We are so used to hearing bad news about the state of education and teaching, but teachers can make a difference, and it is important to remember this. My youngest son takes piano, and in the last concert he messed up his piece. It has been playing on his mind, and as this term’s concert approaches, he has become more and more nervous about it. His piano teacher has been working with him to try to get him into the habit of carrying on playing, instead of stopping when he makes a mistake. He came back from his last piano lesson very upset. His teacher had shouted at him for stopping! His teacher also gave him a poem to read about perseverance and fortitude. In the days that followed he resolutely sat at the piano practising not stopping! He may mess up again – the concert is next week, I don’t know, but what has impressed me as a parent is the patience and fortitude of his teacher in getting him to the point where he is a great deal more resilient, and now appears to have a level of confidence about his ability to face up to his hoodoo!
At the moment I am very aware of the tendency many students have to give up when the task becomes difficult. Most of my grade 10 students are in the process of finishing off Flash games they have been designing, and this year most groups have been far more adventurous and ambitious than usual! This has meant that instead of using core skills taught in class to construct their games, they have downloaded tutorials off the Internet and included coding well beyond their understanding, and, I hasten to add, mine!
While this is fantastic and students have really stretched themselves, and learned a great deal in the process, it has placed many under stress and led many to want to give up, often a mere semi-colon away from working code!
Common problems included not being able to convert code written up in Action Script 2 tutorials to Action Script 3, not being able to edit code copied from tutorials to different purposes,and simply being very over-ambitious. I have had to spend many afternoons with students trying to help them adapt their code, searching the Internet for solutions and scouring Adobe manuals to find out exactly what a gradient box is anyway! It must be remembered that this was a general class, not a programming class.
The fact that I did not know how to solve many of these problems without searching the Internet, that I was in many ways learning alongside students was for me, a great experience, and a window into the kind of communities of practice that I would love to set up in my classrooms, but which is often elusive because I do know the answers already. It becomes too easy just to tell students what they need to do rather than work alongside them.
Teaching students to code is an obvious place where communities of practice can be very effective. Where one group had solved a coding issue in their Flash games, I asked them to help out another group with similar problems. This model worked quite well – because students were quite good at explaining things to each other, and it took the pressure off me when I needed to put in some solid research over some knotty problem.
As an English teacher I try to turn my writing classes into communities of practice, and I always write alongside students when thy are doing an exercise. I share my thought processes as a writer and show them that I also have some good results, and some duds when I write, that I also find it hard, that I often also get stuck, and change my mind about what I want to do. I ask for their opinion about a word choice or as for an idea, and I hope this helps encourage students to see that learning a skill is an ongoing process, and that you need to be persistent, and have confidence that you can find solutions, and it’s OK to start without knowing all the answers.
But most of all it teaches persistence. When you are alone it is often tempting to give up. But working in groups and seeing that no-one is giving up, helps to keep going. Or, when it comes to the piano, having a teacher shout at you, is often necessary!