Archive for the 'Teaching' Category

When questions are a barrier to inquiry

Dennis

One reason we ask questions is because we want information.

Another reason is to promote deeper exploration of a subject.

Some kinds of questions promote such exploration while others do not.

“Honest, open questions,” to borrow a phrase from Parker Palmer, invite inquiry. For example: “What are some things you might do to solve the problem you are having with your friend?”

Questions that clearly have “right answers” or are really disguised statements often thwart inquiry (“closed, directive questions”). For example: “Don’t you think you should call your friend to find out why he said that?”

Many of us have not had the opportunity to learn how to phrase honest, open questions – that is, questions that cause further inquiry and deepen relationships.

We may ask questions to steer the direction of the conversation rather than to truly seek to understand the views of others or to extend their thinking.

We may ask questions that narrow the focus of thinking rather than expand it.

Closed, directive questions often cause people to feel they are being manipulated, which breeds distrust and cynicism.

In addition, people whose habit it is to ask closed, directive questions often perceive honest, open questions through the lens of manipulation, suspecting ulterior motives and becoming defensive.

Good questions stimulate thinking on the part of both the person who asks and the person who answers. They deepen understanding and open up previously unexplored areas for conversation.

Individuals involved in such conversations feel like they have learned something about themselves, each other, and the subject at hand. In addition, they feel respected and understood.

Examine your questions. Do they promote honest inquiry or directly or indirectly tell people what to think and do?

In your experience, what types of questions deepen inquiry and improve relationships?

What it means to be a skillful teacher

Dennis

While the popular media often portray good teachers as charismatic “sages on the stage,” skillful teaching is a sophisticated cognitive process in an intensely interpersonal environment whose most fundamental activities are less dramatic and often invisible to the casual observer.

Skillful teaching requires:

• designing meaningful lessons that engage and ultimately ensure success for all students;

• developing a highly-nuanced professional judgment informed by both “hard” and “soft” evidence to assess student learning and to determine the most appropriate teaching methods;

• applying emotional intelligence and human relations skills with students, parents, and colleagues in complex and ever-changing circumstances;

• engaging in professional learning and collaboration with colleagues to continuously improve teaching and learning; and

• managing personal energy and time to enable vitality both in school and at home.

What have I missed?

“Don’t smile until Christmas”

Dennis

I remember hearing that advice as a new teacher. The logic behind it was simple—it is easier to loosen up classroom management routines and discipline than to tighten them.

If you didn’t think about it too much it made sense.

But unsmiling teachers give the appearance that they don’t like teaching and don’t even like their students.

And students don’t learn as well from teachers who seem not to like their jobs nor them.

So “Don’t smile until Christmas” is not advice I would want given to a new teacher.

What “truisms” from early in your career turned out not to be so true? And, conversely, what advice were you given that made a positive difference in your work as a teacher or administrator?

The power of storytelling

Dennis

Stories are a wonderful way to teach and to influence people.

That’s particularly true when the stories are drawn from our daily lives and reveal the storyteller’s attentiveness to things that  the rest of us often overlook.

Here’s an excellent example from David Fife, a school administrator in the Thames Valley, Ontario, School Board.

I encourage you to read David’s post because of what he notices in the interaction between an “elder” and a young trainee in a grocery store and the important lesson he extracts (take pride in everything you do) that has implications for both our professional and personal lives.

No place for hatred…

Dennis

Good teachers have always created inclusive classrooms.

Their work is made more difficult, though, by bigoted and demagogic political leaders who speak to this nation’s fears and arouse hatred.

While I have been pleased to see so many politicians from across the political spectrum rebuke Donald Trump for his divisive and hateful views, it may be too little and too late.

Even now Trump continues to be the Republican front runner, and I am deeply concerned about the damage he is likely to do here and abroad before he is done.

In such times the work of good teachers and administrators in building inclusive classrooms and schools is more important than ever.

Deep work

Dennis

A man sits alone in a courtyard with a pad of paper in front of him.

He writes and then pauses, looking off into space. He writes again.

As I watched I realized that those are the essential ingredients of “deep work” – solitude, a process that allows us to externalize, clarify, and elaborate our thinking (in this case, writing); thinking about what we think (metacognition); and then beginning the cycle again. Deep work is essential in classrooms and meeting rooms. It is also an essential ingredient of professional development that leads to professional learning.

Because focused conversation enables us to externalize, clarify, and elaborate our thinking, it is important that schools provide generous opportunities for well-designed group work in classrooms and among teachers.

But it is also important that schools value the solitary activities that are often a prerequisite to the deep work that is the foundation of meaningful learning, teaching, and school leadership.

Self determination

Dennis

When it comes to teaching methods, Glanz observed that most techniques teachers used “promote the feeling that students have little control over or responsibility for their own education.” —Larry Cuban

I recently talked with an elderly woman about her dissatisfaction with the diminished life she has in a long-term care facility. She knew she would be happy, she told me, if only she could have an apartment of her own.

I pointed out her children’s concerns about her safety, and she said she would rather die living life on her own terms than live longer in her current circumstances.

While this may be an extreme example, no matter our age or life circumstance all of us want to feel in control of our lives, to make decisions large and small whose sum total makes up the substance of our days.

I have worked at jobs where virtually all important decisions were made for me. My circle of influence was very small, and while I knew that I could choose my attitude about those circumstances, I nonetheless often found myself feeling frustrated and unhappy.

A child says, “You are not my boss.” A dissatisfied worker says, “Trust me to make decisions about my work.” An elderly woman says, “I would rather die than not be able to do the simple tasks of life that gave me purpose and responsibility.”

The desire for self determination is deeply embedded in the human psyche. People have been willing to give their lives on its behalf.

What are the implications of this “truth” for school administrators and teachers?

From my perspective it means that we do everything in our power to give those with whom we work—both young people and adults—as much decision-making authority as possible, pairing that authority with appropriate responsibility and abundant learning opportunities to increase the likelihood of success.

When we trust others to take responsibility and enable their ability to do so we will be richly rewarded by the continuous flow of expertise and energy such trust generates.

What is your experience with both young people and adults in enabling self determination?  


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