When teaching high school students, it is necessary to remember the various aspects of adolescent psychology that decades of research have shown to be true. Issues of multiple kinds of development, from general cognitive development theories to more personal kinds of development, need to be accounted for, as well as individual and group differences. One also must consider different behavioral approaches to learning, as well as multiple approaches for motivating students.
When it comes to cognitive development, I look at Vygotsky’s Sociocultural Theory and the ideas of internalization, the zone of proximal development, and scaffolding. Vygotsky’s theory suggests that students continuously develop their cognitive skills, in contrast to Piaget’s stage theory. Thus, it is important to encourage all students to grow at all times – while they may be farther behind other students on the continuum, they can still advance at their own pace without needing to wait until they reach another stage. The first key idea Vygotsky uses is internalization, which is how students pick up on and learn things in the world around them, in the context where they are observed. The best way to implement this in the classroom is to consistently provide good examples around them so that the students can fully internalize the lesson and how to apply it.
When students grow to be adults and become part of the work force, they will very frequently be working as part of a group, where it will be important for them to understand how to work cooperatively and build on one another’s knowledge. It is consequently important for students to start developing the necessary skills for this during school. As Vygotsky’s idea of the zone of proximal development indicates, students can frequently make great strides with just a little bit of extra guidance – something that is particularly useful when people are working in groups, where one person can expound on another’s starting point. While it is certainly important for students to be able to understand and use ideas from class on their own, what they can do with a little extra information is just as significant for them in the long run. Thus, in order to encourage a wider area of growth, I intend to have students regularly practice skills in groups, as well as in various forms of guided practice. Where possible, I also want to be able to assess what students can do with that small piece of guidance as well as what they can do completely on their own.
A final important idea that I take from Vygotsky is that of scaffolding, which deals with quality assistance that gives support for a separate lesson. Scaffolding is closely intertwined – though certainly distinct from – the zone of proximal development, but a careful and appropriate use of group practice can encourage both. In particular, if a student is having trouble, it is important for me to accurately determine where the difficulty lies, because it may not be within the lesson itself, but instead be a product of a lack of supporting information or context for the lesson. Once I have correctly ascertained the difficulty, I can then provide the appropriate context that allows the student to then continue the learning process.
A second broad category that is important for all teachers deals with handling individual and group differences. Group differences are seen in such factors as socioeconomic status (SES), ethnicity, and gender. However, each category of group differences can be summarized in essentially the same manner: despite test scores that some might use to suggest that one group is smarter than another, the differences in such scores have other causes (such as parenting style, outside influences, level of encouragement or motivation, etc) and is not rooted in any difference in intelligence level. As a result, I believe it is important for all teachers to ensure fairness and equal treatment for all students in the class, something which goes beyond just how students are treated directly but also includes such things as making sure names used in questions do not favor one group over another.
Individual differences can come in many forms, but are most easily seen in intelligence differences, such as the contrast between advanced (gifted) students and those who have disabilities or otherwise struggle to keep up with other students. While some of the differentiation techniques are frequently handled on the school level, with tracking and having advanced and regular courses, even within a single course individual students will still be working on different levels. Thus, I believe all teachers should be prepared to accommodate such differences through use of such techniques as tiered assignments, extra challenges, or additional assistance in order to create the best possible learning environment for every student, not merely the middle portion of the class.
When it comes to classroom management, however, teachers must consider two different behavioral approaches to learning: the use of classical conditioning and the use of operant conditioning. Both clearly have validity, as research has shown, but I believe operant conditioning is better suited for use in the classroom. However, I also believe that teachers must be extremely careful with the use of any kind of conditioning, because if it becomes too obvious that the teacher is trying to condition the students to respond a particular way, some students will refuse to go along because they see it as a form of manipulation. In addition to being subtle with the use of conditioning, I think it is also important to focus on one particular aspect of the operant conditioning techniques: that of reinforcement. While punishment can also be effective, it also runs the risk of accidentally becoming reinforcement depending on the student’s goals. For example, if a student just wants attention, then punishing him or her likely merely creates extra attention, thus reinforcing the original behavior. Thus I believe it is more important to focus on reinforcing positive behaviors than punishing poor behaviors.
The one final category that I feel is important is motivation. For some time, society has been very focused on the use of extrinsic motivation; however, studies have shown that for tasks that involve higher level thinking, extrinsic motivation not only fails to help, but can even actively harm performance. As a result, I believe it is critical for teachers to foster students’ intrinsic motivations if the students are going to reach their potential. This can be accomplished through a variety of techniques, such as personal encouragement that raises a student’s self-efficacy. In that sense, self-efficacy – not to be confused with self-esteem – can be closely tied to intrinsic motivation: students with higher self-efficacy are more likely to become intrinsically motivated. Also, giving students flexibility and room to be creative allows them the chance to dig deeper into topics that interest them personally, fueling their intrinsic motivation.
In conclusion, I think there are four major areas that teachers – especially new teachers – need to be aware of and use in the classroom: ideas of cognitive development, individual and group differences, methods of conditioning, and motivation. This certainly is not to say that there are not other important areas or that other techniques are lacking in validity, but rather that I believe these are the biggest and most important areas that need to be addressed.