Category Archives: classroom environment

Grouping students for maximum success and comfort

Sometimes I go to a workshop and the presenter hands out a piece of paper and then tells you to find a partner (or a group of 3) to discuss it with.  Even as a grown-up, there is often that moment of dread.  Who will I talk to?  What if no one wants to be my partner?  I don’t know these people! Oh, it looks like everyone has a partner now; what should I do?  Maybe I will go to the washroom!

Another presenter will do the same activity but randomly number or colour code the papers.  The instruction will be to find the partner with the same colour or number and talk about the paper.  I don’t mind these nearly as much.  I know I will have a partner.  There is no looking, no trying to catch someone’s eye, no having to approach someone.  I enjoy these kinds of interactions.

As a teacher I often wanted my students to work in partners or in groups.  But, I will admit, I didn’t often think about how I would achieve the groupings.  And if I hadn’t planned that part then I resorted to “find a partner or a group of 3”.  It was easy for me, as the teacher, to give that instruction.  Invariably there would be a few kids leftover at the end and I would put them together.  I didn’t think much about it at the time.  I have been thinking about it more recently.

A new student came to my office this week.  She is struggling to fit in.  She told me she had no friends.  She said she hated it when the teacher asked everyone to find a partner and no one chose her.  I remembered how I felt at meetings, even meetings where I know people.

These days I observe classes more than I teach them and I see things I never saw when I was teaching.  When I am in classes where students are told to find a partner, inevitably students start to make eye contact.  Some students keep their heads down.  One or two students are always swarmed by a number of students and have the luxury of choosing their partner.  There are always one or two students that quickly bop around to numerous students trying to find someone who will say yes.  Some students grab onto another student’s arm and won’t let go, staking out their partner early.  And then, there are always some students left at the end.  Frequently when these students are paired up there is eye rolling or faces.

Now when I teach, even adults, I never say “choose a partner” unless I am totally disorganized.  And then, invariably, I regret it.  Here are some things to think about when grouping students in order to create maximum learning and maximum comfort for your students:

  1. Do you want students in homogeneous or heterogeneous groups?  If it matters, and sometimes it does, you need to make the groups ahead of time.  I suggest a variety of groupings so that the same students aren’t always paired together.
  2. Is there value in having students work with the same partner or group over time? I think so.  I think that trust builds over time and students are more likely to feel comfortable and take risks.
  3. Peter Liljedahl has done research on Visible Random Groupings where students are randomly assigned different working partners as they enter the room (http://www.peterliljedahl.com/wp-content/uploads/Visibly-Random-Groups-June-20-2013.pdf). He finds that this type of grouping works better than any other type of grouping and that teachers who try it also stick with it and do not go back to letting students pick their own partners.  You can assign numbers, group kids by colour, birthday, height, favourite songs etc.  It doesn’t appear to matter just that students see that all groupings are random and the expectation is that they will learn to work with their group.

Do consider the power we give to some students and the angst we cause other students simply by saying “choose your partner”.  Try random groupings.  Try working partners for the month.  See what works best for you.

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8 Ways for kids to get effective feedback – it’s not all on you!

A teacher said, “I just keep thinking that feedback is always me talking to the students about their work.”  As teachers, when we hear the word “feedback” that’s what we think of automatically.  And then we despair that we don’t have enough time to give that kind of feedback to every one of our students about every one of their assignments or tasks.  It is a daunting task.  Certainly that is one form of feedback to students and research shows that when students receive regular and timely feedback as they are learning, they do much better.

Grant Wiggins gives this definition of feedback:

Basically, feedback is information about how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal. I hit a tennis ball with the goal of keeping it in the court, and I see where it lands—in or out. I tell a joke with the goal of making people laugh, and I observe the audience’s reaction—they laugh loudly or barely snicker. I teach a lesson with the goal of engaging students, and I see that some students have their eyes riveted on me while others are nodding off. (http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept12/vol70/num01/Seven-Keys-to-Effective-Feedback.aspx)

He goes on to state that feedback is never evaluative nor is it advice.  It is simply information conveyed about the effects of an action as related to a goal. 

 Dictionary.com says that the origin of the word comes from 1915-20 where the verb phrase “feed back”  became a noun.  Again, it is this idea that information is fed back to you in response to an action.

When I go to the gym and work on the elliptical machine I get lots of feedback during my work out:

  • I can see if I am keeping my pace up and compare it to other days
  • I can compare my pace to how my body is feeling this day.
  • I can tell how far I am going and how long it is taking.
  • I can feel how my legs are feeling and my breathing and if I am doing ok.
  • If my back hurts then I know my posture is off.

All of that information affects my workout.  I make choices to work harder, back off, change something or give up for the day.

In your classroom there are many ways that students can receive feedback about their learning:

  • You can conference with students offering non-evaluative comments about what you understand and what might be unclear in their work. You can ask thought-provoking questions.
  • When students are working on little whiteboards and holding up their answers, you get feedback on whether they understand, but you also offer immediate feedback when you stop to reteach a concept because you notice a lot of misconceptions. This happens, too, when you are using Kahoots, if you stop and explain when the majority are incorrect.
  • When your students are working in groups or pairs they are getting constant feedback from their peers. For example, Jack and Sue are solving a math problem.  Jack says something and Sue looks at him quizzically.  Jack now knows that either his idea is off or he has explained it unclearly.  Both are good pieces of information.  He tries to explain his point again using a different tactic and one of two things happens.  Either, Sue now understands and Jack knows that his original explanation was unclear, or Sue still doesn’t understand and Jack begins to suspect his thinking may not be clear.  They go on in this fashion until both understand.
  • In French class when the teacher asks students to repeat words or phrases multiple times, paying attention to their pronunciation they are getting feedback. They try it out, the teacher says it again, they try it again trying to mimic the pronunciation closer.
  • In PE class when two partners are volleying the ball and the one partner is not able to return it, both students are receiving feedback. The one volleying the ball may not have good enough control to get the ball to the right spot.  The one receiving the ball may need to move or change position in order to return the ball.  When both partners have a goal of keeping the volleying going as long as possible, both are using feedback from the process to achieve their goal.
  • When students can compare their work against an anchor chart, rubric, checklist or exemplar before submitting, they are receiving feedback. They can see if their work contains all the components required and if not, are able to fix the work.
  • When the teacher says, highlight all the places in your writing where you used descriptive words (or periods, or dialogue, or complex sentences etc.) the student gets immediate feedback by seeing to what extent he or she has done so.
  • When a student is involved in an inquiry project in science and has multiple opportunities to test a hypothesis, he or she is getting feedback. If the task is to build a bridge that will hold a certain weight, and the bridge breaks, that is feedback.  When a student is encouraged to use that feedback to figure out what didn’t work and attempt a different design, the student has used that feedback to learn.

Teachers can, in a planned and purposeful way, design their instruction so that students have many meaningful opportunities to receive feedback as they are working:

  • Provide students with multiple opportunities to try something out
  • Provide students opportunities to talk with their peers about complex and challenging problems
  • Provide students with support as they are working not only after they are working
  • Ensure that students know what goals they are working towards, and are able to see that their efforts make a difference in achieving those goals

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Sometimes the best teaching is to STOP teaching

Believe it or not, grade one teachers do teach students when to use periods and capitals.  So do grade two teachers, grade three teachers, grade four teachers …and grade 12 teachers.  But we are talking about kids, and it takes a long time for many of them to apply the skill on a regular basis.

I take pottery classes.  This same concept happens in the pottery workshop.  There is a new potter sitting next to me and she is struggling to center and throw a small bowl (it is not as easy as Demi Moore made it look in the movie Ghost).  The other day our instructor was reminding her of all the things she needed to do to throw this pot- and then jokingly said…” and the following 77 things, too”.  We talked about how when you are learning a new skill and there are so many things to integrate at once that it is hard to concentrate on all of them at the same time.  Something that the instructor can do without even thinking is so hard for someone just beginning.

The Ontario curriculum is probably too big (if you aren’t from Ontario maybe yours is, too).  The specific expectations are those skills that will lead students to the overall expectations.  They are not goals in and of themselves.  Students do not need to “master” every specific expectation in order to meet the overall expectation.

My new pottery friend does not need to “master” every individual task in order to make her bowl.  Next week’s bowl won’t be perfect but it will be a little bit better.  And every week after that, her bowls will improve little by little.  Some weeks she will stall out.  Some weeks she will focus too much on one skill to the detriment of another skill.  Eventually she will begin to integrate all of the pieces and move onto mugs.  The instructor will say exactly the same things to her every week.  At some point something he says will make more sense than it does now.

So how do these stories relate to the title of this blog?  As teachers we are like the pottery instructor; we know the stuff and have integrated the pieces.  Also, we have thousands of great ideas on how to get kids to know the stuff.  We get caught in the trap of thinking that if I only do this one more activity, this one lesson more, then everyone will get it.  But maybe that isn’t true.  Maybe we need to stop giving more instruction and just let kids try it out.  Maybe we need to be ok with giving a minilesson and some kids not getting it—this time.  Because if we take a mindset that teaching is messy and circular (and recursive) then we know that we will be coming back to key ideas many times over the course of the year.

We want to plan our teaching time so that students have ample time to practice the skills without getting caught in the trap of trying to do it perfectly right now.  We want to design classes that have less teaching and more doing.  We want to be comfortable with letting kids struggle as they integrate the pieces.  We need to remember that we have all year to reach the overall expectations and that when we provide multiple opportunities for students to practice over time, we are giving them the support to integrate everything we’ve told them.

You may be thinking:  But what about assessment?  What about accountability?  What about learning goals and success criteria?  What about getting through the curriculum?  All those things are still in place but we need to think about them all as helping students learn not things to get done.  Stop thinking of your formative assessment as assessment and more like intentionally noticing where your students are at during the learning journey.  You are still accountable but you are remembering that you have the whole year to reach those overall expectations.  You still have a plan.  You are still purposeful in your decisions.  You still have learning goals and success criteria but they are bigger and encompass more learning than just today’s lesson.  And, you will teach the curriculum this way but in a more authentic way because you will be concentrating on your students’ learning of the big and important ideas and not checking off specific expectations.

A consultant friend of mine says “Teach lightly”. I like that image.  Remember that no matter what my pottery instructor says, it is still going to take a long time for my new friend to master the craft.  She needs scaffolding, support, repetition and practice time.  So, when you are feeling overwhelmed and flustered that your students are not learning, just stop teaching so much and let them practice.

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Diagnostic Assessment–10 things to think about

September is the time for diagnostic assessment.  It is good to know what your students already know and don’t.  But I wish the word “assessment” wasn’t attached to this term.  I prefer thinking of diagnostics as “entry points into learning”.  Sometimes we use diagnostics to find out what students DON’T KNOW.  But it may serve us better to find out what they do know and can do.  No matter what you are teaching, students bring some knowledge to the table.  What you need to know is what learning each student already has about your area of study.

Here is some of my thinking about diagnostic assessments…or how to figure out the entry points into learning….

  • Because of the word ‘assessment’, we think it should look like a test. It doesn’t have to.  In fact, asking students to do a “test” in the first weeks of school may be overwhelming.  Plus, doing a “test” of things that you are pretty sure the students can’t do only tells you what you already know—they can’t do it.  The kids feel lousy and you don’t know anything new.
  • Sometimes we give back these tests/assessments with a level on them. I think that might be disheartening for students.  After all, if I was excited to learn about the new science unit but then wrote a test and got back a level 1, no amount of teacher convincing that this was “just” a diagnostic is going to make me feel better.  If you do feel you need to give this type of assessment, you do not need to provide students with grades/level/feedback.  Diagnostics are for you, the teacher.
  • If you want to discover what learning the student brings to the table, then you need to design a task that is open-ended. For example, if I want to find out if my students can add fractions, it would be better to give them a word problem where they can use any strategy they wish to figure out the answer than to give them 1/3 + 1/5 = ? or 27 – 9= ? where they may be tempted to use an algorithm.  If I want to find out if my students can write in full sentences, I just need to ask them to write something; I don’t need to give them a worksheet on full sentences.  If I want to find out which level book my students can read, just ask them to pick a just-right-book from a pile.  If you provide each student with the same reading task all you will know is those than can read at that level and those that can’t.  Open-ended tasks let you see what students can do; closed tasks only tell you if the student can or cannot do what you asked.
  • If you want to determine a student’s entry point into learning, you have to know your curriculum. You need to know what students would have learned in previous grades.  You need to know the continuum of skills.
  • While you need to know what learning individual students bring to the table, not all diagnostic assessment needs to be done individually. Consider giving a group task.  You can gather information about how students approach the task by observation.  How students approach a task may give you more information than just having a final completed task that is incorrect.  A final incorrect task only tells you that the student can’t do it but it gives you no information about why.
  • Ask your students. Particularly older students can just tell you what they find easy and what they find tricky, especially if you give them a checklist.  In the older grades you can probably get a pretty good idea of your students’ reading levels simply by asking them to list the last three books they read recently.  A student that can’t remember or doesn’t have any, is one you need to listen to read sooner as opposed to the student who lists 10 novels he read over the summer.  You don’t need to do the same diagnostics for all students.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of interest and attitude surveys. Knowing that a student feels he or she is not good at math is very valuable information.  Knowing that a student does not have a favourite book tells you a lot.  Knowing that a student thinks science or history is boring because all you do is memorize gives you useful information.  We know from research that a student’s confidence level in a subject is directionally proportional to their competence in that subject.
  • You won’t be able to figure it all out in one easy step. Think about what you want to know about your students.  Give yourself some time to figure this out.  Experiment with ways of recording this information in class profiles that will be useful for you.  Experiment with a variety of tools.
  • Don’t be afraid of what you learn through a diagnostic assessment tool. Sometimes we conclude that our students are just “not ready” to learn our curriculum.  Instead, look at what they do bring to the table and then determine  the very next thing they need to learn to move forward.  This is particularly important when writing IEPs.  It really doesn’t matter if you don’t think they are ready—they are still in your class and you still have to teach them.  Use your diagnostic to plan the student’s very next step, not to despair that they are not ready for your course.
  • Lots of times we give “diagnostic assessments” because we think we have to. If you don’t do anything meaningful with the “assessment” then don’t give it.  If you don’t learn something new about your students that is going to change how you teach them  then the assessment tool isn’t working for you.

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The Third Teacher: Change up your classroom environment

It is good to stay current with the lingo.  The literature now refers the classroom environment as the “third teacher”.  Many teachers are examining how their classroom environment might invite different kinds of learning.

It has been said that today’s physical classroom doesn’t look that much different from one in the 1880s.  Sure, the blackboard has been replaced by a whiteboard, the overhead is now a document camera, and there aren’t too many wooden desks floating around.  But, basically many classrooms looks the same as they always have.  But society doesn’t; and we have been thinking that maybe, in some significant ways, learning shouldn’t either.

Many business organizations are also changing the work environment in favour of an environment that they hope will inspire more collaboration, more creativity, more interaction between employees, more access to technology.  If we want our students to have voice and choice, collaborate, use technology in meaningful ways, expand their thinking, work respectfully with many different students, work both independently and in groups, and move about, does our classroom environment promote that?

Once again, this is a good time of year to explore different ways you might wish to reorganize your classroom space and see what happens.  After all, no one will die (except perhaps from the heat if your school is not air-conditioned!!).  Here are some ideas to try out:

  • Do you need your teacher desk and/or space? Could it be pushed into a corner if you need it?  Do you need it in a prominent position for classroom control?  What would happen if you didn’t have it at all?
  • We often ask kids to collaborate at a table with chart paper. A teacher at our school has put up laminated chart paper on the walls.  She’s noticed that the kids move and talk as they work; they can all see the paper; she can see everyone’s paper easily.  What happens if you get your kids standing up to collaborate?  Could you let some groups work at the whiteboard in your room while others used chart paper?  Do you notice any differences?  See the last post about collaborative groupings for more information.
  • Do your kids need to move? Your first reaction to letting kids sit on an exercise ball may be panic, but try it out.  The novelty wears off and then those kids who need them tend to use them.  What about making some desks higher so that students can stand while they work?  If you are in Ontario, the very large and cumbersome SEA tables work well for that.
  • There are lots of interesting ways to configure your desks for group work. Wander around your own school one day and see some of the interesting configurations that people have adopted.  Or google it!  Try U shapes, or pinwheels, or staggering the desks.
  • How easy is it for your students to move their chairs into a circle for knowledge building circles? Does the desk configuration aid in that or make it difficult?
  • How do you group your students? What would happen if every day or every few days, they were randomly grouped in a different way?
  • Do students have a choice of places to work that support both group work and independent work? Do you have both groups of tables and some single desks?

If nothing else, changing things up will keep your students engaged during the month of June, and you will be energized, too, with the possibilities for September.

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Student groupings for collaborative work

The latest buzz is collaboration.  If we can get our students to collaborate then both engagement and learning increases.  This is based on a belief that learning is a social construct.  I certainly enjoy learning more when I can talk to others about my learning and hear varying opinions  Group work should not just be about dividing up the work into parts.  It is important in collaboration that the learning of students about the task is enhanced because they work together.  Often teachers complain that collabora tion doesn’t work; they put the kids in group and they made the anchor chart about collaboration – and it was a disaster.  Group work, however, does not equal collaboration nor does collaboration happen just because students are in groups or because you created an anchor chart about collaboration.  Collaboration happens because your students value the task, find it challenging, and recognize that working together enhances their understanding of the task.  It is my experience that collaboration is not a problem is the task is engaging.  Think about the last time you were at a meeting where you were asked to collaborate.  I bet you did if the question engaged you.  I bet you didn’t if the task was not engaging.

Besides ensuring that your task is engaging and challenging (see post Collaboration That Works) how you group your students may influence the success of your collaboration.  As a teacher, the most convenient way to make groups or partners is asking the students to choose.  However, this almost always ends with a few students feeling awkward:

  • There is always the leftover student because of numbers and not being “chosen”. Not only do you now need to fix the problem but that student does not feel part of the process.
  • There is almost always the “most popular” student being torn in many directions. That either gives that student a lot of power or makes them feel badly for having to choose.
  • There is often the student who feels disconnected and immediately avoids all eye contact or just sits until the end. That child’s feelings of unworthiness are confirmed.
  • There is always the group that gravitates together which is just going to cause you grief in the end and they will end up getting in trouble.

I have always suggested that the teacher form the groups.  You can create groups/partners for weeks at a time to allow students to build relationships and trust.  Or, you can form random groupings by assigning numbers or letters, pulling coloured popsicle sticks, handing out playing cards.  You can also use the content to create groups by having cards that go together (words and definitions, problems and answers, halves of sentences).  There are apps that will make random groups for you.  You do need to do some up front work with students not to roll their eyes or make disparaging comments.  This is a citizenship skill.

However, I have recently come across the work of Peter Liljedahl.  In particular he looks at mathematics but I don’t know why his findings wouldn’t work in other subject areas.  He makes a case for visible random groupings of students and his research finds the following:

  • students become agreeable to work in any group they are placed in
  • there is an elimination of social barriers within the classroom
  • mobility of knowledge between students increases
  • reliance on the teacher for answers decreases
  • reliance on co-constructed intra- and inter-group answers increases
  • engagement in classroom tasks increase
  • students become more enthusiastic about mathematics class

(http://www.peterliljedahl.com/wp-content/uploads/Visibly-Random-Groups.pdf).

I know that when I attend meetings and we are asked to find a partner, it is often awkward.  Sometimes I find my friends but then I already know what their opinions are; it is safe but I don’t learn a lot.  If I know no one, there are those moments of wondering if anyone will be my partner or maybe I should just go to the bathroom.  Sometimes I am already sitting with someone that I’d rather not talk to anymore but they glom on.  Probably our students have the same feelings.

Liljedahl also makes the case for Vertical Non-permanent Writing Surfaces.  He has found that students who stand in their random groups and write on a vertical whiteboard or chalkboard will be more willing to take risks, more engaged, and more likely to work together.  Here is a chart of his research findings:

I wouldn’t have thought that it made a huge difference whether students were sitting or standing but it is worth thinking about.  I do know that I wouldn’t want to be a student who sat for 5 hours every day.  We have found that students are more willing to engage with little whiteboards than with paper and pencil.  Maybe we should put some on the walls.

At the recent OAME conference I heard some high school teachers from Ottawa who have embraced both visible random groupings and vertical non-permanent surfaces. (http://slamdunkmath.blogspot.ca/2014/08/vertical-non-permanent-surfaces-and.html) They have found the same effects as Liljedahl.  They used laminated chart paper for  the whiteboards on the walls.  Maybe it is worth exploring.  And, spring is a good time to explore new ideas.

 

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Managing Differentiation in the Classroom

The question came upabout how you get students on an IEP started in class.  You have given the assignment, you were clear in the instructions but the first 10 minutes are busy and you realize that the students on the IEP have just been sitting, or sharpening their pencil, or in the bathroom, or causing a disturbance because they don’t know how to get started.  What to do?

Here are some suggestions.  There is no easy answer and different solutions might work in different situations:

  • Planning for differentiation has to be part of the initial planning process not an after- thought. Sometimes we think that we will just wait and see how a student does with the class assignment and then if he or she is stuck, then we will differentiate.  It is better to have decided in advance how you will differentiate and start with that.  From the student’s point of view, it is easier to understand and do more than to be frustrated from the get-go.
  • When thinking about differentiation, think about the concepts not the task. Often it is that task that is too complex, not the concept; the task is too open-ended, not organized enough, the reading level is too high.  By determining, in advance, what concept the student needs to focus on and determining what the barriers to learning that are, you may be able to differentiate easier.  It is not about task completion.  It is about learning.
  • Know your subject matter so that you can see the continuum of learning. No matter what concept you need students to learn, there is something they had to learn first to get there.  Think about what knowledge the student might be missing that is inhibiting their understanding.
  • Have a rule that NO ONE can ask you questions for the first 5-10 minutes after you give a task. Lots of students ask questions that they can actually figure out on their own.  That gives you some peace and quiet to check in with those students you know need you right away.
  • Small group instruction is your first defense in differentiation. If you predict that some students are going to need extra support or a different assignment, call them to the guided learning table first.  Support them right from the beginning of the task so that frustration doesn’t set in.  You may need to use that few minutes to activate background knowledge for them, create a graphic organizer, reduce or chunk the amount of work.
  • Talk less, show more. Most of your students can process verbal instructions but many students on an IEP cannot.  Make sure that you are writing the instructions on the board as well as saying what they are.  And, identify that you are creating the visual support by saying “Everyone point to the instructions”.
  • In the first few minutes of the work period, find your struggling students and create a quick checklist of 3 (no more) things that they need to do to get started. Put it on a sticky note.  They need to come and let you know when those three things are done.
  • Strategic grouping of students can help. If you know that you will be available to work with a group of students, group your students homogeneously and work with the group that needs you most.  If you don’t think you will be able to work with students right away, group them heterogeneously so that everyone can get started.  Later in the period, pull students who may need support from their groups to check in with you.  If you don’t do this last step then you risk that those students are not getting the concepts.
  • Model with graphic organizers and then have them be optional. Students can choose the organizer or not.  Most students will choose what they need.  You may be surprised to see who needs what.  And, you are still the teacher.  If someone doesn’t choose the organizer who needs it, you can insist.
  • Create tasks that have multiple entry points into learning. The curriculum does not indicate how “hard” the work needs to be.  Tasks that are accessible to all are easier for all students.
  • You wrote the IEP. It gives you permission to have the student learn differently, less content or show the work in alternative formats.  It is fair to do that.  When you are planning, think of those IEPs and how you will manage those students. Differentiation becomes more difficult when we have not planned for it.

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Growth Mindset – Create an environment where anything is possible

I find the research around growth mindsets fascinating.  I catch myself praising students for intelligence now and switch it to effort.  I reflect on my own language when talking about students and try not to say things like “level 2 kids” or “IEP kids” as if they are labelled  for life.  I reflect on my own teaching practice and try to build in opportunities to look at mistakes differently.  And, I want to convey to students that grit, perseverence, effort and setting goals all make a difference.

But, I am also concerned how the educational community has jumped on the growth mindset bandwagon so quickly, as we in education are apt to do.  I never check my twitter feed without seeing new posts about growth mindset.  Teachers on pinterest are posting anchor charts and classroom libraries devoted to growth mindset.  I have been wondering how best to bring growth mindset research into the classroom.

As in many things (see my post: Is Teacher Lingo Good for Kids?) I worry that teachers may be laying the research too much at the feet of students.  I believe that all teachers should have a solid understanding of the current research about growth mindset.  It is our job to understand learning.  And, I don’t think it is a bad thing to let kids in on the information:  in small doses, as is age appropriate and not to the point that it overtakes the joy of learning.  If we really want students to believe in growth mindset, then we need to create a learning environment that supports it:

  • Teachers can ensure that they create open-ended and interesting tasks that are more likely to engage students in taking risks and persevering because they want to.
  • Teachers can ensure that they give descriptive feedback to students that helps them move forward and past the obstacles.
  • Teachers can help students to identify their own goals by providing exemplars, checklists and anchor charts.
  • Teachers can experiment with grading fewer assignments and giving effective feedback (not “good job!”) more often.
  • Teachers can encourage students during lessons to share both their successes and challenges.  There is great power in  students showing how they didn’t solve the math problem or asking their peers to help them rewrite the lead of their story.
  • Teachers can show students how they have developed their skills and grown over time.
  •  Teachers can plan recursively so that students have multiple opportunities to learn key concepts.
  • Teachers can plan activities that require a bit of struggle and let students struggle.  Students don’t really like tasks to be simple and boring–like anyone else, they enjoy challenge.

Students can learn about how feedback can help you improve a task (such as the famous butterfly example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqh1MRWZjms).    Students can read a book here or there where the theme is about effort and setting goals.  Students can celebrate when they have mastered something that was tricky before.

But, let us think more about how we as teachers create an environment in which students experience the benefits of a growth mindset over an environment where everything is about growth mindset.  Experience more than research is what will change a child’s mindset.   There is a plethora of children’s books about growth mindset but as a kid I wouldn’t want to read one every day.  Robert Munsch is probably still way more entertaining.  I would hate us to be so concerned with students believing in growth mindset that a parent-teacher interview started with:  “Jimmy just doesn’t seem to have a growth mindset and that is why he is not progressing as we would hope”.

Growth mindset is exciting research that may open up many pathways to students.  Our job is to embed the philosophy into our teaching, not teach the philosophy.  Let us create the conditions whereby students can’t help but believe that they can do anything.

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Filed under classroom environment, Effective Feedback, growth mindset, pedagogy, Uncategorized

High Expectations …for kids.

A group of teachers  and I went to a workshop and watched a video of a grade 6 literature circle.  We had a chance to discuss it in our group and we thought that the students had done a pretty good job:  they were engaged and lively in their discussion, they talked about the book, they made reference to the book and talked about their connections to the main characters.  It sounded rather like a book club meeting I would go to.  When it was time to share with other table groups we were surprised that others had thought it was not a good discussion.  They thought the conversation should have been deeper.  They thought that the students should have referred back to the text more.  They thought that all students in the group should have spoken.  They thought that students should have not interrupted each other and used politer language (eg. Have you thought about this point?)  We wondered if our expectations were too low or were theirs too high?

A student in our school who spends a lot of her day with one-to-one support has been very unhappy by 1:00 p.m.  When we met to talk about strategies we began to realize that this young lady has constant “teaching” all day long because of the individualized instruction.  None of our other students are “on” for that long every day.  She probably needs more down time.  Maybe our expectations were unrealistic—most kids get lots of down time at school.

The grade 3 team was doing some teacher moderation of student writing.  We used our rubric to examine each piece.  As we get better at teaching, we also get better at knowing how to improve each student’s writing.  We needed to remind ourselves that many times this was good voice, good plot development, good arguing for grade 3.  Maybe the description was a little overdone; maybe the plot didn’t flow well.    Of course we could do better.  But they are just learning.

Our math teachers do lots of group work.  They have noisy classrooms.  Upon entering my first reaction is that it needs to be quieter.  But when I listen in on the conversations, they are all about math.  The students are all talking about math, all the time.  I don’t think that 30 grownups could talk about math quietly, so I shouldn’t expect that 30 students can.  In fact, I am impressed that 30 students are all talking about math for 20-30 minutes at a time.  There is an expectation that the students will be mathematicians who argue, and figure and ponder together.

So I have been thinking about all these things and wondering about the expectations we have for kids.  We want to set high expectations for all kids.  We want students to set goals and reach them.  We want our students to learn that it takes effort and hard work to achieve goals.  But, they are kids.

Imagine the following:

  • You have to sit on a hard plastic chair all day long. I hate long meetings.  I can’t wait for the break.  Sometimes I go to the bathroom just for a break, not because I have to.  Sometimes my head hurts because I have been concentrating so long.  Do we let our students stand, get up and move, go for a run around the school?  Should we purchase more exercise balls to sit on?
  • Your best friends are sitting right beside you but you can’t talk to them. Have you ever been to a meeting with your friends?  Don’t you talk to them?  Does your group at a PD session always stay on topic?  Do you ever laugh and joke around?
  • After you have worked a really long day, you have to take more work home (I know, you usually do; you’re teachers) and there is no research to prove that the work you do at home makes any difference whatsoever. A little bit of homework is ok.  But, in the grand scheme of life, is homework going to make or break a kid’s life?  And what if everyone else at work didn’t have to bring work home except you, because you didn’t really get it?
  • You’ve just been introduced to something new. You don’t quite get it. It’s new.  It’s different.  It doesn’t quite make sense.  Don’t you want someone to sit with you and explain it again?  Don’t you want some time to struggle with it before you have to show anyone?  Wouldn’t it be nice to have some feedback as you go along?  Don’t you want someone to maybe show you exactly what they mean?
  • You have to write a test. You have studied.  You paid attention in class.  The questions on the test don’t look like what you did in class.  You’ve never had to think like that before.  Some of you will relish the challenge but many of you will panic.

We are doing a great job of having high expectations.  It is always good to remind ourselves that they are just kids.  How does school look from their perspective?  High expectations are important; we want to make sure that the expectations are also reasonable for children-children who are curious, anxious to please, have lots of energy and short attention spans.  High expectations, yes; but not unreasonable ones, not ones that we wouldn’t expect of ourselves, not ones that don’t celebrate and recognize that they are children.

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Student Engagement is More Than Having Fun

At a workshop last week, the speaker reminded us that “student engagement” is not the same thing as “having fun”.  Student engagement is one of the current catch phrases in education.  We know that engaged students are more likely to learn more.  But what is student engagement exactly and how is it different than having fun?

Vygotsky talks about engagement as a sense of “flow”.  That state when you are so engaged that time flies by.  It is described as an optimal challenge—not so difficult that anxiety kicks in but not so easy that boredom sets in.  When I think of “fun” activities, I don’t usually think of challenge as necessarily being part of the fun although I have often found challenges to be fun.  So what can teachers do to create situations in which there is high student engagement?

  1. Ensure sufficient background knowledge.  A grade 8 class will be starting literature circles in a few days.  The novels have themes that the teacher feels will be complex or foreign to the students.  He arranges for the students to do some background knowledge research on the topics before they start reading.  The students are surprised by some of the information they discover and now are keen to start their novels.  The teacher has ensured that the students will not get lost in the plot because he has provided the students with sufficient background knowledge.  Without the background knowledge many of these students would have ended up confused in their novels.  Confusion does not lead to engagement.
  2. Encourage curiosity. A 3 year old is curious about everything (Why? Why? Why?).  We see less of that as time goes by.  But I don’t think that people grow less curious. Perhaps the school system is too rigid to encourage curiosity and students quickly learn that school is about doing what the teacher wants, not asking questions.  Although, as the teacher, you need to follow the curriculum and can’t really go off in any direction at all, you can create conditions of wonder.  You can start the science unit with an experiment instead of the theory (I wonder why oil and water don’t mix but salt and water do); you can pose a question in geography (I wonder why people choose to live in cities instead of the country).  And your wonderings don’t have to be big questions.  You could bring in an odd object and have students figure it out (like a dragon fruit or an old rotary phone); you can ask a question (I wonder how ducks talk to their babies to warn them of danger) and have students use google to search possible answers.  Here is a great article about the power of curiosity and learning:  http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/feb13/vol70/num05/The-Case-for-Curiosity.aspx.
  3. Provide opportunities for social learning. When we are really interested in something, we like to talk about it.  We like to bounce our ideas off others and this helps us to refine our thinking.  Conversations which are the most engaging are those where there is a free exchange of ideas and no obvious answer.  Watch a group of kindergarten students trying to build the tallest tower with blocks.  They spend a lot of time talking about the problem.   When students work together to solve easy math problems, usually the faster student does the work.  But when students have a problem to grapple with and their collective math knowledge is required to solve the problem, they are very engaged.  When students engage in literature circles that mimic adult book clubs (I have never been handed a role card at book club; we never talk one at a time around a circle), they love their books and deepen their understanding.  One grade 7 class is so engrossed in their dystopian literature circles that the librarian has had to start a wait list for books that students want to read.  Not only are students talking about their books in their own literature circle but they are talking among circles about books.  In that class, reading is a social event (except when you walking in during reading time you can hear a pin drop).
  4. Tell stories: Everyone loves stories and when we can present content in story format, students tend to remember it longer.  We know that the narrative format helps to create visual imagery for students.  Use analogies; show movie clips or photos; tell them about your own experiences; think aloud as you are reading a novel.  Next time you listen to a good speaker at a workshop or on a Ted Talk, take notice of how he or she uses narrative to illustrate a point.  “Let me tell you a story…” is an engaging technique for everyone, even adolescents.
  5. Make it real. Kids know busy work when they see it.  They will do it because you told them to; they might enjoy it because who doesn’t like to do the occasional word search; but it isn’t the same as engaging.  Be careful that you aren’t just creating one “fun” or “cool” activity after another.  Engagement happens when students can connect their learning and know that they are developing their skills.  Not only do we want to create optimal challenges but we want students to feel successful.   Knowing that you are getting better at something that was challenging creates engagement and a willingness to persevere.  Sebastian, age 13, told me today that BEDMAS with integers was “easy schmeasy”.  I know that two weeks ago he did very poorly on the same assessment.  But his teacher continued to provide optimal challenges and returned to the concepts over and over.  Now he feels confident, successful and engaged in mathematics.

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Filed under Authentic Tasks, classroom environment, inquiry, pedagogy