Tag Archives: cognitive

Open and honest communication

3 Nov

We teachers are actually communication professionals, we live in dialogue. We try to transmit the message about important information to our students in many different ways: speaking, writing, showing, and of course also via electronic media. We also try to convey ideas, perspectives, ideologies and concepts, and yet it is up to students to choose whether they want to learn all that, or not.

Communication in education must be reciprocal. This also presents the need for open and honest interpersonal relations between teachers and students, because that builds trust and helps students choose to become involved in their own learning. I have often joked about best teachers being the master manipulators. Now how does that fit together with the open and honest communication?

It actually does. Being a non-native speaker of English I frequently need to visit dictionary pages to gain more understanding about words. Often I seem to have a different connotation to a certain word – like manipulation, which doesn’t sound malicious to me, but obviously is that for most people. Dictionary suggests alternative words for the verb manipulate: influence, control, direct, guide, conduct, negotiate, exploit, steer. To me these seem acceptable descriptions for teaching as a profession. It is okay to guide students towards the right direction, that is what teaching is about. Forcing students to obey obscure rules is just bad management.

Shared responsibility to reach the mutual goal is the first step in open communication. As a learning facilitator, or mentor, I practice open manipulation: I tell my students that I am purposefully attempting on changing their perception about something. Grown up students find it funny, but also tend to think about it and then discuss or ask questions about it later, after they have had time to reflect upon it. Children get excited, because they sense the honesty behind the statement. They also feel empowered as they recognize the opportunity to choose, instead of doing something an adult just tells them to do. Cooperative learning can be as easy as this.

Negotiating meaning is the second step of being open and honest in classroom communication. We certainly have different connotations to words and we also have different understanding about concepts we teach and learn, so negotiating what a word actually means is important in order to improve the classroom communications. And, no, it cannot be just the teacher who gives the definition of the word, because how would students then have any ownership over the subject? Those times are long gone (or at least they should be gone) where teachers possessed the one and only correct answer or definition. (I can imagine math and science teachers disagreeing with this, but please bear with me.) Negotiating the meaning of a simple concept can just be facilitated by students explaining to each other in their own words what they think the word means, and then creating a mindmap showing the thoughts of each group. Of course the teacher can (and should) guide students towards the correct understanding by asking questions while groups are working, but the definitions are still students’ own production. Constructing their understanding together helps students master the concept, as each student needs to explain to their group how they understand it. This is also the way how bilingual brain works: creating more connections and having several words to describe a concept or a word.

The third step in open and honest communication is the cognitive part: knowing what I learned and how I did it. Often teacher’s help is invaluable here, because it is hard to see beyond one’s own frame of reference.  Being aware about the choices I made in order to plan my future actions helps the goal setting.  Monitoring and guiding  my own actions, and regulating my own behaviour and learning to be successful. The umbrella term for these is executive functions. Being able to communicate in an open and honest way the reasons for success or the need for revising work makes assessment very non-punitive and it becomes a part of the individual learning process.

Non-threatening feedback immensely improves learning and goal setting. I haven’t found any other way to provide that, but by communicating in an open and honest way. Have you?

World Teachers’ Day 2012

5 Oct

“Take a stand for Teachers” is the 2012 slogan for World Teachers’ Day.

UNESCO calls on everyone to consider undertaking a special celebration for World Teachers’ Day:  “Teachers… ultimately determine our collective ability to innovate, to invent, to find solutions for tomorrow. Nothing will ever replace a good teacher. Nothing is more important than supporting them.”

On the UNESCO page there is another statement I liked very much:

Teachers are among the many factors that keep children in school and influence learning. They help students think critically, process information from several sources, work cooperatively, tackle problems and make informed choices. 

Isn’t this the essence of good quality education? Making informed choices outlines well the other highlighted skills: thinking, processing, cooperating and problem-solving.  Emphasizing these skills leads to deep and meaningful learning. Building a cooperative learning environment where students can practice choosing empowers them to think and share, and also helps students to understand how learning is an individual process.

Please note how teachers are rightfully recognized as one of the many factors that keep students in school. We should always remember not to ask teachers produce miracles, because every teaching-learning situation is constructed from many different pieces.

Over time teachers are able to enhance the other pieces of learning,  especially when learning is viewed as a process, not as a product or performance.  Yet, too often it seems that teachers are expected to solve all the pieces of the puzzle at once. The teacher’s piece is important, because the star will not be there without the teacher – but other pieces are equally important. Each and every teacher in the world should know that they can choose how they teach: teacher centered vs. student centered way, viewing learning as a product vs. process, cooperatively vs. competitively, creating opportunities to practice choosing vs. expecting blind obedience, and so forth.   All these choices are available for teachers to use in any given system or while teaching any given curriculum.

These everyday pedagogical choices are made either instinctively or with awareness of making an active choice. Even deciding not to choose is a choice. My way of supporting teachers is twofold: to spread awareness about the fact that they can choose and then empower teachers to learn more about their choices.

We all as parents and teachers are trusted with great shared responsibility: to help next generation achieve their full potential. So, supporting teachers in their important profession should be an easy choice.

What can you do to support a teacher today?

3Cs for better teaching and learning

8 Jul

The cognitive approach combined with the constructive and cooperative practices enable effective teaching and meaningful learning.

C1 –Cognitive approach makes teaching and learning easy and effective. Viewing learning as a student-centered and dynamic process where learners are active participants, it strives to understand the reasons behind behavioural patterns. The individual way we approach learning and whether we believe in our abilities are huge processes that are running all the time behind student performance. This is why I believe it is important to build strong learners.

C2 – Constructive practice emphasizes the students’ need to construct their own understanding. Delivered or transmitted knowledge does not have the same emotional and intellectual value. New learning depends on prior understanding and is interpreted in the context of current understanding, not first as isolated information that is later related to existing knowledge.

C3 – Cooperative learning engages not only the whole student in her/his learning, but also the whole class (or school, or even a district!) into the learning process. Teaching and learning become meaningful for both teacher and students, because there is no need for the power struggle in the classroom: why would a student rebel against the rules s/he has been creating? Wide range of different teaching and learning strategies can be utilized, and there is much more time to teach and learn!

Deep learning (or “syväoppiminen”, as I learned the term while studying for my M. Ed. in the University of Jyväskylä, Finland) helps brain to reconstruct the long-term memory, and stores the learned content quite permanently. Its counterpart, shallow learning, only stores learned items to our short-term memory and they get discarded after a while whey they are not needed anymore. Think of cramming for a remember-every-small-detail – type exam. The difference between these two types of learning is huge – one builds for life, other is for temporary use. And in educational settings we are always dealing with both types of learning.

While reading about the “summer learning loss”, I cannot but think that those forgotten things were never deep learned. And because re-re-redoing things is extremely frustrating for both teachers and students, I wish more teachers intentionally chose how they teach and aimed for deep learning. 3Cs are one way of focusing on deep learning. They are easy to use and applicable in all levels of education – they are equally important in early childhood education as they are for people pursuing their masters or doctorates. Very few of us (humans) enjoy experiencing someone to use unnecessary power or control over us.

How do you provide your students with meaningful learning experiences?

Dad – an important co-creator of academic success

17 Jun

Researchers at Brigham Young University[1] have found how dads are in a unique position to help their adolescent children develop persistence, which is seen as one factor for academic success. I am not surprised – tapping into dads’ (or another significant adult’s) life experience helps children to understand how the real world works. Persistence also relates to the “growth mindset”[2] which is Carol Dweck’s concept of becoming successful with hard work, instead of solely relying on basic qualities of being talented.

In their study researchers viewed persistence as a teachable trait, and explained how father’s involvement in good quality interactions increased the academic success:

The key is for dads to practice what’s called “authoritative” parenting – not to be confused with authoritarian. Here are the three basic ingredients:

  • Children feel warmth and love from their father
  • Accountability and the reasons behind rules are emphasized
  • Children are granted an appropriate level of autonomy

Authoritative parenting and teaching employ the very best strategies which, of course, from my point of view look very similar to the 3Cs: co-operation in the form of acceptance (warmth and love), cognitive learning tools in emphasizing reasons and accountability, and constructive upbringing – or teaching- in trusting children with age appropriate level of autonomy.

There are many other studies showing how authoritative parenting style significantly predicts academic performance, while no relations can be found for permissive or authoritarian styles (Turner, Chandler et al 2009)[3]. In teaching profession we don’t usually speak about authoritative, permissive or authoritarian teaching styles – but maybe we should?

Children, whose dads employ the “basic ingredients” of authoritative parenting, become more successful in their learning. In the same way students, who are treated at school with co-operative, cognitive and constructive principles, are more likely to grow to become respectful, accountable and determined adults.

Receptive or Expressive?

23 Apr

Learning a new language is always both fascinating and frustrating at the same time. Fascinating because a whole new world opens up, and new connections are made. Frustrating because even though I am soon starting to understand some sentences in the new language, I am still far away from speaking fluency, and I know from experience that it will take a looong time before I get there.

It occurred to me that learning always seems to follow the same pattern, no matter what we are learning, language or something else. First you gain some basic ideas about the topic (or language), and try to wrap your mind around it. Then you try to produce something  from you newly learned knowledge. In language learning we call these receptive and expressive language skills. And language teachers have long time known how important it is to get students started with speaking on the target language from the day one, to keep the expressive threshold low for them.

Already in elementary school we are introducing several new “languages” to students: math has a large vocabulary, so does science…not to talk about linguistics, and learning all the names of different features in language. If these “new vocabulary requirements” are not discussed openly with students, they will remain as parts of the hidden expectations. Encouraging students to learn these new vocabularies and use them in everyday speech is a single teaching strategy that will carry for years and years in the future.

Language teachers also know how important students’ talking in the class is,  when we want to help them get fluent.  It is equally important for students to externalize their thoughts and individual understanding about other school subjects to gain the necessary depth of learning. This is easily done by providing every student an opportunity to verbalize their understanding – and because we have limited time in the classroom, it must be done in short pair or group discussions. Every day. In every subject.

Why do we still seem to think teachers’ talking being more important than students’ talking? When the teacher is talking  students are building  only their receptive skills.  Of course, this is the same truth as in learning being more important than teaching.

Only when your expressive skills are adequate  (i.e. you know what you are talking about) you can master the subject.

What is your expectation for your students? Do you wish them to become “fluent” enough with your subject, or are you happy if they have limited receptive understanding about it?

Perspectives

31 Dec

You know how we don’t see things as they are, but how we are?  And sometimes we have hard time understanding, because the new information doesn’t seem to fit in? The same goes with your students, of course, and even more so because they have not yet learned to recognize their own filters.

Being able to help students create their own worldview is quite amazing. We as teachers are trusted with great responsibility! Being significant adults in our students’ lives we are also co-creators of their futures, and that makes me feel very humble and honoured, indeed.

One essential thing to teach your students as an all round survival skill is the ability to choose some of your own filters.

My current chosen filter is the 3C – approach for learning and teaching. It stands for cognitive, constructive and cooperative learning, and it empowers students to become autonomous learners. It places the student into the nexus of learning and helps them understand what and why they learn and become accountable for their own learning.

I strongly believe that these three components are also essential for good quality teaching.

Without cognitive part your students will never become critical thinkers – because there is nothing for them to think about, they are just asked to pass and perform.

Without constructive part students will never understand their own learning and become active learners – because knowledge is imparted to them, and someone else decides about the truth.

Without co-operational part students will never find learning meaningful and important – because they are objects in their own learning, performing learning tasks dictated by others.

Looking forward into the future (on this last day of 2011), and wondering what today’s students will grow into.  But that is the teacher’s job always: prepare students for the unknown future.

How do you want to equip your students for their journey?

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 – this applies 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.

Finding the Balance for More Effective Teaching

28 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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