Teaching Today

From the Inside Out: Reflecting on a Dual Lens

Janet Wood Varner, a veteran K-12 teacher who's now become a full-time college instructor, describes what educators from both worlds can learn from each other.

November 18, 2020
 
 
sashimi/istock via getty images

After years of part-time adjunct work while a full-time educator in K-12 settings, I made the leap last year into a full-time visiting professorship as part of the educational studies department at a small liberal arts college in the same district where I had served for my tenure in education thus far. How humbling to go from the status of 21-year veteran master and mentor teacher with National Board Certification to a first-year visiting professor as I journeyed into the parallel, yet strangely foreign, universe of higher education.

Teaching both undergraduate and graduate coursework for future teachers, having just stepped out of the classroom myself, gave me a fascinating vantage point. As I recently wrapped up my first full-time year in higher education, I realized this might be an opportunity for me to share my key takeaways in terms of what educators from both worlds could offer each other if given the chance to collaborate.

K-12 Teacher to Higher Ed Instructor

As I began my new post at the college, I received quite a few laughs and knowing glances across the classroom when I displayed a meme of Morpheus from The Matrix with the quote, “What if I told you that reading a PowerPoint aloud is not the same as teaching?” As a professor of future educators or those bound for a career related to education, I wanted to get students thinking about what it truly means to engage a group of learners, as well as let them know a bit about my teaching style.

Over the course of the semester, I found out that my students were not accustomed to being a part of designing their own learning experiences and were, in fact, more used to sitting passively during slide presentations. They were not used to the demand to be at full attention during a 70-minute class period and were apt to become distracted on their personal electronic device unless I specified otherwise.

While I do believe in technology integration, I more firmly think college level learning should be engaging, motivating and reflective. It should also facilitate the move toward self-directed learning in our young adults, per experts such as Malcolm Knowles, Jack Mezirow and, more recently, the findings of Zaretta Hammond regarding culturally responsive teaching.

As a new professor with years of teaching experience with elementary through middle school students, I borrowed from my previous work to do some informal action research on what similar practices might work well with college students. Here is what I found out worked best to increase my undergraduates’ engagement and investment in their learning.

Open-ended questioning with total participation techniques not only work but also ensure everyone is engaged and can participate. I have borrowed the term "total participation technique" based on the book title of the same name by Pérsida and William Himmele, but I have gathered ideas on this concept from various resources over the years. For example, a popular technique in elementary through high school classrooms is the use of equity sticks for student participation, which are simply Popsicle sticks in a jar with each student’s name on them. The teacher pulls out a stick randomly, avoiding unintentional bias on their part, which motivates students to remain attentive in case they are called on and disallows overly dominant participation from some students. A protocol to put in place along this idea is the allowance for students to “phone a friend,” which means to call on another student to help them with their response. My former middle schoolers and my college students seemed to appreciate that protocol equally.

Another example of total participation I tried out from my elementary and middle school experience was what I call the “three tokens” protocol. During a small group discussion (or whole group if the class is relatively small), each student receives three objects, such as a checker piece. Each time they participate in the discussion, they must discard one token. Once a student has used all three, they can no longer add to the discussion. When I tried this out during a Zoom meeting with students recently, they just had to keep track of their own turns while I used a checklist, but it still worked very effectively in getting everyone involved in the discussion.

Another benefit to this protocol was that students who frequently participate were more discerning about joining in and therefore not able to dominate the discussion. Finally, I found a surprising benefit to this protocol was to follow it myself. While at first giving what is referred to as wait time felt a bit awkward in the Zoom room, there was a power to stepping back and allowing the student conversation to flourish without always jumping in to bridge the conversation.

Reflective activities designed to get students to find out what actually gets them to learn are vital. They can also be used to build community in the classroom. For example, if you have students fill out the School Reform Initiative’s Compass Points Survey and have each corner of the room marked off like a compass, students can meet others with the same preferences as well as note other students’ preferences from across the room. That can help set the tone for creating strong protocols during group work, meaning the teacher might sometimes choose to mix students with different dominant traits while other times have students with aligned learner traits work together. Students might also choose to work with students they know have common preferences with them. This concept leads directly to the next idea.

Flexible grouping of students with norms and protocols is key. Mixing up students for various activities -- getting them out of the comfort zone of sitting with the same group -- can lead to powerful dialogue and even some unexpected meaningful friendships. Admittedly, students can seem annoyed by this at first, but it is worth it in terms of creating varied learning experiences for students. This idea can be coupled with the traditional jigsaw technique of group work in which students in groups become an expert on a topic or part of a lesson and then are remixed into a second group in which there is one student from each topic.

Exploratory activities with hands-on materials engage college students as much as a group of kindergartners. Artifacts related to history, natural objects related to science, concrete tools related to math strategies and the like can interest students and get them talking. Setting down concrete objects with no explanation can not only act as an ice breaker for group discussions but can also lead to explorations that you as the facilitator of learning did not plan. Learning experiences become organic, meaningful and therefore memorable.

An example of this was when I had students explore the concept of hands-on experiences in mathematics, science and literacy in an education-related course. My favorite interaction during this activity was when students were using square tiles and a template of a right triangle designed to get students to discover the Pythagorean theorem. An honor student majoring in a science-related field exclaimed something to the effect of, “I can’t believe I never knew this is why that formula works!”

Explicit instruction on when to be engaged with technology and when not to be is important. It also can help you break up sessions into interesting segments that hold students’ attention. All it takes is a simple, “Now it’s time to step away from your technology …” Sometimes I would employ a technique I used with younger students called “Mingle, Mingle,” a version of which can be found here. This is where you have everyone stand up and mingle (socially distanced, of course) while there is music on, and when the music stops, you talk about the question posed with whoever is closest to you. Two or three rounds are usually a sufficient length for this one with older students.

Self-created projects based on clear course objectives can bring a class to life for students as they conduct their individual research as well as share their learning with others. While it takes more planning and one-on-one conferencing, to me that is the meaning of student-centered learning in higher education. Through gathering informal feedback, students overwhelmingly agreed that they felt invested in their learning by generating their own topics within the framework of the course.

As an example, last semester students designed an investigation of course objectives through the lens of cultural perception of various behavior-related disorders. Some students chose to investigate portrayal of disorders through social media, movies or television, while others chose a more traditional research of articles. A few others who were taking the course to prepare for a field other than teaching were able to tailor their project to their specific career interest in areas such as psychology or occupational therapy. Student-driven choices for products to share their learning included use of digital storytelling, creating a thought board, developing a website, as well as the traditional research paper.

Higher Ed Instructor to K-12 Teacher

Conversely, what have I learned in higher education that is instructive to me and perhaps my K-12 colleagues? One of the most important things is level of readiness. Based on previous adjunct experiences, as well as in my current position, I have observed many students who did not seem fully prepared for their college experience. Most recently, I encountered undergraduate students without what I would consider to be the most important and basic skills needed to be an effective learner, including oral and written communication, perseverance in problem solving or task completion, and organization.

Here are some key ideas for K-12 education based on the deficiencies I observed with many of my undergraduate students.

Having perseverance. Being given experiences to get students accustomed to trying something, failing and having to start again. Valuing mistakes. Being a problem solver.

Being a strategic reader, including having information literacy. Giving students opportunities to sift through information using textual features and interactive means to unpack key points from research, including interfacing with online resources in a discerning manner. Valuing multiple points of view from research and synthesizing them to create an argument.

Being willing to check assumptions. Encouraging students to consider the notion that you should not believe everything you think. Also, getting students to avoid assuming something is true without checking the source as well as finding multiple sources to support a claim.

Embracing writing as a multifaceted tool for learning. Fostering understanding and experiences that lead to treating writing as a process, with an expectation to engage in a cycle of feedback and revision. Writing is a way to show learning and a means to find your own voice.

Engaging in critical reflection. Making sure deep rather than surface-level content learning is happening through various modes, including writing, speaking or other creative means of expression.

Explicit instruction in building such strong learner behaviors can be incorporated in daily practices in any classroom regardless of what curriculum is mandated by school districts.

Proposal to Institutional Leaders

Over all, the ideas I have presented here are not particularly new, and I am not implying that both types of institutions aren't already employing some great practices. My proposal is that a comprehensive effort be implemented by educational leaders to create a partnership among K-12 and higher education practitioners with a mission to connect the two by bridging research-based theory to practice.

For example, culturally responsive teaching with sound pedagogy in K-12 classrooms could be enhanced by the sharing of current research and content expertise from higher education colleagues. Practitioners in higher education, on the other hand, might learn new practices from their K-12 teacher counterparts in terms of student engagement, emotional support, appropriate accommodations and scaffolding techniques, and use of project-based learning to increase intrinsic motivation. These ideas barely scrape the surface of possibilities if the type of partnership I am suggesting were to be put in place gradually over a period of several years.

Research-based teaching should be practiced at all levels, joining a knowledge of content with effective teaching strategies and bridging pedagogy to andragogy. Systemically speaking, both type of institutions I have discussed possess strengths and weaknesses on what it means to educate someone. There is a need for innovative institutional leaders at the highest levels to break down unnecessary barriers and fight against the status quo that keeps education compartmentalized. If leaders in K-12 systems and higher education institutions decided to develop and prioritize reciprocal partnerships in the spirit of increased collaboration on the intersection between theory and practice, with a laser-like focus on teaching and learning, incredible things could happen for education as a whole in this nation.

Bio

Janet Wood Varner is a National Board-certified teacher with 22 years of varied experiences in both K-12 and higher education settings. She currently serves as a visiting professor in the educational studies department at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and as a part-time adjunct professor for McDaniel College, and she continues to serve as a veteran teacher for St. Mary’s County Public Schools in the role of part-time math coach for special education teachers.

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