Friday, December 12, 2014

The Student as Learner-School Assignment

Today in gym we are playing dodgeball. Boys on this side; girls on that side. Game on!
We are heading to the library in a minute. Whoever is the quietest will get to line up first. Girls line up. Boys, line up behind them.
In Math we will be doing multiplication. I will divide you into two groups, show each group the question and the team that answers first wins. Boys on the left, girls on the right.
When we go outside, we will be making snowmen. Whoever can make the biggest snowman will win! Also, whoever can create the most life like snowman will also win! Go!

Situations like this and countless others take place each and every single day all over the world. Grouping, competing and evaluating boys and girls in the same class is common place. One week into my placement I asked my Associate Teacher about how he perceives the differences in boys and girls and if he changes his teaching style to accommodate their differentiated learning. His short and simple answer was “No”. He didn’t feel strongly that boys and girls are fundamentally different and should be taught differently. We discussed how he might approach a class filled with strictly boys and he had previously taught a class with only boys and his style didn’t change. During a recent Twitter chat with our Professor and other users of the social media site, we had a debate about how boys and girls differ. The main consensus was that boys are a bit more active in class, have trouble sitting still and tend to try and make their friends laugh. (I can relate to that one) Consensus on girls is they talk more but more quietly, read and write more. When I was first starting to teach kindergarten then my next year in grade three I never considered that my class had unique needs that will differ between boys and girls. Now that I’ve had a bit of time to think about it, when I think of past students who loved talking, girls come to my mind. Boys tended to be a bit more on the aggressive side for example play fighting, sports, anything Minecraft related, and essentially acting like girls don’t exist. Stereotypically or not, girls are a bit gentler, soft spoken, loved complimenting their teachers’ on their hairstyle or new outfit. If I were to go back to that school, I’m not sure if how I approached that year would be dramatically different other than knowing what I know now about how kids learn differently on different days and in different ways. I would agree with the research that states that boys and girls develop differently but it is unclear to me how and if it is necessary to teach them differently or to segregate them like in some schools in America and other places around the world. 

An article in the New York Times by Motoko Rich (2014), he writes that “Over all, research finds that single-sex education does not show significant academic benefits-or drawbacks. Janet Hyde, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who analyzed 184 studies covering 1.6 million children around the globe said the studies showing increased academic performance often involved other factors that could not be disentangled from the effects of the single-gender component.” Because this subject is new to me, I don’t feel incredibly passionate one way or the other but I’m leaning towards it not being a great idea to separate the two sexes due to lack of results and boys and girls need to learn to co-exist. They need to work together and segregating them only delays the inevitable of them working, living and starting families together. Rich (2014) wrote that “Shenilla Johnson, 9, a third grader at Charles Drew, considers an all-girls class a boon. Boys, she said, “annoy you”. While that may be the case, a parent, a friend or a coach might also annoy them but they won’t have the option of simply escaping them.

In Michael Gurian’s 2001 article Boys and Girls Learn Differently he notes that “you will discover many exceptions to what we say…you will notice some boys at the female end and some girls at the male…Many things are going on in each brain and personality that can outweigh gender difference.” I do believe that boys and girls are different but I don’t think treating them differently or putting them in certain classes is the solution. Putting them all together based on their age is a bigger issue that gender differences. Some 6 year olds can be learning with 8 year olds while a 9 year old might be as developed as a 7 year old. Gurian’s (2001) article does have some tangible tips for teachers to help with these gender differences. “Because girls and women are able to hear things better than boys and men, sometimes a loud voice is needed for boys. This fact makes an interesting basis for keeping boys near the front of the physical classroom. Males and females even see things differently, with females generally far better at seeing in a darkened room. On the other hand, males see better than women in bright light.” (p.30) These facts would suggest placing boys closer to the front of the class due to their biological needs. While boys and girls develop and process information differently, there is no universal “way” to teach everyone so it is important for the classroom teacher to get to know their class and find out their interests and passions. While they’re may not be a standard format to teach boys and girls, there does seem to be a common link in motivating a class to perform and behave. Rewards.

With rewards fresh on my mind entering my first practicum placement thanks to readings by Alfie Kohn, I quickly noticed how prevalent they were in my grade 1 class. At the end of each day, my Associate Teacher would assign work dollars to 3-4 students who followed the rules, worked extra well or were a good friend in the classroom that day. These work dollars could either be put into a movie fund and after $50 has been raised, the entire class could eat popcorn and watch a kid friendly movie. (We tried watching Jumanji. Apparently not kid friendly)  The student who earned the work dollars could also save their money for a trip to the “store” where they could pick one item in exchange for 7 work dollars. With Kohn (1993) in my mind with his quotes “The whole point is to control people’s behaviour”(p.53) and “Do rewards motivate people? Absolutely. They motivate people to get rewards” (p.67) I tried to assess the effects this rewards program had on the class and if they really did “do nothing to promote this collaboration or a sense of community…an undercurrent of “strifes and jealousies” is created whenever people scramble for goodies.” (p. 64) In my limited amount of time in that classroom, a few things stood out in relation to the rewards/punishment debate. Adding the element of the movie fund, the idea that $50 dollars needed to be raised to watch a fun movie encouraged collaboration in working together for a shared goal. Giving up the opportunity for a chance at the store was seen as a selfless act and they put the class’s enjoyment ahead of their own. I believe that this helps with class building, working together and the idea that they are stronger together than alone.

Another effect I noticed is that the teacher used it to reinforce certain behaviour that is deemed “unacceptable” in a classroom like yelling out answers to certain questions or talking to a friend while the teacher is speaking. I watched the behaviour of one student change 180 degree from the time I entered to the time I left and I’m sure that receiving work dollars and positive reinforcement played a massive role in her turn around. While I agree with Kohn (1993) that “If we do not address the ultimate cause of a problem, the problem will not get solved.” (p.62)  I believe that for some children, coming to school isn’t a fun or enjoyable experience. I did not like coming to school at all as a student because I attended an all-French speaking school with Anglophone parents with little to no help outside of school. If I was given the option of a special reward for learning a grammar rule, I would have been 100% more motivated than the 0% I was before entering the classroom. Some students just need a little extra push in the right direction and maybe with an extra sticker or two, they will get the ball rolling in the right direction, gain confidence and while still enjoying the reward, feel more connected and involved in their classroom.  William Glaser would use the terms power and fun in his approach to learning and classroom management (1986).

William Glasser (1986) wrote that “when any of us are in any situation where we decide that we no longer want to learn, we stop having fun…And as you almost always remember, your best teachers were able to make learning so much fun that you may still recall what they taught even though you have little use for it now.” (p. 29) I completely agree with Glasser’s points on fun in the classroom. In my first year teaching in Thailand, while I wanted my kindergarten class to learn to read and to count, my main goal was for them to wake up in the morning excited to come to Teacher Bert’s classroom. I can remember crying the first day of school and watching my mom leave me in this French foreign land. I kept in mind that they are still incredibly young, they have the whole rest of their lives in a classroom so it was my job to get them excited about the idea of school and that learning can be enjoyable and entertaining. I tried not being overly serious or insanely demanding; I would take them outside to the playground and read them fun books. I would play and interact with students from other kindergarten classes to make sure they had some fun in their day as well. 

Glasser (1986) also notes that “The more students can fulfill their needs in your academic classes, the more they will apply themselves to what is to be learned…If you do not find your work satisfying, you will never be able to do it as well as you would like.” (p.30-31) How do we make their work satisfying? Let’s see what our good friend Vivian Paley has to say on the subject.

VIivian Paley

Paley (2006) notes in her article On Listening to What the Children Say that “There are no right or wrong answers. Get everyone talking and then find connections-person-to-person, person-to-book.” (p.122) One major theme that I have learned these last four months is that a class feels more empowered when they are given choice, when what they are learning relates to their real life and are given time to collaborate and discuss while not just listening to the teacher the entire day. It wasn’t that long ago that I was in elementary school but there certainly seems to be a shift into each student learns in a certain way and it is the schools duty to ensure instruction is tailored to that pupil. I can hardly remember the issue of choice ever being brought up and another reason I didn't enjoy my learning journey was because we would learn things that were completely useless and inapplicable in my life. For example, I can remember not ever picking up an instrument or interacting with music in any way up until middle school. How grade 2’s are supposed to be excited about learning about Mozart?

Paley goes on to write that “He was truly curious…I practiced his open-ended questions, the kind that seek no specific answers but rather build a chain of ideas without the need for closure. It was not easy. I felt myself always waiting for the right answer-my answer.” (p.123)    I can relate to a feeling that in order for the class to be moving forward and learning, they needed to move quickly and give me the correct answer. During my practicum, my Associate Teacher was extremely patient in waiting for the class to process the question and give them time to think. People are generally uncomfortable with silence but is evidently a necessary part of giving a student space and time to think their thoughts through.

While I can see how new (and older) teachers could feel overwhelmed with theories, theorists, classroom management tricks and tips, I feel that if in your heart your truly want your class to grow as people and as students, you are on the right track. This career isn’t for everyone and everyone has their own approach but if you love being around kids, think they are genuinely funny and want to help make them better human beings, teaching and reflecting are the best ways to look out for your future students.

A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying. 
B.F. Skinner

Glasser, W., (1986). Control Theory in the Classroom. (pp.23-43). New York, NY. Harper and Row Publishers. ISBN: 0-06-096085-X
Gurian, Michael (2001). Boys and Girls Learn Differently!. (pp.13-43). San Fransico, CA. Jossey-Bass Publishers. ISBN: 0-7879-6117-5
Kohn A., (1993). Punished by Rewards. (pp. 49-67). New York, NY. Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN 0-618-00181-6
Paley, V. G. (1986). On listening to what the children say. Harvard Educational Review, 56 (2), 124-131. ISSN 000178055
Rich, Motoko. (2014, November 30th) Old Tactic Gets New Use: Public Schools Separate Girls and Boys. The New York Times. Retrieved from

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