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Day 32: Colin Sharpe, Teacher (Seaquam Secondary School)

October 23, 2012

For the educational experience to be meaningful, it has to be active.

Learning is not a passive, spectator sport. The strategies implemented within the classroom must be critical and legitimate, they must have real educational value. If not, they risk becoming futile exercises with no lasting benefit. Moreover, on a relationship level, a teacher has to demonstrate care and commitment, in order for the student to feel comfortable taking risks with their learning or engaging in dialogue of any substance. Approaching the practice of teaching with commitment and engaging the material in an active and participatory manner allows the learning process to proceed in a manner which is of value and consequence.

As a high school social studies teacher, I fight the constant battle of convincing teenagers that the material we are exploring has substance and value. In reality though, why should they care? In an era of technological over stimulation and the need for instant gratification, the significance of historical content and the merit of classroom activities can and too often does, gets lost in translation.

If teaching becomes centered around meaningless tasks and the empty delivery of content, the value and experience is lost. The priority becomes more about control, than about learning.

Therefore, my educational practice is based around the principle that the teacher – student exchange has to be active, engaging and purposeful. In my classroom, I model this by bringing energy and enthusiasm to my lessons. I make the students part of the process with every lesson. I engage the material in a way that reflects its value and seeks to open the students up to alternative perspectives. My methods and instructional strategies aim to challenge ability and push students outside of their comfort zone. They are relevant and topical, they allow students to make connections between history/geography and contemporary issues, and demonstrate to my students that social studies is more than just dates and names, it is about inquiry, reflection and analysis. It is not just about knowing; it’s about understanding and being able to apply that understanding in different ways. I am far more interested in the “why” in social studies, rather than the “what”. If a student cannot actively participate in the process, than the student has no hope of engaging in a meaningful or valuable learning experience.

Beyond the aspect of curriculum exploration is the teacher-student relationship. There has to be some level of comfort between the two parties in dealing with one another in order for the exchange to be honest and effective. Moreover, there needs to be respect, which is reciprocal between the parties. I want my students to feel and know that they can engage in an academic conversation, question the material or open themselves up without risk of embarrassment. Mistakes within the classroom must be seen as opportunities to learn.

I aim to provide a learning environment where students can engage the material in a safe and productive way. Where possible, I invite the students to take part in decisions that affect their education and assessment. Together, we establish assessment protocol for assignments and projects, thus collectively deciding what determines success. If teachers approach students as learning beings, rather than drones and make the effort to make a connection, students are far more willing to put themselves out there and engage the material.

Teaching is more about making an authentic connection with the student and the curriculum than the simple delivery of content. Too often we can lose sight of this in our classrooms, in our assessment and in our professional practice. Real and effective teaching, learning and assessment, cannot occur without active engagement. Without making the emotional connection to the material, adding substance to the delivery or actively engaging the students, an educator in today’s system cannot expect their students to participate in any meaningful or genuine learning.

Active engagement of the material makes the learning process more than just the acquisition of content. By making learning active, the students become participants, not bystanders in their own learning. While this method requires the teacher to hand over some control, the learning process takes on an entirely new dimension.

Colin Sharpe is the Social Studies Department Leader at Seaquam Secondary. He has been with the district for 9 years. You can find Colin on Twitter at @mrsharpess

3 Comments leave one →
  1. tedjohn3 permalink
    October 23, 2012 7:13 pm

    Colin- great blog! I’d love to come visit your class. Sounds like, at times anyway, it is a hub of interaction and engagement. Got any “lesson plans” that others might feed from? I know it’s not just about the plan but about the relationships you build in the classes that feed the energy of the activities, but anything you can offer as tangible activities for your colleagues would be valued.

  2. Tami permalink
    October 24, 2012 4:51 am

    This is how I have always felt about social studies. I could never really make myself care about names and dates but if we actually analysed the “why” and learned from it, hIstory might not keep repeating itself. Good on ya!

  3. Cheryl Edge-Partington permalink
    October 24, 2012 10:29 pm

    As a fellow educator, I completely agree. Students must be be actively engaged in a safe environment where they are encouraged to take risks. As a parent of two of Colin’s students I appreciate his philosophy and effort.

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