Drinking the Kool-Aid

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Nov 17 2011

Whole Brain Teaching, Critical Thinking, and Control of the Masses

There is an amazing discussion happening on THIS post (http://wessie.teachforus.org/2011/08/25/cool-it/ – WHY aren’t my hyperlinks working?), which reminded me that, if I’m going to keep my blog linked to the Whole Brain Teaching discussion forum, I should probably write a little about, you know, Whole Brain Teaching.

I began WBT with some trepidation but with more enthusiasm. I loved it, and still do. It’s FUN and it’s ME. I love culty lingo and huge nation-wide online teaching communities. ;)

Trepidation first, enthusiasm after. Since my rocky intro to WBT 13 weeks ago, how much is actually happening in my classroom?

WBT Things I Actually Do:

  1. Scoreboard. Scoreboard scoreboard scoreboard scoreboard scoreboard. I use it absolutely every day and I absolutely cannot survive without it. My worst days are when I forget to prepare homework and my scoreboard has no punch. My best days are when I start them with 5 problems (so they think they could win all 5 away) and give and take gobs of points.
  2. Class/Yes. I think waaaaay more of my management problems last year than I realized really stemmed from the fact that I had no real attention-getter.

WBT Things I Wish I Did/Will Do With A Passion After Thanksgiving:

  1. Teach/OK. I’m a baby Wibbeteer and it takes me forever to plan my lessons into T/OK chunks. Ummmm so basically I have no excuse.
  2. Rule Reminders. Despite all of my best intentions, my kids still tend to see me as a pushover—the “nice” teacher. This is an amazing tool to keep high behavioral expectations that I have NOT been using.
  3. Conceptual GESTURES that go with my Key Points. Also no excuse.
  4. Mind Soccer. Duh.
  5. Super-Speed Math—a version of it that only exists in my mind right now, that I’ll use for anything we have to memorize. Right now, I’m thinking definitely multiplication tables for my MMA kids, parent functions for Precal, Unit Circle and maybe eventually quick derivatives for my calc kids. No idea what to do for AQR. As usual.

WBT Things I Plan NOT To Do

  1. Rule Gestures. Kids hated them. There’s no point in doing them unless you think they’re fun.
  2. Mighty Groan/Oh Yeah. Kids hated these, too. I may think of something cooler/more subdued. Or I may not do anything at all.

These articles (http://www.jeananyon.com/Early_Articles_on_social_class.htm), cited by Sam in the discussion mentioned above, provide a really interesting exploration of the way the tasks, thinking, and control of student work in schools relates to the tasks, thinking, and control of work in society. If social class is defines as your relationship to these, then we can learn a lot by asking ourselves what type of work our classrooms are preparing kids to do.

Do I think WBT suppresses critical thinking? No. I think WBT is a lecture style. It really only dramatically changes the intro part of the lesson, the direct input of factual knowledge into students’ heads. The tasks you ask your kids to complete are still the same. If you do worksheets without WBT, you’ll probably do worksheets with WBT, too. You’ll still do projects, you’ll still ask them to do things that make them really push themselves. You can model with WBT, you can ask higher-order questions with WBT, you can do absolutely everything you did before—the way I see it, Whole Brain Teaching is just a method of delivery. Talk less, have students teach each other, use gestures, have fun. That’s it.

The merit of WBT, to me, is this: While you can do any high- or low-level activity with WBT that you can do without, Whole Brain Teaching makes fact-swallowing SO much faster. It makes rote practice MUCH easier to facilitate on a moment’s notice. What this does is free up oodles of time for you to do all the great higher-order tasks that you’re saving—those projects that have to wait until the point when the students have some lower-level knowledge and skills to support them. The time that before would have been spent on repeating and repeating and desperately trying to find a way to make my kids understand the basics can now be spent pushing them to do more than understand.

However, I do have some more thinking to do about the comments these two articles had about the control of student activity. The example I remember was about whether, when and how students were allowed to leave class: working class schools needed a signed and dated pass, middle class schools had a sign-out system, and the upper class schools allowed children to get up and go whenever. The extension of this idea, obviously, is whether, when and how the teacher controls students’ actions while inside the classroom. WBT commands your full attention and controls literally your every move while the teaching is happening. Of course this is nice for the teacher, but in the language of Jean Anyon, this looks a lot like life in the working class—where your work, your time, and your products are tightly controlled and you have little power over when, how, or whether you work.
I don’t think I’m fully convinced, though. I read a blog last year from a corps member who was so morally opposed to this level of control that they hesitated to enforce what they considered inhumane social controls in the classroom. While letting kids make all their own decisions and learn naturally from them is certainly well-intentioned, this corps member had horror story after horror story to tell of the craziness that ensued. The CM quit before long, supposedly from the weight of this moral conflict (but I’d wager students’ and teacher’s physical safety and mental health had more to do with it). Actually, that was the first TFA-quitter blog I’d ever read (I’ve become addicted to them. I search for them. I think I’ve found all the interwebs have to offer–but if you know of any, send them my way).

What I’m saying is that while higher-level thinking and creativity and answer-challenging are one thing, managing a room full of young people is another. I don’t think tight management suggests shallow teaching. And I’m not convinced that tight management is an insult to the human condition, either.

However, I do think WBT is FUN and it’s ME and it makes so much more sense than (*snoooore*) traditional instruction. :)

3 Responses

  1. Sam

    Wess –

    Once again, love your blog, and in particular, I really love how critically you think about each issue. I am also pretty impressed at how your blog was able to facilitate an adult discussion about which we are passionate – no trolling, straw-mans, or name-calling, despite the anonymous nature of this site. How cool is that?!

    I hadn’t considered the way that using WBT would actually free up *more* time for critical thinking. That definitely changes my opinion quite a bit. I also realize that I was unfairly judging all of WBT by examples I had seen on youtube and on the website. It disturbed me to see teachers on the WBT site encouraging one another to have students peer pressure non-participants into using the catch phrases and buying into the methodology. It disturbed me to see students begging a teacher to play a game. However, I should not have assumed that all WBT engage in these practices.

    I also want to address the ideas of rules themselves. I am certainly not a fan of the Forrest Gathercoal, Judicious Discipline ideology in which the class functions entirely as a democracy. My anti-mindless-rule-following diatribe was more aimed at those teachers who subscribe to the peer-pressure mentality when employing WBT, such that all students must join in saying “oh yeah,” or whatever, when there really isn’t any rational reason for this rule. But I completely agree with you that rules need to exist, and students need to follow them.

    As for the idea of winning away homework – I have to admit, that one greatly troubles me. Here’s why: to me, homework is supposed to have a purpose. It should be reinforcing what has been learned during the day. If there is no need for homework one day, then teachers should not assign homework just for the sake of assigning homework. If five problems adequately reinforce the skills and assess whether or not the students learned the material, then the teacher should not assign 10 or 20 problems. That being said, if a skill needs to be practiced, then it is in the students’ best interest for the teacher to assign homework on that skill.

    When students are able to win away homework problems, there is a major unintended consequence: students begin to see homework as something that is unnecessary. After all, if it was necessary, the teacher would make them do it, no matter how well they behaved in class or how quickly they covered the material. Furthermore, the students lose out by not practicing skills that they really should be practicing.

    I think it is every teacher’s hope to be able to move away from external motivators and have our students be internally motivated to behave respectfully in class and do their homework diligently after class. However, this is unfortunately unrealistic for many teachers – particularly beginner teachers or teachers in underprivileged, underfunded districts. TFA members are hit with both of those things. Yet there are many ways to externally motivate students without adding or subtracting homework. You can use your scoreboard to have students work toward earning math soccer or other games at the end of the week. You can also use non-school-related prizes, such as a pizza party, but as my classroom management professors have stressed, those should be used sparingly in comparison to educational prizes. You could even have a prize be something such as making your own ice cream – at least that requires measuring, doubling or tripling recipes, all sorts of math-y things. But at the very least, I encourage you to at least consider the idea of using non-homework-related prizes for the scoreboard.

    I really look forward to hearing your response. I can tell that you truly are a great teacher or on your way to being a great teacher, because you reflect so deeply on your practices. What a wonderful trait.

    Thanks for clearing up some of my WBT misconceptions!


    • Wess

      The idea behind the homework/scoreboard is a little more complex. You decide beforehand exactly how much homework the kids need, and decide ahead of time whether they’ll win or lose and by how much. In the moment, you can always find something to give or take points for. I’m not always right on, because the end of the period does catch me off guard sometimes, but the other rule about the scoreboard is that no one is ever winning or losing by more than three points. So if I decide to give 5 problems, 7 problems isn’t too much different if I happen to screw it up.

      I did think about the fact that it’s using homework as punishment–but I’m not going to pretend that I’m going to get my kids to love homework. Even my most intrinsically motivated students would rather have less homework. This is pretty much a universal motivator–unlike a game that some kids won’t care for or even candy that some kids don’t like. It’s daily–unlike a project or a class trip or something equally cool (though I LOVE the ice cream idea!).
      Getting them to see that homework is necessary is something I haven’t thought of. I think in practice, it depends on your values as a teacher and what you do or don’t feel strongly about. For me, the benefits of using such an effective motivational tool outweigh the possibility that I could change the way they view homework. For you, the nagging feeling of how kids are looking at the work they do may make it worth using something else for extrinsic motivation.

      (and I’ve seen that creepy Mind Soccer video with the “BEG ME” teacher guy and I was very turned off, as well! I’m glad I didn’t see that until I was further along in my understanding of WBT.)

      • Sam

        Re: Mind Soccer video man.

        Hahaha right?!? But Mind Soccer does look really fun for reviewing facts. That just shouldn’t be the first video result!

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