What If We’re Teaching Kids How to Stop Thinking?

When I was in high school, teachers stood in the front of the class lecturing, asking questions, assigning papers and giving the occasional quiz or exam.  But when I became a teacher, I was startled to find out that this teacher-centered mode of instruction, often called “Sage on the Stage,” is considered a bad idea by almost anyone who’s gone through ed school in the last ten years because it allows students to be passive and confers all authority to the teacher. 

A new style of teaching is in practice in high schools everywhere, particularly in low-income communities. Techniques can vary, but almost all involve what’s called “chunking,” or breaking down teaching into ten-minute bursts of information, followed by what’s called “guided practice,” or whole-group activities in which the skill just learned is worked on collectively, followed by what’s called “independent practice,” or an individual activity in which each student practices the skill or information taught at the start of class.  In its classic form, there is a stated, measurable objective on the board that will be tested at the end of class.

The technique is often shorthanded as “I Do, We Do, You Do.” In my experience, it is incredibly useful, especially in very large classes of students who come in with skills below grade level.  Most kids love it, for starters.  They love knowing exactly what they’re learning—kind of the way I loved Khan Academy’s math practice drills.  And the use of “I Do, We Do, You Do” massively bumped up the number of skills I could teach in a given year.  Many evaluation models require teachers to use this style of teaching or face consequences.

But. For a variety of reasons, when I was teaching, I began to be troubled by the idea that this technique should be relied on so heavily.  Training kids to have an authority figure who always specified small, clear, measurable goals, then filled your time with structured activities was so different from what my students would encounter in college or on the job—and so unlike the education that students in higher-income communities were receiving–that I was concerned that we were inadvertently training our students out of the very kinds of flexible, creative, independent thinking they’d need to survive in the world.

I couldn’t quite articulate my concerns until I read a post in the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet by a teacher who blogs under the name “Shakespeare’s Sister.”  I linked to it the other day here, but the essence of her concern is that her students were fine during the short “I Do” portion, but during the “We Do” portion:

they could not effectively answer questions…Over the years in this school, they have learned that if they do that, teachers will give them more time, and more help, and more time, and more help — to the point where, if they wait out the teacher for long enough, they will help them through every step of completing something.

Intrigued by the post, I emailed her and asked her to share her story, which she graciously did.  Shakespeare (I’m going to call her that for the sake of simplicity) teaches 11th grade English at a charter high school in a low-income community in Denver.  Her path to teaching was unusual; when she graduated from high school, her parents had just gone through bankruptcy and she felt that college would be a waste of money.  Instead, she rose up the career ladder at Home Depot, where she worked for 12 years.  After the birth of her daughter, she realized she wanted to set a good example and put herself through college at night, working days and finally getting a teaching degree.

She’s been a teacher for the last six years.  Her students, she says, are at a low skill level; “they struggle with the skills necessary to perform well on any assessments.”  Though like me, she finds “I Do, We Do, You Do” useful, she is concerned that the technique, because it is so carefully and predictably structured and because the students know they will always receive assistance, encourages in her students a state of learned helplessness. 

She is deeply concerned that this method of teaching will impede her students from developing the kind of deep thinking they’ll need to do well on Common Core assessments.  According to her, the Common Core tests she’s seen are “so far of my students’ competency level it’s frightening…given my students’ current level of achievement,” reading and responding to passages in the new versions of the test that she’s seen “unless they were explicitly taught those passages would be next to impossible.”

So what would be better?  “It’s all about relationships,” she responds.  “Kids learn well from someone they trust.”  Like me, she is a believer in Kelly Gallagher’s techniques of using real-world texts rather than formulaic, rule-driven writing and also of modeling your own messy, flawed writing process.  She believes that part of her job is to be a role model as well as an instructor.  “I try to model intellectual curiosity, try to tell them that there is so much value in being able to make connections in everyday life.”  And she feels strongly about the role of parents in encouraging their children to embrace intellectual struggle.  “If they don’t do it, our battle as teachers will be a long and slow one, much like Sisyphus’.” 

Teachers, what do you think?  I’d love to hear from those of you in the classroom in particular.  What is your experience with “I Do, We Do, You Do?”  In focusing on the skills that so many of our students so desperately need, is it possible that we’re inadvertently discouraging deep thinking, independence and an embrace of intellectual struggle?  And if we want to teach all of that to students who come in with low skill and trust levels, how do we do it?

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3 thoughts on “What If We’re Teaching Kids How to Stop Thinking?”

  1. I like to use the sequence, “I Do, We Do, You Do, You Teach.” This sequence requires the students to evaluate their own knowledge, communicate effectively and demonstrate confidence. Once they see themselves as experts their dependency diminishes.

  2. With the rise of teaching how-to books like “Teach Like a Champion” has come the decline of the teacher as thought-leader, students as thinkers. In my experience, this strategy–“I Do, We Do, You Do” has merits, but the idea that one strategy or fifty (Cold Call, Wait Time, etc.) should be implemented in all courses across all grade levels isn’t just short-sighted, its insulting to teachers. Having taught all high school grades, it isn’t simply a modification of the same strategies and tactics that works in different grades, but a fundamentally different approach to the classroom. The balance of content to skills being taught in the classroom differs and the tone of the class differs. The ed reform movement has decided that there are “one-size fits all” fixes that can be implemented by most any teacher in front of a classroom that will achieve the goals of education–which the movement views more narrowly than I do.

    I understand that measuring teachers is important, but each step towards concrete and numeric measurement of teachers has, in my experience, felt like a step towards the anti-intellectualization of the profession. Gatsby mentioned this in a previous post, but the irony that as a teacher I feel like I toil in the least of intellectual environment is not lost on me.

    Somewhere I strayed from the “I Do, We Do, You Do” question, but I hope my thoughts are relevant in the context of this blog’s larger questions.

  3. I like to mix it up…a little lecture, a little group work, some quick assignments, some with due dates a week away…I try to keep them guessing a little and keep them on their toes. The kids at our school start taking college classes when they are freshmen, so I try to mix “high school” teaching techniques with what I know they’ll see in their college classes.

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