Tag Archives: empowering

Dialogues that enhance learning

4 Dec

Engaging in dialogue is essential for learning. Constructing knowledge cannot occur in a vacuum. Too often we think that any classroom discussion equals dialogue. It does not.

Conversation and discussion are very broad concepts to describe educational dialogue.  Debates are very specific interactions for presenting and supporting an argument, a genre of dialogue focusing on challenging assumptions and knowledge. Argumenting discussion can objectify a perspective and is thus important for reasoning and understanding (p. 108).

Classroom dialogue exists to support understanding. It is not about winning an argument. Nor about an inquiry where students will end up in predetermined conclusion. The traditional classroom talk in the form of IRF (initiation-response-feedback/follow-up) or IRE (initiation-response-evaluation) is definitely not about engaging in dialogue, because the range of acceptable answers is very limited. These closed questions reflect behaviorist-objectivist ideology of education where the knowledge is transmitted to students, and their learning is tested with questions and tests. Well-crafted IRF can lead students “through a complex sequence of ideas” (p. 4), but does it really contribute to the productive interactions that help students to engage in deeper learning and craft individual understanding and transferable knowledge based on the information they received during the discussion?

Dialogue is collaborative meaning-making by nature. It is about equal participants engaging in an attempt to understand the viewpoint of other(s) and defining the meaning in the social setting. Such dialogue is about creating new understanding together, and in that sense it denotes very constructive ideas of learning. Dialogue is very tightly tied to the classroom values and teaching/learning dispositions. In a safe learning environment, where students dare to ask questions and challenge their own beliefs, dialogue can be a very powerful tool for learning.

The essential condition for dialogue to happen is equality. My truth cannot be better than your truth. Dialogue requires openness to rule over the dogma (p.172), in order to make exploration possible. Sometimes this is a very hard change to make in the classroom situation where the teacher is perceived to be the authority of knowledge. Communicating clearly to students about issues that don’t have one signle correct answer helps students to engage in  dialogue with the teacher and each other. Wondering is often the first step in learning.

Dialogue involves multiple dimensions of the classroom reality. Working with the tensions that occur in classroom setting is important to make dialogue possible. Having a non-punitive assessment system is important for fostering dialogue in the classroom. Risk-taking behaviors are not likely to happen in a learning environment where students get punished for submitting a “wrong answer”.  Right and wrong, true and false, are dichotomies that belong to more objectivist pedagogy and official knowledge, and thus are destructive for collaborative meaning-making.

Focusing on concepts instead of details is a viable way to start using the dialogue in the classroom.  It is a good way to help students get engaged in their on learning process.

 

The page numbers refer to the following book, which is an excellent source for learning more about dialogue and how to us it as a tool for learning:

Littleton, K., & Howe, C. (Eds.). (2010). Educational dialogues: Understanding and promoting productive interaction. Routledge.

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.

 

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.

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?

 

 

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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.

 

 

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.

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.

Lifelong learning

20 Jun

I wish we didn’t so exclusively connect the concept of learning with formal education and going to school or being a (college) student.  Because learning actually happens everywhere, all the time. At school learning is just more focused and targeted to meet the standards or performance measures of the course.

Maybe it is just me, thinking how being a learner only depends on your mindset?  With a curious approach to life even reading your daily newspaper can become a learning experience, not to talk about diving into books…or the wonderful open source journals, databases, libraries… and wikipedia. Maybe I am addicted to learning, but I consider a great fun to hit the random article button in wikipedia and reading about something I maybe knew nothing about.

Lifelong learning is so important in these times when there is more information available in our fingertips than ever before!

Unfortunately many students are schooled out of their minds with too tight performance measures and learning objectives that leave very little or no space for wondering and creativity.  How can we help students to become interested in learning, not just expecting to be schooled or pass a test? How to help more students to become lifelong learners?

One way is to equip students with the skills to self-regulate their learning.   Helping students to think about their learning (tasks) and how they relate to a bigger picture, focus on their own thinking and learning while engaging in the task, and self-evaluate their learning?  (These components are also called forethought, performance control and self-reflection, as seen in Zimmerman, 2002.)

As a teacher and mentor I try to understand what is the mindset of my students, and I created the typology below to illustrate the  four different types of students we have.

 

Typology for motivation and dependence

 

 

Newman, R. S. (2008). The motivational role of adaptive help seeking in self-regulated learning. Motivation and self-regulated learning: Theory, research, and applications, 315-337.

Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview.Theory into practice41(2), 64-70.

 

Is Learning a Product or Process – part 2

27 Feb

Best teacher is the one who makes herself unnecessary by

empowering students to become autonomous learners.

~Nina Smith

When learning is seen as a product, the emphasis of the learning-teaching interaction is in instruction – and the thinking behind comes from the idea of students only learning when the teacher is instructing them, and only what they have been taught.  The reality is different, as any curriculum leader can tell you. At any given moment of time any given classroom has several ongoing curricula: intended, written, taught, actualized, learned, etc., so we cannot simply look at the learning product.  This product may be a paper, worksheet, notes, homework, essay, grade, etc., that we use to measure the results of students’ learning.

Emphasizing learning products makes mistakes very undesirable phenomena in the classroom – after all a perfect product is the goal, right?  And often the grade only reflects the finished learning product, without paying attention to how the student got there.  Maybe s/he already knew the content or had the skill, and didn’t have to study  or practice at all?  If we pay too much attention to the product, we may miss the important part of the learning-teaching interaction: the individual students’ main gain,  her/his increase in knowledge/understanding/skills that has happened as the result of instruction.

Now, very seriously: which one is more important to you? What your students know/can do — or how much they improve in what they know/can do? 

There is a big difference.

Improving what students know/can do inevitably leads to different end results, because each student has her/his own starting point. And this improvement, the increase, of course, IS the result of the individual learning process of each student.  This is also why helping students to become independent learners is so important.

Independent learners tend to automatically (or by learned habits) engage in their own learning process.  While observing these students we can see them intentionally influencing their own learning behaviours, and Bandura  (2006, p.164-165) described the four following components in their engagement: the intentionality of their learning, the forethought of their actions, their self-reactiveness and self-reflectiveness. Of course, to be able to do all this, students must have certain amount of freedom in the classroom, which is why I am so fervently advocating for providing more choices in classrooms. Choosing is a skill that can (and should) be taught and learned, and it only grows when students have ample opportunities to try choosing in an emotionally safe learning environment, where mistakes are not only allowed but celebrated.

Just imagine how much more these students learn! They don’t need the teacher to motivate or engage them, because they are already “in the zone”. In the classroom these components apply straightforwardly to students’ engagement as intentional learning activity, and learning motivation and goal-setting as their forethought. Meta-cognitive knowledge is about knowing and understanding how I learn, knowing what is easy and what is hard for me, and where do I need to put in extra effort in learning. Independent learners, who engage in their own learning process already know these things. Wouldn’t it be important to help every student to possess this knowledge of themselves?

The third component in independent learning, self-reactiveness, relates to the way students control their own learning actions and regulate their own behaviour in classroom. As a teacher it is important for me to ask myself, how can I support my students’ self-regulation and  provide more autonomy for them. When students get to regulate their own learning process (pace, depth, breaks, note-taking, collaboration, additional information, etc) also the learning results, the visible and tangible products of learning, do improve.

Maybe the easiest way to support students’ learning process is to provide accurate and timely feedback. This strengthens the fourth component of independent learning, student self-reflection,  which is too often overlooked.  Feedback has been statistically identified as one of the  important teaching-learning factors (Hattie & Timperley, 2007), because it enhances both the learning process and the product we get as an end result of successful learning. Students self-evaluation is an important classroom practice, because it combines feedback and self-reflection.

To me it seems that too strong focus on the learning product leads to shallow learning (to just get by), and strategic learners  (to just get a good grade) instead of deep learning.  While independent students may have strategies to cope in product centered learning environment, the dependent students may not have a clue what they should do, or how they are supposed to do it – which further decreases their learning motivation.

Focusing on the learning process emphasizes the students’ responsibility in the learning-teaching interaction. It both enables and encourages students to engage in their own learning. This engagement helps both students and teachers to build learning up from standards and to achieve competencies needed in our modern world.

 

 

Bandura, A. (2006). Toward a psychology of human agency. Perspectives on psychological science1(2), 164-180.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of educational research77(1), 81-112.

Active and meaningful learning

7 Aug

Have you noticed how there are people who seem to “happen to the world” and others who have the “world happen to them”? People who are proactive and engaged, and others who are passive and alienated?

People who happen to the world are the ones who make their own choices about their lives, learning and everything.  Isn’t that how things should be?  People being active and make decisions about their future, and shaping their own thinking. How about people with the passive approach to life, people who let the world happen to them? What is their learning like?

Psychologists use the term “locus of control” to describe whether people believe that they can control the items and actions of their own lives. Intrinsic control means that I am responsible for my own life. Extrinsic control means that someone else decides for me, and I need those others to come and save me from hard situations.

But, it also means that my achievements are controlled by external factors concentrated to explanations like “It’s about luck”, “This is too hard”, and “I don’t know xyz”- the last one being super funny as there is more information at the reach of our fingertips than ever before. And after teaching for a few years you have pretty much heard them all.

My favourite one is: “S/he made me do it”. Really? Did s/he now? And how, exactly?

Why this long intro, you may ask. Well, so much of our academic success depends on what we believe about ourselves and education, and the interactions of the two.  Life and learning cannot (and shouldn’t) be separated from each other. Simply measuring up to a performance standard, or creating a product (essay, project, worksheet, etc.) asked by the teacher shouldn’t be the end result of learning. Outcomes should be seen as a new configuration of students’ own knowledge, instead of superficial external measures.

This is the real problem in education: teaching is so disconnected from learning.  In the U.S. we invest more funds in education per pupil than many other OECD countries, yet the learning results are not improving. In a way it doesn’t surprise me because the fundamental idea of education is not matching reality.  When teaching is seen as is simple as imparting or transmitting teachers’ knowledge into students, or imposing the teachers’ worldview into them, then one could easily argue how creating more standards or paying big money for additional testing is the solution for the underachievement problem.  But information sharing is not teaching!  Learning must be active and meaningful for students!

When learning is understood as students internally constructing their own knowledge and effectively using it in problem solving and to support their learning process, then learning and teaching are certainly something more than just information sharing.

Students’ academic performance derives from their  learning, right?    And students’ learning depends on their academic self-concept, which consists their motivation (intrinsic and/or extrinsic) as well as engagement,  and also their own beliefs about their competence as learners. Understanding how students create their mindsets and beliefs about intelligence is important, and the research shows how ” there is more support for an effect of academic self-concept on achievement than vice versa” .[1]

Please note that I am not talking about boosting anyone’s self-esteem. I am trying to paint a picture of  having realistic self-image as a learner and a human being. Both our knowledge and our beliefs are references to the life we live. Children (students) are no exception from this rule. This is why it is so important, both individually as well as in communities like schools,  to ask questions like:

Do we believe in fixed intelligence as static and unchanging, based on inherited qualities like gift or talent (Mindset concept by Carol Dweck)?

Or,  do we view intelligence with a growth mindset, which understands the developing nature of it, and emphasized how everyone can learn?

Researchers strongly recommend the latter one:  “Encouraging a malleable (growth) mindset helps to sustain children’s intrinsic motivation, thereby enhancing both academic success and life-long learning”[2].  I think it is also very clear that only by empowering students to be active participants in their own learning and providing choices, we can create the culture of being responsible of our own lives and learning.

So, what can we all as adults – parents and teachers – do to foster this academic competence in every student?

 

N3C


[1] Bossaert, G., Doumen, S., Buyse, E. &  Verschueren, K. (2011). Predicting children’s academic achievement after the transition to first grade: A two-year longitudinal study.  Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. 32, 47-57.

[2] Haimovitz, K., Wormington, S. V., & Corpus, J. H. (2011). Dangerous mindsets: How beliefs about intelligence predict motivational change. Learning and Individual Differences21(6), 747-75