Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Learning to Teach; Learning to Learn: Part III

The formal field of learning science was new to me, but in my research I learned that it is very definitely a growing field. In fact, in an article about the field, the 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:
  1. 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.
  2. Know where your students are going. 
    • 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.
  3. Expect to get your students there.
    • 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.
  4. Support your students along the way.
    • 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.
  5. Use feedback to help you and your students get better.
    • 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.
  6. Focus on quality rather than quantity.
    • 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.
  7. Never work harder than your students.
    • 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 know there are some who are pooh-poohing pretty much everything and I get that. This kind of conversation really needs to be a conversation because one size does not fit all and what works in one teacher's classroom may not work as well in another because just as there are learning styles, there are teaching styles. And, of course, building, district, and state initiatives can create barriers for some of what teachers want to be able to do.

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.

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