It was 2011 and I was just starting my career as a high school science teacher. I was excited, nervous, worried and totally naive. I remember walking into my classroom and teaching as I was taught, or at least trying to. How could my students not fully benefit from a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation and step-by-step lab exercise? It worked for me when I was in school, so it should surely work for them.
Needless to say, my efforts were not appreciated by my students. The semester took a turn for the worse in terms of class management and student understanding. My young learners made it clear that the way I learned when I was their age was not going to work for them. I remember crying to my internal science coach about the situation, and she pointed me towards active learning theory. Interestingly enough, even though I was fresh out of a teacher preparation program, the idea of active learning never crossed my mind when planning and writing my lessons.
My coach informed me that it was my job to create situations in my classroom where the students did the heavy lifting. This meant that students needed multiple opportunities to reflect, make sense of and apply content. My students also needed opportunities to work with each other to better understand what we were learning in class. After extensive research on YouTube and Google, I felt I was ready to incorporate active learning practices into my teaching. This would be the start of a seven-year journey focused on building my “teacher’s toolkit” to include a variety of strategies for engaging students.
An interesting phenomenon occurs when we work to learn new things and grow in our teaching practice. We discover something new, learn it, implement it, and tend to cast aside old techniques. Tools, resources, or strategies that were once the “hot topic” seem to have their heyday, then eventually fade away as new research and trends emerge.
What happens to our old learning? Do we put it away and never revisit the proven techniques that were once used to reach our students? In my particular area of expertise, science has given way to STEM, and the scientific method has pretty much been replaced by engineering design. While I recognize a need for evolution in the content we teach as well as the way we teach it, some practices from our past successes in the classroom are still relevant and worth implementing.
One could argue that many of today’s “best practices” in education are just the rebranding and repackaging of old techniques that have stood the test of time. In the case of science and STEM, students will need to work together successfully, communicate their findings, think creatively, and use other soft skills to achieve competence.
The active learning strategies I first learned as a new science teacher are still effective in helping students grow in STEM learning spaces. With that in mind, I urge my fellow educators to rethink some of their most effective lessons. What was it about those learning experiences that made them so successful? What kinds of strategies have you employed to ensure that students are actively interacting with each other and with the content? How did the flow of the lesson make you feel?
Hopefully, your trip down memory lane will inspire you to dust off some of your most seasoned practices and bring them out of retirement. Now more than ever, students need teachers who are willing to push themselves to become stronger practitioners. Part of this work includes reflecting on past successes as well as areas for improvement. The reflective practitioner constantly goes through the iterative process of revision and refinement to better reach students. Looking back, it is imperative that we use everything we have learned to better reach our students.