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Listening Objects & The Drop Out Problem

Unfortunately, too much of today's teaching is characterized by a stand-and-deliver approach to presenting content, in which teachers simply stand at the overhead or the front of the room and deliver the material to be learned. Paolo Freire (2000) describes students in this type of a scenario as "listening objects" (p. 71). Would you like to be a listening object? Think about it. Would it warm your heart to know that you daily pack your children's lunches and they eagerly race off to school where they sit and become someone's listening objects? Education built around the notion of listening objects or stand-and-deliver teaching is not effective for young minds, and it doesn't work for adults either. At any age, people need to pause and process what they're learning. They need to chew on concepts, jot down their thoughts, compare understandings with peers, articulate their questions, and as reading specialist Keely Potter puts it, "celebrate the learning that is happening right now in my head."

Every nine seconds, we lose a student due to dropping out (Lehr, Johnson, Bremer, Cosio, & Thompson, 2004). Although recent indicators point to progress within overall graduation rates, even the encouraging reports still indicate that at least a quarter of our students drop out (Aud et al., 2010; Balfanz, Bridgeland, Moore, & Hornig Fox, 2010). The picture is bleakest for African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans, whose dropout percentages are more than twice that of their white peers (Balfanz et al., 2010). Because much of our experience is with students in urban schools, we have a very real understanding that effective teaching can have a direct influence on a student's life choices.

For six years we both volunteered in California's Chino State Prisons (Bill in the men's, Pérsida in the women's). If you don't yet understand the effect that your teaching can have on students, consider volunteering in a prison. The experience will make you an instant believer in the power of your teaching. In prisons, illiteracy is rampant. Dropping out of high school is not the exception, it is the norm. In fact, three-quarters of state prison inmates are dropouts (Martin & Halperin, 2006). And academic self-confidence is close to nonexistent among prisoners. As soon as inmates discovered we were teachers, many would freely tell us about their academic inadequacies and failures. Many were quick to place the full extent of the blame on themselves. The reasons for dropping out vary depending on the students, but the number-one reason—cited by the dropouts themselves—is boredom (Bridgeland, DiIulio, & Morison, 2006). For most dropouts, becoming listening objects didn't work.

Why would we, as authors of a book dedicated to infusing your classrooms with fun, interactive, participatory, and cognitively engaging strategies, dwell on something as depressing as the dropout problem? We do so because we know that for some students, cognitively engaging experiences can literally mean the difference between life and death. In case you think we are exaggerating, think about how dropping out is connected to crime and incarceration. Moretti (2005) estimates, through his meta-analysis, that "a one-year increase in average years of schooling reduces murder and assault by almost 30%, motor vehicle theft by 20%, arson by 13%, and burglary and larceny by about 6%" (p. 6). Bridgeland, DiIulio, and Morison (2006) calculate that a dropout is more than eight times as likely to be in jail or prison as a person with at least a high school diploma (p. 2). The less education that inmates have, the more likely they are to return to prison (Harlow, 2003).

Whether you work in suburban or urban schools, teaching average performers, gifted high achievers and underachievers, children of immigrants, students with special needs, students who repeatedly experience school failure, or simply your average passive performer teetering between staying in and dropping out, your excellence in effective teaching could be the answer to parents' prayers and the vehicle by which they see their dreams for their son or daughter realized. One teacher can make such a difference.

Total Participation Techniques (TPTs) are teaching techniques that allow for all students to demonstrate, at the same time, active participation and cognitive engagement in the topic being studied. Our new book includes 37 simple TPTs that can mean the difference between cognitive engagement and tuning out for your students.

This post was originally published in ASCDEDge. To learn more, pick up a copy of our new book, Total Participation Techniques: Making every student an active learner, from ASCD. Check out the ASCD Webinar on Total Participation Techniques for examples of TPTs and ideas & photos showing how to adapt some of the TPTs for younger learners.

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