What teachers can learn from students

I’m a first year physics teacher. I hear my colleagues talk about what they learn from their students. This puzzles me—what can I learn from students who don’t have the content knowledge that I do?
—Wendy, Elizabeth, New Jersey

This question caused me to reflect on the students I’ve met over the years. While it’s true they didn’t always have a depth of knowledge in science, when I paid attention to their questions, behaviors, and attitudes, my students made me think about my approach to teaching and learning. Here’s a sample what I learned from students:

After a unit test, “Sandra” looked very dejected. When I asked her what was wrong, she replied, “I know a lot about this, but you asked the wrong questions.” That stopped me in my tracks. I was the teacher—the one supposed to have all of the questions and answers. I asked her what should have been on the test, and she told me what she knew about the topic from working on scout badges, visiting museums, reading books, and watching TV programs. She was right—for her I didn’t ask enough of the right questions. She taught me the value of providing a variety of ways for students to share what they know and can do.  For example, at the end of unit tests I included an optional item: “Tell me about what you know about the topic that was not on the test.” It was thought provoking to discover what students found interesting enough to remember and explore how they could supplement the lesson objectives with their own knowledge.

When I first started teaching, my middle school had a hierarchy of homogeneously grouped sections, determined by test scores in math. The students were in the same grouping for all of their subjects, including science. Being the newbie, I was assigned the “lowest” of the nine sections of seventh and eighth graders. I didn’t accept the stereotype that these students also had little ability in science. I found them to be genuinely curious and they responded well to class discussions and hands-on activities. (I actually had more discipline problems with the one “higher” section I was assigned). Fast forward 10 years…I met up with one of these students at a football game. She mentioned she had recently graduated from the local community college’s nursing program. She then said, “I’ll bet there are teachers who never thought that someone from section 7-9 would ever graduate from college.” I was blown away by the fact that this poised 20-something woman still carried around the stigma of being labeled as the lowest of the low in seventh grade. From her, I learned to trust my own observations and judgment about students, rather than relying on stereotypes and labels. (I can’t speak for other subjects and grade levels, but I was glad when we changed our scheduling to a non-labeled, more heterogeneous one.)

During a unit on insects, I noticed “Molly” writing copious notes. I glanced over her shoulder and saw she had a page of arthropod names and their origins in mythology (e.g., the Luna moth, nymphs, arachnids, the Cyclops copepod). I asked her if this was an assignment for English class (which included a unit on mythology), and she looked at me as if I had a head like Medusa and replied, “No, I just think this is really interesting.” So thanks to Molly, I learned helping students make connections between science and literature, social studies, and the arts is good for all subjects.

I tried to incorporate skills like notetaking in my class, and I encouraged students to outline or create study cards. One day, “Bobby” and “Kris” asked if they could try something different. In a previous unit, we used a matrix graphic organizer to summarize information for a report. They wondered if they could try this instead of outlining the chapter. They showed me a mockup: the rows listed the three types of rocks and the columns had headings such as how formed, where found, examples, how to identify. I told them to give it a try. When they were finished, I asked them to share with the class, and other students found this method more useful than a long outline. From these two students, I learned to say, “Here’s how you could do this assignment, but if you have a different idea, let’s talk about it.” I should also thank them for the idea that eventually morphed into part of my dissertation

Of course, it is possible some of your students will surprise you with content knowledge beyond yours, based on their interests and experiences. Listen to what they say, even if you are a content expert, “That’s really interesting. Tell me more.” And they will.


Photo:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/rongyos/2686415336/

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  1. Julia Punch
    Posted July 2, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Ask some open-ended questions, and watch the knowledge pour out of your kids. You have language skills they do not have, but they have a lot of content knowledge that they can not articulate until they get some words to express it.. Everything has a jargon. Your students do not know the jargon, but they do know about physics, you will be very surprized. And you will likely learn a lot. Ask them open-ended questions, instead of questions with right and wrong answers. You may think there is nothing new under the sun, but I promise you that your students have new stuff flying around their brains, just waiting to get out.

  2. MaryB
    Posted July 2, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Julia — you make an important point about language and open-ended questions. Students have lots of experiences to share, even if they haven’t mastered the lingo. Your thoughts made me think back to students who did indeed have “stuff flying around their brains, just waiting to get out.” Thanks!

  3. Derek DeGraaf
    Posted July 6, 2012 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Obviously, teachers are always learning. One of the best characteristics of a good teacher is the ability to be flexible. We can learn a lot from what are students are telling us, or choosing to not tell us (negative actions). In my experience within the classroom, I have found that I have to “dig” sometimes to find out what is bothering my students. For starters, you need to develop a good report with your students so that they are willing to share what is bothering them, freely and openly.

    I have had students say the same thing to me as they said to the author of this title. Our purpose as teachers is to teach and assess the students learning, not to “trick them”. You need to think how frustrating it would be for a student to know the information but the test is not showing their knowledge. What I have found works in my classroom is asking open ended questions so the students can express their ideas without a specific correct or incorrect answer. This enables them to answer their question, and defend their answer with their explanation. Another strategy that has been positive in my classroom is having each student write one or two questions that they think I should include on the test. After the students complete their questions I collect them and place them on the test. Not only do the students love seeing their question on the test, but I get to see what the students understand about the topic based on the question they ask and the overall grade they get. Teachers need to listen to their students in order to teacher every student successfully.

    • Mary Bigelow
      Posted July 6, 2012 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

      I really like your idea of having students suggest questions for the test. I suspect that many of them would be ones you would have included anyway, but it does give students ownership in the process! Thanks for your suggestions and reflections.

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