Dave Sherman is principal at South Park Elementary School, in Deerfield, IL, which is a suburb north of Chicago. This is his 5th year at South Park and his 14th year as a principal. Mr. Sherman has a blog called “The Principal and Interest” that shares some of his opinions on being a good educator. In this interview, we are discussing and elaborating on several of the pieces he posted on his site. This is part two of a two part series.
By Christi Grab, Contributing Editor
Read part I of the interview.
Q: Going back to the “How to Succeed by Really Trying” article, you mentioned the concepts of “teacher-centered instruction” and “student centered learning”. Could you explain for parents what the difference is between them and what the pros and cons are of each?
A: “Teacher centered instruction” is the more traditional type of teaching methodology. The teacher’s desk is up front and all the students face the board so they can see the teacher lecturing. In this methodology, the teacher is seen as the all-knowing expert and students are the empty vessel being filled by the teacher. This style of instruction encourages rote memorization. “Student centered learning” is more interactive. The teacher guides a discourse and encourages questions among the students to help them figure out concepts. This is an active, constructivist approach where students take more ownership in the learning process rather than simply listening in a passive mode. Student desks tend to be set in groups that help facilitate discussions. This type of teaching helps to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills.
Q: So, let me make sure I understand what you are saying. Rather than having the teacher explain 3 + 2 = 5, you have the kids discuss what the right answer might be?
A: You have the concept right, but this is a bad example. Basic math facts are something that we all need to internalize so they are automatic. In this case rote memorization is important. But in most other subjects, and even basic math to a certain extent, when the curriculum is set to a real-life situation, it will have more meaning for the students and thus they will have a deeper understanding. They will “construct” meaning and learn to apply it to other situations. Let me give you a more appropriate example. In 4th grade, the kids study ecosystems in science. A good example of an ecosystem is the Chesapeake Bay, and because it is in danger, we use it to demonstrate Man’s impact on an ecosystem. We teach the general facts such as the plants and animals living there, how they are interrelated, the surrounding geography, the watershed areas, and the pollutants. Instead of giving a test to see if they have “ingested” all the facts, we ask the students to identify problems of the Bay, design a realistic plan to positively impact the Bay, and include the trade-offs of their plans. The students are required to create a multi-media project to present their plans to their peers, teachers, and parents. This project incorporates science, social studies, reading, math, writing, and speaking.
Q: Isn’t memorization of facts the whole point of education? Aren’t you handicapping children by using a student centered learning methodology?
A: As I just explained, the students still learn the same information, but in a more meaningful manner that translates easily to their own lives. I think the 4th grade project I mentioned provides more long term learning than simply having them simply spit back memorized information that they will forget as soon as the test is over. I think my responsibility as an educator is to equip kids to succeed as adults, and adult skills go far beyond rote memorization. I believe that as adults, critical thinking skills are crucial for success in the work place. So is being able to work together as a team. Part of being a good team player means hearing each other’s opinions and respectfully disagreeing when necessary.
Q: By not forcing students to memorize facts, don’t students taught in a student centered learning methodology do poorly on standardized tests?
A: Actually, if kids can think critically, then in theory they should do fabulous on standardized tests. After all, they can take the skills of deduction they learned in class and apply them to figure out the right answers. Of course, standardized tests are another issue in and of themselves. High stakes testing is not going to fix the educational system.
Q: You don’t believe in standardized testing?
A: Standardized testing does have some merit, but I don’t think the tests adequately reflect teaching quality. Remember, you are comparing every child in the state equally, and not taking into account any local issues that may be present. For example, many schools have disadvantaged student populations. In many of those schools, both the teachers and students work very hard and achieve great improvement year to year. However, because the students were already behind to start with, the improvement isn’t recognized. Despite excellent education and hard work, they are still labeled a failing school, which is deflating to the teachers, the students, and the community. I think a more effective alternative is for schools to chart progress relative to the curriculum, showing growth compared to themselves rather than every child in the state.
Q: You have written a series of articles, beginning with The Dell Latitude 2100 – A Review, where you believe that upgrading from a PC lab to laptop computers in the classrooms is a key component in furthering education for your students. How is a laptop any different than a regular PC?
A: What I think is important is that there are computers in the classrooms available for the children to use throughout the day as needed, and it doesn’t matter to me if they are laptops or regular desktop computers. I want computer use to be embedded in their every day work regime. Right now, going to the computer lab is a special event and not a part of their every day learning. Teachers must sign up for their scheduled, weekly 40 minutes in the lab, regardless of whether they are ready to use computers at that moment or not. Having computers in the classroom goes along with the student centered learning philosophy that we discussed earlier. With the computers in the classrooms, students have a powerful educational resource at their fingertips to look up and gather information. I remember back when I was a teacher, I was really excited when I finally got my own class set of encyclopedias. That way, when a student asked a question, we could look up the answer right then and there, rather than me saying “I’ll check and get back to you.” Having the knowledge readily available was empowering. With computers in the classrooms, students have the whole world available to them.
Q: Are you saying that you allow the children to use the internet? Isn’t that potentially dangerous?
A: I view having the children on the internet as a good thing, but I understand the concerns, as well. It can be a scary idea to let children on the internet, but in school, we have carefully structured and specific procedures for use. The children are supervised and we teach them how to find information easily for learning in a correct and appropriate manner. The children are using the internet at home, and sometimes at home they are unsupervised. At least in school we are teaching the kids the fundamentals for proper usage which they will hopefully carry home with them. Giving students access to the internet allows for greater collaboration, which is an important part of how today’s world works and a fundamental skill they will need as productive adults. Through technologies such as wikis, blogs, podcasts, and digital storytelling, children can publish their work for an authentic, real audience instead of just for the teacher to assign a grade. Knowing that many people are reading or viewing their work, even if it is limited to family members and other students, makes them more engaged, excited, and motivated to do best their best work possible.
Q: Thank you so much for allowing Parentella to interview you. It was a pleasure.
A: You’re welcome! And I would like to thank you for this opportunity to share some of my beliefs about education and the principalship.
Christi Grab is contributing editor and writer for Parentella. She is a native of Southern California. After graduating from San Diego State University, she went on to be a successful business woman. In April of 2007, she and her husband decided to put their careers on hold and travel the world for two years. Ms. Grab has recently returned from her travels and is currently writing a book about their adventure. For more information on the trip, visit http://kosmos.liveflux.net/blog.