Learning on a Prayer

Today, on twitter, Tom Bennett shared the below image with the comment, “Pray your children get the first classroom.”  

Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 7.52.09 PM

This sparked a bit of a debate among several members of edutwitter and created a bit of a stir.  Here is a link to Mr. Bennett’s original tweet.  As a classroom teacher, I’d like to give my take on this situation for two reasons: 1. I think this is an important conversation.  2. It’s my blog. I can do what I want.

The first aspect that jumped off the image was the obvious assumptions deeperlearning4all.org makes about the traditional classroom; that students sit quietly, do not speak, and never do any of the things occurring in the deeper learning classroom.  As I look at the six descriptors associated with the deeper learning classroom, I don’t see one that cannot be accomplished in the traditional classroom. Not one. It is quite presumptuous to illustrate that students sitting, reading, listening, and learning in the traditional classroom cannot become lifelong learners, develop a positive mindset, or think critically in a collaborative way about/with material.  It simply is not true. My classroom would assuredly be labeled as a traditional classroom, and my students are daily provided the opportunity to interact verbally, self-assess, check for understanding with a partner/group, ask questions of my instruction or others’ statements, et cetera. The image, quite incorrectly, proliferates the myth that traditional classrooms are somehow inferior environments for learning…especially, as the board in the traditional classroom indicates (math 101), if the material is foundational for further understanding of more complex problems contained in future courses.  

I also worry about the message this sends to teachers and administrators.  Especially within American edutwitter, there is a massive push to forgo traditional teaching and classroom settings for more flexible seating, maker environments, and creativity within the classroom.  Let me be clear, I am not anti-creativity, anti-technology, or anti-collaboration…but I am more pro-learning and refuse to harm the learning environment in the name of fun. Allow me to focus on the creativity bit for a moment.  Creativity does not occur without knowledge. You cannot be creative with information you do not have. Novice learners, who are acquiring the knowledge to be creative, learn better in a more organized classroom with fewer extraneous distractions.  This is best illustrated in the traditional classroom. The teacher as the expert and the students as the novice. I know that ruffles some feathers and many believe they should be the ‘guide on the side’ and not the ‘sage on the stage’, but just hear me out…how can your novice learners be required to teach others and create with the knowledge they are just beginning to understand?  They cannot do it well and may be harming their learning and others by incorrectly ‘teaching’ their peers. Their time would be far more efficiently and effectively used having an expert communicate their knowledge, assess the learning, and then move to applications of the learning.

I can almost hear veteran teachers saying, “Yeah…of course.  Teach them and then allow them to collaborate, create, etc. That’s a given.”  I’m not so sure that’s what those new to the profession are hearing/seeing on twitter, though.  I fear all they see on various blogs, edchats, and websites is the expectation of students constantly in conversation, constantly creating, and constantly up and about.  The realities of most classrooms is not that for 45 to 90 minutes a day. When I began teaching 12 years ago, there was no twitter or pinterest…and I’m quite glad. I cannot imagine the pressure new teachers must feel when viewing others’ classrooms and hearing of their dynamic lessons.  

So, a message to the new teacher and teacher trainee:  Relax. Know your subject. Teach your material cleanly and directly.  Imparting knowledge is the best thing you can do for your students. Yes, relationships matter.  Yes, student well-being certainly matters. If you set clear boundaries/expectations for the classroom and share a bit of yourself along the way, your students will respect you and the relationship part will take care of itself.  

A last clarification:  Prior knowledge matters. I teach AP Psychology and my students come in with very little understanding of the material we cover on a daily basis.  If you are teaching a course where students already have a firm grasp of the curriculum, that changes things a bit.

So, to end, I would like to paraphrase Jon Bon Jovi (and Tom Bennett a bit):

“Woah, sit down in your chair

Woah, learning on a prayer

Take some notes, you’ll retrieve it I swear

Woah, learning on a prayer”


*Notice how the traditional classroom is darker than the well-lit deeper learning classroom?  What’s up with that?  Biased much?

6 thoughts on “Learning on a Prayer

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  1. Let this be enough of a response: I like your blog and I want you to keep up the important work that you do. And now to paraphrase another musical act; namely, Journey: “Don’t stop be-leadin'”.

  2. I think both pictures are extreme depictions to convey a basic idea: There are a lot of things we should be doing besides lecturing to our students. My own high school classes were almost 100% pure lectures, so the picture at the top is not that much of an exaggeration for me. On the other hand, I think the best classes don’t look like the bottom picture either. There is absolutely a time for the expert/teacher to explain things to students, and this is missing in the bottom picture.

  3. Thanks for this, Blake – you always make me think. Interesting that in US there seems to be a move away from traditional environments and teaching, whereas in the UK I feel we have been there and are now coming back. When you say: “I’m not so sure that’s what those new to the profession are hearing/seeing on twitter, though. I fear all they see on various blogs, edchats, and websites is the expectation of students constantly in conversation, constantly creating, and constantly up and about”, it struck me that the re-emergence of the popularity of Direct Instruction in this country has been very much fuelled by Twitter debate, blogs and recent edu-books.

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