What should we aim for in the classroom? Understanding or Coverage? 

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Usually our conversations center around the issue of coverage. Participants point out the need to cover as much as possible to prepare for state assessments, so to teach like Ms. Cassell would take too much time. “It would be nice to be able to become Ms. Cassell,” some say, “just like it was before the state tests, when we could spend time teaching what we enjoyed.” [See previous entry.]

The irony, I point out, is that this reasoning ignores not only the increasing alienation of students from teaching as talking, but it also ignores the conclusions of research. The National Research Council’s definitive compilation on brain research states, “teachers must teach some subject matter in depth, providing many examples in which the same concept is at work and providing a firm foundation of factual knowledge” Teachers instinctively understand this idea but, as we’ve seen, feel trapped under pressure from state assessments.

The problem remains that “coverage” does not guarantee learning or retention. When we choose to explain, we become the major beneficiaries of our explanations. No matter how well we explain, there’s no guarantee students will learn; but if we allow them to explain what they know to us, we will know they have learned. But we feel caught: “If I don’t cover what might be on the test, my students will not have an opportunity to learn it. When I cover everything in a mile-wide-inch-deep approach, I recognize not many will retain it. At least I can defend that I have done my job and covered what needed to be covered.” But, as a colleague shared with me, when we teach something and students do not learn, then nothing happened!

By the time we end our conversation about Mr. Appleton, Mrs. Baker, and Ms. Cassell, we usually reach an impasse. Still, the elephant in the room has been exposed, as the central question underlying this book emerges: “What can I do every day to make significant learning happen for each and every student in my classroom?” Our students will have little chance to become learners if we fail to create coherent curricula, units of study, and lessons.

What can you do every day to make significant learning happen for each and every student in your classroom?

For more on this crucial issue see Chapter 14 “End One-Size-Fits-All Teaching” in Teaching from the Middle of the Room: Inviting students to Learn from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Teaching-Middle-Room-Frank-Thoms/dp/0615358918.

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