Tag Archives: Learning Design

Emotionally Safe Learning Environments

5 Nov

This blog post was originally published in December 2011. Occasionally I revisit my old posts to see if I still agree with them. 🙂

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 to art as well as note taking!

I think today, in 2022, the learner-centeredness and focusing on supporting students’ emotional safety is more important than ever! But this may require a perspective change for educators and administrators. A big one. Shifting from perceiving students as disobedient, uncontrollable, mean, or acting out, to understanding that these behaviors are indicators of trauma in students’ lives.

We cannot deny the effects of trauma in our classrooms!

Students need our help, so that they can learn how to self-regulate, or to use better ways to get their needs met. SEL is important and necessary in education, but it may not be enough. I think in 2022 we all need to learn how to use Trauma Informed Practices to create emotionally safe learning environments. 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 feels like basic courtesy to me.

The central values of safety, co-operation, individuality, and responsibility help students to build a realistic self-image together with the teacher and classmates – and these all are central SEL skills we all need to be successful in the society. These values also 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 created in cooperation with students, and confirmed with the signatures of the teacher and students, before posting them on the wall for further reference.

Stress-free atmosphere is the first principle for creating an emotionally safe growing and learning environment. Focusing on learning process instead of the product helps to create the feeling of having enough time, which enables students to focus on their own learning instead of external factors that might disturb their concentration. This also supports learner agency. Knowing that their thoughts and ideas are valued helps students to think and express their thoughts more freely.

More thinking equals more learning.

The one situation when most of us feel threatened or unsafe is while we are receiving feedback. In an emotionally safe classroom feedback becomes a natural part of the learning process, and thus stops being scary.  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 automatically holds students accountable for their own learning and helps them realize how much they already have learned. Ungrading is a growing movement among teachers!

I mentor students pursuing their M.Ed. degrees In Learning Experience Design and Curriculum & Instruction, and try to follow my own advice. Therefore the most important question I ask every day is: How can I support your learning today?

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.

What Learner-Centered Education Really Means

16 May

Learner-centered and emotionally safe pedagogy is an attitude or disposition. It is not a handbook of tips and tricks. It is being physically and emotionally present when a student needs us. It is also about focusing on the learning process instead of the product (worksheet, assessment, test score, etc.). It means  engaging in a dialogue, offering help and support, and answering the question every student asks: What’s in it for me? 

Personalization is one of the modern approaches in learning and teaching. However, it is important to remember that designing great learning experiences doesn’t require any special apps, programs or gadgets! We want it to based on Learner-centered pedagogy because it has a long history and it has proven to be very effective. At the simplest form learner-centered means that we are are focusing everything around students needs. (Image below: my starburst mirror in the making)

When I was making my starburst mirror few years back, I was thinking that this is how student-centered learning really works: keeping students in the center and carefully building the individualized support around them. This means purposefully designing the instructional process (teaching methods, lesson planning and classroom management) to meet students’ needs, focusing on supporting students’ individual learning process (learning and development and SEL) and using assessment data to support students’ individual learning processes. Please see TPK for more info about pedagogical knwoledge.

Some students need more support than others. We are not clones and should not be treated like ones, so it is important to abandon the outdated factory model, where learning is seen to be a product (of instruction and testing). To me, one the cringiest examples of the product thinking is seeing 28 pieces of identical “artwork” on classroom walls. Yes, students had learned to follow directions and create a copy of something, but the scary truth is that we will never creat the same competency when following somone else’s thinking. For deep learning to happen we must engage in our own thinking – this is what I learned while working for Head Start. Children were amazingly creative and learned so much every day while playing.

A major problem is that we still talk about learning and teaching like they were just one process. But learning and teaching are two different things! They are two different processes that are often put into the same frame of reference (education) and sometimes even happen in the same physical space (classroom) – but it would be foolish for us to imagine that students only learn at school! The “real” learning often happens after studying has been done, and the newly gained knowledge is used in real-life situations and combined with all the existing knowledge and experiences student have. This is what “deep learning” means: reconstructed personal understanding of the topic.

When we perceive learning as an in-built force within our students, the teaching job became instantly easier! Being a facilitator for learning and guiding  students to build their own knowledge is a huge step towards supporting learner agency. And it is truly learner-centered! 

We want to strive towards the next step in education: schools evolving to places where knowledge is socially constructed and contextually reinvented. We can do this is ANY given classroom  by offering choices for students and making their learning more meaningful. But this also presents the need for mutual intentionality and accountability – students coming to school with the intention to learn, teachers with the intention to support students’ individual learning. Not just meeting the standard of the learning objective of the day. Please understand that I am NOT against standards! But meeting them cannot be the ONLY goal of education.

The one thing that sustains my professional practice after a decade in Higher Ed is that I get to talk and email with my students, one at the time, and ask the most important question:

How can I help and support your learning process today?

Supporting adult learning and SEL

27 Feb

Learning and being taught are two very different experiences. Engagment in one’s own learning process (aquiring information and elaborating on it) is crucially important for deeper learning to happen. Learning is usually more enjoyable than the experience of being taught. (There is a LOT of infomation why professional learning is so much better than professional development, but let’s not get too deep into that! Suffices to say that teacher agency is crucially important for learner agency. Here is a good link: REL Pacific)

University and college students are (mostly) adults, and we need to be very mindful about how we teach. Just because learning happens in interactions. This is one of the deep truths in education: The content of our message matters, but also the delivery!

The phones in the picture are all mine. I used the pink Nokia flip phone in Finland and Mexico before I moved to the U.S., and then was surprised that I still needed a landline here. My house still doesn’t get much of mobile reception. When communication gets harder (because of tech or any other reasons) we should pause for a moment and consider what our students are receiving. Just because what we say (or think what we are saying) can be very different from what our students are hearing. This is why learning really needs dialogues, the back-and-forth exchanges where we are building mutual understanding. Which obviously takes time. But that time is so extremely well spent!

Adult learners bring such a huge burden of their previous learning experiences to every assessment they are facing. One part of the problem is that often there aren’t real rubrics that would map the scope of the assessment, the other part is that we all interpret the assessment and the rubric using our past educational experiences. This is why coaching (or mentoring) is an important part of adult learning. By engaging in dialogue and highlighting SEL (social-emotional learning) competencies we can support adult learners to enjoy their learning experience and gain the most of it.

Everyone who works in higher education should read the APA guide to College Teaching. It has excellent insight into how students learn and how we can support that learning. The other resource I use every day is the CASEL framework. It helps me to discuss the self awareness and self-management we need as eductors, as well as social awareness, relationship skills and my all-time-favorite: responsible decision making! My other blog is named “Choosing How to Teach” for this very reason – we DO have choices and we can choose to support our students’ learning and SEL. Learning IS a process, not just a product.

How about you? What are your best resources for supporting adult learning and SEL?

🙂

Nina

How to enjoy learning?

25 Jul

In the beginning of our lives, we all love to learn! Anyone, who has been with preschoolers, knows how excited they are about learning new things. Observing high school students or people in Professional Development – well, not so much visible enjoyment there. Why? What went wrong?

Learning is a survival skill we all are born with. But at school we often turn the intrinsic learning (and learning interest) around to something else, something measurable – schooling, or being taught. At worst, schooling kills the intrinsic interest to learning because we figure out that we are doing things wrong while learning on our own. In most cases it just decreases our learning enjoyment and makes us go through the motions and activities for an external reward – for a grade or diploma. However, there are different, better ways to support learning and engagement than grades and diplomas.

First – we must find again our own learning enjoyment as educators. A teacher who is not interested in learning should seek different employment. I know this is very strong statement, but it is not easy to fake something as fundamental as one’s desire to learn. Emphasizing anything else but learning is a mistake when we want to improve education – yet many school improvement plans focus on student “achievement” or “performance”, which are very different because they are snapshots of what a student knows or can do at a single point of time. A test score cannot even pinpoint where in the learning process the “magic” happened. My dear visitor, I am assuming that you are reading this because you are ready to engage in your own learning process and want to learn something new.

Second – let’s agree that learning happens everywhere, not only at school. Anything can be learning experience when we have the mindset and dispositions that support life-long learning, which should be the main outcome of an educational system (and it is often mentioned in missions and value statements). However, students’ everyday experiences are not about engaging their own learning process – mostly they are just trying to assimilate tons of information, which is very hard without a meaningful learning context, and easily leads to surface or strategic learning approach. We must help students to learn on their own! This is one example how to do it: Pre-school/kindergarten in Finland is dedicated to learning how to learn (instead of learning reading and math). The Finnish curriculum highlights interactions, meaningfulness and joy of learning:

Answers were sought to the question on how to best promote learning.

The active involvement of pupils, meaningfulness, joy of learning and school cultures

that promote enriching interaction between pupils and teachers are at the core of the new curriculum.

Finnish National Core Curriculum.

As educators we must support students’ holistic learning. Reminding students and parents that learning can happen anywhere and finding ways to integrate students individual learning experiences as parts of their formal learning portfolio is a great start towards increasing learning enjoyment. (The same principle obviously applies to educators’ Professional Learning – which is often better than Professional Development!)

Third – we must strive to make learning more meaningful for students. This is a hard one, because we all are so different. One size just cannot fit all! Therefore, offering choice for obtaining information and demonstrating competency/mastery is crucially important. We do this while differentiating instruction, but often forget (or don’t have time) to include students’ insight of their learning preferences into improving their learning experiences. Yet, in order for learning to be meaningful, students must have a part in the learning design process. This is not a new idea, there is more than 100 years of research about benefits of learner-centered approach and treating learners as co-creators and partners in the teaching and learning process [1](lots of familiar names there: Dewey, Montessori, Piaget, Vygotsky, Rogers among others).  APA – American Psychological Association has emphasized the importance of meaningful learning since 1990 by highlighting the learner-centered approach and 2015 updating the approach to Top 20 principles for PreK-12 education. I wish every teacher had a copy of these documents!

Bottom line: We can and must support students’ learning enjoyment as well as enjoy our own learning experiences!

We have many choices for doing this. The following blog posts are helpful :

Learner-centered education

Is learning a product or process?

Engaging student in their own learning process

Choosing How to Teach

References:

[1]  Summarized from the APA Work Group of the Board of Educational Affairs (1997, November). Learner-centered psychological principles: Guidelines for school reform and redesign. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.  http://www.jodypaul.com/lct/lct.psychprinc.html  and  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Student-centered_learning

Learner agency thrives in an emotionally safe learning environment

11 Apr

Student-centered and emotionally safe pedagogy is a choice, an instructional approach in any level of education. It is not a handbook of tips and tricks, to add diversity and equity into instruction, or help us survive our challenging days in the education profession. It is being intellectually and emotionally present when a student needs us. It is also about choosing the instructional strategies to support every students’ individual learning process and learner agency[1].

Supporting learner agency has 8 components: metacognition, self-determination, learning environment, learning ownership, social context, subjective experiences, choices, social-emotional learning.

I have been on the path of critical pedagogy for a long time. During my own K-12 education, I never imagined I would become a teacher, but as an adult I was intrigued by the ways we construct our understanding. Even before I became a teacher I wondered how individual learning could be better supported – because one size does not fit all. It seemed to me that an intellectually and emotionally safe learning environment was very necessary for supporting the learning process. After that realization there was no turning back – I had to study education science. 🙂

Learning happens in a social context, in interactions, and as educators we can make this experience better for our students. Emotionally safe classrooms are flexible by nature and they have rules that are consistent and justified, and preferably created in cooperation with students. Treating students as unique human beings is essential – which makes is hard or impossible to use behaviorist learning theories, or have strong external regulation for learning process. Later I realized that this also describes the DEI – approach for diversity, equity and inclusion. We want to support students’ self-determination because it increases their intrinsic motivation and ownership of their learning process [2].

Learning to learn is a lifelong process. It starts in early childhood, which is why preschool can have such a huge effect in future learning. Good quality early childhood pedagogy focuses on supporting holistic child development and making learning a joyful experience children want to repeat. It is important to also teach children how to help themselves to learn. We do this by increasing their metacognition and guiding children to use a variety of deep learning strategies – based on the learning task they are facing [3]. Learning to write one’s own name requires different strategies than learning to ride a bike. In order to choose, we must be aware about choices we have. And as adults we are still discovering new learning strategies for ourselves – if we keep looking for them. It really IS a life-long process.

Metacognition: The awareness and perceptions we have about ourselves as learners, understanding of the requirements and processes for completing learning tasks, and knowledge of strategies that can be used for learning.

We all have our subjective experiences and preferences that inform our choices. Sometimes we need to learn to manage ourselves in a different way – fortunately there are plenty of great SEL resources to use. Please check the CASEL framework and resources! I became familiar with social-emotional learning when I was earning my M.Ed. in Finland, and it has been a crucially important part of the learner-centered and emotionally safe pedagogy I have been building in my career and discussing in this blog. Stress-free atmosphere helps to build an emotionally safe growing and learning environment.  Knowing that their thoughts and ideas are valued helps students think and express their thoughts more freely. More thinking equals more learning.

The one situation when most of us feel threatened or unsafe is while we are receiving feedback. In an emotionally safe classroom feedback becomes a natural part of the learning process, and thus stops being scary – Growth Mindset can be used in this, if we remember to use the pedagogy of kindness and invest in personhood [4]. Focusing on supporting each individual student on their own learning path does take more time than applying standardized measures. But, it is also more effective. Students’ daily self-evaluation and teacher’s verbal comments can create an awesome tool for students to reflect and control their own learning, but it takes time to have those individual interactions with all students. I would like to see classroom sizes small enough to allow more dialogue, because learning still happens in interactions, regardless of the technology we may be using. 

It is important to remember that being kind is different from being nice. While being kind I engage in the important (but hard) dialogue about learning, helping my students to understand their own learning process and how they can either help or hinder their own learning. If I were to be just nice, I could say “Good job!” and move on – but that would not help my students to learn more.

References:

[1] 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

[2] Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The” what” and” why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological inquiry11(4), 227-268.

[3] Seif, E. (2018, November 16 )Dimensions Of Deep Learning: Levels Of Engagement And Learning. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. https://inservice.ascd.org/dimensions-of-deep-learning-levels-of-engagement-and-learning/

[4] Denial, C. (2020) A pedagogy of kindness. In. L. Stommel, C. Friend, & S.M. Morris (Eds.), Critical digital pedagogy: A collection. Hybrid Pedagogy Incorporated (pp. 212-218). https://hybridpedagogy.org/critical-digital-pedagogy/

Using SEL to support learner agency

22 Jan

Learner agency (students’ voice and choice in their own learning) has gained wonderfully much interest in education around the world during the past few years.

Alas, sometimes I see learner agency being expressed as something students either have or don’t have – yet, agency is truly the capacity to choose our responses to problematic situations [1]. It is not up to us as educators to start scoring learner agency, or dividing students based of whether they have agency or not. And, according to my research, learner agency may sometimes appear negative, especially when students choose to disengage – often to object the structure of instruction.

Students can perceive their learner agency as Detachment, Belonging, Synergy or Unbound.

Detachment can happen more easily when students perceive that their learning has no real-life connections, or when they are just going through the motions to earn a grade. There is very little or no learning going on, and students may engage in surface learning strategies.

The good news is that we CAN support learner agency with our instruction and classroom management and help students to belong, find synergy and become unbound learners. Choosing to teach with respect towards students and support students’ ownership of their own learning is a good start! Social- emotional learning (SEL) provides great tools for supporting learner agency. CASEL framework has identified 5 areas in SEL:

  • self-awareness
  • self-management
  • social awareness
  • relationship skills
  • responsible decision making

These are not something new and surprising, teachers throughout the time have focused on supporting these areas in their classrooms. And we know from decades of research how successful students already use all these skills – I am thinking all the research about self-regulation and co-regulation, engagement and participation, executive functions, metacognitive skills, and so forth. All SEL skills are necessary for successful learning, but too often they are not taught throughout formal education. And children arrive to school with different skillsets of SEL, some will need more help than others.

By embedding the SEL skills to our instruction and classroom management we are helping students to better engage in their own, individual learning process. And this is why embedding SEL is so crucially important! They should not be an additional curriculum, but learned within every school subject and project. The classroom applications for embedding SEL are quite self-evident:

  • Supporting students’ self-awareness means that we address their thoughts, beliefs, emotions and motivations regarding the learning experiences students have.
    • Providing information is just one part of the teaching-learning exchange
    • Addressing students’ questions and validating their thoughts immediately deepens the learning experience
    • Helping students to deal with their emotions during learning process further improves the learning experience – getting new or contradicting information is hard for all of us!
  • Supporting students’ self-management means that we help students to take initiative and cope with their emotions and thoughts, and we also provide guidance for stressful situations.
    • We have all had students with advanced self-management skills, and also students who haven’t really been exposed what self-management means. Balancing different student needs is always challenging, and it will always be challenging because we are individuals with different personal histories. Supporting students’ self-regulation is just a part of being an educator!
    • Some students need more support in taking initiative than others, it may be a part of their personality. Too often I see extroversion being rewarded over introversion – even though one is not a better personality trait than the other!
  • Supporting students’ social awareness means that we model empathy and compassion, recognize (and verbalize) situational demands and opportunities, and help all students to take perspective
    • Understanding the perspective of another person is a fundamental skill in the society, and we can choose to teach this with all classroom interactions. Think-pair-share is a great start!
    • Discussing why some things are harder to learn than others is important, because it relates directly to the mindsets we have. And verbalizing that we all struggle with something builds better communication and learning skills for the future.
  • Supporting students’ relationship skills means that we emphasize cooperation, communication and proactively teach students to seek help and offer help to others
    • Engaging in dialogue is important. And dialogue is VERY different from discussion, because in dialogue we are actively trying to understand what the other person is trying to express (not focusing on building our own argument).
    • Cooperative education is learning-centered, meaning that everything we do is focused on supporting students’ learning process and understanding the big picture – instead of cramming tons of details to be forgotten after the test or engaging in busywork.
    • Learning happens in interactions – so providing more opportunities for meaningful interactions is important!
  • Supporting students’ responsible decision making means that we teach students how to make good decisions, first with smaller things and about personal behaviors and social interactions, but also increasingly more complex decisions.
    • Choosing is a skill that can (and must) be learned in a safe environment.
    • Only through making choices we can train our own executive functions [2] – EF doesn’t develop if we are always told what we need to do.
    • Too many (and too big) choices can be detrimental – knowing students’ personal preferences will help us to support them learning to choose.
    • Adding choices also communicates to our students that we believe they can learn, and that we are there to help, if needed.

All the five SEL elements are organically present in our lives, in our societies. Classroom learning shouldn’t be an exception of this. Choosing to teach with the focus of supporting students’ learning process also helps us empower our students to learn more on their own.

Helping students to learn how to make responsible choices is a crucially important life skill. Let’s not waste our opportunity to support their agency by embedding SEL strategies to our instruction and adding more students’ voice and choice to every learning interaction!

References:

[1] Emirbayer, M., & Mische, A. (1998). What is agency? American journal of sociology, 103(4),
962-1023. Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/231294.

Biesta, G., & Tedder, M. (2007). Agency and learning in the lifecourse: Towards an ecological
perspective. Studies in the Education of Adults, 39(2), 132-149.

[2] Patall, E. A., Cooper, H., & Robinson, J. C. (2008). The effects of choice on intrinsic motivation and related outcomes: a meta-analysis of research findings. Psychological bulletin, 134(2), 270.

Smith, N.C. (2017). Students’ perceptions of learner agency: A phenomenographic inquiry into the lived learning experiences of high school students. (Doctoral Dissertation).  Northeastern Repository

Empower students to learn!

15 Nov

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is here to stay. And that is a great thing! As learning is such a holistic phenomenon, we educators must be aware of the emotional and social parts of it, and encourage students to collaborate and make most of their learning experience. In other words: instead of just teaching/ providing information, we must empower our students to learn.

There is a huge difference between these two approaches to education.

I personally believe that student empowerment is one major superpower of Finnish education. I know I experienced it throughout my own education in Finland, more in some classes and less in some others, througout the basic education (K-12). My deepest and most profound experiences of learner empowerment happened during my M. Ed. studies and teacher training at University of Jyväskylä. So, I am happily exporting student empowerment and making it an integral part of my own practice.

The easiest way to empower learning is to provide choices for students and discuss learning being an iterative process. We generally have stronger emotional attachment to things we get to choose – and that emotional connection increases the likelihood of deeper learning to happen. It’s because ownership, engagement and intrinsic motivation amplify each other. Empowered students have more ownership over what they learn.

Having choices is the prerequisite for ownership!

Empowering students to learn autonomously can be scary in the beginning. I am not suggesting that you should let go of all the classroom rules and allowing students to do whatever they please. That would not be education. But starting to add choices for students to support their self-direction, and embedding SEL into every lesson is a great start. CASEL has awesome resources for relationship skills, social and self-awareness, self-management and responsible decision-making. The only way students can learn to make good decisions is to have choices and get to practice choosing in safe environments. Making good choices is just one skill among other life skills and we should foster it in all possible ways we can. Because that’s how we support students’ critical thinking!

It is important to remember that SEL is so much more than just training students to use their “power skills” like executive functions or relationship skills – SEL is an integral part of human development and needs to be embedded into curriculum and instruction instead of being taught as another school subject.

Teaching with empowerment changes the power dynamics in a classroom, and communications between faculty and students. We teachers and faculty want to assume the role of a guide, not the leader. And we do this to support learner agency which is “perhaps the most higher-order, emergent, abstractly defined, and most cherished of human functions” [1]. This is why empowerment is so important! Learner agency is all about the choices and degree of freedom students have about their learning! Teaching how to choose is an integral part of education.

Empowering students to learn means striving to provide ample opportunities for students to have autonomy (choose readings, assignments, assessments, partners, projects, etc.) so that they can grow their competencies and relate with the teacher and each other. These three (A, C, and R) are parts of self-determination in life and learning. More information under this link. It is crucially important for us as educators to realize that the gamining industry has already harnessed the ACRs and benefit from the motivational pull to play [2]. The three elements are:

  • Autonomy – have choices and be an agent of one’s own life and learning
  • Competence – feel capable in own learning and growing skills
  • Relatedness – accceptance, feeling connected and interacting with others

We can empower students to learn by emphasizing ACRs. Alas, it is harder for students to learn to use their self- determination in compliance-driven learning environments. It is harder for teachers, too, because in the beginning it may not be easy to figure out what kind of choices students could have. Fortunately we have contemporary research to support our choices for empowerment.

APA – Top 20 principles for k-12

Choice and Intricnsic motivation – Patall et al. meta-analysis

Meaningful learning: essential factor – Novak article

Motivation and Self-Regulated Learning – Book

References:

[1] Zelazo, P. D. (2020). Executive Function and Psychopathology: A Neurodevelopmental Perspective. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 16. (citation is from page 443)

[2] Niemiec, C. P., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice. Theory and research in Education, 7(2), 133-144.

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 Education, 1(8), 1.

3Cs for 2020

2 Aug

Cooperative learning environment with constructive learning design and cognitive learning approach is more important in schoolyear 2020 than ever before! I wish to empower every teacher to choose how they teach!

The new normal requires every school and every teacher to reconsider how we educate the next generation. It is quite simple: just focus on emphasizing learning instead of instruction. We can’t afford failing to engage ALL students in their own learning process, because it is the best way to support students’ intrinsic motivation and mastery goal orientation that leads to deeper learning (check this [1] APA site).

Helping students self-engage with voice and agency increases their academic performance, because just pushing for completing tasks or worksheets leads to very limited engagement and learning (check this [2] ASCD blog). Deep learning is about students acquiring transferable knowledge and skills through their learning experiences – therefore it is crucial to make differentiation and indvidualization a standard practice in every classroom (not just in special education!).

Instruction that is not personalized leads to students choosing the less beneficial engagement approaches: surface approach (participating enough to pass the test/getting an acceptable grade, not interested in learning) or strategic approach (ace the test to get straight A’s, then forget it all). Both of these are focusing on compliance and participation, instead of engagement on personal level. Engaging students in their own learning process requires a paradigm shift, but it IS possible to do. The 3Cs provide the roadmap for switching from focusing on instruction to focusing on learning.

C1 – Cooperation is the foundation for successful online learning – we just can’t hold people accountable over the distance, so spending time in trying to do that is wasted effort and time. Students always have agency: a choice about their own beliefs and actions. But, we can support students’ learning process and help them learn (instead of focusing on teaching). Getting rid of the “sage on the stage” thinking and becoming the “guide on the side” is a great way to start building a cooperative practice. Cooperation in the beginning of a school year looks like this: Provide emotional support for students by validating concerns and offering indivualized help, continuously showing positive regard. Offer help every day. Repeat offering help and support every day. Emotionally safe learning environment is the first premise for effective learning. If students are scared or worried, learning is not their highest mental priority, surviving is.  3C-framework is built on cooperation, and uses constructive and cognitive instructional approaches.Constructive learning design supports students’ learning process. Make sure to balance the three dimensions of teachers’ pedagogical knowledge: instructional process, learning process and assessment – in physical classroon the instructional process can easily become overemphasized. Now is the time to change that! Build flexible learning entities from the curricula that make sense to students and remember that these can easily integrate two subjects! Build ongoing feedback to keep the learning process going – shared documents, portfolios, blog posts, presentations, videos, etc., emphasizing the open-ended nature of students’ learning. Remember to share a clear rubric with students! [Check this post about student-centerd assessment practices!]

Focus on cognitive learning approach by supporting students’ metacognition (or, thinking about thinking/learning about learning). Teaching metacognitive knowledge and skills is an important part of supporting deep learning in all levels of education! It just looks different: for very young students we try to help them on a path of self-efficacy and positive academic self-concept by supporting self-regulation and concept development; for grad students we offer support in managing the self-regulated learning process and self-evaluation/self-judgment.

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.

Help students by discussing Growth Mindset as an important part of understanding one’s own learning process. Provide various ways to organize one’s own thinking: graphic organizers, mindmaps, taxonomies, color coding, etc., and emphasize that there are many different ways to learn something new. Make a list of shareable learning strategies you can recommend to students at any time. Include self-reflection as a standard practice – model it by thinking aloud, help students verbalize what they have learned, help them think what they might do differently or how they could make their schoolwork (stories, presentations, videos, etc) better. Always emphasize learning being a process!

Fostering learning process is actually very simple. In addition to open-endedness there are some other qualities in my mind I decided to name as  CAFÉ

Communicate. Have a dialogue with your students, the most effective communication is reciprocal and includes negotiations of meaning.

Acknowledge their competence, and help to add into it. Validate their knowledge and understanding.

Feedback early and often. Provide feedback about the process (think of mapping the ground that lies ahead them, it is easier to steer clear when you know where the pitfalls are).

Encourage and empower. Support their choices. Point out other possible directions (make sure not to choose for students).

And just like coffee, or life in general, also learning is best when we can enjoy it!

CAFÉ: Communicate. Have a dialogue with your students, the most effective communication is reciprocal and includes negotiations of meaning. Acknowledge their competence, and help to add into it. Validate their knowledge and understanding. Feedback early and often. Provide feedback about the process (think of mapping the ground that lies ahead them, it is easier to steer clear when you know where the pitfalls are). Encourage and empower. Support their choices. Point out other possible directions (make sure not to choose for students).

I hope you enjoy!

🙂

Nina

Other posts about 3Cs and supporting learning process:

3 Superior online strategies

Is learning process or product

Teaching dispositions

Self-determination

Learning-centered education

References:

[1]McCombs, B. L. (2010, February 16). Developing responsible and autonomous learners: A key to motivating students. American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/education/k12/learners

[2] Seif, E. (2018, November 16 )Dimensions Of Deep Learning: Levels Of Engagement And Learning. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. https://inservice.ascd.org/dimensions-of-deep-learning-levels-of-engagement-and-learning/