By Margarita Nichas
Upon graduating from university, the average young English teacher is (as I was) enthusiastic and committed to changing the world by motivating each learner to achieve their highest potential, believing that education can change the lives of every young person almost immediately. And thus begins the journey.
The only problem, of course, is that this idea is rather idealistic. The reality of teaching sets in after a few short weeks, when piles of unmarked scripts line the desk and the pressure of prepping for the next day’s lesson, coaching the javelin team and finding time to conduct the choir crowds both time and enthusiasm. The result? A lapse into the tried and tested methodology used by the teachers who taught me. I acknowledge that I was afforded a privileged education and I am by no means judging those educators who poured their souls into providing me with a good education. I merely seek to point out that the youth of today have changed dramatically in recent decades and therefore the teaching methodology, by necessity, has to change as well.
Pupils pleased to be pushed
It is a well-known fact that present-day teenagers are overstimulated, easily bored and far more adept at using technology than ever before.1 Although this is an obvious point to make, I think that many educators overlook the enormous potential that this affords them in a classroom. Many assume that learners today are quite content to disengage from the learning process and remain in their own world of fictional/digital realism. However, I believe that most young people respond positively to learning that has a purpose; learning that will help them solve real-world problems; learning that requires collaboration and reflection and innovative thinking.
Therefore, to re-engage with the original goals set after my graduation, I (together with my very capable English department colleagues at St Benedict’s College in Johannesburg) decided to research and use different techniques and thinking routines in the classroom.
A different discourse
In his book, Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools ( Jossey-Bass, 2015),2 Ron Ritchhart states that traditional teaching has focused on creating a rhythm in the classroom, ranging from the way in which learners enter the class and the way the teacher is greeted to the rules of engagement in the classroom. Thinking has been seen as an “add-on, something done as an extra to the regular work done in class”.3 The current trend is to move away from thinking as an add-on, towards thinking as the main focus of the activity in the classroom. Thus, learners should be “focused on learning vs. the work; teaching for understanding vs. knowledge; encouraging deep vs. surface learning strategies; promoting independence vs. dependence; developing a growth vs. a fixed mindset”.4 This approach has caused me to change the discourse in my classroom.
See, think, wonder
Another of Ritchhart’s books, entitled Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners ( Jossey-Bass, 2011),5 and the Harvard University Graduate School of Education programme6 have been invaluable resources. Both offer clear, practical guidelines to establishing sound thinking routines in the classroom. I embarked on a poetry experiment with my class of Grade 12 boys to encourage visible thinking, using one of the myriad thinking routines available.
Boys gathered in small groups of four and every 15 minutes they were moved around the classroom to examine various poems by using Ritchhart’s “See, Think, Wonder” thinking routine.7 This routine encourages learners to identify what they can see. It then encourages learners to explore what the images make them think about, and how their thoughts are supported by the text. The next step requires learners to ask what questions the ideas and images might raise. Finally, boys shared their thinking visibly by writing, or drawing, their analyses on the desks (I have the privilege of having desks that have been painted in whiteboard paint). Ideas were debated, argued, erased and redrafted.
The result was that boys were actively engaged in the learning process. At times, the discussion moved into a philosophical territory that showed mature, deep, layered thinking. This process encouraged independent learning. My role involved playing devil’s advocate and asking the tricky questions to probe their thinking and encourage deeper learning. I did not make judgements on their thinking. This was as much a learning curve for me as it was for the boys.
Some boys, admittedly, were initially reluctant to pursue this avenue of learning. One boy asked if we were still going to engage in a line-by-line analysis of the poem. “Is this all we are going to do with this poem, Ma’am?” asked another. Initially, the questions left me bereft of an answer. Upon reflection, however, I realised that in their school career, much of these boys’ learning has involved “Teacher, the Champion of all Knowledge” disseminating information. Employing Ritchhart’s methodologies involved engaging learners on their level and encouraged them to own their thinking. The two young enquirers quickly realised how complex questions can become and that various answers are acceptable, especially when analysing a poem.
You can try it, too
This is just the first small step in the journey to engaging boys in a more meaningful way. Ritchhart presents many more routines and ways in which discourse can change the nature of learning in the classroom. I am not an expert, just a humble teacher who will endeavour to try more routines and strive to make teaching and learning more meaningful for the boys in my care.
1. See, for example: http://www.zdnet.com/article/your-children-are-slaves-totheir-smartphones/.
2. See: http://www.ronritchhart.com/Books_%26_Videos.html.
3. Ritchhart, R. (2015) Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Truly Master to Transform Our Schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
7. Ritchhart, R., Church, M. and Morrison, K. (2011) Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding and Independence for All Learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.