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Lessons Learned - What I Learned About Learning: Grades 9-12

Not Learning Algebra

I went to high school in the state of Washington. It was a large public high school, and it was experimental--they tried all kinds of crazy things.

My high school had no walls. We had areas. From your class, you could potentially hear the goings on in four other classes. I'm not sure what the idea was behind removing the walls. I think it was a concept thing that had no practical benefits.

The math area contained a bunch of round tables—at least thirty, but maybe fifty. Three or four students worked at each table. Around the perimeter, four or five teachers were sitting at their desks. Students worked on math at their own pace for four years in a row. My pace was slow. Except for one stint in Geometry, which I understood for some reason. I spent most of my time doing Algebra, which baffled me. I understood letters; I understood numbers, but I never understood what they were doing together.


Whenever you got stuck, which I often did, you went up to one of the teachers, and they'd explain the mathematical principle with which you were struggling, and then you'd return to your seat. After you completed a unit, you would request a requisition for a test. There was a separate room for testing. If you failed the test, you needed to practice more and take another version of the unit test. I somehow got a B average in Algebra without ever having a clue how to do it.


In theory, this was a cool system. Some students thrived in it. My brother was one of these. I socialized a lot. And didn't learn much math.


Lesson Learned

  • One system doesn't work for every student in every subject. I'm sure my brother learned far more math in this system than he would have in a traditional system, and I probably learned less.

  • Individualized learning might not be any better than the one size fits all model.

Western Civilization Class

Mr. Wall and McRobert's Western Civilizations class was individualized, but there was also accountability in community.


The teachers team-taught a class of 50ish students. They had this system, the product of Gary Wall’s Master’s degree, that gave students a lot of freedom regarding how and what they learned.


If you wanted to have a C in the class, we needed to complete seven or eight C-level assignments. Some of these were required—attend a lecture, write a paper, take a quiz. The remainder of the learning activities were "complete four of the following." If you completed these satisfactorily, you earned a C. If you wanted a B, you'd need to complete the C-levels and two or three B-levels. B-levels were harder, higher up Bloom’s taxonomy, and A-levels were still higher—this was a deep dive into some specific area. What was great about this system is that it had freedom of choice, there was a lot of variety in these assignments, and we could choose which and how many assignments we wanted to do, but it also had very specific points of accountability.


The choice was motivating.


Not only could we learn different content, but we also had some freedom as to how we'd represent our learning. An essay was always an option, but you could teach a class or set up a museum-like display.


I drifted my way through math but not through Western Civ. I found the content and the system inspiring. I wonder if students who hated the Humanities found this system as problematic as I did Algebra. I worked really hard in Western Civ, and I loved it. And I've been teaching in the Humanities for almost forty years.

Lesson Learned

  • Not all students have the same interests and abilities, giving them the freedom to present their learning in different ways, or some choice in what they learn.

Colouring Maps

I was in a US History class, and one of the learning activities was to colour a map. I thought this was dumb, and I told the teacher that I thought this was dumb. I pointed out that I knew everything that would go onto this map. I pointed out that the exact map he had us colouring was on page 173 of the textbook. I suggested that any use that he could possibly have for me to colour the map could be more efficiently achieved using the map on page 173 of the textbook. I concluded by asking him what he thought could possibly be gained from colouring this map.


When he hesitated, I knew that I had hit home.


I was a true pain in the butt, and I know this story doesn’t cast me in a very good light, but it doesn’t cast the teacher in a very good light, either.

Lesson Learned

  • Make-work activities have no business in the classroom.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes colouring a map can be an effective tool for learning, but it usually needs to be more than a colouring activity to teach anything.


I asked my US History teacher, “Come on, Mike, you’re not going to make me colour this map, are you?”


He answered, “No.”

Lesson Learned

  • Even if the student is right, you can't cave on something like this. They won’t respect you. I'd have said, "You may be right, but you are going to have to colour this map anyway." Get to work.

This sort of thing comes up in a thousand different ways in the classroom. Kids want to sit someplace else, work in the hall, work with a partner, go read outside, listen to music, or do it in point form, etc. I sometimes say "yes" to requests like these, but never because I want to be liked and never if it negatively affects the learning outcomes.

I've found that it’s best to decide in advance whether learning can still occur if students listen to music or work in the hall and announce this before they ask.


Having said this, I have never taken a class outside because I believe that learning outcomes are always negatively affected by going outside--unless you are teaching soccer or playground plant ecology.


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