Home Investigations

Two recent news articles about homework reminded us that the “homework question” has been settled in too few schools. Homework, the so-called “flipped classroom”, cooperative learning and constructivist pedagogy can come together in a blindingly simple, effective way that is win-win-win for teachers, parents and students.

When the classroom is orientated towards students answering substantial questions about “big ideas”, then homework becomes the vehicle for finding out things, for gathering “the facts”. The classroom is then the space in which students collaborate to answer the important questions and to extend their thinking to higher levels by analysing, predicting, hypothesising and exploring further, in an environment in which the teacher facilitates investigation. For example, instead of learning about World Wars, the larger idea of “conflict” (or, perhaps, better, “peace”) can be addressed from multiple perspectives. A question such as “Is it possible for us to live in peace” can be asked, and students can be given a range of tasks to perform at home. For example, with appropriate scaffolding, they could

  • research a particular conflict
  • interview family/friends/neighbours about significant conflicts they know about
  • interview family/friends/neighbours about their thoughts about conflict and peace
  • watch the evening news, read a newspaper (including digital editions), etc.
  • find and watch videos on the internet
  • , depending on the focus of the class

Good scaffolding would consist of one or two questions that enable students to explore the issue. Some questions might be factual, but others might be about larger issues and/or opinions. And, not all students need have the same task/topic. Back in class, the information discovered at home can be shared by students with each other and the teacher.

With an integrated approach to teaching, learning and homework, students benefit from doing interesting, relevant tasks both at home and school. Parents can be more actively involved, stress free, in working with their children at home. The teacher does not have to grade tasks than cannot be verified as the student’s own work[1] and do not have to be tied up with making videos, constructing resources, etc – the teacher’s role is primarily designing good questions and creatively finding resources.

[1] Note that tasks that count towards a student’s graded achievement should only ever be done in class, so that the teacher can verify their authenticity.

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Asking the right question

In our work with educators and schools to improve teaching and learning, we find that many struggle with the transition from the traditional “sage on the stage” method of teaching to inquiry-based classrooms. One of the most common “blockers” is “What will the parents think?” Many parents, although they want the best education possible for their children, still see education the way the media portrays it, and the way they were taught, themselves – the teacher at the front of the class encouraging/exhorting/ inspiring/threatening/etc the students into learning. Although they want their children’s school to be better than the one down the road, they get nervous when their school does something different. They are not always comfortable with change.

So, any good school, in the process of educational improvement, invites the parents to be partners in the journey, informing them along the way and listening to their concerns.

We used to ask parents “What do you want for your child?” This was useful in persuading them that student-centred learning led to more positive, sustainable outcomes. However, we realised that we could have actually been reinforcing, in many minds, that what they still wanted was the traditional high marks, leading to a good university, good job, success in life, etc – the model which facilitates disengagement of young people world wide.

The question we now ask is “What sort of world do you want your child to live in?” This opens up the dialogue about the important things being discussed by educators nowadays, such as higher-order thinking, grit, mindset, passion, authentic learning, etc. It suddenly becomes much easier for parents and teachers to realise that young global citizens will, as they grow as learners, achieve their best, academically, as a matter of course. They will also be far more likely to develop the requisite attitudes, skills and knowledge to make a positive difference to their families, communities, countries and planet.

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Using what we know

We know that we all learn in different ways. We also know that we all have different abilities at different things. We know that, with appropriate practice and commitment we can get better at most things.

If we apply this knowledge to schools, then some things become self evident:

– young people need opportunities to learn by different methods, at different rates

– young people begin at different starting points, so it makes sense to find out what/where these are and plan lessons accordingly

– young people need motivation and support to learn in their own way, and coaching to learn in new ways

So, planning for effective learning entails knowledge of the learning styles, abilities and personalities of the young people in our care, and developing programs that allow for as much individualisation as possible.

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Dare to be different

We have a crisis of leadership on our planet, but no-where more so than in education. Governments all over the world appoint non-educators as their ministers for education, and often these people want to “improve” education by going back to a halcyon time in education that, for most “victims” of schools, never existed.

But we cannot blame the politicians. We know that excellent schools tend to be student-centred (with an inquiry-style, holistic, real-world approach to teaching and learning) and have clear visions and/or missions to produce graduates who will make a positive difference to their communities, countries and planet. Not everyone will agree, but it is highly probable that our present global issues (environmental and economic) have been contributed to, in part, by the pursuit of individual academic achievement at the expense of personal character development. It seems logical that, if you can transmit good attitudes to young people, they will do their best and achieve success in a range of areas, including academic. The converse is, too often, not true.

Around the world there are countless thousands of school leaders who are working very hard to make their schools good. However, as someone once said (Steven Covey?) it’s all very well to be leading your followers through the jungle, as long as you are in the right jungle.

An effective leader is someone who challenges the status quo, not maintains it. In many school systems and schools the status quo must be challenged, because it is damaging our societies – the industrial model of education is not appropriate for many of today’s young people (if it ever was), and contributes to the alienation expressed, negatively, by young people all over the world. They need to know that they are valued and respected, so that schools that “expect” obedience to antiquated systems and traditions in which students “know their place” need to “get a grip”.

Unless he/she is very fortunate, a prospective school leader who has a history of doing something “out of the box” and challenging paradigms is either going to put a lid on those tendencies or expect to remain in the lower ranks – are there job descriptions for school principals that ask for skills such as “the ability to challenge orthodox educational paradigms” or “demonstrated ability to implement rapid educational change” or “challenge the Board of Governors in the interests of student learning”?

Someone once said (and we would be grateful if someone can let us know who) something along the lines that if you set out to create as many barriers to learning as possible, you would end up with the modern secondary school. So, as Sir Ken Robinson preaches, we should not be tinkering with the “accepted” model of schooling, but replacing it with something else altogether. We need many more courageous, visionary educational leaders, so that education does not continue to slip further behind the needs of its students.

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Traditional Values?

We love working with teachers to improve the ways in which they plan for their students to learn. There is so much we now know about learning for us to use so that almost all young people can achieve success at school that carries through into their lives.

In this instance, “success” does not mean the traditional view that good grades lead to good tertiary institutions that lead to good jobs – this approach, in our view, is a contributing factor to many of our global problems. If young people, and their teachers, are caught up in the pursuit of personal excellence to the exclusion of anything else, then when and where do they learn to look after other people and their planet? Some learn this, but the evidence is clearly there that many don’t.

Success means having the attitudes/values that enable young people to do their best at school, but also have an awareness of others and the world around them. Success means having the skills and knowledge to take action to improve people’s lives. A person who has strong values about working hard, paying attention to themselves and the world around them, caring for other people and nature and taking effective action when needed will, of course, achieve their optimum exam results. Those who strive for only personal achievement are unlikely to share those values.

There are many schools which have the admirable aim of “teaching” character/values to their students. There are only three ways in which teachers can encourage their charges to share their values: model, model and model.

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Not lesson plans as we understand them Jim

There is a plethora of sites on the internet offering lesson plans to teachers in need of a bit of inspiration and/or assistance. Because there are so many, is seems reasonable that there is a need for them.

The question that arises is “Are there so many things worth learning that can be fitted into one 40 to 60 minute block of time?”

In the “Google Age”, facts and formulae are easily accessed through an almost-infinite range of apps and web pages (for example, http://www.freemaptools.com/area-calculator.htm). The teacher’s task is to help students make connections and think critically about what they learn. The average student is more likely to retain and understand something taught if it is part of a sustained unit of learning, over time, that involves a variety of learning modes and feedback and reflection. “One-off” lessons based around cultural/religious celebrations or fortuitous current events may entertain and motivate students, but, unless they are skilfully crafted with student learning in mind, the enduring learning is probably superficial.

Unit plans that span several weeks and employ a range of activities selected for their learning potential and allied with immediate feedback and on-going reflection facilitate student learning of skills attitudes and knowledge that will sustain them through their lives. When students have the opportunity to collaborate and inquire deeply into important concepts and questions, then the learning is deeper and longer-lasting.

Teachers still need a “sketch” of lessons to assist with time management and organisation. However, the need for the teacher to address the whole class at the beginning and end of lessons (and during) is minimised in student-centred classrooms – Once a unit is underway, students usually know what they have to do, leaving the teacher free to move about the room and monitor and support individual groups, who may well be doing different things or the same thing at different levels and rates. This is very difficult to put down on an A-4 sheet of paper.

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Being illogical

It seems to be a major aspect of human nature that our ability to think logically is inversely proportional to how “close to home” we are. In other words, while the world might be crystal clear to us, we can often be completely off track when (if?) we think about ourselves.

Consider teaching. A personal epiphany occurred quite a while back during a graduate course, when I came out as a strong “director” in a teaching styles test. When I asked the lecturer about what to do he replied “Give it (teaching) away.” I reflected on this and continue to reflect.

I am now at the point where I get very frustrated with what I call the “Dead Poets’ Society” paradigm of teaching, in which the charismatic teacher inspires his/her students to great heights. While there are a lot of wonderful messages in the film, most of these seem to get overlooked in favour of the idea of the teacher as the focus of learning – in every depiction of a classroom on screen, the teacher is at the front of the classroom, filling the empty minds with knowledge. Of course, the teacher should model an enthusiastic, positive approach to learning, but that’s where Dead Poets ends.

All suitably qualified teachers have been to university, so we have a solid grounding in our subject matter. We may even have been exposed to some educational theory and practice about student learning. Those who took this into their classrooms are to be commended. But, knowing something, and being able to orally explain it so that all students understand it are not the same thing.

Somehow, particularly in secondary schools, the ancient method of transmitting knowledge orally is so firmly rooted in practice that it is taken as a truism that lecturing to students is an effective way for them all to learn – conversely, those students who do not succeed when subjected to this have “learning difficulties”.

classUntil the information revolution, the main sources of knowledge were schools, books and newspapers. But, even before the advent of computers, great teachers had their students working cooperatively using a range of resources, including the practice of simply going outside the classroom and/or school. John Dewey showed us how we should be teaching more than a hundred years ago.

There are some wonderful educators around the world whose work gives us all the tools we need to ensure that every one of our students learns to the best of his/her ability. The only difficult thing about using these tools is to change our paradigms. It is not logical, or effective, to talk every student through the same material at the same time, but millions of young people around the world are subjected to this every day. Surely, as a profession, we can do better?

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