Should we focus on teaching or learning?

Inquiry happens when you focus on the art of teaching.” Kath Murdoch.

This is an interesting moment in Kath’s conversation with teachers. I lose focus on my note-taking as I pursue this thought… I tend to say ‘focus less on teaching and more on learning’, and here is Kath Murdoch, inquiry guru, expressing what, on the face of it, seems to be just the opposite.

Kath has spent the week with teachers at my school, provoking thinking, that of teachers and students alike, modelling in classrooms and then collaboratively analysing teachers’ observations. The conversations during the week have been as valuable for teachers as the classroom observations, especially the final day reflections, when teachers draw out the big ideas in response to Kath’s question:

What does it mean to have an inquiry stance in our teaching?

After the session, I attempt to categorise the teachers’ ideas under conceptual headings. The more I think about their statements, the more my categories overlap. I consider first Kath’s shared list of inquiry practices and then Ron Ritchhart’s cultural forces. In the end it comes down to a handful of big ideas, for me…

  • Language:  Use a language of learning not compliance. Choose language that supports learners in describing and reflecting on their thinking and learning.
  • Process:  Focus as much on the process of learning as the content. Use split screen teaching. Notice and name how we are learning, not just what we are leaning.
  • Release:  Let go of your expectations and allow students to lead. Ensure the learners do the heavy lifting. Release responsibility as early as possible, then observe where to take the learning next.
  • Teacher as learner:  Position yourself as part of the learning community, not as the expert in the room, both physically and through your interactions. Make your own thinking process visible.
  • Time:   Do less, but do it more deeply. Devote time to developing learning dispositions. Give children time to reflect on how and why they change their ideas or thinking.

But, even as I elaborate on these, I notice they are further interconnected. I keep going back to change and revise them. It’s impossible to separate ‘using the language of learning’ from the notion of ‘teacher as part of the learning community’… or the ‘focus on process’ from the notion of time…

And, in a moment of clarity, I see that Kath and I are talking about the same thing… The ‘art of teaching’ IS knowing how to focus on the learning.

10 ways to encourage student reflection…

Optimal learning occurs when students are active participants in their own learning, rather than passive recipients of teacher-delivered content. For this to be effective, students really need to think about their learning. I worked with a group of teachers recently who felt their young students were not capable of writing meaningful reflections for their end of semester reports. That might be true. But only if reflection and metacognition are not integral parts of the learning in their classes.

How do we encourage students to think about their learning?

1. Focus on process, as much as on content.

Guy Claxton calls this ‘split screen teaching.’ Think about the learning process. Talk about the learning process. It’s not just about tasks and results or material to be covered.

2. Focus on learning, not on teaching.

Stop thinking about how to teach the content. Ask yourself: How best will learning take place? How can I actively involve every student? How will this help them develop as learners? Share this with the learners.

3. Always know why.

Make sure you and your students know the purpose of every task and of how it will advance the learning.

4. Invite students in.

Encourage students to plan how they will learn and to reflect on the learning process. Tell them they own their learning.

5. Allow time.

Make sure students have time to stop and think about why and how they learned, not just what. Give them five minutes at the end of a lesson to record their reflections.

6. Ask the right questions.

How might you find this out? What skills did you use? How did your group function? What worked and what didn’t? What connections did you make? How was your thinking pushed? Why did you choose the approach you did? What did you enjoy and why? How could you have done it differently?

7. Write it down.

Have students record their reflections and date them, so that you (and they) can see the process of their thinking. Use a journal, a class blog or post-it notes that can be quickly collected and pasted somewhere.

8. Use thinking routines.

Project Zero’s Visible Thinking suggests explicit thinking routines which encourage students to think about their learning. Try Connect, Extend, Challenge or 3,2,1 Bridge.

9. Make feedback meaningful.

Refer to learning attitudes and skill development, not just tasks and content. Refer to process and progress, not just product. Avoid saying ‘Well done!” Great work!’ ‘You could have put in more effort.’ ‘You completed this task successfully’ ‘Your essay is comprehensive’. This isn’t feedback about learning!

10. Model.

Talk about your own learning. Tell them what you learned and how you learned it. Talk about how your thinking has changed and how your skills have developed. Learning is ongoing…

More ’10 ways’ posts.