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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.

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

The problem with strategic learning approach

20 Sep

In any given situation where we need to learn something new – whether formal (at school) or informal (anywhere) – we have a choice to make about our own approach to learning it. This approach can be either engaging in deep learning (immersing ourselves to learning for life) or surface learning (memorizing disconnected pieces of information). When we are in formal education (school, college, university) there is also a third approach: strategic learning, which means that we are aiming for a good grade without caring about the content, and forgetting the information as soon as we pass the assessment.

Deep and deeper learning both refer to acquiring transferable knowledge through classroom experiences.  The emphasis is in supporting students’ lifelong learning process.  The term “deep learning” resulted from the original phenomenograhpic research where researchers found out students having different approaches to learning [1]. These approaches describe how learners perceive tasks – either as disconnected pieces of information to be memorized in order to pass the exam (surface learning), or as knowledge to be constructed and understood in order to create new meanings (deep learning).

Deeper learning has been defined by American Institutes for Research as “a set of competencies students must master in order to develop a keen understanding of academic content and apply their knowledge to problems in the classroom and on the job” [2]

We all use the deep and surface learning approaches in different situations. When presented with a learning task, we appraise the value of it, and then decide about our approach. This usually happens very quickly and automatically. What worries me, is that I have met students whose only learning approach seems to be the strategic learning – meaning that they want high grades, but don’t want to really learn the content. These can be very “good” students – always submitting their assignments and assessments in time, often doing extra work to ensure a good grade. But what about the quality of their learning?

Most grading systems appear to reward the strategic approach, which is very problematic because it focuses on extrinsic motivation and external rewards. Students are taught to complete their worksheets and other tasks and pass their tests so that they can get good grades. But why don’t we talk about learning? And being able to use what they learned?

After moving overseas from Finland, I was so surprised to see that my children had homework that was graded. That made no sense to me! As a teacher, how would I know who actually completed that homework assignment, or how much help the student received in completing it? While teaching in Finland the rule for homework was that it must be something that allows students to revisit what they learned at school. Because the idea of homework is to support students’ learning. Not to have them demonstrate their competency.

Making learning more meaningful for students and decreasing the obsession with grading is more important in 2020 than ever before.

Learner-centered instructional strategies will help. Providing choices for students – they can learn same competencies with different tasks, and getting to choose increases intrinsic motivation (game builders know this, btw, and have mastered the ACR – autonomy, competence, and relatedness). TeachThought also has a collection of more learning-centered strategies for instruction.

To make a leap further into learner-centered practices, ask students’ input for planning their learning experiences. Express positive regard. Try competency-based education. Change the assessment to be student-centered and non-punitive!

 

 

[1] Marton, F., & Säljö, R. (1976). On Qualitative Differences in Learning: I—Outcome and
process. British journal of educational psychology, 46(1), 4-11.

[2] 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

[3] Bain, K. (2013). Introduction: Growing Deep Learning. Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education1(8), 1.

The Power of Positive Regard

1 Mar

There are lots and lots of expectations for teachers today, one of them being our teaching dispositions. We are asked to check our own biases, exhibit the belief that everyone can learn and be ready and willing to differentiate to support our students’ individual needs. In addition to everything else.

The singlehandedly easiest way for me to keep my sanity while supporting my students, is to have an Unconditional Positive Regard towards each  and every one of them. It simply means isolating the behavior from the person and accepting and supporting people as they are, instead of expecting them to be what I wanted them to be.

The practical way is to always assume that the student had a good intention, whatever the results, or whatever they say or do. It has required practice to start and keep on using it, and withhold my thoughts of judgment. Even today, while engaging in discussion with students, I keep on reminding myself that I do not know what are my students’ lived realities and how they perceive their own learning. My only choice is to ask them to share their thoughts with me, and try my hardest not to assume things. I first learned about the uncoditional positive regard while earning my masters/teaching degree in Finland.

The concept of unconditional positive regard was developed by psychologist Carl Rogers, who emphasized individual choices in his person-centered counseling practice. The learner-centered educational practice carries the same ideas of supporting students’ congruence (self-image being similar to ideal self) by showing genuine interest towards learners and practicing unconditional posive regard in teaching-learning interactions. The learner-centered philosphy builds on the humanist worldview emphasizing construction of meaning and knowledge from individual experiences. I have found following learner-centered approach to be an easy and productive practice in my work as an educator.

The table below displays the three main categories of my learner-centered practice. The categories (following Rogers’ theory) are: striving to be genuine in order to build authentic dialogues, practicing unconditional positive regard to remind students that they do not have to achieve to be accepted, and using empathetic understanding to communicate my attempt in understanding student’s situation. After these basic needs are met, it is easier to discuss the academic questions my students have.

A tabledisplaying Genuineness, Unconditional Positive Regard and Empathetic Understanding as Learner-centered practices adopted from person-centered therapy.

 

The table is not meant to be a walkthrough of a disussion. It is just a collection of examples from my discussions with my students, and my recent  aha!-moments, like the difference between being kind instead of being nice (I learned this from my colleague’s presentation, and my mind was blown!). I had never before considered the difference! 🙂 Here is the short explanation: 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 student to learn more.

The table categories (genuineness, unconditional positive regard and empathetic understanding) are also important parts to my 3C- approach to learning and teaching.  The way I do it combines the cognitive and constructive practices in a cooperative learning environment. Cognitive practice includes helping students to learn about learning, but also become more knowledgeable of their own worldview, thinking and metacognitive skills.  Constructive learning and teaching focus on collaborative meaning-making, gaining skills and understanding concepts. Cooperative teaching and learning build the emotionally safe learning environment, where interactions are held in high value, students can ask questions and engage in non-punitive assessments that support the learning process

Cognitive, constructive and cooperative learning in a Venn diagram.

Engaging in dialogue is essential for learning because 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. The essential condition for dialogue to happen is equality. My truth cannot be better than your truth. In a safe learning environment, where students dare to ask questions and challenge their own beliefs, dialogue can be a very powerful tool for deep learning.

The power of positive regard lies in building trust between teachers and students, which then enables the dialogue to happen. If I don’t listen what my student is saying, I am just lecturing to a captive audience, wasting my opportunity to make a difference.

 

 

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American Psychological Association, Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education. (2015). Top 20 principles from psychology for pre K–12 teaching and learning. Retrieved from http:// http://www.apa.org/ed/schools/cpse/top-twenty-principles.pdf

Client-centered therapy: https://dictionary.apa.org/client-centered-therapy

Kindness indicates an ethical significane:  https://www.scu.edu/the-big-q/being-nice-vs-being-kind/

McLeod, S. A. (2014, Feb 05). Carl Rogers. Simply psychology: https://www.simplypsychology.org/carl-rogers.html

Rogers, C. (1959). A theory of therapy, personality and interpersonal relationships as developed in the client-centered framework. In (ed.) S. Koch, Psychology: A study of a science. Vol. 3: Formulations of the person and the social context. New York: McGraw Hill.

 

Learning dispositions and Real Life

31 Dec

Learning and studying dispositions are the filters we use when facing a learning situation. Sometimes these dispositions are helpful, other times they may hinder the learning process. 

We “inherit” these filters from family and friends – and media, too! – and learn to use the filters during all our learning experiences.  We sort things into important and forgettable “bins”, based on the value we perceive the learning content to have. (Show me a teacher who has never heard a student ask: When will we ever use this?!) 

The connection between learning and Real Life (RL) is important for all students, from kindergarten to higher education. Learning dispositions relate to the RL connection and thus regulate our interests, efforts and motivations to learn.  Growth mindset  is one part of the dispositions, as well as students’ self-efficacy beliefs and academic self-concept. Curiosity is yet another important concept for learning dispositions, because learning starts from wondering.

For some students curiosity or persistence can be enough to make them ready, willing and able to learn. Other times students need additional tools, and providing opportunities for risk-taking, concentration or independence might be necessary.  In this case it is crucial to have a non-punitive assessment method to support the positive outcomes of learning. Rubrics and feedback loops to be used before final evaluation are very necessary to emphasize the benefits of deep engagement, and fostering the development of future learning dispositions. Communication, collaboration and co-regulation are important learning activities for building positive learning dispositions, because sharing one’s own RL with others leads to deeper learning and understanding. 

I’m trying to figure out how to support students in creating a disposition that helps them to enjoy learning. The obvious reason for this is the fact that we engage much deeper in the activities we enjoy. And with deep engagement, we learn more. The information is not forgotten the next day or after the test, because it has some RL personal significance. Deep learning is seen to be more meaningful than reproductive learning (Lonka et al, 2004).

One possible answer for supporting deep learning dispositions is to adopt a teaching disposition that emphasizes authenticity and empowers engagement (Kreber, 2007).  Authentic teaching focuses on the RL connection, helping students to see the importance of learning in everyday life, so that they can engage in deep, personal learning. Authenticity and supporting helpful learning dispositions makes it easier for every student to be successful in their studies – and not only in reaching graduation, but also engaging in life-long learning and building their own knowledge.

Authenticity seems to be one of the main threads in progressive education. I think it is important to remember that students are not learning for school, but for life. Their own personal RL, which is different from the one any of their friends and peers are living, is a major component of the learning disposition. That’s why discussing learning dispositions is so important. Students are making the value judgment of their learning anyway, so we as learning professionals should be helping them to find a helpful disposition. 

We are preparing students for the world that is a complex mixture of cultures and diverse beliefs. Knowledge is so much more than a fixed bunch of facts to be memorized. While memorizing disconnected pieces of information may be a nice trick in trivia game, students need to understand the contexts and connections of that information. Where did it come from, and is it trustworthy?  And an especially important question is: how can we use this information?

Misusing information is easy because it is shallow and has no situationality or contextuality – these are qualities of knowledge, where an individual has constructed an understanding of how given information fits into her/his worldview, beliefs and values. These are the same building blocks learning dispositions are made of. 21st century learning cannot be just memorizing factoids.

Learning disposition can help students find RL connections and to engage in deep learning. But this needs to be communicated clearly to the students. It is insane to imagine that every student would be 100% interested in deep learning every detail of their every schoolday. In some cases it might not be the content to be learned that a student perceives being important, but perhaps learning more about oneself and how to support one’s own learning.  In this case content learning happens as a byproduct. Emphasizing the change, resilience and meaning-making as important parts of learning process leads students towards a discovery of positive learning dispositions and deeper, meaningful learning experiences.

— — —

Kreber, C. (2007). What‘s it really all about? The Scholarship of Teaching and Learning as an Authentic Practice. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning1(1), 3.

Lonka, K., Olkinuora, E., & Mäkinen, J. (2004). Aspects and prospects of measuring studying and learning in higher education. Educational Psychology Review16(4), 301-323.

Shum, S. B., & Crick, R. D. (2012,April). Learning dispositions and transferable competencies: pedagogy,modelling and learning analytics. In Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Learning Analytics and Knowledge (pp. 92-101). ACM.

Volet, S., Vauras, M., & Salonen, P.(2009). Self-and social regulation in learning contexts: An integrative perspective. Educational psychologist44(4),215-226.

Growth mindset for grit vs. empowerment

5 Sep

I enjoyed reading Alfie Kohn’s critique about Dweck’s mindset because it made me think about how we empower students to engage in their own learning process.  The article addresses points that are extremely important while using the mindset in the classroom, especially the pedagogical choices about focusing on traits like grit or supporting the individual learning process of each student. Mindset itself is important, but the way we discuss the growth mindset with students is even more important.

Personally, I find it controversial to focus too much on learning styles or personality traits like grit (other labels are extroversion, openness, impulsivity, etc, google Big 5 for additional information).  This is because the contemporary learning theories highlight the subjectivity of learning, and the expected teaching dispositions are very clear about the need for all teachers to display the belief  that every student can learn (regardless the personality traits students have). Furthermore, I prefer to focus on supporting my students’ individual learning processes, because this helps them to become independent learners. Every student, child or adult, has their unique set of skills and needs, and perception of their own strengths and areas of growth. Discussing the growth mindset in the classroom may help some students to adopt better learning dispositions and engage more deeply in their own learning process.

It seems that mindset is a refined and renewed version of attribution theory and deals with students’ self-efficacy beliefs and locus of control.  We all have had those students and parents with the firm belief how “nobody in our family has ever been good in math” or “everyone in the family struggles with reading”. When children hear these messages stated over and over again in casual discussions, they often start to believe that they couldn’t possibly learn math, or be fluent readers, because those attributions don’t belong into their family. These beliefs easily create self-fulfilling prophecies that can seriously harm students’ learning.  Growth mindset can be an excellent tool to diminish these negative causal attributions and help students create a realistic (academic) self-concept. But, I don’t believe this can be achieved with something as simple and effortless as praise.

Praise is normative by its nature. Praise implies that the student met an invisible norm, known or set by the subject matter experts (teachers, educators, parents, etc). Thus praise is always about evaluation, because it is an external judgement about what the student did or what the student is (doing referring to the growth mindset and being referring to the fixed mindset). In education we need to increase the use of assessments and self-assessments with clear criteria about expected outcomes of assignments, so that students know what they are supposed to achieve and don’t have to rely on hit-and-miss strategies. Evaluations are very much overused, which is problematic because they emphasize the control over students and their performance, instead of providing learning support or feedback about the learning process.

The very first decision for every teacher to make before introducing the mindset to her/his students, is whether the mindset is used in the classroom to promote grit or to empower students to learn more.

Using mindset to promote grit in the classroom is fairly straightforward: create standards and labels for appropriate behaviour (maybe checklists), and we are good to go and evaluate students’ behaviours, actions and displays of true grit for demonstrating their growth mindset.  It is easy to quantify how many work sheets students have filled, or how many minutes they have engaged in the activities – and then praise the persistence in task (whether the task is meaningful for students is irrelevant in this environment).

I can understand why effort-praising, grit-building growth-mindset practices are appealing: they appear to be a quick fix for the most important problem in education – student disengagement. I am sure we could build a robot to offer praise every time when a student displays gritty behavior! But doesn’t this kind of praise seriously underestimate our students as vibrantly intelligent, creative and curious human beings? While persistence is important in successfully completing tasks or projects, it certainly cannot be the most important ingredient in educating students to become productive citizens of 21st century!

Grit vs empowerment

In the classroom reality the difference between the environments is obviously much less black and white, and features from both sides (grit and empowerment) are used in most learning environments I have seen. Balance is what matters. Taking behaviour at face value, and believing that it truly communicates what students are thinking is a big mistake. Students are not as experienced in communication and interaction as we teachers are, they are still trying to figure it out. (Here is a nice iceberg image about behaviour to remind us about the reality!)

Focusing on empowerment in mindset discussions is harder and more time consuming for educators, because empowerment requires a dialogue between students and the teacher. It is about engaging in authentic interaction where both parties are heard. In this environment assessment becomes an opportunity for feedback and growth. I am currently working on my dissertation about learner agency in formal education, and these very same themes of empowerment are important for educating students who are “self-organizing, proactive, self-reflecting, and self-regulating, not just reactive organisms shaped and shepherded by external events”  (Bandura, 1999, p. 156).  To thrive in the with the constant information overflow in the world today, this active choosing (instead of reacting) is exactly what our students need to learn.

We as teachers need to make informed choices about our pedagogical and instructional practices. Is it more valuable for students to remember that finishing all tasks gets them rewarded (with praise or grades), or to know that they can have an effect on their own learning process? This is a value level choice about the classroom practices we communicate to students with expectations and grading policies. So, when introducing the mindset in your classroom, please do think about the long-term goals. What do you really wish for students to gain from the mindset discussion?

Update on 9/29/2015:

Carol Dweck revisited mindset stating that she may have “emphasized sheer effort too much”. Wonderful!
Maybe this mislead educators to think that promoting grit is beneficial, and so it became this widely accepted misconception about contemporary learning!

Growth mindset

Bndura, A. (1999). Social cognitive theory of personality. Handbook of personality: Theory and research, 154-196.

Teaching and learning dispositions

28 May

What is your teaching disposition?

Providing a short answer to this question has always been a struggle for me, because so much falls under the concept of teaching disposition: values, beliefs about teaching and learning, interaction styles,  even worldview. So, where to start?

Those who have been following my blog already know that I am very passionately supporting student-centered learning and teaching, so obviously my teaching disposition focuses more on  supporting  students’ individual learning processes than anything else.  Pedagogical skill is very high on my priority list.

Believing that everyone can learn is one of the fundamental dispositions in contemporary education. This belief doesn’t always seem to fit perfectly with standardized testing, or labeling schools (and sometimes even students) as “failing”, based on a quantitative snapshot evaluation that tells very little if anything about the learning process (i.e. the learning quality).

Being convinced that knowledge is much more than a fixed bunch of  facts (information) brings another dimension to the dispositions because it defines the extent of our teaching. We must prepare students for the world that is a complex mixture of cultures and diverse beliefs, and while memorizing disconnected pieces of information may be a nice trick in trivia game, students also need to understand the contexts and connections of that information. Where did it come from, and is it trustworthy?  And an especially important question is: how can we use it productively?

Unfortunately the discussions about the nature of knowledge are seldom highlighted in professional meetings, but it should be. Misusing information is easy because it is shallow and has no situationality or contextuality – these are qualities of knowledge, where an individual has constructed an understanding of how given information fits into her/his worldview, beliefs and values. The use of labels falls into the category of misusing information, and it often leads into otheringwhich is how we define “us” and “others”.

It is easy to sort people, categorize them and label their qualities. But, when we use labels and define the problem in education for example as underachieving students, it locates the solutions to fixing the students. Not education, nor instruction, but students. How scary!  This is how something we know from research and experience to be beneficial for students, their learning and their future (e.g. bilingualism) suddenly becomes a problem (e.g. ELL, underachieving).  Of course these diverse students score lower in the standardized tests.  But their individual learning processes may be incredible.

In order to effectively communicate to students about the  importance of individual learning process, two additional parts of teaching dispositions must fall into place: keeping my bias in check, and differentiating for students’ needs – not for the labels we too often attach to students (you know: ELL,  poverty, learning disabilities, behavioral needs etc etc).   When we keep on othering, we point our fingers to students, label them, and provide remedial education — without checking our bias (is the problem really the student, or maybe the environment, instruction or context?) and without differentiating for students’ individual needs.  This deficit thinking also seems to be the origin for the grit discussions. Have you noticed that nobody is asking for successful students to show more grit? It may be because they don’t need to persist, because they have gained the sufficient knowledge with informal learning, and are getting bored out of their minds in the classroom. But these seemingly successful students would really need to learn how to learn effectively something new, because nobody can be excellent in everything.

Recent research also recognizes the importance of teachers’ interaction styles and skills as mediators for learning, and suggest that setting limits is more beneficial for students’ learning than guilt-inducing appealing to students emotions[1]. This makes perfect sense from the viewpoint of dispositions: respecting the diverse needs and skills of learners also leads to offering every student an individual amount of freedom and choice and providing the information in student-sized chunks.

So this is probably the shortest description of my teaching dispositions:  focused on supporting students’ individual learning process I strongly believe everyone can learn, I do also understand the importance of connected knowledge, and I try to check my own bias regularly to avoid engaging in othering and keep on striving to differentiate for my students’ individual needs.

Oh… and our teaching dispositions are of course very close to our learning dispositions, but even more up close and personal. Learning dispositions regulate our learning efforts, our interests and motivation. The origin of learning dispositions is complicated, but they are partially born from our everyday learning experiences.

What kind of learning dispositions you think your students are creating? What is important and valued in your classroom?

 

 

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1. Viljaranta, J., Aunola, K., Mullola, S., Virkkala, J., Hirvonen, R., Pakarinen, E., & Nurmi, J.-E. (in press). The role of temperament on children’s skill development: teachers’ interaction styles as mediators. Child Development.

 

 

Would you try competency-based education in your class?

14 Mar

Competency based education has several strengths over traditional seat-based education.  It supports students’ accountability of their own learning and allows students to advance in their own pace after meeting the explicit and transferable learning objectives, demonstrated by the assessment criterion (usually rubrics).

Time is the first element of individualization of learning — or at least it should be. We all have our own ways of processing the information that is thrown at us in formal education. It is foolishness to imagine that all students would take exactly the same time to process things to be learned.

This is exactly why I LOVE competency based education: when you are done learning one concept/topic, you can move on. Well defined learning objectives break down the skill/knowledge acquisition for students, and as a teacher (learning facilitator) I am there to ensure that nobody has to struggle too much, and that everybody has something meaningful to do, while engaging in her/his own learning process. This is how I have successfully taught on all school levels (and now work in a competency based university), and it is also the way I build my asynchronous PD courses.

The Working Definition of Personalized Learning is very good:

Personalized learning is tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs and interests — including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when and where they learn — to provide flexibility and support to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible.[1]

It also discusses the learner-centered principles, which should be given in 2015 while designing curricula and instruction — but, alas, it is not. To refresh what learner-centered[2] principles are about:

The Principles apply to all learners, in and outside of school, young and old.  Learner-centered is also related to the beliefs, characteristics, dispositions, and practices of teachers – practices primarily created by the teacher.When teachers and their practices function from an understanding of the knowledge base delineated in the Principles, they:

(a) include learners in decisions about how and what they learn and how that learning is assessed

(b) value each learner’s unique perspectives

(c) respect and accommodate individual differences in learners’ backgrounds, interests, abilities, and experiences, and

(d) treat learners as co-creators and partners in the teaching and learning process.

Changing the focus from universal delivery of information (i.e. traditional teacher-centered educational model) to learner-centered or personalized learning approach (i.e. learning facilitation) is the first step.  Then, changing assessment and grading to reflect students’ learning process and engaging in non-punitive assessment model is the second step.

Here is a nice table about the elements for student-centered and competency-based education. While the table discusses children’s learning, I would like to remind all readers that adults’ learning is not much different, and the same elements are very applicable in all levels of education (and training). The table and the whole document can be found here.

12 elements for designing learning
I have been engaging in competency based learning for nearly 20 years now, and in all levels of education. The main gain is that it shifts the focus from doing busywork to being engaged in one’s own learning process. What more could an educator wish for? 🙂

The table above has a good alignment with Choosing How to Teach:

Learning Star3

The most Effective Learning occurs in the middle of the picture, where you can see the star.  If we are missing even one piece, the star –or learning – is not complete. Students’ achievement depends on their engagement and interactions with the learning environment and the materials. Competency-based education provides tools for achieving this.

 

 

Would you be willing to give competency-based education a try and change something in your current practice?

 

 

 

1 Patrick, S., Kennedy, K., & Powell, A. (2013). Mean what you say: Defining and integrating personalized, blended and competency education. Report, October.

[2] Learner-Centered Principles Work Group of the American Psychological Association’s Board of Educational Affairs, BEA. (1997, November). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Student-centered assessment

18 Jan

Good quality assessment is an important tool for every educator.  At simplest it is just informally checking how students are progressing in their learning, which can provide a nice snapshot of an individual student or the whole class. Arranging these snapshots chronologically creates a display of individual learning process. These portfolios, learning journals, or other displays are very useful in learning environments where students are not formally evaluated, but they can also be used very effectively in all educational systems.

Formal education is often built on learning objectives and learning outcomes and thus assessing students’ performance is seen to be necessary.  Students’ progress in formal education is tied to a curriculum and students are evaluated to see if they meet the standards of the educational system. But, to support students’ individual and self-regulated learning process we also need to have strong formative assessment practices. Formative assessment of learning is then used to inform future instruction in the class, and thus also may become assessment for learning.

Classroom assessment has several requirements, though, to be beneficial for students and their learning process.  The very first and the most important requirement is that all assessments are non-punitive, so that they don’t create a threat for students to engage in their learning.  It is detrimental to use assessments that direct students to use shallow or strategic learning approaches!

An assessment cannot be a one-shot-only situation, because that emphasizes the view of learning as a product, not a process. Criterion based (or standards based) assessment where students get try again until they reach the standard is a good option. It is important to remember that while trying to measure students’ knowledge/skill in the content, the assessment shouldn’t be focused on students’ work habits or organization skills. Including learning about executive function to lessons is a good way to improve study skills.

The second requirement is that students must be included in decisions about how and what they learn and how that learning is assessed (as per APA learner-centered psychological principles). This doesn’t mean  letting students to do whatever they want, but opening the discussion with students about their learning process, allowing students to choose their learning/study strategies, and providing choices for both assessments and assignments.

The third requirement is for the assessment to improve the learning process, and build students’ self-efficacy beliefs while treating learners as co-creators and partners in their learning process (APA). Assessment contributes to students’ growing meta-cognitive skills, by providing feedback about both the learning and studying strategies and practices (not just the product, i.e. worksheet, paper, project, poster etc) in order to support students growth.  There is a big difference in evaluating the study strategies and providing feedback about them.

To be effective assessment must also inform the teacher about next steps in instruction and help the teacher to accommodate individual differences in learners’ backgrounds, interests, abilities, and experiences (APA). This also presents the requirement for providing choices in the classroom.

It is a good practice to include students’ self-assessments into the formative assessment system in the classroom, because it improves students understanding of their own skills and learning when they see how well the self-assessment and formative assessments meet. And, a major discrepancy between self- assessment and formative assessment is an excellent conversation starter between the teacher and the student — in both situations when the student over- or underestimates her/his skills and knowledge – and in which case it easily becomes both an assessment of learning and an assessment for learning.

And please, let’s not get confused between (formative) assessments and (summative) evaluations! One question about Finnish education that I often get to answer is about the absence of standardized testing in K-12 in Finland.  While this is absolutely true, and students don’t have to be prepped for tests for several weeks, the reality is that all teachers engage in ongoing formative assessment, in order to know how their students are learning.

 

 

APA Work Group of the Board of Educational Affairs (1997, November). Learner-centered psychological principles: A framework for school reform and redesign. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Engaging students in learning, not just schooling

9 Sep

Learning is such a fascinating thing! It happens everywhere, all the time, but in the school settings we are trying to somehow box it in, so that the objectives are met and standards covered. Yet, despite of the standardized approach, each and every student has a different experience of the very same class or lesson.

In any given lesson or class, some students are engaged in their own learning process because they are inherently interested in the topic.  Other students may just be attending to get it over with. These are the students we are losing, because they are only engaging in their schooling, not in their personal learning. The biggest question is: how to help all students to engage in their own learning?  One obvious answer is to make learning more personally enjoyable. Individual instruction is inclusive by its nature, and built from appreciation for diverse identities, dispositions, values, attitudes and skills. Finding space for all these in the classroom is challenging! But one size can never fit all! Providing choices for students is an excellent tool for emphasizing the learning process, because it allows students to apply their personal preferences, which most likely results in increased interest in the activity at hands.

The learning process has two components that must be integrated for deep learning to happen: interaction (with the materials and peers) and elaboration of the content [1].  A successful integration of content and interaction leads to personal construction of understanding, i.e. deep learning, because the student has situated the new knowledge into her/his existing understanding.  Another student, who is just engaged in schooling not learning, may miss out the both components, and just be physically present in the classroom while being mentally and emotionally elsewhere. Yet in today’s world, more than ever before, we must help students to become lifelong learners, who learn because they can and want to, not because someone tells them to do so.

Here is a list of 15 steps to cultivate lifelong learning in our own lives. As teachers we of course want to walk our talk. Right? So keeping on learning and checking our assumptions are very inmportant daily activities! They are also part of the SEL – Social Emotional Learning. Read more about it here:  CASEL 

In addition to the two components of learning process (interaction and elaboration), we also want to think about the dimensions of cognition, emotion and environment [2], because they create the frames of each individual learning experience.  In school settings the focus of learning is too often very narrow, and only aims to transfer the content knowledge. But the way we acquire the content  has a straightforward effect on how durable the resulted learning is. Shallow learning aims to passing the class or just getting out of it. Deep learning aims for understanding, and using the learned content in the future. What is problematic, is strategic learning, which aims to have good grades, without any interest in the content itself. This creates the phenomenon we know as summer learning loss.

My own application of this learning theory is to use the 3Cs that help students to engage in their own learning. Students’ learning motivation is based on their perceptions of learning and education in general, so it would be very shortsighted to aim for plain knowledge acquisition, and only focus on one of the three dimensions of learning.  The successful learning motivation seems to require all three dimensions: cognition, emotion and environment.

3C-framework is built on cooperation, and uses constructive and cognitive instructional approaches.

Cooperative foundation – to create the learning environment and guide students’ behaviors, discuss the classroom management decisions and help students engage in meeting their learning goals.  Every child is born with the intrinsic need to make sense of the world. This is why students WANT to learn even though they don’t know what they should learn. We have a better idea what they need, which is why we use curriculum, to have meaningful entities for explorations.

Constructive tools – to focus on supporting students’ learning process and create the real-life connections needed for deeper learning. This also helps learning  to become more meaningful and increases students’ motivation to learn the information we are offering. Remember to emphasize knowledge to be something that is internally constructed and situated in one’s existing knowledge structure. Students’ self-awareness (one of the SEL competencies) is an important part of their knowledge construction!

Cognitive approach – to create the foundation for deeper learning because students’ thinking needs to change – not just their behaviour. Metacognition is an integral part of learning. As teachers we also want to engage in modeling learning, so discussing our own thinking, learning experiences and struggles are important parts of building that sense of neverending learning.

As a teacher trainer I have discussions with my students about their own motivation to learn. For adults it of course is also related to external rewards – usually masters degree gives a nice increase in the salary.   But most of my teachers really want to learn more about learning and teaching. I believe that as professional educators we recognize the need to support personalized learning in the classroom.

[1] Illeris, K. (2004). Transformative learning in the perspective of a comprehensive learning theory. Journal of Transformative Education2(2), 79-89.

[2] Illeris, K. (Ed.). (2009). Contemporary theories of learning: learning theorists… in their own words. Routledge.