Tag Archives: co-operative

Fear, force and artificial authority

17 May

Learning and teaching in 21st century should definitely be fueled with something much more than fear, force and artificial authority.  After all we want for students to have strong integrity and self-confidence.  And the curricula and evaluations, in addition to the classroom management practices, have been designed for students to benefit from the time they spend in the school.  Right?

Alas, the history of education is filled with good intentions turned into catastrophies.  When teachers and education policy makers are operating with the objective view of learning in mind, the end result becomes a standardized description of a well performing student (without any individual interests and goals, being a puppet in the system bending to the intractable forces of maximum achievement).  Einstein expressed his views of the principal educational methods being fear, force and artificial authority. (Clark, 1971, p.13)

Einstein

The scary part is that even today, more than one hudred years later, the same methods of fear, force and artificial authority are still well and alive in the schools around the world. Why?

Maybe it is easier to convince students about the importance of doing well on tests by instilling the fear of not being able to get admitted to a reputable college/univeristy/workplace unless the test scores demonstrate brilliance? Maybe it is easier to control student behaviors by displaying artificial authority of being the keeper of the scores or grades?  But, from decades of research and practice we know that students learn better when they learn in an environment that is safe, supportive and collaborative.  And we don’t need “servile helots”, but critical thinkers who will thrive in the 21st century environment where information and choices are more abundant than ever before.

The psychological research and practice have advanced very much during the past century. American Psychological Association has published the Top 20 Principles to be used at schools.  What blows my mind is how few teachers have heard about these, or their predecessor Learner-centered Psychological Principles.  Yet, I consider the APA to be the highest authority of educational psychology in the U.S. and a positive influence in the world in general.

These Top 20 principles have been divided into 5 areas of psychological functioning:

  1. Cognition and learning: How do students think and learn?
  2. Motivation: What motivates students?
  3. Social context and emotional dimensions: Why are social context, interpersonal relations and emotional well-being important to student learning?
  4. Context and learning: How can the classroom best be managed?
  5. Assessment: How can teachers assess student progress?

 

All the 20  principles are displayed below in a table.

Top 20

 

What you do in your classroom – whether online on traditional – is your choice.  The psychological principles are compatible with every subject and every curriculum. Why not give it a try and implement a safe, supportive and collaborative learning environment?

 

American Psychological Association, Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education. (2015). Top 20 principles from psychology for pre K–12 teaching and learning. Retrieved from http:// http://www.apa.org/ed/schools/cpse/top-twenty-principles.pdf

Clark, R.W. (1971). Einstein: The life and times. New York: World.

 

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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.

 

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[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.

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.

How to grow learners

30 May

May has been such a busy month. I just realized I haven’t posted any blogposts this month, even though I have had several great discussions about education:  how to make it better, for everyone, everywhere. Those of you who have been reading my previous posts already know that I am a strong advocate for meaningful learning and that I view learning as a process, instead of a product. This distinction results from my personal (and professional) view that learning and teaching are two separate phenomena, even though in everyday language and education policies they appear to be two sides of the same coin.

Now I am vacationing and sitting on our lanai’i, sipping coffee while watching the Ocean and loving the freshness of early morning.  I am also processing all the new things I have seen and encountered – which led me think about the specific mindset of a life-long learner. You see, ever since my masters and enjoying the extensive studies in developmental psychology, I have been wondering how some people seem to learn and grow throughout their lives, while others just to stop learning.  My current conjecture is that these people cease to wonder, and stop asking the important question “why?” and just accept things as they are. From my point of view this seriously limits their creativity and critical thinking skills.

The idea of growth mindset makes very much sense, and we should foster that in our students. Instead of packing everything into a ready format (and label it discovery learning, problem- or inquiry-based learning, etc.), I would want to equip every teacher with the ability to foster curiosity in students.  So, no matter what the curriculum or instructional setting is, the teachers would be able to provide choices that spark the meaningfulness in their students’ learning.

We already know that too many ready (and definite!) answers kill students’ curiosity. There cannot be creativity without curiosity, because they both require interacting with the unknown, either in the level of actions or thoughts. And, quite frankly, the known becomes boring at some point – that is how small children learn: venturing further away from parents, deeper into the unknown, the world – and without people pushing their boundaries, we would not have the inventions of the modern life.

I don’t believe people are supposed to stop learning at any point of their lives. Ever!

This takes me back to think how we could support the intellectual curiosity and growth of every student, anywhere on the globe. We know every child is born as a master learner, and there are many sad-but-funny pictures of educators forcing students into certain molds, like square pegs into round holes. Yet, we can do better, just by choosing to support the individual growth and learning of each student.

Fostering learning is very simple. In addition to open-endedness there are some other qualities in my mind I decided to name as

CAFÉ

Communicate. Have a dialogue with your students, the most effective communication is reciprocal and includes negotiations of meaning.

Acknowledge their competence, and help to add into it. Validate their knowledge and understanding.

Feedback early and often. Provide feedback about the process (think of mapping the ground that lies ahead them, it is easier to steer clear when you know where the pitfalls are).

Encourage and empower. Support their choices. Point out other possible directions (make sure not to choose for students).

And just like coffee, or life in general, also education is best when you enjoy it – not shoved down your throat.

 

Cafe for growing learners

Cooperation vs. Competition

7 Apr

I know we live in cultures that value winning. In the modern world competition is infused to all areas of our lives: work, sports (of course), advertisements, entertainment, and relationships, even education – the sad example of wording an educational goal being the Race to the Top.
In competition there are always winners and losers. But can we really afford to have losers while making choices about education? Shouldn’t we try to educate every child?
While studying to become a teacher in Finland the answer was very clear: every student has a subjective right to learn and to be measured against her/his own previous achievements. Not those of someone else. Very fair, I think. Why should I compete with someone else, if our starting points were different?
We all have diverse skills and needs, because that’s what the life is made of – individuality. Students, while being the same age, have many more qualities that make them individual than those making them alike. Focusing on differences and supplementing those creates much better foundation for learning than highlighting superficial similarities and making ranking lists of those with competition.
The secret is to understand how equality doesn’t mean that resources and outcomes should be standardized. Equitable education simply means that every student gets the support and challenges what s/he needs – not what the other students need.

Competition usually revolves around power and/or control, no matter whether it is initiated by the students or the teacher. Often teacher is the one who has control, and sets up a competition, and then acts as a judge, deciding who is the best – a common classroom situation where points are given for various behaviours/performances/tasks/answers or taken away for misbehaviour. How does this build the learning motivation?

Another everyday example is when a student who feels powerful challenges others into competition, in hopes of gaining (more) power/admiration (we have all read Lord of the Flies, right?). I have seen many students compete about being faster, better, taller, smarter, more popular, etc. than their classmates in situations where cooperation would have been much easier and more beneficial choice.

Competition is about using power over others, in one way or other. Even while it is just an attempt to get the teacher’s attention with disruptive behavior! Unfortunately some students have learned the negative attention being the only option available for them. And as human beings we need that attention – we need others to acknowledge our existence. Finding competition in surprising situations happens when we start to pay close attention to reasons for doing certain things!

The two most harmful phenomena occurring while mixing competition and education are the externalization of the learning motivation and the distorted self-image of students. These are problematic for both losers and winners. Extrinsic learning motivation focuses on tangible rewards and makes students perform tasks instead of trying to deep learn the content, because only intrinsic learning motivation makes learning itself fun and rewarding. And for the self- image the educational psychology and research have long time been telling us how devastating comparing your personal attributes can be for the developing sense of self – and we still don’t get it??

The growth mindset (concept borrowed from Carol Dweck) is equally important for all students, because it builds grounds for life-long learning. Fostering cooperation and collegiality in the classroom enables students to grow and learn in their own pace and support each other in individual challenges.

Cooperation is about doing things together – not because we are told to do so, but because it makes sense. It is about helping each other and feeling compassion. So instead of competing who gets to go first for recess, the class could work together to make everything and everybody ready for it – this builds accountability too, when students help each other.

Cooperative learning is the diversity statement coming alive in the classroom. It is not about power or control, but about being equal, yet unique, and acknowledging the intrinsic value of each human being. It is supporting each other and understanding that everyone has different needs. Cooperation is about sharing ideas and learning constructively from each other. It is also about building better future together by setting mutual goals. Sounds like something we would want to see more in classrooms?

12 Questions about Finnish Education answered

25 Mar

Two weeks ago I provided some answers to a colleague, Angela Watson, who maintains The Cornerstone for Teachers website and blog. She asked several questions about education in Finland and I am posting the Q&A here in my Notes as well:

1) Pay is not the answer. Teachers in Finland are not paid like doctors.  Starting salary for a teacher is not huge (around $40k-$50k), but when in a permanent contract they get paid for the summer, too. Doctors are paid more, but generally the salary gap between professionals is smaller in Finland.

2) Professional development is strongly emphasized in Finland and teachers are viewed as respected professionals.  Professional growth is viewed necessary for teachers, but usually they have much independence in deciding about their PD.  Elementary teachers must have a M.Ed. with major in education and a minor in multi-disciplinary school subjects and another minor in a chosen subject. Teachers are part of the academia, and their professional opinion about learning is respected. Usually teaching is the chosen career, not a stepping stone to something else.

3) Teachers in Finland get a great deal of freedom to meet students’ needs: the national curriculum is very short and non-prescriptive.  The national curriculum includes the objectives and core contents for different school subjects, but schools and districts create their own curricula within the framework of the national core curriculum. Teachers get to decide how they help their students to reach the objectives.

4) Students in Finland get more than one hour of recess a day.  The basic model in K-12 is to have 45 minutes of instruction/learning and then a 15 minute break. First and second grade students go to school for four hours per day and from that time they have 75 minutes of recess. During recess students go outside to play – and they are encouraged to be physically active.

5) There is no mandatory testing in Finland. Teachers are trusted to provide assessments they see best benefit their students’ learning. Feedback of individual learning process is emphasized over standardized testing.

6) School doesn’t start for Finnish children until age 7.  The year before school starts is called pre-school, and it is free for all students but not mandatory for 6-year-olds. Students are not expected to learn how to read in pre-school. They are learning how to learn and how to take part in group activities.

7) Pre-school (the year before school starts) belongs to formal education system, and is free. The same requirements that regulate the teaching of 6-year-olds in schools also are valid in daycare centers for 6-year-olds, and enrolling is parents’ choice, often depending on their employment. Every child has a subjective right for high quality early childhood education, but whether it is free depends on the income level of parents. ECE is heavily subsidized, so the highest monthly payment for childcare is 264 euros ($350) per child at a daycare center.

8)  About private schools: Finland has common legislation for both private (state subsidized) and public (city or state owned) schools.  Last year there were 85 private schools in Finland serving approximately 3% of the whole student population.

9) Parental involvement is not required. Parents are encouraged to be involved in their children’s education, but it is not a requirement. Students are very independent, including getting to school and back home when the distance is less than 5 km (~3miles). They walk or ride a bike, or parents transport them.

10) Teacher’s Unions:  more that 95% of teachers belong to the teachers’ union (OAJ) which is a member of the Confederation of Unions for Professional and Managerial Staff in Finland (AKAVA). But, the relationship between schools, education policy makers and union is constructive.

11) The often heard claim of Finnish children doing better in school than American students simply because the poverty rate is so much lower is a heavily loaded question and the answer is anything but simple.  The poverty rate in Finland is certainly lower, but what makes the difference in education is equity combined with quality. Instead of highlighting individual performance and competition of students in Finland the focus is on schools’ ability to provide equally good education for different learners. Basic education is completely free including instruction, school materials, school meals, health care, dental care, special needs education and remedial teaching. One Finnish specialty is the free hot lunch served to everyone every day. Hungry students cannot learn well.

12) The Finnish way of teaching could never be replicated in the United States because our population is so much more heterogeneous.  No educational system should ever be replicated in another culture as it is – just like no information should be accepted as it is, but must be assimilated and/or accommodated to become a perfect fit. The way of facilitating individual students’ learning by promoting cooperation and cognition with constructive practices could easily be replicated.

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.

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.