Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Creating Balance Between Teaching and Learning, Part Last

Part 1 is here and it's a stroll through some educational history: some Ira Shor, thinking about constructivism with a dash of Vygotsky, and ruminating about the effects of NCLB and AYP. Probably a bit too prosaic and theoretical.
Part 2 is here and it has a smidge more meat. You may push away from the table still hungry, though there some tasty bites.

The tasty bits and bites
I end Part 1 with some questions, a truly annoying habit I have of which I'm well aware and yet seem to be unable (maybe unwilling) to squelch. I'm reframing the questions a bit for this reprise because I've done more reading and thinking since then. And so. . .
  • When thinking about finding balance between my role as educator and my students' roles as learners, what is the role of cognitive rigor and cognitive load? (I need to be aware of students' abilities to manage cognitive load and I need to give them options for levels of cognitive rigor which means I might to revisit the concept of performance tasks and Webb's DOK). 
  • Do my students really understand the purpose of assessments or are they simply a grim imperative on their intellectual capability or a celebration of their capacity? (They probably don't realize that assessments, including homework, could be ways for them to measure their growth and development, to celebrate what they're doing well and better determine what they've not achieved yet.
  • When I opt for differentiation, is that what we today call choice and is that somehow informed by Tomlinson's view that differentiation is "an instructional approach to help teachers teach with individuals as well as content in mind. Differentiation really means trying to make sure that teaching and learning work for the full range of students, which really should be our goal as teachers." Yes.
In Part 2 I was momentarily inspired by a recollection of performance tasks and Webb's DOK. I was thinking about tiered or layered assignments and how students could be given the option of the pathway they chose to showcase their learning.

Thinking more about differentiation and assessment
Before the end of this post, I'm going to make a shameless plug for a recorded "presentation" I've done as I've been thinking about differentiation, assessment, and feedback. I've kept in mind more of what Tomlinson had to say in 2011 about differentiation, and gave maybe a heartbeat of thought to how her thinking has evolved since the 90s because one would hope her thinking would evolve. Her comments in 2011:
Differentiation requires second order change. It really requires many teachers to change their approach to teaching as a whole—how we think about students and their capabilities, how we use assessment, how curriculum is crafted, flexible instruction to ensure that students go where they need to go. Perhaps most challenging, it asks teachers to learn to handle a classroom where two or three or four things are sometimes happening at the same time.
Differentiation seems to be that we offer our students options or choices in the way or ways they might go about this process of learning. In her 2017 text How to Differentiate Instruction in Academically Diverse Classrooms (3rd), Tomlinson gives us seven things differentiation is:
  • proactive: lessons, tasks, and activities are designed to be "robust enough to engage and challenge the full range of learners;"
  • more qualitative than quantitative so that the nature of the assignments is more conducive to the way the learner learners and can best express that learning;
  • rooted in assessment--and here I'll editorialize a bit--in that both the teacher and the students recognize that EVERY task and activity is a form of assessment from which both the teacher and the students can learn something about the process of learning, the students readiness for (another dash of Vygotsky) and inclination towards learning;
  • taking multiple approaches to content, or what students are to learn; process, or how students go about making sense of what they have learned, what they are to learn, and why; and product, or how students demonstrate, express, or showcase their learning;
  • student-centered; 
  • a blend of whole-class, group, and individual instruction; and
  • is "organic" and dynamic in that teachers and students learn together and from each other.
That last point might sound a little too kitschy for some teachers, but I do have issues with educators who think they can never learn something from their students.

I love this statement: "Teachers monitor the match between learner and learning and make adjustments as warranted. And while teachers are aware that sometimes the learner/learning match is less than ideal, they also understand that they can continually make adjustments."

Don't make that face. Teachers do this all the time--they are constantly aware of what's working and what isn't. The adjustments many try to make is not about the lesson, activity, or task but about the student and how the students is working. The teacher who observes that something isn't quite working for a student says something like, "Hey. Looks like something isn't going the way you'd like. What don't you try. . .?". 

AND, if the teacher is using a single point rubric, this adjustment doesn't cause as much ajita because teachers are frequently concerned about how to assess student work, and rightly so.

And now we've wandered into assessment.

In finding balance between teaching and learning, I think we all need to keep in mind three questions:
  1. WHAT do we want students to know and be able to do?
  2. WHY do we want students to achieve those learning expectations?
  3. HOW do we want them to learn what they need to learn and HOW do we want them to be able to show what they know and can do?
This is one of the major ways we create balance between teaching and learning. When we think very specifically about WHY we want students to do whatever we want them to do, we can see more clearly HOW we want them to get from where they are to where they need to be AND we can help them understand where we have to be more prescriptive and where we can allow them a bit more freedom.

For example, in chemistry and many other science experiments, prescriptive procedures are imperative. It may be possible for them to find their own ways to learn and retain those procedures, but maybe not. If they understand the WHAT, WHY, and HOW, it is easier for them to begin to manage their learning.

We talk about giving students ownership, then we dangle the keys just out of reach.

We talk about giving students agency, then we give them a checklist.

We talk about meeting students where they are to help them get where they need to go without telling them that we've already decided what they'll wear, the route they'll take, and everything else they will have to do down to the size of the lines on their paper because so often we have a very precise view of what the end is supposed to look like, sound like, and smell like and we really don't want to have to figure out how to grade any variations.

Okay, so, I teach writing and yes, I do tell students that margins have to be 1" and I prefer a san serif font and I prefer the font size to be 12, but that depends on the font. So, yes, for some things we have to be prescriptive. But making it easier on myself is not being student-centered, so if I use a single point rubric I'm more likely to have some flexibility in how students find their ways from where they are to where they need to be.

When our students also have an idea of the end we have in mind and they have an idea of some specific of the learning objectives and goals, they could have more opportunity to have a say in how they proceed from where they are to where they need to be. 

Will some get lost along the way? Sure, but we're the facilitator and guide to help them figure out the path and get back on it.

Will some fall short? Sure, and, again, we're the facilitator and guide to help them get across the finish line even though really isn't a race.

Will some choose a shortcut or do less than they're able? Of course they will and part of our responsibility is to let them know that we're on to them and to find ways to encourage them to reach and push the limits of their capabilities.

Here are some sort of last thoughts because I'll keep working on this for a while. It's a fascinating puzzle that has no actual shape with pieces that keep shifting in size, color, and design and there is no clear design because the puzzle box lid is nowhere in sight.
  • Differentiation done right and well means that I will work really hard at first, and then should be working differently hard once my students get the flow of how things will work.
  • Differentiation done right and well means that my students and I will find some balance between the work they do as learners and I do as teacher, facilitator, and guide, and that sometimes the balance edges more towards them and sometimes it edges more towards me.
  • Creating balance between teaching and learning means I have to trust my students to be learners which means I have to trust that I am a good teacher, facilitator, and guide to help them be and become the kinds of learners they can be and become.

And now my shameless plug for this recorded presentation on differentiation, assessment, and feedback. I didn't discuss feedback specifically in this post, though I think the three are inextricably linked.

If we're going to create balance between teaching and learning, we have to think differently about differentiation, assessment, and feedback, especially in an online/distance/virtual learning environment as well as in the classroom.

Think about joining my Google Classroom for a different sort of PLC.

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