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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. ūüôā

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 ‚ÄúGood job!‚ÄĚ and move on ‚Äď but that would not help my students to learn more.

References:

[1] Smith, N.C. (2017). Students‚Äô 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‚ÄĚ what‚ÄĚ and‚ÄĚ why‚ÄĚ 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

Deep learning for teachers

4 Nov

 

It easier to teach something you have experienced firsthand. This is why teachers’ learning should reflect the ways we wish their students to learn. Instruction is situated in one‚Äôs own experiences.

I am not talking about activities in professional development, but those same elements that provide deeper learning experiences for students in classroom:

  • focusing on transferable understanding,
  • providing opportunities to reflect,
  • relating new information to previous knowledge, and
  • bridging theory with practice.

Truly focusing on life-long learning.

Teachers as learning professionals still need occasional reminders about how to support their own learning process, because in the professional world the expectations for showing competence by generating learning products (evidence, projects, artifacts, exams, etc.) sometimes take over the deep learning process, and thinking about how learning really happens, and how it can be supported on personal level. Knowledge of metacognitive skills is an essential tool for anyone who wants to teach.

Metacognitive awareness includes the knowledge and perceptions we have about ourselves, understanding the requirements and processes of completing learning tasks, and knowledge of strategies that can be used for learning.  Teaching metacognitive knowledge and skills is an important part of supporting deep learning. We as teachers should have extensive knowledge and skill to embed metacognitive strategies into our everyday practices.

Just like classroom learning experiences, also teacher learning should be designed to support self-regulated learning (SRL) practices.  SRL refers to students’ cognitive-constructive skills and empowering independent learning, focusing on strengthening the thoughts, feelings and actions that are used to reach personal goals (Zimmerman, 2000). This approach aligns well with the research of adult learning, which highlights the use of constructive-developmental theories (e.g. Mezirow, 2000; Jarvis, 2009; Stewart & Wolodko, 2016).

Supporting students’ SRL becomes easier to embed into instruction when we have first practiced in our own learning. This cannot be achieved by following a script or curriculum book, but situating the knowledge of pedagogy in classroom practice.

Using SRL as a chosen approach in professional development or other learning opportunities helps to recognize our own fundamental beliefs about learning. These beliefs, that either help or hurt learning process, are always present in both teaching and learning situations.

Following the three steps of SRL helps us to approach learning tasks within their context, and first create a functional plan and choose learning strategies to support learning process. Then, we will want to monitor our own performance and learning process during the second part, performance phase. This is where the knowledge of deep learning strategies is very important, because sometimes instruction and design reward surface processes, and we might want to change our strategies to still engage in deep learning. In the third phase, self-reflection, is the most important one, but often forgotten. Without engaging in self-assessment about our own learning process, it would be hard to do things differently next time, if needed. Yet, the whole idea of using metacognitive knowledge to improve deep learning relies in dealing with our own perception and managing our emotional responses, so that our beliefs about deep learning are strengthened. Some beliefs are detrimental for deep learning, and for example mentally punishing ourselves (for failure, procrastination, etc.) leads toward using surface learning processes.

Instructional approaches that emphasize choice, learning ownership, knowledge construction, and making connections are more likely to facilitate deep learning and understanding ‚Äď for teachers and students alike.

 

 

Here is more information about SRL for adult online learners  in a PDF form.

 

Jarvis, P. (2009).¬†Learning to be a person in society. In K. Illeris (Ed.)¬†Contemporary theories of learning: learning theorists… in their own words. London: Routledge.

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress. The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Stewart, C., & Wolodko, B. (2016). University Educator Mindsets: How Might Adult Constructive‚ÄźDevelopmental Theory Support Design of Adaptive Learning?.¬†Mind, Brain, and Education,¬†10(4), 247-255.

Zimmerman, B. J. (2000). Attaining self-regulated learning: a social-cognitive
perspective, in M. Boekaerts, P. Pintrich, and M. Zeidner (Eds.) Handbook of Self-regulation (pp. 13‚Äď39). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

 

 

Is Learning a Product or Process – part 2

27 Feb

Best teacher is the one who makes herself unnecessary by

empowering students to become autonomous learners.

~Nina Smith

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

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

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

There is a big difference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

Emotionally Safe Learning Environment

28 Dec

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 Рthis applies to art as well as note taking!

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 sounds like basic courtesy to me.

The central values of safety, co-operation, individuality, responsibility and building of realistic self image together 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 co-operationally created, and confirmed with the signatures of the teacher and students, and then posted on the wall for further reference.

Stress-free atmosphere is the first principle for creating an emotionally safe growing and learning environment. Creating the feeling of having enough time enables students to focus on their own learning instead of external factors that might disturb their concentration.  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 the 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 system also automatically holds students accountable for their own learning and helps them realize how much they already have learned.