The Classroom: The Basic Dilemma That Teachers Face and Manage

Pick the photos that you think best capture activities that you most like to see when you–as a teacher, parent, supervisor, administrator, community activist–enter a classroom.

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

8.

9.

Which ones did you pick? How many did you choose?

Here is my hunch: viewers will choose those photos that best line up with their beliefs about how teachers should teach and students should learn.

Of course, many viewers will pick multiple activities revealed in the photos since in 2020 the mainstream “wisdom” of teaching and learning is that there should be varied activities going on in a classroom over the course of a school day: whole group, small group, independent work. And most teachers organize their lessons to include such activities.

Experienced teachers have learned that–depending upon the age of their students, the subject/skills they are teaching, and their own preferences for what is important for students to learn—multiple ways of organizing classroom space and student work is essential. The photos show the range that often appears in classrooms.

There is “but,” however. What about “personalized learning?” For the past five years, with the ubiquity of classroom devices (e.g., tablets, laptops, smart phones, interactive whiteboards), calls for teachers to individualize student learning have accelerated. Those calls, however, confuse both professional educators, parents, and administrators since varied definitions of “personalized learning” compete with one another.

Consider photo 6.

A colleague sent this picture of students in a school founded and operated by teachers as an example of how learning can be “personalized.” The students are in their cubicles working independently and collaboratively under a teacher’s supervision

Yet were I to have asked teachers in the other photos conducting whole group and small group activities: do you engage in “personalized learning” with your class? My guess is that they would say that a snapshot of one activity in their classroom does not capture the totality of their teaching. They do, indeed, “personalize learning” over the course of a school day.

And that is the rub. The rampant rhetoric of “personalized learning” obscures the complexity of the fundamental work that all teachers must do: teaching content/skills to students. That is their professional obligation–for which they get paid–to enact the basic triangle that captures all classroom teaching.

I don’t think that putting into practice every day lessons that enact the above triangle is hard to grasp even when the standardized organization of schools is age-graded and the imperatives of such an organization–often called the “grammar of schooling”— influence what teachers and students do.

What too often remains missing in definitions of “personalized learning” and most of the photos–including the above figure of the triangle–is the basic dilemma that teachers face daily in putting the triangle into practice: not only do teachers have to perform their academic role as content/skill mavens–a value they prize–but also teachers want to–and are expected to–. build individual relationships with students.

The basic dilemma teachers face is figuring out how to finesse two conflicting values they face daily: teach content/skills and develop bonds with individual students. There is seldom enough time in the school day to do both–teach academics and build relationships with individual students. Because of time pressures, teachers craft compromises and try to do both.

At the end of the day, many teachers reflect not only whether the lesson got students to understand the denominator in fractions but also the unsaid word to comfort Janice when she put her head on the desk or the abrupt way she handled Sondra and Jeff when they had questions.

Because there is so much to do while a lesson unfolds, many teachers –especially secondary school teachers trained in disciplines–end up focusing on one of the two values they prize: the academic role. As the adage goes: they teach biology to students. And most elementary school teachers work on building close connections with individual students as they teach content and skills. They teach children, as the saying goes, reading, math, and science.

Yet regardless of what grade teachers teach, they juggle both values daily in their lessons, interactions with students before, during, and after school, and at home when they grade homework and tests. The quest to “personalize” learning requires teachers to manage both values. And most do learn how to manage both even as that struggle to do so lies hidden to non-teachers.

1 Comment

Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

One response to “The Classroom: The Basic Dilemma That Teachers Face and Manage

  1. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Well, in a lot of countries classrooms will look empty now, but good post Do the test!

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