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Christopher Emdin Headshot

5 New Approaches to Teaching and Learning: The Next Frontier

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In my first year of teaching about a decade ago, I was given very straightforward instructions for what I was charged to do. I was told to follow the curriculum, ensure that my students didn't disrupt the classroom, meet the state standards for my subject, and make sure that my students passed the standardized exams at the end of the year. To meet these goals, I was provided with a curriculum, a school rulebook, test prep materials, and was wished good luck.

The curriculum I was given consisted of a set of lessons that were organized like a script. The formula was simple: wash, rinse and repeat. Teacher asks this, students say that. Write this on the blackboard, students will write that. On any given day, there was a document I could reference that detailed exactly what I was going to be teaching, and when I was going to teach it. The document was complimented by a margin on the left side of my teachers manual that told me what assignments to give, when to give them, and what responses I should expect from students.

In addition to the curriculum, I was given the school rulebook. This small manual documented what was appropriate for student behavior, and what punishment would be given when the school "code of conduct" was violated. There were two warnings for small infractions, calls home for others, and an elaborate protocol for "major infractions." Again, the process was well detailed. Technically, all I had to do was follow the instructions, and my class would run perfectly.

The final set of tools I was armed with were a set of test prep materials. They consisted of slim booklets that looked just like the ones students would receive at the end of the year when they took their standardized exams. I also received thick books that consisted of past standardized tests questions, and a schedule for when to assign test prep. Students were to be given mock exams once a week. These exams would prepare them for another set of sporadic exams that would be given throughout the year. At the end of the year, they would all sit for a final standardized exam.

For anyone on the outside looking in, all the materials I was given meant that I was well-prepared. Technically, I was given all that I needed to succeed. Unfortunately, none of the tools I was given considered the complexities of teaching that I faced once I entered the classroom. The curriculum was so scripted that it allowed little to no time or space for me to be creative in teaching. For students who asked a lot of questions, thought deeply, and wanted to create a true connection to what was being taught, my classroom did not work. The script I was given was so structured that it forced me to ignore students who were asking brilliant questions. These students quickly grew frustrated, and before long, became increasingly disengaged. As they grew more disengaged, they began to feel disconnected from the classroom. Before long, their frustration turned into either behavior problems or complete disinterest or behavior problems.

As behavior problems rose, I was forced to pull out the school rulebook. Students who would speak out of turn just to create a break in the script/curriculum I was following were reprimanded. They would talk to each other in class just to get their voices heard, and I would follow the rulebook and call their parents to report inappropriate behavior. I ended up spending so much time during and after class punishing students for breaking small infractions that it was virtually impossible to stay on the schedule of the curriculum. My school administrators would then come into my class to see how close I was to script, and reprimand me for being behind.

In just a few weeks, teaching became a battle to stick to the curriculum, a constant fight with students who no longer liked school, practice for weekly mock exams, and anticipation for weekends and days off.

This cycle of dysfunction is a reality for educators across the country, and is part of the reason why achievement gaps exist (because classes who follow this model are overwhelmingly present inn urban schools populated by youth of color), dropout rates remain high, and teacher retention is a perpetual issue. In response, I describe five approaches to teaching that engage and motivate students and teachers, and have a proven record of being successful in the many schools that I have worked with across the country.

1. Hip-Hop Education (HipHopEd)

HipHopEd is an approach to teaching and learning that focuses on the use of hip-hop culture and its elements in teaching and learning both within and outside of traditional schools. #HipHopEd is also a Twitter chat where educators convene every Tuesday night at 9 p.m. EST to discuss this approach to teaching. HipHopEd involves the use of hip-hop music, art and culture to create philosophies for teaching. It also uses hip-hop to develop and implement teaching tools and helps to create contexts for teaching and learning that youth are comfortable in. In its simplest form, HipHopEd involves the use of rap lyrics as text to be used in the classroom. In a more complex form, it involves raps created by students as classroom assignments that are used to measure knowledge. In its most advanced form, it uses the elements of hip-hop (b-boying/girling, graffiti, deejaying and MC-ing) as ways to describe/explain content, develop classroom activities, and create tools for empowering youth.

Most recently, the use of hip-hop in education has included elements of hip-hop culture like the rap battle to enhance learning and create competitions that spur on learning. This approach has been used to increase student attendance, motivation and content knowledge.

2. Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Lessons (POGIL)

Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Lessons are part of a learning strategy that has both a constructivist and social component. In other words, it focuses on using the real life experiences of the learner to create knowledge and considers how students relates to the environment where they are taught.

When engaging in POGIL's, the teacher assigns text to students, and then poses a set of questions that they can only answer by exploring the text that was given. In this process, the teacher has to fight the urge to give students any answers or facts to memorize. Their main role is to pose questions that provoke the students to look more deeply at the text they are given. In a POGIL classroom, students develop conclusions about the text they are interrogating that will increase their knowledge. As students answer questions, teachers "guide the inquiry" by asking supplemental questions that will eventually move the students towards thinking deeply and drawing more complex conclusions. This approach has resulted in increased student interest in the subject being taught and increased mastery of content in the science classes where it is mostly used.

3. Project Based Learning (PBL)

Project-based learning is an approach to teaching that focuses primarily on having students engage in explorations of real-world problems and challenges. Through these explorations, they develop their content knowledge, but also develop solutions to problems. This approach to teaching functions to engage students that may be disinterested in traditional content because it allows them to identify problems in their community or the world at large that they want to solve. It also provides teachers and students with opportunities to be creative. In schools that commit to project based learning, students can engage in a project, and learn all subjects as they complete their project. In this process, the teacher looks for ways to connect the subject to the project. In turn, students look to the teacher for content knowledge so they can complete their project.

4. Reality Pedagogy

Reality Pedagogy is an approach to teaching and learning that focuses on teachers gaining an understanding of student realities, and then using this information as the starting point for instruction. It begins with the fundamental premise that students are the experts on how to teach, and students are the experts on content. Reality pedagogues/teachers believe that, for teaching and learning to happen, there has to be an exchange of expertise between students and teacher. For this exchange to happen, teachers need a set of tools called the "5 C's" to gain insight into student realities, and allow students to express their true selves in the classroom. These tools are:

1. Cogenerative dialogues: Where teachers and students discuss the classroom and both suggest ways to improve it.

2. Coteaching: Where students get opportunities to learn content and then teach the class.

3. Cosmopolitanism: Where students have a role in how the class operates and in what is taught.

4. Context: Where the neighborhood and community of the school is seen as part of the classroom.

5. Content: Where the teacher has to acknowledge the limitations of his/her content knowledge and work to build his/her content expertise with students

5. Flipped Classroom

One of the most popular new approaches to teaching is the flipped classroom. This approach involves a process where the typical lecture that happens in the classroom occurs at home. Students watch lectures on video, and then return to school to engage in the exercises they would traditionally have for homework, and to ask questions based on the lecture they watched on their own at home. When students watch videos at home, they can stop and go and at their own pace, and take notes a their leisure. When they return to school, they can work in groups to discuss what they watched, and/or have their questions answered by the teacher. In this process, students create, collaborate and learn at their own pace, and apply what they have learned at home in the classroom.

In all of these approaches, the most powerful thing to recognize is that they focus explicitly on engaging both the student and the teacher. When teachers are treated like the intelligent professionals that they are, and given the flexibility to engage in approaches to teaching and learning that go beyond archaic models that they are often bound to, students respond differently, and education is improved.