Archive | February, 2012

How to build student centered class environment?

25 Feb

Student centered teaching is a way of making teaching and learning better in the classroom. As this is a highly qualitative measure, it is sometimes hard to summarize the necessary changes or easily communicate the differences between student-centered and traditional teacher-led instruction.

What makes definition even harder, is the fact that student centered education is not really a method. It is a philosophy, based on the fact that each human being learns individually. What is taught in a classroom is not necessarily learned, because each student has a different perception of what was taught – and that is exactly how it should be, if we want to foster (critical) thinking skills. When we are asked to follow someone else’s thinking we will not create the same competence as while thinking it through on our own.

There are certain indicators for student centered teaching and learning. The three  main characteristics to define whether a learning environment is student centered or not, are the use of cognitive, constructive and cooperative tools in teaching and learning. One very simple “measurement” is to pay attention to the amount of open-ended questions (as opposed to questions that have just single one correct answer). The other measure is the amount of individualization used in the classroom, and the learning environment supporting learner’s autonomy in majority of tasks and assignments.

Open-ended questions cater for the cognitive growth of your students.  These questions also help your students grow as learners and understand the way their individual learning happens when they hear different correct answers to the same question.  Discussing about the different points of view leading to these answers helps students understand the connections between concepts, and thus caters for deep learning.  When you as teacher know how learning happens, you can easily guide students beyond rote memorization. The question to ask yourself while planning the lesson is: what will my students really learn about this?

Individualization sometimes seems like a bad word, or being something that only adds to the load for the teacher. But it does not have to be  that way. Constructive teaching is student centered and acknowledges the importance of building the content to be learned so that it meets the students’ increasing understanding about the subject matter. Of course,  introducing more complicated concepts after the basics have been learned is just plain common sense. But, the constructive way I have taught with also includes the idea of providing choices for students, so that the more advanced students can learn further on their own speed, while those students who may need extra time can review the content one more time, if necessary. This is not hard to do. And it still is basic common sense: keep the learning meaningful for all of your students. I used to assign different homework for students, too.

Learner’s autonomy requires cooperation in the class.  Only cooperative learning is student centered, because teacher-led instruction is based on the teacher telling students what to do. Cooperation must happen between students to provide deeper understanding about the subject. Sometimes the students’ choice of words makes it easier for another student to understand, because they share the approximately same language level, which is not the case between the teacher and student. Cooperation  in the teacher-student relationship takes away the unnecessary power struggle between teachers and students: why have a battle when we are aiming to a mutual goal? Providing autonomy in class empowers students to learn more on their own,  and makes them become more interested in things they learn at school. This of course decreases the need for behaviour management in your class, when everyone is engaged in learning. Seems like a win-win situation to me!

Does your classroom have hidden expectations?

18 Feb

Teaching is a funny profession. Everybody has an opinion about it, because they have been involved with it, either as a student, a parent or a teacher. That is why classrooms carry loads of emotional baggage, thus always being a battlefield for different sets of expectations.

Every single person entering a classroom has their own expectations regarding learning, teaching, socializing or just education in general. It might not be a clear expectation, or even something they would have actively been thinking about, nevertheless it creates a filter that “colours” everything this person sees in the classroom. Think of coloured shades: depending of the colour of the lens, the whole classroom looks different. And this expectation makes us see exactly those things we want to see (or what we don’t want – because the focus can be the negative expectation, too).

Hidden expectations in the classoom can be about talking, moving, looking and help seeking.

Discussing classroom expectations openly is fortunately a common current practice, as well is creating classroom rules together with students. However, sometimes we still have other expectations that are not spelled out. It takes a fair amount of reflection to figure out what we implicitely expect to happen. Professional learning with collegues and visiting each others’ classroom are great ways to start a discussion of what we do expect.

The hidden expectations that are never discussed tend to appear as “ghosts” in the classroom: hard to detect and hard to address or handle. But they they have a strong effect on how your students learn. Students’ expectations for school or learning in general are often far from realistic, but this does not diminish the emotional and cognitive effect of them, unfortunately.

Have you ever heard about “inherited math-phobia”? A belief how nobody in a family has ever been good at math. Or how in some other family nobody has ever learned to read well and enjoy it…? Or how a student is highly intelligent in one area, and thus should only concentrate on improving that single skill?  You know what I am talking about, right? These expectations will make learning very hard for students, unless they are gently addressed in the class. This is a big part of SEL and supporting our students’ self-awareress as individuals and students.

Learning is a complex process, and we don’t even know all factors contributing to good quality learning. Students’ subjective learning experiences in the everyday classroom context are the building blocks of their education. Based on these experiences, students construct their academic self-images and self-efficacy beliefs. And we have learned about things that make learning harder. One of these things is poor communication, when the message is received in a very different way than it was sent. Hidden expectations are one part explaining why and how this happens.

Using focused and effective feedback in your classroom is one way of addressing these hidden expectations and ensuring that you and your students are talking about the same things. It creates opportunities to understand what your students are thinking, and provides situations for asking those very important open-ended questions. Please remember: learning happens in interactions and only those mistakes that are allowed to be corrected can help students to learn more.

Discussing expectations should be one part of casual communications in education. After all we share the ultimate goal: to see our students succeed in their lives (and studies, too).

Educational Awareness

3 Feb

It sounds like a fancy and complicated thing, this educational awareness, doesn’t it? Yet is is an everyday phenomenon, and often a hot topic of common conversations. We all have an idea about how to raise our children – or better yet, the neighbour’s children!

We also have strong ideas and beliefs about teaching, because of the experiences we have had during our school years. Just like  our beliefs about the best ways of raising children were partly developed during the time we were being taken care of.  In the past these views of good parenting and good education were passed from mother to daughter, or within the community in general. I think we all should start looking for answers beyond our family traditions, or the ways “it have always been done”.

Today we have more challenges in education and parenting, due to the globalization and free information available everywhere. But where to look and find the best practices? Fortunately we have tools to define good enough parenting – or good quality education. We also have tools to understand what these good practices look like. And this is what I am talking about while asking people to raise the educational awareness in their own communities: looking for practices that support development, learning process and understanding (as opposite of obedience, performance and memorization). There is lots of data available for us in print and on the internet, and we just should communicate  about the best ways of supporting learning to people we meet in our everyday lives.

For example there was a new study published today about how maternal support has an effect on our brain, in the regions that are essential to memory and stress modulation.  The support I am talking about is seeing the positive in the child instead the negative. So,  instead of paying attention to failure and saying negative things when students / children are misbehaving or unsuccessful we should try “catching” them in the moments of good behaviour, and just simply verbalizing the positive outcome.

How could we communicate this to all the parents, teachers, grandparents, neighbours, and other people being involved with developing children?

Will you help me tell people everywhere that children will learn better in school if they have been supported and nurtured in their early explorations within the safe structure of limits?