Growth mindset for grit vs. empowerment

5 Sep

I enjoyed reading Alfie Kohn’s critique about Dweck’s mindset because it made me think about how we empower students to engage in their own learning process.  The article addresses points that are extremely important while using the mindset in the classroom, especially the pedagogical choices about focusing on traits like grit or supporting the individual learning process of each student. Mindset itself is important, but the way we discuss the growth mindset with students is even more important.

Personally I find it controversial to focus too much on learning styles or personality traits like grit (other labels are extroversion, openness, impulsivity, etc, google MyersBrigg or Big 5 for additional information).  This is because the contemporary learning theories highlight the subjectivity of learning, and the expected teaching dispositions are very clear about the need for all teachers to display the belief  that every student can learn (regardless the personality traits students have). Furthermore, I prefer to focus on supporting my students’ individual learning processes, because this helps them to become independent learners. Every student, child or adult, has their unique set of skills and needs, and perception of their own strengths and areas of growth. Discussing the growth mindset in the classroom may help some students to adopt better learning dispositions and engage more deeply in their own learning process.

It seems that mindset is a refined and renewed version of attribution theory and deals with students’ self-efficacy beliefs and locus of control.  We all have had those students and parents with the firm belief how “nobody in our family has ever been good in math” or “everyone in the family struggles with reading”. When children hear these messages stated over and over again in casual discussions, they often start to believe that they couldn’t possibly learn math, or be fluent readers, because those attributions don’t belong into their family. These beliefs easily create self-fulfilling prophecies that can seriously harm students’ learning.  Growth mindset can be an excellent tool to diminish these negative causal attributions and help students create a realistic (academic) self-concept. But, I don’t believe this can be achieved with something as simple and effortless as praise.

Praise is normative by its nature. Praise implies that the student met an invisible norm, known or set by the subject matter experts (teachers, educators, parents, etc). Thus praise is always about evaluation, because it is an external judgement about what the student did or what the student is (doing referring to the growth mindset and being referring to the fixed mindset). In education we need to increase the use of assessments and self-assessments with clear criteria about expected outcomes of assignments, so that students know what they are supposed to achieve and don’t have to rely on hit-and-miss strategies. Evaluations are very much overused, which is problematic because they emphasize the control over students and their performance, instead of providing learning support or feedback about the learning process.

The very first decision for every teacher to make before introducing the mindset to her/his students, is whether the mindset is used in the classroom to promote grit or to empower students to learn more.

Using mindset to promote grit in the classroom is fairly straightforward: create standards and labels for appropriate behaviour (maybe checklists), and we are good to go and evaluate students’ behaviours, actions and displays of true grit for demonstrating their growth mindset.  It is easy to quantify how many work sheets students have filled, or how many minutes they have engaged in the activities – and then praise the persistence in task (whether the task is meaningful for students is irrelevant in this environment).

I can understand why effort-praising, grit-building growth-mindset practices are appealing: they appear to be a quick fix for the most important problem in education – student disengagement. I am sure we could build a robot to offer praise every time when a student displays gritty behavior! But doesn’t this kind of praise seriously underestimate our students as vibrantly intelligent, creative and curious human beings? While persistence is important in successfully completing tasks or projects, it certainly cannot be the most important ingredient in educating students to become productive citizens of 21st century!

Grit vs empowerment

In the classroom reality the difference between the environments is obviously much less black and white, and features from both sides (grit and empowerment) are used in most learning environments I have seen. Balance is what matters. Taking behaviour at face value, and believing that it truly communicates what students are thinking is a big mistake. Students are not as experienced in communication and interaction as we teachers are, they are still trying to figure it out. (Here is a nice iceberg image about behaviour to remind us about the reality!)

Focusing on empowerment in mindset discussions is harder and more time consuming for educators, because empowerment requires a dialogue between students and the teacher. It is about engaging in authentic interaction where both parties are heard. In this environment assessment becomes an opportunity for feedback and growth. I am currently working on my dissertation about learner agency in formal education, and these very same themes of empowerment are important for educating students who are “self-organizing, proactive, self-reflecting, and self-regulating, not just reactive organisms shaped and shepherded by external events”  (Bandura, 1999, p. 156).  To thrive in the with the constant information overflow in the world today, this active choosing (instead of reacting) is exactly what our students need to learn.

We as teachers need to make informed choices about our pedagogical and instructional practices. Is it more valuable for students to remember that finishing all tasks gets them rewarded (with praise or grades), or to know that they can have an effect on their own learning process? This is a value level choice about the classroom practices we communicate to students with expectations and grading policies. So, when introducing the mindset in your classroom, please do think about the long-term goals. What do you really wish for students to gain from the mindset discussion?

Update on 9/29/2015:

Carol Dweck revisited mindset stating that she may have “emphasized sheer effort too much”. Wonderful!
Maybe this mislead educators to think that promoting grit is beneficial, and so it became this widely accepted misconception about contemporary learning!

Bndura, A. (1999). Social cognitive theory of personality. Handbook of personality: Theory and research, 154-196.

Informal learning improves the learning process

30 Jun

We, who work in formal education systems – teachers, faculty, administrators, and so on –  tend to have an overly serious view of learning. Sometimes we seem to think that formal learning experiences are the only real learning experiences, and that learning only happens when there is a teacher to document it.

I looked into my old posts and realized that I blogged about that last year, too. This is a really scary thought:

If learn

Formal learning – the learning that happens in educational systems – is learning that is measured with standards and learning objectives to be met.  For formal learning it is really important what students learn, and that students in some form reproduce the material provided for them. For informal learning to happen it is more important that students know how to learn – so that they can learn from any kind of interactions, where ever they happen to be.

We all have had natural born learners in our classrooms. These are students who seem to be learning easily, who have a good knowledge base for their age, and who may have opposite views and often they are not shy to express their opinions, either.  I think these are students who find it easy to combine information gained from different sources. They find common themes and happily put together things they learn from school, movies, comics, games, virtually anywhere, and then use it in different contexts.  This is what informal learning is about: producing knowledge, understanding and meaning!

Informal learning is an ongoing process, and in the contemporary world we must reform the educational thinking to meet the requirements of this century, and to prepare our students for living in the knowledge society, where they will have to choose between different sources and types of information.  This is also a change from teacher-centered to student-centered education.

The biggest difference is that in the past the teacher or the professor was the source of information – the true expert who had the official truth about the topic – while today the information is freely available for everyone who has access to the internet. But, there is also lots of misinformation out there, and figuring out what information is real and useful is often the biggest problem for students, who don’t have the same knowledge structure we educators do.

What has changed since the early days of public education is the way we view knowledge.  What used to be objective, unchanging,  and transferable is now subjective, context dependent and individually constructed.  The way we perceive knowledge changes everything in formal education. What we really need to improve education worldwide is more open source information. Wikipedia is a great first step in searching information, and students shouldn’t be discouraged to use it. Nor should we discredit the sources our students use, but ask them to show the merit of the author or proof of the claim.

Combining informal learning with the formal learning that happens in the classrooms improves the quality of education because blind obedience stifles imagination. Learning as a process can be seen as interactions between the student, content and environment. In formal settings teachers and faculty should provide guidance and introduce the main concepts and principles of the content, but leave opportunities for students to fill in some of the details.

Designing the instruction  in the way that allows informal learning to blend with formal learning helps students to learn how to learn, which increases meaningfulness and sparks curiosity – and these two important parts of engagement well met will also help students to take a deep leaning approach, which leads to life-long learning. This is what our students need to thrive in their future!

The true blended learning approach is not about technology and getting educators all excited about software and hardware, it is about blending formal and informal learning and upgrading the mindware.

Teaching and learning dispositions

28 May

What is your teaching disposition?

Providing a short answer to this question has always been a struggle for me, because so much falls under the concept of teaching disposition: values, beliefs about teaching and learning, interaction styles,  even worldview. So, where to start?

Those who have been following my blog already know that I am very passionately supporting student-centered learning and teaching, so obviously my teaching disposition focuses more on  supporting  students’ individual learning processes than anything else.  Pedagogical skill is very high on my priority list.

Believing that everyone can learn is one of the fundamental dispositions in contemporary education. This belief doesn’t always seem to fit perfectly with standardized testing, or labeling schools (and sometimes even students) as “failing”, based on a quantitative snapshot evaluation that tells very little if anything about the learning process (i.e. the learning quality).

Being convinced that knowledge is much more than a fixed bunch of  facts (information) brings another dimension to the dispositions because it defines the extent of our teaching. We must prepare students for the world that is a complex mixture of cultures and diverse beliefs, and while memorizing disconnected pieces of information may be a nice trick in trivia game, students also need to understand the contexts and connections of that information. Where did it come from, and is it trustworthy?  And an especially important question is: how can we use it productively?

Unfortunately the discussions about the nature of knowledge are seldom highlighted in professional meetings, but it should be. Misusing information is easy because it is shallow and has no situationality or contextuality – these are qualities of knowledge, where an individual has constructed an understanding of how given information fits into her/his worldview, beliefs and values. The use of labels falls into the category of misusing information, and it often leads into otheringwhich is how we define “us” and “others”.

It is easy to sort people, categorize them and label their qualities. But, when we use labels and define the problem in education for example as underachieving students, it locates the solutions to fixing the students. Not education, nor instruction, but students. How scary!  This is how something we know from research and experience to be beneficial for students, their learning and their future (e.g. bilingualism) suddenly becomes a problem (e.g. ELL, underachieving).  Of course these diverse students score lower in the standardized tests.  But their individual learning processes may be incredible.

In order to effectively communicate to students about the  importance of individual learning process, two additional parts of teaching dispositions must fall into place: keeping my bias in check, and differentiating for students’ needs – not for the labels we too often attach to students (you know: ELL,  poverty, learning disabilities, behavioral needs etc etc).   When we keep on othering, we point our fingers to students, label them, and provide remedial education — without checking our bias (is the problem really the student, or maybe the environment, instruction or context?) and without differentiating for students’ individual needs.  This deficit thinking also seems to be the origin for the grit discussions. Have you noticed that nobody is asking for successful students to show more grit? It may be because they don’t need to persist, because they have gained the sufficient knowledge with informal learning, and are getting bored out of their minds in the classroom. But these seemingly successful students would really need to learn how to learn effectively something new, because nobody can be excellent in everything.

Recent research also recognizes the importance of teachers’ interaction styles and skills as mediators for learning, and suggest that setting limits is more beneficial for students’ learning than guilt-inducing appealing to students emotions[1]. This makes perfect sense from the viewpoint of dispositions: respecting the diverse needs and skills of learners also leads to offering every student an individual amount of freedom and choice and providing the information in student-sized chunks.

So this is probably the shortest description of my teaching dispositions:  focused on supporting students’ individual learning process I strongly believe everyone can learn, I do also understand the importance of connected knowledge, and I try to check my own bias regularly to avoid engaging in othering and keep on striving to differentiate for my students’ individual needs.

Oh… and our teaching dispositions are of course very close to our learning dispositions, but even more up close and personal. Learning dispositions regulate our learning efforts, our interests and motivation. The origin of learning dispositions is complicated, but they are partially born from our everyday learning experiences.

What kind of learning dispositions you think your students are creating? What is important and valued in your classroom?




1. Viljaranta, J., Aunola, K., Mullola, S., Virkkala, J., Hirvonen, R., Pakarinen, E., & Nurmi, J.-E. (in press). The role of temperament on children’s skill development: teachers’ interaction styles as mediators. Child Development.



Instruction that supports learning process

30 Apr

Education is about looking both into the past and into the future, which is why it also has two opposite purposes: to ensure cultural progression and to prepare students for their unknown future.

Cultural progression is necessary for societies to have members who will know about the past (history) and the traditions (culture), but emphasizing the traditional ways of doing things may cause difficulties for students to learn for the future. Yet, not knowing the history could cause us to repeat the mistakes of the past generations. For anyone engaging in instruction this is just one of the many dichotomies of the teaching-learning situation. Finding balance is important because both past and future are necessary in understanding the process.

Modern educational theory and practice are built on the premise of education being the process for students to “develop their rational faculties so that they become capable of independent judgement”(1). This requires for students to engage in three-dimensional learning process and grow their skills, knowledge and understanding.

It is important for every teacher to know the values and ideas behind the instructional practice they use in helping students to learn. I tend to move towards the humanist worldview of learning and teaching, where knowledge is seen subjectively constructed.  I have hard time believing in knowledge being measurable, objective or free of values. Data can be that, and some information may be objective, but those only become knowledge when they have been processed through our own experiences and understanding, i.e. personally constructed during the learning process.


Humanist vs Mechanist

Also, learning can be so much more than just a change in one’s behaviour,  as it is seen in the mechanist worldview! To fully support the learning process, and to improve students’ academic performance, it is important to combine all three teaching paradigms in the humanist worldview.

The way I do it combines the cognitive and constructive practices in a cooperative learning environment. Cognitive practice includes helping students to learn about learning, but also becoming more knowledgeable of their own worldview, thinking and metacognitive skills.  Constructive learning and teaching  focus on collaborative meaning-making, gaining skills and understanding concepts. Cooperative teaching and learning build the emotionally safe learning environment, where interactions are held in high value, students can ask questions and engage in non-punitive assessments that support the learning process.

3C triangle

Instruction that supports the learning process helps students to become skillful and nimble life-long learners. Skillful learners understand the past and are able to reflect on their own learning, but they are also able to adjust their knowledge to meet the requirements of the future.



[1] Biesta, G., & Tedder, M. (2006). How is agency possible? Towards an ecological understanding of agency-as-achievement. University of Exeter School of Education and Lifelong Learning, Working Paper, 5.

Would you try competency-based education in your class?

14 Mar

Competency based education has several strengths over traditional seat-based education.  It supports students’ accountability of their own learning and allows students to advance in their own pace after meeting the explicit and transferable learning objectives, demonstrated by the assessment criterion (usually rubrics).

Time is the first element of individualization of learning — or at least it should be. We all have our own ways of processing the information that is thrown at us in formal education. It is foolishness to imagine that all students would take exactly the same time to process things to be learned.

This is exactly why I LOVE competency based education: when you are done learning one concept/topic, you can move on. Well defined learning objectives break down the skill/knowledge acquisition for students, and as a teacher (learning facilitator) I am there to ensure that nobody has to struggle too much, and that everybody has something meaningful to do, while engaging in her/his own learning process. This is how I have successfully taught on all school levels (and now work in a competency based university), and it is also the way I build my asynchronous PD courses.

The Working Definition of Personalized Learning is very good:

Personalized learning is tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs and interests — including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when and where they learn — to provide flexibility and support to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible.[1]

It also discusses the learner-centered principles, which should be given in 2015 while designing curricula and instruction — but, alas, it is not. To refresh what learner-centered[2] principles are about:

The Principles apply to all learners, in and outside of school, young and old.  Learner-centered is also related to the beliefs, characteristics, dispositions, and practices of teachers – practices primarily created by the teacher.When teachers and their practices function from an understanding of the knowledge base delineated in the Principles, they:

(a) include learners in decisions about how and what they learn and how that learning is assessed

(b) value each learner’s unique perspectives

(c) respect and accommodate individual differences in learners’ backgrounds, interests, abilities, and experiences, and

(d) treat learners as co-creators and partners in the teaching and learning process.

Changing the focus from universal delivery of information (i.e. traditional teacher-centered educational model) to learner-centered or personalized learning approach (i.e. learning facilitation) is the first step.  Then, changing assessment and grading to reflect students’ learning process and engaging in non-punitive assessment model is the second step.

Here is a nice table about the elements for student-centered and competency-based education. While the table discusses children’s learning, I would like to remind all readers that adults’ learning is not much different, and the same elements are very applicable in all levels of education (and training). The table and the whole document can be found here.

12 elements for designing learning
I have been engaging in competency based learning for nearly 20 years now, and in all levels of education. The main gain is that it shifts the focus from doing busywork to being engaged in one’s own learning process. What more could an educator wish for? :)

The table above has a good alignment with Choosing How to Teach:

Learning Star3

The most Effective Learning occurs in the middle of the picture, where you can see the star.  If we are missing even one piece, the star –or learning – is not complete. Students’ achievement depends on their engagement and interactions with the learning environment and the materials. Competency-based education provides tools for achieving this.



Would you be willing to give competency-based education a try and change something in your current practice?




1 Patrick, S., Kennedy, K., & Powell, A. (2013). Mean what you say: Defining and integrating personalized, blended and competency education. Report, October.

[2] Learner-Centered Principles Work Group of the American Psychological Association’s Board of Educational Affairs, BEA. (1997, November). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Student-centered assessment

18 Jan

Good quality assessment is an important tool for every educator.  At simplest it is just informally checking how students are progressing in their learning, which can provide a nice snapshot of an individual student or the whole class. Arranging these snapshots chronologically creates a display of individual learning process. These portfolios, learning journals, or other displays are very useful in learning environments where students are not formally evaluated, but they can also be used very effectively in all educational systems.

Formal education is often built on learning objectives and learning outcomes and thus assessing students’ performance is seen to be necessary.  Students’ progress in formal education is tied to a curriculum and students are evaluated to see if they meet the standards of the educational system. But, to support students’ individual and self-regulated learning process we also need to have strong formative assessment practices. Formative assessment of learning is then used to inform future instruction in the class, and thus also may become assessment for learning.

Classroom assessment has several requirements, though, to be beneficial for students and their learning process.  The very first and the most important requirement is that all assessments are non-punitive, so that they don’t create a threat for students to engage in their learning.  It is detrimental to use assessments that direct students to use shallow or strategic learning approaches!

An assessment cannot be a one-shot-only situation, because that emphasizes the view of learning as a product, not a process. Criterion based (or standards based) assessment where students get try again until they reach the standard is a good option. It is important to remember that while trying to measure students’ knowledge/skill in the content, the assessment shouldn’t be focused on students’ work habits or organization skills. Including learning about executive function to lessons is a good way to improve study skills.

The second requirement is that students must be included in decisions about how and what they learn and how that learning is assessed (as per APA learner-centered psychological principles). This doesn’t mean  letting students to do whatever they want, but opening the discussion with students about their learning process, allowing students to choose their learning/study strategies, and providing choices for both assessments and assignments.

The third requirement is for the assessment to improve the learning process, and build students’ self-efficacy beliefs while treating learners as co-creators and partners in their learning process (APA). Assessment contributes to students’ growing meta-cognitive skills, by providing feedback about both the learning and studying strategies and practices (not just the product, i.e. worksheet, paper, project, poster etc) in order to support students growth.  There is a big difference in evaluating the study strategies and providing feedback about them.

To be effective assessment must also inform the teacher about next steps in instruction and help the teacher to accommodate individual differences in learners’ backgrounds, interests, abilities, and experiences (APA). This also presents the requirement for providing choices in the classroom.

It is a good practice to include students’ self-assessments into the formative assessment system in the classroom, because it improves students understanding of their own skills and learning when they see how well the self-assessment and formative assessments meet. And, a major discrepancy between self- assessment and formative assessment is an excellent conversation starter between the teacher and the student — in both situations when the student over- or underestimates her/his skills and knowledge – and in which case it easily becomes both an assessment of learning and an assessment for learning.

And please, let’s not get confused between (formative) assessments and (summative) evaluations! One question about Finnish education that I often get to answer is about the absence of standardized testing in K-12 in Finland.  While this is absolutely true, and students don’t have to be prepped for tests for several weeks, the reality is that all teachers engage in ongoing formative assessment, in order to know how their students are learning.



APA Work Group of the Board of Educational Affairs (1997, November). Learner-centered psychological principles: A framework for school reform and redesign. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

How to engage students in their own learning process

3 Jan

The fundamental idea of student engagement in education us, being the focus of hundred papers and even more on the blog posts. We know that students’ engagement leads to better educational outcomes, and how students engage better in their learning if they find the information interesting and the learning meaningful. But, sometimes building instruction that meets the interests of a classroom full of students seems impossible.

One main problem is that “students are typically presented as the customers of engagement, rather than coauthors of their learning”.[1] It is really, really hard to be intrinsically interested and very engaged with things you cannot control, or in activities that are mandated by someone else. To be engaged in the learning process students must be given ownership for their learning. This ownership grows from personal and situational choices within the learning experience.

In formal education, whether K-12 or Higher Ed, students’ behavior is too often emphasized over the affective and cognitive parts of their engagement. I understand how much easier it is to measure the visible behaviour, but am worried it leads to a shallow view of learning – which is so much more than just a change in one’s behaviour.  Emphasizing behavior easily leads to the approach where learning is seen as successful completion of various learning products (essays, projects, worksheets etc.).

Learning is a complex experience, and we all engage in different kind of learning experiences in our everyday lives. These experiences have an effect on formal learning, the learning that happens in the classroom, and we shouldn’t ignore the importance of informal learning experiences. Already preschoolers arrive to school with preconceptions and filters that strongly affect their learning experiences. These different perceptions about learning also explain why engagement is so different for each individual student, and why some students choose to engage deeply, and others just on the surface level.

The picture below shows how learning engagement and learning approaches develop in the context of formal education.  This picture is modified from  Ramsden model of student learning in context (2003, p.83)[2].

Learning approaches filtered

The easiest way to increase student engagement in any given level of education is to provide students with choices for their learning activities: how to obtain necessary information, and for task/assignments and formative assessments. This also creates a student-centered learning environment:

  • Information can be obtained from reading, or listening a lecture, watching a webinar or demonstration etc. The information sharing (or direct instruction) is also the part where students’ preferences for getting information are seen to have an impact on their learning and engagement.
  • Students are more engaged in their assignments when they get to choose from a selection. It is also harder for a student to explain why s/he did not finish the homework s/he got to choose. But the choices must be real, not just the topic of your essay. The best practice is to have students justify their choice for an assignment or assessment, because this reveals the filters students use to choose their approach in learning and engagement.
  • Formative assessment (especially in the form of timely and individualized feedback) seems to be an under-utilized practice in education, both in K-12 and in higher education. During the last year I have gone through classes in my studies where the feedback was virtually non-existent and summative assessment was provided after the class was over. How did that support my learning as a scholar-practitioner?

In order to provide a balanced learning experience and increase students’ ownership in their learning process students should also be provided with ample opportunities for self-assessment and self-evaluation.  These cannot be tied into the grade, because the purpose is to engage students in a dialogue about their learning process and their goals, but the self-assessments provide excellent talking points for the teacher and the student, especially if the student either over-or underperforms in the assessment when compared to their self-assessment.

I hope these ideas help teachers to advocate for students to be seen as co-authors of their own education. I am not promoting fully student-directed models of education, because I believe in core curricula, but I am trying to emphasize the fact that students’ learning outcomes –in any given educational model – are greatly improved when students are seen as active participants in guiding their own learning process.

[1]Trowler, V. (2010). Student engagement literature review. York: Higher Education Academy.

[2] Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education (2nd ed.). London: Routledge Falmer

Why leadership is so important in education

23 Sep

We often talk about the importance of leadership in education, but what does it actually mean?

My favourite definition of leadership is this:

Leadership is about leading others towards an imaginary future.

It is not easy, because we don’t actually know what is there.  But, by having sufficient knowledge and data, we can make educated guesses about it. Effective leadership in education is about engaging the whole team to improve educational outcomes – yes, this means including students into the improvement process, and engaging them in their own learning (not just schooling: see the previous blogpost).

The other hard, but oh so important step in leadership is to move the focus and action from what is urgent to what is important. In classroom this means teaching and learning for life, not for test (this also can be seen as engaging in deep learning).

For teachers and instructors the job description has (at least) three parts: leadership, management and coaching. A major part of my daily work is about my attempts to provide leadership and  empower my students to step up on the plate and be in charge of their own learning and meaning-making. The managerial aspect of being a teacher (grading, disciplining, being the gatekeeper) is not as appealing to me, and in my current position I am very happy that the assessment department does the grading, and I can just coach and support my students to understand what their tasks entail.

It is always important for students to interact with the content to get all the information provided about the topic of the lesson or unit, but an equally important thing is to engage in thinking, because otherwise the readings/lectures/videos only remain as information, they do not become knowledge. I really like the definition of information only becoming knowledge after it has been processed through our minds, because the individual interpretation of any given fact is what makes effective learning to happen.

Leadership is very much needed in everyday classroom situations to empower students to learn what they need to learn, not what others in the classroom need to learn. One size doesn’t fit all and blanket statements are quite useless when the focus is in learning instead of teaching. This personalization, of course, is also the premise of differentiated instruction, but it actually takes the student even further on the road towards self-directed and self-regulated learning. Knowing what I know and what I need to learn is the foundation of engagement in independent learning.

Leading each student forward on their path of individual learning process is what makes teaching so hard: all students have individual needs and should have personal goals in their learning, but setting and updating those goals would take a lot of teachers’ time. This is why it is so important to engage students in setting their own learning goals (within the classroom/curricular goals – or even beyond them, if the student is very advanced). The standards are an excellent tool for providing the descriptions of what good learning or good skill looks like. The next step on the path towards independent learning is providing opportunities for students to engage in self-assessment to “calibrate” their thinking about their own learning/skills to meet the view of curriculum designers.  Imagine how effective learning is in classrooms like this – and how students are learning for life, not just for the next test! And imagine the ownership of learning students have! This is where the appropriate leadership takes education in the classroom.

Equally important is to have the appropriate balance of leadership and management in school administration and school districts. Grant Wiggins wrote a wonderful post about the difference of leadership and management in regards of curriculum leadership:

Wanted: real curriculum leaders, not just managers

The questions of purpose, audience, the level of detail, feedback, etc. asked from curriculum writers are equally valid in the classroom practice, even if in a different scale.  Effective teaching, or instruction, is about providing learning facilitation and leadership for students, so that they can feel empowered to engage in learning and meaning-making and have solid ownership for their learning.

Collaborative meaning making is the best tool for engaging people in a dialogue. The shared vision of learning is the imaginary future; and real curriculum leadership, not just management is the way to get there. Unless students and teachers are buying into the district vision, it doesn’t really matter what the papers have written on them, or how beautifully crafted the mission and vision statements are.

Engaging students in learning, not just schooling

9 Sep

Learning is such a fascinating thing! It happens everywhere, all the time, but in the school settings we are trying to somehow box it in, so that the objectives are met and standards covered. Yet, in spite of the standardized approach, each and every student has a different experience of the very same class or lesson.

In any given lesson or class, some students are engaged in their own learning process because they are inherently interested in the topic.  Other students may just be attending to get it over with. These are the students we are losing, because they are only engaging in their schooling, not in their personal learning. But, how to help these students to engage in their own learning?  One obvious answer is to make learning more personal.  Personalized learning is built from individual identities, dispositions, values, attitudes and skills. Finding space for all these in the classroom is challenging! Providing choices for students is a good tool for emphasizing the learning process, because it allows students to apply their personal preferences, which most likely results in increased interest in the activity at hands.

The learning process has two components that must be integrated for deep learning to happen: interaction (with the materials and peers) and acquisition of the content (Illeris, 2009, p. 9).  A successful integration of content and interaction leads to personal construction of understanding, i.e. deep learning, because the student has situated the new knowledge into her/his existing understanding.  Another student, who is just engaged in schooling not learning, may miss out the both components, and just be physically present in the classroom. Yet in today’s world, more than ever before, we must help students to become lifelong learners, who learn because they want to, not because someone tells them to do so.

Here is a list of 15 steps to cultivate lifelong learning in our own lives. As teachers we of course want to walk our talk. Right? ;)

In addition to the two components of learning process, we also want to think about the dimensions of cognition, emotion and environment (Illeris, 2004, p. 82), because they create the frames of each individual learning experience.  In school settings the focus of learning is too often very narrow, and only aims to transfer the content knowledge. But the way we acquire the content  has a straightforward effect on how durable the resulted learning is.  Shallow learning aims to passing the class or just getting out of it. Deep learning aims for understanding, and using the learned content in the future. What is problematic, is strategic learning, which aims to have good grades, without any interest in the content itself. This creates the phenomenon we know as summer learning loss.

My own application of this learning theory is to use the 3Cs that help students to engage in their own learning. The cognitive approach creates the foundation, because students’ thinking needs to change – not just their behaviour. Cooperation guides the learning environment and classroom management decisions – and of course the interactions. Constructive tools focus on supporting students’ learning process to make learning meaningful and increase motivation to learn.

Students’ learning motivation is based on their perceptions of learning and education in general, so it would be very shortsighted to aim for plain knowledge acquisition, and only focus on one of the three dimensions of learning.  The successful learning motivation seems to require all three dimensions: cognition, emotion and environment.  As a teacher trainer I have discussions with my students about their own motivation to learn. For adults it of course is also related to external rewards – usually masters degree gives a nice increase in the salary.   But most of my teachers really want to learn more about learning and teaching. I believe that as professional educators we recognize the need to support personalized learning in the classroom.


Illeris, K. (2004). Transformative learning in the perspective of a comprehensive learning theory. Journal of Transformative Education2(2), 79-89.

Illeris, K. (Ed.). (2009). Contemporary theories of learning: learning theorists… in their own words. Routledge.

COMPASS learning

23 Jun

After working for few weeks on a literature review about learning and teaching being disconnected, and how student empowerment improves learning, I just wanted to share the highlights. Here they are in a form of a compass:

COMPASS learning


Choices and open-ended questions are needed for increased student engagement and motivation in learning. Choosing is a skill that can (and should) be taught. It relates very straightforwardly to problem solving skills. If there is just one correct answer, and students should find it, no thinking or choosing is needed, and less learning occurs. Open-ended questions help us to understand better what the student thinks.

  • Feuerstein, R., & Falik, L. H. (2010). Learning to think, thinking to learn: A comparative analysis of three approaches to instruction. Journal of Cognitive Education and Psychology, 9(1), 4-20.
  • Goetz, T., Frenzel, A. C., Hall, N. C., & Pekrun, R. (2008). Antecedents of academic emotions: Testing the internal/external frame of reference model for academic enjoyment. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 33(1), 9-33

Metacognition needs to be emphasized and taught as a byproduct in every class. How cold anyone be proficient in learning, if they don’t have the information how learning happens best? We teachers sometimes forget that students don’t have all the same information we do.  Students academic self-concept is important for their learning competence, and if you are a university instructor, please remember that it is never too late to help students to find their confidence as learners. Sharing tools how others learn is an important part of any educational event.

  • Alexander, P. A. (2008). Why this and why now? Introduction to the special issue on metacognition, self-regulation, and self-regulated learning. Educational Psychology Review20(4), 369-372.

Pedagogy should be the focus in the classroom, and preferably in the literal meaning of the word “to lead the child”, i.e engaging students in learning facilitation instead of pre-scripted instruction. Students’ learning dispositions and the instructor’s teaching dispositions are equally important in the teaching-learning situation!

  • Shum, S. B., & Crick, R. D. (2012, April). Learning dispositions and transferable competencies: pedagogy, modelling and learning analytics. In Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Learning Analytics and Knowledge (pp. 92-101). ACM.

Student’s accountability in their own learning is far superior measure for achievement than externally set teacher accountability could ever be. Furthermore, in the Berry & Sahlberg article the external accountability measures seemed to prevent teachers from using effective small group practices. That sounds just downright wrong to me.  Teachers are the learning professionals. They should get to design the instructional method that best fits the group of students they are teaching.

  • Berry, J. & Sahlberg, P. 2006. Accountability affects the use of small group learning in school mathematics. Nordic Studies in Mathematics Education, 11(1), 5 – 31.)
  • Bryk, A. S., Sebring, P. B., Allensworth, E., Easton, J. Q., & Luppescu, S. (2010). Organizing schools for improvement: Lessons from Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

Self-regulated learning is essential for academic success. After all, learning IS individual, and the sooner students learn to self-regulate their own learning needs, the more likely they are to become lifelong learners.  The world is changing very fast, and it seems that the pace of change is not going to slow down anytime soon. This presents the dire need for every student to become a proficient lifelong learner, so that they can update their skills and keep up with the pace of the  progress.

  • Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (2006). Knowledge building: Theory, pedagogy, and technology. The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences, 97-115.
  • Zimmerman, B. J. (2000). Attaining self-regulation: a social cognitive perspective. Handbook of self-regulation, 13-39.

Safety should be a given attribute in every school. In addition to ensuring the physical safety, the learning environment MUST be emotionally safe for students to engage in higher level thinking (check Maslow if you don’t want to take just my word for it). Students spend a lot of their time in school and classroom. If we want to have well-adjusted and balanced citizenry in the future, then the learning environment should contribute towards that goal.

  • Willms, J. D., Friesen, S., & Milton, P. (2009). What did you do in school today. Transforming classrooms through social, academic, and intellectual engagement.



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