25th Trillium Award

Back to Learning:
How Research-Based Classroom Makes the Impossible Possible

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Back to Learning by Les Parsons

In this interview, author and educational expert Les Parsons chats with Pembroke Publishers about how to prioritize one’s approach to any teaching task with the three simple principles outlined in his book, Back to Learning. Les’s effective teaching solutions can help make the impossible possible.

Back to Learning is Pembroke Publishers October Book-of-the-Month, which means your can view the title online in its entirety until the end of the month. Back to Learning covers everything from bullying, taming the digital universe, individualized instruction and more.

Pembroke Publishers:

What are the 3 Laws of Teaching and why are they so important?

Les Parsons:

Regardless of grade level, subject area or curricular demands, effective teachers can and should be implementing the 3 Laws of Teaching:

1. Teachers must keep their students physically and emotionally safe.

Teachers have a duty to keep their students safe, and realize that physical or emotional duress interferes with learning. If teachers are going to keep their students safe, then they must provide leadership in dealing with the epidemic of bullying in our schools.

Keep in mind that students are part of a captive audience; We put them with a group of mostly strangers and offer them no alternative. If teachers don't help in sorting out their problems, who will? The research is clear; All schools, public or private, regardless of location, student population, or academic success, have a problem with bullies.

2. Teachers must offer their students interesting and stimulating learning activities.

This law seems self-evident but current curricular trends are changing how teachers set their priorities. Often faced with the task of completing a crowded and increasingly difficult curriculum in a short amount of time, teachers find themselves zipping through topic after topic just to squeeze everything in, all while having the sword of standardized testing hanging over their heads. The end result is rote learning, disengaged students and frantic teachers.

Whatever the situation, educators need to inject their own ingenuity, creativity and personality back into their teaching. The first step is a simple act of reflection: What learning activities did I offer my students today that they found interesting and stimulating? What can I do tomorrow? As hard as it may seem, for the sake of their students and their own professional self-respect, teachers have to take back control of what they do and how they do it.

3. Teachers must keep their students feeling good about how they're learning.

A misapplication of this principle can lead teachers and parents to build and protect students' self-esteem with a constant stream of praise and encouragement, regardless of achievement. Teachers and parents have also been told that direct criticism should be avoided at all costs since criticism tears down self-esteem, which in turn negates learning. The research says otherwise and educators and parents need to rethink how they praise students.


Why must educators and parents rethink the way in which they praise kids/students?


Indiscriminate praise can lead to all sorts of negative outcomes. Research has shown, for example, that students praised for intelligence over effort don't do as well as those praised solely for effort. Students who have been constantly told how smart or talented they are expect to automatically know how to do something. As a consequence, if the solution to a problem isn't readily apparent, they either give up or find some rationale for avoiding the task. Overly praised students become afraid to take risks or commit to a task in case they fail. Many become so consumed with maintaining their self-image that they focus totally on marks, exhibit highly competitive natures and will cheat others in the attempt to merit the immoderate praise they're used to receiving.

We've got to get back to giving students honest but positive feedback, displaying genuine interest in their work and offering focused, explicit recommendations for improvement.


What do school administrators need to keep in mind when starting an anti-bullying program?


School administrators need to acknowledge that all schools have a bullying problem; that boys and girls bully equally; that teachers believe they intervene more than they do, especially with homophobic bullying; that cyber-bullying is a growing problem; and that few schools have had much success with their anti-bullying programs.

Schools should all establish a bullying baseline. Use an anonymous student survey to discover what kind of bullying is going on, where it's occurring, and how often. An anonymous staff survey will provide an invaluable contrast between what the students are experiencing and what the adults are witnessing. With this factual base, schools can better plan their anti-bullying initiatives. To find out how well the initiatives have worked, wait at least three or four months and then reintroduce the anonymous surveys and compare the results. Anti-bullying initiatives fail when schools simply employ anecdotal evidence gathered right after the start of the program, when enthusiastic students are eager to feed back what they've learned.

To be truly successful, anti-bullying programs must be school-wide and proactively supported by all the adults in the building. Whatever other projects are placed on teachers’ plates anti-bullying has to remain the number one priority, otherwise the initiative will fail.


How has technology changed the challenges that teachers face?


Many teachers would likely agree with the sentiment that the explosion of technology can leave lessons outdated, even as they are being taught, and that they cannot cover everything that they are expected to teach by modern society. Consider, as well, that some elite schools operate without computers and emphasize creative, activity-based learning, believing that contemporary technology has made computers so user-friendly that children can easily pick up the skills they require at a later date.

Don't get me wrong: the technology is here, it's embedded in our schools, and it's not going away. What we do have to acknowledge is that the skill set students need to become literate in the digital age has not changed. Teachers need to focus on teaching students what computers can't do, such as how to reflect on problems, how to collaborate with others, and how to comprehend the world around us. We speak and listen, read, and write to make sense of the world and, ultimately, our place in it. That goal requires literacy and, with the vast amounts of text and data whizzing through cyberspace, literacy is more important than it ever was. Reading is reading. The practices that have been proven over time to give students the direction, guidance, and inspiration to become confident, fluent, and mature language users are still valid today and will be tomorrow. I think teachers should be confident about embracing the technology as they always have and creatively employing it to further their educational goals.

Les Parsons is the author of six Pembroke titles, including Bullied Teacher, Bullied Student, Grammarama! and The Classroom Troubleshooter.

For more information about Back to Learning, please visit the Pembroke Publishers website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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