Teachers Experiment with New Techniques

Vicki Clancy teaching her AP Calculus students using one of her new techniques / Photographer: Meg Waage


Most OHS students this year have experienced one or more of the new teaching styles – unconventional, unfamiliar, or different from what had been previously employed – that have recently been brought to the school, particularly in the math and Spanish departments. These changes have been greeted with both positive and negative criticism; while some students, open to change or perhaps having not experienced another teaching style in the subject, have reacted with optimism, many have expressed frustration with the new methods, finding it difficult to accept the shift from what they had been accustomed to. While it is difficult to adjust to any major change in teaching style, knowing the actual reasoning or philosophy behind such methods and the intended benefits might ease the transition and make embracing the new ways of teaching and learning easier.

Vicki Clancy reveals her recently employed methods in the math classroom to be based on the method known as “Building a Thinking Classroom,” a methodology with 14 components, although Clancy has only introduced three or four so far. Created by Peter Liljedahl of British Columbia, it is the product of 13 years of math classroom observation and research around the world. According to Clancy, Liljedahl’s goal was to combat the worldwide problem in math classrooms of keeping students attentive and willing to persevere through difficult problems. What he ultimately concluded was that, in order to tackle such an epidemic, what may be most effective is simply to completely subvert or flip the common style, to see what does work. “A lot of it is the idea that if it’s not working, let’s do everything the opposite of how you normally do things,” Clancy said. “You come in a classroom, it’s in rows. Make it not in rows.”

It is this dramatic reversal of conventional but ineffective methodology that is the base of the teaching style. Normally, as Clancy explains, students work on a horizontal surface, sitting, so in order to flip such a style, students work on a vertical surface – such as a whiteboard – standing. Such a change is meant to counteract the fact that if one is sitting, they are halfway to sleeping. “The idea is that if you’re not thinking, you’re not learning.”

There is also an emphasis on openly randomized grouping rather than groups that perhaps are picked by teachers or students by ability, with the idea that students will be encouraged to work with classmates. The overall idea is to “wean students” from what Liljedahl refers to as “learned helplessness,” the notion of forcing students to think and problem solve rather than to simply be spoon-fed information; teachers should ultimately prepare students to work and communicate with others once in the workforce.

“When teachers go to workshops, we all get overwhelmed with information,” Clancy said. “And we want to try everything, but then we don’t end up trying anything, because there’s too much information.” However, the way that one can apply Liljedahl’s method easily and gradually, makes it easy to utilize. While she is still refining and figuring it out, Clancy’s goal is not necessarily to integrate all the pieces, but to instead foster thinking. “The goal is not so much as to master this method,” Clancy said. “The goal is, ‘is what I’m doing helping my students think?’ If I’m helping them think, then I’m successful.” While all 14 components cannot necessarily be applied to other subjects, this core philosophy can.

One of the most significant positive effects Clancy has observed is that “absolutely everyone is doing something.” Because wakefulness is naturally encouraged, all students are more engaged. She also finds it easier to catch mistakes and guide students to correct them, a result of the open, vertical working surface. However, perhaps most significant is the social aspect; because students are working with students they have never worked with before, social barriers are broken down, which benefits even students who may have succeeded without Liljedahl’s methodology. “[The social and communication part] kind of opens up your world just a little.” As for students skeptical of the difference, Clancy only suggests that they try it out. “Because I’m just giving it a try, I just ask them to give it a try. I mean, what do you have to lose?”

Similarly, as most students have experienced, Spanish teacher Rebecca Parish utilizes a method of language teaching known as “Organic World Language,” or “OWL,” in her classes. Created by teacher Darcy Rogers of Medford, Oregon, it attempts to combat students’ inability to retain information when taught a language in a traditional textbook setting, and to enable students to actually use the language once they are out of high school. The core concept is not only to acquire language, but also to facilitate strong community and make the learning experience more student-driven, the latter two of which can be applied to other subjects as well.

One element of the method is having shorter tasks, and more talking, interaction, and movement; also critical is the structure of such interaction, in a circle, and the fact that students are seated randomly. The content, too, and what students are asked to think about, is not based on set, scheduled information, but on what students come up with and what interests them. “The questions you ask play off what other people are talking about, often,” Parish said. “So it allows you to be more flexible in the content that you’re teaching.” The language-learning experience with OWL is immersive as well, meaning that students are expected and challenged to try to use only Spanish while in class. “The idea is that you acquire a language better when you are using it, and 100 percent in it,” Parish explained. “Going through the process of struggling with it and making mistakes, and then learning from it.” As students progress, the use of language is also proficiency-based, meaning that students are trained to use the language outside of the classroom, in a real world setting, not merely in a classroom environment; tasks asked of students, as they acquire the language, become more complicated and meaningful. “It doesn’t really mean anything unless we actually talk about things we care about talking about.”

The ultimate purpose of these changes for Parish is to alter the learning environment both academically and socially. “One goal is for it to not be boring. I don’t like it when education is boring. It should be interesting, or at least not boring.” The way students interact is meant to foster connections to create a stronger classroom community culture between everybody; this interaction also encourages wakefulness. Immersion, essentially, encourages continuous growth by forcing students to work through struggles. “Another purpose is to get students comfortable with the uncomfortable,” Parish said. “Because that’s how you continue learning.” Also, by making content more flexible and student-based, as Parish explains, the power dynamic is shifted between student and teacher.

Parish admits that even though her approach is not necessarily a “truly OWL classroom,” as she incorporates only certain elements, she has seen a positive impact in that students have been using their Spanish, and from the beginning of year have displayed an increase in confidence in being able to communicate almost anything. To students in the class who may be skeptical, she encourages them to voice their concerns. “For people who are in the class who are frustrated or skeptical or feel like they aren’t learning, talk to me so we can discover where those frustrations are coming from,” she said. “There are pluses and minuses to everything and everybody learns differently.” For skeptics entering the class, she suggests simply trusting that you will be able to use the language later, and will learn how to be uncomfortable. Perhaps, it is just the unpredictability: “Maybe it’s just that it’s not how you’re used to learning, because school is set up in a way that is very predictable. If that’s it, then just go with the process and experience something new.”