Teaching on purpose

My 9 year old is obsessed with soccer right now.  It seems like he’s constantly dribbling a ball around the house, trying new moves to get by his brothers and sister, passing the ball off the walls over and over, and seeing how many times he can juggle the ball without it touching the ground.  It’s constant. He played on an outdoor soccer team in the summer and fall and now that the weather is less cooperative, he’s turned to indoor soccer and futsal.  I’ve spent a lot of time on the sidelines at his practices and games and the refrain of his coaches to their 9 and 10 year old players is pretty simple: “Every touch has a purpose.”

When Bracken boots the ball from the back… “What was the purpose, Bracken? Every touch.”  When Gino dribbles once or twice and passes the ball into a crowd of players… “Every touch has a purpose, Gino.”  When Harrison kicks the ball up the sideline and the opposing goalie runs out easily to control it… “With purpose, Harrison.  Every touch with purpose.”

This has become the mantra for their team and I love it.  In fact, this same purposeful mentality is shaping the way I think about education.  Everything with a purpose.

I read a paper this week written by a college student who was preparing to be a teacher.  The topic of the paper was the impact of the classroom environment on student learning.  It oozed with naive, idealistic wonder and at first, I found myself closed off to it.  I rolled my eyes when the author seemed to suggest that you could solve all classroom management problems by simply moving the desks around or setting up stations.  I scoffed when the author suggested having each student redo their work until it was deemed worthy of being hung on the wall.  But then I caught myself…

This author was calling us to educate on purpose.  If we are going to setup our desks in a particular way, we should have a purpose.  (He even suggested changing the desk formation to model the lesson – desks in trenches to learn about World War I or desks as an assembly line to model the Industrial Revolution.)  If we are going to display student work, have a clear purpose.  When we put students in groups, have a purpose.  If we chose to use learning centers, we shouldn’t just do it because it’s hip; we should have a clear purpose.  If we are going to start or end each class period in particular way, we better know why.

This “teaching on purpose” requires a few things.  First, it requires that we know our students well because what works for a particular student or a particular group of students might not work for another.  We can be much more intentional about the decisions we make if we know each student well.  Next, it requires that we are consistently reflecting on the question of why?  What worked last term or last year may no longer be the best option.  If we aren’t self-evaluating and remaining open to the why questions, we have the potential to grow complacent or stagnant.

Even as I write this, it feels like it has the potential to be overwhelming.  What about starting with one why today?  What about identifying one change that could make a difference?  Then try it (even if it’s risky). Then reflect, adjust, and try again.  Then ask another why… and repeat forever.

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