When I got my Major degree, I had many educational theories fresh in my mind. I felt that I was ready to meet any challenge that came up in the classroom. I had studied Dewey, Vygotsky, Piaget, Skinner, Bronfenbrenner, Maslow, and many other famous researchers in the psychology, pedagogy, philosophy, sociology, and education fields.
Many of these theories cried out for more modern educational practices. Also, these criticized traditional school strategies to consider them obsolete and not according to the natural rhythm of children learning. In Dewey's words, “It is given to formulating its belief in terms of Either-Ors, between which is recognize no intermediate possibilities” (Dewey, (1938/1997), p. p.17).
On my first day as a teacher, I wanted to get down to work and start planning. To my surprise, I received some old notebooks that a very renowned and experienced teacher had written many years ago as a planning guide. Those notebooks summarize the most significant elements of the official curriculum, and I had to follow them as our lesson plan. To instruct the class, I had to copy the words from the notebook on the chalkboard. The students should write these words in their notebooks and always be silent. If they started talking to each other, I should stop copying in the chalkboard and dictate to recover the classroom silence and control. Dewey said about this, “The non-social character of the traditional school is seen in the fact that it erected silence into one of its prime virtues” (Dewey, (1938/1997), p. 63).
It was clear that the school philosophy was according to traditional beliefs, and that was not the education I believed. My first two weeks under that rigid and boring structure were chaotic. My arm hurt from writing so much on the chalkboard. Moreover, I discovered that I was allergic to chalk and kept sneezing all the time. I felt bored and watched the same boredom and annoyance in my forty students.
My philosophy was not consistent with the one that the school followed. I had to do something. Then I decided to talk to my supervisor and tried to convince her. I wanted to plan a lesson more in line with the modern educational theories I had learned in college. After I had insisted a lot, she agreed to give me a chance.
I must admit that this first attempt was not easy because a classroom with forty students under a progressive approach can easily get into chaos. It could explain again in Dewey's words, “The ideal aim of education is creation of power of self-control. But the mere removal of external control is no guarantee for the production of self-control” (Dewey, (1938/1997), p. 64). I had achieved a modern lesson plan, but I failed to manage classroom procedures and discipline effectively.
This brief account of my beginning as a teacher is the key to understanding my educational philosophy. My first years as a teacher were not easy, and I constantly debated between traditional philosophy and progressive one. However, those years made me understand that in education, nothing is white or black. There must be a balance. In this article, I will approach different types of theories and how the balance between them has influenced my way of planning, managing the classroom, instructing, assessing, and attending to diversity.
Let's start by analyzing how different theories have shaped my way of planning. According to Woolfolk (2016), "Planning influences what the learner will learn because planning transforms the available time and curriculum material into activities assignments and task for students" (p. 533).
In theory, this sounds simple, but how does that apply in real life? Despite what many modern theories claim, there are factors, such as many children per classroom, as it is in Venezuela, forcing teachers to plan under a more traditional and controlled approach. But the technological advance and many factors of modern life do not adapt to such rigid practices.
Planning from a progressive perspective seems to be the solution. However, if you have forty children in the classroom without the right classroom management strategies, you can lose control of the group. Woolfolk said,
"To plan creatively and flexibly, teachers need to have wide-ranging knowledge about students, their interest, and their abilities; the subjects being taught; alternatively ways to teach and assess understandings: how to apply and adapt materials and texts; and how to pull all this knowledge together into meaningful activities. " (Woolfolk, 2016, p. 533).
Nonetheless, how can we integrate all those factors? I got the answer to this question in a field other than education when I was studying a Master in Human Resources Management.
In the business area, strategic planning is a fundamental concept. A business is a system influenced by many other systems. "Strategic planning is a deliberative, disciplined effort to produce fundamental decisions and actions that shape and guide what an organization (or other entity) is, what it does, and why” (Bryson 2011, 7-9. Qtd. in John M. Bryson, 2017). This systematic perspective of planning helped me to understand that it is not enough to have a wide variety of knowledge and put them all in creative and meaningful activities, but also to contemplate all the possible scenarios that can influence the success or otherwise of teacher planning.
We know children are not the product of a business, but, like businesses, children are influenced by many systems. Let us remember Bronfenbrenner's bioecological model of development (Bronfenbrenner, 1989, Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2016. Qtd. In (Woolfolk, 2016, p.81), "Physics and social contexts in which we developing are ecosystems because they are constantly interacting with and influencing each other."
The ecosystems also affect our planning. That is why, in addition to having clear objectives and activities, we must visualize all the possible risks, variables, opportunities, and threats that may stimulate or hinder the achievement of planning. That allows us to make quick and adequate decisions to adapt the plan to unforeseen situations by making the necessary modifications and thus learn. In short, a balance between traditionalist, progressive and systemic perspectives define my philosophy when I come to planning.
Adequate planning gives way to better managing the classroom, but this is not the only element to consider. Many factors can stimulate or hinder the students' management, and there are three essential for me.
The first of these elements is the teacher's sense of efficacy. That is "Teacher's belief that he or she can reach even trouble students to help them learn" (Woolfolk, 2016, p.442). According to many studies, the teacher's sense of efficacy is related to student achievement. "When teachers have a higher sense of efficacy, their students learn more, and when students learn more, teachers efficacy grows" (Holzberger, Philipp, & Kunter, 2013. Qtd. in Woolfolk, 2016, p. 442). Nevertheless, what if students do not achieve the objectives, do not follow the teacher's instructions, or constantly distract the class. The teacher's sense of self-efficacy is likely to diminish, especially when they do not have much experience.
According to a study conducted by Robert V. Bullough, Jr & Janet Young, "Who teachers are displayed in their emotions, what they are called for, they struggle to make sense of their experience and in making sense to preserve self that might not be fully stable or secure." (Robert V. Bullough, 2002, p.429) Brigham Young University conducted the study. That consisted in evaluating the first year of work of approximately 100 interns in local elementary schools. Feedback and support from teachers with more experience determined adequate handling of emotions of these novice teachers. Also, this support influenced how the interns interacted with the students on their charge.
Many of the psychological theories, which are necessary for the emotional development of students, should be applied first to teachers. Confidence in their abilities and emotion control are fundamental elements in classroom management and instructing learning objectives. According to Bullough (2002), "We believe, in the realm of the emotions as constitutive of the self that there is one of the most important works for teacher educators." (Robert V. Bullough, 2002, p.429).
In my opinion, another element that is key in classroom management is to create a positive learning environment within the classroom. Cecil (2015) said, "Teachers are challenged to create a classroom climate that fosters the joy of literacy and learning" (p.329). Cecil indicates five essential factors to develop a positive learning climate: Print Saturation, Demonstration, High Expectations, Teacher Effective Feedback, and Instructional Modifications and Differentiation.
Although Cecil's observations focus on environments that foster students' literacy development, their conclusions apply to the teaching process in general, as explained by Pianta and her colleagues (2008-2013, Qtd. in Woolfolk, 2016, p. 532),
"Pianta's work has identified three aspects of classroom climate that are related to the development and learning of preschool and elementary students; the relations probably hold in secondary school too. These three dimensions are consistent with the characteristics of teachers identified in earlier research on teaching, and they cover affective, behavioral, and cognitive dimensions."
From the behavioral dimension is derived the third element that I consider essential in classroom management: routines. Routines help students know what to expect from the teacher and, at the same time, understand what is expected from them. The studies carried out by Pavlot, Skinner, and the behavioral currents are relevant theories to establish and manage these routines. However, I do not assume these proposals as definitive. The balance between affective, behavioral, and cognitive perspectives has helped me to establish positive interaction with my students and has more effective strategies to manage classroom procedures, discipline, motivation, and learning.
In addition to the planning and classroom management, the instruction also requires a balance between different theories. In my opinion, constructivism is one of the vital sources that inspire my teaching performance. Gunning (2010) said, "Constructivism is the theory of learning that emphasizes the active construction of knowledge by individuals" (Qtd. in Tracy, 2017, p.55). This construction is only possible "When the learner is actively engaged in the learning process" (Tracy, 2017, p 56).
One way that the student is committed to their learning is using a strategy that is innate to every human being: curiosity. Reiss (2014) includes curiosity as one of the 16 fundamental elements which foster human learning (Qdt. in Woolfolk, 2016, p.465). Let us think of babies. How do they learn to babble, crawl, interacting with the environment, or speaking? All this happens due to the ability of each human being to explore, discover and interact with the environment. So if babies learn by exploring, motivated by their curiosity, is it not logical to think that the same happens with the older children in a classroom? Learning to write, add or read follow the same principle.
Curiosity stimulates motivation, and in turn, that spurs attention and learning. Rogovin ( 2001) says about it, "Babies are inquisitive little people ... The same process of inquiry can continue in the classroom, children's interest and questioning become the central focus of the curriculum. their minds and to go into territory previously closed to young people"(p.1).
I have always been curious, and I like to investigate. When I do not know something, I can not stop until I know the answers. That is why, like Rogovin, I believe that curiosity is one of the most powerful tools to stimulate learning. For example, before planning a class, I like to listen to my students' questions, doubts, and interests. Then I try to plan activities that include this information and together find the necessary answers. I like to motivate my students to do their research.
When you, as a teacher, accept that you do not have all the answers, you give the children responsibility for their learning. You see yourself as another apprentice. You understand that nobody owns knowledge, although we can all help to build it. That is what Vygotsky proposes with his theory of Social Constructivism (1978, 1986, 1987, 1993), "Children's knowledge, ideas, attitudes, and values develop through interactions with others" (Woolfolk, 1998. Qtd. In Tracy, 2017, p.167). ).
Although constructivist theories guide a high percentage of my instruction, it is framed within the structure of the scientific method. There must be order within learning. Not all questions lead to positive learning experiences, and not all learning experiences result in positive outcomes. That is expressed by Dewey (1938), the first American constructivist. He criticized the lack of structure in many progressive school practices and said we should not deny the valuable contribution in the intellectual organization offered by empirical science to education. (p.31).
Just as we cannot deny the remarkable structure provided by the scientific method to organize learning, we must not ignore the exceptional contributions of developmental theories, especially in teaching abstract concepts. For example, when you teach mathematics, you realize how Piaget's stages of development apply in real life. In many countries, there is a tendency to teach Mathematics by algorithm and repetition. That is, you teach the formula and then repeat it many times, so each time with big numbers. However, the analysis and solution of mathematical problems do not follow a single path. Many times students do not know how to apply the algorithms they already know. Many other times, they are not ready to do it because they have not experienced enough with concrete material to advance to more abstract stages of thinking subject.
Tracy (2017) says in this regard, "Teachers need to understand the ways in which children think at different stages of development in order to create developmentally appropriate lessons and activities for them" (p.86). Teaching mathematics without considering Piaget and Vygotsky's research can result in students that cannot fluently subtract, multiply or divide in upper elementary or middle-grade levels. These students also could face difficulties trying to reason and solve problems where they need to combine more than one mathematical operation. Once again, balance is the keyword in the complex learning process. Although learning is based on the innate curiosity of the human being and his constant social interaction with the environment, we cannot forget that there are stages of cognitive development that must be considered and respected when you teach..
Another important element, where the balance between the different theoretical currents is fundamental, is assessment. The first thing we must contemplate is what assessment means. According to R.L. Linn & Miller (2005),
"Increasingly, measurement specialists are using the term assessment to describe the process of gathering information about students' learning. Assessment is broader that testing because it includes all kinds of ways to sample and observe students' skills, knowledge, and abilities" (Qtd. in Woolfolk, 2016, page 570).
Assessment could be formative or summative. Formative assessment occurs during the instruction guiding the teaching planning and helping to improve the performance and learning of the student. On the other hand, summative assessment is given at the end of a period or unit to measure students' achievements (Woolfolk, 2016, p.571). Both are equally important and serve different purposes.
Regardless of formative assessment, a study by Dylan Wiliam (2004) reported on the achievements of high school students who worked in classrooms where teachers took the time to develop formative assessment strategies. The sample consisted of 24 teachers who received support over six months to explore and plan their approach to formative assessment. Then the teachers implemented these plans with the selected classes. The results obtained in that study,
"Provide evidence that improves the training assessment does produce tangible benefits in terms of externally mandated assessments ... Placing a quantitative estimate on the size of the effect is difficult but it seems likely that improvements equivalent to approximately one-half of a GCSE grade per student per subject are achievable. While these improvements might sound small, if they replicated across the whole school, they would raise the performance of a school at the 25th percentile of nationally in the upper half" (Dylan Wiliam, 2004, pp. 64-65).
The importance of the formative assessment does not diminish the relevance to the summative one. On the contrary, both must generate improvement, motivation, effective feedback, and above all, rather than auditing, it must be educational. In this regard, Wiggings (1998) says,
When our schools practice educative assessment, our children and our teachers come to see assessment as central to learning, as linked to real-world demands (and hence to incentives), and as worthy of attention. Thus, that is seeming to be a fearful and onerous set of hoops to jumps through, assessment now seems more like the other performances that educate and motivate while testing: the game, the recital, and the play. It becomes enjoyable, and it becomes more able to accommodate an appropriate diversity of talents, aspirations, and interests while supporting high standards. (Wiggins, 1998, p.7).
If you plan your lessons, manage your classroom, and deliver adequate instruction, the assessment becomes the best reinforcement. The assessment success generates students' motivation and encouragement. The opposite produces rejection and demotivation. Also, Wiggings (1998) expresses that effective feedback and authentic assessment (directly related to real-life) are fundamental in the learning process. Both are instruments to monitor students' progress but also to foster learning..
The last element I want to consider is diversity. How can the balance of different educational theories help us understand and adequately manage this significant factor? Within a classroom, the general rule is diversity. That is simply for the same reason that all human beings are different. Roland Tharp (1989, qtd. In Woolfolk, 2016, p.240) explained five dimensions to consider in this respect: social organization, cultural values, learning preferences, and sociolinguistics. All these factors are directly related to social learning theories and influence all other fields related to learning. Tracy (2016) said, "The social learning perspectives incorporate several different theories, all of which emphasize the central role of social interaction in the development of knowledge and learning" (p.159). That is why our planning, classroom management, instruction, and assessment should address the diversity of our students and their social interactions.
Vygotsky gives us a clear idea of how to integrate all this into his Social Constructivism Theory. Tracy (2016) refers to Teacher's anecdote to illustrate this Vygotsky's contribution,
"Vygotsky's idea of the zone of proximal development relates closely to a practice in my district called differentiated instruction ... Children who are above a certain level do not waste their time relearning information that they already know. Similarly, children who require reinforcement in some areas have the advantage of receiving scaffolding from the teacher "(page 159).
If we have a diverse classroom, we need to plan accordingly and differentiate our instruction, assessment, classroom management strategies, and all the required elements to teach each student as a different individual human being.
Woolfolk (2016, p.242) explains that to achieve this fundamental goal, teachers should know their students, respect their culture, include their language, and plan lessons to connect their culture with the new learnings. In Palardy (2013) words, “A strong emphasis on academics and high expectations combines with caring support for students is a key" (Qtd. in Woolfolk, 2016, p.243).
In conclusion, my educational philosophy is based on a balance between different theoretical perspectives. In some cases, these theories seem contrary. Despite this ambiguity, I have managed to combine them in the right proportion to generate rich and meaningful educational experiences for both my students and myself. This balance has been due to two fundamental factors: the constant research and the teaching experience acquired during my twenty-eight years as a teacher.
I agree with Tracy (2017) when she states, "Educators who believe in the importance of multiple lenses understand that each theory makes a unique and valuable contribution to understanding the phenomena under examination" (p 256).
Education is not about being progressive or traditionalist, constructivist or behavioral. I believe that our teacher mission is to change the philosophy of the Either-Ors for a philosophy of experience. As is stated by Dewey (1928) and confirmed by many research that summarizes Woolfolk (2016), Cecil (2015), Tracy ( 2016), and many others through their books.
"What we want and need in education pure and simple, and we shall make sure and faster progress when we devote ourselves to finding out what the education is and what conditions have to be satisfied in order that may be a reality and not a name or slogan. It is for this reason alone that I have emphasized the need for a sound philosophy of experience "(Dewey, 1938, p.91).
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