Most of us have heard the analogy that our brain is a thinking machine. But, according to Willingham, our brains are not really designed for thinking, because it is slow and unreliable, and requires much effort. In fact, your brain uses most of its processing power to see things and to move around physically. Nonetheless, the good news is that people are curious, as long as the problem is not too easy or too difficult--the Goldilocks special.
So how do we manage to get through life if we don't think well? Essentially, we rely on our memories. Once we've figured out how to do something once (or twice), then we rely on our memory system to recall that piece of information, so that our brains don't have to work hard and figure it out again. For example, when driving a car, you don't have to relearn how to press the accelerator, apply the right amount of pressure on the brakes for stopping, shifting gears, checking for cars on the side, and much more. All those discrete steps are memorized and now recalled perfectly and efficiently. That explains why travelling to a country with a different language and culture is so tiring: you have to relearn all of the simple rules and customs of that particular place.
How does thinking work in basic terms? There are four factors: information from the environment, facts in long-term memory, procedures in long-term memory, and the amount of space in working memory. If any of these is lacking, then thinking will likely fail.
Therefore, one of the reasons why students don't like school is because the tasks and problems they face are either too easy or too difficult, or the thinking required to solve them breaks down in one of the four key areas. So what can be done to alleviate this conundrum?
Have solvable problems: Make sure students have a variety of cognitive work during the day that pose moderate challenge. Are there cognitive breaks? Consider their suitability.
Respect Students' Cognitive Limits: Do students have the necessary background information to solve the mental challenge? If not, prepare them accordingly. Also, don't overload their working memory. Slow the pace and use memory aids, such as writing on the board.
Clarify the Problems: It's difficult for any problem to be "relevant" to an entire group of diverse learners with unique interests. When planning a lesson, start with the information you want students to learn. Then prepare key questions at the right level of difficulty to engage your students and respect their cognitive limitations.
When to Puzzle Students: Do we start with a thought-provoking question, or conduct an interesting demonstration or present a fact? Which is more effective? Sometimes a startling experiment can capture students' attention, but without the proper background information, the temporary thrill will be akin to a magic trick.
Student variance and differentiation: Because students come to class with varying levels of preparedness, understanding, motivation, it is best to assign work that best suits their current level of readiness.
Change the Pace: If you feel you're losing the attention or interest of the learners, then switch gears, change topics, start a new activity or find out what they are having difficulty with, or if it is too easy.
Keep a Diary: As a teacher to improve professionally, it's important to keep track to successes and failures, in order to build up a library of best practices. What worked best for the students? What failed miserably?
Source: Why don't Students like school? Daniel T. Willingham, 2009
Long gone are the days where students sat in rows and learned the same thing at the same time, usually from the authority standing in the front of the classroom. Now, fast-forward in time, and Kallick and Zmuda describe the four key attributes to personalized learning--the clear contrast to learning of the past.
Voice: Students participate in the creation of the learning, because it’s really their learning. Most people do not like to be told what to do, at least not all the time. Instead of being passive passengers heading in one direction, they are often in the driver’s seat, determining their own journey and pathway and destination.
Co-Creation: Students work with the teacher to develop the entire learning plan, from start to finish: what do they want to learn?; how will it be assessed?; how will they learn it?
Social Construction: The notion that “no man is an island” (John Donne) aptly describes student learning in the classroom; it is an social affair and construction of knowledge, according to Vygotsky. Finally, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts (Aristotle), as collaboration and cooperation amongst fellow peers can lead to much greater triumphs and accomplishments.
Self-Discovery: Creating self-aware and self-directed learners is the ultimate goal for teachers. If students can figure out their strengths and weaknesses, and determine how to improve and grow, then they will be set for life.
Differences Between Individualization, Differentiation and Personalized Learning
Students are assigned the learning tasks, and they use technology to accomplish those tasks. Khan Academy would be one such example. In blended learning environments, there may be some co-creation and social construction, but learners still have little say in the work they do.
Today’s classroom houses learners varying in skills, readiness and interest. Students can select topics (content), how to learn (process) and create the final form of learning (product). However, the teacher is still leading the design and management of the learning experience.
Kallick and Costa encourage the use of the 16 Habits of Mind, in conjunction with personalized learning, in order to fully understand their learning, and engage in higher level thinking and performing.
16 Habits of Mind:
What I notice about these habits of mind are the similarities to the core competencies of the BC curriculum: communication, critical and creative thinking, positive personal and cultural identity, personal awareness and responsibility, and social responsibility.
Source: Students at the Center, Bena Kallick & Allison Zmuda, 2017
The July 22 issue of the Economist covered the wide-ranging and fascinating issue of edtech and machine learning. This revolution is spurred on by advances in artificial intelligence (AI), as well as cognitive science. I will attempt to summarize and highlight the salient points.
What’s interesting is that “adaptive learning” software has been around since the 1970s, but it hasn’t come to a level of usefulness until now with the advancements in computing power. Momentum has built and now there are many schools, software, systems and people all over the world trying to use edtech to improve teaching, learning and schools.
Are teachers about to be replaced by edtech? At the moment, no. Teachers, students and schools are all being augmented by this new wave of technology. As well, there are limitations to edtech: improving the argument in a history essay or finding humour in drama class is still a challenge for machines. And as the 2015 study shows, teachers still play the most critical role in student learning. Having said that, as technology becomes more pervasive, cheaper and especially intelligent (AI), it is probably only a matter of time until teachers may need to consider a career change or early retirement.
Norma Rose Point is a beautifully designed school on the UBC campus, but it’s much more than a pretty face. It exudes innovation, collaboration, engagement and powerful learning. There are three distinctive elements that allows this unique public school to function in such a special way. All three are essential and work seamlessly together. They are the physical learning space, the overarching school philosophy, and teacher and student relationships.
PHYSICAL LEARNING SPACE
The physical space of different “communities” with rooms like the Da Vinci room and outdoor garden space, kitchen space, open spaces, hallways and much more. All spaces are communal in nature. What was interesting was the notion of instructional space at the school; everything, even little crooks and crannies, can be instructional or learning space. Rooms are as flexible as the learning, with folding tables that allow rooms to turn from a science room into a physical exercise space in a matter of minutes.
Most of the philosophy comes from the Innovative Learning Environments Project by the OECD (Centre of Educational Research and Innovation). Learning nowadays is considered socio-constructivist, meaning that in any given context, learning is actively constructed and socially negotiated. The ultimate goal is adaptive expertise--being able to use knowledge and skills in new situations. Adaptive expertise is developed through guided (teacher-led), action (student-led) and experimental (play) learning. This leads into lifelong learning. Learning is also determined by emotion and motivation, so students need to feel positive and confident yet realistic in their learning goals.
The 7 principles of learning are the following:
The building blocks for innovative learning environments are cooperative learning, service learning, technology, home-school partnerships, formative assessment and inquiry-based approaches (project, problem, design).
The school’s motto is “Learners at the Centre” and I think that pretty much sums up what happens in the school. So, anything that doesn’t contribute to learning (books or materials that sit in cardboard boxes) must be taken home. Even the shelves are considered “sacred,” so they must be essential for the teacher. The mission statement goes on to add: To meet learner needs we differentiate instruction, focus on Learner strengths, infuse technology in meaningful ways and collaborate with each other to be the best we can be.
With such a clear and powerful mission statement, and with strong buy-in by teachers, there seems to be a sense of pride, ownership, and joy in striving for success of all students.
TEACHER AND STUDENT RELATIONSHIPS
The professional office space allows for constant collaboration, beyond actual set times, and a weekly timetable helps organize that collaboration into overall teaching goals and plans. Teachers spend only about a third of their time in one learning space, and will often work with a variety of students, depending on the learning that’s happening. Students are often ability grouped, so individualized student learning is targeted.
Inquiry learning is also a key concept at this school. Inquiry learning is student-dependent, and each inquiry is different for each student. This is closely connected with Genius Hour and passion-based learning, as well. I liked how they thought of engaging ideas, such as “Ted Talks,” “Kickstarter,” “Star Wars University,” and “CSI.”
Learning is visible in more ways than one. In the most basic sense, the openness of the learning spaces--classrooms with lots of clear glass and moving doors--allows clear lines of sight of all students. Beyond that, of course, is the notion of taking what students are thinking in their brains and then showing it in a tangible way; for example, electronic and physical portfolios. Also, learning celebrations held every few months are the culmination of that learning. They sound like student-led interviews, but on a much grander and festive scale.
Another interesting relationship was even between students and classroom supervisors. These supervisors are considered staff and treated with respect. Even more so, they help give additional collaborative time to teachers, by leading learning activities like the Daily 5 in classrooms.
Finally, there was emphasis on students being able to self-regulate, using ideas of restorative justice and zones of regulation. If students are struggling with their emotions or conflict with others, then learning will suffer, so they need the tools and skills to be able to bring themselves back to the proper state of well-being.
It occurs to me that the layout and design and sharing of materials and tools are reminiscent of kindergarten and early primary. Individuality and personal space, which is keenly represented by a student's desk, does not exist. Instead, tables, floors and the outdoors now represents where learning happens--which is everywhere. What's equally interesting in my mind is that if you look at the most creative, innovative, in particular high-tech companies, you will find a similar layout and design: open space concept, communal living and working, bright lighting, and all-inclusive campus look and feel. In other words, it feels like home, not a place of work (even though you are working hard, in most cases!) Of course, individuality and a sense of uniqueness clearly exists, with their portfolio systems, differentiated learning, ability groups, and more.
Technology is a big part of the school, with a ratio of about 3:1 iPads currently, and probably lower if you include devices from home. They have short-throw projectors, a media room with some desktops and a green screen room. The Learning Resource Centre has a 3-D printer and some computers. What's most interesting is that technology was never really discussed in the two-hour tour session with principal Rosa Fazio. Maybe because it had become second nature or because it was naturally integrated into the entire learning system. It was simply another tool used for research, presentations, expression and creativity, but it never superseded other types of tools. I think the belief that "learners are at the centre" is the key, and while they "infuse technology in meaningful ways" according to their mission statement, their mindset is that learning comes from all areas of life, not simply technology.
Schools have changed over the years, but in many ways, things have stayed the same. Yet, there's a school that's been around for more than 40 years that's really still considered radical to this day. It's the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, created by Daniel Greenberg, a former professor in physics and history at Columbia University, back in 1968. It is founded on the principles of democracy, to the fullest extent.
The educational philosphy is that each person is responsible for his or her own education. The students govern and learn themselves. They are able to do what they want, where they want, when they want--within safety guidelines. There is no curriculum, no tests, or any other evaluation. The only "evaluation" comes when they need to use expensive or dangerous equipment, and when they want a diploma, they must prepare and defend a thesis.
So, instead of structured classes of students learning a single subject matter, such as math or English, you will instead see students engaging in a variety of activities: playing, talking, hanging out, eating lunch, climbing trees, riding bikes, cooking, playing card, programming, playing instruments, discussing a movie or novel, reading a book, painting, and much more.
The biggest question on people's minds is probably this: What can they do after they "graduate"? Perhaps surprisingly, those who wanted to go to post-secondary had little difficulty getting in and doing well. Some went to prestigious universities, and most went on to successful occupations in all fields, including business, arts, science, medicine, among others.
Despite not taking structured classes, they succeed in a more structured learning environment. The benefits of their schooling fell into four categories:
1) They were responsible and self-directed. They learned to use their time wisely and had to solve problems democratically.
2) They were highly motivated. They participated in activities they wanted to do, so learning was fun and interesting to them. Their future careers were often a natural progression of what they found enjoyable at an earlier age.
3) They had specific skills and knowledge. Because they were interested in certain areas and topics, they became "experts" in those fields, and gained deep understanding that would help them in their future careers.
4) They lacked fear of authority figures. Because of the democratic environment they grew up in, where peers and teachers were on an even level, the graduates were not intimidated with their professors, and would establish good working relationships with them.
How is this all possible? Is natural, self-directed learning a reality? Perhaps it lies in the environment of a hunter-gatherer band. Here are some features of such a group.
1) Time and Space to Play and Explore: Self-education requires much free and unscheduled time. It gives a wide berth of physical space and time to explore, find passions, be curious, discover new things, learn from one's mistakes.
2) Multi-age learning: Younger children learned skills and knowledge from older ones, while the older ones learned to be leaders and teachers and guardians.
3) Access to Adult Knowledge: The teachers and staff were all caring and knowledgeable, and would help whenever the kids needed help. They were more like aunts and uncles than authority figures.
4) Access to Equipment and Freedom to Play with it: The students could use a variety of equipment, including computers, woodworking, art, sporting, books, and more.
5) Free Exchange of Ideas: They could talk, read, listen, discuss on any range of issues that interested them.
6) Freedom from Bullying: A crucial part where everyone feels safe from physical and emotional harm.
7) Democratic Community: A place where everyone vote and voice counts is a place where people feel they belong and have a say in what happens.
That's what happens at Sudbury Valley School. I. wonder how much of that happens in our schools? Time will tell if educational philosophies and practices shift into this direction. I think with the new curriculum, portfolio assessment, Genius Hour, Maker Space, differentiated learning, technology, and 21st-century learning, the educational thinking may be shifting into that direction as we speak.
(Source: Free to Learn, Peter Gray)
aI was watching the Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll speak at a recent press conference, and it made me wonder what the similarities between a football team and a classroom might be. Here's what I found out:
Carroll spoke about Marshawn Lynch, and how his unique flair and style fit into the team mentality and program. In the classroom, there are so many unique individuals with interesting personalities and character traits, and it's about creating an environment where all of them can fit in, find a role, and be able to connect, learn and grow together. Will it be the perfect, happy community? Of course not. Even in a loving family with parents and siblings, you still have arguments, disagreements and even fights. The important matter is how you deal with this conflict, and bond even closer as a result.
He talked about the health of Jimmy Graham and others. Players missing a few days or even months. In the classroom, it's difficult to actually "field" a full squad of students. Some are sick, away for personal reasons, on vacation, or actually injured. The important part is trying to stay healthy on a consistent basis, which is probably why safety and health issues are so important. Catching up on missed time and lost work is a challenging process.
Carroll talked about how in-depth the evaluation of a player is before they are drafted. They have a long checklist of criteria. He said that Russell Wilson fit all of the check boxes, except probably the height issue. Of course, as they develop, the evaluation continues. Much in the same way, students are evaluated on a regular if not daily basis (formative, summative, metacognitive). Do they seem happy? Are they asking questions in class? What type of questions do they ask? Are they on task? Who are they playing with during DPAs? What activity are they doing? In small groups, how much are they contributing? In writing, do they express their ideas well? How creative are they during Wonder + IDEAS? How well do they do on their spelling and math quizzes? During formative assessment, do they have their thumbs up, sideways or down?
Every year the Seahawks believes they will win the Super Bowl. Of course, it helps when you've actually won it already. I believe it's the notion of having the end in mind from the start. Where do we see our students by the end of year? Do we have a curricular program in play that will guide them to achieve the learning goals they need to meet this year? Also, we need to remember that learning is a process: nothing happens overnight or in a vacuum. However, as teachers we need to have that hope that tomorrow will be a better day for both us and our students--especially on those really tough days!
Carroll talked about how he loved his group of receivers--Baldwin, Lockett, and Kearse--and how well they worked together, but still mentioned that there might be some competition from other players coming into the team. In the classroom, we generally try to make work cooperative and collaborative; nevertheless, at times, healthy, fun competition does bring out a certain fiery spirit in most of our students. In our class, we have Spelling, Math and Brain Question Battles whenever we have a few minutes to spare. It's never about points or winning, but there's still enough head-to-head battling that makes "winning" a certain accomplishment.
Carroll said that the team wants a balance offense, with both a running and passing game, and probably special teams and kicking, as well. He said that Wilson can throw 40 passes in a game when needed, but only if that's the best way to win that particular game. In the classroom, it's much the same: we want a balanced day that includes literacy and numeracy, DPA for physical activity, as well as content subjects like science, socials or art. Also, teacher talk vs. student talk balance is important, although the ratio should be much more for students. Speaking, listening, reading and writing should also be balanced.
Coaching in football requires a head coach, but there are many assistant coaches and other staff members. Just like in school, the teacher is the head coach, but there are other staff involved in the entire learning community (parents, LST, music, library, French, band, administration, custodial). Without them, it would be impossible to succeed in the classroom. Also, as much as the coach can teach, train and demonstrate, ultimately the players need to play the game and perform at their highest level in order to win the game. As the teacher, I try to prepare my students to achieve success, whether it's on a paragraph, reading, test, project, or presentation, it's still up to the students to prepare, study, learn, focus, work hard and then demonstrate their learning. When everyone is doing their part, everyone eventually wins.
Most large companies and organizations, such as schools, often have a mission statement, a concise but focused framework and purpose, which constantly reminds them which direction they are heading in. This is really no different from our own "personal" mission statements as teachers, as well as ones that our students possess. Most of us don't have it written down on a kitchen fridge or a bulletin board, but it's there, usually internally, and it shows up in our actions and behaviors.
Ideally, we want our collective mission statements (society, school, administration, teacher(s), students, parents) to align as closely as possible in the core areas, which will ultimately lead to success as an overall community. Of course, there are times when individual mission statements will be in conflict each other. A classic (but stereotypical) example would be that a child wants to sleep in, eat junk food and play video games all day. This would obviously conflict with a parent's, who wants the child to wake up early, eat fruit and veggies and study/exercise/play with friends instead.
As a classroom example, if our mission statement includes giving students a voice, figure out how much teacher talk vs. student talk is happening. Depending on the results, either your behavior needs to change or your mission statement needs to change.
Nonetheless, a good starting point is find out what's important to you as a teacher, create a relevant and attainable mission statement, and continue to convey that message and create an environment where that mission becomes not only possible, but achievable on a daily basis.
The park (or a school playground) is a better space for developing competencies than a mall. A park is a large space where children can partake in various activities. There are slides, swings, climbing apparatus, as well as basketball courts, soccer fields and more. They can choose what they want at that particular time, as well as switch seamlessly if desired. More often than not, they also will interact and play with others. In this space, children can also create novel activities and games if they wish. Contrary to the park, the mall is more restrictive in its purpose of primarily buying items or walking around and browsing.
Long ago, we had the hunter-gatherers, nomads who roamed their lands, hunting prey and gathering fruit, nuts and other edibles. Then roughly 10000 years ago, beginning in the Fertile Crescent, along came the game-changer: agriculture. Humans began to exert control over their environment: clearing land, diverting water, planting seeds, harvesting, and finally, domesticating animals.
Seems great, right? No more hunting every day to meet their dietary needs. Permanent shelters were built; a place to hang their hats, or at least their animal skins. And to avoid getting eaten by wild animals outside at night.
Here's the irony. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle was knowledge- and skill-intensive. It required knowledge of plants, animals, environment, as well as skills in building tools to hunt and gather. Creativity was required to find their food and defend against predators. The best part: short hours of hunting meant more time to play and enjoy life, which included singing, playing games, making crafts, telling stories, and more.
Agriculture, on the other hand, ended up being being very labour-intensive. Farmers had to plow, plant, cultivate, tend to flocks. Soon the entire clan was in on the action because of all the work required, including all the children. Ultimately, this meant all work and no play, which made a society of dull parents and children.
While hunter-gatherers had no idea about the value of land, farmers soon ended up with large tracts of valuable land to protect and maintain, resulting in more children, and eventually "wealth." What started as probably a good idea, agriculture ended up with negative values: hard labour, child labour, private ownership, greed, status, and competition.
Growing up on a farm, from a child's perspective, there was the loss of childhood; play was thrown out the window and replaced with mind-numbing, repetitive work. Another adverse effect stemming from agriculture was strict obedience and corporal punishment. Creativity was seen as change, which was considered dangerous, so only traditional and historic methods were adhered to. Farming societies became very hierarchical and "power-hungry" in nature.
Kids growing up in hunting-gathering families lived the opposite lifestyle: freedom and creativity to find food that day, or go hungry. Sure there were more risks, but the rewards were there as well, coming in the form of free time and relaxation. There was also a communal feel, where family members, relatives and friends helped each other in times of need. It was a far more democratic society, where people negotiated and compromised to achieve their goals.
You might start to see how this is all shaping up things to come. In fact, already you might be thinking: is my classroom a hunting-gathering society or an agricultural society? Are you raising children (or tomatoes) or training them (or horses) like a farmer? Or are you letting them grow wild and free, guided by their own decisions like a hunter-gatherer? Or perhaps a bit of both?
(adapted from Free to Learn, Peter Gray)
Daniel H. Lee
This blog will be dedicated to sharing in three areas: happenings in my classroom and school; analysis and distillation of other educators' wealth of knowledge in various texts; insights from other disciplines and areas of expertise that relate and connect with educational practices.