How I went from an effective educator to a student-centered and transformational educator
by Denis Dagounis
For the past 21 years I have taught high school science, from environmental and earth sciences to college prep, honors and advanced placement biology.
During my first 15 years as a teacher, I taught science based on the way I was taught when I was a student: students read the chapter, I reviewed and provided additional information by Through a lecture and PowerPoint, students answered a quiz, we reviewed end-of-chapter questions, and students took a multiple-choice test—rinse and repeat, unit after unit. A few times a month, I provided students with a recipe-style lab that, if followed step-by-step, resulted in all students getting the same results and answers.
If you observed my class during this time, you would have found students sitting quietly in even rows writing down information as quickly as possible while I clicked away from the corner of the class. I struggled to see that this way of teaching didn’t reach all of my students or inspire them to think critically, discover new ideas, wonder, and apply information to new ones. situations.
Also, I was 15 years into my teaching career and I was starting to get bored. I needed change. Doing the same thing year after year was boring – boring for me and boring for my students. Of course, I tried to insert interesting lessons, articles, current events and photos from various trips I would take but, in the end, it was the same concept and the same way of approaching the teaching and learning.
A shift in norms and perspective
My wife had just taken on a new job as a district-wide STEM supervisor. She explained to me the design of the programs and the pedagogical changes she was initiating with her teachers. She used engineering design and design thinking processes to guide teaching and learning with an emphasis on problem solving and critical thinking.
I began to draw parallels with what she was doing in her district and the changes I was seeing in next generation science standards. Our daily conversations helped me see how this way of teaching and learning aligned with the recently revised standards I was expected to implement. Student-centered learning experiences were central to the implementation. She also challenged me to try to implement the engineering design and design thinking processes into my courses. More importantly, this change would allow my students to engage more deeply in the learning process. If I needed a change, I’m sure my students needed a change too!
So, about six years ago, I threw away PowerPoint presentations and multiple-choice tests. Through trial and error, I figured out how to teach for knowledge retention and application and how to truly engage students. I worked to give my students the opportunity to demonstrate their strengths and develop lifelong skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, questioning and collaborative discussions. I retired as “lord on the board” or “wise on stage”. I created an environment where students took charge of their learning, and I simply became the facilitator of their learning process.
It wasn’t easy, and it took a long time to really flesh out what works and how to make this new approach possible. I started with the engineering design process using statements/evidence/reasoning (CER) instead of the scientific method.
No PowerPoints, no books and no multiple-choice tests
At the start of the school year, I make three promises to students: there will be no PowerPoints, no books, and no multiple-choice tests. I explain to them that I want them to discover the information they will learn over the course of the year through prompting, discussion, and collaboration. I then introduce students to my teaching and learning process with a simple question for students and a simple way for me to test this new way of approaching teaching and learning: what is your definition of ” life ” ?
It is a fundamental subject in biology. In the past, I provided students with the definition of the book and the characteristics of life. But why not challenge students to find their own definition of life? Without the use of the book or the internet, students discuss, collaborate, and ultimately create a classroom definition of life, then apply that definition to various “creatures” or items in the classroom.
What I see every year now is that the students are engaged in the lesson. They make their own adjustments to their definition, making sure it’s applicable based on what they notice. They actively participate and debate with each other.
As I began to incorporate these types of learning experiences more and more into the classroom, I saw how students became active members of our learning environment. I realized that we educators need to design learning experiences that are student-centered and exploratory in nature. This helps students realize that there is not always a right or wrong answer. There are usually multiple ways to approach and resolve authentic, real-life situations and scenarios.
Our projects and lessons should mimic real life and give students the opportunity to think critically and solve problems. Our class and teaching style should help students understand that there are a myriad of correct answers. Our approach should lead students to see that when one of us “fails” we actually succeed because we learn from our mistakes.
Unique and authentic assignments allow students to work collaboratively to explore concepts, apply problem-solving techniques, and use CER to demonstrate their thought processes.
I no longer load information before providing a collaborative learning experience, but instead task my students to research information and analyze data in teams or pairs to solve a problem or make sense of a scenario. They also have a choice of how to demonstrate their learning. For their projects, they have the option of writing an article, creating a video, developing a computer program or choosing their own means to demonstrate their understanding of the subject.
I find that when students are allowed to interact with content in a way that appeals to their interests and abilities, they are able to develop and demonstrate a better understanding of concepts. Some students like to write, others make videos, and some like to share their knowledge through presentations and discussions. These types of learning experiences take the form of project-based learning and choice boards that make it easier for students to choose. They allow students to apply the content in real-life situations, seeing how the content is applicable to their daily lives. This motivates students to apply.
Students choose their own method to demonstrate their learning
One of our units in environmental science focuses on constructive and destructive factors and their role in the creation of rock structures such as Delicate Arch at Arches National Park in Utah. The culminating assignment asks students to choose their preferred method of developing a model of these forces. They present content to the class through this preferred model to engage in discussion about how these forces work and the impact they have.
The creativity of the students always amazes me: some build 3D models; others create books, draw pictures or use computer programs such as Scratch to demonstrate their knowledge. One of my special education students asked me if he could use Minecraft to build his model. Personally, I had no idea if it would work, but was confident that he could create a model that would demonstrate all the required aspects in the topic. His role model, knowledge and understanding were incredible. I was amazed at how he was able to make connections and prove to himself that he was capable of doing this project, even though he initially struggled with the content.
After nine or more years of traditional test and quiz experiences, students tend to struggle a bit with this method of assessment. They’re used to “one right answer” assessments and always look to me, the teacher, to tell them if they’ve done it right. When I ask them to explain their thought processes to me, they are bewildered and confused. But once they get used to the expectations, they love explaining their claims, evidence, and reasoning, and engaging in stimulating discussions and debates with their classmates. They realize they can overcome difficult situations, understand things, challenge their assumptions (or me as a teacher!), develop problem-solving skills, and communicate clearly.
As educators, we have the ability to make a difference in the lives of our students. We can give them lifelong skills that can be applied across disciplines and transcend formal education. Even when I was still a student, I knew I wanted to help students discover a love and interest in the world around them. I wanted to foster wonder and inquiry in my students and the confidence to understand how and why things work. But it’s taken me years to develop my craft and design learning experiences that allow students to pursue their passion and demonstrate their strengths.
Over the past three years, I believe I have really started to achieve my goal of student-centered learning. A former student once wrote in an end-of-year survey: “Although there were times when we struggled in Mr. Dagounis’ class, the students always grasped the concept at the end. of the project. It would seem that we couldn’t do it, but we always did. Once I realized I had the ability to complete these seemingly impossible projects, I knew I could do anything!
So I challenge you, whether you’re a beginning teacher or have been teaching for 10, 15, or more than 20 years, to ditch PowerPoint presentations and lectures. Provide your students with authentic and engaging prompts that allow them to discuss, debate, question, and build their own understanding of the subject matter. Ultimately, we should want our students to be authentic, creative, and critical thinkers, not passive recipients of knowledge. Let them wonder and wonder. Let them create. You will be amazed at what they can accomplish!
Dennis Dagounis is Union County’s 2021-22 Teacher of the Year. He is a science teacher at Roselle Park High School. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using @21ctoydagounis. He can be reached at [email protected]