Dr. David Sandmire, a professor in the life sciences department at the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine, has been one of my most influential teachers. I first met him while taking his Anatomy and Physiology course during my sophomore year. He is the person to whom I credit with changing my major to medical biology, with changing my career aspirations to teaching, and is the reason I enjoy teaching and feel confident in my ability to do so. Dr. Sandmire was the first person who allowed me to experience authentic learning, by which I mean, learning through critical thinking and analysis, rather than just simply memorizing.
Admittedly, I was completely confused and overwhelmed with the first authentic learning case study that he gave us to complete. Dr. Sandmire had configured each study in just the right way that even if we would have had the almighty “Google” at that time (we relied on medical journals and reference encyclopedias) there is no way that it would have helped us conquer these assessments. After my first pathetic attempt to do this case study on my own, I realized that Dr. Sandmire was trying to teach us the value of synthesizing information, asking meaningful questions, and defending our ideas based upon sound evidence and facts. The importance of memorizing facts was diminished significantly by learning how to analyze material and formulate a reasonable conclusion that made sense. I have used these lessons from this class forward, including my current teaching strategies, which focus on using facts to help evaluate situations. And, although these methods may be different than the traditional lecture method students (and parents) may expect, it is so rewarding at the end of the year to see how much they have grown in their ability to be authentic learners.
One of the biggest challenges as a teacher is to be able to reach all types of learners. When you add to this that students can now “google” any fact-related question, teachers have to connect with their students in innovative ways. Teachers no longer hold the position of “sage on the stage.” Instead, our role has evolved to develop lifelong learners, not simply share facts which students then memorize, regurgitate, and forget. Instead, I have changed my teaching style to reflect how I feel best promotes critical analysis, or, authentic learning.
Every year I regularly have a handful of meetings near the beginning of the school year to explain to parents and students how material is learned in my classes. I explain to them my belief that the 42 minutes I get to spend with their child each day is not best utilized by me writing out notes that I have condensed from the textbook that the students are reading. Simply repeating material I think they have already grasped is not a sufficient use of classroom time. When I first began teaching, I felt the need to “know everything” and felt secure with a marker in my hand and prepared notes from the textbook. Classes went by with little discussion or questions, and I didn’t have to worry about unexpected questions that I might not be able to answer. When I think back to those years now, I can’t believe that’s how I used to spend my class time with students. Now, if you pick any day of the week to come into my classroom, you probably won’t see me at the front of the class, and you probably won’t see all students doing the exact same activity. During any given lesson, I might have five or six students at the microscopes, five or six students working from their iPads, and a handful of others working collaboratively to solve a question that I have put up on the board. I work very hard at the beginning of the school year to get students to become comfortable with the idea of a “fluid classroom.” In my mind, this means that students are free to work from one activity to the next at their pace and regulate their time so that they can complete all activities within the given time frame. This allows students to spend more time on what they really like, but also demands that they experience all activities that relate back to one central topic.
It is a great experience to see how the students transition throughout the year from being so dependent upon the teacher to get facts, to working collaboratively with each other to analyze complex problems. Of course, this requires that students still learn the facts, but instead, they are using class time to use the facts to reason out a problem. I am thankful for all of the wonderful teachers that I have had throughout my life and who have exposed me to different teaching and learning styles. I am also thankful for the opportunity to teach and challenge our future.