Tag Archives: learning facilitation

Great teachers

25 Aug

Good teachers have strong organizational skills. Good teachers have solid decision-making skills. Good teachers get important things done.

Exceptional teachers do all of the above–and more. Sure, they care about their school and students, their principals and administrators. But most importantly, they care to an exceptional degree about the people who work for them, their students.

That’s why extraordinary teachers give every student:

1. Autonomy and independence

Great organizations are built on optimizing processes and procedures. Still, every task doesn’t deserve a best practice or a micro-managed approach. Engagement and satisfaction are largely based on autonomy and independence. I care when it’s “mine.” I care when I’m in charge and feel empowered to do what’s right.

Plus, freedom breeds innovation: Even heavily product-oriented assignments have room for different approaches.

Whenever possible, give your students the autonomy and independence to work the way they work best. When you do, they almost always find ways to do their jobs better than you imagined possible.

2. Clear expectations

While every assignment should include some degree of independence, every assignment does also need basic expectations for how specific situations should be handled.

Criticize a student for writing an opinion today even though yesterday that was standard practice and you make that student’s learning impossible.  Few things are more stressful than not knowing what is expected from one day to the next.

When an exceptional teacher changes a standard or guideline, s/hes  communicates those changes first–and when that is not possible, s/he takes the time to explain why s/he made the decision s/he made, and what she expects in the future.

3. Meaningful objectives

Almost everyone is competitive; often the best students are extremely competitive–especially with themselves. Meaningful targets can create a sense of purpose and add a little meaning to even the most repetitive tasks.

Plus, goals are fun. Without a meaningful goal to shoot for, studying is just work.

No one likes work.

4. A true sense of purpose

Everyone likes to feel a part of something bigger. Everyone loves to feel that sense of teamwork and esprit de corps that turns a group of individuals into a real team.

The best courses involve making a real impact on the lives of the students you teach. Let students know what you want to achieve for your class, for your school, and even your community. And if you can, let them create a few lessons of their own.

Feeling a true purpose starts with knowing what to care about and, more importantly, why to care.

5. Opportunities to provide significant input

Engaged students have ideas; take away opportunities for them to make suggestions, or instantly disregard their ideas without consideration, and they immediately disengage.

That’s why exceptional teachers make it incredibly easy for students to offer suggestions. They ask leading questions. They probe gently. They help students feel comfortable proposing new ways to get things done. When an idea isn’t feasible, they always take the time to explain why.

Great teachers know that students who make suggestions care about their learning, so they ensure those students know their input is valued–and appreciated.

6. A real sense of connection

Every student works for a grade (otherwise they would bring you more of their work than just assignments), but every student wants to work for more than a grade: They want to study with and for people they respect and admire–and with and for people who respect and admire them.

That’s why a kind word, a quick discussion about family, an informal conversation to ask if an student needs any help–those moments are much more important than group meetings or formal evaluations.

A true sense of connection is personal. That’s why exceptional teachers show they see and appreciate the person, not just the student.

7. Reliable consistency

Most people don’t mind a teacher who is strict, demanding, and quick to offer (not always positive) feedback, as long as s/he treats every student fairly.

(Great teachers treat each student differently but they also treat every student fairly. There’s a big difference.)

Exceptional teachers know the key to showing students they are consistent and fair is communication: The more students understand why a decision was made, the less likely they are to assume unfair treatment or favoritism.

8. Private criticism

No student is perfect. Every student needs constructive feedback. Every student deserves constructive feedback. Good teachers give that feedback.  Great teachers always do it in private.

9. Public praise

Every student–even a relatively poor performer–does something well. Every student deserves appreciation. It’s easy to recognize some of your best students because they’re consistently doing awesome things.  (Maybe consistent recognition is a reason they’re your best students? Something to think about.)

You might have to work hard to find reasons to recognize a student who simply (or barely) meets standards, but that’s okay: A few words of recognition–especially public recognition–may be the nudge an average performer needs to start becoming a great performer.

10. A chance for a meaningful future.

Every course should have the potential to lead to greater things. Exceptional teachers take the time to develop students for the course they someday hope to take, even if that course is in another school.

How can you know what a student hopes to do someday? Ask.

Students will only care about your course after you first show you care about them. One of the best ways is to show that while you certainly have hopes for your school’s future, you also have hopes for your students’ futures.

 

Good advice, isn’t it?  Let me confess: these are not my words.

I owe this article to Jeff Haden, who published it in Inc. under the title of extraordinary bosses.  I just couldn’t pass the uncanny resemblance between being an awesome boss and being an awesome teacher. So, what I did was just to change words like boss, company, customer and employee to teacher, school and student.  With small adaptation it would fit well as a parenting advice, too. It made me think about the best places where I have worked and felt like a valued member of the team.

We have all this good knowledge about leadership (which resembles teaching much more than management does), and how to put it into practice.

Imagine how different education would look like if we treated our students like best companies treat their employees?

Or,

better yet,

if we treated students like valued customers??

 

Quality of learning, process vs. product

19 Jul

There are processes without defined products, play being probably the best example of it. Art and music don’t have a clear definitions of quality either, but we do recognize a masterpiece when we experience it. Learning works the same way. Each student has a unique learning experience, due to their diverse abilities and expectations, so the end result of learning must be open-ended, too. When students are forced into one definite learning outcome, i.e. product (think of 27 nearly identical pieces of “art work” on the classroom wall, copies of a model/template, provided by the teacher), something important of the learning quality is lost.

We already know how important play is for learning, as numerous studies show the positive effects of engaging in free play. One important part must be how play employs our creativity and curiosity. While guided play is sometimes important for concept development, it is necessary for anyone working with early childhood age students to be able to follow the child’s lead and verbally add new dimensions or elements to the play. Sitting the child down to perform a task an adult has planned has less effective learning components than enhancing the free play. Just because we will never create the same competence while  following the thinking of someone else, as we do while thinking  things through on  our own. Playing is the visual part of children’s thinking!  Helping students to engage with their own thoughts is a huge accomplishment.

There is also evidence about how social-emotional choices made during free play, like negotiating about taking turns, actually strengthen the same processes we need in scientific problem solving.  This makes me think how important it is to share our knowledge of learning and how it actually happens with students, so that they can be empowered to engage with their own learning process. Meaningfulness defines the quality of the play, as there is not an objective criteria for children how to conduct “good play”.  This is equally true with learning process, too, where meaningfulness perceived by the students drives their curiosity and engagement in class.

Measuring quality in education is hard, partly because there is not one universal definition what good quality learning looks like. People have different connotations about educational quality, and the cultural perceptions are also very diverse.  Learning, like play, is individual and very situational and contextual.

One way of approaching educational quality[1] is to see it as perfection of the learning process, where everybody involved is required to contribute to the quality of outcome, and can be held accountable for her/his own part. Isn’t this what we want for our students? For every student to be successful in their studies, and also have ownership over their achievements?

I bet every teacher knows about “teachable moments”, and those are the key components of a good quality learning process: to receive the information and inspiration at the right time, so that learning is perceived to be meaningful by the student. Learning quality in those moments is very high, due to engagement and ownership student experiences. These experiences are more likely to be saved in long term memory, because the ownership of learning process makes the transfer of learning to happen almost automatically.

In the classroom it looks pretty much as the following: We plan for optimal instruction, but students’ learning is something more than perfectly written, measurable performance objectives. Involving students in their own learning process helps them to become more accountable for their own learning. Teachers cater for students’ individual needs and preferences to make learning more meaningful for them.

Excellent educational quality emphasizes the transformative learning process that involves both cognitive and personal growth of students. It is learning for life, not just for school. This transformational type of learning happens in individual interactions. Teachers have very big role in supporting these interactions: the younger the student the more important it is to have a teacher as a trusted adult to facilitate these interactions between students and their learning environment and resources.

 


[1] Wittek, L., & Kvernbekk, T. (2011). On the Problems of Asking for a Definition of Quality in Education. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research55(6), 671-684.

 

Situational learning and teaching

12 Mar

Sometimes it seems that we want a magical pill to improve education and learning. This, of course, is not possible, no matter what the advertisements say. We cannot become fluent in a new language in two weeks any more than grow tall trees from saplings in the same amount of time. Learning and growing are both delicate processes where time is one essential component. How we use that time is important. In each unique situation.

I have previously stated that I believe learning happening in interactions. These dialogues are essential for concept development and creating deeper understanding (about anything).  Some interactions happen between the student and the learning materials others are facilitated by teachers and/or parents.  How interactions develop depends entirely on the situation. Some days and times are better than others, but for effective learning facilitation the basic requirement is for the teacher – or the parent – to remain fully present (physically, emotionally and cognitively) in the situation.

What prompted me to blog about this was a small article in the March/April issue of Scientific American.  “The myth of family meal: Eating together might not be as magical as researchers thought.”[1]  Placing value on something like family meal, without transferring the essential content (here: quality interactions) leads to misunderstandings, and emphasizing wrong things.

Gathering around the table for an enjoyable meal with the whole family and having vivid discussions about important issues certainly improves the quality of life and learning. However, if the family meal is used as a rule, thinking how performing this daily ritual improves the education and the future of children, we are misleading ourselves. In this case the family meal has become an empty doctrine. This was also the finding of researchers who followed nearly 18000 adolescents: Beyond indirect benefits via earlier well-being, however, family dinners associations did not persist into adulthood.[2]

I wonder how different the results were if this research had focused on meaningful interactions? I know it is easier to quantify family meals than interactions, and I appreciate the researchers’ efforts, because debunking yet another urban myth about education is good indeed.  Maybe it helps us shift the focus away form prescribed and scripted actions into the importance of situationality in education.

In my family the best discussions often occur in the car, mostly because of the closed space and having time to chat.  (My wish is that this gives hope and confidence to other parents who also at times may feel like running a family taxi service.) Some days nobody feels like talking, other times there are more items to discuss than we have time.  I am not trying to promote quality time over spending bigger quantities of time with children. I am just stating a fact that in my busy life the shared car ride sometimes turns out to be an enjoyable and meaningful conversation. Should it be generalized and stated that spending time in the car with your kids improves their well-being? Absolutely not. Because it depends on the situation.

I am afraid the same mistake of neglecting the true nature of learning is happening with Common Core.  The frames of teaching and rules of instruction are emphasized over the content, which should be learning instead of teaching.  We cannot box learning into a tight and tidy package, because it is situational and depends on dozens of individual factors during any given moment in the classroom.

Why not equip teachers with understanding of learning facilitation instead of providing them with a ready script for every minute spent in the classroom?


[1] Arnold, C. (2013, March/April).  The myth of family meal.  Scientific American Mind 24(1), 8.

[2] Musick, K. and Meier, A. (2012). Assessing Causality and Persistence in Associations Between Family Dinners and Adolescent Well-Being. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 476–493.

 

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.