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Downshifting: Teaching (for Understanding) in a Lower Gear

Voice of ExperienceAn ever-expanding curriculum and high-stakes testing drives many teachers to just "cover the curriculum." Educator Brenda Dyck reflects on the place "slow teaching" has in a speed-teaching world. Included: A lesson Mrs. Miller taught me in second grade.

Like many of my colleagues, I've become proficient at "speed teaching." Speed teaching refers to our abilities to find the most time-efficient way to deliver learning to students. It is the only way to cover an ever-growing curriculum.

The passing scores in my student grade book attest to the fact that the system is working; the majority of my students are mastering the concepts and skills that their high-stakes tests will test. Or are they? The fact that I often hear my students' next-year teachers complain that those who demonstrated mastery for me are woefully lacking in recall makes me wonder. Am I teaching for short-term memory or long-haul retention?


Maurice Holt's recent Phi Delta Kappan article, It's Time to Start the Slow School Movement, reminded me of my own learning experiences during an era when it seemed teaching was more about savoring the learning than just getting through it.

Voices from the Past

Have you seen these recent Voice of Experience essays by Brenda Dyck?
* Put On Your (Six) Thinking Hats!
* Your Professional Development: Let Your Fingers Do the Walking!
* Surprised By Reading: Confesssions of a Math Teacher
* A New Spin on Back-to-School Night
* Rules Are Back in Style
* Summertime: Time to Regenerate

Searching for Voices

Are you a teacher who would like to share an Aha! moment -- a classroom experience that opened your eyes or a moment of reflection outside the classroom that led to a teaching epiphany? Are you an educator with a unique opinion to share -- or one with a fresh perspective on an educational issue? If so, we want to hear from you! Send a brief description only of an idea you would like to write about in Voice of Experience to [email protected].

That article brought back memories of Mrs. Miller, my second grade teacher, who was a master at slow teaching. She was in no hurry to finish our unit on Zaire. Not only did we cover all the factual information about Zaire, we made our learning visible by creating a lifelike tabletop jungle that -- to this day -- I can remember constructing and watering. We watered it because we spread a thick layer of dirt across the surface of our jungle floor and excitedly buried bean seeds in the dirt and waited for them to germinate. That was in addition to building villages of stilted tribal houses set alongside the Congo River that meandered its way through the jungle! In no time, bean plants that looked strangely like jungle foliage began to poke their way through the dirt. The taller they got, the more they looked like the lofty broadleaved evergreens found in the jungles of Africa.

It's strange how memories of that tabletop jungle and what we learned that year came back to me in high school when I read Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness. Reading Conrad's powerful description of an African jungle was like revisiting a place I had already been:

"Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginning of the world, where vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were king. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest, the air was warm, thick, sluggish. We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness." (The Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, 1899)

The realization that many of my most profound learning experiences took place in slow-teaching environments has led me to try to replicate that style of instruction in my own classroom. Using multi-layered topics like children's rights, leadership, restorative justice, and homelessness as jumping off points, my students have participated in simulations, collaborated with students in other countries, and participated in debates about complex issues.

Using numerous Web resources available to me, I have had the opportunity to learn from many experts in the field of project-based learning. The George Lucas Educational Foundation Web site, for example, provides many excellent resources that have helped me gear down my program so that students have the opportunity to develop their critical thinking skills and recapture the excitement of learning. The site's video gallery has been especially helpful to me; it is a powerful archive of interviews with project-based learning experts such as Howard Gardner, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and Seymour Papert.

With slow teaching my modus operandi, I realize my speed-teaching skills have not gone to waste. They still enable me to cover baseline knowledge and concepts that will ultimately free up time to lead students to become investigators, problem solvers, and innovators. Speed teaching combined with slow teaching results in establishing a learning environment where students are free to think, analyze, problem-solve, and make meaning of what they've learned.

Embracing "slow teaching" does not mean I have to settle for lower test scores; in fact, to me it's somewhat ironic that highly interactive projects and classroom practices promote academic rigor and excellence.


Teaching for Understanding: Pictures of Practice
Observe "slow teaching" in action. This Web site from ALPS (Active Learning Practice for Schools) profiles teachers who are teaching for understanding.

Teaching for Understanding: Curriculum Design Tools
Wondering how to gear down your curriculum? Take a look at this free online tool from the Teaching for Understanding Project based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Understanding Counts! Teaching for Depth in Math and Science
How do we teach for understanding? This research paper by Tina Grotzer of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University explores this question and how it relates to teaching math and science. (This pdf file requires Adobe Acrobat Reader.)

Horace's School: Redesigning the American High School
A fictional portrayal of what an ideal American high school might be like, as envisioned by educator Theodore Sizer.

Brenda Dyck teaches at Master's Academy and College in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). In addition to teaching sixth grade math, Brenda works with her staff in the area of technology integration. Her "HotLinks" column is a regular feature in the National Middle School Association's Journal, Middle Ground. Brenda is a teacher-editor for Midlink magazine.

Article by Brenda Dyck
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Copyright © 2004 Education World

Updated 09/29/2005