Using positive regard to reframe my perception

5 Dec

What is one thing your can change today? You can choose to reframe your perception!

My work gets so much easier when I remember to assume that others have much better intentions than what their actions of behavior seems to suggest. I have blogged about Positive Regard before, and I often discuss it with people. Learning more about resilience and trauma-informed practices is great, and I hope that more teachers would get training or professional development about it, as soon as possible. The easiest way (for me) to start practicing the positive regard is to detach the behavior from the person and do my best to support the person as they are – because then I can respond, instead of reacting to the behavior or situation.

Sometimes we are told – or taught – how to perceive certain things like behaviors. It is important to remember that these perceptions are tightly related to the learning theories we use (behaviorism, constructivism, humanism, etc.). The learner-centered philosophy builds on the humanist worldview emphasizing construction of meaning and knowledge from individual experiences. It also requires showing genuine interest towards learners and practicing unconditional positive regard in teaching-learning interactions, which means that our perception of students’ behavior must stay in the right hand column of the image. Here is more about Learner-centered practices: What learner-centered really means.

Using SEL strategies helps us to reframe our perception. All SEL skills (Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship skills and Responsible Decision-Making) are necessary for successful learning, but too often they are not taught throughout formal education. As children arrive to school with different skillsets of SEL, some will need more help than others.

By embedding the SEL skills to our instruction and classroom management we are helping students to better engage in their own, individual learning process. And this is why embedding SEL is so crucially important! They should not be an additional curriculum, but learned within every school subject and project. Here is another great resource for using SEL in Trauma-Informed Practices.

Emotionally Safe Learning Environments

5 Nov

This blog post was originally published in December 2011. Occasionally I revisit my old posts to see if I still agree with them. 🙂

Student-centered and emotionally safe pedagogy is an attitude.  It is not a handbook of tips and tricks, to help us survive our days.  It is being physically and emotionally present when the student needs us. It is also thinking more about the process than the product. And in these classrooms the focus is in creating, not copying, no matter what the task is – this applies to art as well as note taking!

I think today, in 2022, the learner-centeredness and focusing on supporting students’ emotional safety is more important than ever! But this may require a perspective change for educators and administrators. A big one. Shifting from perceiving students as disobedient, uncontrollable, mean, or acting out, to understanding that these behaviors are indicators of trauma in students’ lives.

We cannot deny the effects of trauma in our classrooms!

Students need our help, so that they can learn how to self-regulate, or to use better ways to get their needs met. SEL is important and necessary in education, but it may not be enough. I think in 2022 we all need to learn how to use Trauma Informed Practices to create emotionally safe learning environments. Emotionally safe classrooms are flexible by their nature and they have rules that are consistent and justified. Ordering other people arbitrarily around is only a way to show your power over them.  Being considerate is generally understood as a virtue, and showing the same politeness to children does not go without rewards. Treating students as individual human beings feels like basic courtesy to me.

The central values of safety, co-operation, individuality, and responsibility help students to build a realistic self-image together with the teacher and classmates – and these all are central SEL skills we all need to be successful in the society. These values also create the foundation for an emotionally safe learning environment. Most often these values are expressed in the classrooms and discussed with the students. Ideally the wording of the rules is created in cooperation with students, and confirmed with the signatures of the teacher and students, before posting them on the wall for further reference.

Stress-free atmosphere is the first principle for creating an emotionally safe growing and learning environment. Focusing on learning process instead of the product helps to create the feeling of having enough time, which enables students to focus on their own learning instead of external factors that might disturb their concentration. This also supports learner agency. Knowing that their thoughts and ideas are valued helps students to think and express their thoughts more freely.

More thinking equals more learning.

The one situation when most of us feel threatened or unsafe is while we are receiving feedback. In an emotionally safe classroom feedback becomes a natural part of the learning process, and thus stops being scary.  While utilizing students’ daily self-evaluation and teacher’s verbal comments, the feedback system actually becomes a tool for the students to control their own learning. This automatically holds students accountable for their own learning and helps them realize how much they already have learned. Ungrading is a growing movement among teachers!

I mentor students pursuing their M.Ed. degrees In Learning Experience Design and Curriculum & Instruction, and try to follow my own advice. Therefore the most important question I ask every day is: How can I support your learning today?

4 Learning Processes

31 Aug

I was re-re-reading one of my very favorite education books: Contemporary Theories of Learning (Illeris, 2018) and thinking about how to support all different learners. Obviously, we must provide experiences that meet the needs of our learners and helps them to learn. But how do we actually learn? What does the learning process look like? How do we make sense of all the data and information surrounding us? For clarity, I like to use the definition of learning as a two-step progression containing the processes of external interaction and internal elaboration. [1] Interacting with data is just the first step in the learning process, gathering the information. The second step, elaboration, transforms the information to become a part of our personal knowledge structure.

Exactly how do we react to the bits of data in our environment and change it to become information that can be stored in our minds? In early learning this is easy to observe – young children actively try to make sense of the surrounding world. They are accumulating new words and concepts with a remarkable pace! Their intrinsic motivation to learn is a continuous source of inspiration, and I often wish we as adults could approach new things with the same amazing curiosity. When we organize the information, we are constructing our own knowledge – which sometimes is accurate, but most often needs some fine-tuning. This elaboration part is exactly why we need educators to provide some structural support. Otherwise, we might still call every four-legged animal a dog.  A very important part of instruction (in any level of education) is helping students to understand the connections for new information and showing how to build concept hierarchies and categorize information in a meaningful way.

So, when we consider how learning happens, there appears to be 4 different learning processes to keep in mind while designing learning experiences: cumulative, assimilative, accommodative and transformative. These all are natural processes, and the first one we use is the cumulative process where we learn something that is not connected to anything else that we already know. This mostly happens during the first years of our lives because everything is new, and we just mechanically observe the world and add the data as information to our minds. In addition to early learning, we sometimes use cumulative learning process when we need to memorize something without a context. This is why passwords are sometimes hard to remember: without personal meaning the information is easily discarded especially if it isn’t used often.

The most common type of learning is termed assimilative or learning by addition. [2] When we assimilate data, we add new information into something we have previously learned. This is very common type of classroom learning, but may still lead to quite shallow or strategic learning approaches, especially if the application is only for the test or quiz, instead of extending the new knowledge beyond classroom context [3]. Some examples are new words and concepts, like learning a new language and just memorizing the words or rote learning the multiplication tables or important dates of history. Hence the common (and very valid) question heard from students: “When will we ever use this?” However, we don’t have to stay within the plain behaviorist learning paradigm with assimilative learning. To design better learning experiences for students in any levels of education, we will want to use learner-centered practices and provide learning strategies like mindmap templates to support students’ individual meaning-making activities during assimilative learning. This also leads to the deeper level of learning – accommodating new information.

Accommodative learning process takes us to a place where we must challenge and change our existing thinking patterns. This problem can lead to a productive struggle: when new information doesn’t fit into our existing scheme, we need to figure out why. This deeper learning can be hard, and it can be extremely rewarding. Alas, without Growth Mindset it may lead learners to a dead end of believing they cannot learn, which is why anyone who wants to teach, must know how to offer support for productive learning struggles. Designing learning experiences with expansive framing in mind (ways to support learning reflection, encouraging collaborative learning, discussing self-explaining strategies, etc.) instead of assuming that students already know how to do this is a great starting point. Here is a link to learning strategies at NinasNotes. Accommodative learning process happens within ZPD–the Zone of Proximal Development–where learners need support and scaffolding to successfully acquire new information and skills. Accommodating new information is a prerequisite for Transformational Learning, which requires a great deal of learner agency. Agency as a concept refers to self-awareness and degree of freedom. [4]

When learning experience is transformational it means that our thinking or even personality changes–transforms–into something new, requiring the previous schemes, structures and categories to change. This change in our frame of reference challenges both our habits of mind and viewpoints that are constructed from our beliefs, values, attitudes and feelings. [5] Designing transformative learning experiences therefore requires creating a safe space for learners to explore their beliefs and take risks of trying something different, something new. Excellent ways to facilitate the transformational learning process is to explicitly teach about metacognitive strategies, embed Social-Emotional Learning into instructional practice, engage in a dialogue with students and use a coaching approach in the classroom.

Metacognition: The awareness and perceptions we have about ourselves as learners, understanding of the requirements and processes for completing learning tasks, and knowledge of strategies that can be used for learning.

To sum it up: We need to be very mindful when designing learning experiences for our students, keeping in mind that the same instructional content will most likely evoke 2-4 different learning processes among the learner population, depending on their previous knowledge and exposure to the content. We should never assume our learners know how to choose successful learning strategies; and we must always be ready to offer metacognitive support.

References:

[1]  Illeris, K. (2018). Contemporary theories of learning: Learning theorists … in their own words. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

[2] Illeris, K. (2009). Contemporary theories of learning: learning theorists—in their own words. London: Routledge / edited by Knud Illeris

[3] Huberman, M., Bitter, C., Anthony, J., & O’Day, J. (2014). The shape of deeper learning: strategies, structures, and cultures in deeper learning network high schools. Findings from the study of deeper learning opportunities and outcomes: Report 1. American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from: http://www.air.org/resource/spotlight-deeper-learning

[4] Smith, N.C. (2017). Students’ perceptions of learner agency: A phenomenographic inquiry into the lived learning experiences of high school students. (Doctoral Dissertation).  Northeastern Repository

[5] Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative learning: Theory to practice. New directions for adult and continuing education1997(74), 5-12.

What Learner-Centered Education Really Means

16 May

Learner-centered and emotionally safe pedagogy is an attitude or disposition. It is not a handbook of tips and tricks. It is being physically and emotionally present when a student needs us. It is also about focusing on the learning process instead of the product (worksheet, assessment, test score, etc.). It means  engaging in a dialogue, offering help and support, and answering the question every student asks: What’s in it for me? 

Personalization is one of the modern approaches in learning and teaching. However, it is important to remember that designing great learning experiences doesn’t require any special apps, programs or gadgets! We want it to based on Learner-centered pedagogy because it has a long history and it has proven to be very effective. At the simplest form learner-centered means that we are are focusing everything around students needs. (Image below: my starburst mirror in the making)

When I was making my starburst mirror few years back, I was thinking that this is how student-centered learning really works: keeping students in the center and carefully building the individualized support around them. This means purposefully designing the instructional process (teaching methods, lesson planning and classroom management) to meet students’ needs, focusing on supporting students’ individual learning process (learning and development and SEL) and using assessment data to support students’ individual learning processes. Please see TPK for more info about pedagogical knwoledge.

Some students need more support than others. We are not clones and should not be treated like ones, so it is important to abandon the outdated factory model, where learning is seen to be a product (of instruction and testing). To me, one the cringiest examples of the product thinking is seeing 28 pieces of identical “artwork” on classroom walls. Yes, students had learned to follow directions and create a copy of something, but the scary truth is that we will never creat the same competency when following somone else’s thinking. For deep learning to happen we must engage in our own thinking – this is what I learned while working for Head Start. Children were amazingly creative and learned so much every day while playing.

A major problem is that we still talk about learning and teaching like they were just one process. But learning and teaching are two different things! They are two different processes that are often put into the same frame of reference (education) and sometimes even happen in the same physical space (classroom) – but it would be foolish for us to imagine that students only learn at school! The “real” learning often happens after studying has been done, and the newly gained knowledge is used in real-life situations and combined with all the existing knowledge and experiences student have. This is what “deep learning” means: reconstructed personal understanding of the topic.

When we perceive learning as an in-built force within our students, the teaching job became instantly easier! Being a facilitator for learning and guiding  students to build their own knowledge is a huge step towards supporting learner agency. And it is truly learner-centered! 

We want to strive towards the next step in education: schools evolving to places where knowledge is socially constructed and contextually reinvented. We can do this is ANY given classroom  by offering choices for students and making their learning more meaningful. But this also presents the need for mutual intentionality and accountability – students coming to school with the intention to learn, teachers with the intention to support students’ individual learning. Not just meeting the standard of the learning objective of the day. Please understand that I am NOT against standards! But meeting them cannot be the ONLY goal of education.

The one thing that sustains my professional practice after a decade in Higher Ed is that I get to talk and email with my students, one at the time, and ask the most important question:

How can I help and support your learning process today?

Supporting adult learning and SEL

27 Feb

Learning and being taught are two very different experiences. Engagment in one’s own learning process (aquiring information and elaborating on it) is crucially important for deeper learning to happen. Learning is usually more enjoyable than the experience of being taught. (There is a LOT of infomation why professional learning is so much better than professional development, but let’s not get too deep into that! Suffices to say that teacher agency is crucially important for learner agency. Here is a good link: REL Pacific)

University and college students are (mostly) adults, and we need to be very mindful about how we teach. Just because learning happens in interactions. This is one of the deep truths in education: The content of our message matters, but also the delivery!

The phones in the picture are all mine. I used the pink Nokia flip phone in Finland and Mexico before I moved to the U.S., and then was surprised that I still needed a landline here. My house still doesn’t get much of mobile reception. When communication gets harder (because of tech or any other reasons) we should pause for a moment and consider what our students are receiving. Just because what we say (or think what we are saying) can be very different from what our students are hearing. This is why learning really needs dialogues, the back-and-forth exchanges where we are building mutual understanding. Which obviously takes time. But that time is so extremely well spent!

Adult learners bring such a huge burden of their previous learning experiences to every assessment they are facing. One part of the problem is that often there aren’t real rubrics that would map the scope of the assessment, the other part is that we all interpret the assessment and the rubric using our past educational experiences. This is why coaching (or mentoring) is an important part of adult learning. By engaging in dialogue and highlighting SEL (social-emotional learning) competencies we can support adult learners to enjoy their learning experience and gain the most of it.

Everyone who works in higher education should read the APA guide to College Teaching. It has excellent insight into how students learn and how we can support that learning. The other resource I use every day is the CASEL framework. It helps me to discuss the self awareness and self-management we need as eductors, as well as social awareness, relationship skills and my all-time-favorite: responsible decision making! My other blog is named “Choosing How to Teach” for this very reason – we DO have choices and we can choose to support our students’ learning and SEL. Learning IS a process, not just a product.

How about you? What are your best resources for supporting adult learning and SEL?

🙂

Nina

Dialogues that enhance learning

10 Nov

Engaging in a dialogue is essential for learning. Knowledge construction (=learning) cannot occur in a vacuum, but happens in interactions [1]. Too often we think that all classroom discussions equal dialogue. They do not.

Conversation and discussion are very broad concepts to describe (educational) interactions. Debates are more specific interactions for presenting and supporting an argument, a genre of dialogue focusing on challenging assumptions and knowledge. Argumenting discussion can objectify a perspective thus supporting reasoning and understanding [2]. It is still a discussion, not a dialogue.

Classroom dialogue refers to the productive interactions that support students’ deeper learning in the classroom. It is not about winning an argument, but helping students to understand the concepts and construct the meaning of the topic to be learned. Similarly, classroom dialogue is not 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” [3], 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 [4], 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 = authentic conversation. Not a tool for manipulation to get what we want.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 great way to help students get engaged in their own learning process.  My favorite definion of dialogue is the following: “Dialogue is about engagement with others through talk to arrive at a point one would not get to alone” . This engagement is easy and enjoyable!  It must be fostered in all education!

🙂

Nina

 

[1] Illeris, K. (2018). A comprehensive understanding of human learning. Contemporary Theories of Learning, 1-14.

[2] (direct citation from Littleton & Howe, 2010, p. 108)  Littleton, K., & Howe, C. (Eds.). (2010). Educational dialogues: Understanding and promoting productive interaction. Routledge.

[3] (direct citation from Littleton & Howe, 2010, p. 4)  Littleton, K., & Howe, C. (Eds.). (2010). Educational dialogues: Understanding and promoting productive interaction. Routledge.

[4] (direct citation from Littleton & Howe, 2010, p. 172)  Littleton, K., & Howe, C. (Eds.). (2010). Educational dialogues: Understanding and promoting productive interaction. Routledge

[5] (direct citation from: Lodge, 2005, p. 134) Lodge, C. (2005). From hearing voices to engaging in dialogue: Problematising student participation in school improvement. Journal of Educational Change, 6(2), 125-146.

Teachers’ learning process has three dimensions

5 Nov

Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.

~John Cotton Dana

Our world today is very different from the dawn of the industrial world where school systems were created, so the way we prepare students for their unknown future should be changed. Well-rounded contemporary education aims for students (and teachers) to achieve (and improve) the global competencies that are to:

  • examine the world, including local and intercultural issues
  • understand and appreciate diverse perspectives
  • effectively communicate ideas and interact respectfully with others
  • take responsible action toward sustainability and collective well-being

Today information is available everywhere – hand held devices, computers, books – and in various forms – text, sounds, images, movies, infographs, social media, and more.  This means the teacher cannot be seen as the sole source of information, but we must become the facilitators of students’ individual learning. We will guide their learning process and provide support for making good choices about how to use all the information we have. Changing the teaching profession to support individual learning process instead of just delivering information must also change the way we think about teacher training and professional development.

Just like their students, teachers have diverse needs for their learning and professional development, and are entitled to their own learner-centered training experiences. Only by strengthening teachers’ learning process we can truly improve their professional competence and ultimately the learning experiences pupils will have.  Standards alone are not the solution – there must be room for personalization for all learners regardless their age or educational level. Engaging in the individual learning process enables both teachers and students to build up from standards and achieve the global competencies to thrive in the modern world.

3d teacher competence

All training and professional development (PD) should include the three dimensions of teachers’ professional competency: teaching and instruction, pedagogical knowledge and global reflection.  All three dimensions are important and contribute to the teaching-learning situations. The colour in the thirds deepens with layers of professionalism, produced by the teachers’ ongoing learning process. You probably notice how the third part, global reflection, seems to be drifting apart from the two others? That is unfortunately happening too often in training and PD. But excluding global reflection makes it significantly harder for teachers to achieve excellent learning facilitation skills and thrive in their profession.  In Teacher’s Pedagogical Knowledge (TPK) the global reflection includes Evaluation and diagnosis procedures and Data & Research literacy. But I think it really is a broader concept including the global competencies!

Too often teacher PD stays on the first dimension – the practical and concrete classroom practice to deliver lessons. Teaching and instruction trainings and PD sessions talk about the curricula or ready assessments without supporting teachers’ thinking about the pedagogical choices that would be best for their students. How would you incorporate the global competencies into the classroom experience, if everything is designed fro a standard population and scripted by someone else? And how do you think students will learn to investigate the world, recognize diverse perspectives, communicate effectively and take action to improve things if they are not active participants in their own learning? It they are just presented the curriculum?  If they just arrive to school to be instructed and assessed instead of engaging in their own learning with the curiosity they have towards the world?

The underlying instructional philosophies and curricular choices are very important for effective learning experiences! The global competencies are not compatible with the basic behaviorist one-size-fits-all education. We must dig deeper into teachers’ learning!

Pedagogical  knowledge is the middle dimension of teachers’ learning process, which means it needs to be visited and revisited all the time in order to tie the rapid instructional decisions to the theoretical background we have about teaching, learning and understanding. According to this infograph at TeachThought blog teachers make 1500 educational decisions each day. Solid pedagogical knowledge helps us as teachers to become aware about our own choices in classroom practices. With solid knowledge of how learning happens and how it can best be supported we are taking a huge leap towards making learning personal and enabling students to become accountable for their own learning. No classroom or group of students is identical to another, so no practices should be adopted without thinking how well they fit into this particular class or group.

The third dimension of professional learning – global reflection – combined with the pedagogical knowledge helps teachers to decide what strategies are the best fit in the classroom. For educators it is really important to think about the question “why?”. Teaching dispositions, values and  philosophy belong to global reflection, as well as didactic design, even though it is terminology used mostly in Scandinavia. This third dimension in teachers’ learning process and professionalism is s the big picture of teaching and learning, and how different learning theories become alive in our classroom. We only see what we are ready to perceive, which is why we must have solid knowledge of educational research and know how to use assessment as learning and assessment for learning in addition to assesment of learning. Awareness is the first step in everything.  Changing between the big picture and details helps us analyse teaching and learning, because it relates to the ability of taking different viewpoints to the same issue and trying to see what others see. For teachers this is essential, so that they can offer information in student-sized chunks and relate it to students’ previous knowledge, and thus support students’ learning process.

The three dimensions of teachers’ learning process (concrete instruction, pedagogical knowledge and values/research behind it)  are present in all teaching-learning situations. They can be visible in the choices and interactions, or veiled in hidden expectations.

I want to encourage all teachers and instructors to engage in value discussions and joint reflection with colleagues and students to strengthen their own professional competence. PD is very insufficient for us teachers to be effective in our profession, because  it most often is that one-size-fits-all training. Please be proactive and create a PLC (Professional Learning Community) with your colleagues to deepen your own competencies in all three dimensions of teachers’ learning process!

How to enjoy learning?

25 Jul

In the beginning of our lives, we all love to learn! Anyone, who has been with preschoolers, knows how excited they are about learning new things. Observing high school students or people in Professional Development – well, not so much visible enjoyment there. Why? What went wrong?

Learning is a survival skill we all are born with. But at school we often turn the intrinsic learning (and learning interest) around to something else, something measurable – schooling, or being taught. At worst, schooling kills the intrinsic interest to learning because we figure out that we are doing things wrong while learning on our own. In most cases it just decreases our learning enjoyment and makes us go through the motions and activities for an external reward – for a grade or diploma. However, there are different, better ways to support learning and engagement than grades and diplomas.

First – we must find again our own learning enjoyment as educators. A teacher who is not interested in learning should seek different employment. I know this is very strong statement, but it is not easy to fake something as fundamental as one’s desire to learn. Emphasizing anything else but learning is a mistake when we want to improve education – yet many school improvement plans focus on student “achievement” or “performance”, which are very different because they are snapshots of what a student knows or can do at a single point of time. A test score cannot even pinpoint where in the learning process the “magic” happened. My dear visitor, I am assuming that you are reading this because you are ready to engage in your own learning process and want to learn something new.

Second – let’s agree that learning happens everywhere, not only at school. Anything can be learning experience when we have the mindset and dispositions that support life-long learning, which should be the main outcome of an educational system (and it is often mentioned in missions and value statements). However, students’ everyday experiences are not about engaging their own learning process – mostly they are just trying to assimilate tons of information, which is very hard without a meaningful learning context, and easily leads to surface or strategic learning approach. We must help students to learn on their own! This is one example how to do it: Pre-school/kindergarten in Finland is dedicated to learning how to learn (instead of learning reading and math). The Finnish curriculum highlights interactions, meaningfulness and joy of learning:

Answers were sought to the question on how to best promote learning.

The active involvement of pupils, meaningfulness, joy of learning and school cultures

that promote enriching interaction between pupils and teachers are at the core of the new curriculum.

Finnish National Core Curriculum.

As educators we must support students’ holistic learning. Reminding students and parents that learning can happen anywhere and finding ways to integrate students individual learning experiences as parts of their formal learning portfolio is a great start towards increasing learning enjoyment. (The same principle obviously applies to educators’ Professional Learning – which is often better than Professional Development!)

Third – we must strive to make learning more meaningful for students. This is a hard one, because we all are so different. One size just cannot fit all! Therefore, offering choice for obtaining information and demonstrating competency/mastery is crucially important. We do this while differentiating instruction, but often forget (or don’t have time) to include students’ insight of their learning preferences into improving their learning experiences. Yet, in order for learning to be meaningful, students must have a part in the learning design process. This is not a new idea, there is more than 100 years of research about benefits of learner-centered approach and treating learners as co-creators and partners in the teaching and learning process [1](lots of familiar names there: Dewey, Montessori, Piaget, Vygotsky, Rogers among others).  APA – American Psychological Association has emphasized the importance of meaningful learning since 1990 by highlighting the learner-centered approach and 2015 updating the approach to Top 20 principles for PreK-12 education. I wish every teacher had a copy of these documents!

Bottom line: We can and must support students’ learning enjoyment as well as enjoy our own learning experiences!

We have many choices for doing this. The following blog posts are helpful :

Learner-centered education

Is learning a product or process?

Engaging student in their own learning process

Choosing How to Teach

References:

[1]  Summarized from the APA Work Group of the Board of Educational Affairs (1997, November). Learner-centered psychological principles: Guidelines for school reform and redesign. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.  http://www.jodypaul.com/lct/lct.psychprinc.html  and  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Student-centered_learning

Learner agency thrives in an emotionally safe learning environment

11 Apr

Student-centered and emotionally safe pedagogy is a choice, an instructional approach in any level of education. It is not a handbook of tips and tricks, to add diversity and equity into instruction, or help us survive our challenging days in the education profession. It is being intellectually and emotionally present when a student needs us. It is also about choosing the instructional strategies to support every students’ individual learning process and learner agency[1].

Supporting learner agency has 8 components: metacognition, self-determination, learning environment, learning ownership, social context, subjective experiences, choices, social-emotional learning.

I have been on the path of critical pedagogy for a long time. During my own K-12 education, I never imagined I would become a teacher, but as an adult I was intrigued by the ways we construct our understanding. Even before I became a teacher I wondered how individual learning could be better supported – because one size does not fit all. It seemed to me that an intellectually and emotionally safe learning environment was very necessary for supporting the learning process. After that realization there was no turning back – I had to study education science. 🙂

Learning happens in a social context, in interactions, and as educators we can make this experience better for our students. Emotionally safe classrooms are flexible by nature and they have rules that are consistent and justified, and preferably created in cooperation with students. Treating students as unique human beings is essential – which makes is hard or impossible to use behaviorist learning theories, or have strong external regulation for learning process. Later I realized that this also describes the DEI – approach for diversity, equity and inclusion. We want to support students’ self-determination because it increases their intrinsic motivation and ownership of their learning process [2].

Learning to learn is a lifelong process. It starts in early childhood, which is why preschool can have such a huge effect in future learning. Good quality early childhood pedagogy focuses on supporting holistic child development and making learning a joyful experience children want to repeat. It is important to also teach children how to help themselves to learn. We do this by increasing their metacognition and guiding children to use a variety of deep learning strategies – based on the learning task they are facing [3]. Learning to write one’s own name requires different strategies than learning to ride a bike. In order to choose, we must be aware about choices we have. And as adults we are still discovering new learning strategies for ourselves – if we keep looking for them. It really IS a life-long process.

Metacognition: The awareness and perceptions we have about ourselves as learners, understanding of the requirements and processes for completing learning tasks, and knowledge of strategies that can be used for learning.

We all have our subjective experiences and preferences that inform our choices. Sometimes we need to learn to manage ourselves in a different way – fortunately there are plenty of great SEL resources to use. Please check the CASEL framework and resources! I became familiar with social-emotional learning when I was earning my M.Ed. in Finland, and it has been a crucially important part of the learner-centered and emotionally safe pedagogy I have been building in my career and discussing in this blog. Stress-free atmosphere helps to build an emotionally safe growing and learning environment.  Knowing that their thoughts and ideas are valued helps students think and express their thoughts more freely. More thinking equals more learning.

The one situation when most of us feel threatened or unsafe is while we are receiving feedback. In an emotionally safe classroom feedback becomes a natural part of the learning process, and thus stops being scary – Growth Mindset can be used in this, if we remember to use the pedagogy of kindness and invest in personhood [4]. Focusing on supporting each individual student on their own learning path does take more time than applying standardized measures. But, it is also more effective. Students’ daily self-evaluation and teacher’s verbal comments can create an awesome tool for students to reflect and control their own learning, but it takes time to have those individual interactions with all students. I would like to see classroom sizes small enough to allow more dialogue, because learning still happens in interactions, regardless of the technology we may be using. 

It is important to remember that being kind is different from being nice. While being kind I engage in the important (but hard) dialogue about learning, helping my students to understand their own learning process and how they can either help or hinder their own learning. If I were to be just nice, I could say “Good job!” and move on – but that would not help my students to learn more.

References:

[1] Smith, N.C. (2017). Students’ perceptions of learner agency: A phenomenographic inquiry into the lived learning experiences of high school students. (Doctoral Dissertation).  Northeastern Repository

[2] Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The” what” and” why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological inquiry11(4), 227-268.

[3] Seif, E. (2018, November 16 )Dimensions Of Deep Learning: Levels Of Engagement And Learning. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. https://inservice.ascd.org/dimensions-of-deep-learning-levels-of-engagement-and-learning/

[4] Denial, C. (2020) A pedagogy of kindness. In. L. Stommel, C. Friend, & S.M. Morris (Eds.), Critical digital pedagogy: A collection. Hybrid Pedagogy Incorporated (pp. 212-218). https://hybridpedagogy.org/critical-digital-pedagogy/

Using SEL to support learner agency

22 Jan

Learner agency (students’ voice and choice in their own learning) has gained wonderfully much interest in education around the world during the past few years.

Alas, sometimes I see learner agency being expressed as something students either have or don’t have – yet, agency is truly the capacity to choose our responses to problematic situations [1]. It is not up to us as educators to start scoring learner agency, or dividing students based of whether they have agency or not. And, according to my research, learner agency may sometimes appear negative, especially when students choose to disengage – often to object the structure of instruction.

Students can perceive their learner agency as Detachment, Belonging, Synergy or Unbound.

Detachment can happen more easily when students perceive that their learning has no real-life connections, or when they are just going through the motions to earn a grade. There is very little or no learning going on, and students may engage in surface learning strategies.

The good news is that we CAN support learner agency with our instruction and classroom management and help students to belong, find synergy and become unbound learners. Choosing to teach with respect towards students and support students’ ownership of their own learning is a good start! Social- emotional learning (SEL) provides great tools for supporting learner agency. CASEL framework has identified 5 areas in SEL:

  • self-awareness
  • self-management
  • social awareness
  • relationship skills
  • responsible decision making

These are not something new and surprising, teachers throughout the time have focused on supporting these areas in their classrooms. And we know from decades of research how successful students already use all these skills – I am thinking all the research about self-regulation and co-regulation, engagement and participation, executive functions, metacognitive skills, and so forth. All SEL skills are necessary for successful learning, but too often they are not taught throughout formal education. And children arrive to school with different skillsets of SEL, some will need more help than others.

By embedding the SEL skills to our instruction and classroom management we are helping students to better engage in their own, individual learning process. And this is why embedding SEL is so crucially important! They should not be an additional curriculum, but learned within every school subject and project. The classroom applications for embedding SEL are quite self-evident:

  • Supporting students’ self-awareness means that we address their thoughts, beliefs, emotions and motivations regarding the learning experiences students have.
    • Providing information is just one part of the teaching-learning exchange
    • Addressing students’ questions and validating their thoughts immediately deepens the learning experience
    • Helping students to deal with their emotions during learning process further improves the learning experience – getting new or contradicting information is hard for all of us!
  • Supporting students’ self-management means that we help students to take initiative and cope with their emotions and thoughts, and we also provide guidance for stressful situations.
    • We have all had students with advanced self-management skills, and also students who haven’t really been exposed what self-management means. Balancing different student needs is always challenging, and it will always be challenging because we are individuals with different personal histories. Supporting students’ self-regulation is just a part of being an educator!
    • Some students need more support in taking initiative than others, it may be a part of their personality. Too often I see extroversion being rewarded over introversion – even though one is not a better personality trait than the other!
  • Supporting students’ social awareness means that we model empathy and compassion, recognize (and verbalize) situational demands and opportunities, and help all students to take perspective
    • Understanding the perspective of another person is a fundamental skill in the society, and we can choose to teach this with all classroom interactions. Think-pair-share is a great start!
    • Discussing why some things are harder to learn than others is important, because it relates directly to the mindsets we have. And verbalizing that we all struggle with something builds better communication and learning skills for the future.
  • Supporting students’ relationship skills means that we emphasize cooperation, communication and proactively teach students to seek help and offer help to others
    • Engaging in dialogue is important. And dialogue is VERY different from discussion, because in dialogue we are actively trying to understand what the other person is trying to express (not focusing on building our own argument).
    • Cooperative education is learning-centered, meaning that everything we do is focused on supporting students’ learning process and understanding the big picture – instead of cramming tons of details to be forgotten after the test or engaging in busywork.
    • Learning happens in interactions – so providing more opportunities for meaningful interactions is important!
  • Supporting students’ responsible decision making means that we teach students how to make good decisions, first with smaller things and about personal behaviors and social interactions, but also increasingly more complex decisions.
    • Choosing is a skill that can (and must) be learned in a safe environment.
    • Only through making choices we can train our own executive functions [2] – EF doesn’t develop if we are always told what we need to do.
    • Too many (and too big) choices can be detrimental – knowing students’ personal preferences will help us to support them learning to choose.
    • Adding choices also communicates to our students that we believe they can learn, and that we are there to help, if needed.

All the five SEL elements are organically present in our lives, in our societies. Classroom learning shouldn’t be an exception of this. Choosing to teach with the focus of supporting students’ learning process also helps us empower our students to learn more on their own.

Helping students to learn how to make responsible choices is a crucially important life skill. Let’s not waste our opportunity to support their agency by embedding SEL strategies to our instruction and adding more students’ voice and choice to every learning interaction!

References:

[1] Emirbayer, M., & Mische, A. (1998). What is agency? American journal of sociology, 103(4),
962-1023. Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/231294.

Biesta, G., & Tedder, M. (2007). Agency and learning in the lifecourse: Towards an ecological
perspective. Studies in the Education of Adults, 39(2), 132-149.

[2] Patall, E. A., Cooper, H., & Robinson, J. C. (2008). The effects of choice on intrinsic motivation and related outcomes: a meta-analysis of research findings. Psychological bulletin, 134(2), 270.

Smith, N.C. (2017). Students’ perceptions of learner agency: A phenomenographic inquiry into the lived learning experiences of high school students. (Doctoral Dissertation).  Northeastern Repository