I decided to switch gears this week at the last moment. I was going to write about travel and how it has made me a stronger teacher, but I think that is a story for another day. I’ve been thinking a lot about student voice this month particularly this week as I’ve watched Florida high school students and teachers all over the United States speaking out and taking action to make schools a safer place. I remembered a lesson from the same group of students I have been writing about this month, and it seemed fitting to round out the month with a story about student-directed reflection. Sometimes the best thing you can do is take a step back and watch what unfolds.
Teaching economic principles to third graders out of a textbook is yawn-inducing. Scarcity, trade, buying, selling, and all of the vocabulary associated with it could have been introduced in a variety of ways, but my teaching partner, Cheryl, and I wanted to take it a step further and experiment with introducing these concepts through inquiry focused on group dynamics and problem-solving strategies.
The task was set up like this: We were going to conduct the lesson, or experiment as we called it, at the same time in our own classrooms. Students would be divided into four groups. Each group would have a different material. One group had scissors, another paper, another would be allowed to go outside to gather as many natural materials as possible, and one final group would have nothing. The task was to build a structure. They could do it in any way that they wanted, but they were limited to the materials within the four groups. They were also given an allotted amount of time. This was due mainly because we wanted it wrapped up before lunch.
Ready, set go! There was a lot of talking within the small groups at first. I decided that I would take notes on the whole process so I would remember specifics (I really wish I still had that paper). I sat back, and I watched. And I wrote as much as I could. I didn’t intervene at all. No questions, no comments, no involvement on my part whatsoever. Cheryl soon walked into the classroom and suggested we switch rooms for a little while, so I went over to her classroom to observe. I was surprised to find that her class was approaching the task in a completely different manner than mine. My students had decided, almost immediately, that in order to be successful they would have to engage in some sort of bartering. They even used that word. They began trading materials. They soon found out that what they were able to trade wasn’t going to be enough to build a structure for each group, or at least the structures they had in mind. They decided to pool their resources and build one class structure. What I saw in the other room was four groups maintaining boundaries and defending their materials but still engaging in a lot of productive talk.
We switched back to our own rooms again smiling to each other because we knew we had a lot to discuss. Cheryl took video clips of both classes, and I had my written notes. We gave the kids a final warning and brought them all together shortly after. We wanted them to think about their role in the groups, what sort of problems they faced, and how they approached the problems. We showed them the video clips and asked them to tell us what they noticed. We did this with both of the classes together. They were as surprised as Cheryl and I had been between the differences in the two classes, and it provided opportunities for students to compare and contrast. I loved the debrief because we didn't focus on what they created, but we discussed the process and had them think about how they worked through the problems they faced throughout the experience.
After hearing from some of the students about their observations (they were pretty hard on themselves), we told them what we noticed about the classes. We talked about some of the language we heard and the positive strategies they demonstrated. By the end of the discussion, we had not only covered content including economics and social issues, but we had all participated in a lesson infused with practical problem solving followed up by a metacognitive reflection. And it was all done before lunch!
What I realized that day was that maybe there is something to this method. How much guidance do students really need? Will they arrive at certain conclusions and learn content if the learning experiences are structured in such a way that they are interacting with the material on a very real level? The activity itself was not where the learning took place. It was the debrief and reflection where they watched themselves interacting. It was asking key questions including: what was some of the vocabulary you used to be successful in this task? What were your strengths? What would you do differently?
In this situation, reflection was necessary for learning. If we had just done the activity, they wouldn’t have gotten anything out of it. They would have experienced trade and collaboration, but they wouldn’t have been able to articulate how their thinking changed throughout the process or how this experience related to other academic content or challenges in the classroom. Adding the layer of video added an exciting layer to the process. They were able to make connections to many areas of the curriculum, but more importantly, they learned a bit more about themselves as individuals and how they behave in a group. This insight led to even more collaboration and eagerness to reflect because they realized that reflection was not a chore but a practice that leads to understanding.
By Erin Dowd