This last semester I unwittingly began what has turned out to be a rather surprising pedagogical experiment. In short, over my career I have generally tried to keep my teaching and my writing about teaching lives separate. The reasoning behind this was pretty simple. I assumed that my students would have little interest in learning how the sausage that turns into a class is made, and if I’m being honest, I was a bit self-conscious about students seeing my written work, lest they judge me.
But then in September I saw one of my students pop up on the subscriber list. Then there was another. And another. And another. Pretty soon it grew apparent that some of my students had stumbled across my work moonlighting as a writer and speaker, and as is the way in schools, word spread.
Shortly after this, students started to come to me with requests that I’ve never gotten before. One wanted to learn more about the research concerning how schools can best support students with trauma. I gave him my dog-eared copy of Helping Children Succeed by Paul Tough and a day later he came back looking for another. Since then, he has read six professional development books ranging from Newkirk to Noguera and is working on a piece for EdWeek and with school board members to look for ways that the district can reduce suspensions.
Another student asked to interview me about my approach to teaching writing for the school paper, and in the interview he quoted my 2016 NCTE Ignite speech back to me.
And just today yet another student who has expressed interest in being a teacher ran up to me and said, “I just ordered Kelly Gallagher’s Teaching Adolescent Writers. It should be coming tomorrow!”
Since the start of the year, hardly a week has gone where I haven’t had an unexpected discussion about teaching and pedagogy that was prompted by a student, and all of this interest has made me wonder why I assumed students wouldn’t care about the reasons why teachers do what they do. School lies at the center of most students’ lives, so it makes sense that they would have some interest concerning how it works.
It also made me wonder if my classroom could benefit from more discussion concerning the methodology behind what at times probably seems like madness to my students.
Over the last few months, I have played with this idea and gone out of my way to talk about the studies, books, and arguments behind the activities and assignments I was doing. When students set goals, I talked about the research on goal setting that points towards its value; when we did reflections, I defined the term metacognition; and just today before we took notes I told them about the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve that I mentioned last week.
And the results have been pretty striking. While my data is anecdotal and small-scale, I have found that when I let students know more about my thinking, they generally seem to…
- Grow more motivated. This makes sense because as I’ve mentioned before, motivation is largely contingent on one’s perceived value of something, and a well-executed explanation can show them the value.
- See me as more credible–which Dave Stuart Jr. argues is the single best way to increase student engagement in his amazing online class about student motivation–because I have clearly done the research and thought about these things deeply.
- Feel more empowered because they are invited to have greater understanding.
In thinking about this, I’ve also thought about all the moments where good teaching practice might actually appear to students as a teacher phoning it in. I’ve written previously about the importance of not over-marking student papers, not grading until October, and having students engage in lots of ungraded writing–all of which save us time and are backed by lots of research and yet could easily appear to students like we are trying to cut corners and do less work. By giving students the reasoning behind these things, we give ourselves cover from them mistaking our good practice for laziness.
Of course, there are undoubtedly limits when it comes to this idea. Annotating every classroom move would likely grow exhausting for us and tedious for students. Also, it can be a bit of a risk, as each explanation opens us up to scrutiny and argument from students who don’t buy our reasoning. But I think the upsides in a great many situations far outweigh the risks. It may be a newer idea, but in the end, when we invite them into the thinking, we honor their intelligence and their role as co-pilots in their education, both of which are well established as some of the most powerful tools we have for increasing student engagement!
Yours in Teaching,
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