Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Can we just flip the homework?

The lesson has been taught and there are a few minutes remaining in the class period. Of course, this means that students can get a head start on their homework. I sit in on a lot of lessons in my role as an instructional coach for preservice and inservice teachers and the scene is nearly always the same. As I walk around the class during these final minutes, I typically see the following:
Why do they start at the beginning? Is it because "it is a very good place to start," or is it because that is how they have been trained?

The way most assignments are structured, the items get harder the farther in you get. I understand that this progression can provide support to students as they build on prior success, but I do not think they see it that way. Ask them and I believe you will find that they do it in order because the assignment implicitly suggests that they do it in order. They have been disempowered to make meaningful choices about what items to try.

What if instead we asked the students to look over the items and identify those that they might need peer or teacher support on? These are the items the students could work on during the closing minutes while they have support available. They can finish the easier problems on their own. Dare I say it? We could flip the assignment.
This could also serve as an assessment for the teacher. Knowing which items students considered challenging could offer insight into the effectiveness of the lesson or inform future instruction.

A change like this represents one of the subtle shifts we encourage teachers to make in their practice. We do not always need to make big moves to offer students a chance to make choices and, therefore, take more responsibility for their learning. A slight change can increase the likelihood of student engagement without requiring a lot of extra planning or preparation. This is another example of educational sustainability for both teacher and learner.

Friday, February 24, 2012

How will I stay engaged?

Based on prior posts, it might seem that I do not want teachers to consider engagement when planning lessons (here). In this post, I intend to describe how teachers and learners share in fostering the conditions that contribute to engagement. This is reflected in Cambourne's Learning Plan shown below.
Again, engagement is at the bottom of this plan because it is a foundational condition to learning. Immersing learners in the discipline is placed on top as a reminder that it influences everything else that is done in the classroom. The remain conditions are split between those that focus on learners' behavior (purple) and those that start being the teachers' responsibility (green). The ultimate goal, however, is that over time the learners will also take on these behaviors as well - setting expectations for themselves, offering one another feedback, and providing their peers with models of success. 

Helping learners to take responsibility for their own engagement is also a gradual process that requires teachers helping learners move through awareness, acceptance, and adjustment. This starts with helping learners to be aware of what being engaged looks like (as I described in this post). Having this anchor experience allows us to continually monitor our engagement during learning activities.

I try to design learning plans with Cambourne's Conditions in mind, but I leave learners to evaluate their own engagement throughout the activities. Early in the semester, I provide a table like this:
The learners are asked to reflect on their level of engagement after each phase of the workshop (schema activation, focus, activity, and reflection). At the end of class, they answer three questions that hopefully support their awareness (What did you notice?), acceptance (So what does this mean?), and adjustment (Now what will you do to improve your engagement in the future?).

Their answers reflect the shared responsibility learners and teachers have for fostering engagement in classrooms. The learners accept that they need to be better about things like making connections, asking questions, and monitoring their own engagement. They also describe how it is hard to be engaged if expectations are unclear or if they are not sure how to complete the task. This is on me, as the teacher, and it has reinforced my need to keep in mind my initial responsibilities regarding Cambourne's Learning Plan. Consequently, all involve adjust their behavior in order to improve engagement.

There is one more piece to encouraging learners to take responsibility for their engagement that I have just added this year. I have replaced Participation in my course grading with Engagement. This change will be the focus of the next post. Please stay tuned.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

What does engagement look like?

The first post in this series suggests that teachers must practice caution when designing engaging lessons. Disempowerment and distraction are just two potential problems that may result from teachers trying to own the responsibility of student engagement. Another problem is distorting what engagement looks like. Addressing this last problem is the focus of this post.

I begin nearly all of my college courses with a workshop that asks, "How do we stay engaged?" The activity is based on the rubric shown on the right. My wife developed this rubric with her first-graders to help them to monitor their engagement during independent reading time. The class brainstormed the ideas of what different levels of reading engagement might look like and Kathy wrote them down. If during independent reading time a child is not engaged with their reading, then all Kathy has to do is ask the child where he is on the rubric and what he needs to do to re-engage. In most instances, this works extremely well. I figured that if first-graders could do this, then so could college students.

The phases of the workshop look like this:
  • Schema Activation Turn and Talk: What engagement does and does not look like.
  • Focus Setting Expectations
    • History of Rubrics (providing direction)
    • Kathy's example
  • Activity Group Work: Creating Engagement Rubric Rough Draft
  • Reflection Gallery Walk
    • Use sticky notes to identify "likes"
    • Develop a personal engagement rubric

Sometimes these rubrics confuse engagement with compliance. This is related to their distorted thinking about what it means to be engaged. An example that comes up often is texting in class. Student often want to put "texting" in the frowny face category because it means that the person "isn't doing what they should be doing." I understand their rationale and accept that typically it is an example of being unengaged, but I warn them that they need to be careful judging based solely on appearances.  What if the person is texting to someone about the awesome activity that we just did? Maybe it fits perfectly with an upcoming project they are doing and the person was so excited they could not wait to share it. I explain that I do this all the time using Twitter at conferences - my tweets become my notes that I am willing to share with anyone who wants them.

The idea that communicating our excitement about something we are learning represents a high level of engagement is reflected in the work of Morgan and Saxton (beginning on page 27). I was first introduced to their Taxonomy of Personal Engagement through Jeff Wilhelm's 2007 book, Engaging Readers & Writers with Inquiry. He modified the Taxonomy in order to develop the Engagement Continuum shown below.
For students who have a hard time separating compliance and engagement, this provides a template for thinking about what pure engagement might look like. I will describe ways I use this continuum to support students taking responsibility for their own engagement in the next post. 

But what does engagement look like to us as teachers? Can we distinguish between compliance and engagement? I must admit that it has been a bit of a struggle for me as I try to put theory into practice. My colleague, John Golden, suggested that we (including you, dear reader) might collaborate to design an engagement rubric from the perspective of teachers. Consequently, I put together this google document (here) that we can work on together. I hope that you are engaged enough with this topic that you are willing to share your ideas. Thank you in advance for your participation.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Teach like Adele

Following a post on how entertaining/engaging lessons are antithetical to sustainable learning with the idea that I want teachers to employ an entertainer's approach to singing may seem inconsistent. I hope you will bear with me, though, because I believe two performances from last night's Grammy Awards actually illustrate the point. As I watched Katy Perry and Adele sing, I was taken by the different approaches taken by each.

Now, I am willing to concede that what I am about to write may be based on generational preferences (I turn 50 this year). While I found Katy Perry's performance entertaining, it distracted from the song. I ended up focusing on surface features - the stagecraft. Adele, on the other hand, seemed focused on the song. There were no distractions. I knew what her performance was about. It felt authentic. And her power and passion affected me.

This is what teaching ought to embrace - focus on the song, not on the performance.

Updated February 18, 2012
I woke up this morning to this piece on NPR's On The Media examining Adele's song Someone Like You. The piece made two things abundantly clear. First, I am not alone in finding Adele's songs moving. Second, I do not know enough about musical performances to make statements like I did above.

It turns out that there is a science to musical performance and Dr. Daniel Levitin is doing the research. He has found that listeners want novelty, just not too much of it. He says, "If the music was completely surprising we would be disorientated. On the other extreme, if the music was completely predictable we'd grow bored with it and it would seem banal. And what the composer has do is find that balance and get it just right - the Goldilocks' Zone." This is accomplished both through writing the music and singing the music. An example of the latter is creating tension by singing slightly out of key but sliding to the correct note (appoggiatura).

Dr. Levitin explains how Adele does all of these things in her Grammy Award winning song. She starts with something simple and familiar. This is followed by several surprises: (1) a tempo change corresponding to the message of the lyrics; (2) an octave change (perhaps representing a change in perspective?); (3) using appoggiatura to suggest instability; and (4) a lower register meant to convey the emotion creeping to the surface. And host, Brooke Gladstone wraps it up saying, "It isn't just about the song. It's also about the performance."

Busted! Like many people who think they can distill teaching into a few "best-practices," I thought I could take two musical performances and identify what works and what doesn't. My efforts failed to take into account all that goes on in the writing of the song and the planning of the performance - even when it seems to be so simple. I hope I learned my lesson, but probably not. I am a sucker for a good teaching simile.

Friday, February 10, 2012

What have you got against engaging lessons?

I would like you to please take a moment and think about the last time you were engaged in learning. It might have been in a math class or listening to a TED Talk or reading a book. Whatever it was you were doing at the time, take a step back and create a mental picture of what this engagement looked like. We will be revisiting this image later, so please keep it in mind.

Engagement is central to learning. In his research on language acquisition, Dr. Brian Cambourne found it to be one of the conditions necessary for learning to occur. In fact, he saw engagement as the fundamental condition on which all the others are related. That is why it is at the base of his plan for teaching and learning that is shown below.

Teachers recognize the centrality of engagement and often talk about the need for writing engaging lessons. Recently, I have become uncomfortable with this view of engagement. I am afraid that we are confusing engagement with entertainment, and that we are disempowering and distracting students as a result. 

This commentary comes from one of the U.S. science lessons (US4 Rocks) from the TIMSS videos. It highlights what is happening in a lot of classrooms:
Motivating activities were defined as those activities likely to capture many students' interest and included jokes and humor, games, puzzles, role plays, artistic projects, dramatic events, physical activity, prizes or other rewards, anecdotal stories, or outdoor excursions. Motivating activities accounted for 23% of the U.S. lesson time (Video Report, figure 10.6). They occurred in 63% of the U.S. lessons, which was more frequent than in all the other countries except for Australia (Video Report, figure 10.5).
I have a couple concerns about teachers' efforts to create all of these engaging/motivating lessons.

First, are we creating expectations for students that if a lesson does not engage them it is the teacher's fault? I sit on a lot of airplanes and I am always amazed at how many people are unengaged when the crew goes over the safety information. This is potentially a matter of life and death, and they still have a hard time getting passengers to pay attention. It may be my pessimistic nature or my interest in engagement, but I try to take in everything they say. I worry about my fellow passengers, but not as much as I worry about the students who may not have a teacher capable of designing the engaging lessons the students have come to expect. Cambourne calls students who have lost the ability to take responsibility for their learning "disempowered" and I would agree.

Did this picture draw your interest and distract you from the message?
I am also concerned that students are confusing entertainment with engagement. On one regional flight, I remember the crew ad libbed certain points of the safety talk. "In the event of a water landing the personal flotation device is your's to keep as our gift." I still remember the joke. I do not have a clue where that device was located, however (this was before I began engaging with the talk). In this case, they got my attention but distracted me from the important information. How often are students missing the point of the lesson when we try to gain their interest in extraneous ways?

Consequently, I see the development of engaging (i.e. entertaining) lessons as a possible impediment to sustainable learning. Engaging lessons make it more difficult for students to identify what engagement actually looks like. They come to view it as some external factor rather than a personal choice. Why is this a problem? Students who know what engagement looks like can self regulate their own learning; they can find ways to engage when important information is being shared in uninteresting ways. Students who cannot envision themselves engaging in "boring" material have ceded control of their learning to others.

Which brings me back to my original request. Please retrieve your image of engagement from the beginning of this post. Was it really engagement or merely entertainment? And if it was engagement, what did it look like? In the next post, I will share some ways other learners view engagement.

Updated (4/28/14): I saw this example of an entertaining flight attendant on Facebook. How much of the important information would these passengers remember in an emergency?

Saturday, February 4, 2012

How am I doing? 2012

It is that time again - annual review. The time of year when I am asked by my employer to demonstrate how I have met the College's expectations regarding teaching, scholarship, and service. This includes providing an up-to-date vita and the past year's faculty activity report. The Department of Mathematics also asks for a self-evaluation that focuses on teaching. As I did last year, I decided that I ought to share this evaluation in order to make my efforts visible to all.
Technology, especially as it relates to social media, has been the focus of my teaching journey this past year. Social media provides me with the opportunity to connect with my students and colleagues in ways that were previously unimaginable to me. It has also introduced me to educational technology that has enhanced my instruction. This self-evaluation will highlight my efforts but it also includes hyperlinks if you wish more details.

At the end of last year I joined Twitter. My main reason for joining this micro-blogging site was the success I saw Dr. John Golden have with it during teacher assisting in the fall 2010 semester. It allows me to maintain contact with the teacher assistants by providing a window into their thinking and their classroom experiences. As I explored Twitter, however, I found that it had many more educational benefits.

Twitter is a platform that allows teachers from around the world to connect and share ideas. I have encouraged our students to use these educators as resources and mentors. Several teacher assistants and student teachers have sought advice from and used lessons shared by Twitter teachers. Even I have been exposed to new technologies as a result. In modeling iPad use for the Woodrow Wilson Teaching Fellows, I have incorporated several applications that I learned about on Twitter. You can read how I used the iPad here.

Chats are another aspect of Twitter that I have benefited from and incorporated into my lessons. These chats allow participants to share ideas with one another around a particular topic. I have used them for class discussions on instruction, classroom management, and assessment. The benefits of these Twitter chats is that everyone is given the opportunity to speak and it is possible to archive the chat for assessment or further discussion. An example of one of these chats is here. These class chats have been so successful, I have also started hosting chats in sessions at conferences. Here is an example.

Some students remain hesitant to use Twitter to its fullest as a professional tool. This is a challenge I want to address this year. I do not want to force compliance. I want to model Twitter's benefits. As a part of the student teaching pilot program that I am helping to develop, I intend to include a survey that will ask about Twitter and ways to improve its implementation.

I also began the year by creating a blog. This has been an opportunity to make available to students the resources, examples, and concepts that are addressed in class. The posts have become a kind of anchor chart that students can review long after the lesson. I have also used it to reinforce and extend topics presented in class.

In addition, my blog has supported my scholarly and service activities. The information shared on the blog contributed to my being asked to be a keynote speaker at the Mathematical Council of the Alberta Teachers' Association annual conference. A "transcript" of my talk is provided here. The entries on the Teaching-Learning Cycle have provided a framework for a book that has generated some interest from a publisher. I am considering making the writing of this text a part of a sabbatical proposal. Finally, several teachers have commented on how the lessons I have shared have been of service to them as they teach. Providing an open source resource to inservice and preservice teachers around the world is important to me.

I continue to do teaching, scholarship, and service in the typical ways. My efforts are enumerated on my vita and faculty activity report. While these are important, I am passionate about the opportunities technology has for addressing these areas in the future. I have only just begun. There is a lot left for me to learn.