Tag Archives: student centered

Student-centered assessment

18 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

COMPASS learning

23 Jun

After working for few weeks on a literature review about learning and teaching being disconnected, and how student empowerment improves learning, I just wanted to share the highlights. Here they are in a form of a compass:

COMPASS learning

 

Choices and open-ended questions are needed for increased student engagement and motivation in learning. Choosing is a skill that can (and should) be taught. It relates very straightforwardly to problem solving skills. If there is just one correct answer, and students should find it, no thinking or choosing is needed, and less learning occurs. Open-ended questions help us to understand better what the student thinks.

  • Feuerstein, R., & Falik, L. H. (2010). Learning to think, thinking to learn: A comparative analysis of three approaches to instruction. Journal of Cognitive Education and Psychology, 9(1), 4-20.
  • Goetz, T., Frenzel, A. C., Hall, N. C., & Pekrun, R. (2008). Antecedents of academic emotions: Testing the internal/external frame of reference model for academic enjoyment. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 33(1), 9-33

Metacognition needs to be emphasized and taught as a byproduct in every class. How cold anyone be proficient in learning, if they don’t have the information how learning happens best? We teachers sometimes forget that students don’t have all the same information we do.  Students academic self-concept is important for their learning competence, and if you are a university instructor, please remember that it is never too late to help students to find their confidence as learners. Sharing tools how others learn is an important part of any educational event.

  • Alexander, P. A. (2008). Why this and why now? Introduction to the special issue on metacognition, self-regulation, and self-regulated learning. Educational Psychology Review20(4), 369-372.

Pedagogy should be the focus in the classroom, and preferably in the literal meaning of the word “to lead the child”, i.e engaging students in learning facilitation instead of pre-scripted instruction. Students’ learning dispositions and the instructor’s teaching dispositions are equally important in the teaching-learning situation!

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

Student’s accountability in their own learning is far superior measure for achievement than externally set teacher accountability could ever be. Furthermore, in the Berry & Sahlberg article the external accountability measures seemed to prevent teachers from using effective small group practices. That sounds just downright wrong to me.  Teachers are the learning professionals. They should get to design the instructional method that best fits the group of students they are teaching.

  • Berry, J. & Sahlberg, P. 2006. Accountability affects the use of small group learning in school mathematics. Nordic Studies in Mathematics Education, 11(1), 5 – 31.)
  • Bryk, A. S., Sebring, P. B., Allensworth, E., Easton, J. Q., & Luppescu, S. (2010). Organizing schools for improvement: Lessons from Chicago. University of Chicago Press.

Self-regulated learning is essential for academic success. After all, learning IS individual, and the sooner students learn to self-regulate their own learning needs, the more likely they are to become lifelong learners.  The world is changing very fast, and it seems that the pace of change is not going to slow down anytime soon. This presents the dire need for every student to become a proficient lifelong learner, so that they can update their skills and keep up with the pace of the  progress.

  • Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (2006). Knowledge building: Theory, pedagogy, and technology. The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences, 97-115.
  • Zimmerman, B. J. (2000). Attaining self-regulation: a social cognitive perspective. Handbook of self-regulation, 13-39.

Safety should be a given attribute in every school. In addition to ensuring the physical safety, the learning environment MUST be emotionally safe for students to engage in higher level thinking (check Maslow if you don’t want to take just my word for it). Students spend a lot of their time in school and classroom. If we want to have well-adjusted and balanced citizenry in the future, then the learning environment should contribute towards that goal.

  • Willms, J. D., Friesen, S., & Milton, P. (2009). What did you do in school today. Transforming classrooms through social, academic, and intellectual engagement.

 

Lifelong learning

20 Jun

I wish we didn’t so exclusively connect the concept of learning with formal education and going to school or being a (college) student.  Because learning actually happens everywhere, all the time. At school learning is just more focused and targeted to meet the standards or performance measures of the course.

Maybe it is just me, thinking how being a learner only depends on your mindset?  With a curious approach to life even reading your daily newspaper can become a learning experience, not to talk about diving into books…or the wonderful open source journals, databases, libraries… and wikipedia. Maybe I am addicted to learning, but I consider a great fun to hit the random article button in wikipedia and reading about something I maybe knew nothing about.

Lifelong learning is so important in these times when there is more information available in our fingertips than ever before!

Unfortunately many students are schooled out of their minds with too tight performance measures and learning objectives that leave very little or no space for wondering and creativity.  How can we help students to become interested in learning, not just expecting to be schooled or pass a test? How to help more students to become lifelong learners?

One way is to equip students with the skills to self-regulate their learning.   Helping students to think about their learning (tasks) and how they relate to a bigger picture, focus on their own thinking and learning while engaging in the task, and self-evaluate their learning?  (These components are also called forethought, performance control and self-reflection, as seen in Zimmerman, 2002.)

As a teacher and mentor I try to understand what is the mindset of my students, and I created the typology below to illustrate the  four different types of students we have.

 

Typology for motivation and dependence

 

 

Newman, R. S. (2008). The motivational role of adaptive help seeking in self-regulated learning. Motivation and self-regulated learning: Theory, research, and applications, 315-337.

Zimmerman, B. J. (2002). Becoming a self-regulated learner: An overview.Theory into practice41(2), 64-70.

 

Teachers’ learning process has three dimensions

1 Jan

Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.

~John Cotton Dana

The one very important message in all learning and teaching today is about personalization, and how to understand it.  Student-centered learning has proven to be very effective. Students are not clones and should not be treated like ones, so it is important to think how the outdated factory model of education could be improved, and more choices included to students’ everyday learning experiences.

Our world today is very different from the dawn of the industrial world where school systems were created, so the way we prepare students for their unknown future should be changed. Well-rounded contemporary education aims for students to achieve the global competencies: investigate the world, recognize diverse perspectives, effectively communicate ideas and take action to improve conditions.

Edudemic has a nice visual about the next step (Web 3.0) in education: schools in the minds of students and parents evolving from their “daycare” status to places where we learn, and where knowledge is socially constructed and contextually reinvented.  This increases the purposefulness and meaningfulness of education, but 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. 

In these times information is available everywhere – hand held devices, computers, books – and the teacher cannot be seen as the source of knowledge, but the facilitator for students’ individual learning and the guide for making good choices about how to use the information. Expanding the teaching profession to cover individual learning support must also change the way we think about teacher training and professional development.

Just like their students, teachers have diverse needs for their learning and professional development, and are entitled to their own learner-centered training experiences. Only by strengthening teachers’ learning process we can truly improve their professional competence and ultimately the learning experiences pupils will have.  Standards alone are not the solution – there must be room for personalization for all learners regardless their age or educational level. Engaging in the individual learning process enables both teachers and students to build up from standards and achieve the global competencies to thrive in the modern world.

3d teacher competence

All training and professional development (PD) should include the three dimensions of teachers’ professional competencyteaching and instruction, pedagogical knowledge and global reflection.  All three dimensions are important and contribute to the teaching-learning situations. The colour in the thirds deepens with layers of professionalism, produced by the teachers’ ongoing learning process. You probably notice how the third part, global reflection, seems to be drifting apart from the two others? That is unfortunately happening too often in training and PD. But excluding global reflection makes it significantly harder for teachers to achieve excellent learning facilitation skills and thrive in their profession.  

Too often we stay on the first dimension – the practical and concrete classroom experience –  in training and PD sessions and talk about the curricula or ready assessments without thinking about the pedagogy behind the practices or the decisions for these specific pedagogical choices. How would you incorporate the global competencies into the classroom experience, if everything is designed and scripted by someone else? And how do you think students will learn to investigate, recognize, communicate and act if they are not active participants in their own learning, and just arrive to school to be instructed and assessed instead of engaging in studies with their curiosity? The underlying philosophies and choices are very important for effective learning experiences!

Pedagogical  knowledge is the middle dimension of teachers’ learning process, which means it needs to be visited and revisited all the time in order to tie the rapid instructional decisions to the theoretical background we have about teaching, learning and understanding. According to this infograph at TeachThought blog teachers make 1500 educational decisions each day. Pedagogical knowledge helps us as teachers to become aware about our own choices in classroom practice. With solid knowledge of how learning happens and how it can best be supported we are taking a huge leap towards enabling students to be accountable for their own learning. No classroom or group of students is identical to another, so no practices should be adopted without thinking how well they fit into this particular class or group. 

The third dimension of professionalism – global reflection – combined with the pedagogical knowledge helps teachers to decide what strategies are the best fit in the classroom.  Teaching dispositions, values and  philosophy belong to global reflection, as well as didactic design, even though it is terminology used mostly in Scandinavia. This third dimension in teachers’ learning process and professionalism is s the big picture of teaching and learning. We only see what we are ready to perceive. Awareness is the first step in everything.  For educators it is really important to think about the question “why?”. Changing between the big picture and details helps us analyse teaching and learning, because it relates to the ability of taking different viewpoints to the same issue and trying to see what others see. For teachers this is essential, so that they can offer information in student-sized chunks and relate it to students’ previous knowledge, and thus support students’ learning process.

The three dimensions of teachers’ learning process (concrete instruction, pedagogical knowledge and values – or do, learn, think)  are present in all teaching-learning situations. They can be visible in the choices and interactions, or veiled in hidden expectations.  I want to encourage all teachers and professors to engage in value discussions  and joint reflection with colleagues and students to deepen the global reflection and their own professional competence.

 

This slide show is related to the three dimensions of teachers’ learning and professionalism. It was created for Global Education Conference so it discusses teacher training and PD from the viewpoint of global competencies.

 

 

 

 

 

 

References:

Kansanen, P., Tirri, K., Meri, M., Krokfors, L., Husu, J., & Jyrhämä, R. (2000).Teachers’ pedagogical thinking. P. Lang.

Mansilla, V. B., & Jackson, A. (2011). Educating for global competence: Preparing our youth to engage the world. Asia Society.

Student-centered learning and teaching

16 Oct

I was working on one of my assignments for my doctoral studies and searching for a good definition of student-centered learning. Imagine my delight when I realized that APA provides a beautiful and comprehensive definition that is a real joy to read. As many of you already know, Nina’s Notes is dedicated to helping teachers to adopt and use more student-centered practices in their classroom. I just want to group the practices into the 3Cs to have a manageable and functional framework. Yet, what I see below fits perfectly well into my teaching/learning philosophy (emphasis and colouring mine):

 
This definition of learner-centered is based on an understanding of the Learner-Centered Psychological Principles as a representation of the current knowledge base on learners and learning.
The Principles apply to all learners, in and outside of school, young and old.  
Learner-centered is also related to the beliefs, characteristics, dispositions, and practices of teachers – practices primarily created by the teacher.
When teachers and their practices function from an understanding of the knowledge base delineated in the Principles, they
(a) include learners in decisions about how and what they learn and how that learning is assessed
(b) value each learner’s unique perspectives
(c) respect and accommodate individual differences in learners’ backgrounds, interests, abilities, and experiences, and
(d) treat learners as co-creators and partners in the teaching and learning process.
 

What else can I say?

This is exactly how I was taught during my own teacher education in Finland.  The teaching and learning process where teachers are learning facilitators and students intrinsically motivated and accountable for their own learning  should look like this in the classrooms everywhere in the world! And APA even provides more tools for  getting there!

Please read ahead:

COGNITIVE AND METACOGNITIVE FACTORS

Principle 1: Nature of the learning process.
The learning of complex subject matter is most effective when it is an intentional process of constructing meaning from information and experience.
Principle 2: Goals of the learning process. 
The successful learner, over time and with support and instructional guidance, can create meaningful, coherent representations of knowledge.
Principle 3: Construction of knowledge. 
The successful learner can link new information with existing knowledge in meaningful ways.
Principle 4: Strategic thinking
The successful learner can create and use a repertoire of thinking and reasoning strategies to achieve complex learning goals.
Principle 5: Thinking about thinking
Higher order strategies for selecting and monitoring mental operations facilitate creative and critical thinking.
Principle 6: Context of learning
Learning is influenced by environmental factors, including culture, technology, and instructional practices.

 

MOTIVATIONAL AND AFFECTIVE FACTORS

Principle 7: Motivational and emotional influences on learning
What and how much is learned is influenced by the learner’s motivation. Motivation to learn, in turn, is influenced by the individual’s emotional states, beliefs, interests and goals, and habits of thinking.
Principle 8: Intrinsic motivation to learn
The learner’s creativity, higher order thinking, and natural curiosity all contribute to motivation to learn.
Intrinsic motivation is stimulated by tasks of optimal novelty and difficulty, relevant to personal interests, and providing for personal choice and control.
Principle 9: Effects of motivation on effort
Acquisition of complex knowledge and skills requires extended learner effort and guided practice. Without learners’ motivation to learn, the willingness to exert this effort is unlikely without coercion.

 

DEVELOPMENTAL AND SOCIAL FACTORS

Principle 10: Developmental influence on learning
As individuals develop, they encounter different opportunities and experience different constraints for learning. Learning is most effective when differential development within and across physical, intellectual, emotional, and social domains is taken into account.
Principle 11: Social influences on learning 
Learning is influenced by social interactions, interpersonal relations, and communication with others.

 

INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES FACTORS

Principle 12: Individual differences in learning
Learners have different strategies, approaches, and capabilities for learning that are a function of prior experience and heredity.
Principle 13: Learning and diversity
Learning is most effective when differences in learners’ linguistic, cultural, and social backgrounds are taken into account.

Principle 14: Standards and assessment
Setting appropriately high and challenging standards and assessing the learner and learning progress-including diagnostic, process, and outcome assessment-are integral parts of the learning process.

 

How can we make this become reality in classrooms?  Please check Nina’s Notes for some tools!  And let’s keep on collaborating in highlighting the importance of student-centered practices!

 

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

Also see:  http://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/techconf00/mccombs_paper.html for more information about learner-centered practices and their importance to the field of contemporary education.  

 

Active and meaningful learning

7 Aug

Have you noticed how there are people who seem to “happen to the world” and others who have the “world happen to them”? People who are proactive and engaged, and others who are passive and alienated?

People who happen to the world are the ones who make their own choices about their lives, learning and everything.  Isn’t that how things should be?  People being active and make decisions about their future, and shaping their own thinking. How about people with the passive approach to life, people who let the world happen to them? What is their learning like?

Psychologists use the term “locus of control” to describe whether people believe that they can control the items and actions of their own lives. Intrinsic control means that I am responsible for my own life. Extrinsic control means that someone else decides for me, and I need those others to come and save me from hard situations.

But, it also means that my achievements are controlled by external factors concentrated to explanations like “It’s about luck”, “This is too hard”, and “I don’t know xyz”- the last one being super funny as there is more information at the reach of our fingertips than ever before. And after teaching for a few years you have pretty much heard them all.

My favourite one is: “S/he made me do it”. Really? Did s/he now? And how, exactly?

Why this long intro, you may ask. Well, so much of our academic success depends on what we believe about ourselves and education, and the interactions of the two.  Life and learning cannot (and shouldn’t) be separated from each other. Simply measuring up to a performance standard, or creating a product (essay, project, worksheet, etc.) asked by the teacher shouldn’t be the end result of learning. Outcomes should be seen as a new configuration of students’ own knowledge, instead of superficial external measures.

This is the real problem in education: teaching is so disconnected from learning.  In the U.S. we invest more funds in education per pupil than many other OECD countries, yet the learning results are not improving. In a way it doesn’t surprise me because the fundamental idea of education is not matching reality.  When teaching is seen as is simple as imparting or transmitting teachers’ knowledge into students, or imposing the teachers’ worldview into them, then one could easily argue how creating more standards or paying big money for additional testing is the solution for the underachievement problem.  But information sharing is not teaching!  Learning must be active and meaningful for students!

When learning is understood as students internally constructing their own knowledge and effectively using it in problem solving and to support their learning process, then learning and teaching are certainly something more than just information sharing.

Students’ academic performance derives from their  learning, right?    And students’ learning depends on their academic self-concept, which consists their motivation (intrinsic and/or extrinsic) as well as engagement,  and also their own beliefs about their competence as learners. Understanding how students create their mindsets and beliefs about intelligence is important, and the research shows how ” there is more support for an effect of academic self-concept on achievement than vice versa” .[1]

Please note that I am not talking about boosting anyone’s self-esteem. I am trying to paint a picture of  having realistic self-image as a learner and a human being. Both our knowledge and our beliefs are references to the life we live. Children (students) are no exception from this rule. This is why it is so important, both individually as well as in communities like schools,  to ask questions like:

Do we believe in fixed intelligence as static and unchanging, based on inherited qualities like gift or talent (Mindset concept by Carol Dweck)?

Or,  do we view intelligence with a growth mindset, which understands the developing nature of it, and emphasized how everyone can learn?

Researchers strongly recommend the latter one:  “Encouraging a malleable (growth) mindset helps to sustain children’s intrinsic motivation, thereby enhancing both academic success and life-long learning”[2].  I think it is also very clear that only by empowering students to be active participants in their own learning and providing choices, we can create the culture of being responsible of our own lives and learning.

So, what can we all as adults – parents and teachers – do to foster this academic competence in every student?

 

N3C


[1] Bossaert, G., Doumen, S., Buyse, E. &  Verschueren, K. (2011). Predicting children’s academic achievement after the transition to first grade: A two-year longitudinal study.  Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. 32, 47-57.

[2] Haimovitz, K., Wormington, S. V., & Corpus, J. H. (2011). Dangerous mindsets: How beliefs about intelligence predict motivational change. Learning and Individual Differences21(6), 747-75

 

Quality of learning, process vs. product

19 Jul

There are processes without defined products, play being probably the best example of it. Art and music don’t have a clear definitions of quality either, but we do recognize a masterpiece when we experience it. Learning works the same way. Each student has a unique learning experience, due to their diverse abilities and expectations, so the end result of learning must be open-ended, too. When students are forced into one definite learning outcome, i.e. product (think of 27 nearly identical pieces of “art work” on the classroom wall, copies of a model/template, provided by the teacher), something important of the learning quality is lost.

We already know how important play is for learning, as numerous studies show the positive effects of engaging in free play. One important part must be how play employs our creativity and curiosity. While guided play is sometimes important for concept development, it is necessary for anyone working with early childhood age students to be able to follow the child’s lead and verbally add new dimensions or elements to the play. Sitting the child down to perform a task an adult has planned has less effective learning components than enhancing the free play. Just because we will never create the same competence while  following the thinking of someone else, as we do while thinking  things through on  our own. Playing is the visual part of children’s thinking!  Helping students to engage with their own thoughts is a huge accomplishment.

There is also evidence about how social-emotional choices made during free play, like negotiating about taking turns, actually strengthen the same processes we need in scientific problem solving.  This makes me think how important it is to share our knowledge of learning and how it actually happens with students, so that they can be empowered to engage with their own learning process. Meaningfulness defines the quality of the play, as there is not an objective criteria for children how to conduct “good play”.  This is equally true with learning process, too, where meaningfulness perceived by the students drives their curiosity and engagement in class.

Measuring quality in education is hard, partly because there is not one universal definition what good quality learning looks like. People have different connotations about educational quality, and the cultural perceptions are also very diverse.  Learning, like play, is individual and very situational and contextual.

One way of approaching educational quality[1] is to see it as perfection of the learning process, where everybody involved is required to contribute to the quality of outcome, and can be held accountable for her/his own part. Isn’t this what we want for our students? For every student to be successful in their studies, and also have ownership over their achievements?

I bet every teacher knows about “teachable moments”, and those are the key components of a good quality learning process: to receive the information and inspiration at the right time, so that learning is perceived to be meaningful by the student. Learning quality in those moments is very high, due to engagement and ownership student experiences. These experiences are more likely to be saved in long term memory, because the ownership of learning process makes the transfer of learning to happen almost automatically.

In the classroom it looks pretty much as the following: We plan for optimal instruction, but students’ learning is something more than perfectly written, measurable performance objectives. Involving students in their own learning process helps them to become more accountable for their own learning. Teachers cater for students’ individual needs and preferences to make learning more meaningful for them.

Excellent educational quality emphasizes the transformative learning process that involves both cognitive and personal growth of students. It is learning for life, not just for school. This transformational type of learning happens in individual interactions. Teachers have very big role in supporting these interactions: the younger the student the more important it is to have a teacher as a trusted adult to facilitate these interactions between students and their learning environment and resources.

 


[1] Wittek, L., & Kvernbekk, T. (2011). On the Problems of Asking for a Definition of Quality in Education. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research55(6), 671-684.

 

Learning as unending process

25 Jun

While thinking of all my students – current, past and those in the future – there is one single wish I have for them all: to become a lifelong learner. Learning is an unending process that starts before we are born, and with the growth mindset it continues through our lives. Supporting that process is how I define my work, and I like to think that I contribute to my students’ academic learning as well as their growth as learners.

Our students arrive to our classrooms with diverse skills and backgrounds, but they all have also common needs. We all  benefit from having someone to facilitate our learning, someone to help us reflect what we have learned and thus guide the learning so that it becomes deeper. The simple word “learn” has very many connotations, so I want to define here that I am talking about transformational learning, and of that in the sense the learning being meaningful and relevant to the student.

Learning is a multidimensional phenomenon, which makes it even harder to define. Learning is highly individual, situational (time wise) and context dependent. Of course all these components also interact – so every teaching-learning situation is unique. This presents the requirement for open and honest communication in learning situations, and makes learning facilitation a superior tool as compared to the traditional view of teaching as information sharing activity.

Sincere communication is the foundation of excellent learning-teaching relationships. Asking open-ended questions is much more effective than being insincere and just pretending to ask genuine questions.  Students do know the difference between a (fake) question we ask to test their knowledge and a (real) question we ask to hear their thoughts. We even listen differently to the answers to genuine questions (think of the difference between listening and hearing).  Pretending to ask a genuine question when we already know the answer quickly erodes the trust and uniqueness of learning situation (I know this may be against some “questioning techniques” commonly taught during teacher training, but please bear with me), and when the deep connections have gone only shallow learning remains.

In addition to questioning, insincere communication often aims to use unnecessary power over students (for example portraying learning as an external product instead of internal process, using extrinsic motivators, not sharing learning goal/objectives) and thus prevents the learning process from being as effective as it could be.   True enough, in formal education learning is sometimes seen as a secondary goal, and performing (i.e. passing exams, getting good grades etc) as a primary goal, which of course shifts the focus from process to performance, and thus externalizes learning.

Without actively listening to our students’ needs, we easily forget how important part the learning process plays in permanent learning, and resort to cohort thinking and try to teach everyone at once with the one-size-fits-all approach.  Nganga (2011, p. 248) talks about teaching strategies and methodology:

“When successful teaching and learning is reduced to technical assessment rather than a critical and emancipatory dialogue, teachers continue to serve institutional organizational structures that maintain the status quo rather than educating to transform the lives of students.”

Teaching can be based on products, as we want to know that students have learned the bare minimum (usually defined as a learning objective/standards) and can also demonstrate it in exit assessment, but transformative learning –  if we are lucky – continues long time after the student has left the classroom. This is why we should recognize how teaching/instruction is just one part of the learning process, and the other parts (goals/motivation,  environment, prior knowledge, aptitude and readiness) need to be acknowledged with equal emphasis.

Learning Star3

Excellent pedagogical skill is is essential for teachers, because it helps balancing the products with the process. Learning cannot be confined to school or classroom, because the tools for learning are deeply connected to other parts of our lives. Communicating about the importance of continuous learning process empowers students to learn – where ever they might be. This is a known habit of successful students. To help all students achieve better learning results, we should be sure to communicate openly about learning being an intrinsic and internal part of students’ personality – not just something we do at school with the teacher.

Nganga, C.W. (2011). Emerging as a scholar practitioner: A reflective essay review. Mentoring and Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, 19 (2), 239-251.

How to grow learners

30 May

May has been such a busy month. I just realized I haven’t posted any blogposts this month, even though I have had several great discussions about education:  how to make it better, for everyone, everywhere. Those of you who have been reading my previous posts already know that I am a strong advocate for meaningful learning and that I view learning as a process, instead of a product. This distinction results from my personal (and professional) view that learning and teaching are two separate phenomena, even though in everyday language and education policies they appear to be two sides of the same coin.

Now I am vacationing and sitting on our lanai’i, sipping coffee while watching the Ocean and loving the freshness of early morning.  I am also processing all the new things I have seen and encountered – which led me think about the specific mindset of a life-long learner. You see, ever since my masters and enjoying the extensive studies in developmental psychology, I have been wondering how some people seem to learn and grow throughout their lives, while others just to stop learning.  My current conjecture is that these people cease to wonder, and stop asking the important question “why?” and just accept things as they are. From my point of view this seriously limits their creativity and critical thinking skills.

The idea of growth mindset makes very much sense, and we should foster that in our students. Instead of packing everything into a ready format (and label it discovery learning, problem- or inquiry-based learning, etc.), I would want to equip every teacher with the ability to foster curiosity in students.  So, no matter what the curriculum or instructional setting is, the teachers would be able to provide choices that spark the meaningfulness in their students’ learning.

We already know that too many ready (and definite!) answers kill students’ curiosity. There cannot be creativity without curiosity, because they both require interacting with the unknown, either in the level of actions or thoughts. And, quite frankly, the known becomes boring at some point – that is how small children learn: venturing further away from parents, deeper into the unknown, the world – and without people pushing their boundaries, we would not have the inventions of the modern life.

I don’t believe people are supposed to stop learning at any point of their lives. Ever!

This takes me back to think how we could support the intellectual curiosity and growth of every student, anywhere on the globe. We know every child is born as a master learner, and there are many sad-but-funny pictures of educators forcing students into certain molds, like square pegs into round holes. Yet, we can do better, just by choosing to support the individual growth and learning of each student.

Fostering learning is 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 education is best when you enjoy it – not shoved down your throat.

 

Cafe for growing learners

Cooperation vs. Competition

7 Apr

I know we live in cultures that value winning. In the modern world competition is infused to all areas of our lives: work, sports (of course), advertisements, entertainment, and relationships, even education – the sad example of wording an educational goal being the Race to the Top.
In competition there are always winners and losers. But can we really afford to have losers while making choices about education? Shouldn’t we try to educate every child?
While studying to become a teacher in Finland the answer was very clear: every student has a subjective right to learn and to be measured against her/his own previous achievements. Not those of someone else. Very fair, I think. Why should I compete with someone else, if our starting points were different?
We all have diverse skills and needs, because that’s what the life is made of – individuality. Students, while being the same age, have many more qualities that make them individual than those making them alike. Focusing on differences and supplementing those creates much better foundation for learning than highlighting superficial similarities and making ranking lists of those with competition.
The secret is to understand how equality doesn’t mean that resources and outcomes should be standardized. Equitable education simply means that every student gets the support and challenges what s/he needs – not what the other students need.

Competition usually revolves around power and/or control, no matter whether it is initiated by the students or the teacher. Often teacher is the one who has control, and sets up a competition, and then acts as a judge, deciding who is the best – a common classroom situation where points are given for various behaviours/performances/tasks/answers or taken away for misbehaviour. How does this build the learning motivation?

Another everyday example is when a student who feels powerful challenges others into competition, in hopes of gaining (more) power/admiration (we have all read Lord of the Flies, right?). I have seen many students compete about being faster, better, taller, smarter, more popular, etc. than their classmates in situations where cooperation would have been much easier and more beneficial choice.

Competition is about using power over others, in one way or other. Even while it is just an attempt to get the teacher’s attention with disruptive behavior! Unfortunately some students have learned the negative attention being the only option available for them. And as human beings we need that attention – we need others to acknowledge our existence. Finding competition in surprising situations happens when we start to pay close attention to reasons for doing certain things!

The two most harmful phenomena occurring while mixing competition and education are the externalization of the learning motivation and the distorted self-image of students. These are problematic for both losers and winners. Extrinsic learning motivation focuses on tangible rewards and makes students perform tasks instead of trying to deep learn the content, because only intrinsic learning motivation makes learning itself fun and rewarding. And for the self- image the educational psychology and research have long time been telling us how devastating comparing your personal attributes can be for the developing sense of self – and we still don’t get it??

The growth mindset (concept borrowed from Carol Dweck) is equally important for all students, because it builds grounds for life-long learning. Fostering cooperation and collegiality in the classroom enables students to grow and learn in their own pace and support each other in individual challenges.

Cooperation is about doing things together – not because we are told to do so, but because it makes sense. It is about helping each other and feeling compassion. So instead of competing who gets to go first for recess, the class could work together to make everything and everybody ready for it – this builds accountability too, when students help each other.

Cooperative learning is the diversity statement coming alive in the classroom. It is not about power or control, but about being equal, yet unique, and acknowledging the intrinsic value of each human being. It is supporting each other and understanding that everyone has different needs. Cooperation is about sharing ideas and learning constructively from each other. It is also about building better future together by setting mutual goals. Sounds like something we would want to see more in classrooms?