Tag Archives: constructive

ABCs of Classroom Learning

18 Feb

Learning itself , of course, is such a multidimensional phenomenon that capturing it  is very hard, or maybe impossible. However, this is my attempt to simplify and verbalize how teaching and learning interact in the classroom, hence the A, B and C.

A. Have you ever noticed how right away after becoming aware of something the very same phenomenon suddenly seems to appear everywhere? (Often discussed among women just before/after getting pregnant how suddenly the world is full of strollers, big bellies and baby stuff – how did they pop up overnight?) The plain explanation is that our brain discards most of the sensory feed, so it never reaches our consciousness, until it has significance, and then it is suddenly “seen”. What we see (or hear) results from what our first filters let to be processed. Often just explained that we see things we want to pay attention to, or things that are active in our consciousness – which of course is duly noted in most lesson plan templates under “motivating students”.  Yet, as teaching and learning are two separate processes, it is a bit hit and miss to know whether students are activated and becoming aware about this new information, and this partly explains the effectiveness of flipped classroom as a teaching method and getting students engage with the learning materials on their own.

The more students are buying into the initial activation, the better predictions there are for good learning outcomes. And we all know how hungry, tired, scared, abused, stressed, overwhelmed, bored, or otherwise distracted students tend to substantially underachieve – so the very first thing in education should be ensuring students’ physical and emotional well-being. In addition to enhancing students’ cooperation with us, we teachers can also use constructive approach to activate our students, and ask them to find/categorize/present/discuss/strain  information that relates to the topic of the lesson. Applying some cognitive strategies to help students become more aware about their own learning needs enables students to become more accountable for their own learning.

B. We all also have personal ways to process further the things we become aware of, and the type of this processing depends on another set of filters we have: our beliefs[1], attitudes, rules. While explaining these filters to students, I simply hand out some different colour sunglasses to demonstrate it very concretely what it looks like to have another kind of filter. After discussing about the shades, and the way the classrooms (or certain pictures) look like with the darker shades or lighter ones, it is fairly easy for even young students to understand how they all have a unique way of seeing the world. I am not suggesting for teachers to become therapists, but raising this kind of awareness among students is just removing the barriers from successful learning experiences. Not understanding and dealing with these individual filters leads to cookie-cutter teaching and assuming every student will process the new information in an identical way, which obviously is not true.

Increasing transparency of information and knowledge by providing ample opportunities for students to discuss their beliefs and filters is bothcooperative and a cognitive tool for helping our students learn better.  Students’ self-assessment of their own learning needs, and planning tools included in executive functions can be used as parts of constructive strategies to ensure more successful learning experiences.

C. The consequences are the actions we take as a result of parts A and B coming together. Our actions, that can be emotions, cognitions, and/or behaviours,  depend on how we perceive things and what we believe about them – and also about our own  awareness or ability to  choose how we react. In education, often called learning outcomes, these actions (or reactions) are the phenomenon we teachers are assessing and reinforcing. Yet, even if all students were given the same motivation and same information their reaction will be individual, and some students will simply discard the information as uninteresting or unnecessary (especially if they already have the knowledge). Measuring input and expecting a standard output is not a functional formula while dealing with individuals. This is why teachers must be allowed to choose how to teach and to adapt the curriculum to meet the need of students.

Acknowledging the different filters and beliefs our students have and discussing the advantages of individual ways to categorize and refine the new information creates open ended and dynamic views of personal knowledge. This constructive practice is the exact opposite of stagnant “there is a single one correct answer and you’d better find it” – tradition. I also see the teacher’s role now and in the future as an essential part of learning facilitation, dealing with anything and everything that happens in part B and helping students make sense of the things they are learning (otherwise we could just use robots spewing out information, right?) and provide feedback of their learning process.  By using cognitive tools to address the beliefs, attitudes, filters, misconceptions and ideas we can provide more successful learning experiences for all students. And by using cooperative tools in learning facilitation we can increase the perceived meaningfulness of learning and help every student to get their ABCs together in the way that best supports the growth of their thinking skills.

 


[1] Beliefs here include: personal, cultural, religious, political beliefs; causal attributions, ideas, feelings, impressions, opinions, sentiments, points of view, presumptions, ideologies and misunderstandings that we use to filter the external information.

Interactions that support learning

3 Feb

Interactions are the basic fabric of learning.

We are born with an intrinsic curiosity about the surrounding world, and try to figure out the way of life by interacting with people around us. This is called the primary socialization process[1] and during this process we learn to speak and move independently, but also adopt the values and the filters our significant others (parents, caregivers) are expressing in their tone, words and behavior.  From these early experiences and interactions, and everything coming after that, we create our own worldview and expectations for life, learning and everything. In pre-school or school age the secondary socialization process shapes our interactions with other people, media and information around us.

There are many different ways to interact, and some have traditionally been used more in education than others. Today we recognize how communicative interactions are more effective than purely physical ones.  Showing (how to do something) and explaining it creates more connections in students’ brain and thus supports deeper learning.

Learning by interacting with their environment has always been the children’s natural mode of learning. Adding active concept development into explorations simply by naming the subjects of that momentary interest and providing connections to previous experiences is often instinctively done by parents.  Of course early childhood educators try to cater for this type of learning by planning for experiences and having appropriate equipment nearby. Yet, for concept development the dialogue is the most important tool. Early learning experts actively use self-talk and parallel talk to describe what they are doing or what the child is doing in order to make words and sentences become relevant for children, adding more substance to the short sentences children are able to use, yet keeping the discussion focused and meaningful.

Communicative interactions are extremely useful in all other levels of education, too.  K-12 students should have plenty of opportunities to explain why and how they helped themselves learn, and as the teacher cannot be listening to everyone simultaneously, I cannot see any other way to increase the student talk time, but by having them to explain to each other. Somehow we often seem to have the fallacy that teacher needs to hear every word – which to me seems to be a remnant from the past. If the focus of education is in control, then yes, teacher probably needs to hear every word students are uttering, but in that case interactions are very limited purely on mathematical principles (one hour, 25 students and one teacher equals 2.4 minutes of time per student) so something must be done. I strongly suggest cooperative learning activities.

Too often the view of teaching is limited to instruction, which at worst becomes a monologue: communication without interaction.[2] I think we all have been listening to lectures, but not actually hearing the message, and wishing we were elsewhere. This is far from effective teaching and meaningful learning, because it basically is just providing information for students, not facilitating their learning, as there are no immediate feedback loops. Often it is also based on power or control (mandatory lectures, no matter whether I already have learnt the content, but attending because of credit hours), instead of validity of information and relevance for my learning.

Unfortunately the same phenomenon happens in K-12 classrooms where teachers are expected to teach the curriculum, regardless whether there are students who have already learnt it and/or others who don’t possess the prerequisite skills. Why do we do this?! One helpful tool for any teacher is to use self-talk to make their thinking visible and parallel talk to help a struggling student understand a different point of view – the important part is the interactive way of using it and having students map their own actions or thoughts to make the learning process more tangible. Communication with interaction makes the difference!

Interaction without communication presents a different problem: doing things and saying words simply because we are supposed to do so. I am not talking against politeness, it is important for the everyday life, but more about the non-verbal and paraverbal language and how we know when the other person truly means what s/he is saying. Empty words are teacher’s worst enemy.  We have so little time with our students that we truly cannot afford using the precious opportunities to interact and not communicate – whether it is negotiating meaning or conveying caring – and then checking for understanding.  This is also an area where I need to grow, and be much more intentional with my words while talking. But, my problem is always that my thoughts are running way faster than I can put them into words. I am still learning.

In higher education we come together to negotiate meanings, to tap into the expertise of our colleagues, to compare and contrast our views about the subject matter and to construct new knowledge. This is the true dialogue learning is made of. It is communicative interaction, very intentional and extremely cooperative. Could we provide our students with the same experience?

To best reach our students and support their learning we want to use similar open and honest communication that is based on validity instead of power or control. We need to open a dialogue, a conversation with students and listen what they say, because learning grows in interactions.

Successful learning experiences

24 Nov

Defining success is not easy, and sometimes we get tangled in details and want to define students’ success as mastery of a single subject or unit, or course. Often applying unnecessary power over students is also disguised as success – but do students really need to perform according to minor details, or should we emphasize understanding the concepts and entities, so that the learned skill is transferable? In contemporary education negotiating meaning is more important than ever before, just to be sure that we are talking about the same concept/word/idea – and the word “success” certainly has several different connotations.

To me student success means simply making myself unnecessary as a teacher by empowering my students become autonomous learners, who can work independently and who know where to find the information and guidance they need. This requires handing over the tools for learning to students, and trusting in their motivation and drive to get their learning done, but having open and honest interactions with students to be able to help if needed.

Many schools aspire to empower their students to become life-long learners, and that is great! This is the true paradigm shift we need in education! But, it is not enough if we say this aloud (or write it on the visions and missions of school, or publish it on the school website), this goal must be integrated into everyday teaching practices as well as to the assessments.  Students’ perception matters. We need open and honest communication to remain believable so that our students understand and feel their success and learning being important for us.

Students’ perception creates the emotional learning environment of the classroom or the entire school. Please note, though, that I am not talking about entertaining students. My intention is to describe a learning environment where students cooperate and are accountable for their own learning.  In Finland one measurement for successful education is “kouluviihtyvyys”, which approximately translates to school enjoyment, or school satisfaction, but actually has some deeper connotations[1]. School satisfaction is seen to be built of several components where  school conditions create one part, social relationships another part and means for self-fulfillment in school the third crucial part – following the categories of having, loving, being by Erik Allardt[2]. I cannot but see the equivalence to the 3Cs: constructive tools used in cooperative way to provide cognitive connections.

Classroom management and curricular choices belong to having/school conditions, and often are the most emphasized component in student success. However, no matter how constructively you build the conditions, the two other components must be present to complete the picture of successful learning experiences.

Cooperation falls into social relationships/loving – part of school enjoyment, and it covers school climate, teacher-student relationships and all interactions – also those with students’ homes and family members. Cooperation increases students’ success in all levels starting from informal peer tutoring among classmates, covering anything and everything that happens during a school day, but also reaching to professional collaboration between education professionals (yes, I am against to Race to the Top or any other competitive attempts to improve education). Loving is a strong word for me to use about social relationships at school, but I do see how well it fits here.

Being/the means of self-fulfillment cover many important areas: value of work (no busywork!), creativity (students and teachers are so much more than parts in a machine), encouragement (feedback about learning process), and having opportunities to practice making good choices. Knowing how I learn is essential for becoming a good learner, and this is why metacognitive tools should be an essential part of each and every teacher’s toolbox. This is also why I am so sceptical about standards – when learning is an individual process, how could it be measured with standardized testing?

To me well-being in schools as defined above is an essential measure of providing students with successful learning experiences. What do you think? And how can you increase student success by improving having, loving or being in your school?

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?

Does your classroom have hidden expectations?

18 Feb

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

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

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

Have you ever heard about inherited math-phobia? A belief how nobody in a family has ever been good at math. Or how in some other family nobody has ever read well…? Or how a student is highly intelligent in one area, and thus should only concentrate on improving that single skill?  You know what I am talking about, right? These expectations will make learning very hard for students, unless they are addressed in the class.

Learning is a complex process, and we don’t even know all factors contributing to good quality learning. But we have learned about things that make learning harder. One of these things is poor communication, when the message is received in a very different way than it was sent. Hidden expectations are one part explaining why and how this happens.

Utilizing focused and effective feedback in your classroom is one way of addressing these hidden expectations and ensuring that you and your students are talking about the same things. It creates opportunities to understand what your students are thinking, and provides situations for asking those important open-ended questions.

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

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?