Chapter Seven: Teachers, Students, and Teaching
“Linda, do you have a few minutes to spare?” Linda Chartrand looked up from her pile of marking. Toni Nord, the new teacher on staff, was standing in the doorway of Linda’s classroom looking rather nervously.
“Sure,” Linda said. “Come in and sit down. Please shut the door behind you so we won’t be interrupted. Now, what can I do for you?”
“I wanted to ask you about the debate at the last staff meeting about students’ needs and how we meet them. You seemed to feel that we need to change quite a few of our teaching practices. I know you mentioned doing more inquiry learning and changing our assessment policies. I hadn’t thought much about that, but what you said made sense in terms of my class. Can you tell me some more?”
“Well,” Linda began, “my basic feeling is that sometimes we do things in schools in ways that don’t help students very much. It has more to do with the way schools were 50 or 100 years ago, and with sorting students instead of helping them learn. Take the issue of ability grouping in the elementary grades. My understanding of the research is that ability grouping isn’t a good strategy. Kids in the lower-ability groups actually do less reading, and the instruction they receive is quite different from that given to the kids in the higher groups. Instead of catching up, they fall further and further behind.”
“But how do we teach such different kids if we don’t group?” Toni interjected.
“Precisely the problem,” Linda responded. “Because we have classes of 25, we need a way of managing the work for ourselves while still supporting the learning in our classroom. We may talk about individualizing the program for each student, but it’s pretty unrealistic given one teacher, 25 kids, and six or eight different areas of curriculum if we aren’t prepared to change the way we structure what and how we teach. So, the organization forces us to do something that doesn’t work very well, and alternatives aren’t easy to come up with. I personally like the idea of instituting more inquiry learning and inclusive teaching strategies that recognize that students have a role to play in shaping their own learning. That would mean some pretty big changes, and I’m not sure I feel confident about making them without support from the principal, the staff, and the school district.
“Another problem that really concerns me is marks and grades. Of course, we need to give kids and parents feedback about how well they are doing. But I can see every year how discouraged some kids get early on when they only have one or two ways to demonstrate their learning, usually a test or an assignment of some sort, and the feedback they get continually tells them that they just don’t get it. And don’t even get me started on “death by worksheet.” Some of them disengage and stop trying pretty quickly. Another problem with marks is that I have to give a mark or comment in each subject area. But I’d like to integrate them more, so that math was part of our work in science, and writing was part of our work in social studies, and so on. Yet our report card isn’t set up to report on those interdisciplinary experiences, and many parents want to see a number that reflects how their kid has done in each subject.”
“Those are problems in my class too,” Toni said. “But what do we do about them?”
“I don’t think there are any easy answers,” Linda replied. “We’ve got a system that’s set up to handle big bunches of kids in a standard way, teaching them the same things, when we know very well that each kid is different in many ways. Every few years, someone comes around with the latest cure-all; we have two days of in-service on it, then we’re left alone to try to implement it until the next magic strategy comes along. I think we’ve got to start asking ourselves tough questions about how we teach and organize for teaching and stop expecting someone to give us a magic answer. We have to identify the problems and try out different ways of resolving them.
“You know, Toni, I’m really glad you came in. You’ve given me the impetus to do something. Why don’t you and I try to get a few others together to meet after school one day to talk about some of these problems? There are a couple of people at the university who might want to join us. Maybe all of us can help each other try out some different strategies.”
Teaching and learning are the central purposes of schools. Although this seems an obvious statement, it often appears to be ignored in discussions of educational administration, which may focus on issues of structures, governance systems, finance, or politics instead. The central purpose of this book is to describe the way Canadian schools are organized, but we must always remember that the purpose of all that organization is to support teaching and learning. All of the historical, legal, political, and economic features described in the previous chapters are presumably intended to create a structure that allows effective teaching and powerful learning.
The central tasks of education involve the development of particular knowledge, skills, behaviour, and attitudes in learners. There is nothing automatic about the way we choose to organize these tasks, even though most current practices are largely taken for granted. At one time, young people learned most of what they needed to know at home through regular contact with parents and other adults. The concept of school did not exist. Current adult education efforts are often organized in much less formal ways than schools.
It is not the authors’ purpose to provide any kind of thorough discussion of issues of teaching and learning. Rather, in this chapter the focus is on the ways in which the work of teachers and students is affected by the school’s organization and structures, and on what might be called normal school practices, that is, what has been typical of most schools and classrooms (although generalizations of this sort are potentially misleading). Many teachers are aware of problems with current educational practice, and in a significant number of schools and classrooms serious and important efforts to make changes are taking place.