’ observations are more relevant? Why write questions for your students to answer when they can generate their own questions? Why put together an entire curriculum in advance when you can instead be synthesizing your students’ observations and questions and letting a meaningful curriculum emerge organically? Why give grades when your students can hold themselves accountable to their own expectations or to authentic audiences?

For fifteen years, as I taught at a succession of three private middle schools, this student-centered philosophy guided my teaching. Even when I felt constrained by the conventional school structures around me, I was able to incorporate the spirit of the philosophy within my own lessons and interactions with my students.

Then, last fall, I was once again a new teacher, at my fourth school, a public charter school. High Tech High is, in a sense, the most student-centered school I’ve worked at: project-based learning, restorative disciplinary practices, student-led conferences with parents. In another sense, it’s also been harder for me to put the philosophy into practice, with class sizes larger than what I’m used to, planning and assessment periods fewer than what I’m used to, and the range of learning needs wider than what I’m used to.

Sometimes, it’s been a struggle to stay student-centered. Sometimes, if I don’t feel able to sustain a class conversation to generate student ideas and questions, I’ll lead with my own ideas and pose my own questions. Sometimes, I’ll find myself just telling the kids things they need to know, rather than doing the much harder work of helping them construct knowledge collaboratively from their own observations. Sometimes, I’ll teach in pursuit of a preordained outcome, hoping to exert enough control over the lesson to gift students with a skill that I have decided is important. Comfort in control.

This past winter, during a spontaneous conversation with my school director, I mentioned my frustration with the behavior of one of my seventh grade classes. At many schools, such a comment might elicit a pep talk emphasizing the director’s faith in me, or a request to send the worst offender down to the director’s office, or perhaps a lighthearted commiseration about how awful that group of students has always been. At this school, instead, my director said, “How about I visit your class tomorrow, and then we can chat about how we can help your kids.”

“How we can help your kids.” First observation: It’s not me who needs help; it’s the kids. Second observation: My director was showing me she was invested in me and my work.

So she visited my class the next day to observe, right on schedule, and later popped in just a few minutes into my prep period, right on schedule. Clearly she had prioritized this and was taking it seriously. She began by asking me a series of questions: how I thought that day’s class had gone (it had gone okay, with a few difficult moments); what my ideal classroom community would feel like; what if anything seemed to be preventing this particular classroom community from feeling like that.

As our conversation progressed, I noticed that every contribution my director made was some version of a question aimed at helping me gather my thoughts, examine the situation more deeply and comprehensively, and construct my own way out of the dilemma. She was my consultant, yet every idea and solution was coming from me. None of her questions were judgmental, yet I was offering some pointed self-criticism as I answered them. She was technically my boss, yet I was being held accountable only to myself.

A few minutes before our time was up, my director presented me with a choice. “I do have a few suggestions,” she said. “Would you like me to share them with you, or would you like to keep thinking of more great ideas?”

This was a no-brainer. “No, please share them!” I exclaimed, maybe a bit too eagerly.

It wasn’t until she offered to be teacher-centered for a moment that I fully realized the extent to which her whole approach had been student-centered. In this instance, I was her student, and her mission was to support me as I figured things out for myself: my observations, my expectations, my emerging solutions.

To approach interactions in this way, not just in the classroom but beyond it and not just with students but with everyone, is to maintain a deep trust in the wisdom and intentions of others. And this is what I’m beginning to learn about student-centered education at High Tech High. You can’t truly be student-centered if, for example, you get frustrated with students’ behavior. As my former teaching partner remarked one day after I closed our office door to recount a particularly rude comment one student had made to a classmate, “I wonder what he needs from us right now.” To be student-centered is to recognize that it’s on us to inspire our students to be their best selves, not on them to ensure that our classroom agenda can proceed without a hitch.

It’s fascinating now to think back to September 13, 2001, and my then-director’s Piaget lecture to an audience of one. If instead he had practiced what he preached — “responding to my questions with questions” and “letting my mind work through the answers” — I likely would not have responded to his efforts with such defensiveness. And when the time came for him to reveal the theories of Piaget, I would have been in a position to truly understand. For myself.

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