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  • Writer's pictureDerek Stoppels

Teachers Need To Be Flight Instructors

I love flying. But I'm not a pilot. However, one of my best friends is!

I remember getting the opportunity to get into the back seat of a little four-seater airplane with him during one of his flight instruction lessons. He was in the right seat, his student in the left. I had absolutely no real reason to be there, except my buddy knew I loved to fly. His student was practicing touchdowns that day, so we took off from the Ottawa Aviation Services runway and circled the Ottawa Airport and practiced touching down (landing) and taking off.

The airplane was small, and there were some pockets where the plane would just drop, and for a split second I thought we'd fall right out of the air. And this didn't happen just once. I was terrified. Until I realized that my buddy, Cedric, was not. He was a cucumber, calm and cool, and since he was the only one of the three of us with any real flying experience, I took my cues from him. Ultimately, he was in total control of the aircraft the entire time. He was the expert, the instructor and because I have never met anyone who took his job and passion so seriously, I knew I was in good hands.

Now, as a teacher, I think back to that lesson, and I loved the way Cedric let his student figure things out. The kid in the pilot's seat was making mistakes, and Cedric let them happen, and he let the kid work through things on his own. But not completely on his own. If our lives were ever going to be in danger, Cedric was there to make sure nothing really bad happened. School teachers need to be more like flight instructors.

Giving someone all the facts they need to know how to fly does not in fact teach someone how to fly. They need to get up in the air, and put those things into practice.

But in "regular" school, the stakes are much lower than in an airplane. We don't have checklists to go through before we begin our day...well, we take attendance, but that's not the same. We still want to make the environment safe for learning, but it's not a life or death situation if someone forgets something.

While it is important for students to have 'facts' to help them learn and grow and move forward, the way they get those facts, doesn't need to be from direct instruction. I'm not writing off direct instruction all together, there is a time and place for it, for sure. But it should not be the "be all and end all" of school.

The reason why I like Project Based Learning (PBL) is because right off the bat, students understand why they need to be learning something. When the project, or question, is presented to them at the very beginning of the learning session, or unit, or quadmester, they get to see the big picture. A good project, or question, will motivate the students to learn. It will give them, or show them, the reason 'why'. Then, if the project is designed well, it will provide entry points that are appropriate for every student. We show them the big picture (the overall curriculum expectations) and then they get to enter the project/answer, wherever is best for them.

In a good PBL unit, the 'fact gathering' is not teacher led, but teacher directed. It is a subtle difference, but it puts students in the driver's seat. They get to be the pilot, and the teachers are in the First Officer's seat. When students know where they need to go, they get the opportunity to decide how they want to get there. The teacher has the destination in mind, but the students get to decide the route to get there.

Every tidbit of information that is in our textbooks can also be found fact, some textbooks can be found online. Students are not left completely to their own devices during a PBL unit, the teacher is still there, in the room, making sure they don't just fly off somewhere on their own.

Daniel Willingham in his article "Science of Learning" says (and I'm paraphrasing): Students learn best by building on ideas which they already know...which is why a well-sequenced curriculum is crucial." I think, traditionally, this is why direct instruction is a favoured method, because we give the students the ideas that they need to know to learn the next thing. But research also tells us that motivation and opportunity are two major factors of how learning happens. Students need to be motivated to learn, and they need the opportunity to use what they've learned. I believe that a good PBL unit gives students the motivation to learn, but also the opportunities to uncover the facts and ideas that they need to build on, on their own.

I'm not an expert, but I don't really think that marks, are a big enough motivating factor for students to really want to sit in a class and take notes all day. Especially in our current (Ontario) model of 225 minutes sitting in class a day, without any kinds of movement breaks. This is why I like the PBL model. I think it gives them a much shorter term goal that has more meaning than just a number. Sure, there are kids who are going to love getting good grades and that is their "raison d'etre", but I think there are many more students who want good grades, but they also want an opportunity to see why what they are doing is important and to use what they are learning for something more meaningful than just a mark.

My SBI3U course this quadmester is driven by big questions that are based on the Overall Expectations of the Ontario science curriculum, but they need to discover the Specific Expectations in order to have the best answer. The questions are designed so that if they actually do the work, there is no wrong answer, just varying degrees of correctness or completion. With the teaching and learning environment so drastically different and unprecedented, I am taking this opportunity to try something totally different. I think it's so important, this year, to take an innovative approach to 'school'.

In the OCDSB we only get to see our students 11 or 12 days in class and they get 11 or 12 days at home. It works out to 23 or 24 days total for each course. Direct instruction has a place, but I really think we need to move away from it being the 'go-to' delivery method. I really believe PBL is the best way (for me) get concepts into the students working memory, and then into their long term memory. They collect the facts on their own, and they have a meaningful reason for getting that information. It's more than just collecting information. The project, or big question, gives the information collection purpose and meaning. When students see the purpose in their work, in my experience, they are more motivated to learn it.

You can tell me how to fly a 737, and use all the diagrams and slideshows in the world, but if I don't get a chance to actually get into a plane and fly every now and again, it's going to be insanely difficult for me to really want to continue learning how to fly a 737. At every different stage in a pilot's development, the planes get a little bigger. But the stakes are always high and they need to become experts at each stage. They need to master each airplane before flying the bigger ones. And they spend hours in front of, or inside, simulators.

Now let's say each size engine/airplane is a grade with the ultimate goal being an Boeing 777, or as they often say in education, real-life. If we're just preparing pilots for a Boeing 777, are we really getting them to appreciate the stakes involved at every other level? If pilots start in a Cessna, they can still die if they don't respect the craft they're flying because they just see it as a stepping stone to the revered 777. Grade 9, 10, 11, 12 students won't die if they fail a course, but why is the goal of school to get them ready for "real life," or "what comes next."

Sure the ultimate goal is to graduate and be successful in life after school, just like pilots want to fly a Cessna so they can eventually get the hours and the experience to move up to fly a 777 (and I know there are a TON of steps in between). But if we don't honour our students where they are, are they going to really find purpose and reason for the work they are doing here and now? Or let's say a pilot is happy flying cargo planes for the UN in and out of Sudan for a living. Is that less impressive than someone who flies 777s for Cathay Pacific?

Not every pilot wants to fly a 777, and not every student wants to be a scientist. How are we going to honour every student that comes into our classroom? By training them all to fly 777s?

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