Friday, September 9, 2011

Rethinking Teaching and Time Allocation in Elementary School

Editor’s Note:  I have learned a lot about learning from the home education community in general and the unschooling community in particular.  The following post was written upon my inquiry to Mystified Mom, a life-long learning and home education expert, about how unschooling principles could be applied in the classroom.  Below she shares one of her smart ideas.  

Guest post by Mystified Mom

When Lisa asked me how unschooling principles could be applied in the classroom, I drew a blank for the longest time because what we do is based on freedom. A lot of our learning results from being able to be immersed in the things that we are interested in. I have been thinking about how things are done in the elementary school. Right now, teachers typically create lesson plans that focus on what they are going to do in each subject every day of the week. The blocks of time are typically about an hour.


When I was in the classroom, I found it difficult to break learning down into such short periods of time. There is transition time between each subject and a lot of times it can be rather jarring to have to switch from doing math to doing English. I know that my girls are not good with big transitions. So, what I propose is to break things down by day. For example, plan to spend all day Monday focusing on math. It would give teachers a lot more freedom to do fun stuff. It would also give them more freedom in the lesson planning process because they would have an entry for each day of the week rather than multiple entries every single day.


I am thinking that a day of math might start with talking about what is going to be covered for the day. I think one of the elements missing in current lesson plans is “How this is relevant to the student NOW.” Sure, teachers need to meet state standards but I think the missing piece is that nobody is telling kids how this information is relevant NOW. Why do they need to learn how to add and subtract? That seems pretty obvious to an adult but it is not always obvious to a kid. I know that my girls have asked why they need to know some things. I am thinking that if more kids understood the WHY behind learning some concepts, they would be more motivated to learn.


I wrote a post about andragogy on my blog and one of the things that it emphasizes is that learning is best when people have a purpose for learning. People learn best when they understand why they need to learn it. For addition and subtraction, kids could be invited to brainstorm real world applications of it. Teachers could add to that. The way classes are set up now, there isn't enough time for real brainstorming. Everything has to be cut short to meet time requirements to go on to the next subject. I vividly remember getting in trouble for letting a lesson go on too long when I was doing my student teaching. The kids and I were really interested and really engaged in the topic and I lost track of time. My supervising teacher had to remind me that I had to get all of this other stuff done in the same day. She reminded me of how important it was to pay attention to time. I hated having to keep an eye on the clock the whole day.


Devoting one day to one subject would allow for more immersion and engagement. I know that my girls learn best when they are allowed to completely immerse themselves in a topic. At the beginning of the day, the teacher can set up all of the activities for the day and gather all of the materials. I remember that prepping for the day was sometimes a challenge because there were so many subjects and so many divergent things going on. One prep per day would make life so much easier for the teacher and I think it would be easier on the students as well.


I remember using centers a lot when I was in the classroom. We set up little stations where kids could use manipulatives to explore the concepts being introduced. It seemed like I had to cut the students off before they ever had a chance to really explore and play with the manipulatives. I remember one of the lessons was to go outside and find things in nature. It was a cool lesson but it seemed that the kids had to be rushed. There were a few kids that always finished things early but there were just as many that needed lots more time to accomplish things. The kids that finish early can be allowed to go on to the next activity while the teacher helps the stragglers. I think it would also allow more time for peer coaching. The kids that finish early could be encouraged to help their classmates.


I think this would also be a great way to give kids that want to advance more room to advance. I am thinking of how things work in our house. A lot of times there will be multiple things going on at once. If the teacher is planning for a day of math, then extension activities could be built in to the day. Usually, there isn’t enough time to build optional extension activities into the lessons. Extension activities could be as simple as having board games, higher level books, or other activities that could be pursued individually by students that finish early and want to advance.


I think it would also give teacher more flexibility to help students that need more one on one assistance. If there are a variety of activities set up about one particular subject, kids can be doing one activity while the teacher is helping another. If there is a small group of students that need more assistance, there would be fun stuff to do related to the subject. I know that the biggest problem when I was teaching was that some students would finish before other students would even get started. That made it difficult to help those that needed help because I was trying to find a way to keep everyone engaged. Having a variety of activities for students to work on through out the day that focus on one subject while still addressing state standards, would give the teacher a lot more flexibility because those that don’t need help can be involved in self-directed activities. 


This is a start in providing one way to give teachers and students more freedom in the classroom that allows kids to completely immerse themselves in a subject and increase learning.

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About Mystified Mom
I am passionate about learning. I have four beautiful daughters (10, 7, 4, & 2) and I am married to my best friend. We live a lifestyle of learning, which means that learning is a part of everything that we do. As somebody that is always learning and always seeking new ideas and perspectives, I am not tied to any one method of learning. My goal is to examine my life and the world around me so that I may grow as a mother, wife, and human being. I am very interested in child advocacy, especially as it relates to the rights of children.
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