Tag Archives: learning

3 Core Concepts of Meaningful Learning

15 Sep

Meaningful learning is contextual and situational, and it greatly helps students to be more interested and more successful in their studies. Contemporary educational research recognizes the importance of students’ intrinsic motivation and self-concepts as means for improving their academic performance.  The first premise for any deep learning to occur is to introduce the new information in a way that makes students interested in acquiring it (buy-in from students’ part improves the effect teaching has).

The three core concepts that help making learning more meaningful are:

Cognitive approach – to create the foundation, because students’ thinking needs to change, not just their behaviour.

Constructive tools  – to focus on supporting students’ learning process and create the real-life connections

Cooperative tools  – to guide the classroom management decision and help students engage int heir learning goals

Learning new things in a way that makes them useful in the future, and also seeing that connection while learning occurs, makes acquiring new information more interesting.  When new information is added to our existing knowledge it needs to have as many connections as possible to ensure fast and easy retrieval from memory.

The more retrieval paths we create and use while learning, the deeper the new knowledge becomes (this is one part explaining why multilingual students can learn more easily), and the more confidence we have about our own learning competence.  It is really hard to find something that forces us to struggle  every day to be meaningful and interesting to do.

As teaching and learning are two very different phenomena that occur in the same physical space, I want to discuss the 3Cs first from the students’ point of view and then form the teachers’ point of view.

The Three Cs for Students

Cognitive learning (developing knowledge) means that the student is an active participant in the learning process, and focuses on understanding concepts, not just remembering facts. Cognitive learning is also is about using reasoning skills and finding logical solutions for problems, as well as about the student knowing how s/he learns, and being confident that s/he has an effect on how her/his learning happens (self-efficacy).

Constructive learning (integrating knowledge) is about building on previous experiences and using time spent in the classroom in a productive manner, so that students don’t engage with busywork, but get to learn on their own level (regardless being above of below the standards).  Constructive learning is not shallow or superficial, but creates meaningful experiences that help students become successful in life.

Cooperative learning (externalizing knowledge) makes learning a pleasant journey shared with friends. It is about getting and giving help, and being collaborative instead of competitive. Classroom organization and behavior management also fall under the label of cooperative learning, because it is important to accommodate everyone’s needs equally. This builds an emotionally safe learning environment where everyone feels accepted. In such environments, students won’t hesitate to ask for help from the teacher or from each other if they don’t understand something.

 

The Three Cs for Teachers

Cognitive teaching means catering to students’ intellectual needs and providing opportunities for students to process what they have learned and negotiate meanings (i.e. have them get answers to a common question: “what’s in it for me?”), but it is also tightly bound to increasing understanding of individual learning and the capability for learning. Learning motivation carries the baggage of beliefs about personal learning competence and also the family’s beliefs about being able to learn. These are often called to “causal attributions”, the most common of which is the theory of learned helplessness, the belief that individuals have no control over events that have an effect on them.

Constructive teaching means handing the tools of learning over to the student. In the classroom, this is visible in the form of students being provided with choices. Having choices strengthens students’ executive functions, as they are able to plan for their actions and carry out their plans with the teacher’s support. When used in conjunction, constructive and cognitive teaching emphasize the process of learning and guide the individual learning process.

Cooperative teaching means that the teacher doesn’t want to use unnecessary power over students, but strives to create a solid structure in the classroom so that everybody knows what to do and how to behave. Rules should be created in cooperation with students, because following rules that you have helped create is much easier than following externally imposed rules. Cooperative teaching also means that students are held accountable for their own learning, and the teacher is there to help students achieve their individual learning goals.

Makes sense, anyone?

Education changes the life of our students, so in a way it is always transformative.  In the worst case student drops out of the educational system believing that s/he is a failure, that s/he cannot learn. Choosing to teach in a way that enhances meaningful learning helps every student towards the positive transformation. Our knowledge and beliefs are references to the life we live, so living and learning cannot be separated from each other, no matter how old or young  the students are.

 

Green, J., Liem, G. A. D., Martin, A. J., Colmar, S., Marsh, H. W., & McInerney, D. (2012). Academic motivation, self-concept, engagement, and performance in high school: Key processes from a longitudinal perspective.Journal of adolescence35(5), 1111-1122.

Veermans, M., & Tapola, A. (2004). Primary school students’ motivational profiles in longitudinal settings. Scandinavian journal of educational research,48(4), 373-395.

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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??

 

How do YOU want to teach?

27 Apr

Being a teacher makes our core values become visible. All the small (and bigger) choices we make in the classroom talk about our beliefs of good learning and teaching: how we place our students, what kind of questions we ask, what is valued in our class, etc., and they all also contribute to our students’ perception of education. Improving learning and teaching becomes easier when we empower every teacher with the knowledge of choices. Please watch and share:

CHT video

Taking time to think HOW exactly YOU want to teach makes all your choices become more conscious. It is easier to choose wisely when you have better understanding about the consequences of your choices.  Walking the talk of making well-informed choices is important for everyone who wants to teach. Fortunately choosing is a skill that grows with use, just like language fluency.

The same principles apply to our students:  they need to have opportunities to practice choosing in an emotionally safe learning environment.   The first step is to make students aware that there is a choice. So, how exactly do we help our students to make wise choices? This thinking process led me to write the book:

Nina's book

My own belief, based on experiences, is that independent and autonomous students are also the most successful ones. I think this happens because they have so good control over their own learning processes, and also use several different learning strategies.  Guiding all students towards being self-sufficient and having more successful learning experiences can be done if we let go of some unnecessary control and start providing more choices in the daily classroom situations.

Please note that I am not talking about students running wild in the class. The best environment to improve learning and practice choosing is where we can allow students to make mistakes without penalties. This of course means having informal and non-punitive assessment and self-evaluation systems in place.  Student accountability is built on the foundation of their autonomy. How could you be accountable for something you cannot control?

How can you help students practice choosing and become more independent in their learning?

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.

What happens to learning when school year ends?

10 Jun

In an ideal situation?  Nothing – learning goes on because students are curious about their physical and social environment and want to keep on interacting with it.  Of course we don’t call it formally “learning” when they are exploring the shores, forests, parks, malls or streets of their hometown or holiday destination.  We call it free time or vacation. Yet, if your students have learned how appropriate and important the question Why? is, they will make the most of their free time as well and keep on learning while wondering and reflecting upon the things they notice. (Please, read more about Why? in this excellent post:  http://3diassociates.wordpress.com/2012/06/05/curiosity-questions-and-learning/)

In a less than ideal situation students refuse to wonder or ask questions about anything.  These students are so fed up with school that they try to avoid all learning activities at any cost when they get out of school. Why does education do that?! How does education do that? John Holt (American author and educator  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Holt_(educator)) had fairly strong ideas about how this disconnect happens:

“We destroy the love of learning in children, which is so strong when they are small, by encouraging and compelling them to work for petty and contemptible rewards, gold stars, or papers marked 100 and tacked to the wall, or A’s on report cards, or honor rolls, or dean’s lists, or Phi Beta Kappa keys, in short, for the ignoble satisfaction of feeling that they are better than someone else.”  — John Holt

Killing the intrinsic curiosity children are born with is the worst side effect of an educational system.  This is no news, scientists and educators have known that for decades. Learning starts from wondering.  Science is all about wondering, and asking questions why and how.  As long as you know how to wonder, you are also learning as you go.

“Every kid starts out as a natural-born scientist, and then we beat it out of them. A few trickle through the system with their wonder and enthusiasm for science intact.”  — Carl Sagan

We adults as parents and teachers can prevent the worst from happening by communicating the expectations of education with our students, and also verbalizing how learning does not only happen in school. Every child knows that games have rules, and that the rules must be obeyed so that everybody can play. So, instead of automatically trying to instill into students the idea of school being for fun, we probably should have a very honest talk with kids, and explain how school may not be fun – but how learning certainly is – and help them to understand the difference between learning and  going to school. Learning is what you do for yourself. Graduating is what you do for the society/culture as a part of the game of life.

Detaching learning from going to school and restoring the intrinsic curiosity by encouraging the question Why? is the first step on building autonomy as a learner. This also helps children to take a personal approach to their learning, and also assume more responsibility over it.

The question for you as a parent or teacher is: Do you want your student to be tricked into learning involuntarily (or because of the extrinsic rewards), or do you want them to choose  learning as their own choice?

                                                                                     

Keep on learning!

15 May

An educator can never cease to learn – but what makes learning meaningful to us?

We know how important (free) play is for children and how much it contributes to their learning – I think the dynamic way of play is the main contributor there (don’t have any data about this, but to me it seems like common sense: being able to control the play and make sense of the sensory feed related to it).  And I assume that is what fascinates adult learners, too, the ability to connect ideas in a playful way.

Every day we gain more information about how learning happens: with imaging techniques researchers are able to track what areas in our brain are active during learning. We know how each brain is different, and how learning is individual, and how different people manage and manipulate the knowledge in unique ways.

How about teaching? Are we still using the same teaching methods that were common hundreds of years ago? Teaching and learning are like the two opposite sides of a coin – inseparable but opposite. We educators must learn to match our teaching styles with the dynamic view of knowledge, and find new ways for facilitating our students’ learning.

Teaching is about communicating one’s own knowledge and understanding of the subject to students who either absorb it as is, absorb it with internal modifications, or discard it. Learning is about constructing a worldview. Facilitating students’ learning means helping our students to construct their own understanding of the subject, and negotiating the meaning of the words and concepts with our students until it makes sense to them.

We teachers don’t like to have someone to come and tell us what to do. Very few students like that either. To have an effective educational system, we must understand that effective teachers are simply facilitators of students’ individual learning processes – and the ones who incite the spark of lifelong learning.

Of course, if you have lost the passion of learning you cannot transfer that to your students either. Facilitating our own learning is the beginning.

What do you need to do to find the old flame, and fall in love with learning again?

Choose your focus

14 Mar

Anything you pay attention to in your classroom will inevitably increase. It truly is as simple as that. The human perception focuses on things we expect. This is why verbalizing your positive expectations in the classroom will make a difference.

As a teacher you are externalizing your values and beliefs while you teach, i.e. communicate with your students.  So, if you expect students to hate learning…. well… that is what you will get.  And vice versa, if you expect every student being capable for learning and submitting good quality work, that is what you will get (sooner or later- be patient).

Focusing your communication on what you want to happen in your classroom creates the expectation for students. I am talking about the subtexts of the classrooms anywhere, on any level of education.  There are ancient and new studies about this issue, one of my favourites being the Pygmalion Effect, of course. And I know already visited this issue in the post about Hidden Expectations, but  I wanted to focus more on communication here, and emphasize its effects on learning. Or, not learning.

Every teacher knows how it is not only important what you say, but also how you say it and the non-verbal communication accompanying your message. These three are commonly referred to as verbal, paraverbal and non-verbal messages, and the emphasis of each of them changes a bit depending on the age of your students. The younger the student, the more emphasis you need to put on the para-and non-verbal messages. Often this is expressed with a triangle showing a small portion on the tip being the verbal communication, and the other two being the  over 90% majority of what children actually receive. For more mature students the verbal message is stronger, but the other two parts of your message still remain important.

But there is actually more to that. Your classroom practices must match with your communication. If your words (and expressions) are being positive but the undertone strongly negative, students will be following the latter. Having practices that promote initiative, autonomy and student accountability strengthen your positive messages in the classroom, and also strengthen students’ understanding about their own learning process – which of course makes giving positive feedback even easier.

Creating positive spirals in classroom is easy! It is also a choice each and every teacher has to make. It starts from stating positive expectations to your students, and then making sure your classroom practices match with your words.

What do you want your focus to be?

The Learning Path

2 Mar

The Path of All Learning – How we move from Observation to Action.

Such a nice way of visualizing how learning happens! The amount of information (or the data) around us is bigger than ever, and the internet provides us with more and more data all the time. One important role for an effective teacher is to help students make good choices while searching data (and information). It may not be obvious for students what a reliable source looks like, so it is essential to teach about source criticism. I would also communicate early and often the fact that the knowledge two students construct from the same piece of information is different.

Your knowledge is different from mine, and that is exactly how it should be, because learning is highly individual (as opposite from teaching that can be done even with mass media). I know this does not exactly fit into the current testing culture, but let’s be realistic: students are learning for life, not for school. (At least that was the basic idea of public education when it was founded: to help students become ready for their lives.)

How could we lead more students to the path of learning?

Finding the Balance for More Effective Teaching

28 Dec

Imagine a wheel, like a bicycle wheel. What would the ride feel like if there were bumps on the wheel? Yet that is how we tend to emphasize only one aspect of learning and teaching in our classrooms.

Finding a balance is not always easy. After all, we have so very many details to include to our daily classroom teaching that it is sometimes hard to keep our thoughts straight. Here is a very simple 1-2-3 tool for checking the balance. It covers the most important areas of classroom teaching, no matter what level or grade you are working with.

1. Co-operate. Provide emotional support in the classroom. It helps your students learn, because they feel safe and more comfortable (read Mazlow if you don’t believe just my words). Be aware of learning problems, as well as the social ones, and address them in timely manner. Emotionally safe learning environment is the first premise for good quality teaching.

2. Be constructive. Create or adapt a classroom management system which is compatible with your own values and ideas about good teaching. Having extremely clear expectations for students cuts down the need of behaviour management – when student know what they are supposed to be doing creates lots of opportunities for the teacher to compliment them for their dedication and participation. Maximize the learning time by providing autonomous learning choices after finishing a task.

3. Strengthen the cognitive learning. Cater for concept development by asking lots of open ended questions and teaching your students ask those questions, too. Make sure to stop to listen to the answers. Provide feedback during the learning process instead of evaluating only the end result. This is the most important single thing enhancing their learning. Only those mistakes that are allowed to be corrected can help students learn more.

These steps also empower your students to move towards autonomous learning, because they focus more on learning than on teaching. And that is how it should be. After all, we are in the classroom to help our students learn, are we not? And one part of helping could be providing them a bit smoother ride.

The One Key for Being a Good Teacher

27 Dec

The key is teacher’s desire to empower her/his students to learn autonomously. Ultimately this makes the teacher become unnecessary. Of course, first you must convince your students that you are not a threat to them, but an ally.

Empowerment makes students want to learn. You can call it reverse psychology, or just avoiding the reactions of students when they are told to do things they might prefer not doing. Ultimately it is about teaching accountability, and doing things because they need to be done, not because someone tells me to.

The way empowerment is visible in the classrooms lies in the cooperative way of learning and teaching. We have a common goal. We work together towards reaching it. (This is so simple that I almost feel silly typing it down! – Yet, it still is too seldom practiced in our classrooms! Too many teachers engage in unnecessary power struggles every day.)

There is also a cognitive aspect in empowerment: unleashing your students intellectual curiosity. Helping and guiding students in their learning process is a non-threatening way to assess their learning, too. We all have different approaches to learning, and evaluating the process rather than the product gives much more information about how your students are advancing.

The constructive part of empowerment is helping your students make well informed choices every day. Small and big choices, but both equally justified – because it helps us understand why we do certain things. The important thing is to reflect back to previous experiences and build on the understanding we gained there. After all, we all helping our students to construct their own view of the world we live in.

Your life – your world – your choices.

I wish all students were empowered to know that!