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Tony Zini

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How a Three Year Old, a Large Multinational, and a Professional Golfer Ruined My Approach to Teaching ... in a Good Way

Posted: 10/25/11 12:35 PM ET

Every once in a while you experience a "perfect storm" in life. Events, circumstances, experiences, even what you are reading all align and tell you the same thing.

A couple of years ago I the "perfect storm" came ashore for me professionally. I am an elementary school teacher by trade and my "moment of clarity" was the result of the convergence of three things: my 3 year old son, one of the world's best golfers, and an oil company. These seemingly unrelated entities radically altered the way I teach.

This is how it all played out. A little over ten years ago I left my job with a large corporation to pursue my passion for teaching. As a "new" 31 year old college student enrolled in an educational program I was taught the various strategies for delivering instruction. Upon completing my credential, I was well prepared and equipped for my career in education.

The methods that were taught, and more importantly observed, were the methods my professors, mentor teachers, etc. had been taught and observed. The model I had the most exposure to was the direct instruction model, or what I like to call the dispense method. This strategy was the dominant model during my educational experience from kindergarten to college. I was taught and asked to create lessons using various strategies but the majority of what I observed and experienced was direct instruction. This model has been the dominant model in most education institutions.

As I began teaching I observed my students growing and progressing and I felt I was an effective teacher. I was teaching they way I had been taught and it was working.

Then my son was born. Over the next few years I got to witness a magical process unfold. I watched as an infant and later a toddler learned about his world. As a teacher it challenged me to reflect on how humans really learn and how this relates to my classroom.

As I marveled at my son's growth and development I began to take notice how he made sense of the world around him. First of all, the kid started really talking about 18 to 20 months and has not stopped since! How did he learn to talk? We didn't teach him the rules of oral communication. He learned by experience and in context. He discovered by trial and error.

My wife and I would tell him things, but the true learning came when he was exploring the world around him. I loved to watch him at his water table in the backyard. He stood there and "played" with sand, cups, and water, learning about his world. He loved to pour things out (usually on the ground) and see if things floated. For example, he learned that our cordless telephone doesn't float and we learned that when phones are submerged in water they cease to function!

I remember one day he was pouring sand out of a cup like he did hundreds of times. Then he put wet sand into a cup and tried to pour it out and nothing happened. He looked perplexed and bewildered but he had just learned something new through experience.

My son learned about his world through exploration and discovery, not someone telling him things.

Children love to learn and explore. The model I had predominantly been using in the classroom did not leverage this natural curiosity. I remember thinking -- what if I could empower my students and then unleash them to discover and learn on their own? I began to process what I was observing with my son and the implications on how I teach.

Then in 2009, in the midst of the wrestling match I was engaged in I was selected to attend the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy. The academy was created by Phil and Amy Mickelson and ExxonMobil to equip teachers with teaching strategies and content knowledge in the areas of math and science. The goal is to improve math and science education for students in the elementary grades. The academy focuses on inquiry-based learning utilizing hands-on experiences. I f you want to learn more about the academy go to www.sendmyteacher.com.

One of the key ideas of the academy is creating a classroom environment in which students can construct their own knowledge instead of merely trying to memorize the information dispensed by the teacher.

This is exactly what I had been observing with my son. He was constructing his own knowledge as he explored.

This philosophy aligns with latest brain research. David Sousa points out in his book How the Brain Learns that retention occurs only when the learner can make sense of the information and it is meaningful. This can only happen if students have time to process new information. Inquiry-based, hands-on instruction creates an environment that allows time for students to process.

We don't need research to tell us something we know through our own experiences. Think about how you learn. If it was meaningful and in context you will most likely retain that knowledge.

The week I spent at the academy only intensified the wrestling match in my head. Should I change the way I approach teaching? What does it mean to be a facilitator versus a dispenser? How can I empower students and allow them to construct their own knowledge?

The academy started my on a journey. It was just the beginning, not the ending. It was the final piece that led to a paradigm shift that I am still working through as I write this. At the academy I was given a framework and a network to start utilizing strategies and practices to create a different kind of classroom.

I believe it is vital for educators and policy makers to rethink the way we teach. This generation and subsequent generations are not wired for the direct instruction model. Just think about their approach to technology. They don't read instruction or listen to a "lesson" on how to use an IPad. The rip it open and start using and that is how they learn.

We shouldn't fight that, we should leverage it. We can if we create a classroom that empowers students.

I wanted to say thanks to my son, Phil and Amy Mickelson, and ExxonMobil for turning my approach to education upside down ... it is made me a better teacher.