Sunday, September 9, 2012

What is Learning?

I've been following a string of blog posts that have asked the question: What is learning? These have really sparked my thinking and over the past week I've tried a few things out in my classroom. Sam's post quotes the statistic that close to 100% of schools fail to have a shared, common understanding of what they believe valuable learning is. Without this, he goes on to say, parents can't decide if it's the right school for their child, teachers can't decide if this school is right one for them to teach at, leadership can't decide if they're doing a good job and, most importantly, students can't decide if they are being successful. 

When I read this post we were just at the end of our first week of school. There is always a lot going on at this time and, in order to foster a collaborative environment, one thing I wanted to do was to establish our class essential agreements. This year I tried a different approach to the creation of these agreements. I spent the first week having the class engage in a couple of different scenarios that addressed concepts such as communication, inclusivity and decision making. I attended an interesting workshop with Bill Powell and Steve Dare over the Summer break and was keen to translate a few of their ideas into practice in the classroom. So we worked through and reflected on those few engagements. I wanted the students to consider the feelings and thoughts that they experienced during the exercises when they made their agreements. The night before I was planning to get the students to decide on the agreements I read Sam's post and thought that this was something that simply had to be included in the build up. In one minute I had changed all of my plans! 

I wanted to ask the students to consider what learning was for them. My plan was to spend some time reflecting on what learning was and then share each other's responses. I predicted that this would help everyone see that (i) we all have different needs, values and perspectives and (ii) that there are some core attributes of learning that apply to everyone (or at least most people). I adapted the ISB model that I saw in another of Sam's posts to read as three categories: Sound, Feel, Look. So each student was asked to find a quiet place and think about what it felt like for them when they were in the moment of learning something; what someone would see if they looked at them when they were learning; and what someone would hear if they were listening when they were learning something (there's a lot of they's there, does it make sense?!). I also asked them to consider what someone wouldn't see and hear if they were watching them learn; and what learning doesn't feel like for them. The answers were interesting and pleasing:

After I scribed all of the students' ideas down we saw that a lot of the answers given for 'sounds like' were reflected in the 'looks like' answers, so decided to condense that category into one. There were clearly some clashes of ideas: 'learning doesn't look like wandering around' vs 'learning does look like experimenting and asking other people'. When talking about the 'sounds like' ideas, there were a lot of different opinions. One student said 'learning sounds like jazz'; another said 'learning sounds like silence'; and yet another said 'learning sounds like rock music and lots of noise'. Obviously some different learning styles there!

This was a great way to allow the students to see that they all had similarities and differences in their learning. It was also good because it bought to the forefront of our decision making the single most important thing about school - student learning.

Photo credit: I Learn

Every week, day and hour.

Over the past week I've had several discussions about collaboration with my colleagues. On one occasion this was at a workshop about documentation, lead by our Early Years Vice-Principal. I attended this workshop in the hope that it would give me some fresh ideas about how to collect and evaluate data in my own classroom. We talked about the processes that the Early Years teachers go through and engaged in some nice discussions about the mechanics of their documentation.

One of the key elements of documentation in Reggio-inspired approaches is the need for follow up discussion about the evidence that has been collected. This enables educators to flesh out their ideas and helps to create clearer understandings about what has been observed. Of course, this isn't only evident in Early Years teaching. Any teacher worth their salt collects evidence through observations, individual and group discussion, work samples and any other effective means. One of the big differences, though, is that there are less ways to collect evidence from students who cannot write competently yet, or perhaps speak fluently in the language of instruction. As this occurs more frequently in the Early Years, observing the students is a popular way to document development and perceived understandings. Advocates for this approach to education, such as our VP, do their best, then, to ensure that specific structures are in place to allow this to happen. Extended blocks of inquiry time are common and more than one adult per group of children is a frequent sight. Unfortunately, for several complicated reasons, this doesn't translate to the Gr. 1-5 classes at my school. So we've been looking for ways to enhance our ability to collaborate. 

As a Team Leader, I try my very best to ensure that our meeting times are focussed on student learning and not the other 'stuff' that fills up our day. One thing I try to do at the start of our meetings is engage in different protocols that allow us to freely discuss what's been happening in our classes - both successes and failures. A second point to consider is the focus of discussions that the team engages in. While our discussions might be about student learning, it is important to guide team members to discuss the right sorts of things. This is a skill I'm still developing. In their article about collaboration, So they can fly - Building a community of inquirers (2007), Linda Gibson-Langford and Di Laycock refer to a term called coblaboration, which was first coined by David Perkins in his book - King Arthur's Round Table - How collaborative conversations create smart organisations. Coblaboration is characterised by chaotic conversation patterns, repetition, group think and dialogue with no action. How many 'collaborative' meetings have you been a part of where these arise? I know I've been in plenty. So keeping precious meeting time focussed is essential.

Another point raised by one of my colleagues is that we need to question our mindset about collaboration. She said that most of the time when we meet to collaborate we come with the idea that we're going to talk about things that are going to happen. This is great, but we also need to consider the value in collaborating about things that have already happened. This doesn't just mean in UOI reflections every 6 or so weeks either, it means discussing and debating ideas based on what's happened with your class that week or day or hour. I think there's a lot of merit in that.

Everyone always talks about collaboration and how great it would be to collaborate more. However, a lot of the time we get caught up in other things that require our immediate attention, but may not be all that important. Last year, when I was in Gr. 4, I tried to encourage the practice of getting into each other's classrooms more often. We discussed this - how we felt about it, what we thought the benefits were, what we thought the barriers were. We also talked about our feelings when someone was in our room - some people shared feelings about this being like an appraisal, but that's another discussion. We agreed on a goal that we would try to engage in one collaborative teaching experience per fortnight. We reflected on this in our meetings and although everyone said they valued the process, finding the time to meet with people in order to discuss and plan lessons was another 'thing' to do in our already packed day. I haven't yet been able to get over to Gr. 4 and see if they're carrying on with the process this year.

This year I've moved to Gr. 3 and our classrooms are set up a little differently. In Gr. 4 we worked in portable classes that, while being roomy, were essentially boxes and to get to another class you had to go right out of your room. In Gr. 3 the classes are alongside each other and have doors that connect each room. One of the first things my neighbour and I did this year was contact the custodians and get them to remove the door. Having an open passageway through the two classrooms forces us to collaborate more - although I must say that I'm lucky that I work next to a teacher that doesn't need too much encouragement with this. We also sat down and looked at the times during the week where we have opportunities for more collaborative learning between the classes. This also involves our Learning Support and EAL teachers. For this to work effectively we'll need to talk over things (that have happened and will happen) in order to plan appropriately. If everything aligns, hopefully it will extend to include all of the 5 classes in Gr. 3.

Photo credit: Shunting

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Trending students

Our current UOI in Grade Three falls under the TD Theme - How We Organise Ourselves. The central idea is 'Digital media influences the way we access information and connect with each other'. Through the first two weeks of the unit each class has inquired into what we understand digital media to be, what our responsibilities are in virtual environments, how we can evaluate information on-line and how we use & organise digital media.

Over the past week in my class we've been exploring some of the different types of digital media that the students might choose to use for their process assessment task. The students will have to create a presentation to educate their parents on the responsible use of technology. They will have to find and evaluate information about responsible use in order to decide which is essential for their presentation, and also think about what will be the best tool in order to connect with their parents. Maybe their parents will come to school to see their presentation, maybe they won't be able to and would prefer to view it on-line, maybe they like to see videos, photos, text - there's a lot for the students to consider.

This week we've explored a couple of web 2.0 tools that might be useful for the students - Photo Peach and Prezi. Next week we'll look at a few more so the students can have the freedom of choosing which one will be most appropriate for them to use. For each tool we first run through a demonstration of the tool and then discuss the advantages and disadvantages of it. You can see the students' analysis of each tool on our grade level blog here and here.

One of the most interesting things I've noticed from the students' feedback is that they've highlighted as being a disadvantage the fact that you can't create a game that could be played on any of these sites. This is something that I hadn't really considered as even being an option. Obviously it is to the students, though, and I can't wait to unpack their thinking with this. I'm now looking for a good tool to show the students how to use in order for them to create a game to help explain digital responsibility.

K12Horizon is a project that focuses on emerging technology and their applications for K-12 education. One of the trends they identified this year in their annual report was game-based learning. A friend of mine blogged about some of the findings earlier this year and here is what she wrote about game based learning:

Game-Based Learning - there is a lot of interest in exploring the potential of game-based learning and the Horizon Report identifies several areas where these will be used in schools, for example developing students' team building skills, teaching cross-curricular content in engaging ways and simulations that allow students to try out different creative solutions to problems.

My students seem to have their finger on the trend pulse more than me with this and I think this example highlights the importance of making sure that the curriculum is student-centred. I can't wait to explore this further with my students and see what they create.

Photo credit: Toca Boca