Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Thinking about teaching and learning

I've been reading Claire Amos's most recent blog post about doing something different this year. It got me thinking about a few things about how risky it feels to try new stuff.

We like certainty, don't you think? As educators, it's good to feel in control and knowing what we're doing. I can truly feel for initial teacher education students, for they don't have any of that certainty about pedagogical practice - they are starting at zero in that regard. They are in the scariest place, for they don't know what they don't know, and often don't know that they don't know. I'm not suggesting they know nothing - for they know an awful lot - about their subject/field passion (which is why, I'm guessing, they want to teach, particularly in secondary schools - to tell others). What they tend to be unaware of, is that knowing a subject isn't the same as know about and understanding pedagogical design, and how to leverage a range of strategies in the service of developing students' knowledge.

One thing I say each year to the new cohort, is that the question you ask when you sit yourself down to plan any learning, is crucial.   If your question is "what am I going to teach today?" then your focus is likely to be on yourself as the teacher and what you do. If your question is something like "What do my students need to learn today?" then that is likely to engage quite different pedagogical thinking. You are more likely to take into account what you know are sticking points in your students' learning, and think deeply about how to try something else to change what you had observed from previous experiences with learners. And the 'today' bit has to be seen in your wider context of the skills and abilities and concepts you want your students to be capable of by the time the year ends.

An orientation centred on what your learners NEED, is I hope, a much more profound way of thinking about learning and teaching. It implies that you know what students have trouble with, what needs building, altering, or starting in terms of skills, knowledge, conceptual thinking and what needs more practise. For example, if your classes have been notorious in their reluctance to read or write stuff, do you avoid those difficulties, or see them as necessary skills of and for learning? Do you re-interpret difficult text so they don't have to, or spend time on strategies that help learners overcome that reluctance and make sense of difficult texts? Do you find ways of engaging them in writing and reading anyway (perhaps using digital technologies instead of paper and pen)? When students experience learning success, they consider that to be 'fun'. They feel pride. So should you when you know you have done the right kind of pedagogical facilitation. Your students will be keen to repeat learning success.

That means educators must continually strive to try out different approaches with different resources, in order to come at difficult ideas/concepts in lots of different ways so that over time, students 'get it'. We strive for those 'ah ha' moments for our learners - these sustain our drive as educators; we need  lots of these moments.

The down side, is that we too must continually experiment with what goes on in our classrooms. We too have to feel the fear and do it anyway, but by doing something out of our comfort zone, we must be alert to what it might teach us. We must use the Teaching as Inquiry process to document what went on and what our students learned and experienced. This documentation means we can reflect on it and make meaning about what we should strive for next.

We can do this within individual lessons, with specific classes - it doesn't mean we do it every day with every class - we would drown under the weight of it. Pick the class, the topic, the resource or tool or strategy you want to do differently, and only concentrate on that one thing to gather data about. You might try, for example, one digital technology at a time, but with different classes. The learning purpose might be different or similar in purpose, but either way, you will get to understand possible effects on learners' engagement and consequent outcomes of their learning across specific classes. Over time, these single interventions build a body of knowledge about your practice that enriches both this practice and pedagogical content knowledge. This makes it far easier for you to assert your expertise to others because you have evidence beyond an anecdote to go with your knowledge.

A key mission for every educator - and I'm referring here to Claire Amos's clarion call -  should be something like: what will I do differently this year, how will I predict it will help my students learn, and why should I do it? These can then feed into your "What do my students need to learn today?" question and your longer-term learning goals for your class.

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