Situation and Mission
What the Individual Teacher Can Do In a Broken System
Education reform is a hot topic these days. But it seems as the whole system needs a complete overhaul. It feels like there is much wrong with the system it can be overwhelming and quite depressing. We see stories all the time on the news how awful the system is. The American school system is falling behind other countries. Kids are out of control. ADHD is an epidemic. Leave no child behind is a bad joke. Teachers are teaching to tests. Teachers blame the parents. Parents blame the schools. Colleges blaming high schools, high schools blaming middle schools, and so on. What is an educator to do in these times? I personally think the school system needs to be completely reworked from the ground up. But that's another matter and far beyond the scope of this paper. This paper will discuss what an individual educator can to despite what the rest of the education system is doing. How to get students engaged and actually learn something. By learn something, I mean to really learn it. Not just for the test, but things they will remember for years to come. The purpose of this paper is to make the seeming impossible job of educating today's youth seem possible. I will do this by drawing from my experiences.
I will start by telling a little bit about myself. I guess my story really begins in junior high. Before then, I was a straight A student. As I got older though, around 7-8th grade, I started to rebel against the system. I refused to do my homework. Being that my dad was a high school biology teacher, this landed me in heaps of trouble. Interestingly enough, even though I didn't do my homework, I got high marks on all my tests. This kept me from failing most classes. Increasing frustrated, my parents threatened to send me to military school. At the end of my 9th grade year, I told my parents I wanted to go to military school. I was upset with myself and thought that maybe military school would help. It didn't. I excelled on the military side of things, but still didn't do my homework. After a semester, I decided to go back to public school and enjoy my high school years. After all, I was going to join the military after high school and I still wasn't doing my homework. The same trend continued throughout high school. I did well on my tests, but didn't do homework. Oddly, I showed up to class pretty much every day. It wasn't I hated school or learning, I just hated the system. I found homework to be nothing more than busy work. Useless. After all, not only was I doing well on my test, I set the curve on many tests. Finally I graduated, barely.
I left for Marine Corps boot camp 6 days later. This is where I learned all kinds of things. I learned to do the impossible. I was pushed far beyond what I thought my limits were, both mental and physical. I loved the Marines. My time in the Marines was short lived though. While on my first deployment, I was struck by 2 mortar rounds outside of Fallujah, Iraq. I had massive injuries. There is no way I should have survived. Somehow I did. After extensive physical rehab, I was giving a job as administrative assistant. Here I learned that not only did I have injuries that could be seen, but others that couldn't. I had traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). My short term memory was on of the main things affected. At the time, I didn't know the full extent of this. All I knew was I sure seemed to forget things a lot. Post-its and a little notebook helped, so I didn't think much of it. Not long after, I was retired from the Marines.
After the Marines, I went back school. This is where I learned the extent of TBI and PTSD. I struggled to remember things. I found myself spacing out in class. My thought train would derail and I wouldn't remember entire conversations or lectures. I could no longer sit in class and just absorb the material. Math, one of my strong points, was now extremely hard. I had to drop most of my courses my first semester. I found out I had to relearn how to learn. Some things haven't changed though. The system is still the same. I still rebel against useless homework. It's not all bad, I have had some amazing teachers over the years. I have a unique insight to what it is like to both be able to sit in class and just absorb all the information, and to struggle to understand simple concepts. I have had some incredibly awful teachers, and some amazing ones. From these experiences I aim to help improve the quality of education.
The Marines taught me when given a problem, I first need to understand the situation. After that, I need to define my mission, or intent. Finally, I can start planning how I'm going to execute the mission. After figuring out how to execute the mission, I would need to figure out other things like what equipment is needed, the chain of command, who is in charge of what and so on. In this paper I will focus on the first three, situation, mission, an execution. The other things will be dependent on individual classroom.
Situation and Mission
There in an ever increasing amount of knowledge that a student needs to learn. There is some much new material coming out in the sciences that even the experts in some of these fields can't keep up. Not only is there an ever increasing amount knowledge to learn, there is stimulation coming from everywhere. There is TV, video games, cell phones, texting, Facebook, Twitter, advertisements everywhere, and so on. There are distractions everywhere. Yet students are being given more homework and expected to learn more. Also student/teacher ratios are on the rise.
I believe the mission of education is to prepare our youth for the challenges they will face. Some may disagree with me, but I think this is the ultimate goal of education at whatever capacity. Let's look at a simple example in the animal kingdom. A bird may teach it's young things like song's, how to forage for food, and how to avoid predators. The goal being to prepare their offspring for the challenges ahead. I see school systems as no different, just scaled up.
So, as I see it, this is the ultimate situation and mission of education. To accomplish this mission, huge changes need to be made. The way we are educating students doesn't match the students. We are trying to use Henry Ford's assembly line strategy to educate youth. Also, we still value linear and convergent thinking over divergent thinking. We want to be able to easily compare students, so we make standardized tests. Then we teach to these tests. Never mind that every class of students of students learns at different rates and has different strengths. Students today memorize the material for the test, then forget it. This isn't learning and sure isn't preparing them to solve the problems of today, let alone of the future. Since changing the system is going to take a lot of time and won't happen overnight, what can we do? Well, I was taught when things seem far to big to solve, start smaller. So we have defined out overall situation and mission, now let's look at the individual classroom. Here is where we can have an impact, and maybe if there is enough success, it will trickle up to cause changes in the system.
Students are highly distracted, may or may not have a good base of knowledge to work from, and have an ever increasing amount of knowledge to learn. Our mission is when they leave our class, they will have learned some key points that they can then build on. Now I was very careful in how I defined the mission of the individual classroom. With all of this new knowledge, it is impossible to learn it all. So I think instead of trying to cram tons of information down students throats, we should start small and build a good base. I think this is the objective of school systems, but the school systems fail. The failure is trying to get to much into students too fast. Not enough time with the basics or the students are not getting them. Now this doesn't apply to every class. This is as a whole. I think the real promising thing is, most classes really just need some tweaking. It isn't an impossible task to change your classroom.
Now that I have defined the new situation and mission, I can start discussing the execution. First I shall talk about some philosophies that I feel are important as an educator. And I will finish up the paper with techniques that will help students learn as opposed to memorize. Also, these techniques will help bring creativity to the classroom. This won't be just, here's the techniques, but how to use them effectively and why they work.
I am starting with some philosophies because how we look at things effects performance. If I look at education as an assembly line, I won't care how good the product is. All I care about is how to many students I can get through the line at the cheapest cost. No one will admit to it, but I feel this is pretty much how many people making the policies treat education. American society is pretty much ran on the philosophy time is money. Quantity over quality. This attitude has no business in education. Of course, the instructor has little control over the amount of students in their class. But quality should always be the focus.
One of the things I love about the Marines is how fanatical Marines are about being Marines. Marines are so proud of being a Marine. You will often hear Marines say that it is "my Corps." It's not someone else Corps, it's mine. And the title Marine is earned, not given. It's very personal. There is ownership. This translates to the recruiters, drill instructors, and so on. I'm recruiting people to join "my Corps." I'm training recruits for "my Corps." This pride and ownership means more emphasis is placed quality of recruiting and training. This same mentality should be used in the classroom. This is my classroom. These are my students. There should be a pride there. Those that pass will earn it. But this pride goes farther than that. Marine's that hold training billets know that they are training recruits/Marines that could very well be covering their backs in a combat zone one day. These recruits could one day be guarding embassies or the President. They know that if they fail in their jobs, a lot of body bags get filled. This philosophy should also come into the classroom. The next doctors, researchers, engineers, etc. are sitting in your classroom. Let's make sure they are prepared. Besides, let's face it, a teacher is one of the best jobs in the world. You get to share what you love with others. Instead of sitting at a computer in a cubicle all day, you get to talk about your passion. And you can get a whole classroom full of students excited about it too.
Students always come first. I can't emphasize this enough. I was so lucky to have two amazing leaders in the Marines, Maj. Doug Zembiec and Col. Ana Smythe. They had many things in common, but one of the biggest ones was they always put their Marines first. They always had their backs, no matter what. They were both constantly in trouble because they were late to meetings because they were taking care of their Marines. They both knew that if they took care of their Marines, their Marines would take care of them. I remember when Col. Smythe was awarded the Legion of Merit. It is awarded for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements. She said that this metal didn't belong to her but her Marines. Her Marines, not her, made her look good. They were the ones getting things done. I know some teachers only care about winning awards, like it's a competition. Others just want to do the best job they can do. The best teacher just want to do the best job they can do. The reward is not some award, but years later when that student sees you in the store, walks up, and thanks you. That means you have truly done a good job. Maj. Zembiec and Col. Smythe also respected their Marines. Col. Smythe said "Respect goes up and down the chain." This is also very important. Students want to feel respected. Believe in them. Maj. Zembiec and Col. Smythe believe in their Marines.
This all ties into caring about your students. They must feel that you care about them. This is paramount in establishing trust. They must trust you. Once they trust you, they will begin to feel safe. Having trust and a feeling of safety in the classroom is a must. Without it, all is lost. Safety doesn't just mean physical safety, but feeling safe to share their ideas. Part of establishing this feeling of trust and safety is asking your students to share their ideas, experiences, and thoughts. I remember Maj. Zembiec asking me on multiple occasions what my thoughts were about things placement of my machine gun, the mission, etc. I knew that when I said something, he would listen. Not only that, I knew he respected and trusted my opinions. This went for every Marine in the company. Some of the greatest ideas can come from unlikely sources. Sadly, many people are afraid to express their ideas and thoughts for fear of ridicule. A feeling of trust and respect must be established so these ideas can be expressed.
Leave no man behind. We all know this one from the movies. But this can again be applied to the classroom. We must give students every opportunity to succeed. If a student is falling behind, it's our job to help them. Now as a college professor, it's not your job to chase every student down. But you should still be there for them. If you see a student falling behind, maybe shoot them an email asking what is going on. They should know that they can come talk to you. You never know what kind of difference that little email can make. It shows you care, and that can be all the difference. As a teacher, you must be flexible, but still stiff. This means the students all must meet certain requirements, but there must still be some flexibility for special situations. These special situations should be dealt with on an individual bases. It's a tough balance to find between not leaving anyone behind, not lowering standards, and not boring to death students at the top of the class. We must remember, sometimes our top students will be a little bored, and sometimes we may lose some students. That's ok. We can't just keep teaching to the lowest student or we will lose the top students. I think we first make sure everyone gets the main point, the take home message. Then we can present some idea that will challenge the students. That's were some may get lost, but that's ok, but they at least understand the basics. The basics are what is important. Once students have a good grasp of the basics, then they can build on that. Then, by challenging them, they will eventually grow. I look at it like running. When you first start running, you must get into shape before you can push yourself. If you don't, you will get really sore and frustrated or injured. Either way, you won't get very far. But if you get into shape first, then you can push hard. When you push hard, then you will get much better gains. Also, you always just keep pushing yourself to the limit. Sometimes you have to back off. The same in education. Sometimes we have to go back to the basics. Just as we should never forget our pasts, we should never forget the basics. It's good from time to time to revisit them. This will ensure basic concepts are not forgotten. This going back to the basics is an important skill in no matter what endeavors one should should choose. Athlete's do it all the time, but sometimes in academics we forget this. It's kinda like checking a building structural integrity, we start at the base make sure everything sound. A problem at the base could be disastrous. A problem at the top probably isn't as big of a deal.
Finally, one of my personal favorites. KISS, or keep it simple stupid. We Marines like to also think of it as "breaking it down Barney style." That means we make it so simple that a child could understand it. Barney is the purple dinosaur from the kids show "Barney and Friends." The problem is making it simple without oversimplifying. It takes some creativity and thought to do it. Albert Einstein said, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough." It's always easier to complicate things. By keeping things simple, we can build upon them later as the students fully grasp the basics. Along with keeping in simple, the material being covered in class needs to be seriously evaluated. Too much information is being put into students too fast. They then end up forgetting everything. Remember, at the end of the day the goal is for students to know a few key points very well. It is better to be a master of a few things than a jack of all trades and a master of none. So a stop must be put to continuing to bush over the surface of a ton of topics. There are a few classes later on that this kind of thing would be ok, but most classes should focus on a few things. These few things will be explored in detail. This will lead to students at least understanding a few things very well instead of understanding a lot of things a little bit. These few key points should be carefully chosen. From there, start by keeping it simple, then building upon this. If you were to build a pyramid, would your first be a very complex one? No, it would be a simple design. Then, as you get better, you can build more complex ones.
Let's look at lectures first. They are essential to educating. A teacher needs to stand up in front of the class and present the material. The problem is, in many classes, that's all that happens. The instructor drones on and on. Eventually it turns into blah blah blah. Think about a young person for a second. They have lots of energy. Younger kids can't sit still to save their lives. It's not that they don't want to make the teacher mad, its just biology. Even I have a real hard time sitting still in classes, and I'm a MARINE. I can lay motionless for hours in the mud, getting bit by every bug known to man. I can stand at the position of attention for hours in the hot sun without moving. Yet I have major issues sitting still and paying attention in classes that last an hour. It's not that I have ADD, it's I'm not made to sit in a classroom listening for what can seem like hours on end. I know for a fact many kids are being medicated because they can't sit still either. If we engaged these kids, suddenly their ADD will be gone. The problem isn't the kids, it's the system we are subjecting them to. We need to have an interactive class. In order for this to happen, there must be trust and safety in the classroom as discussed before. Students need to asked more questions. Teachers shouldn't give all the answers, but help lead students to understand the right answer. Furthermore, we need to get away from this idea there always is a right answer. In life there are many times defiantly wrong answers, but no real right answer. There is more than one way to skin a cat but one is not any more right the other. Teachers aren't doing student's any favors by rewarding students for one right answer and only way right way of getting there.
So, how do teacher engage their classes? A start would be to break the lectures up with little activities. A quick google search can help you get started. Some techniques used would be icebreakers, games, and reflection. Icebreakers are done at the beginning of class and usually involve students getting out of their seats. They can be used to help the educator to get to know their class. They also get blood flowing. A simple would be everyone stands up and ball is passed around. The person with the ball says their name and what their major is. This can be easily modified to get different results. This wouldn't work well for a large class. For a larger class maybe something more like "that's me" or "I know that." This would be where the instructor asks a series of questions and the students stand up and say "that's me" or "I know that." These also have the added benefit of putting students in a different frame of mind.
You don't have to start every class with an icebreaker. You could also break up the middle of the class with an activity. Something like bingo or jeopardy tailored to the material just covered. Or maybe small group activities where you ask them a question or two about the material just covered. These questions would not be regurgitation, but applying the ideas to a different situation or building on the idea. These can then be picked up and graded. The main purpose is to be able to assess your students. To give you instant feedback on what they are understanding and what they are not. This information can then be used to adjust the class. Since every class is different and will move at a different speed through different material, this type of assessment is invaluable. This also breaks up the lecture and forces students to pay attention. The added benefit is that students only have to pay attention for say 20 minutes of lecture, then switch into a different mode to answer some questions for 10 minutes, and then pay attention for another 20 minutes. That is way better than trying to pay attention to someone talk for 50 minutes. Students also get a chance to really reflect on what was just presented. If they don't understand something, they can ask questions. I know sometimes I think I get something when it's being explained. Then, when I'm asked to apply it, I find out I really didn't quite understand it.
Another technique that can be used is reflection. This in my opinion is one of the most important techniques in any endeavor. In the Marines, after every mission we did, we had debriefs. They could be formal or informal. We would get into a group and discuss the mission. What we did right and wrong. What we could do better next time. Something can always be done better. Nothing was ever good enough, we strived for perfection. This made us better. In the class, I see two different types of reflection. The first is reflecting on what was learned. This can be done either at the end of class or at the beginning of the next class. Both have their benefits. At the end of class, it is instant feedback to what was learned. At the beginning of the next class, it gives information on what was retained. I would do these types of reflections by asking students questions and discussing the answers (or lack of answers). This would be ran more as a discussion as opposed to a quiz. Many things can be learned be discussions. I think discussions are far too underused in classes. They give instant feedback and can be tailored to the students interests. Plus, the students are forced to be engaged. Now I'm not saying every class should just be a discussion, but more discussions should be mixed in. Also, I think reflecting on what is working and not working in the class is important. We will sometimes do this at the end of the term. Sadly, by then, it's too late to make changes. I think this should be done more throughout the semester. Again, this would be more of a discussion. I think students would respond well to this because it shows the teacher really cares and the student's opinions matter. Both of these types of reflections can be rather short, 5-10 minutes.
Many lectures I have notices don't make good use of the technology at hand. Many times either it's all PowerPoint or none at all. Some things should be drawn or written out on the board. For example, I'm far more likely to remember the parts of a flower if the teacher draws them on the board and I draw the same thing in my notes. Other things may be far to complex to draw on the board, like drawing chromosomes broken all the way down to a DNA strand. This is where PowerPoint or an old school projector shines. Also, we can show short animations of how enzymes work so student's can actually visualize it. A video of a cell replicating can be shown. A good PowerPoint should be mostly pictures and videos. Students can be given the PowerPoints ahead of time so they can take notes on the pictures. If it is mostly pictures, they still have to go to class and pay attention to get the information. Students can also be asked to close their eyes and imagine. The instructor would guide them through the visualization. A quick example would be imagine a lipid bilayer. The lipids are vibrating like crazy. They have these weird groups on the top like a head that is different than the rest of the lipid. These are interacting with water and salts. Also, the lipids can kinda float around. There are these crazy looking other structures sticking out. When they are touched, the change shape. These must be proteins. This type of technique can be very powerful, but you must build up to it. Students must have a good understanding of the material before they can imagine it. Also, the teacher must really understand the material to be the guide. Einstein also said, "Imagination is more important than knowledge."
Finally, one of favorite things is hands on activities. This can be in the form of labs, actually doing experiments or looking under the microscope. It can also be in the form of hands on models. I will focus on models. The models need to be fun and illustrate the key points. They should keep it simple. Models are amazing because it gives students the ability to see and do. This more kinetic type of learning can be highly successful. I will use genetics for my example. Many students really struggle with genetics. So for a model, I made a fly with removable legs, wings, and eyes using velcro. Also the bodies come in different colors. The eyes, wings and legs are all different colors or styles. Then I used some poker chips to with a letter on each side. The letter combination on each chip would be LL, Ll, or ll. This refers to the genotype for legs of parent. The students would select the proper chip for each parent. Then mating would occur by flipping the "mother" and "father" chips. The two letters would be the genotype for the offspring. Then the student would figure would what the phenotype of the offspring would be. They would do this for every trait. They would finally go make their baby flies. This is fun and illustrates the basics of genetics. This same model can be used for linked traits, statistics, etc. with little modification. For how chromosomes are passed on, pipe cleaners twisted together can be used. Beads can be used to simulate genes. Unwrap the pipe cleaners and trade them to make new chromosomes that would relate to the genes the offspring would get. Again linked genes could be done. These types of activities and models would really help students understand the material. I think we learn best when we involve multiple senses. In the Marines we said you need to hear it, see it, write it, and then do it. This can't always be accomplished, but should be used whenever possible. Working with models helps students visualize get a greater understanding of the material. The thing we must remember about models and activities we give students is, they must be fun. Counting corn kernels or sunflower seed stripes is not helpful. That's just busy work and all the students will remember is counting corn kernels was time they will never get back. Many instructors may have problems designing models. Don't fear if you fit into that category. It takes creativity to do so. We have this awesome thing called google to help us start to get ideas. Once you start making some of the models from the internet, start thinking about how you could make it better. If you don't like something about the model, change it. The more you make and adjust the models, the better you will get at it. Soon, you will be making your own amazing models.
The thing we need to remember about models and animations is they are only as good as our explanations. We must use them as tools. We must make sure the students understand how these models tie into the material. Only then will they be successful. As the Riflemen's Creed goes, "Without me, my rifle is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless." Lectures are boring. And models are just a tool. Together, they can make a difference.
Now that we have some different techniques to use to help get students more engaged, how do we know what to use? The answer is each situation is different. In the Marines, we used to say, situation always dictates. The point of some of these things like reflecting and asking students what is working and not working is so you can gain a feel for it. Some teachers are better are using and making models. Others might like animations more. Also some classes may lean towards certain techniques. Also, the material will also dictate what to use. These techniques are just tools in your toolbox and you are limited only by your imagination. A hammer might be great for driving nails, but it could also be used to make circles by taping a pencil on on end and spinning it in a circle. Talk with your fellow colleagues, and share ideas. Get on the internet. There is always something new to try. To be a good teacher, you must also learn. I was taught to always evaluate other. See what I like and don't like. Then I try to implement the good, and try to change the bad. In order to do this, you must be truly honest with yourself and dare to be different. Change isn't easy. You can see it all the time. The workers hate the bossman because he does X. Then one of the workers is promoted. The worker that is now the bossman does the same thing the old bossman did. Why? Because thats all they know and they are too afraid to change. Finally, remember, keep your eye on the prize. Don't ever forget the mission.