“It’s Not Rocket Science,” So They Say.

In our quest to paint the picture of an ideal modern classroom experience that engages and inspires learners every day, we need to talk about what kind of teaching is great teaching.  My philosophy about a lot of things is that if we focus less on what the research tells us and more on carefully thought-out, experiential common sense, most of our conclusions will resemble what the research says anyway.  So today we’re going to talk about great teaching, but we’re going to avoid the research lingo for the time being.  I’m not going to talk about a growth mindset, nor am I going to talk about rigor, and I’m going to use the word “effective” extremely carefully.  

Let’s talk about that word, effective.  Its Latin root , “efficere,” can be interpreted as either producing results and/or making a product.  That Latin root also has another Latin root, “facere,” which means to “make or do,” which is what my favorite Spanish word is derived from, “facil,” which I have always interpreted to mean easy.  As we can now see, a more histo-linguistically accurate translation of “facil,” might be “doable.”  If something looks easy, it means we can do it.  Or, we can make it.  Even better, we can make it happen.  

Someone who is effective is someone who can make it happen.

Curiously, when teachers are referred to as being effective, what is intended is that they are able to produce results.  That sounds a little less exciting and slightly more intimidating, doesn’t it?  I much prefer the idea of making things happen to the idea of yielding results.  Brushing one’s teeth thoroughly twice each day tends to yield results.   Maybe the word, “effective,” is just simply appropriate to describe an ideal toothpaste than it is an ideal teacher.  

If we consider the Latin root, effective might actually be more applicable to teaching. “Making things happen” indeed involves a certain amount of creativity and also trial and error.  To be truly effective in this manner of the word, a teacher needs room to experiment and occasionally fail, but also great intuition and expertise, so that failing doesn’t happen all that often.   We don’t want the education of tomorrow’s doctors, lawyers and great leaders to be the subjects of frequent failed teaching experiments.  But we teach our children in writing and in problem solving that making brave mistakes is a very important part of learning, and teachers must be allowed to make those mistakes as well, as they continuously review and revise their practice.

At a legislative committee hearing in Augusta this past January, I listened to testimonies from individuals testifying in support of legislation that would have revoked the Common Core standards for math and language arts.  The arguments in favor of this bill failed to impress the members of the Joint Legislative Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs and did not pass, but one comment from one parent stuck with me.  She was referring to her fourth grader’s math homework, which involved algorithms for multiplication she was unfamiliar with, asking why it had to be so complicated.  “Teaching multiplication to a fourth grader should not be rocket science,” she emotionally pleaded.  I scribbled this quote down immediately, as it stirred emotions in me also.

Teaching multiplication to students of any grade level is in no way a simple process or easy.  If it was easy, all fifth graders would be fluent in their multiplication facts, which they are clearly not and have not been for a very long time, if ever.  If teaching multiplication to fourth graders was easy, all fifth graders would understand how multiplication works, and division and fractions would be a breeze.  But they do not all understand, and division and fractions continue to stump many youngsters after the fourth grade as well.  Teaching multiplication to fourth graders is not rocket science; it is brain science, and it is kind of complicated.

Fourth grade teachers work feverishly to understand the brains of their students, whether they are teaching math, language, reading, or current events.  Over the last 100 years, a tremendous amount of research has gone into determining what a child’s brain is most primed for learning at various stages of development.  This is the academic part of becoming a teacher, or it should be; every teacher should arrive into the profession an expert at understanding the brains of the age range of students he or she will teach.  A teacher training program should not graduate and certify a second grade teacher without giving that teacher a background of early elementary age cognitive development.  Professional development ought to refresh this important professional knowledge for teachers, and provide regular updates on new research.  Learning about the brain is complex, but it can be utterly fascinating and every teacher deserves to be in on the latest developments regarding how children learn.

Every child is different, and in a typical classroom, the differences can be dramatic. Teachers know this.  Having the ability to diagnose those differences puts a teacher at an advantage in knowing his or her learners.  For example, knowing when and how to help a child develop phonological processing has been determined to be imperative to that child’s development as a reader as years go by.  Likewise, teaching both understanding and automaticity of math facts in early grades plays a crucial role in developing a child’s ability to solve complex problems efficiently in the later grades.  

The good news is that many of the popular curriculum materials schools are using to teach math and language are incorporating much of the latest research into the lessons they publish.  The challenge presents itself when the instructional shifts that come with research-based instruction is not understood by either parents or teachers or both.  “This is not how I learned it,” we hear again and again.  That is correct.  Most of us did not learn it this way, because we did not know back then what we know now.  Dog is still spelled d-o-g, and three times two is still six.  But teaching children ways to combine sounds and decompose quantities before automaticity has proven to help them retain knowledge better.  We focus more on foundational understanding these days before we jump into memorizing procedures and symbols and abstract applications.  We do this because scientists have learned more about how neural pathways are established and maintained.

Stepping back into the realm of common sense, recall some of your most profound and memorable learning experiences.  They likely left you with a feeling of elation and enlightenment, even pride.  Whether it is the time we learned how to build something, or how to play an instrument, solve a problem, speak a language, train an animal, cast a fly rod, knit a hat, bake a pie, master a computer program, or throw a ball, it was almost always a positive experience.  (The only exception I can think of to this rule is learning to drive a car; many of us were taught to drive a car by a very nervous and frustrated parent and/or driver’s ed instructor who might have made the experience something to block out of one’s mind rather than remember with fondness. But even that is probably not universally the case.)  Almost all our significant learning experiences were positive, or else we generally didn’t learn it.  There aren’t too many of those math haters out there who will tell you, oh, math was dreadful for me, just awful– especially the doctoral work I did at M.I.T., what a nightmare.  Many people tell me they hate math, and proudly boast how bad they are at it.  Common sense, and for the most part, personal experience, tells us that learning is best when it is fun.  

Interestingly, there is now research that confirms this.  We learn better when we are happy.  And the best learning experiences actually make us happy.

I am compelled to share a story.  The first time I swam a short distance long enough to qualify as swimming, I was in the shallow end of a pool.  My mother was in the deeper end, where I could not stand with my head out of the water.  I will not reveal how old I was at this time, but I will share that I was terrified of deep water and a very late learner compared to my peers when it came to  learning how to swim.  But that day I was determined.  I lept off the floor of that pool, kicked my feet and bashed my arms in a manner that probably looked more like a crisis than a triumph, and somehow travelled horizontally until I reached my mother’s arms.  I’m 43 now, and to this day I can hear the excitement in her voice, the encouragement, the pure joy in my achievement. “Oh, yay!!  You made it!  You DID it!!”  I wept tears of absolute victory and laughed at the same time.

Great learning experiences are memorable, because every one of them is a victory, at some level.  I see it when a student discovers a helpful pattern or stumbles upon a solution to a problem.  “Oh!” they say, “I get it now.”  It almost always comes with a smile.  Maybe it is not a major life accomplishment, but significant enough for the fourth grade brain to recall.

This is why we in the education profession are so obsessed with student engagement.  It has to be meaningful, engaging, and in some manner, inspiring, to become a lasting learning experience.  That’s not rocket science.  But crafting and teaching lessons that engage students, while at the same time provide age-appropriate instruction to create a lasting learning experience– that requires perseverance, expertise, and most importantly, time.  

Teachers are already excellent at persevering.  The expertise needs to come from university teacher certification and training programs, as well as ongoing professional development on the job.  And time during the workday to incorporate knowledge and innovation into planning; that is absolutely essential if we want students to truly be invested in their learning in public schools.  There has to be much more professional time embedded between lessons, so teachers can plan and prepare superb lessons and follow up those lessons with meaningful feedback and assessment of learning.

Keep the comments and stories coming.  Already I feel the direction of the Unrealized Maine Classroom shifting ever so slightly, as I get especially enthusiastic responses to certain topics.  Share your comments, questions and stories in the comments section here or on the Facebook page.  

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.