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.