Reversing the Roles: Learning from Our Students

Nel Noddings’ article, Learning from Our Students, addressed several interesting points that I both agreed and disagreed with.  It left me thinking about my own teaching practices, and it also raised questions in my mind regarding the structure, and some of the policies, of Saskatchewan’s education system.

In the article, Noddings emphasizes that we as educators must have meaningful relationships with our students. What we learn from our students should shape both what we teach and how we teach.  I strongly agree with Noddings’ point.  I believe that every child possesses factors that make them unique, and these factors can influence their ability to learn.  I also believe that it is my responsibility as a teacher to identify these factors by developing strong relationships with each of my students: learning about their personalities, strengths, social environments, developmental stages, abilities, cultural backgrounds, interests, and learning styles.  Once I understand who my students are, I can adjust my teaching accordingly by implementing different instructional techniques, making adaptations to the physical and social environment as necessary, structuring lesson planning, content, and evaluation to ensure they are appropriate for my learners, and providing any supportive materials, equipment, or persons.  I believe that our goal as teachers is to provide students with the resources that they need to learn, and this can only be accomplished by getting to know our students and identifying the factors that make them unique.

Throughout the article Noddings stresses the idea of aptitude.  As teachers, we like to believe that if we motivate students, and if students try hard enough, they will exceed our standards and be successful in any subject.  However, as aforementioned, every child is unique and has different talents and abilities: some students have an aptitude for mathematics but cannot decipher a sheet of music, while other students have an aptitude for music and art but cannot differentiate a derivative.  That being said, Noddings raises the question: should we be forcing certain classes or subjects “on unwilling students whose interests lie elsewhere?” (Noddings, 2004).  For me, this question in particular was conflicting.  My initial response was no––why should students be forced to take subjects that they are never going to pursue in the future?  The more I thought about it though, I began to think that it is important that students have a well-rounded understanding of all subject areas in order to create a repertoire of skills and knowledge.  For example, as a high school student who wanted to enter the Faculty of Education as chemistry major, I was not required to take advanced calculus or grade 12 Biology.  Looking back, the knowledge that I learned in those classes has been helpful to me in university.  Many of my university-level chemistry classes are math-heavy and require knowledge of calculus; in fact, one of my required classes for convocation is Math 110, introduction to university calculus.  Similarly, in some of my university chem classes I have studied certain biology concepts in great detail.  Now, I am not saying that high school calculus should be a required class for all students, but I do believe that having an understanding of basic math concepts is important and beneficial to students, along with having knowledge in areas such as English, science, art, music, social studies, physical education, health, and so on.

Furthermore, if a student does not have an aptitude for mathematics, this does not mean that they can’t learn any math at all.  This again raises the importance of getting to know our students––they’re interests, how they learn, etc.  The subject in particular might not be of interest to the student, or the class might be challenging, but my role as a educator is to adjust my teaching in ways that are in the best interest of my students: teaching to how my students learn––not forcing them to learn to my teaching style, teaching in meaningful, interesting ways and providing content that is relevant to students’ lives.  Doing this will not ensure that my students become masters in a subject area, but hopefully, some of what they do learn carries on with them.  Noddings supports this idea when saying, “We should not expect that every topic we introduce will interest all students; but the more topics we can genuinely and intelligently address, the more likely it is that most students will be caught up in…learning” (Noddings, 2004)

In coherence with the idea of aptitude, Noddings suggested the idea of minimal requirement classes––that is, a full-credit class that provides the same content as the real course, but less of it.  I like the idea of minimal requirement classes, particularly because they accommodate the well-rounding of students.  If students do not need a particular class for their planned vocation, or if they find a certain subject challenging, minimal requirement classes would still provide students with knowledge of the subject area, but with less stress.  However, before such classes are developed, I think guidance counsellors and teachers need to be educated about different post-secondary options and their requirements in order to help students make well-informed choices before pursuing a minimal requirement class.

Finally, after reading Noddings’ critiques of the current education system, and her suggestions for improvement, I was left with questions about some of the qualities of Saskatchewan’s education system.  In the article, Noddings addressed an issue she called “pseudo learning”––when courses bear little resemblance to traditional classes by providing insufficient content or practice, leaving students weak in that particular subject area, and hindering their ability to do well in higher-level courses in that subject.  When I read this, I questioned who is really at fault when pseudo learning occurs.  I think the culprit is our provincial education system.  Once you receive a teaching certificate, you are legally allowed to teach any grade, any subject, anywhere in Saskatchewan, despite your major, minor, or specialty.  I think this is a flaw in the system that leads to pseudo learning.  Would a science teacher be able to teach about healthy relationships in a health class? Would an art teacher be able to teach about velocity and acceleration in a physics class? If the teacher is not familiar with the subject and its content, how can he or she be expected to effectively teach a group of students who are not familiar either?  Is this a quality of Saskatchewan’s education system that should be rethought?  After all, there are some provinces where this is not allowed.  Should some sort of professional development be implemented to provide teachers with knowledge of other subject areas?  Or should future teachers be required to take a more well-rounded variety of classes in university?  These are all questions that have left me curious following Noddings’ article.

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