Empowering our learners…

One of the most exciting things we saw during our recent visit to ISHMC (International School of Ho Chi Minh City, where Sam Sherratt is based) was the unstructured inquiry set up in a Grade 4 class by Adrian Watts, the principal.

Learners were given a choice between four different explorations (although they didn’t know the precise task until after they had selected what seemed interesting to them):

  • Reassemble a computer so that it works.
  • Fix the motor on a scooter.
  • Knit a finger puppet.
  • Sew a pair of trousers that fits someone in your group.

Participants were permitted just three questions over the course of the day. It was interesting to observe the thoughtful way they approached this, writing down possible questions and carefully considering what and whom they would ask.

It was more difficult for the observing adults to adhere to the rules. Most found it hard to overcome their natural inclination to step in and help, instead of stand back and observe the learning (and the range of trans disciplinary skills in action).

What did we observe during this exercise in child driven learning?

  • learner agency and empowerment.
  • total engagement in meaningful learning experiences.
  • curiosity and willingness to experiment.
  • competence, creativity and problem solving.
  • resourcefulness and fearlessness in approaching the unknown.
  • interesting group dynamics and differing gender biases within groups.
  • risk taking, learning from failure, persistence and resilience… in varying degrees.
  • collaborative decision making.
  • and more…

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The transferable messages…

We need to believe that children are capable, curious, competent and creative and, given the opportunities and encouragement, can lead their own learning.

We need to rethink contexts where the teacher controls the learning and the students jump through hoops set in front of them by the teacher, the school or the system.

We need to stop ‘doing school’ and think about what it means to really learn, because real learning often has very little to do with traditional notions of school.

How do your expectations influence learning?

Can other people’s expectations alter what you can do physically?

This question is the essence of a recent This American Life podcast, entitled Batman, which explores experiences of blind people and investigates the impact of other people’s expectations on what blind people can do. It’s fascinating!

As educators, starting a new school year here in Australia, this is a question worth pondering:

Can your expectations alter what your students can do?

In ‘handover meetings’, the previous year’s teachers share information about the students whom they ‘pass on’ to you, including their own opinions and bias.

Do you allow others’ perceptions to influence your expectations? To what extent do your expectations and, consequently those of the learners themselves, influence the learning?  (Watch: Carol Dweck on Growth Mindset)

When learners repeatedly display particular behaviours, it’s easy to label them and begin to expect those behaviours.

Do you unintentionally respond in ways that reveal your expectations? To what extent do your words and expectations reinforce the behaviours and influence the learning? (Read: Choice Words by Peter Johnston)

Teachers often over plan activities to achieve desired outcomes, with little consideration of the value of student ownership of learning.

Do you play ‘guess what’s in my head’, waiting for the answers you expect? Do you control the learning? To what extent do your plans and expectations limit the learners and the learning? (Follow: Kath Murdoch’s inquiry blog Just Wondering)

So… Something to think about as you start the new school year…

How do your expectations influence learning?

Other posts for the new school year:

10 things to do on the first day of school
10 ways to think about your learning space
10 ways to encourage students to take responsibility for their learning
10 ways to get your students’ respect
10 ways to differentiate learning

An inquiry into ownership of learning…

What do you notice about Audri as a learner?

We begin our Year 4 collaborative planning session with Audri… to generate thinking about the ways young learners own their learning, outside the classroom…

The teachers notice and name his confidence, persistence, belief in himself, resourcefulness, curiosity, commitment, ownership of learning, enthusiasm, excitement...

Layla wonders if Audri’s uniqueness and enthusiasm would be stifled in a traditional school setting.

Jina responds that she is excited by the possibilities of creating such authentic learning opportunities in her classroom.

Watching an extract from Guy Claxton on building learning power adds another layer to our conversation:

He says the ‘The ability to learn is very learnable’…

Some key questions which he asks:

  • What habits or attitudes of mind do you invite and cultivate in your students?
  • What learning muscles are being stretched beyond mastering content?

Important learning dispositions that have value for our learners in the ‘real’ world (beyond passivity, remembering, note taking and regurgitating, even if these might be useful in some contexts):

  • Curiosity – asking questions, seeking problems, finding solutions, desire to learn
  • Persistence – sticking with it in the face of challenges and difficulties
  • Resourcefulness – experimenting, taking initiative, having a range of strategies on which to draw
  • Collaboration – being willing to and knowing how to collaborate effectively
  • Thoughtfulness – standing back and thinking metacognatively, being able to think clearly and critically
  • Imagination – visualising new concepts, producing new ideas

Claxton says it is possible to strengthen all of these, even within the parameters of conventional classrooms. One of the major considerations is how we talk. Most teachers spend a great deal of time talking about ‘work’.  Shifting the focus to the process of learning, makes a huge difference.

Back in our planning meeting, we talk about the importance of making thinking visible and the value of noticing and naming learning behaviours, raised in both Making Thinking Visible by Ron Ritchhart et al and Choice Words by Peter Johnston. (Both books are highly recommended.)

The latter highlights the influence our language has on student learning. I particularly like examples like this one, which demonstrate the effect of a few well-chosen words…

“What have you learned most recently as a reader?” …the teacher begins with ‘given’ information that is not up for discussion: a) the student is a reader, and b) readers learn things. The only question is, what has this particular reader learned? For a student to respond to this question, he or she has to review recent learnings. The opening question requires an answer that begins, “I learned. . . .” It insists on an agentive identity statement about reading and learning. At the same time, it creates a learning history, which is an antidote for students who think they are not good and have always been not good.”

As I’ve frequently said in this space –

We have learned that it’s more valuable to spend time building a deep understanding of what a unit of inquiry is about and deciding on conceptual understandings than on planning activities.

A valuable tip we gleaned from Sam Sherratt  is to agree on one word that sums up the conceptual essence of the unit. In this case it is ‘ownership.’

Central idea – Taking ownership of learning empowers us.

Conceptual understanding rubric –

Beginning Developing Established
Learning is meaningful when we take responsibility for it.

Responsibility

I see the teacher as the one who knows what to do, how to do it and if it’s good.

I expect the teacher to tell me what to do and how to do it.

Sometimes I make decisions about my own learning, without asking the teacher.

I can describe some ways I am becoming more responsible for my own learning.

I make decisions that support and promote my learning.

I can explain the reasons behind my choices and decisions.

Reflection and metacognition lead to ownership of learning.

Reflection

I don’t think much about my learning.

I can’t explain why I am doing specific tasks.

I don’t understand the difference between ‘work’ and ‘learning’.

I am beginning to think about how I learn.

I can explain why I am doing specific tasks.

I can identify the skills and attitudes I need or am using.

I can decide which strategies to use in my learning and explain my choice.

I think about myself as a learner and can identify my strengths and challenges.

I reflect on my learning, set learning goals based on my reflections, and act on them.

I can explain how I could use my learning in different contexts.

I can explain what I gained from a learning experience, what I contributed, what could have made it better.

Feedback welcome!

10 alternatives to goal setting…

My friend Jason Graham is a passionate educator with a massive amount of energy and enthusiasm for learning. You can find him on any given day planning great learning for his kids, supporting other educators, developing and delivering workshops or engaging in learning conversations via Twitter, blogs or face to face. He’s an inquirer, always posing problems, exploring possibilities and dreaming up new ideas. He’s a change agent who doesn’t accept the status quo, constantly questioning and seeking ways to do things better. He loves his students and strives to be the best teacher he can.

Yet (like me) he finds it frustrating when he’s asked to write down specific goals. This exchange on Twitter got me thinking:

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I often wonder about the value of teachers asking their students to write down their goals (and admin expecting their teachers to.) I’m sure most respond the way Jay does. (See his post here)

Rather than asking students or teachers to set specific goals, consider some of these options…

1. How do you learn best? What hinders your learning? How can this knowledge help you with future learning?
2. What are you proud of in your teaching or learning and what do you wish you could do better? How might you go about it? Who might support you?
3. What do you really care about? How might you make a difference? What steps could you take to start the process?
4. What are you fascinated by? How might you find out more about it? Who else is interested? Can you collaborate?
5. What do you dream of doing? How might you work towards that dream? Who might you share it with? What kind of support do you need?
6. What do you wish you could change? What small steps could you take towards making it happen?
7. What excites you? How might you make that part of your learning? Who might you collaborate with who shares your passion?
8. Who do you admire? What can you learn from them?
9. What are your strengths? How might you develop them further? How might you be able to support others in their teaching or learning?
10. Instead of asking someone to ‘set goals’, what would you ask them to think about that might take them beyond where they currently are?

Wouldn’t these sorts of questions promote real, valuable reflection?

And I rather like this idea from Kath Murdoch-
Choose a single word that represents something you’d like to focus on. Put it in a place where you can see it every day as a reminder to keep that focus in mind.

Or would you rather write down your ‘smart’ goals?

10 big ideas from eduTECH…

Billed as the biggest educational technology conference in Australia, I note with interest as I sum up the big ideas from EduTECH, that they are not about the technology.

These were some of the messages from the likes of Dan Pink, Stephen Heppell, Ewan McIntosh, Alan November, Stephen Harris , Andrew Churches and Sir Ken Robinson. I‘ll keep it brief, with links to other posts that elaborate. You can apply the big ideas to all kinds of learners, teachers and students alike..

1. Ownership
Enable choice. Foster independence. Encourage responsibility.

2. Collaboration
Learn together. Grow ideas. Build community.

3. Creativity
Experiment. Play. Make something.

4. Problem solving/finding
Think differently. Find solutions. Seek new problems.

5. Curiosity
Ask questions. Notice. Wonder.

6. Diversity
One size does not fit all. Differentiate. Personalize learning.

7. Flexibility
Rethink school. Create new spaces. Unlearn.

8. Relevance 
Make it real. Solve real life problems. Create for an authentic audience.

9. Connection
Build a PLN. Flatten classroom walls. Participate.

10. Change
Do one new thing. Influence someone else. Shift the sand, one ‘teaspoon’ at a time

Do you waste learning time?

I used to think… Now I think‘ is one of the most powerful thinking tools (Visible Thinking routines). It allows you to grow, without having to have been wrong. It allows me to develop my ideas, change my practice, increase my understanding, deepen my thinking… and change my mind.

I used to think that the more tightly I kept control, the more efficiently time would be used in the classroom so that more learning could take place.

Now I think that the more I let go, the less time will be wasted on management, control, delivery and work… and the more time there will be for learning.

Here’s an example:
Scenario 1
The class sits in a circle to discuss an interesting issue. students raise their hands when they have something to share or ask. The teacher ensures everyone has an opportunity to speak. He often rephrases what students say in order to clarify or validate contributions. Many students spend long periods of time listening passively (or not listening at all) while they wait for an opportunity to engage. the teacher spends a fair bit of time asking people to be quiet, pay attention, stop fiddling, raise their hands, not talk while someone else is talking…

Scenario 2
The same discussion takes place in small groups and the teacher moves between groups, listening, occasionally asking a key question, listening, requesting clarification or justification, listening. Students practice effective communication by listening and speaking one at a time, but in a natural conversational style, without raising their hands. All the students are more actively involved in the conversation. They are not expected to share details with the whole class, although they might be asked to share only the most interesting or the most contentious point that was raised.

There are so many routines and procedures that happen in classrooms, just because that’s the way they have ‘always’ been done.

How often do kids stand in line waiting for their turn with the teacher?
How often does the whole class sit passively (or not!) while the teacher explains something half of the students already know?
How often does the teacher expect everyone to wait will she checks who’s done their homework?

Do you ever stop to think about how productively class time is being used for every student’s learning?

Are you ready to change something you do?