Sunday, May 27, 2012

Teacher tricks can send wrong message if dishonest

When do teaching techniques lapse into questionable behavior?

A reader laid off from her newspaper job applied for a license as a substitute teacher. In her state, she says, new substitute teachers are highly encouraged, and in some districts required, to take a one-day training class. The class is conducted by an educational organization located in her state.

Most of the attendees in the class the reader took had education degrees. Some were new graduates and others former teachers.

During the class, the trainer revealed that she had a highly effective classroom management technique she wanted to share. When she is in the classroom, she writes the numbers 1 through 60 across the top of the blackboard or whiteboard. She tells her students that if they cooperate and get through everything in that day's lesson plan quickly, she'll let them have a few minutes at the end of the class to talk together. The plan is that she will mark off a number as they make their way through the lessons. As soon as they get to 55, she tells her students, they can have their free time.

The secret, she tells her trainees, is to mark off the numbers quickly at first so you get the kids engaged in the scheme. Then you stop marking off the numbers until they remind you.

"You'll never hit 55," she tells her trainees. When the bell rings for the end of the period, she instructs them to tell their class, "Sorry, we'll try this again tomorrow."

Several educators in the room were thrilled with this new technique, says my reader - who was appalled. Then others shared additional methods of lying to students and tricking them into staying engaged. "It seems this is something they are taught as educators," my reader said.

The reader was so upset by this class, she says, that she considered dropping out of the substitute teacher program because, "I can't do what everyone else seems to think is the smart thing to do."

Anyone who has ever stood in front of a classroom full of pre-adolescent or adolescent children knows that a technique to engage the students in the course of study that works is gold. If the trainer had used the 1 to 60 technique honestly and was genuine in her offer to give her students a break if they finished a day's assignment in a timely fashion, she might have had something worth emulating.

But since she went into the exercise with the intent of never letting the students reach the magic 55, it's a dishonest gesture. The students might work to keep up their end of the bargain, but the deal is fixed. Sure, they get a full lesson plan and might be paying more attention than they otherwise might have. But why lie? Why not engage the children and honor the commitment you seem to be making? Why not let them hit 55 and get a break if they worked hard to get there?

Lying to or misleading kids to get them to do what you want them to do hardly passes ethical muster. The right thing is to find techniques that work to keep students engaged, but to never lose sight of the lesson you send about honesty and honoring commitments.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

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(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Joe Read said...

I tend to agree with the "honest" method in this case, but the issue causes me to remember a guest speaker in a grad class I had years ago. As he began his talk, he placed a 6-inch red cube on the lectern, and would occasionally move it slowly to another position. Of course all eyes were focused on the box, but at the end of the talk, the speaker had made no mention of it. He was immediately asked to explain the purpose of the box. "Oh that," he said - "Was just to keep your attention." All us "victims" thought it was great!

Patricia said...

In response to Joe: How much of the speaker's "lesson" was lost due to the fact that his audience was so intent on the box? Does Joe recall the lecture as well as the method?

Can I skim some books from my friend's donation?

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