Tacit modeling, poor role-playing hurt teacher training

Students construct water bottle rockets, attaching cardboard fins and paper parachutes. Simulations of engaging projects and lessons embody the ideas of progressive pedagogy; the teacher models the execution of a lesson for students to scrutinize for themselves. Duncan Aronson / The Miscellany News

Classroom simulations are conventional tools for teaching and practicing pedagogy. I am only a year and change into my education courses and fellowships, but I have already experienced my fair share of simulations. Such instances may look odd at first glance. “Teachers,” usually experienced educators or student-teachers practicing, prepare the lesson’s content and materials. “Students,” sometimes played by adults, but often a bunch of undergraduate student-teachers, participate in the activities. They tape together raw spaghetti structures, fold and cut tetrahedron kites, and, if the lead teacher is inexperienced, test behavior management skills by creating pure pandemonium. Isn’t it ironic that acting like kids is a crucial practice for growing teachers?

You wonder why an experienced educator would bother performing the facilitator role if the student-teachers are the ones who need that experience. The answer is modeling—a core tenet of education. You want students to project when they read in front of the class? Show them how it’s done. You want a school culture of people who throw away trash even if it’s not theirs? Time to get your hands dirty. You want a younger teacher to have a concrete understanding of how to check students’ understanding? Demonstrate to the observing teacher with real students.

In mock lessons, student-teachers pick up other nuggets of knowledge along the way. Besides learning how to teach, mock lessons provide inspiration for what to teach; my fellow teachers-in-training and I often incorporated elements of a lead teacher’s lessons into our own. They remind young adults what it is like to be children half their age—what it means to be curious and invested in something as simple as a water bottle rocket, no more than a hunk of plastic and cardboard, with little lightning bolts and “Dakunda’s Thunda” crudely drawn with Sharpie.

Yet modeling alone does not guarantee effective learning. For example, a teacher may choose to be gentle with authority. They pull the attention of distracted students by talking slowly and with frequent pauses. But without explicit dialogue, the intentionality behind their craft can be lost, especially on students busy enjoying elementary school. They may give the general instruction to observe closely or imagine how a modeled lesson would be implemented, but rarely do they draw attention to their thought processes in deciding how to implement the lesson, or how not to implement the lesson.

Unlike a real classroom or stage performance, however, the teacher can manipulate a simulation as if they were holding a TV remote. The simulation can be paused at a critical moment, or rewound after the fact for retrospection. The lead teacher can explicitly draw attention to a certain theory or practice they have modeled or will model. Aspiring teachers, self-aware throughout the simulation and observant of the lead teacher’s modeling, can break character to clarify and discuss what the lead teacher has done.

The idea that modeling requires supplementary communication is not novel; some of modeling’s proponents support modeling in tandem with direct articulation and supervised reflection. Most educators likely share this understanding. Assuming that teachers are aware of modeling’s limitations, why don’t they use their remotes to be more transparent in their instruction?

I believe there are two main reasons for this. First, progressive pedagogy views teachers as partners with students in the co-construction of knowledge. Progressive teachers loathe offering their own knowledge, preferring open-ended structures for students to learn and interpret for themselves. By this logic, a student is free to interpret the teacher’s choices and their impact, which the lead teacher may not be aware of or agree with.

Second, and perhaps more important, both students and teachers instinctively embody the roles they feel most comfortable in. This phenomenon doesn’t appear to be a product of conscious judgement like progressive pedagogy, but rather of automatic force of habit. Everyone is at home behind our fourth walls. The chairs are soft and well-worn, and the fireplace and steaming beverages are cozily warm.

In the simulations, college students forget that they are merely pretending to think like young(er) students, when they should really be transitioning to thinking like a teacher. Teachers, on the other hand, forget that they are merely pretending to teach students when they are really teaching future teachers. In effect, students and teachers create a real classroom rather than a simulated one.

To navigate the practice lesson environment and occupy the student headspace, while simultaneously analyzing from an aspiring pedagogue’s perch, is no easy task. This thespian’s sense of role-playing would be an additional required tool in an educator’s already overcrowded toolbox, let alone an educator-of-educators’ toolbox. A teacher is a child’s cheerleader, a lesson’s production manager, a well-read scholar who can answer unexpected queries and an improviser who can read and react to unexpected situations—just to name a few of a teacher’s many jobs.

The bottom line is that teaching is complex. But that only makes teacher training more vital. The way I see it, breaking the mold of teacher preparation needs to start with breaking character.

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