Posts Tagged active teaching

‘Thinking students’ require ‘thinking teachers!’

For a number of years I have been trying to implement tasks that increase my students thinking and collaboration. One observation I have made is that introducing tasks that increases the depth of student thinking also requires deeper thought from the teacher. This was highlighted to me when I started including what I thought were fairly simple thinking tasks into a departments’ teaching program. I had very experienced teachers coming to me declaring in exasperation ‘that they couldn’t do the task how could we expect students to do it?’

One invaluable resource I find inspiration for these tasks is from the Innovative teachers’ companion (ITC). The ITC has thinking tools, explanations and examples scattered through its diary on a weekly basis. I have used the ITC diary for several years and have over time developed a number of tasks and approaches that have benefited the learning in my classes.  My personal application of theses thinking tools has been accelerated lately by subscribing to TeacherPD Online, produced by the same guys as the ITC it provides short videos on all the thinking tools and collaborative strategies fond in the companion, as well as templates and examples. The examples provided span all the key learning areas. The videos clearly explain the tasks in a way that writing them up in a program never could, and are invaluable to teachers that are trying to develop greater thinking in their students. Teachers will still be required to think deeply themselves about what they are trying to achieve. I often find that the most useful examples come from outside my own area of expertise, as they push my own thinking further.

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Think deeply about what and how you learn.

Research demonstrates that an effective way to enable students to improve learning outcomes is to help them develop the skills to think deeply about what and how they learn (Hattie, 2009). If students are to successfully transfer what they have learnt to new situation and problems then they have to develop a deep understanding of the content they have studied (Darling-Hammond, 2008).  There are three levels at which something can be learnt and understood; surface, deep and constructed understanding. That is we can know information at a surface level, repeating facts but not truly understanding them.  A deeper level of understanding of a concept is developed when we are able to transfer it to new situation making relational connections between two or more concepts or being able to elaborate or extend the concept (Hattie, 2009).

Think deeply about what and how you learn.

Barron & Darling-Hammond (2008) report on the growing body of research that shows students who engage in constructivist inquiry learning; project-based learning, problem-based learning and design-based learning benefit from gains in factual learning that are equivalent or superior to gains from traditional types of instruction, as well as demonstrating a deeper understanding of concepts and an increased ability to take what they know to new situations and problems.

Current cognitive research suggests that there is a general intelligence or general cognitive ability,  that is the ability to think logically, apply knowledge from one context to another, demonstrate deep understanding of a concept, be creative, ask surprising questions and go beyond the given (Philip Adey, Csapó, Demetriou, Hautamäki, & Shayer, 2007).  The concept of a general intelligence is in opposition to the widespread idea that there are multiple intelligences (i.e. Gardner’s  M.I.).  Abby, et al. (2007) argue there is little evidence to support the concept of multiple intelligences.  Research has demonstrated that general intelligence has plasticity; it can be influenced and transformed by the environment. Adey, et al. (2007) state that if teachers  know that they can help students throughout their formal schooling period continually to raise their ability to process information then this must be what teachers should be striving for. It is by far the most efficient use of schooling time, to concentrate on raising intelligence levels so that students become generally more effective learners.

Adey, et al. (2007) list the following as an action plan for raising general cognitive ability.

  1. Learning activities must be generative of cognitive stimulation, i.e. they must have the potential to create challenge rather than being comfortably within the reach of the learner’s current processing capability.
  2. Learning should be collaborative in the sense that learners learn to listen to one another, to argue and to justify, and become accustomed to changing their positions.
  3. Continually raising awareness in students of metacognitive processes

factors in the concept, such as the organization or the quantity of information that cause difficulties in representing and processing;

connecting the present concept to others already in their possession, as they differentiate it from other concepts, and even as they decide that some concepts need to be abandoned;

transferring control of the thinking and learning processes so that the student gradually becomes self-reliant and self-regulating, rather than depending on the teacher continually to monitor and guide his or her thinking.

Adey and Shayer (1994) developed cognitive acceleration programs  incorporating three principles presented as ‘pillars’ to build their lessons around; cognitive conflict, social construction, and metacognition. The cognitive conflict was a problem presented to students to solve. Students were then placed in collaborative groups for discussions around the problem and finally asked to reflect on their thinking and understanding.  Adey and Shayer (1994) have been able to demonstrate tangible gains in both academic outcomes and cognitive development.  They also demonstrated that these gains were not limited to the subject the cognitive acceleration was focused around, but influenced students metacognition and outcomes across all their subjects (Philip Adey, 2004; Shayer, 1997, 1999).

Adey, P. (2004). Evidence for Long-Term Effects: Promises and Pitfalls. Evaluation and Research in Education, 18(1), 83-102.

Adey, P., Csapó, B., Demetriou, A., Hautamäki, J., & Shayer, M. (2007). Can we be intelligent about intelligence?: Why education needs the concept of plastic general ability. Educational Research Review, 2(2), 75-97.

Adey, P., & Shayer, M. (1994). Really raising standards: Cognitive intervention and academic achievement. London: Routledge.

Barron, B., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2008). How can we teach for meaningful learning. In L. Darling-Hammond (Ed.), Powerful Learning: What we know about teaching for understanding (pp. 11-70). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

Shayer, M. (1997). The Long-Term Effects of Cognitive Acceleration on Pupils’ School Achievement, November 1996. Report: ED408195. 16pp. Mar.

Shayer, M. (1999). Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education II: Its Effects and Scope. International Journal of Science Education, 21(8), 883-902.

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Personal Digital Devices and Learning

My school has gone down the 1 to 1 device route.  Year 5 and 8 this year have had devices introduced into their learning environments and then progressively over the next couple of years personal digital devices (PDDs) are being introduced into the other learning environments.

This implementation is different from most other schools I know of, for two reasons. (I would be interested to discover other schools that are similar.) Firstly it was the pedagogy being employed by the school that triggered the need and demand for better access to digital information and processing. The school is seriously investing in pedagogical developing, changing learning so that it is personalised, collaborative, constructivist and deep thinking in nature. It has not resulted from a government mandated and funded program or an elitist laptop program that has placed devices into classrooms that don’t get used because teaches have not changed how they teach. (A generalization I know, but I do also know it’s a reality in many schools)

Secondly notice I have been using the term device not laptop. The school has taken the decision to use a university model of device tooling.  That is the students provide their own device, and can choose to bring whatever device they want.  Parents were given some advice as to what was needed such as Wi-Fi ability, and basic software / app suggestions (word processor, spread sheet, presentation software). Thus the array of devices is impressive, 17′ laptops, 10’netbooks, Windows, Mac, and iPads. Three different operating systems and endless variations in specifications and software.

The first couple of weeks were manic mostly because of Wi-Fi issues, with many devices that could not connect. This has mostly been sorted and as part of the year 8 integrated unit (Quest) teaching team I’m able to walk around our open space learning area (SCIL) and observe 90-140 students working productively, independently or collaboratively, on tasks.  In this environment teachers act more often as mentors and guides getting students to think more deeply about concepts and skills rather than being the providers of knowledge. Sounds great and it is. I often have to stop and reflect how different it is to what I have done in the past.

I was walking past a group of teachers the other day and one made the observation that it was actually very difficult to find students doing the wrong thing.  They meant this in a positive way. Students are so engaged that they are not wasting time and energy off task.  It immediately struck me that he was right. 95% of the students are intrinsically motivated and engage with the learning tasks.  But on further reflection and on examination of work being produce there are some students that look busy, look engaged but are not producing much in a lesson.  How do we ‘catch’ these students, what gives them away? The answer is age-old, active teachers who take the time to get to know their students individually.  You engage them, by personalizing and differentiating tasks. Knowing your students also informs your decisions of when to give direct instruction and when to let them uncover and discover for themselves. Teaching continues to be an art form, not a science, it needs to be relational and active.

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How does what we do compare to how the research says it should be done?

This week I took a step back and looked at the big picture of the why, how and what.  That is; why we exist as an organisation, how we go about obtaining our vision and what it looks like in practise  (the three rings of my diagram).

The inner ring, the why …the schools vision and focus statements for 2011, were developed by the principal, his executive and school board.

My focus was to compare how what we do in day-to-day teaching at my school compares to the research into how students learn (Darling-Hammond, 2008; Donavan & Bransford, 2005) and the research into what teaching practices work  (Hattie, 2009). Thus the second ring is made up of the four elements described by the research. That is the need to personalise the learning of students, to help them to develop the deep thinking and metacognitive skills required to become autonomous learners, to incorporate cooperative learning as a way of developing students thinking and metacognition, and to enable teachers to actively gain feedback from students and applying that feedback to help students take the next steps on their learning path.

When examining what the practices occurring at my school are, as noted in the outer ring of the diagram, I saw that many of them aligned to and supported the development of one or more of the elements identified by the educational research.

While this is  encouraging I would add that we still have a long way to go.  When we go about these day-to-day activities I am unsure how many of my colleges are conscious of the how, that is, how do these activities align to the research and to the school vision. I know myself I need to stop and make some more conscious decisions about the tasks I chose and the way they are delivered to ensure they actively support the learning of my students.

I was also part of a discussion earlier in the week  which was questioning how far in the shift from an industrial model to something new we had come, and if we would ever reach the end of needing to transform our practises.  The consensus was for the foreseeable future change will be the norm.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2008). Teaching and learning for understanding. In L. Darling-Hammond (Ed.), Powerful Learning: What we know about teaching for understanding (pp. 1-10). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Donavan, M. S., & Bransford, J. D. (Eds.). (2005). How Students Learn: Science in the classroom. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

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What is 21st century learning?

What is 21st century learning? This is a question I pondered all of last year. My thinking started around what skills will be needed by our students when they leave school, and I was recommended 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times (Fadel & Trilling, 2009), but after reading through this book I was still stuck with the question of ‘what is 21st teaching and learning?  How do I do the teaching and how do I help my students do the learning?  I was left feeling there must be more than teaching a whole new skill set, as these skills could be taught in the same old way, of direct instruction from the teacher.  Surely more has to change than just the skills or content we covered.

Fadel & Trilling  (2009) did help me with my thinking by pointing me towards research into how people learn.  In particular Powerful Learning: What we know about teaching for understanding (Darling-Hammond, 2008). This led me to ask the question ‘what is the best learning and teaching based on research?’  It is a very different question to ‘what is 21st century teaching and learning?I don’t think we should limit our description of teaching and learning to a ‘time stamp.’ A decade into the 21st century the moniker already sounds dated.

Combining the research on how we learn (Darling-Hammond, 2008)  with research on what teaching practises work, collated by Hattie (2009), I had my thinking about successful learning develop around some key concepts.21st C learning

  • student centred personalised learning paths
  • learning tasks that produce and enhance deep thinking and metacognition
  • collaborative / cooperative learning involving open-ended problems
  • active teacher involvement which most importantly involves formative feedback

Each of these is supported by research to effectively improve student outcomes, but should not be treated as separate elements, rather as a set of integrated, interdependent  areas that support each other in the goal of enhancing student achievement.

These elements will be what I will be focusing on this year, as I evaluate my approach to what I do in my classes.

Darling-Hammond (Ed.) (2008). Powerful Learning: What we know about teaching for understanding. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fadel, C., & Trilling, B. (2009). 21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Times. San Francisco: Jossey Bass Wiley.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

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