Teaching Without Teaching – Why and How

Molly Maldonado is a teacher leader at Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School, in Philadelphia, PA. After making a significant move to leave her beloved English class to teach Science, Molly had to change her instructional approach, design, and goals.  Here is Molly’s story:

If you’ve ever tried to dramatically change the way things are done in the classroom, you know it can be scary. Like taking off training wheels, there will be falls, wobbly stops and starts, maybe even some tears. But eventually, you and your students will start to get the hang of it. And the skills that you both acquire through the process can change everything.

And the skills that you both acquire through the process can change everything.

For many years I taught English, and my students showed consistent growth and achieved well on Keystone exams.  Though test scores improved and students advanced to high school and higher education, and though students knew more than before, their lives weren’t transformed. Worse, in a changing world and failing job market, I wondered if they were prepared for the future at all.   

When I switched to teach science, I saw an opportunity to experiment with innovative teaching methods and pedagogical approaches that I had been quietly researching for years.  Call it teacher as facilitator, blended learning, student centered, flipped, or self-guided learning. 

Call it teacher as facilitator, blended learning, student centered, flipped, or self-guided learning.

What I was attempting to do had roots in many approaches, but I wasn’t tied to any particular method. What mattered most was this: my students needed to learn and grow in transformational ways and so did I.

Here are 6 strategies I’ve discovered about trying something transformational with our students:

  1. Include Your Students – Students are our best resources for knowing what works. They also have the power to make the work we are doing wildly successful or dead in the water. I include my students in every step of the process. When I think I have a new idea, I run it by them for feedback. After we’ve tried something new, we openly discuss what worked and what didn’t. I share class and individual data with them and we reflect and hypothesize together about next steps. I spend a lot of time in the beginning of the year investing them in the learning process, explaining how important it is that we work together to make class successful for every individual. Some of the best ideas I’ve had were inspired by student feedback!
  2. Create Community – I’ve found an interesting trend in the students who succeed with these methods versus those who do not. The students who make the least progress work primarily alone. They don’t run ideas by their peers, they resist study groups and review games, and don’t ask me or anyone else questions. They come to class without their homework done and try to catch up while the rest of us are engaged in collaborative discovery. Helping our students to create flexible study groups and to feel responsible to their peers for learning and sharing makes them more engaged with the content and helps them to hold themselves and others accountable.
  3. Customize for Context – I have read countless articles, books, and blogs about flipped classroom, self-guided learning, blended learning, constructivism, etc. I have bookmarked some great Biology websites, and I am a huge fan of Sugata Mitra’s S.O.L.E.s and Khan Academy. I sort-of stalked this innovative new “independent learning” school when they opened in my district. But I have yet to find a plug and play method. Our students are particular to our school, our community, and their specific blend of learning experiences throughout the years. Try not to forget this. If you’re reading about something and you know, for example, that some of your students don’t have consistent internet access, customize. There is nothing wrong with taking someone else’s great idea and making it fit your class. That’s good teaching!
  4. Use your Teacher Brain – Many of us have been implicitly and explicitly told that the activity of “teaching” is primarily about effective direct instruction, whole class guided practice, with a little independent practice and grading thrown in. But our expertise and value as teachers is about much more than the content we present and our management of workflow. We have valuable knowledge about the process of learning, how students’ brains receive, work through, and retain new information. Use your knowledge of Blooms, and vocabulary acquisition, of inquiry, of scaffolding, of basic level skills versus advanced skills. Instead of using it for traditional planning of your content presentation, use it for designing learning experiences. How can you use Blooms to guide students through a variety of experiences that lead to deeper knowledge? How can you ask questions and make suggestions that lead students to discover their own learning style? How can you take off the training wheels for students without taking them out of their zone of development?
  5. Isolate the Variables – There is no way to know what works if you don’t do this. By slowly implementing changes, observing the outcomes, and changing variables along the way, you will be able to see what has the greatest impact on student learning. This will help you figure out where to put the majority of your energy. For example, I used to spend a lot of time on grading and printing progress reports which were tracked weekly. One semester I tried different variations of grading and observed the differences in student results. To my surprise, students performed just as well with meaningful and regular feedback and few to no grade updates as they did with me spending hours on grading and tracking. In fact, some students exceeded expectations when I let up on the grade focus. I wouldn’t have known this if I had focused on too many changes at once. Isolating the variables allows you to see what exactly is working or not working.
  6. Pull the Curtain Back – Don’t assume students understand how learning or their brain works, or what methods of studying and practicing truly get them results. Many students have been blindly following a teacher authority without question for so long that they barely acknowledge their own role in the process at all. My students and I talk about learning A LOT. We talk about how the brain works differently for different people. We test out methods of note-taking, processing information, researching, practicing, working together, and test taking. I encourage them to reflect regularly on what is working and practice metacognition almost daily. If a student tells me something about their learning isn’t working, we discuss possible whys and brainstorm solutions together. Later, as students begin to define their process, I trust them to make a plan and reflect on its effectiveness.

This work is not easy.

This work is not easy.

But it can be transformative, as I believe education should be. I don’t claim to hold even half of the answers, and I’m still learning daily along with my students. I hope that you are too.   


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