A New School Year: When Teachers Shouldn’t Cling to Past Practice

Nothing is as invigorating as starting a new school year. Fresh school supplies, creative displays, and new students inspire us to make this year the best it can be. However, the new school year also brings with it a need to rebalance our home and work life.

Rushing to prepare new content for students while trying to balance other demands on our time can easily become overwhelming for the best of teachers. Stress can influence us to take the easy road and cling to past practices even if they were not highly effective.

Ineffective focus on test-taking

Teaching to the test is a practice that became popular when pressure was placed on teachers to ensure students were performing according to specific goals set by districts and states. We are all familiar with focusing on the specifics we know will be tested and on memorizing strategies to ensure correct answers on standardized tests even if students don’t understand why the strategy works.

Many community members and educators across the nation warn of the damage this practice is creating for our nation’s young people. Instead of expanding concepts to thoroughly understand the depth and breadth expected of standards, teaching to the test tends to limit learning to finding the correct response for multiple-choice questions. Significant learning goes beyond multiple-choice tests. Although there is value in the test, it should not control instruction. Instruction should be based upon a complete understanding of the standards.  Lessons should be engaging and rich with meaning, not simply learning the strategies and tricks of test-taking.

With pressure placed on teachers to raise test scores, it is easy for teachers to succumb to these types of practices. When expectations are high and personal energy is low, following the crowd ensures job security.

 A new definition of success

Experienced and highly qualified teachers know when students thoroughly understand content. Teachers ask good probing questions and prod students to consider intricate aspects of the topics being studied.

Sharpening students’ thinking goes beyond simply teaching to the test. When we focus on challenging students to meet the 21st century standards by engaging them with content, we can trust that success on student assessments will follow.

Students actively involved in learning develop a growing hunger to know and understand even beyond what college and career readiness standards expect. As teachers, we need to take risks to push education forward even if it is easier to follow past practices.

Join with other educators

Collaborate with other teachers to develop learning plans that spark excitement in student learning. Even if your school is not encouraging collaboration, take the time to carve out these new paths.

Here are some ways to increase student engagement:

  • Talk to administrators about rearranging schedules to provide common planning time for teachers to study the standards and design units of study that spark high levels of student engagement. It is challenging to find the time for teacher collaboration, but teachers are the key to educational change in the classroom. Teachers must be given opportunities to examine and construct curriculum for themselves to effectively and creatively deliver lessons in the classroom.
  • Simulations, role-play, writing activities, challenges and games, real-life problem solving, and closely connecting content to the outside world are just some of the ways to challenge learners with active engagement. Teachers must develop skills to effectively manage students in these types of activities. Observation of student work and evidence of their thought processes need to be documented and then examined to maximize learning.

Chart a richer path of learning this year

Resist the temptation to fall into past practices simply because they are familiar. Success on a test does not ensure that students have the skills and dispositions to thrive when they reach college and start their careers.

Every day, we are faced with new problems: food and water insecurity, terrorism, world health issues, and a changing job market, to name a few. Our students need to be allowed to adjust to the new technologies and problems that will constantly be entering their lives.

We cannot equip them with teaching practices that simply prepare them to take and pass standardized tests. The easy road is to follow the path of least resistance. Striving for greater degree of student learning is difficult and complicated, but it is why we entered this field of education. Commit to charting a richer path of learning for your students this year.

With over 35 years in administration and teaching in K-12 and higher education both in the U.S. and internationally, Dr. Nancy Cardenuto strives to cultivate creative and innovative learning paths. She is an adjunct professor in the master’s program at Concordia University – Portland, where she teaches courses in support of the Common Core State Standards.