When observing classes in high schools, it is possible to see two extremes of teacher support. Firstly, there is complete hand-holding or, as some teachers would like to say, spoon feeding, with the teacher doing most of the work. Secondly, at the opposite end of the spectrum we have some teachers who provide little to no guidance or support to students, with them often saying that students “will need to stand on their own two feet when they get to university”, or, “well, I am treating them like adults.”
Let’s get one thing out of the way, our students are not adults, they are young people finding their way in life, where they will make plenty of mistakes but require support and guidance. That is not to say, we should ‘spoon feed’ them either. There has to be a balance and this is largely determined by the teacher understanding the needs of students to become self-sufficient learners while have a very good understanding of their role in doing so.
Let’s take note-taking skills for example. Too often high school students go into classes where they are expected to take notes on their own. This may be as the teacher gives a presentation, or through taking notes from the textbook as homework. These are both still common practice in high schools today.
If you speak to students, however, they would like support in the tasks that they are being required to do and not just have their teacher assume that they know it, or expect them to know it because of their age, grade level or destination beyond school.
High School teachers can be excellent articulating the content that students require to move through a subject, or course, from one Grade Level to the next. To a certain extent this content may include the subject specific skills that need to be learned and developed over time.
Unfortunately, it is the generic skills that really require our attention in both high schools and middle schools. This, however, needs a significant collaborative effort the goes beyond the ‘islands’ that are subject departments, such as Math, English and Science. There should be universal understanding by all teachers in their responsibility for teaching key transferable academic skills that students can use across the curriculum in middle, high school, and beyond.
A school-wide approach to note-taking, referencing, word processing or other IT skills should become a staple in the student diet of learning. There are two ways that schools can make this happen:
Departments, or a group of specific teachers, are responsible for the teaching of specific generic skills at each grade level. They share with the other teachers, the way in which the skills are being taught and provide examples of where they are applied. This would, perhaps, allow the English teachers to use their expertise in teaching the skills of note-taking, which may be more uncomfortable for Science teachers to deliver. Though, if a Science teacher wishes for their students to engage in note-taking in class, then just maybe they should actually learn how to actually teach this skill as part of their course.
A school wide approach could, in the first instance, take two or three vital generic skills that teachers collectively believe students should have and all teachers go through training in how to explicitly teach these skills and identify the areas of the curriculum where the skills should be taught.
The key to the success of either approach is that teachers must understand that they have a responsibility for teaching core skills that are applicable in any academic discipline. To avoid the potential problem of overwhelming the teaching body of a school with their responsibility for teaching skills in addition to their ‘subject content’, it is important to start with two or three targets that are achievable for all teachers, to build both confidence and momentum in adopting a school-wide approach to student academic skill development. Experts in the school who are willing to become trainers will need to be identified and meeting time scheduled for such an initiative.
Schools that are fortunate to have adopted similar approaches are seeing significant gains in student progress as opposed to frustration between teachers with finger pointing as to whose responsibility it is to teach certain skills. This is where I do feel sorry for English teachers who often feel the full force of this, as the only people who can teach literacy skills. This should not be that case and all teachers must take responsibility for literacy development, one skill at a time.
We can improve student learning by harnessing the collective wisdom and skills of the teaching body to make huge gains in developing core, transferable, academic skills with students.