Archive | February, 2013

ABCs of Classroom Learning

18 Feb

Learning itself , of course, is such a multidimensional phenomenon that capturing it  is very hard, or maybe impossible. However, this is my attempt to simplify and verbalize how teaching and learning interact in the classroom, hence the A, B and C.

A. Have you ever noticed how right away after becoming aware of something the very same phenomenon suddenly seems to appear everywhere? (Often discussed among women just before/after getting pregnant how suddenly the world is full of strollers, big bellies and baby stuff – how did they pop up overnight?) The plain explanation is that our brain discards most of the sensory feed, so it never reaches our consciousness, until it has significance, and then it is suddenly “seen”. What we see (or hear) results from what our first filters let to be processed. Often just explained that we see things we want to pay attention to, or things that are active in our consciousness – which of course is duly noted in most lesson plan templates under “motivating students”.  Yet, as teaching and learning are two separate processes, it is a bit hit and miss to know whether students are activated and becoming aware about this new information, and this partly explains the effectiveness of flipped classroom as a teaching method and getting students engage with the learning materials on their own.

The more students are buying into the initial activation, the better predictions there are for good learning outcomes. And we all know how hungry, tired, scared, abused, stressed, overwhelmed, bored, or otherwise distracted students tend to substantially underachieve – so the very first thing in education should be ensuring students’ physical and emotional well-being. In addition to enhancing students’ cooperation with us, we teachers can also use constructive approach to activate our students, and ask them to find/categorize/present/discuss/strain  information that relates to the topic of the lesson. Applying some cognitive strategies to help students become more aware about their own learning needs enables students to become more accountable for their own learning.

B. We all also have personal ways to process further the things we become aware of, and the type of this processing depends on another set of filters we have: our beliefs[1], attitudes, rules. While explaining these filters to students, I simply hand out some different colour sunglasses to demonstrate it very concretely what it looks like to have another kind of filter. After discussing about the shades, and the way the classrooms (or certain pictures) look like with the darker shades or lighter ones, it is fairly easy for even young students to understand how they all have a unique way of seeing the world. I am not suggesting for teachers to become therapists, but raising this kind of awareness among students is just removing the barriers from successful learning experiences. Not understanding and dealing with these individual filters leads to cookie-cutter teaching and assuming every student will process the new information in an identical way, which obviously is not true.

Increasing transparency of information and knowledge by providing ample opportunities for students to discuss their beliefs and filters is bothcooperative and a cognitive tool for helping our students learn better.  Students’ self-assessment of their own learning needs, and planning tools included in executive functions can be used as parts of constructive strategies to ensure more successful learning experiences.

C. The consequences are the actions we take as a result of parts A and B coming together. Our actions, that can be emotions, cognitions, and/or behaviours,  depend on how we perceive things and what we believe about them – and also about our own  awareness or ability to  choose how we react. In education, often called learning outcomes, these actions (or reactions) are the phenomenon we teachers are assessing and reinforcing. Yet, even if all students were given the same motivation and same information their reaction will be individual, and some students will simply discard the information as uninteresting or unnecessary (especially if they already have the knowledge). Measuring input and expecting a standard output is not a functional formula while dealing with individuals. This is why teachers must be allowed to choose how to teach and to adapt the curriculum to meet the need of students.

Acknowledging the different filters and beliefs our students have and discussing the advantages of individual ways to categorize and refine the new information creates open ended and dynamic views of personal knowledge. This constructive practice is the exact opposite of stagnant “there is a single one correct answer and you’d better find it” – tradition. I also see the teacher’s role now and in the future as an essential part of learning facilitation, dealing with anything and everything that happens in part B and helping students make sense of the things they are learning (otherwise we could just use robots spewing out information, right?) and provide feedback of their learning process.  By using cognitive tools to address the beliefs, attitudes, filters, misconceptions and ideas we can provide more successful learning experiences for all students. And by using cooperative tools in learning facilitation we can increase the perceived meaningfulness of learning and help every student to get their ABCs together in the way that best supports the growth of their thinking skills.

 


[1] Beliefs here include: personal, cultural, religious, political beliefs; causal attributions, ideas, feelings, impressions, opinions, sentiments, points of view, presumptions, ideologies and misunderstandings that we use to filter the external information.

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Ingredients of effective teaching

7 Feb

Effective teaching is often seen as increase in student learning.  I can understand the thought behind it, because after all teaching is futile if learning is not happening. But getting these two different phenomena -teaching and learning- productively intertwined in the classroom is a challenge all educators are facing, and correlations between the two should not be drawn in haste.

The old saying about leading the horse to the water but not being able to force it to drink is very descriptive for the differences between teaching and learning, and often also quoted as such. We attempt to measure the ways of presenting information for students to learn, and seem to think the score makes one teacher more effective than another -but I am not convinced that it makes such a big difference how we take the horse to the water: it will drink when it is thirsty.  Fortunately students are born curious and ready to learn. The only thing we need to do is find a way to cooperate with that curiosity and help students preserve their interest in learning and their sense of wonder – because that is where all true learning starts: wondering if, how, when, why….

Whether students have successful learning experiences and really (deep) learn the content depends on multiple factors found in areas of both instruction and curriculum. Students’ intrinsic motivation helps them to engage, but unfortunately in some measurements of effective teaching the motivation is translated to teachers’ duty to motivate students to learn, which leads students functioning on extrinsic motivation, and never engaging in the deep learning process. The learning environment (both physical and emotional) sets the tone for the learning experience. Students’ readiness to learn  and their previous knowledge, perceived meaningfulness of content, student autonomy (support vs. control), and cooperation with the teacher all have various effects on the learning outcomes.

The concept of effectiveness is hard to define. Maybe we should pay more attention to the quality of interactions, and see how they contribute to successful learning experiences?

Learning happens in interactions between the student and the content to be learned.  In addition to interacting with the content of their learning resources, students also interact with many other things – environment, peers, teachers, staff, parents, media, social media, etc. Focusing their attention to the learning task is a choice every student makes, purposefully or being unaware about it. We teachers can help students choose wisely and spend more time interacting with their learning resources, but we certainly cannot force them into doing it. Forced interactions are of poor quality, and result in shallow learning when students perform tasks to fulfill the expectations, but don’t engage with their thoughts and/or curiosity.

Traditionally we have perceived the teacher to be one of these learning resources, or even the source of information, but I am wondering if it is not the time to recognize how a teacher’s job is much more importantly about facilitating student’s experience and engagement in interactions that result learning.

This is what pedagogy and andragogy are about: supporting students’ learning in a dialogue, individually and as a group, so that they each can be successful in their studies. Please note that I am not undermining the subject matter expertise of teachers, because being knowledgeable is essential for effective teaching. I just want to emphasize the fact that simply with enormous knowledge about the area of expertise one does not miraculously become a master teacher, because teaching (or learning facilitation) is an art and science of its own. And quite frankly, it is hard for an expert to recall what it was like to learn the first steps of a complex skill set. We pay much less attention to the details after something has become an automated skill.

Effective teaching is knowing those details, understanding how the skill builds and being able to communicate about the process.  And of course the most effective teacher is the one who makes herself unnecessary by empowering  her students to become autonomous learners. So, when creating metrics for measuring teacher effectiveness, should we also assess  students’ independence or autonomy in learning?

 

Interactions that support learning

3 Feb

Interactions are the basic fabric of learning.

We are born with an intrinsic curiosity about the surrounding world, and try to figure out the way of life by interacting with people around us. This is called the primary socialization process[1] and during this process we learn to speak and move independently, but also adopt the values and the filters our significant others (parents, caregivers) are expressing in their tone, words and behavior.  From these early experiences and interactions, and everything coming after that, we create our own worldview and expectations for life, learning and everything. In pre-school or school age the secondary socialization process shapes our interactions with other people, media and information around us.

There are many different ways to interact, and some have traditionally been used more in education than others. Today we recognize how communicative interactions are more effective than purely physical ones.  Showing (how to do something) and explaining it creates more connections in students’ brain and thus supports deeper learning.

Learning by interacting with their environment has always been the children’s natural mode of learning. Adding active concept development into explorations simply by naming the subjects of that momentary interest and providing connections to previous experiences is often instinctively done by parents.  Of course early childhood educators try to cater for this type of learning by planning for experiences and having appropriate equipment nearby. Yet, for concept development the dialogue is the most important tool. Early learning experts actively use self-talk and parallel talk to describe what they are doing or what the child is doing in order to make words and sentences become relevant for children, adding more substance to the short sentences children are able to use, yet keeping the discussion focused and meaningful.

Communicative interactions are extremely useful in all other levels of education, too.  K-12 students should have plenty of opportunities to explain why and how they helped themselves learn, and as the teacher cannot be listening to everyone simultaneously, I cannot see any other way to increase the student talk time, but by having them to explain to each other. Somehow we often seem to have the fallacy that teacher needs to hear every word – which to me seems to be a remnant from the past. If the focus of education is in control, then yes, teacher probably needs to hear every word students are uttering, but in that case interactions are very limited purely on mathematical principles (one hour, 25 students and one teacher equals 2.4 minutes of time per student) so something must be done. I strongly suggest cooperative learning activities.

Too often the view of teaching is limited to instruction, which at worst becomes a monologue: communication without interaction.[2] I think we all have been listening to lectures, but not actually hearing the message, and wishing we were elsewhere. This is far from effective teaching and meaningful learning, because it basically is just providing information for students, not facilitating their learning, as there are no immediate feedback loops. Often it is also based on power or control (mandatory lectures, no matter whether I already have learnt the content, but attending because of credit hours), instead of validity of information and relevance for my learning.

Unfortunately the same phenomenon happens in K-12 classrooms where teachers are expected to teach the curriculum, regardless whether there are students who have already learnt it and/or others who don’t possess the prerequisite skills. Why do we do this?! One helpful tool for any teacher is to use self-talk to make their thinking visible and parallel talk to help a struggling student understand a different point of view – the important part is the interactive way of using it and having students map their own actions or thoughts to make the learning process more tangible. Communication with interaction makes the difference!

Interaction without communication presents a different problem: doing things and saying words simply because we are supposed to do so. I am not talking against politeness, it is important for the everyday life, but more about the non-verbal and paraverbal language and how we know when the other person truly means what s/he is saying. Empty words are teacher’s worst enemy.  We have so little time with our students that we truly cannot afford using the precious opportunities to interact and not communicate – whether it is negotiating meaning or conveying caring – and then checking for understanding.  This is also an area where I need to grow, and be much more intentional with my words while talking. But, my problem is always that my thoughts are running way faster than I can put them into words. I am still learning.

In higher education we come together to negotiate meanings, to tap into the expertise of our colleagues, to compare and contrast our views about the subject matter and to construct new knowledge. This is the true dialogue learning is made of. It is communicative interaction, very intentional and extremely cooperative. Could we provide our students with the same experience?

To best reach our students and support their learning we want to use similar open and honest communication that is based on validity instead of power or control. We need to open a dialogue, a conversation with students and listen what they say, because learning grows in interactions.