Tag Archives: student-centered learning

My Day as a Student

Lately, I’ve been concerned about my students’ engagement at school. To understand what their day is really like, I decided to attend school for a day as if I were a student.

I chose a Friday because my schedule is (anomalously) light. Aside from 2.25 hours of classes and a 15-minute stint monitoring the playground, I tried to follow a typical schedule, do the things students do, and think the way students think. Here are my conclusions:

1. Information Overload

As a teacher of two subjects (physics and math), I am free to spend most of my time thinking in the characteristic ways of those subjects. Students, on the other hand, are bombarded with ideas from diverse disciplines. I had classes in economics, philosophy, physics, and history. Each class had its own set of perspectives, contexts, background information, vocabulary, and procedures. In each classroom, I was expected to internalize a “chunk” of new ideas.

Unfortunately, the mind doesn’t work like that. For example, I was still ruminating on some ideas from economics when I was supposed to be working on an essay in philosophy. Not only did this disturb my focus, but I was unable to “go deep” with my thinking because I still had mental loose ends from the previous class.

There are four conclusions to be drawn from this. First, teachers shouldn’t be disheartened if they start a period and the class seems to have had their memories of earlier learning erased. In all likelihood, they are simply coming off a cognitively challenging lesson, and it will take a few minutes to re-orient.

Second, teachers should ensure they build off the students’ background knowledge. This will make it easier for students to build a robust gestalt in each subject area. Likewise, explicit references to background knowledge will help students locate themselves in the appropriate context as the lesson begins.

Third, collaboration between subject areas may help students transfer perspectives between disciplines, which would ease re-orientation.

Fourth, the administration should attempt to maximize the number of 1.5-hour “full blocks” when drawing up the schedule for high school students.

2. Sitting

In most classrooms, the teacher is walking around and the students are sitting. Here’s the timetable from my day as a student:

8:30 – sit down
9:15 – walk across hallway, then sit down
10:00 – walk down hallway, sit down in wrong room, walk to next room, sit down
10:50 – walk into hallway, back into classroom, sit down
11:35 – walk to cafeteria, get food, sit down and eat
12:05 – walk around outside for ten minutes, then walk to class and sit down
13:00 – walk down hallway, then sit down
13:45 – walk around outside for fifteen minutes
14:00 – walk to classroom, then sit down
15:30 – walk outside and leave

As you can see, I spent approximately 30 minutes (out of 7 hours) on my feet, and the rest of the time sitting. I sometimes found myself getting sleepy because I was stationary for so long (especially in the morning), and getting fidgety because the chairs were uncomfortable (especially in the afternoon). Physical growth during adolescence means more aches and discomfort as young bodies adapt to larger bones, so surely the students have it worse than I did.

Two years ago, I bought a set of seat cushions for my classroom, but due to some reorganization, I’m now floating between classrooms (and the cushions have magically vanished). The cushions aren’t significantly more comfortable, but I think they might have made a difference after a few hours.

It will be hard, but I’m going to try to incorporate more physical activity in my classes. I think that moving around and getting the blood flowing is the only way to keep student minds alert and primed.

3. Breaks

Our school has a 5 minute morning recess, a 40 minute lunch break, and a 15 minute afternoon recess. The lunch break seemed like it was long enough for me to eat, relax, catch my breath, and reflect just a bit on the day. The afternoon break allowed me enough time to get some fresh air and re-orient (see point 1 above).

Students often complain about being hungry during the morning or afternoon breaks. At both of those times, it seemed like there was enough time to eat a snack. I am usually a ravenous person (I haven’t yet lost my teenage hunger) but between a moderate breakfast and a solid lunch, I wasn’t hungry at any point during the day.

4. Listening versus Conversing

As a teacher, I’ve always known that lecturing is ineffective. My student day crystallized that conclusion. Although I tried my best to follow along and take notes, I could rarely get myself invested in what the teacher was saying when s/he was addressing the whole class. On the other hand, when I had to directly interact with one or two other people, there was no opportunity for “checking out” — if I was to be in the conversation, I would have to keep up and contribute.

The difficulty is getting groups to function effectively. I’m certainly going to try harder to make that happen.

5. Computers

There are three students in our 12th-grade class who don’t have functioning laptop computers. They are at a significant disadvantage because many of the classes required that students use a computer to do their work.

The school has a few (poorly functioning) laptops that can be borrowed, but these are in sufficiently high demand that they are difficult to get. As a fellow student, I was able to see the difficulty and exasperation involved in trying to get these things to work.

I don’t know how, but we’ve got to get computers into the hands of those students who don’t have them. For modern students in a contemporary school, it’s simply impossible to operate effectively without that invaluable tool.

6. Lateness

My last point is partly a reflection on life as a teacher. As I traveled from one classroom to another, I was frequently beset by fellow teachers and students who needed help with one thing or the other. Few of these discussions were overly deep or involved, but they involved the transfer of a small amount of vital information.

The result of these quick chats was that I was late for three of my eight classes. Embarrassing! At our school we have little tolerance for lateness of any form. I think that I’m going to be a little more willing to listen to my students’ excuses for being late in the future.

Thanks to M, G, & L for letting me join their (fantastic!) classes.