A creativity blog - including reviews, photographs and discussion on a variety of things; such as dragons and other things almost but not quite completely entirely unlike tea.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Thoughts about teaching

During the last two years, I've been involved in the Finnish education system from the other side of the classroom than the past 20 or so years of my life. As a young teacher I've met and conquered or walked around or been defeated by several obstacles, be it the work itself, the material, the students, the co-workers, the parents, the distinction between free time and work time, the use of technology and social media in relation to school and/or learning or pretty much anything else in this thing called life. After these almost complete two years as a teacher I've learned a lot about my students and co-workers, I've learned about the school and about the surroundings where I work in, I've learned about the material I use to teach, I've learned to forgive myself and learned to chastise myself, too, I've learned to learn and I've learned to teach and I've learned that so much is still left to both learn and teach.

The Finnish education system is going through a phase, which might or might not make some changes for the future. There are several active people in the field, so to speak, who are campaigning for the change of the whole system, the school, the material, the practices, the savoir-faire, and what-not. At the same time there are teachers and parents and students, even, who want to keep everything the same it is, or even better, bring back the good old times when you learned by the stick and not the carrot - or if not all of that mentality, at least some of the discipline it included.

During this process, in which I myself have also been an active participant, I've come to think a lot about education, about school, about the subjects we teach, the children we teach and the people who teach. I've been in countless workshops, discussion groups, meetings and lectures about the whole new era of schools in Finland - I've talked and listened and read and written things related to everything there is between heaven and school. It all has got me thinking.

Modern technology is here to stay. At least, until the electricity fails us. So, it should be used as an advantage in education as well. Check. I've already started allowing some students to use their mobile phones as a speed dictionary - because books, they get outdated real fast, the students are going to use the translators and wordlists and vocabularies found on the web anyway, so I might as well jump on the wagon and tell them which are good and which are not so good sites, applications and what not to use. Here, I myself need more education. Thankfully, some of it comes from the students.

Are exams necessary? Some people write very nice essays for me about this and that in their lives. They might not make sense all the time, but I can still get the gist of it. Do I really need to make them sit through a 45min exam where I ask them to fill in the correct form of the verb? I believe in exams, I really do, but I'm not sure, if all the students get the most out of them. Their purpose is, after all, not only to test the students' learning, but also to show them themselves either a) that they've learned or b) that they need to learn more. Sometimes a grade happens, let's say 7 (on a scale from 4-10) and the student is depressed because the grade is so BAD. Then I can have a student get a 9+ and fail in a simple instruction of limiting your sentences on the lines provided for them. When it comes to essays, I really love the struggling writer more than the fluent one - the fluent one never stays within in the word count limits. Never. And should I start punishing them for that, too? That they can write more than they're supposed to?

Do I need to teach everything? I recently tried having an independent study phase with three groups of English. I gave them the area in the books that they need to study, they can use as much time as they must on it, so long as they complete the area within two weeks (which is approximately the time I would myself use on an area that large) or do the rest at home. Most managed to finish it early or within the time limit. I asked them to complete two or three tests during the study phase, so that they would themselves tell me when they wanted to do the tests. Almost everyone got a better grade from the same test which I would have held as compulsory had I taught the material myself. And almost everyone also did the tests during the time limit I had given them. So, they apparently learn for the tests better without me.

Are classrooms necessary? This is one of the most difficult questions. Could I get a ninth grader to study independently at home? Maybe, if he/she liked the subject. They could watch teaching videos (me teaching, for instance) at home, do some exercises, fill in an electronic test when they're ready and go about their business. Naturally, if this was done to a student who has been going to a school building to learn in a classroom forever, it would be demanding to get them to relinquish their accustomed freedom at home to studying, but if the studying all began like this... When I moved from comprehensive school to upper secondary, I think it took me the whole first year to realize I no longer have to study exactly in the same way I had in my previous school. I could do my homework when still in school, in the school library, talk with other students more, study courses independently, write essays to complete courses and use the school computers for studying, too. This of course is in direct relation to the kind of upper secondary school I went to - very good prepping one for future university studies, I should say. The same culture shock of course was coming along in the university too (What, I don't have 26-30 hours of lessons in a week? Just 18? What am I going to do with all this extra time? I don't have a life outside school! Not to mention the last couple of years when I had maybe 4 hours of lessons in a week and a thesis to write...)

Are all the subjects necessary? Is all the material still relevant? Does it come in an order that motivates learning more about the subject? If I teach my students in English to go clothes shopping in a teenage fashion store and they all use web-based stores for their purchases? The vocabulary might be useful, but is the subject matter? Could I teach 7th graders already more like I teach 9th graders, with questions about culture, environment, learning difficulties, poverty, work life and so forth? Why do I need to make them listen to exercises where sports equipment are talking in a closet? What are they all doing in the same closet anyway? You really think Bryan, Mia and Mari put their tent, sleeping bag, hockey stick, drum sticks and skates all in the same closet for the night?

Do I have to teach by going through books? What if I opened a store in my classroom and the students had some money to buy things from me? And if had recently gotten brain damage and could suddenly only understand Swedish? What if the whole school turned into a shopping mall for a week and students would have to go around and buy their study material? And what if, on Wednesday the biology material would be 15 % off and they'd need to calculate if they could save money by getting the biology done on Wednesday and take as much gym and music and chemistry on Tuesday as possible? Again, could a history teacher go full-English with his American history - study phase?

Just some thoughts. Inspired by many books, teachers, students, friends and gods which should be dogs but refuses to be written properly.