It's too easy to point out Confucius' saying that ends with "I do and I understand". But it's also true! Learners must be highly involved in experiential teaching strategies to be successful 21st century citizens.

Or so said my first principal some forty two years ago after he hated my first lesson observation.

To begin with I will apologize for  indulging you with an episode from my own teaching life. I promise you that there will be very few of these. I use this episode as a basis for my scholarly and principled exploration of experiential / active participatory instructional design rationales and assistance that has driven my professional life.

It was 1969! I had just gotten a teaching job as a social studies teacher in a semi- rural area, soon to become part of the suburban sprawl of New York City, some fifty miles to the west. In fact I, as a Queens, New York native, had never even heard of the school district that had hired me!

I was assigned seventh graders. I was given a text about New York State history and that was it as far as new teacher support and guidance. To that date, I had had all of four months of teaching experience in a high school. My Cooperating Teacher loved me and my students responded well to my engaging them in discussions and lecture. My Supervising Teacher was not nearly as fond of my style. He carped about lesson design but gave absolutely no guidance about how to improve it.

So I entered this position with all the zeal of any new teacher but certainly with a limited bag of tricks at best and absolutely without any teaching compass or philosophy to steer my instructional ship.

As you might expect, I did what most any other newbie in my position would do…… I taught straight out of the text book.

 “All right students, please open the text to page one. Johnny would you read that paragraph please?” Johnny would affably tackle the paragraph and I would do one or a combination of two or three approaches: I’d tell the students what the paragraph said, maybe scribble a point on the board;  sometimes ask “WHAT does this paragraph mean?”

Notice that I put WHAT in caps. That was intentional because WHAT was my favorite question-word. Isn’t that the way it still is? “What is 2 plus 2?” What is the subect of this sentence?” “What are the three causes of the Civil War?”

Ah yes — the old WHAT word, the word intended to elicit the lowest form of spit-back or is it spit – UP, rote learning that passes for what many deem as real education in our society.

My principal had scheduled an observation about two weeks into the school year. I was pretty confident it would go well. I had great kids and I had gotten them into a decent pattern of responding to my WHAT-world.

The content that day was about the Iroquois. To those of you who do not live in New York, the Iroquois were one of two Native American groups in the New York area. Theirs is a very interesting culture and their  history intertwines with colonial history in many interesting and important ways.

The chapter text was pretty well written, had many facts, some good illustrations. I wrote up a lesson plan that used the format I had been taught. I had divided the page vertically in half. On one side I detailed the important historical concepts and facts. On the other side I aligned questions to ask of the students. That was it.

Principal Stephens came in, sat in a desk in the rear left corner, took out his notes and began to observe the lesson.

I opened with a platitude about why it was / is important to trace the Iroquois’ role in New York State history and proceeded to use the tried and true “Who wants to read the next paragraph?” strategy.

Students fell all over themselves in raising their hands to volunteer and the lesson proceeded as I described above. I had developed several WHAT questions and from time to time elaborated on a point in the text. Students responded well. When the lesson was done, I thanked them for their participation and dismissed them as the bell rang.

Well I was feeling pretty good about myself. Then the principal came up to me. He said, “You don’t know very much about the Iroquois do you?”

I was stunned. What did he mean by that? I stammered something about having read the text closely and using my other background knowledge about the American Indian (N.B. this was well before the notion of using Native American).

He shook his head. “You were staying one paragraph ahead of them. More than that I don’t know and I don’t know if you know whether they learned anything at all from the readings.”

Now I am reeling. Moi? All star social studies teacher? Moi, whose students already adored?

I stammer again. “They answered the questions correctly.”

He waved his hand. “All they had to do was parrot the text to do that.”

Then … he said what I have held to my teaching-heart ever since. “Rich, students learn best when they are involved in their own learning. Students, especially at this age, need to be doing.”

I was more than stunned because I realized instantly he was right!

And from that moment on I devoted myself to becoming a teacher who would design experiences and activities that would engage every learner every moment that I could involve them, whether they wanted to be involved or not.

The next post will tell another war-story a few years later that will complement what I have begun today.


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