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Avoiding the Production Line: Time to Individualize Learning

Sarah Shields

“Does that make sense?” my middle school math teacher asked the class, not even really wanting an answer after finishing a lesson. I scrambled to finish writing the notes from the board into my notebook before he took the eraser and ruined my hopes of ever catching up. Usual. “Don’t worry, you can use mine,” my friend whispered to me just before the bell rang.

All my life I have struggled in math. I hated math and math hated me. It was borrowing notes, low homework grades, and late nights studying for tests I knew I would never pass. Every semester when report cards would come home, my math grade would always be significantly lower than all of my other classes. My sister would scold me for doing so poorly in classes she’d already taken that had come easily to her.

In eighth grade I had a teacher who changed everything. Suddenly, tests weren’t an ego killer and for once I actually felt like I knew what I was doing. He had a way of tailoring his teaching style to help each particular student when they needed a bit more explanation, demonstration, or even just a quick recap on the material. Since everyone has a different way of learning, students should be able to request teachers with a specific teaching style in order to ensure their academic success.

All too often in schools students are given low grades and looked down upon by their cohorts for scoring badly on assessments. However, if it is the responsibility of the school to give students the opportunity to succeed and have an understanding of the material, then why is a student who cares about academics and is trying to do well still getting low grades? 

Everyone learns in different ways and obviously not everyone learns at the same pace, so why should the student who doesn’t understanding every concept immediately or as quickly as the rest of the class be penalized? It would be one thing if that student didn’t know the material because they were goofing off or not paying attention, but if it’s a conscientious student who genuinely wants to be in the classroom then how can schools let them slip through the cracks?

I asked some people in Portland this summer what worked best for them in high school and why they liked certain teachers better than others. Most of their answers had something to do with having access to discussion based learning or having a teacher who could relate to their students on a more personal level instead of just strictly teaching.

Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences suggests, “students possess different kinds of minds and therefore learn, remember, perform, and understand in different ways” and some teaching styles help some students better than others.

I typically lean more toward a collaborative or discussion based class. Most lecture classes, such as my middle school math class, teach for the group and are not necessarily focused on the individual student. It feels more like a production line than a classroom. It was for this reason that the people I talked to in Portland mentioned how class size could have an impact on individual based learning. The thought process seemed to be the smaller the class size the more likely it would be for the students to really get to know their teachers and their classmates. Therefore the students would be more likely to receive help not only from their teacher but also from their peers and begin to open doors for collaborative learning. 

Ultimately it would be awesome to see each student in a classroom with a teacher who supports their learning style, but of course then comes the question:  How do we do that? What if students could request a teaching style? When signing up for classes we could have students choose which style works best for them and then distribute classes using the knowledge of compatible teaching and learning styles. 

Obviously there could be some obstacles. For instance, if there is only one teacher for one class. But even by just having kids request a specific teaching style in at least one content area, it would still be better than not at all. This way the teacher would have an idea of what the majority of the students would prefer in order to give the most students a better learning experience. 

Since I had a teacher with such a versatile teaching style in eighth grade, by the time I got to high school I had the confidence to speak up in class more often. Throughout the last few years I have continued to grow as a math student. Now math is one of my highest grades and it’s one of my favorite subjects. Whether it’s lecture-based, discussion-based, or hands-on learning, all students should have access to whichever teaching style they need in order to be successful.

Sarah Shields is a senior at Gorham High School. She produced this piece as part of the 2017 Raise Your Voice Workshop in Portland sponsored by Maine Public and the Maine Writing Project.

Outmoded Waltz by Podington Bear is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License.