Teaching Style: Are you a Cat or Dog?
By Tina Bacolas
One of the best viral YouTube sensations I’ve caught in the past few years titled, “The Difference Between Cats and Dogs” features a Golden Retriever and its puppy. The puppy stands at the top of a flight of stairs, looking down the seemingly endless slope, not knowing what to do. The parent dog proceeds to walk up and down the stairs relentlessly demonstrating the task. Mom even pauses occasionally, nudging the pup that backtracks a step or two to the landing. After some time, the pup finally makes his way down the stairs guided every single step by mom’s gentle nose. The video then shows a kitten at the top of some basement steps that looks cautiously over the edge, and then to his mother and back at the flight again. He nervously takes a single paw and places it on the first step, only to be shoved from behind by mom’s paw. This results in the kitten tumbling loudly down the stairs.
While this video has nothing to with education, it has everything to do with the student-centered learning I saw taking place in a high school science class. On this particular day, these junior and senior physics students were learning about the relationship between force and acceleration. After a very minimal background lesson was disseminated, the teacher pointed out an array of lab equipment available to the students and instructed the lab groups to design an experiment to test this relationship (force and acceleration). No worksheet. No materials list. No lab procedure. Just a goal.
While the students did not look quite as bemused as myself, it was obvious after a few minutes that they were frustrated. Some time passed and ideas began to flow. Students talked about distance of toy cars and stopwatches. They drew diagrams and talked openly, pointing out the need to control certain variables. The conversation was amazing. Being a science person myself, I could tell some of the experiment ideas were way off. However, the conversation was completely focused. The students were problem solving. They were compromising with group mates and considering multiple ideas in a collaborative solution. While the stumped groups received guided questioning from the circling instructor, groups on the right track received encouraging words.
You see, this teacher is a cat—and, while I am by no means suggesting pushing students down a flight of stairs—this teacher set up a finish line for them and let them grapple. Her student-centered lesson ended in more than just a physics lesson. Student social interactions and critical thinking skills were piqued while they struggled through the task. Far too many teachers are Golden Retrievers. It is so difficult for educators, to let go of traditional methods and handholding. We need to understand, however, that our puppies are getting to the bottom of the stairs, while the kittens are arriving with a greater skill base and a deeper learning experience.
Now a school administrator, I spend a great deal of time in classrooms watching and, I am fortunate in this. I have the honor of personally gathering a large sampling of data—what is working? What is not working? How are our students thinking? How are they learning?
As a 1:1 laptop district, I will say this: the laptops are a go-to. Students find a word they don’t know in a text in English class… they open their laptops. They argue about a historical fact or event… they open their laptops. They want to see what’s #trending in the news… they open their laptops. The truth of the matter is, our students are in a world (and will soon enter a workplace) where technology will be at their fingertips… 24 hours a day. The excitement that used to follow, “Okay, class, we are going to the computer lab” is long gone. A wealth of information sits in a black canvas case and contains a streamlined silver Apple. Is it really important anymore for students to learn traditionally when glossaries are becoming extinct?
Our students can access billions of webpages, blogs, and databases with ease. Now, what they do with that information is the important part. Can they assemble facts from various sources to form a well-rounded argument? Can they involve multiple opinions and viewpoints when solving a problem? Do they know how to properly gather credible sources? These are the skills that they will need for life. For their careers. For their (and our) futures. Are we designing lessons that will foster these skills? And as an administrator, how can I design PD to help my teachers make this transition?
I am not suggesting the content of our traditional classrooms go by the wayside. I am simply suggesting that our delivery should encourage more thought-provoking conversation (which is, consequently, also my strongest argument against virtual schooling).
In a recent professional development session where I took on the role of the mother cat, I told my staff they had just 45 minutes in groups of four to grapple with the task below:
The immediate reaction was to open their laptops and begin searching. What endangered species (if any) live in this area? What is the average cost of building a bridge? What soil textures are conducive to tunnel excavation? And so on… the conversation was argumentative and the fact comparing was aggressive. This time span flew by and, when I asked the groups to present me with their findings, the results were varied (mostly bridges, but some dams and tunnels throughout). However, the consistency in the room brought new-found knowledge of Oregon’s freshwater wildlife, (including the endangered salmon in the river), fiscal undertakings of several transportation options, environmental impacts dams have on canal wildlife and the visual aesthetic opinions of one’s colleagues. All without me saying a word.
The problem was authentic. Interdisciplinary. It asked my teachers to do more than just listen and write. They were forced to listen, research and compromise. With this activity, my hope was to open the minds of my staff to new methods, by example, to focus on a goal. The level of facilitation and structure will vary by group and age of students. It is also essential that if teachers are going to provide their students with the resources, they are credible and age appropriate. My library media specialist has been a wonderful training support in this area.
Either way, innovative examples and consistent encouragement is a necessary component in promoting change in fundamental lesson design. We may all integrate cat-like lessons into our curriculum and classrooms.
Previously a high school Biology teacher, Tina is currently a Technology Coach and Supervisor of Instructional Technology in Park Ridge, NJ, where she hopes to continually improve the 1:1 MacBook program in the district. While her main focus is effective technology integration strategies, her love of curriculum and instruction shows in her work in the school’s professional development committee.