Ripples & Reflections

"Learning is about living, and as such is lifelong." Elkjaer.

My Biggest Challenge: Striking the Balance

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Is it possible to be too reflective?

Sleep is a challenge for teachers. Certainly for me. At any given time I have multiple streams running through my brain and it can be difficult to switch off. At times it is making sure all the grading and reporting is complete, at others prep and planning. Sometimes it is the interactions with students that get you thinking and at others it is the discussions with colleagues. Every day is different and challenging, and that’s why I love to teach, but wow it’s exhausting!

When I first started teaching about eight years ago, I thought to myself that it would get easier in a few years’ time; that I’d be a master of the content and that would be enough. The naïveté of the new teacher, assuming content mastery equals pedagogical success!

But it doesn’t get easier, the challenges become different. If I were happy to teach the same content in the same way under the assumption that all students were the same, then sure, life would be easy. I’ve always worked well with colleagues, had students enjoy my classes and achieved positive feedback. However, in this age of self-directed PD and access to other like-minded teachers online through Twitter and blogs, I find new ideas, perspectives and pedagogies on a regular basis. As the links, concepts and discussions build up, I question my own practice more critically, more frequently. And I sleep less.

I am in a fortunate position as a teacher (I think), to be able to teach Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Environmental Science at the High School Level, concurrently. To me, Science is more than a single subject. It is the process by which we make sense of the world and try to encourage students to make sense of global issues.

In my ideal classroom, students are busy, engaged in learning the subject the way they want to, with success towards goals and learning at every stage. All students love science as much as I do, and are not overloaded with homework in the process of learning. They are self-directed learners but know that they can rely on me for support when they need it. They meet deadlines because they are fair and structured, with opportunities for feedback along the way. They are able to meet the standards, are well-prepared for IB Diploma courses or exams and are scientifically literate critical thinkers.

In my ideal classroom.

The more I read and learn, the more I try new ideas and approaches, the more I realise however, that they need to be taught in very different ways to different students. The student who struggles in Physics may be waiting for Environmental Science to begin, or vice-versa; the Higher Level Chemist may find Standard Level Biology too basic for them whereas another classmate may only be there because they have to pick one Science; the student who was super-engaged in group tasks and modeling instruction may struggle in a traditional test or the student who wants to ‘sit and get’ may feel  that they are not being ‘taught’ if they are not being told.

So how do I make sense of all this? I could bury my head in the sand, do things the way they’ve always been done and have a lot more time for my family, keeping fit and learning my lines for the faculty play. Alternatively I could obsess over the little things and worry about each and every decision and interaction. Or I could try to move away from the latter, where I tend to be, and focus more on striking the balance.

Balance is not as easy as it sounds, though. In effective teaching practice and work, there are many individual balances which need to be maintained, plates which need to be kept spinning. The following list of daily balances of the science teacher, though exhausting, is by no means exhaustive.

Balances in Differentiation

  • Direct instruction vs constructivism (modeling instruction or problem-based learning)
  • ‘Best practice’ vs student preferences or cultural expectations
  • Group work vs individual work
  • Quizzes or formative tasks vs reading and notes
  • Lab work vs theory work
  • Helping Ss vs making them solve their own issues
  • Teacher explanation vs peer instruction
  • Dealing with misconceptions
  • Teacher-led ‘enforced’ work vs trust to complete tasks at Ss own pace
  • Supporting the slower learners vs pushing the more advanced
  • Student interests vs course objectives
  • The science-keen vs the science-shy
  • Homework vs classwork (I aim to minimise homework)
  • Digital learning vs physical experiences
  • Theoretical concepts vs real-world applications
  • ESL support vs opportunities for advanced English learners
  • Time limits and deadlines vs student and teacher workload
  • Written work vs oral or digital

Balances in Curriculum and Assessment

  • Formative opportunities vs summative tasks
  • Requirements of assessment criteria vs authentic backward-design ideas
  • Sufficient practice of a skill/ criterion vs saturation or boredom at repetitive practice
  • Teaching and learning time vs sufficient data points for best-fit grades
  • Scaffolded and supported rubrics vs freedom of approach for Ss
  • Depth of feedback vs timeliness of grades
  • Content coverage vs depth of understanding
  • Content as prep for advanced courses (e.g. IBDP) vs content ‘for life’
  • Backwash of content/ standards vs current affairs and issues
  • Logical sequencing of concepts vs student engagement or connections with real life
  • Class time to work on assessments vs time pressure to move on to new content
  • Extended timelines and drafting stages for assessments vs multiple repeats of a criterion
  • The ‘fun’ or impact of an experience/ activity vs the course objectives, cost and learning outcomes

But is it possible to keep everyone happy all of them time? Is there a secret recipe for differentiation success in classroom teaching and design of curriculum and assessment?

Maybe these are the key questions to ask in the medium-term phase of a teaching career. They are defnitely ideas I’d like to explore in my new MA unit on Curriculum Studies (and later on in Understanding Learners and Learning).

I hope to make better use of this personal reflective blog in the future, ideally as a way to keep track of progress on some of the balancing acts I have listed above.

Sounds like I’ve got more reading to do!

Author: Stephen

Director of Learning & MYP Coordinator at Canadian Academy, Kobe, Japan. Formerly MYP HS Science & IBDP Bio teacher and missing it terribly. Twitterist (@sjtylr), dad and bloggerer.

One thought on “My Biggest Challenge: Striking the Balance

  1. Pingback: MYPiggy in the Middle « i-Biology | Reflections

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