As an ‘attentive observer’, you are both… always.
by Cathie Maglio, Blended Learning Specialist
Since my last post was about being a teacher, I thought I should write one on being a student. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a student as “one who is enrolled or attends classes in a school or university,” and as “an attentive observer.”
We typically think of a student as someone who attends a class. But that definition seems too limiting being a student is so much more than that. I like the definition “attentive observer.” Under this definition we can be a student from the time we are babies until the day we die.
We are born with a “clean slate–” we have no knowledge of anything. Our brain is a sponge as we observe the world around us. As we grow into toddlers, we discover more and more of the world around us. Our parents teach us colors and numbers; they sing the ABC song and nursery rhymes; they give us books and read us stories. It is fascinating to watch children discover things. They help us adults notice things we stopped looking at years ago. Children are entertained by and learn from the simplest things. We forget how much we can learn from the simple things. Babies and toddlers are avid full-time students.
When we enter school we become “official” students. We step into the role of attentive or inattentive learners in a classroom. Good teachers gear their lessons to how young students learn. For example, they make short lessons that include hands-on work with manipulatives because young kids can’t sit still for long periods of time and they need lots of things to keep them busy. As we move through the grades, our attention spans increase and we are able to sit for longer periods of time and listen to teachers. We learn how to read, write our name and other words, understand and work with numbers. We learn where we are located in this world, and we begin to understand how the world operates through science.
Teachers need to be aware that not all students learn the same way and they need to adapt lessons and explain concepts in alternate ways. I do this in my college math classes and when I am working with students in my high schools. Adapting to learning styles encourages students to develop a love of learning. I have seen Procrustean teachers who teach one way and try to make every student conform to that way. Students who don’t get it are left behind. It’s hard to develop a love of learning when learning is not happening for you. We know enough about brain function to know that teaching has to adapt to learning styles.
Being a student is not easy. You have to sit at least 45 and as much as 80 minutes in one classroom seat trying to absorb what the teacher is teaching. You have four or more classes a day. You are supposed to pay attention in each class. It’s tiring. Then there are hours of homework each night. You suffer from overload, and frustration sets in when you thought you understood the material in class but can’t remember it by homework time.
The college classes I teach are 75 minutes long. That is a long attention span even for an adult student. I can always tell when a student has had enough when I see that “deer in the headlights“ look.
Teachers are students too. They learn from colleagues and from their students. I have learned to look at concepts differently after a student has shown me another way. I once tutored a high school student in math. His thought process for solving a problem was very different from mine, yet he got to the same conclusion. I enjoyed observing how he solved problems because it made me see them in a new way and gave me another way of teaching. When we worked through problems his way, he was the teacher and I was the student.
It’s always good for teachers to go back to school and take classes to keep up with the latest developments in pedagogy in their subjects. This past summer I had the opportunity to be a regular student again. I took an Intro to Statistics course at a community college. I had not been a student in a class for almost 20 years. The class lasted 3 hours, with a break. Some nights it was a struggle to pay attention because I was tired after working all day and a lot of material was packed into those 3 hours. Then there was the homework. I spent my weekends doing homework instead of enjoying the summer weather. But it was worth it. I’d forgotten how much I enjoy learning from the other side of the desk.
My time as a student in a classroom may be over but I am still a student of life. I learn something new every day– from a book, from a TV show, from an article on the internet. I learn from my JFY colleagues and from the people I work with in my schools. And I learn the most from the hundreds of students I teach.
As long as we are “attentive observers” of the world around us, we will never stop being students. And the more we learn as students, the better we’ll be as teachers.