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Saturday, 20 January 2018

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Teacherless Observations

By Paul Magnuson


Yesterday I observed a 90-minute physical education class and a 45-minute geography class. In both cases there was no teacher and I was not the substitute, just the observer.

The teachers had plenty of warning that I wanted to observe their classes at a time when the teachers themselves weren’t there. In fact, just about three weeks ago I wrote to them:
“Once during marking period 4 I’d like to do a ‘teacherless’ observation in one of your classes. The goal: How well can the students organize themselves in order to sustain learning over the course of the hour? The set up: Pick a class and prepare so that you don’t have to be in the class hour at all. I’ll take attendance and then simply observe. This plays very nicely into our overarching goal of creating self-regulated learners…”

And now I’ve observed six teacherless classes and I’m excited about it.

Yes, it’s a little unusual. I’m not observing in class to see how well the teacher is managing, but rather how well the teacher has managed to instill self-organization in the students. I’m observing the result of the teaching and learning that created a class that can be run—and run well—by independent learners.

In the PE class, my notes record how the first two students arrived two minutes early and began setting up the gym for badminton. The students played two single elimination tournaments. The class leader did a short lesson on overhead smashes. They reviewed terminology with each other and updated their vocabulary score cards. And they organized two games of doubles in the last ten minutes of class because they had extra time.

I was equally impressed during the geography lesson. Students were to use an image of the world’s tectonic plates, projected for all to see, in order to construct paper models of tectonic plates that they would place on a world map. Afterwards they would map out volcanic and seismic hot spots.

The students got right to work. As they worked, they chatted about other classes and after-school activities. They moved around quite a bit, but mostly grouped around a big map of the world. One student went and found what he thought was a clearer picture of the tectonic plates. Students talked about whether they were cheating by finding additional materials. One of them reminded the others that it wasn’t cheating if they were learning.

At the end of the class they cleaned up, unplugged the computer from the projector, and left the room. I felt like doing fist pumps in the sudden quiet. These students are good at self-direction!

Then, this morning, I observed another lesson, this time in English. Half of the students did not use the time well and I spent most of the 45 minutes reminding myself not to intervene as group work fell to just one student while the other members chatted. Argh!

So it turns out that not all our students are able to be good self-directed learners all of the time. And while I’m sure it makes some people uneasy to read that I watched off-task students stay off task for a complete 45 minutes, I offer this in my defense: if our goal is to create lifelong, independent learners, then we have to give students the tools and the opportunities to practice self-directed learning. Like a young person practicing for a piano recital, much of the practice time is filled with music no one in particular wants to listen to. But it’s practice and it’s necessary for the performance down the road.

Paul Magnuson is Director of Research and Curriculum & Middle School Director at Leysin American School.

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01/16/2018 - Wendy Rago
What a fascinating study! I really enjoyed the authenticity of you observations and how student responses to self-direction can vary. Very insightful!

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