Unique teaching styles help students thrive in the classroom

While the typical teaching method may be an effcient way to teach students with a short-term goal in mind, like an upcoming test, it does not help students remember the content for long-term applications.

Sofia Bae, Staff Writer

What differentiates good teachers from great ones? A complete understanding of the subject they teach? An ability to return tests and papers quickly? A willingness to sit down with individual students to go over things not understood in class? While all these things may constitute a good teacher, they do not always make a great teacher. Great teachers not only possess all of these traits but also something more: a unique and effective teaching style that rises above the norm, enabling students to learn and understand the material efficiently and thoroughly.

When thinking of great teachers, Socrates often comes to mind. A Grecian philosopher whose teachings challenged ancient Athenian values and norms, he enlightened his fellow countrymen with his distinctive, dialectic style: the Socratic Method. Socrates would engage both elites and common men alike, having one of them defend his point of view. Eventually, one participant would lead another to contradict himself, and that perspective was scrapped, and a new one devised. This process would repeat itself until the group had thought through the problem and reached a logical conclusion. This approach allowed its participants to think critically and come up with new ideas.

Here at Princeton Day School, all students are exposed to wonderful teachers who genuinely care for their well being and growth, both academically and personally. While personalized, they usually follow a common theme: show students the material, explain it, and expect them to learn or memorize it, for the upcoming test. Typical tests usually consist of multiple choice questions, short answers, or the reapplication of lessons learned onto questions similar to those reviewed in class. However, that structure is not always the best for certain subjects, as history teacher Bill Stoltzfus found regarding his Bible, Ancient Greek Thought, and Western Ethics courses.

“I began life here as a middle school teacher,” he said, “and I’ve been preoccupied with the problem of assessment most all the way through. Traditional grading, particularly when I moved into religion and philosophy, just didn’t ft well, so I’ve attempted to create a system which gives more ownership for performance to the student, and—as much as I can—and so I hit upon productivity.”

As Mr. Stoltzfus explained, “there are three basic forms of assessment. One is journal responses to the reading. That’s the most informal, and you have the most control. You must select a passage, quote it, and then write three paragraphs. I have more formal assessments, midterm and end-term essays, where I provide you with questions, and you prepare them—and it’s open book, open notes. Then there’s the whole sort of, individual/team, problem-solving activity of jeopardy, which involves seeing the same kind of material that you use in these other circumstances.”

Mr. Stoltzfus employs jeopardy as a distinct means of assessing his students. He uses two different kinds: individual jeopardy and team jeopardy. In individual jeopardy, students are given a sheet of paper with the answers to the jeopardy already flled in, with categories listed in the top row and the points each question is worth, 10 points to 20, 30, 40, 50, and 75, in the frst column. On a second sheet of paper, with the same categories and increasing point order, students are expected to create the corresponding questions to the answers they have selected from the frst sheet. They must come up with two questions per column, and create one question for the 10 and 75 point rows and three questions in the other four point rows. In team jeopardy, more similar to game show Jeopardy!, students are broken into small groups, and the empty jeopardy board is projected so everyone can see it. Teams choose a category, and together must supply the correct answer. If they cannot, then other teams have the opportunity to answer it themselves, and whoever answers correctly gets the credit. The beauty of the jeopardy method overall, however, is, as Mr. Stoltzfus remarked, “in some ways, it’s more freeing for a student, since if you’re going to respond with a question that hadn’t occurred to me, but is the logical equivalent, you should get credit for that—even though it wasn’t necessarily what I was thinking. Furthermore, jeopardy, both in individual and team, gives you a degree of choice. You don’t have to respond to everything. You choose what you do choose to respond to. I like the fact that you have, then, more autonomy in that respect.”

It is not just the more abstract subjects that allow a teacher more flexibility in their teaching method. In Upper School math teacher Chip Cash’s Geometry, Accelerated Precalculus, and AB Advanced Placement Calculus courses, he uses an unconventional teaching style to help drive home what he believes to be the most important thing to take from his classes: a thorough understanding of the material. While the typical teaching method may be an effcient way to teach students with a short-term goal in mind, like an upcoming test, it does not help students remember the content for longterm applications. Mr. Cash tries to combat this by having students, on their own, use previous knowledge to come to the correct results. The students are not completely on their own, though. Mr. Cash explained that he tries to guide them through activities and investigations to understand the ideas. “My geometry class that does this most often, where, instead of simply telling them there’s 180 degrees in the sum of the interior angles [of a triangle], I would have them do some investigative work to determine what that result was,” he said.

Mr. Cash perfectly sumed up the goals of every PDS teacher, the good and great alike, for each lesson they teach: “I’m trying to put you in a position where you can best learn what it is I need you to learn, in a way that you will retain and apply, and eventually transfer, into new situations later.”