December 5, 2013

Self-starters and team players are vital components in the modern economy. Though the Iowa Core does not tell educators how they must teach, it does offer characteristics of effective instruction, or research-based recommendations, on how to create a learning environment that fosters both independent and group work.

Two of these key characteristics are that the classroom be student-centered and inquiry-based.

"I can see a shift in teachers going for more, instead of sage on stage, guide on the side," said Ted Garringer, elementary principal in the Kuemper Catholic School System. "Teachers are giving kids the opportunity to be in charge of their work."

In many classrooms those characteristics manifest themselves in teachers interacting more with small groups of students rather than lecturing the class for the entire period, educators explained.

"I'm no longer the English major up front, but a lot of time I'm in the trenches with them, coaching them," said Melissa Salgado, East Sac High School English teacher, of her efforts to make her class presentations more "authentic."

"It's 'if I was going to write this paper, I would ask these things first,' so my teaching strategies have changed completely," she said. "And, no, you can't go online and buy materials to support a book with a packet - that's not the type of work they do."

In fact, student inquiry often pushes them to extend beyond what the textbook tells them and into individual research, explained Sue Ruch, curriculum coordinator and elementary principal in the Carroll Community School District.

The students are responsible for asking questions, but the teachers doesn't just respond with an answer. Instead they prompt students to investigate further, helping them find and analyze resources to answer their own questions.

"They're facilitated by a teacher rather than the days of where the teacher stood in front and did all the talking and you did the working and you wrote the notes the teacher said because she was the giver of knowledge," explained Karen Sandberg, director of curriculum at Jefferson-Scranton. "Now it's about kids exploring, talking with each other, researching, reading, using all the skills that the core has built in to build a product."

In Lisa Wilkens' second-grade class at Jefferson-Scranton, her students worked on a science experiment dealing with pollination. The goal was to determine under what conditions seeds grow best.

"A student would say, 'I think I know the answer, is this what you do' and I would say, 'You think about it,'" Wilkens explained. "They want you to tell them the answer, but you have to say, 'Let's see what you think, why do you think that?'"

Her colleague Brenda Onken waits for her sixth-grade students to prompt the questions, then digs into various texts with them to search for an answer.

"It's more about them being in charge of their learning and taking responsibility," she said. "They're learning how to be learners," a skill that will lead to increased independence, self-reliance and self-sufficiency throughout life, Wilkens added.

Collaboration is also an increasingly significant part of the classroom environment, for both students and teachers alike.

On the teacher end, educators are trying to coordinate across math, science, social studies and language arts to address common topics at the same time so the subject matter in each class can complement its counterparts, increasing the relevancy for the students.

It is an easy task with literacy - informational texts must be read in all subjects. At Jefferson-Scranton, the teachers are attempting to coordinate all subjects in a World War II unit, explained Onken. In math the students can compare the sizes of tanks; in science they can study the chemistry behind the atom bomb; in social studies they can study the political leaders; in English they can read books from or about the era.

On the student end, it is important to teach them to appreciate and respect the different view each student has to offer.

"You don't have to marry them or like them, but you do have to work with them and be respectful because it's a life skill," said Abbie Julin, elementary teacher at East Sac. "You're not going to find a job where you like everybody, but you're going to have to work with them."

According to Ruch, advances in technology have also fostered increased collaboration. Where 10 years ago it was primarily used for "skill-and-drill" exercises, now there are platforms, such as Google Docs, that promote interaction.

The point is to understand that there is no single right answer, but a multitude of solutions, and each individual brings a different point of view that can help solve a problem.

"It's being able to recognize what strengths each person has, and that every role is valuable," said Julin.