Teaching/Learning Lexicon: A Paradoxical Implementation

Though my last post, “Teaching/Learning Lexicon: An Introduction”, was some part whimsy and some part semantic history, at my high school the concepts in that last piece are embodied, paradoxically, in a data driven effort by our ninth and tenth grade English and Math teachers to upgrade those respective skills in our freshmen and sophomores prior to the first administration of state tests.

The data driven effort is relatively simple, and goes as follows. On a regular basis English and Math teachers, the latter who teach Algebra to ninth graders and Geometry to tenth graders, do “formative” testing of the concepts introduced in the immediately preceding time period. The teachers meet twice weekly to review the results of the formative testing, and gauge subsequent lessons by the results. On one level, they may need to re-teach a particularly intransigent concept that students obviously understood poorly. On another level, teachers can focus on specific individuals who falter in concept specific ways.

Math aside, and sequencing of material aside, the teachers’ efforts to identify where their students are in understanding the course material I think echoes my “whimsical” call in the preceding lexicon to “locate an appropriate shared frontier” from which a teacher can provide “signposts” – in this case, re-teaching – by which the student can further explore the material. The formative testing helps the teacher locate where the student has gotten lost (the “frontier” where they were last in touch) and so gives the teacher clues where and how she can re-communicate.

Parenthetically, as I discuss in my post from a couple of weeks ago, (8/7/11 – “Schools and Culture: Math and the Undermotivated Student”) by means of this close data study the student who misses one concept in math that is necessary for subsequent material is more likely to be identified before he or she is hopelessly lost. Too often, the passive student gives little clue to the teacher that there is a problem until it is too late to retrieve the understanding without repeating the class. The teacher’s efforts shouldn’t have to substitute for the student’s own attention to the material and willingness to ask questions, but the truth is that we have to meet the student where he is if we are to impact our imperfect learners.

Though the feeling tone of the lexicon definitions of teaching and learning more commonly evoke a deepened interpersonal relationship between teacher and student, I find it interesting and useful that the concepts can be applied also within the relatively more sterile environment of data collection and application of nitty-gritty, daily conceptual tracking.

My episodic lamentations about our hierarchical school bureaucracy aside, these data efforts did originate from on high (somewhere) in the school district, so lest we (I) forget, there are good ideas germinating at upper levels, even if those deliberations do not reach grass roots levels until the order is given. Even if the effort eventually comes up short, some kudos are in order.

Yet even in the implementation of this good idea are the reflexes of the bureaucratic imperative. Upper class teachers (eleventh and twelfth) are required to assist the ninth and tenth grade teachers, all well and good to a point, but some of those upper class teachers rapidly have found their usefulness waning, and have lobbied to use the time originally required to help the ninth and tenth grade teachers to apply some of the same concepts within their own classes, only to be told “no.” One can admire the discipline observed from administrative levels, to enforce the data study, while still questioning the lock step implementation, and the apparent unwillingness to bend in the face of cogent argument on some sides.

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