My Thanks To …
My thanks go to Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach (twitter: @snbeach, web site http://www.21stcenturycollaborative.com/) and Lynne Oakvik (twitter: @LRIM_loakvik, web site http://www.broward.k12.fl.us/learnresource/) without whom this post would not have been written.
What Started It All
Sheryl tweeted “Teaching & learning by nature are social activities Classrooms, by design, were meant to be social learning spaces. How did we mess that up?”, and I thought, “Wait a minute, that does not reflect how I operate in the classroom.”, hence this post.
My Own Experience
In the classroom context, I have delivered learning from every level from complete beginner up to diploma level. The students ranged from barely educable to extremely bright, with ages ranging from nine to retirees. The subjects include English, maths and information technology.
It will perhaps come as no suprise to you that students working at the diploma level were well motivated, some extremely so. At the barely educable end, student motivations were mixed.
It was the combination of Sheryl’s tweet and Lynne’s wonderful Elluminate presentation that set me thinking “How do I connect socially with my students, and does this go any way towards explaining why I have had no success with some students?”. The answer suprised me.
The Bright Students
With the bright students, the courses went something like this: “Okay, Ladies and Gentlemen, here are some learning resources you might like to use, there is the mountain you are running towards” and I would fire the starting pistol. Being all self-motivated, they worked because they already wanted to.
The social side of the classroom was in some sense incidental to the delivery of learning, and we all enjoyed that social side for its own sake.
Youth At Risk
Youth-at-risk presents a completely different challenge to me. The initial assumption that “we are all here to learn” does not exist. In this context, the social element becomes crucial in helping the student to succeed. And given that such students usually have had bad experiences of adults in general and school in particular, establishing the social relationship can take a bit of doing.
Using the Social Element
Unlike with diploma level students, I need to customise the learning to each student’s interests. But before I can do that, I need to win their trust. This means just sitting around, and socialising, talking, asking questions, listening to answers, and generally showing an interest in their lives. While I always have at the back of my mind the course content, I don’t talk about it initially unless asked.
Once I know their interests, I tailor the learning to those. Somebody is into cars? Easy! The language of cars, the mathematics of cars, the physics of cars, the social aspects of cars, etc, etc. Somebody is outraged at the environmental behaviour of the local abbatoir? Easy again! Letters to the editor and the local Member of Parliament, complete with statistics to demonstrate her point. I could go on, but this paragraph would degenerate into being just a list if I did so.
To answer my original question, it is as a result of writing this post that I now better understand the reasons for my successes and failures with youth-at-risk.
Let me introduce Charles (not his real name), aged about 17. At a social level, he got on very well with everybody, including me. He was an extremely good talker, and would have been a great asset in a debating society or as a member of a quiz team. But he showed no inclination to read, write or use arithmetic. After a few weeks of his excuses, I challenged him as to what he was doing in the classroom. He was quite explicit in that he was “playing the system”: he had no intention of learning anything whatsoever, he did not perceive any need to learn, as he was not going to work at any time in the future. In the face of such an adamant refusal, I no longer devoted any educational time to him, instead devoting my efforts to those who would benefit.