by Dr. Rob Filback
A significant hurdle we teachers must cross in order to have impact involves a shift of focus. It’s the move from focusing on ourselves – our performance, our goals, our adequacy as instructors – to focusing on our students – their goals, their learning, their development. Carol Rodgers (2002) calls it “seeing student learning,” which requires “slowing down” and “attending to” our learners in deeper ways. For Elizabeth Paley (2007), this shift involves enhancing our “curiosity” about our learners and doing more listening in order to gain a richer and more accurate understanding of our students. Attaining a student focus can take time, but it’s not an option. We have known for a long time that a key ingredient of effective teaching is a commitment to understanding one’s students in order to modify instruction and help them learn better (Fuller & Brown, 1975; Maynard & Furlong, 1995).
A small step we can take to shift our attention toward our students is to increase our practice of gathering and utilizing learner feedback. Routinely collecting and analyzing student data about their learning and about our teaching helps us differentiate between “what we think we are teaching” and “what students are actually learning” (Rodgers, 2002). A place to start experimenting is with informal formative assessments. Informal means using tools other than formal quizzes or exams or other standardized tests – these can be quick writes, entry/exit tickets, Twitter summaries, polls or any other number of techniques. Formative means gathering feedback during the learning process so we have time to adjust our instruction in response to what we learn.
At the end of a recent class, about a third of the way into the semester, I drew three faces on the board: happy, sad and confused (pictured above). I asked the students to take out an old-fashioned piece of paper and tell me one thing about the course or my teaching that was working for them, one thing that I should change help them learn more and one question that they had. This is just one tiny example – but this quick, anonymous exercise produced input that resulted in a few minor but tangible adjustments in my work with this particular group of students.
Turning more of our attention to our students’ learning is a good thing. One way to begin is by exploring the use of informal and formative assessments to collect and analyze a range of student data. There are myriad ideas in the cloud that a few simple searches will turn up. The technique is less critical than the commitment to be more curious about our students, to slow down and listen to them more and to begin to see their learning. Doing so will help us teach with greater empathy, relevance and success.
Fuller, F. & Brown, O. (1975). Becoming a teacher. In K. Ryan (Ed.), Teacher education. Chicago: National Society for the Study of Education.
Maynard, T. & Furlong, J. (1995). Learning to teach and models of mentoring. In Kelly, T., Mayes, A. (Eds.), Issues in mentoring. London: Routledge.
Paley, V. G. (2007). On listening to what the children say. Harvard Educational Review, 77(2). 152-163.
Rodgers, C. (2002). Seeing student learning: Teacher change and the role of reflection. Harvard Educational Review, 72(2), 230-253.