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  • Writer's pictureKristin Phillips

Sometimes the best teaching is to STOP teaching

Updated: Aug 12, 2022

Believe it or not, grade one teachers do teach students when to use periods and capitals.  So do grade two teachers, grade three teachers, grade four teachers …and grade 12 teachers.  But we are talking about kids, and it takes a long time for many of them to apply the skill on a regular basis.

I take pottery classes.  This same concept happens in the pottery workshop.  There is a new potter sitting next to me and she is struggling to center and throw a small bowl (it is not as easy as Demi Moore made it look in the movie Ghost).  The other day our instructor was reminding her of all the things she needed to do to throw this pot- and then jokingly said…” and the following 77 things, too”.  We talked about how when you are learning a new skill and there are so many things to integrate at once that it is hard to concentrate on all of them at the same time.  Something that the instructor can do without even thinking is so hard for someone just beginning.

The Ontario curriculum is probably too big (if you aren’t from Ontario maybe yours is, too).  The specific expectations are those skills that will lead students to the overall expectations.  They are not goals in and of themselves.  Students do not need to “master” every specific expectation in order to meet the overall expectation.

My new pottery friend does not need to “master” every individual task in order to make her bowl.  Next week’s bowl won’t be perfect but it will be a little bit better.  And every week after that, her bowls will improve little by little.  Some weeks she will stall out.  Some weeks she will focus too much on one skill to the detriment of another skill.  Eventually she will begin to integrate all of the pieces and move onto mugs.  The instructor will say exactly the same things to her every week.  At some point something he says will make more sense than it does now.

So how do these stories relate to the title of this blog?  As teachers we are like the pottery instructor; we know the stuff and have integrated the pieces.  Also, we have thousands of great ideas on how to get kids to know the stuff.  We get caught in the trap of thinking that if I only do this one more activity, this one lesson more, then everyone will get it.  But maybe that isn’t true.  Maybe we need to stop giving more instruction and just let kids try it out.  Maybe we need to be ok with giving a minilesson and some kids not getting it—this time.  Because if we take a mindset that teaching is messy and circular (and recursive) then we know that we will be coming back to key ideas many times over the course of the year.

We want to plan our teaching time so that students have ample time to practice the skills without getting caught in the trap of trying to do it perfectly right now.  We want to design classes that have less teaching and more doing.  We want to be comfortable with letting kids struggle as they integrate the pieces.  We need to remember that we have all year to reach the overall expectations and that when we provide multiple opportunities for students to practice over time, we are giving them the support to integrate everything we’ve told them.

You may be thinking:  But what about assessment?  What about accountability?  What about learning goals and success criteria?  What about getting through the curriculum?  All those things are still in place but we need to think about them all as helping students learn not things to get done.  Stop thinking of your formative assessment as assessment and more like intentionally noticing where your students are at during the learning journey.  You are still accountable but you are remembering that you have the whole year to reach those overall expectations.  You still have a plan.  You are still purposeful in your decisions.  You still have learning goals and success criteria but they are bigger and encompass more learning than just today’s lesson.  And, you will teach the curriculum this way but in a more authentic way because you will be concentrating on your students’ learning of the big and important ideas and not checking off specific expectations.

A consultant friend of mine says “Teach lightly”. I like that image.  Remember that no matter what my pottery instructor says, it is still going to take a long time for my new friend to master the craft.  She needs scaffolding, support, repetition and practice time.  So, when you are feeling overwhelmed and flustered that your students are not learning, just stop teaching so much and let them practice.

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