EduCon Reflection: How to Teach Like a Human

A lesson I am still learning from EduCon is that the less planning you put into your session, the more interesting the outcome of that conversation will be.

Here’s my write-up for this year’s session:

Classrooms in “progressive,” “alternative,” or “non-traditional” schools are often seen as magical spaces — free of conflict and without any need for classroom management. But teachers in these spaces actually have many concrete, specific techniques. What do they do? Come discuss and discover.

The secret was that I had not prepared any specific examples from SLA — this session was going to rely entirely on examples that we all generated together and shared.

The first step was to brainstorm what human qualities we wanted our students to develop in school — to think not about skills and content, at least not as it relates to our “subject areas,” but to think about what abilities we wanted our students to carry with them five or more years after they left our classroom.

Tables made free-form lists on poster paper.

After that, we looked at the most common practices of a typical school day or class period — openers and closers, direct instruction, class discussion, independent practice, keeping students on task, and dealing with conflict.

For each category, participants wrote their answers to the following prompts:

What exactly do you do and say?

What skills does this encourage in your students?

There was a lot of scribbling and typing for most of the hour. Many responses live on this 15-page Google Doc.

People had a LOT to share. The challenge of this session, though, was not just describing your practice — it was explaining how your practice directly supported the human qualities you wanted to instill in your students in the long term. Making a list of those in the abstract was easy. And most educators knew that their classroom practice did encourage their students to be better people. But when, exactly? And how?

Here are a few examples of how people made their practice transparent — in our session, and also to their students:

  • For group work, I encourage them to establish norms and expectations for their groups. I tell them, “How you work together here is at least as important as what you accomplish.” This helps them understand each other’s individual goals and build positive relationships with the folks they’re working with.  – Brian Lakatos
  • With my first period class we typically start with a little bit of time (3ish minutes) to just talk. Sometimes there’s a prompt (silly ice breakers at the start of the year, acknowledgement about something happening currently at school / in the city / in the country) sometimes it is just a chance to talk about how we spent our evenings. The idea is that we acknowledge there is a transition between home and school – they are different spaces which require different kinds of navigating. The idea is also to show that we value one another and the opportunity to just be together. – Hilary Hamilton
  • I often set up a backchannel conversation space or a collaborative notes document so learners can share their thinking during the instruction, and have a place to capture their questions and identify which should be addressed in the moment and which might be able to be addressed afterward. This encourages learners to take responsibility for their own thinking and learn how to share the responsibilities of notetaking as well as add to one another’s thinking. – Jessica Raleigh

What I like about these examples is that they are very concrete things that people DO in the course of a class period. They are not strictly “classroom management techniques” but they’re not curriculum-based either. They are examples of how the methods of teaching are what ultimately send the most powerful message.

You can check out the video of the full session here:


P.S. At one point, a participant did ask: when are you going to share the SLA examples? At which point my secret was revealed: SLA has lots of answers to these prompts, but we don’t have THE answer. The expertise does not exist in some distant book or building — it’s already in the room, waiting to be built out of the collective knowledge of the group. 

P.P.S. There were, admittedly, a few people utterly transfixed by the fact that their classroom practice did nothing to encourage the qualities they wanted to see in their students. I’m glad that they were in the room to think about it for the first time. 



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