Looking back in order to move forwards

Over the past week, I have spent a lesson with each of my classes setting goals for next term. At first thought, this may seem like a lot of time for the one task.  However, I am a strong believer in continuity: being able to reflect on what you have learnt, in order to plan for the next stages of your learning.

Goal setting, in this way, places emphasis on student responsibility for learning; as the teacher, it is my role to facilitate the learning, but the student’s job to make the most of the opportunities that are presented for them.  Spending some time reflecting and setting goals, enables the student to take ownership of their learning.

In each of my classes, students were given individual goal setting sheets.  On these, they noted down standardised test scores, reasons for why they have achieved certain results this term, what scores they would like to aim for next term and how they can get there.  While I am not the biggest fan of standardised tests, they provide a useful benchmark for students.  With this in mind, I have suggested to students that these tests are not always 100% accurate in indicating their true abilities.  The students themselves should know whether they are keeping up with the work or not.

Aside from setting individual goals, I see it as important to set class goals. Students should not just see themselves as individual learners, but as one of a cohort who are learning together.

Having shared goals enables the development of class cohesiveness and collaboration, and ideally will result in social facilitation – that is, where the presence of others, improves individual performance. Clearly what is required for this, is a class that is comfortable with one another and has a relationship that is built on mutual respect.

From each student, I collected a class goal then typed them up and popped them into wordle. Below is an example from one class:

For some classes, working towards a goal as a group will be easy, while for others this will not be the case.  Either way, the sort of improvement that can be gained from reflecting and thinking ahead, will take more than just the short school term that has now passed us by.

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Encouraging higher-order thinking in students

Went to a fantastic professional development seminar today. It was given by Glen Pearsall, a teacher at a public high school and an expert in classroom dynamics.  In amongst the many things he taught us, was the importance of encouraging higher order thinking and drawing this out in students.

Much to my own annoyance, frequently in class I find myself asking basic questions so that I can elicit some response from students. If I can get students to answer a basic question, doesn’t that mean they are on the right track and understand what I am teaching them? Maybe. Questions that elicit front-of-mind responses or only require simple recall or recognition are not going to embed the learning for students.  The type of thinking that is required to answer these questions, will not take learning to a higher level.

Instead, students need to be working at a higher level of Bloom’s taxonomy: analysing, ranking, deducing, convincing, assessing, generating, etc. Sure, the basic level of response is useful initially, but not for creating deeper learning. And this is something I struggle to encourage in my more difficult classes.

Glen gave us a couple of examples of activities that can be applied across subjects to enable higher-order learning. One, which I will be implementing with my politics class tomorrow as a tie-in with Harmony Day, makes use of the website wordle.com. Prior to giving students a reading task, put the assigned reading into Wordle and click “Go”. Out pops a word cloud, sizing words according to their frequency in the article. You can play around with it a bit (taking out some words, changing font, colour, shape).

Have students think about the word cloud, individually and in pairs, discussing what they predict the article is about. Aside from Humanities or English, this task could be done with Science or Maths, looking at new concepts or procedures.

The purpose is to have students think about key words, and provide evidence for their predictions – guaranteed to engage students and get the limbic system firing!

Here is the word cloud I will be using, based on Chris Bowen’s recent speech on multiculturalism: Harmony Day word cloud

A Lesson on Failure

One of the first messages that came through to me loud and clear when I began my teaching studies is that failure is okay.  This is an important message that applies just as strongly for teachers as it does for students.

Just as you need hatred in order to understand love, you need failure in order to understand success.  I believe in these polar opposites as being integral tools for gaining perspective and insight into your own learning.  By making mistakes, you can plan, form goals and reflect upon mistakes made so that you may improve for next time.

In my classroom, I have been told, don’t worry about making mistakes or about having terrible classes – they will happen.  This is not to say that you should move on past a terrible class and forget that it happened, but use it as a learning exercise.  Even talk to the students about why that lesson did not go well and why you each believe that was the case.

Last week I gave one of my top-performing classes a test – however, the moment I handed it out, I realised it was testing them in the wrong way.  Instead of providing a set of questions that asked for a clear demonstration of skills, the test included challenging questions within too short a time frame.  In theory, most students would have been capable of solving all the questions, but given the allocated time, speed was prioritised over ability.  I have decided that since I would like students’ score to be a true reflection of their ability, I will talk to them about whether they would like to spend some more class time to complete the test.

While the structure of the test has reflected a failure on my own behalf, I must be careful to communicate to students that their own mistakes in the test do not indicate a catastrophe.  A student may fail the test, but they are not failures.  The distinction between being a failure and failing – a term that I do actually avoid using in case of confusion – is crucial. Much in our society is ridden on success, and constant progress.  If our students are only fed this mantra then it is all the more difficult to take imperfections in their stride and appreciate that failure is a natural part of life.

What I am trying to encourage students, and to display through my own practices, is that much can be learned through the habit of risk-taking. Risk-taking allows the individual to be autonomous in their learning, whilst also confronting challenge and potential fall-backs.  A thought to contemplate some more later: is risk something we are losing in our education?