06 November 2011

Writing a draft

Many students request the use of laptops even when that has not been part of the teaching and learning plan. I don't blame them. For their generation the speed and fluency in one mode of print text - typing - often exceeds their speed and fluency in the other mode - handwriting.
            When I wrote essays by hand (in school and as an undergraduate), I wrote notes, then a draft, and after that I used colours and numbers to help me label which material from the draft would end up in the final version. This was the drafting and editing process I found useful when my technology was paper and pen. As a post-grad student, with laptop in hand, I tended to follow a similar method, with a combination of typed and written notes before I started the draft. In almost all of my post-grad essays, I found myself handwriting an introduction before I started typing. And still today, when I read academic articles, I take notes by hand. The neurons I use for handwriting must stimulate my learning in some way. For many people my age, this may be true also.
          When I choose not to handwrite, as I am doing now with this blog post, I use word processing similarly to the way I approached my essays. I love the fact that whilst I am word processing I can constantly review my writing; I use all the tools the word processor has to change and rearrange as I compose. This is the joy of drafting and editing with electronic text.
           However, as I observed in a previous post, students do not use the many features of technology available to them. One of the consequences of students' constant typing is the way it has affected their understanding of the concept of drafting. Some younger students seem to think that drafting is just about fixing spelling and punctuation.  As word processing helps students achieve this, they feel that if they are typing then those issues are covered. Consequently the first draft, because it is typed, is frequently the only draft. Certainly some errors are corrected such as changes to verb tense and paragraphing, but on the whole, students submit their first thoughts because it looks 'finished'. It would seem some teachers are so grateful to receive legible text that they also accept the typed version without demurring. 
          It is my job to help students learn to draft and edit, and use word processing more effectively. This means actively teaching students the tools for drafting and editing and possibly to balance that with the technology of paper and pen.
          This was made apparent to me recently when students were asked to compose a short story as part of their study of narrative. Despite their incredible typing speeds and having used Word since they could read, not one of the students knew about the Review function, where they, or others, could add in comments on the text. After some planning of character, setting and plot by hand in their books, students began to type a narrative on the laptops. After the first lesson of typing, I showed students how to use the Review function. Following this, students physically gave their laptop to their partner whose job was to offer comments or pose questions about the story as it currently stood. (We had been working all year on peer editing so I knew they would be able to offer appropriate comments.) When their story was returned to them, the students had to save the version with comments and consider how they would take on board the feedback. Each lesson we worked on the story (12.5% time) the same process would take place. Thus students were learning how to use the technology to accomplish editing and rewriting.
 Their stories were better for it. 

30 October 2011

New Kinds of Smart: Part 1

I am currently reading New Kinds of Smart by Bill Lucas and Guy Claxton, the next text for our Professional Reading Group. Although only a quarter of the way into this, I am already excited by the both the ideas themselves and the way Lucas and Claxton have organised their material, including offering practical examples for teachers. I can see a few posts dedicated to this book.
The first chapter asserts that Intelligence is Composite and reviews theory I am familiar with such as Art Costa’s Habits of Mind. This and other relevant theories have had an impact, not only on my teaching, but on my own skills, knowledge and values. Earlier this year, I decided that I could use some development in two specific Habits of Mind: ‘Gathering Data through all the senses’ (10) and ‘Creating, Imagining, Innovating’ (11).
Essentially, the first of these, ‘Gathering Data through all the senses’, is about being open to the information from a wide variety of sources, and in a wide variety of forms. As I read over a number of my blog posts this last week I realised that blogging has encouraged me to examine information in a variety of forms. I have made links to scholarly books and articles, news articles, video interviews, websites and more. This development needs to be ongoing as I - like many English teachers I’m sure - tend to rely on reading as my way of gleaning information. I would also like to incorporate more visual texts where possible as a way of encapsulating ideas. Perhaps even video!
The second Habit of Mind I’ve chosen to review, ‘Creating, Imagining, Innovating’, is one I am already a practitioner of: using imagination to generate novel ideas and possibilities. In order to focus on these two Habits of Mind I would dearly love to attend one of the Creativity Workshops next year held in New York or Barcelona. The presenters of the Creativity Workshop have developed a unique series of exercises dedicated to inspiring and keeping alive the life of the imagination. They concentrate on creative process rather than product and on the idea of creativity as a way of viewing and appreciating life. I visualize returning with new thinking to help Staff and Students not just access their creativity, but to see how creativity is part of the fabric of learning.
The second chapter of New Kinds of Smart states that Intelligence is Expandable. As a supporter of Carol Dweck’s theory (see earlier post on Mindset) this accords well with my views over the last few years. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of New Kinds of Smart and giving Lucas and Claxton’s work its due consideration. 

16 October 2011

Critical Literacy

I am currently reading Robert Manne’s essay for the Quarterly Magazine, ‘Bad News’, which is about The Australian.  It is a clear criticism of the political agenda of this newspaper under the ownership of Rupert Murdoch and the editorship of Chris Mitchell. Whether or not I agree with Robert Manne’s arguments, I cannot help but be inspired by the quality of his scholarship. It is critical literacy at its best.

In 2003 I attended the International Federation for the Teaching of English (IFTE) Conference in Melbourne and listened to one of the more powerful keynote speakers, Allan Luke. He argued, as many others have, that it is not just essential that students can read, but that they can read for bias, rhetoric, or any other tools which composers use to control the frame. “Critical literacy is the use of texts to analyse and transform relations of cultural, social and political power.” (Luke and Dooley 2009) The purpose of critical literacy is to give students high order analytical skills so that they are aware when texts (in any medium) are positioning them in a particular way.

In terms of critical literacy, Manne is able use the essay form to evaluate the influence of The Australian newspaper on our country’s political sphere, thus on us, the voters and readers. But this essay does more; it shows us how to look for bias in texts and when it is discovered, how to tell the story of the represented perspective.  Manne’s language is both precise and concise, and never does he use twenty words when five will do. It is the kind of text I would recommend to an Extension 2 student who is considering the Critical Response form for her/his Major Work for its clarity of language and argument. Ultimately, this essay is making me think about what role the media play or should play in shaping the agenda of Australian politics.
And that’s the point. Texts which are well-written and evaluative should make us think. If we can teach students both the critical literacy needed to analyse texts, and the writing skills to represent what they have discovered, then we are doing our job. 

05 October 2011

Digitally native?

The term 'digital natives' was coined by Marc Prensky to describe the younger generation's relationship with technology. The implication of the term was that young people were born into technology, hence ‘natives’, and the older generations were ‘immigrants’.  According to this theory, young people are natural at using technology whilst the rest of us are living in a foreign country. A conversation with a friend, also a social networking specialist, raised questions for me about this theory and classroom experience has challenged how I use these terms.

I was recently reminded that students need to be taught about both quality content and critical use of the Internet.

Some secondary students embarked on the analysis of a variety of websites as part of a unit of study for English. During these lessons it was revealed that whilst students seek much information from the Internet, many have not yet mastered how to critically evaluate the material they consume.

Students confirmed their recently acquired knowledge of the grammar of visual design as they evaluated how a website delivered information according to its purpose. Explicit teaching of the language and structure of web pages accompanied the investigations. For the end product, students demonstrated excellence in their design of web pages, showing they had grasped the visual elements with ease, but found imitating the language more challenging.

So I surmised that the students’ years of internet surfing had impressed on them elements of design which only required brief explicit teaching for them to be able to reproduce. However, language forms and features appropriate to this style of writing need continual drilling in order for mastery to occur.

The message for us: don’t assume that because students are what Prensky calls ‘digital natives’, that they do not need explicit teaching of certain aspects of web culture. 

25 August 2011

Reacting to Results

On Monday I attended a lecture given by Carol Dweck of Stanford University on her theory of Mindsets, which I wrote about in an earlier post. One of the interesting aspects of this theory is the response to success or failure on tasks. 

When students receive marks back from tasks completed, Carol Dweck suggests their responses can often fall into two categories: mastery oriented versus helpless oriented responses.

Those with a mastery oriented approach see the feedback as a chance to confront and overcome obstacles and reach a higher level of performance. Their lack of success in the task is not tied to their self-worth so they don’t see the poor result (whatever that might be) as a reflection of who they are as a person. Rather, they see the result for what it is - an indicator of their learning at that time. As these students are self-monitoring, they are able to consider how they might go about improving. This could take the form of meeting with teachers, rewriting tasks for both content and stylistic improvements, conducting research into more sophisticated concepts, or peer discussions/tutoring. What stands out about these students is that they do not see themselves as failing and they do not blame anyone or anything for their result.

Students with a helpless response quickly denigrate their abilities and blame their intelligence for the poor result (failure).  A poor result (in their eyes) is seen as proof that ability is lacking, often despite recent or present successes. Students with this response find themselves with few strategies to overcome the problem and can stop applying themselves altogether. Occasionally they will call attention to other successes, but more often the perceived failure may swamp any successes they have experienced. When asked to persist, many claim that they are bored or they choose not to engage fully in the task in order to manage their stake in the situation.

What can we do about this?

We need to make students aware of some of the current brain research so they can understand that their brains are constantly in a state of flux. When one realises that change is possible, one is able to see all experiences as opportunities for learning.

We have to encourage students to see all tasks as assessments for learning. Using the language around this concept enables students to see themselves as being on a learning journey. 

We can challenge their thinking each time it is verbalised. As Carol Dweck said, every time a student says "I can't do this", we respond with, "yet". This may also mean structuring tasks so that students get the opportunity to resubmit in order to show what they have learnt from the first result.

We can reward the effective learners as well as the high achievers. This needs to be high stakes reward too, the equivalent of awards given at prize-giving days or the like. 

These are just few ideas. It would be great to have other suggestions in the comments section below. 

14 August 2011

Teacher Talk Two

In my previous post I defended teachers delivering content rather than using content from the Internet. Today I'd like to extend on the last point I made about some teachers overdoing the teacher talk.

Recently professor John Hattie told a group of teachers at a professional development seminar to "Shut up and listen". This message comes from his research into expert teachers. In his 2003 paper, Teachers Make a Difference, he identifies teacher talk as one of the factors that differentiates expert and experienced teachers.

Making time for thinking within the class environment is essential across all subjects. Teachers need time to plan not to talk in their classes so that thinking can take place.

There are a number of ways to reduce teacher talk but it may be diffiuclt to accomplish if the teacher is unaware of how much time they spend verbalising in the classroom.

A Year 10 student I know well (who attends a different school to the one at which I teach), was telling me the other day about her difficulties in improving her writing for English. She related how her teacher spends almost all lesson "talking" and the students complete written responses at home. When she submits the work, she receives a brief written comment. I think what she was trying to say is that she would like the opportunity to write in class time and receive immediate feedback as the process was occuring. To do that her teacher has to talk less.

In talking less we give students time to think, reflect and respond. The teacher in the above scenario could give students a block of time for editing and rewriting when work is returned. Perhaps the students could form editing groups and offer each other suggestions on their work prior to rewriting. Many theorists agree on the value of resubmitting work and the value of tinkering (see earlier post).

Some years ago I stumbled across a dept of Ed document for primary school teachers with a formula for helping students improve their writing. It is called the POWER method: Plan - Organise - Write - Edit - Rewrite. I have found this incredibly helpful in getting students to consider their own writing and how it can be improved.

The key, however, has been to allocate class time to the process. This gives students an opportunity to think, perhaps talk to each other about their work, and quiet time for rewriting. The teacher talk is reduced and all conversations become much more individualised.

05 August 2011

Teacher Talk

Recently I read a blog post on another teacher's website which suggested that, in this age of ubiquitous online content, teachers should refrain from content delivery via teacher talk.

Whilst I understand that some appropriate content can be accessed via the net, for a number of reasons I believe face to face teacher talk is an essential part of lessons. This is because good teachers know their students' academic, pastoral and social needs and tailor lessons accordingly.

Generally, teachers have a sense of their students' prior learning and current knowledge so that they adjust the content to begin where the students are at. No student likes to sit through material that he/she is already familiar or which is beyond their current knowledge. With prepackaged Internet content this could not be guaranteed.

Knowledge of the students' vocabulary means that many teachers choose their words so that the content is better understood. This can even occur within a lesson as a teacher may alter the linguistic complexity from student to student.

Teachers are frequently aware of the pastoral needs of their students. Depending on what is happening in the lives of students, this means that there would be times when certain material might be delivered in a sensitive way or not at all. Lectures and other Internet resources would not be tailored to students' pastoral needs.

In terms of students' social worlds, it seems increasingly important that teachers are aware of the interactions students are having in person and online. There are times, such as the day before a dance or big event, when the social world is a part of what happens in the classroom. After the release of the final Harry Potter novel I found that my students wanted to discuss our personal reactions to this text. It was essential teacher talk.

Although the occasional individual overdoes the teacher talk, and we all need to be aware of that, well-structured talk can go a long way.

10 July 2011

Reading The Shallows

Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows  - How the internet is changing how we think, read and remember invites us to consider way we use technology and how that usage may be changing our brains. For anyone interested in education it is well worth the read. I'd like to offer a précis of a few of his most relevant points about reading, memory and thinking. 

  • Carr argues, quite persuasively, that online reading is significantly different to the experience of books. "The shift from paper to screen doesn't just change the way we navigate a piece of writing. It also influences the degree of attention we devote to it and the depth of our immersion in it." (P. 90) This book discusses a study that net research is leading to a new kind of reading known as "power browsing" where individuals just scan for 'quick wins' rather than reading whole articles (p. 137). His conclusion is that the internet is affecting the widespread practice of deep reading and the literary tradition given to us through the invention of the printing press. Carr refers to some academic studies that suggest that reading may become a an "arcane hobby" practised by the "reading class". (P. 108) As an English teacher and lifelong reader, this thought is very disturbing. 
  • This text discusses how the information available on the internet may be causing cognitive overload, thus affecting our memory.  Carr writes that "information overload has become a permanent affliction" (p. 170) and when the amount of information flowing into our mind is excessive, we're unable to retain the information or to make connections with our already existing knowledge (p. 125). As he sees the net as a medium of disruption and distraction, he argues that our ability to process that information is affected. "When our brain is overtaxed, we find 'distractions more distracting'." (P. 125) He concludes with the statement that the "web is a technology of forgetfulness" (p. 193).
  • In terms of thinking, The Shallows advances and defends the argument that time for concentration and contemplation is necessary for deep thinking to occur. "There needs to be time for efficient data collection and inefficient contemplation" (p. 168). In the earlier section on reading and writing, he discusses how the great thinkers, Darwin, Descartes, Einstein, Keynes, etc, presented their thoughts in in prose, and those who read the texts, learned to grasp complex arguments. Essentially Carr tells us that reading books is inextricably linked to the development of the human brain. If we stop reading complex texts, then those parts of our brain devoted to complex thoughts may not work as they once did. 
Ultimately, what does Carr ask of his readers? Not that we abandon modernity (or post-modernity) but that we recognise the possibility that the internet could change the way the think, read and remember. And if it can, we need to ensure we don't lose the practices which gave us the brains we have today. 

More thinking about thinking to come...

15 May 2011

Significance and Learning

            One of the most valued characteristics of an effective learner is the ability to discern significance. Being able to participate in a lesson and tell the difference between what is important and what is extraneous is essential to learning.
I have been thinking about this issue whilst constructing a study skills session for a junior year group who have exams soon. (Whether exams are suitable methods of assessment is not up to me in this instance!) The material I am preparing is all about different ways to make study notes such as mind maps, tables, flow charts and so on. 
In order to make notes the learner needs to be active in their review of the material, decide on the significant information and synthesise that information into smaller chunks. This process requires fairly deep levels of concentration and reduced distractions. Some people can perform this process of discernment without being taught how but many of today’s students find this challenging.
If we are to believe Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, then the Internet is a factor which affects this process of distinguishing what is significant and what is not. I will comment in more detail on this fascinating book in a later blog post, but it is enough to say that Carr offers a plethora of evidence to support his notion that the Internet is a medium of distraction. As most students are frequent Net surfers, both at school and home, Carr suggests that this has changed the way they are able to process information, having difficulty with long-form texts and deep concentration. Thus, it is reasonable to suggest that some of today’s students lack the attentiveness required for revision and find it difficult to determine what the most salient feature of a text is. Even before the Internet, some students always found this process hard.
So it would seem to me, if schools are going to have exams, then schools should make time for students to learn how to discern significance. For many teachers this is part of their repertoire of effective teaching practices. They will bookend their lessons with the learning goals and/or emphasise important points. They might keep a wall chart (or word document, flow chart, graphic representation, etc) of each lesson’s significant learning. They will show students how to summarise information through their regular teaching and learning activities. And whilst this may mean reducing content, a point I made in my previous blog post, the focus on the skill of discernment is vital.
Teachers and schools need to be involved in this process. In the long run, it will benefit students beyond school, enabling them to engage discerningly in further education, politics, media, culture, in other words, life. 

08 May 2011

Interesting ideas from Linda Darling-Hammond

It was great to be in the audience for Linda Darling-Hammond’s presentation at the University of Sydney last Monday. I have frequently come across her research in my personal learning quest so it was with alacrity that I accepted the invitation to hear her speak. Much of Professor Darling-Hammond’s lecture that evening encouraged us to keep working towards a new way of teaching and learning via a review of current effective teaching across the globe.

There were three substantial points which I will endeavour to incorporate into my own practice.

The first idea came from Darling-Hammond’s explanation of what some of the new Charter Schools are doing. I was quite interested in the planning and meeting time allocated to teachers during the school day. I had an idea that teachers in core subjects, which are often graded, could meet across the grade levels. For example, the English, Maths and Science teachers who have the lower ability class could meet once or twice a term to discuss the students’ strengths and weakness, as well as strategies for effective teaching. This currently occurs in a more ad hoc fashion, depending on the special needs students but it would be great to have time allocated for this. I could imagine that this could evolve into a research project for the core subject teachers and they could report on their experience to the remaining staff.

The second concept is to incorporate revising and editing time into all tasks. Linda Darling-Hammond’s research shows that effective teachers provide students with clear standards and opportunities for revising which ties in with my earlier blog post on Tinkering for the 21st century learner. I encourage students to continuously adapt their work and see drafting and editing as part of the process and have had significant success thus far with my classes. Occasionally this process encounters some opposition from students, particularly as they get older. Some students develop work patterns which suggest they think that tasks, once done, are shelved and never revisited. This pattern favours the completion of tasks over the quality of tasks. In this mindset, teacher feedback is viewed as less important than the grade/mark. I really want students to see teacher feedback as a variety of strategies for improvement and this will only happen when students view their day to day learning as a work-in-progress. I’ll definitely give this more thought this year and consider how to address this further with seniors.  

The final idea for discussion today is one that I’m sure many teachers would agree with: the notion that we could reduce the number of topics we teach but deal with them in a more complex way. The Singaporean Ministry of Education homepage says it well: Teach Less, Learn More. How many times have we all heard, “But I’ve got to get through the mandatory content…”? I remember one of my own Year 11 Modern History teachers handing us a sheaf of typed notes on Russia (which she’d had for years, I’m sure) and telling us to learn the notes thoroughly without spending any class time on it. The notes were on a period of History on which we were not actually going to be examined , but needed to know so that we could understand the period that we were examined on. I’m hoping that she simply did not have the time to teach us this material. And to this day I cannot remember any of it. Very much filling up the receptacles again. Oh well, it was a long time ago.  

17 April 2011

Active Learning

I was surprised by the point of view in Louise Williams’ article in Saturday’s SMH, The slow collapse of the ivory tower (16/4/11). She argues that recent developments in technology, such as the accessibility of information and the multitude of online lectures, are ‘challenging centuries old academic structures’, and that by default, universities are losing their primacy as the ‘ultimate arbiters and repositories of knowledge’.
I challenge this argument because at its centre is the idea that learning is the equivalent of reading or listening. This argument suggests that learning is merely ingesting content and that students are receptacles waiting to be filled with relevant content. Since Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, content/knowledge became available the world over, and the ‘repositories of knowledge’ were libraries where books were stored. Now, with the advent of the internet, content is ubiquitous. However, we have always known that accessing information is not equivalent to learning. If that were the case, then all we would have to do is read as many books as we can and we would have learnt everything the books had to tell us. The writer’s argument seems to rest on the concept that learning is just like her description of the 20th century model of education, ‘a largely one-way transmission of facts, theories and ideas’.
If only learning was that simple.
All educators know that learning occurs when the student changes. This change takes place in the student’s knowledge, in attitude, in skill, in perspective, in behaviour. All educators, from early childhood to post-graduate level, design thinking and learning activities so that the new content (knowledge, skills, values or processes) doesn’t just pass through the brain but is learnt. Educators provide opportunities for students to discover new knowledge themselves, to test it, to share it and then even to question it. Educators offer students opportunities to contextualise and personalise the new knowledge, to process it. Educators provide the means by which students activate their new knowledge, apply it to situations, consider how best to use their new knowledge, and consider its value, if any.
Educators open the dialogue which is learning. Education is not, nor has it really ever been, ‘a largely one-way transmission of facts, theories and ideas’, as Louise Williams describes. Learning is not just reading or listening to a lecture. Students are not receptacles waiting to be filled with knowledge. They are human beings who think and feel and engage with the world individually. Thus, students will always need educators, whether in schools or universities, to help them learn

03 April 2011

The Reading Revolution 2

I haven't time to write a full post today but I had to make a quick comment about Malcolm Knox's essay in Saturday's Sydney Morning Herald. It was called Driven by Distraction and its core argument echoed some points I made in my previous post.  He uses evidence from the work of Nicolas Carr and Susan Greenfield to argue that the decline in book sales is a result of people no longer being interested in deep reading, thanks to the changes in our brains as a result of the reading and viewing practices that the internet encourages . It is an excellent read for those who might have missed it. 

For those with more time on their hands I highly recommend the interview with Nicholas Carr about his book The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way we Think, Read and Remember. I have put in my Book Depository order for this one!

20 March 2011

The Reading Revolution

Everywhere I turn, experts and pundits are espousing new technology, constantly urging us to experience the digital education revolution, BYOT, and replace books with the internet. We cannot hold back the tide of technological development and we shouldn’t even try. Because surely there is another, possibly bigger issue here. Soon it won’t matter what device you use to read - paper or screen - it will matter whether you are capable of reading.
Recent articles have suggested that reading patterns have changed as information is gleaned from digital sources. As on-screen information is blended with graphics, space, and moving images, the eye moves around more than its traditional left to right, top to bottom movement familiar in English and other Western languages. Let’s not forget the kind of writing many students are reading in their social use of media – short sharp tweets or facebook posts. 
Many scholars are discussing how these reading practices will impact on sustained reading of the ‘long-form text’. Just because novels, essays, manuals and textbooks can be displayed in digital form, does not mean that they have become simpler texts to read. Modes of educational delivery are also changing with technology. A number of Australian universities and schools have given students iPads or other mobile devices to use to access information, and one can only assume that this means the information/content will not be delivered in a lecture or class. Consequently, students of today (and the future) are going to need to be able to comprehend all of the information which is now at their very fingertips, and this will involve reading.

So what is my point in all this?

Instead of simply assuming all students will be able to access meaning in texts (digital or paper) once they have completed Primary school, we will need to be more active in our teaching of reading, particularly encouraging students to engage with long-form texts. If an essay takes 4000 words to successfully argue its point, then the reader needs so many skills and strategies to follow the logic of that argument and ascertain its merit in their search for information. This is the same with a novel or textbook. And it is this kind of sustained reading which invites all learners into more complex thinking. Whilst I have no data to offer here, it is my belief that reading and thinking are interdependent.
Thus, all teachers, of all subjects, need to share the responsibility for the literacy of our students. And whilst this is happening on a number of levels, it seems time to deepen our understanding of the following:
  • How reading operates
  • How it is taught (and sometimes even re-taught)
  • How it is assessed
  • How we can teach useful strategies to access meaning in all texts. 

(My thanks to Jenny P for her recent inspiration for this blog post.)

20 February 2011

Tinkering for the 21st century learner

Today I came across two texts from different sources which essentially proffered the same message: the importance of trial and error in the learning process. Both Michael Duffy’s essay Try, Try Again in the Sydney Morning Herald and Dr John Seeley Brown’s interview in the PBS doco Digital Media (thanks to http://bluyonder.wordpress.com/ for the tip) discussed the virtues of trying, failing and trying again.

Michael Duffy’s essay quotes from a book called Being Wrong by American journalist Kathryn Schulz. Schulz writes:

''Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition. Far from being a moral flaw, it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honourable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage…''
''And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change. Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world.''

In his interview, Dr John Seely Brown begins by discussing ‘the questing disposition’, by referring to specific examples of gamers and surfers who, within their respective communities, share a curiosity and passion which generates natural learning. Dr Brown states that one of the chief skills needed by the children of today - to ensure they will be able to navigate the world of the future - is a ‘love of embracing change’.  His central premise is that we need to teach students the value of tinkering, of playing with a problem in an attempt to solve it. By tinkering, we are experimenting with things ourselves, asking ‘Does this fit?’, ‘Is this a match?’ etc. Dr Brown invites us to consider that ‘Tinkering brings thought and action together in some very powerful, magical ways.’

Wouldn’t it be fascinating if the academic community accepted Schulz’s opening sentence as a given? Imagine if all students saw errors as learning opportunities, chances to improve, a reason to try, try again? How can we best offer students the opportunity to tinker with ideas, concepts, words, numbers, as well as objects and projects? What a challenge for us!

I believe that tinkering has a place in all real and lasting learning. The following variables would make this possible:
  1. Time: to play, to think, to scrap, to start over, to collaborate
  2. Curiosity
  3. Passion and enthusiasm
  4. Genuine interest in the product/skill
  5. Facilitation rather than explication on behalf of teachers and mentors
  6. A ‘mastery-oriented’ approach (Dweck)
  7. More time!
What does this mean for schools when ‘being right’ is often the only way to awards and success? For the purposes of this post, I would like to offer only two suggestions from an endless list of possibilities.

13 February 2011

Intelligence, Competence and Expertise

Educators would agree that engagement in the teaching and learning process is one of key steps in improving student outcomes. I recently came across an article by Robert J. Sternberg which made the following statement:

“The main constraint in achieving expertise is not some fixed prior level of capacity, but purposeful engagement involving direct instruction, active participation, role modelling, and reward.”[1]

In the body of the article Sternberg goes on to argue that intelligence is not the only determiner for school success and many of us know this to be true. The article shows, through a variety of intelligence tests on diverse cultures that intelligence is only one instrument a student is using and that it is not a fixed instrument. (See earlier post Mindset and Praise.) 

Most of us teach using a variation on the processes which Sternberg lists. There is a time for direct instruction, although this may or may not be teacher-centered, and it is essential that students participate, by constructing their knowledge in some form or another.

In the same article Sternberg then states:
                “Indeed, motivation is perhaps the indispensible element needed for school success.”[2]

And we all know that motivation is much trickier. Getting students over the barriers, getting them to want to learn, getting them to be successful learners, these are issues we have all debated over time.  Many of the theorists in the Handbook of Competence and Motivation suggest that achieving competence is inextricably linked to motivation. When we feel that we can do an activity at a reasonable level, we are often motivated to increase that activity, eventually leading from competence to expertise.

Sternberg stresses that this is a cycle: learners move from novice to expert in a particular area, then they begin the cycle again with new thinking, knowledge and learning. His illustration below allows us to see learning as a continuum which incorporates knowledge, learning, thinking and metacognition as well as the previously mentioned motivation. Sternberg shows that all of these factors feed into one another as the student increases his/her competence and moves towards expertise. 

If we can externalize the process which Sternberg suggests as we teach, we can help students to realise that learning is cyclical. This should ensure that students experience greater engagement with the process of learning.

[1] Sternberg, Robert J., ‘Intelligence, Competence and Expertise’ in Elliot, Dweck, Handbook of Competence and Motivation (Guildford Press 2005)

[2] ibid

05 February 2011

Space to learn (2): a simple step

For the last three years we have had one room in our department set up in group mode. This year, I have decided to conduct all my classes in this way. Although I don’t have access to the modern furniture I blogged about in Space to Learn (see below), I can reconfigure all of the rooms into which I am timetabled.

This week I reorganised the desks in the room where I have Years 12, 11 and 9, after consultation with all of the other teachers who use the room. It is a small space (but air-conditioned – thank God) so I removed all the desks which were not required and placed the remaining into five groups. Immediately the room seemed larger, with enough space for both the students to move around when we are operating in varied group formations, and for me to assist students with tasks and task focus. I will also continue a practice I began years ago, and avoid the traditional teaching zone (the front of the room).

It may resemble a K-6 school classroom, but I wonder when we Secondary school teachers thought that was such a negative?

29 January 2011

Space to Learn

The challenges of today’s technology and learning styles require flexible classroom arrangements.

This week I attended a course on cooperative learning which was a timely reminder about using group work and a variety of strategies to improve learning outcomes. However, I was struck by an important factor we haven’t dealt with yet. In order to use cooperative learning strategies and still maintain a stable working environment (listed as the second highest factor in improving student learning), classrooms would benefit from different configurations, different furniture, different space usage altogether. So why don’t we all dream about different spaces and work towards it happening.

Here are a few items from my very long wish list:

22 January 2011

Flexibility, relevance and the desire to be taken seriously

Come with me as I work through some ideas about the relationship between student engagement and flexibility in teaching and learning. Reading Hugh Mackay’s What makes us tick? has helped me to give shape to some ideas which accord with a constructivist approach to learning.
What makes us tick? contains a chapter entitled ‘The Desire to Be Taken Seriously’ which resonated with me as both a teacher and as a student. On page 3, Mackay writes, “We all want our voices to be heard as authentic, legitimate and worthy of attention. We can’t bear to be overlooked, dismissed or belittled. … When we know we are being taken seriously we can relax into that assurance.”

Whilst completing my Masters from 2004-07, I found myself in the position of a student for the first time in fifteen years. Obviously it was a great experience in terms of what I learnt, but it was also insightful to be in the student role again. What I particularly want to comment on in light of my reading of Mackay’s book, was how the best teaching and learning occurred in classes where I and other students were taken seriously. In these classes I felt that all of the students’ voices were considered ‘authentic, legitimate and worthy of attention’.

One of the most interesting aspects of the classes was the lecturer’s flexibility in setting essay questions. What this meant was that the lecturer waited to see what issues were generated by the students’ input before constructing the assessment. And every lecturer allowed students to disregard the given questions and set their own question, increasing the relevance of the learning. Thus, on many occasions, my own research led me to a particular area of interest, and the lecturer(s) took me seriously enough to allow me to write about this. I was constructing my own knowledge about the texts and issues which I encountered and because of this, not only was I more passionate and diligent about each topic, the learning has remained with me to this day.

This experience has in turn shaped my teaching. We don’t always have the freedom to allow students to develop their own question and respond (e.g., in HSC exams, where questions are well and truly set), thus we should make more of effort to provide this opportunity elsewhere – in every other aspect of learning if possible. One of the reasons why I support the Extension 2 English Course was because it offers the student a way of learning so similar to my positive post-grad experience. This ties in with Daniel Pink’s theory in Drive (see earlier posts) as autonomy, mastery and purpose are inherent in constructing one’s own learning.

One way of thinking posits that good teaching is about setting an assessment task first and then tailoring most of the teaching towards students meeting the outcomes which will be assessed. It’s not my contention that this thinking is incorrect. Students should know (as I did when I completed my Masters) what type of task will be expected of them at the end of the course. I am arguing that we need to be flexible enough with the content/subject matter of the task to take into account student interest throughout the course. By offering a variety of questions, or allowing students to set their own agenda, or some other flexible approach in meeting the outcomes, teachers are increasing the relevance of the learning and demonstrating to students that their voices are ‘authentic, legitimate and worthy of attention’.

16 January 2011

Mindset and Praise

The work of Carol S. Dweck has become one of the most influential theories I have come across over the last few years. Her two books, Mindset and the more academic, Self-Theories, from the Essays in Social Psychology series have had a significant impact on the way I think about education and my classroom practice. This is the first of a few posts dealing with this theory.

Dweck proposes that students (and people in general) hold one of two theories about their intelligence: either that it is fixed or changeable.

Some people believe that their intelligence is a fixed trait. They have certain amount of it and that’s that. We call this an “entity theory” of intelligence because intelligence is portrayed as an entity that dwells within us and that we can’t change. (Self Theories, p. 2.)

Other people have a very different definition of intelligence. For them intelligence is not a fixed trait that they simply possess, but something they can cultivate through learning. We call this an “incremental theory” of intelligence because intelligence is portrayed as something that can be increased through one’s efforts. (Self Theories, p. 3.)

In Mindset, she calls these theories the fixed mindset or the growth mindset. I can’t do justice to the theory on this blog, but I recommend educators read one or both books. Whether you agree or not with the theory, it is thought-provoking reading. In light of recent brain research and other books such as The Brain That Changes Itself, Dweck’s theory cannot be ignored.
Let’s look at Praise.
Dweck’s studies show that effort and strategy praise is more effective in encouraging a mastery oriented response in students. Intelligence or person praise can encourage a helpless response.
Thus, in my comments (whether verbal or written) I always try to be specific about aspects of students’ written submissions. I try to avoid general comments such as ‘this is good work’, ‘great work’ or ‘excellent work’, instead identifying the actual features which are good. This might include comments about vocabulary, particular sentence structures or variation, plot, strength of argument, innovation, creativity, quality of examples, etc. By being detailed and explicit with praise, it also allows me to offer criticism which is precise and definite. Thus students can rework the elements of the draft which have been identified as needing attention.
In verbal responses (in class teaching/learning), Dweck discusses how praise can become a conversation and I have been practising this with my classes recently. The teacher can ask the student how an idea evolved, or what strategies the student used to arrive at the answer and praise the actual thinking which occurred in the process of developing a response. In this way, the teacher is encouraging the student who offered the interesting response and alerting all students to strategies they might like to try. It is a great way to be explicit about metacognition.
Effort and strategy praise generally stems from, and contributes to, an incremental theory of intelligence which encourages a mastery oriented approach. Those with this approach continue to strive for improvement even when they get something wrong or fail at a task. Thus, they are motivated to learn, rather than motivated to prove they are correct. 

13 January 2011

Drive Part 2

One of the case studies presented in Drive has helped me to crystallise an Independent Learning plan with which I have been toying for some time. Independent Learning lessons have been a part of teaching for decades, but it was Daniel Pink’s discussion of the “20 percent time” at Atlassian[1] which spurred me to the particular model which I will be trialling in 2011.

At this company, employees are allowed to work on any project they choose for 20% of their total work time. What the executives have discovered is that many new ideas emerge from this time. Pink argues that the autonomy inherent in this concept sparks greater motivation for the projects which develop.   

So, for one lesson per fortnight (12.5% of teaching time) I am going to offer one particular class the opportunity to work on any project they choose, as long as it is related to English. This may include, but is not limited to, creative writing/composing, reading and reflecting, journal writing, researching or other self-directed exercises. It is hoped that the Independent Learning lesson will allow students to develop their passions within and beyond subject English, and encourage thinking beyond the demands of the syllabus.

The plan is for students to identify at the start of the lesson what their project will be and at the end of the lesson they will reflect on what they achieved. Initially, the reflections will be structured so that students get into the habit of identifying the skills and thinking used during the lesson. This focus on metacognition is essential for students to recognise when they are experiencing what by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, called ‘flow’.

If we manage to "cover the syllabus" work in fewer than the lessons allocated (yes, we do have to tick some boxes), then it will be natural to increase the Independent Learning lessons to once a week, thus spending 25% of our class time on autonomous projects. Who knows, the students may develop into such independent learners that all (or almost all) of the time is spent in this way. Surely this would lead away from the traditional 20th century model of teaching? I know that this isn't cutting edge. I know that many others have managed total independent learning - I would appreciate helpful comments from you if you have. 

Unfortunately it has a dull title at the moment: Independent Learning. I am confident my students will invent a better name as the year goes on.

[1] Daniel H Pink, Drive, p. 94

11 January 2011

Interesting reads: Drive by Daniel H. Pink

Although this non-fiction text deals with some weighty motivation theory, it is presented in layman’s terms, making it easy for readers to grasp the concepts. The author makes an argument that traditional ways of motivating people are simply outdated and no longer suit the environment of today’s worker (student /employee /etc).
Drive asserts that people working on a task need three variables to ensure their motivation is at its peak: autonomy, mastery, purpose. This is an enlightening text in many ways, short enough to read quickly but impressive enough to influence the way I approached certain elements of teaching.

During 2010 I structured the tasks for one particular class differently in order to provide them with greater autonomy. Whilst I have done this before in my teaching, Pink's ideas influenced my decision to provide varying levels of structure. The class comprised of high achieving Year 10 English students. It was remarkable how well they  responded to the lessons where they chose the activity on which they would be working. Where I gave less structure than usual, students still responded with innovative, conceptual presentations. As long as they knew the purpose, and understood how the task would increase their mastery, they worked diligently. 

I found that Drive also encourages reflection on today’s working environment.  More of that in another post. 

Have we lost the plot? Revisiting narrative structure

Since the new HSC appeared on our radar, the teaching of techniques has been explicit and comprehensive, aiding students in their recognition of the tools composers use to make meaning.  This has occurred across all textual forms. Students are adept at discussing the effects of figurative language (poetry and prose), cinematography (film), dialogue and stage directions (drama), and various elements such as visuals and layout (graphic texts and multimedia). And while this is appropriate and in line with the syllabus, the techniques mentioned are all stylistic.

Stage 6 Outcome 4 explicitly states: ‘A student describes and analyses the ways that language forms and features, and structures of texts shape meaning and influence responses.’ Outcomes 3, 5 and 6 implicitly refer to students’ ability to analyse and respond to all aspects of texts, making no distinction between style and structure. I am going to argue for a reconsideration of what we include when we teach narrative texts such as the novel, short story, film and drama. This paper will revisit structure, specifically plot as the core device of narrative texts so that students can improve their appreciation of story structure in both analysis and composition.

When I first began teaching in 1990, before the internet revolution, narrative structure was reasonably familiar to young people, even though they may not have had the labels to identify elements of plot. Although many of my students did not read for pleasure they watched a great deal of television (including ‘SBS Movies’, they would say with a smirk) and played simple narrative based video games. The first school at which I taught had a very high NESB population and used short story anthologies to engage students in reading and to assist them in their composition of short stories. We frequently spent time discussing the plot. What does the orientation tell us? What complications arise? What is the result of each complication? How did this all this lead to the resolution? We diligently taught Frietag’s triangle and helped students to map a sequence of events onto the diagram. At times, we also examined television programs for comparison and further study or for specific media modules. Students easily applied the terms of narrative structure to the fictional television programs they were watching and the early video games they were playing. And while this was fairly stock standard teaching, it enabled students to understand the important notion of cause and effect, with ramifications beyond the enjoyment of stories, a point I will return to later.

Whilst I only have anecdotal evidence for these observations, it seems that my current students spend less time engaging with well-structured narratives in their leisure time even though they are more enthusiastic readers than other students I have taught. With the explosion of online social networking sites students appear to be endlessly engaging in viewing the minutiae of the lives of the others and constructing an online avatar, an electronic version of themselves. At the 2008 AATE/ALEA conference in Adelaide, many presenters showed how online activities can assist students in developing their literacy skills and I am not contradicting their views.  I am suggesting that we need to augment students’ knowledge of narrative structure to improve their understanding of concepts such as narrative structure - cause and effect. 

I am not suggesting that we return to the simple methods I used in my first few years of teaching, nor am I suggesting that narrative structure is always fixed and can be mapped accordingly. As a fan of metafiction and postmodern playfulness in the novels I choose to read and the films I enjoy, I acknowledge the great variety which exists within narrative today. But I also know that my enjoyment of those texts comes from a strong understanding of traditional narrative structure and an appreciation of a composer’s cleverness in manipulating those features. I know that many English teachers actively teach this knowledge and these skills to their students. My aim, in the next blog post, is to enhance teachers’ explicit teaching of narrative structure as part of the repertoire of strategies they use when engaging students in the analysis and composition of texts.