What is "learning" in a public school classroom?

You, young lady and young man, have been in school several years at this point. Because of that, you may not have thought about this topic in a good while (if ever). Let's take a serious look at how learning actually works. If we can understand how "learning" happens, we should be able to utilize that process. We should be able, in other words, to run an effective classroom where you, the student, increase your skills and knowledge rather than waste your time. Let's get rid of boredom and learn how to learn.  By Mr. Calvin Best, Your Teacher

First, we need to know what learning by definition is; then, we can see how that happens at school. Here's an online definition: the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught. Keep in mind that some classes such as social studies and geography are more about knowledge whereas others such as English and math are often more about skills.

There are two general types of classes at a public high school: extra-curricular ones and the classes conducted in a traditional, academic classroom. The first category, "extra-curricular," concerns athletics, band, theater arts, agricultural-science, journalism, orchestra, dance team, drill team, cheer squad, art, and so on. Not all schools, especially smaller ones, can staff and fund a full compliment of extra-curricular courses, but almost all schools offer several good ones, and students typically like those courses and are often passionate about them. 


The second area concerns academics: English, mathematics, science, social studies, and so on. Instead of calling those courses extra-curricular, school staff say that academic classes form the core curriculum, so they are simply called "core-curricular." In other words, while a student does not "have to" take many extra-curricular classes, he or she does have to take several years of math, science, English, and social studies. Also, the State of Texas requires students to pass STAAR tests over those subject areas but does not, by comparison, test students over extra-curricular course work.


Interestingly, these two types of courses present students with two distinct ways of learning. Let's see why that is the case.

We can see that extra-curricular courses can be hugely different from traditional or core-curricular ones. The biggest difference concerns what the student does or does not do. At volleyball practice or in theater arts, for example, you are "doing" things as much as or even more than you are sitting and listening. "Sit and Get," as it's sometimes called, and it's also known as "lecture," can be boring to the point of frustration. Ever catch yourself daydreaming in class, tuned-out, restless, or fighting an impulse to drift into a really deep coma?

I want to be honest with you: I've been in teacher workshops that are so boring and irrelevant (does not connect to anything I do) that I've doodled on paper, practicing over and over again my personal signature. I've checked my cell phone 15,000 times, written my wife a love letter, scrolled through Facebook, talked to others at my table when I should have remained silent, and otherwise gone slightly insane, which is to say, could barely get through the thing. I was trapped and could not leave! The next slide illustrates this kind of no-win bind of pointless meetings.

So what is it exactly that causes students to like
or even affectionately love extra-curricular classes?
Why are extra-curricular classes not boring?
Why do students thrive in them?


I could keep placing pictures in this presentation from all sorts of extra-curricular activities, but let's add five other areas so that you get the full idea.

Again, extra-curricular classes require, as a general rule, much less sitting and listening and way more action on your part. They also require, and this is a big deal, a public performance. We all know that our athletes play games repeatedly in front of a crowd, but so does the band, so do students in a theatrical production, and so do the ag-science students. That's all hands-on, interesting, and often downright enjoyable. It's also a lot of work, but students do not seem to mind that. Just look at the enthusiasm for all of those kinds of classes and activities, including from the community. The newspaper even shows up!

What extra-curricular classes have going for them:

1) Much less sitting and listening

2) Much more "doing"

3) Skills-based with Interesting, hands-on practice

4) A public performance

5) Parental & community interest is often high.

6) A student frequently practices the skills or related work load at home without being asked to do so.

7) There is present a strong sense of team and school identity.

8) Fun and excitement happily co-exist alongside self-discipline and hard work.

Another way to think about this topic is to say that extra-curricular classes are much less abstract than academic or core-curricular ones. Consider this situation: imagine going to band rehearsal but instead of using instruments, the band director tells you to hum the tunes. That would be odd, of course, but it would also be a kind of abstraction, which is generally defined as "the quality of dealing with ideas rather than with events." By humming the songs without instruments, the "band" is no longer a band; it has become an abstraction of itself. 


I remember getting a plastic fork a couple of years ago from our school cafeteria that was so weak, so thin, that all it had in common with a real fork was its shape. It really did not function as an authentic fork because it was to weak to cut anything, so what good was it? It was a caricature of a true fork. So a band that hummed its songs would be a caricature of an authentic high school band, or it might even be called a faux or fake band (like faux diamonds or furs).


Caricature: "a picture, description, or imitation of a person or thing in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect."

When a thing becomes "abstract," it becomes more like theory or more like an idea of something that one mainly considers in his or her mind. Sports and electives certainly are based on good ideas, but they are physical, real, hands-on, and you, the student, can "practice" them or aspects of them in your free time at home. Playing catch with a football or practicing your trumpet is very different from reading about the Civil War or listening to a presentation about it. Raising pigs is also different from listening to a presentation about finding the area of geometric shapes. Some people like the "idea" of owning horses but not the "reality" of feeding and watering them seven days a week year round regardless of the weather. The idea of owning the horses is the "abstraction," whereas the reality of feeding and watering them every single day, and making arrangements for that to happen when out of town, is the reality or the "doing" part of it.


I'm not saying that the hands-on or extra-curricular approach to learning is always better than the core-curricular one that uses ideas more than skills, but I am saying that they are different from one another. Too much abstraction can cause any person to drift away. Boredom is often caused by abstraction.

So what's the solution? If we want to make core academic classes as interesting and effective as extra-curriculum ones, should we simply try to re-make academics into athletics or band? Would that even be possible or practical?

Actually, a school can integrate its curriculum whereby an English class writes the lab reports for science class and for social studies, and the latter teaches interesting topics that relate to what a student's other classes are covering, but such a thing is exceedingly difficult to do because it requires advanced academic teaming, much more funding, and the ability for teachers to work collaboratively at an unprecedented level and at times way outside of their academic comfort zone. Such an academic adventure would also require NO STAAR (or TEA standardized testing) so that teachers and students could thoroughly explore alternative course work.

At a well-funded, specialized magnet or charter school in a big city, such a thing "might" be possible, but in a small town
school with declining enrollment, well, it's not realistic.


What to do then to make academics relevant and much more interesting?
What can "we" do right now?

Now we enter into a discussion that principals, teachers, superintendents, curriculum directors, and others call


"Best Teaching Practices."

Best Teaching Practices for Skills or Knowledge:


The teacher is well prepared.
Classroom management is effective.
Students sense the teacher's interest in them.

Lessons are interesting, often well-illustrated, and utilize the right amount of lecture versus doing.

Homework is not punitive or even the central focus.

Testing is directly tied to the lessons.

Tutoring is frequently made available.

Q&A is a common feature as is Socratic questioning, and there's lots of feedback.
The teacher moves about the room a good deal.
The teacher is well-organized and keeps an
orderly and up-to-date grade book.

The teacher is fair and does not play favorites.
Projects and assignments utilize rubrics.


An effective teacher also utilizes what is called reciprocal learning. That is when you, the student, teach other students in small groups or in a one-on-one arrangement. That kind of approach is often highly effective and is also sometimes called peer tutoring. An effective teacher also encourages discussion among students about specific topics and things/concepts being studied.

Finally, one of the best practices of an effective teacher is that he or she smiles at you and with you, encouraging laughter, developing with you a positive, supportive relationship. A good teacher is open and friendly and wants you, the student, to learn and to be successful!  :-)))

Sometimes a teacher will enjoy the opportunity of working with another teacher or two or perhaps with the principal so that a special topic can become something like sports and electives, so that it leaves the traditional classroom and takes on the qualities associated with performance.

In the previous three slides, we saw pictures from Mrs. Smith's Greek mythology unit that actually grew into something beyond her classroom, becoming an "event" at the BISD Athletics & Fine Arts facility that many people enjoyed. The students, themselves, learned a great deal and certainly got to be highly creative and fully engaged. That's project-based, instructional excellence, but it is not an everyday kind of thing because of its scale and scheduling demands, but we should want to do those kinds of things, even if on a smaller scale.

Do you remember
Shattered Dreams?


The next four pictures show  that we can make important topics hands-on, visual, and realistic. Mrs. Farmer, Mr. Armstrong, and several others worked many hours, including local agencies, to make Shattered Dreams a unique and powerful learning experience. My bet is that this approach to drinking and driving education made a lasting impact on students, saving lives we sincerely hope!

Who could forget that last image?
That's an effective way to learn!

Science, of all the "core" academic classes, certainly enjoys an advantage when it comes to making instruction more hands-on or less abstract. Science classes can and do utilize labs. Students are often out of their seats and actively engaged. That is a good thing.

Science classes also utilize group work on a relatively frequent basis,
and that is a proven, effecting learning strategy.

Rocket Science, which I have taught many times over the course of my career, is another excellent way to de-abstract academics. Rocket Science, for instance, is really engineering, and the latter uses math and science to solve problems or challenges, but it also utilizes many disciplines.

Here's my pledge to you: I promise to utilize as much as possible the Best Teaching Practices that we have already examined. Also, on occasional days, and I hope not very often, I'm going to be overly tired or not feeling so great, and the same can happen to you. We can all be off our game sometimes, if for no other reason than something from our personal world is bothering us and/or we really are exhausted. We all understand that, and we need to be patient with one another in that respect. Let's treat each other with courtesy and respect at all times.

What about the student's role in all of this?
Do you, young man and young lady,
have a set of responsibilities?


There should be, shouldn't there,
a Student Best Practices?

Right now, let's discuss this question and create a set of student learning values. Let's do good, thoughtful work.

Be sure to include these kinds of things plus other categories: active listening, which includes notes, use of the teachers' instructional web, homework, academic honesty, which includes doing your own work, use of cell phones during instruction, on-task versus off-task conduct, and overall coach-ability and teach-ability. Those last two areas are all about attitude and frame of mind. Let's figure this out and make this school year something special and meaningful for us all.  :-)))

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What is classroom-based learning?

by calvinbest

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Public - 7/5/16, 10:49 AM