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.