I have a collection of books scattered around my work area. Some that have languished on shelves for a while; others that have been perched on my "to read" pile for another while. John Spencer's Vintage Innovation rubs covers with Kieran Egan's Getting It Wrong from the Beginning which rests near Neil Postman's The End of Education which shadows James Alan Sturtevant's Hacking Education: 50 Tips & Tools to Engage Teachers and Learners Daily. There are others muttering that I should be paying attention to them as well. I share this observation about the cluttered range of texts I've read and revisited as I continue to ponder this beautiful work of teaching and of learning because, in what drives and motivates and encourages us, all teachers are learners.
Tuesday, June 23, 2020
Wednesday, June 17, 2020
McGraw-Hill Applied Learning Sciences team has this to say:
The learning sciences allow us to ask fundamental questions about every single aspect of the classroom, and then draw from a broad and deep base of research to answer those questions in ways that enhance our practice and empower our learners. This truly is the intersection of where the science of learning meets the art of teaching — because learning science offers us the power to apply empirical validation to our decision-making in education.
What fascinates me is that although we spend a significant amount of time investing in teacher learning, preparation, and professional development, we spend considerably less time really thinking about student learning.
And, randomly, why is learning a science and not its own form of art? Why does learning have to be so encumbered although I appreciate how brain science, psychology, sociology, and other -ologies help us better understand how to make learning more accessible for students? But isn't it interesting that so much is available to and for teachers and so little seems to be for the learners themselves so they can better understand how to make the best possible use of learning tools and resources?
I mean, sure, we talk about student learning in the course of teacher professional development, but the focus of any PD is on the teacher and the strategies, resources, tools, etc. that the teacher might use. We seem to spend far too little time talking about the other side of that PD experience: the student.
Any of us who have facilitated professional learning have heard so many reasons why a particular strategy or tool or what-not will not work, and it's often something about the students, if it's not about time. I will readily admit that school systems are stacked against students as well as teachers. Michael Soskil, an amazing teacher who lives and works in Pennsylvania, posted in Facebook about his own frustrations with the educational system as he reflected on systemic racism and how our school systems perpetuates ways of thinking and doing. And if you don't follow Michael on Twitter, you should: @MSoskil.
It might be too easy to say that standardized tests, pacing guides, the way we use textbooks or digital text resources, and the way we use adaptive or any learning resources contribute to the way we fail students in helping them learn to be learners. That's only partially true because I've witnessed educators find ways to work around, with, and in spite of the systems that hamper them. I think there are things we need to understand about student learning. No, I think there are things students need to understand about student learning, but we'll start with what educators need to think and know about.
Some research on student learning
In 2018, McREL International published a paper titled "Student Learning That Works: How brain science informs a student learning model." (Please note the use of the article "a"--it is not THE learning model but a model, one model of what could be many models.)
Bryan Goodwin, the paper's author, highlights the fact that learning is something we rarely talk about; I confess to be gratified that I'm not alone in my thinking. Goodwin notes that we have numerous frameworks for teaching and evaluating teaching because the emphasis on what helps makes schools successful has been and is about teaching.
But teaching is one part of the equation because student success is really about students learning. And if students can't learn or don't learn, no framework is going to matter.
Goodwin goes on to talk about some of the neuroscience behind learning: the significance of the three major phases of remembering and the roles of different memory capacities and capabilities--immediate, working, and long-term.
Let me take a little side trip here. I posted a question on Facebook about how people learn something new. Those who responded are all accomplished adults, and many of them are or were educators. They referenced the need for both visual and audio learning support, they mentioned the value of having something modeled or demonstrated, they expressed the importance of relevance, and they talked about how chunking a task was important. These are folks who have learned how they learned.
Younger students have impressions of how they're supposed to learn and they work within the parameters of teacher expectations for what learning results look like. Older students have adjusted as they have gotten older, perhaps intuitively realizing that not all teachers have the same expectations and not all tests are created equal or have the same ultimate impact on their school lives. And when teachers complain that the only thing students want to know is if something will be on the test or if the work is for a grade, we really have no one to blame but ourselves and the systems of school. Because we seem to have taught students that learning is all about the grade and all about the test.
Let me go back to Goodwin for a moment. After he addresses the importance of getting students interested in something, the next task is to "help students commit to learning new knowledge." Teachers can do that by "presenting new knowledge and skills as part of a big picture that impacts their lives as well as help them to set clear, reachable goals for their learning."
We've been doing all of that or trying all of that for years, so it's time to step back and again rethink this whole learning thing and how teaching has a role in helping students become and be learners. The kind of thinking Goodwin purports is the very reason constructivism came to be and why teachers are trying to explore personalization, even blended learning. The kind of direction offered by Goodwin is one of the reasons so much has been written about gradual release of responsibility. They know they are working too hard and they know students need to have more responsibility for their learning, but everyone seems to be trapped within the system of teaching and learning.
It's all about the students and THEIR learning
I've long said this. And I know I react somewhat badly when the entirety of a professional learning experience is based on what the teacher is doing and she/he/they might be doing it without any reference to what is happening on the other side of the experience: the students who are expected to learn.
I just had another random thought, though it's probably not so random. You know all of those times you've facilitated PD or been in PD and teachers have been asked to behave like third graders or try to engage in any activity like their students? How likely is it that teachers are trying to experience something like they hope students will experience it rather than really, really, REALLY trying to see that strategy or tool through the eyes of their students?
In 2009, Robyn Jackson published Never Work Harder Than Your Students through ASCD. Ms. Jackson writes of seven principles; they follow with my thoughts:
- Start where your students are.
- Or at least where groups of them are because you've got 27 to 32 kids in your f2f or virtual classroom and it's hard to start exactly where every student is.
- Make sure your students know where they are and make it clear that if they are ahead or behind or right where they're supposed to be, you've got them.
- Make sure your students know where they are going by helping them understand the immediate goals or, if they are older, by helping them set reasonable and meaningful goals.
- Help them understand WHY they need to accomplish this goal and please don't tell them it's so they can be successful in a higher grade or pass a test. There are skills they are learning as well as content they are learning, so there are good, strong, and relevant reasons for them to go through this learning experience.
- Even better, expect your students to be able to get themselves there.
- Kids know if you think they can't do it, even if you say nothing. They are able to read your facial expressions, your body language, and your tone of voice. What you say and do may only amplify what they hear at home, so you need to believe in them no matter what. No matter what. No matter what.
- No matter what.
- Review goals with them to see if they need to chunk it further.
- Help them understand that not all learning is "fun" just as everything about life isn't fun, and help them understand that while they think they might not be good at or interested in certain things, they can't know for sure until they explore it.
- Help them understand that a key element of learning is willing to try something new and that there is valuable learning is failure.
- Find out what's getting in their way if they seem to be struggling and understand they may not be able to articulate what's getting in the way.
- Offer options for learning. In the 90s we did a lot of work with learning styles until they were no longer the new shiny thing and there are plenty of educators who think learning styles are bunk. And yes, kids need to be exposed to various options because it can't hurt to learn how to learn in ways that are uncomfortable and unfamiliar, but you have to help them figure out what works best and you have to help them figure out when to tackle something new and uncomfortable and only, only, ONLY when they know you support them and believe in them.
- This is where professional learning could have the most emphasis and with the perspective that by improving a teacher's craft, a teacher is improving the likelihood that students will be better able to learn.
- And use feedforward. Help students see what they've done well and what they need to work on.
- Use feedforward to help them see how they can apply what they've learned about themselves and their learning to improve their work on the next task or project.
- Encourage them to be a part of the process of understanding their learning rather than bystanders. It is their learning, after all.
- I've never understood teachers who assign a lot of versions of the same thing. Why assign 20 problems when you can tell with only 5 problems if a student can do the work or needs help?
- Learn more about cognitive load theory so you can help them manage a reasonable work load and, therefore, help manage towards more success in learning.
- Education is a tacit partnership.
- Every teacher, aide, specialist, and paraprofessional is an integral member of the partnership.
- In this partnership, the teacher needs to try to make clear the parameters of the partnership: the teacher will do his/her/their part and the student will do his/her/their part. The student's part must be clear and specific, including taking on the responsibility to do the work of learning.
I think the bottom line is that we get in the way of our students and their success more often that we realize. Until we pause for a bit to think about what it means to learn and what learning could look like, sound like, and feel like in our classrooms, we will continue to impede our students. And it just doesn't have to be that way.
My plan was for this to be a 3-part series because it's a manageable segmenting for readers. Part I can be found here and Part II can be found here. I will be doing more thinking about learning and how I think we need to shift our educational focus to learning rather than teaching. That's not to say that we don't focus at all on teaching because we can't stop, but we can adjust the balance. Too many teachers have gotten into the habit that all of what happens in the classroom is on them, is their responsibility. By providing so much support or scaffolding, I think we have inadvertently undermined students' beliefs in themselves and their abilities and in their understanding that they have a role and a responsibility in learning.
Tuesday, June 16, 2020
As I thought more about what I wrote in Learning to Teach; Learning to Learn: Part I, I started thinking about ZPD and the role it plays, directly and indirectly, in the way we think about how we approach teaching and sometimes how we think about student learning.
You can find plenty of resources explaining and discussing ZPD, which is based on the work of the educational theorist, psychologist, and constructivist Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934). The importance of ZPD is particularly prevalent in early childhood though it resonates in any grade, really, or any experience in learning, I think. The substance of the zone of proximal development is evident in the image in that it is the difference between what a learner can do without help and what the learner can't yet do. Learning, then, is what has already happened so that the learner can do it and what needs to happen so the learner can do something else and/or build on whatever has already been learned.
I'm not going to talk about methods of teaching because that gets too complex. However, we all know, through our experience or that of students we know or your own children, that many teachers have a preferred way of teaching something. That's not necessarily good or bad. Some of us have experienced being told we were doing something "wrong" because it was a process, method, approach, or something that wasn't familiar to the teacher or with which the teacher wasn't comfortable. I have tutored students to do what the teacher asks because that will protect their grade. Picking a battle with a teacher, especially indirectly, rarely ends well for the student. That, by the way, is a different type of learning.
Somewhere here we have to talk about the difference between learning a skill and learning something that's not a skill. Riding a bicycle is a typical example of learning a skill. Or knowing how to chop an onion or chiffonade. There's a fabulous scene in Julie and Julia in which Julia Childs practices chopping an onion. The chef shows her the fundamentals and she goes home to practice and then practice some more.
That might remind you of Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-hour rule from his book Outliers. The premise was soon debunked by a number of individuals and organizations, though no one denied that practice is necessary to develop proficiency and even more practice is needed to attain some level of mastery. That is confirmed by any number of professional musicians, athletes, chefs, artists, and any others who revisit fundamentals and practice to retain the efficacy of their skills.
But they will also tell you they are open to learning new ways of doing, as appropriate. Your hair stylist takes classes, chefs learn from each other, artists of all kinds explore with a new medium or structure, etc.
Even though they have achieved a level of mastery, they continue to learn and it occurs to me that though they are enhancing their skills, they continue to build on other learning that informs how they are able or want to use their skills.
Let's shift now to thinking about what we typically think about when we think about learning and that's how we strive to help students get from those amazing blank canvases to works of art.
four stages of competence in the 70s, though the site, as you'll see below and by following the link, refers to levels of skill rather than competence.
- Unconsciously unskilled. We don't know what we don't know; we are inept and don't know it.
- Consciously unskilled. We know what we don’t know. We start to learn at this level when we realize how poorly we are able to do something and we figure out how much we need to learn.
- Consciously skilled. We know how to do the skill but also realize we need to continue to practice.
- Unconsciously skilled. We continue to practice and hone the skill to the point the skill is easier, perhaps even natural.
You can disagree with that or not. The point is there are stages of capability. I don't know what I don't know and that might evolve to my being able to do something without really thinking about it when I develop skill or competence, or maybe even both.
I can think of many examples for myself. One is playing golf. I was mildly interested in learning how to play golf because some of my friends played. I even signed up for lessons. The lessons affirmed that I was indeed inept and that was followed by the realization of how little I really wanted to learn how to play golf. I was and am happy to remain consciously incompetent or unskilled in golf. The playing of golf will never be on the canvas of who I am and what I do.
But there is a different example that haunts me. It's of a second grader who was trying to complete some multidigit addition problems on a worksheet. I sat down with her and asked her to explain what she was doing. She tried to; she really did. And then she threw down her pencil with frustration and said that she didn't know how to do it, and then she said she was stupid. All around her other students were trying to complete the same worksheet while the teacher was working with a small group of students. I glanced around the room and it was clear to me that some other students were equally frustrated and some were not. But what I said to her was that no one expected to know this stuff already; that the purpose of being in school was to learn. The look on her face indicated that she did not believe me, or that her understanding of learning was terribly skewed. I really think it was both.
I sat with her and quietly coached her on what I hoped would be an acceptable way to do her math. I say that because I know I had coached some 4th graders in a different school district in a way that wasn't the way the teacher needed them to learn something, so I'd been wary ever since then about helping with math. Anyway, we got through a couple of problems together and then she worked a couple on her own. Other students had crowded in to overhear what I was saying and were working on their own worksheets. A couple asked me for some additional help.
In my conversation with the teacher after class, first, she thanked me for helping. Then she said that part of the problem for her was the pacing guide and that she always felt compelled to move on when students weren't ready or get in trouble; however, she also knew that rushing them meant they weren't ready for the benchmark tests but the tests were based on the pacing guide and she had no choice about when to give those tests. So it is not always the teacher's fault or the student's fault that they don't know how to learn.
Let me talk about another incident. I'd managed to convince another elementary teacher to introduce robots to her class. This was at a Montessori school and the class was a combined 3rd and 4th grade. Two students had made basketball hoops, of sorts. We were going to be using the launcher accessory with Dash to see if we could get a ball through either or both hoops. I sat on the floor with the students and a couple of Dash robots. Kids wanted to just make random adjustments to the coding because, well, they're kids. I wondered aloud what might happen if we were to try to measure this with a protractor and some string. Even the less mathy kids were intrigued and, longer story a smidge shorter, we almost missed lunch calculating range and angles and modifying the code.
At the end of that, what did kids learn? Lots of things. And so many things that didn't align to the standards for the day. One of the students, one of the more gifted students, said "I've never done math that hard before. Can we do more after lunch?" Now there were a lot of students who were less interested in the math but they were interested in making adjustments to the basketball hoop to make it sturdier, so they wanted to experiment with the models themselves and then they were wondering about the size of the hoop itself and if and how that mattered.
Let's think about learning how to read, which is no small thing. I am deliberately going to oversimplify the process because it is complex and I am not a reading specialist. Children are taught their letters. They learn to recognize and name each letter of the alphabet. They learn the sounds of each letter and they learn how to put the letters and their sounds together to make words. They begin to learn that some letters make different sounds depending on how they're put together, so they learn short vowel sounds and long vowel sounds and that, for example, "g" sounds one way in "goat" and another way in "ginger." These are skills that are developed over time and students must have a certain degree of competence and skill to proceed in their development of fluency so they can develop their skills in comprehension. So native English speakers who are struggling readers in 3rd grade have a unique set of challenges from those students who are struggling readers in 8th grade or 11th grade. It may be there were skills the older students didn't learn when they were younger or it may be there are skills they've not be able to practice over the years or there could be a whole host of possibilities that have interfered with these students and their abilities to learn how to read.
The same could be true for math because, like reading, more advanced skills and knowledge build on fundamental skills and knowledge. If I don't understand place value, I'm going to have trouble with pretty much everything. If I don't understand the relationship of numbers, and that -1 is less than 1, and then that -4 is actually less than -1, I'm going have all kinds of problems. As someone who struggled with fractions and decimals myself, making sense of the math came when the relationships of the numbers made more sense, and when I could make more sense of the math vocabulary.
I think most teachers grasp the essentials of learning. They apply it themselves when they learn how to use new technology or when they learn a new strategy. They intuitively recognize that if something doesn't go as they hoped or imagined, they might need to make some adjustments and try it again. They might not be as cognizant of the fact that their experience helps inform how they might implement a new resource or strategy, but if they were asked to examine how and why they implemented a strategy, they'd likely recognize how often they thought about their past experiences as well as what they know of their students.
And most often teachers learn new things to improve their craft because they, like the professional musicians, chefs, athletes, artists, stylists, and others, want to improve their crafts because they want to be better at what they do, they want to expand what they do and how they do it, and because learning feeds something in them. Learning adds more dimension and texture and color to their canvases as teachers.
I don't think most students grasp the essentials of learning. I think we could point to a few things that undermine the process of learning, like pacing guides that insist on teachers being at a certain place in the curriculum at a certain time and teaching to the test, and letting students know we are teaching to the test. And that makes me wonder if we have to do more or other to help students understand how to learn as well as why it is important to learn at all.
Matthew Bromley, an education journalist, wrote a series in 2017 about the process of learning. In the first part, he tackles the question "What is learning?" He points out the need for repetition so that what students are being asked to learn is encoded and retained. He concludes "[l]earning, therefore, is being able to apply knowledge or skills long after we were first taught them and in a number of different situations– perhaps in an assessment as well as repeatedly over a period of time, or even a lifetime."
Yep. All well and good. And all the reading I've done about learning science and cognitive load and cognitive rigor point to the same and similar things. Here's the clincher, though: I'm not going to retain it past the test if I don't think or understand that there's a purpose for that learning. And I'm speaking for me as an adult.
A lot of what Mr. Bromley discusses in subsequent parts of the series is really nothing new to any educator. It's finding the "just right" level, helping students be comfortable with productive struggle, helping them understand that failure is part of learning, etc. There are all kinds of tools and strategies so that we know where students are in their own comfort with their zone of proximal development, even if they don't call it that.
I think part of the challenge of helping students learn how to learn is that so often school unintentionally sabotages them. When kids ask why they have to learn something, it doesn't help if the answer is "Because you need to know this for high school" or "Because you need to know this to pass the standardized test."
At some point students no longer accept that learning for the sake of learning can be amazing, not unless they just like to learn and it saddens me the number of students in that category seems small. On the other hand, we may have put a damper on student enthusiasm for learning because of the way we expect them to experience school.
I know there are no easy answers. Teachers are constrained by the way we "do school" as are administrators who have to be mindful of district and state regulations and expectations.
There are districts that have personalization, project-based learning, deep learning, or something akin to those as an initiative. Teachers who attempt to do any of these well are still constrained by other expectations within the district that are often informed by state mandates that are often influenced by federal mandates.
But I have seen success. I have seen teachers who, even if only for a unit, have been able to help students unlock an interest and maybe even a passion for learning about something. In that instance of learning joy, some students have also discovered something else within them that may not have been directly connected to the task at hand.
My hope is that they will later recall that moment of exuberance and WHY that learning experience mattered, and perhaps build on that as they are filling the canvas of who they are and who they want to be.
Sunday, June 14, 2020
Through my years in education, I've puzzled a lot about what it means to be a learner. I was a mediocre student in school. I was bored, I was lost, I was bored and lost. Not in all grades or in all content areas, but I can mark the "good" years and the less memorable ones.
First grade. Mrs. DeVane spanked me during nap time because I was playing bears with one of my classmates. I got spanked after recess because I said something to kids who were fighting that they should stop fighting. Those kids did not get spanked.
Second grade. My teacher, Miss Ambergy (not sure if that's spelled correctly), was a twin.
Third grade. Miss Weeks was not much of a disciplinarian.
Fourth grade. Miss Gibson was all about discipline. She would toss desks if they weren't neat and you'd find your stuff on the floor when you came to class in the morning. That happened to me. Once. We learned about Florida history and social studies; she'd grimace a lot and then talk about what wasn't in the books. I adored her.
Fifth grade. Meh.
Sixth grade. I sat in the first seat in the row closest to the right wall, so I could turn in my seat to read when my work was done. I got mostly Bs. His comments were all about the fact that all I seemed to want to do was read.
Junior high. Nearly disastrous on so many levels. I was completely lost in math and Mr. Anderson (7th) wrote and talked so fast I had no idea what was going on so decided I was terrible in math and just gave up. Mrs. Savage (8th) in English gave me a hard time about not returning a book and my mother nearly shredded her. The one time I can recall my mother having any involvement in any my classes, except for the time in elementary school she had to come to get the dog because he followed me to school--we lived about 3 blocks away.
High school. I passed. Mrs. Hawkins, 10th grade English, challenged me to do better and I rewrote a paper to show her I could do better and mostly because she expressed some interest in me and my ability. My senior year was mostly electives since I needed only half a credit to graduate and, in those days, kids were not allowed to graduate early. I hung out with my friend Tina the night before the ACT and SAT, which we'd signed up to take on the same day. What was anyone thinking? We were both a bit hung over at the start of the first test. I scored well enough to get at least one partial scholarship offer. I passed the English CLEP test so didn't have to take ENG101 or ENG102 in college; I think I was sober for that test.
I do remember other teachers from both junior high and high school, and for various reasons. We moved when I was in the 9th grade so I changed schools in the middle of 9th grade. That was fun.
I learned a lot about being a student, though not necessarily what anyone would have wanted me to learn.
Learning to Teach
Let's fast forward a bunch of years. I finished college with a degree in English and American Studies, got a job and then a different job while I decided whether or not to take the LSAT to go to law school, and then found myself working as a systems analyst/programmer for about a decade. At this point I was living in the Hudson Valley in New York and one of the deacons at my church (I'd changed and grown up a lot since high school. . . and college), who worked at The King's College which was then in Briarcliff Manor, asked me if I'd be willing to teach a programming class. Cool. Sure.
It was one of the hardest things I've ever done because I had no idea what I was doing. I mean, I prepared. I read the book, I look at syllabi from previous versions of the course, I put together a lesson plan. And within the first 10 minutes of the very first class, I knew I was in trouble and that I would have to rethink everything about how to teach and how to make sure that students could learn.
That is when I started thinking about what it means to learn and be a learner.
Because I do like to do research, I did a lot of research. I went back to the deacon, who was also the department chair, and asked for any books he could recommend to help me figure out how to teach. I asked colleagues.
And I rewrote my lesson plans because the most important thing I learned is that I had to view the content and the learning objectives from the perspective of the students. I had to recognize that they came with either no or limited background knowledge OR that their background knowledge did not fit into my comfortable view of what they should know and how they should know it.
That was a rough semester for those students and for me. We made it. I was asked to teach another course and I did. And eventually I was asked to join the faculty full-time so I took a 52% pay cut to do that, and we all managed and I was exhilarated and exhausted because this was the most amazing thing I'd ever done. All the while I learned more about the craft of education, learning as much from my students as I did from the throng of experts whose books I read.
Learning to Learn
I thought this might be a really deep project because I think too many of us forget that students need to be taught how to learn or that the processes they develop as they figure out learning might be adapted as they encounter topics that are harder or more complex than others.
I remember the freshman who was planning to major in PE and who told me she hated to read. I completely understood that because most of my high school teachers wearied me with the way they insisted on teaching literature and I liked to read. I think it was towards the end of her sophomore year she told me she was amazed by how much she was reading. I know she preferred video games and other stuff to reading, but she no longer hated reading. That was a win.
She is just one of dozens of students who taught me about the complexities of helping students learn, and learn to learn.
I've worked with many teachers who wonder why students haven't "learned" when they've gone over something on the board, given students worksheets, had students complete and review those worksheets, and then not be able to do the same kind of work on a test. I've heard teachers bemoan that students haven't learned something they just taught them the day before as though exposing students to something--explaining and demonstrating it--is a direct path to learning.
There is plenty of research about learning and I'm happy to share some of the resources I found, though most of them were dreary academic articulations of the same things over and over again. So I decided to be less rigorously academic and just ask some folks how they learn things after I thought about how I learn something new, especially something I really didn't want to learn.
And because this blog post is already long, I'll continue my thoughts about learning to learn in another and perhaps you'll take a few minutes to reflect on your own about how you learn--and by that I mean how you go through the process of not knowing something or not knowing how to do something to being reasonably confident in your knowledge and/or your ability.