Ready to learn

Most of us do not learn stuff until we are ready. “Ready” can mean a lot of things – for example, are we intellectually developed enough or motivated enough? For example, we can learn to use social media because there is an incentive to connect to others. Many adults, who who value “real time” relationships often don’t, and can’t, use Facebook, Twitter, etc. They are not ready, and may never be.

Teachers see students everyday who are ready, or not, to learn, but not all teachers realise this and act on it. If we teach the same material, to all students, at the same pace, then the students who may not be “ready”, for various reasons, will miss out. They will also probably miss out the next time, and the next, until they are viewed (and view themselves) as failures.

ImageSo, it is our job to help students to be ready to learn. From a pastoral care perspective, students should arrive at school healthy, rested, calm, fed and with their necessary materials. When this doesn’t happen, schools need procedures to compensate, such as in the many schools that have a breakfast program.

However, it is in class that the main task begins. Even if we feel tied to some sort of high-stakes testing, that doesn’t mean that we can’t treat our students as individuals, and work out what it is we have to do with each one to help them to be ready to learn.

In classes in which there is true differentiation, teachers use a range of strategies to help students be “ready”. The main tool for encouraging readiness is motivation, through engaging the interests of students in tasks that are relevant to them. Students enter classrooms with a rich store of prior knowledge that can be related to their classroom material by simply talking with them, not at them.

Also, students need time to reflect on their learning, and collaborating with others is a powerful way to clarify and reinforce learning. Teaching students to work cooperatively is essential.

At the end of the day, helping students to be ready to learn is remembering that it is all, in fact, about their learning.

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Life-long learning

At the last International Baccalaureate Asia-Pacific conference, in Melbourne, Erica McWilliams indicated that the term “life-long learning” was, to put it mildly, over-used. So many schools and other educational organisations use it in their vision or mission statements that it has been rendered almost meaningless.

It certainly isn’t a modern concept. I remember that my grandmother, who had not completed high school, knew as much about what went on in the world around her as anyone else I knew. This is because she behaved like a life-long learner.

Recently, I asked a group of teachers “What does life-long learning look like?” They came up with things like “open-minded”, “inquiring”, etc. I asked them to elaborate on the behaviours, not the attitudes, because behaviour is all we can actually observe.

So, when we thought about it, we started to list some. For example, a life-long learner might, amongst other things,

– read newspapers, books, magazines, blogs, etc.

– follow news and/or current affairs programs on TV, the radio, the internet, etc.

– ask questions

– volunteer information and/or opinions, supported by evidence

– take note of the world around them

– take peaceful action to support their beliefs.

What do you think?

I’m learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma.– Eartha Kitt

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Choose your own Adventure

A little while back, I attended a workshop in which the presenter shared about using stories to teach his subject. Thinking about this, it seems, to me, that education is most often like telling a story. Most of the time the story is written by the presenter or the teacher but often is written by somebody else, for example a government or an external body. In many classrooms and many professional development activities the story has a definite end, which is gradually revealed by the “story teller” (the teacher/presenter).

However if we are going to truly educate people then maybe we could consider “Choose your own adventure” as a metaphor.

In “Choose your own adventure” the reader gets to select, from alternatives, the way they want the story to go and, therefore, what ending the story has. If we extend this metaphor to teaching, then, maybe, we also need to include the possibility of the “reader ” (student/participant) to actually write some of the story and contribute to the writing of the ending.

The story teller writes (plans) the basic plot elements of the story and delivers these to the reader. During the “telling”, the readers can contribute to the development of the story (using their prior knowledge, and connections they make as the story unfolds). By the end of the “adventure”, both story teller and reader are satisfied that they have jointly created something worth doing. The story teller, at no stage, gives up control of the story, but invites the readers to contribute their perspectives, thereby making it richer and more meaningful than if the story teller had written it alone.

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Fostering a Reflective School Culture

Learning without reflection is a waste, reflection without learning is dangerous.” Confucius

For a school to establish itself as a learning community, being ‘reflective’ should be integral to the school ethos. Reflection is a quality essential to living in the 21st Century, because, without reflecting on our past and current practices it is difficult to make changes and adjustments to the way we live our lives. When we refer to a school, we should consider all components of the school community – students, teachers and parents.

We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” – John Dewey

In classrooms, students are regularly asked to complete reflections at the end of their work, to add to their portfolios or as a consequence of their actions. But, are we guilty of asking students ‘to reflect’ without providing them with the time, tools and scaffolding to ensure that their reflections consider a range of perspectives and reach a metacognitive level? Reflection that builds on prior understandings and learning will only occur when authentic connections can be made and reflected upon. Reflection requires time and space and an environment that is emotionally supportive. If we try to cover too much, at a pace that does not allow enough time for reflection, learning is superficial. The simplest ‘activity’ can be turned in to a genuine learning engagement when supported by reflection that guides the learners to make connections. Building guided reflection into learning is a perfect way to move away from practice that is based on isolated activities to ensure that significant understandings are ‘uncovered’, explored and inspire learning.

By scaffolding reflection with tools such as sentence stems and reflection prompts teachers provide children with triggers to support their thinking. One supportive strategy is to keep a box of cards with sentence starters in the room that students may access at any time when reflecting, either orally or in writing, by completing the sentence. Prompts such as:

If I could do this again I would..

I discovered………. and…..

The most challenging part for me was…..

From my inquiries I found out…

I believe…..

My understanding of……….. is…

I would like to find out more about…

I can now explain why …

In my opinion the following changes need to be made …………………. as …………………

Providing assessment tools such as rubrics, checklists, success criteria and exemplars prior to learning gives students a foundation for their reflections when the work is completed and when significant time and structures are provided for them to review their work against the criteria.

Student Portfolios are one tool for sharing reflections on work but reflection should become an integral part of the teaching and learning program, not just something that is completed at the end of a unit or for a portfolio entry. Reflection is a skill that the students need to be using readily, without prompting, and one that can be transferred to varied situations…. It needs to become a habit.


Teachers need to include reflection in the planning process and ensure that they revisit it regularly to ensure that their teaching is leading to student learning, not just covering the curriculum requirements. As for the students, for this reflection to be effective, planning it requires time. Often teachers are so busy preparing their next units of work/themes that reflection on past work is not considered and, therefore, records for future reference are not completed and the next unit/topic does not build on what students learned previously. Why do we only reflect at the end of the unit/ subject topic?

One possible approach is to use a daily reflection journal where comments can be added and sorted later, or to keep a hard copy of lesson plans in a place where post it notes with direct reflections can be added throughout the unit/topic and then compiled during the reflection sessions.

Teachers too can model the learning portfolio of their students by starting the year with goal setting. The pedagogical leaders can meet with teachers, establish support strategies, suggest mentors, books/ articles and use the information to plan in-school or external professional development.  As the year progresses, the learning portfolio may be expanded to include regular reflections, responses to readings or research, reflections on the implementation of strategies from PD sessions or workshops and general reflections on student learning and the program. This information can be supported by artifacts and maintained digitally. As for students, some scaffolding provided by school leaders can help to get the process started. Once teachers establish a professional learning portfolio it becomes both a reflection tool and an ongoing record of development that can provide useful support during further career interviews. Leaders may also like to ask teachers to write a letter or develop a mind map at the conclusion of a school year outlining the significant characteristics of their year. This should be used at the beginning of the next year for goal setting.

Engaging parents in the reflective process may require a higher level of scaffolding.  3-Way conferences and Student-Led Conferences provide two useful tools to engage parents with their child’s learning. Prior to a conference, it is important that parents have a clear outline of their role, a guide to some possible questions and prompts they may use and a framework for giving feedback. Asking parents to write a letter to their child after a the Student-Led Conference engages them in reflecting on what their child knows and can do, as well as providing feedback for the child. Another tool is the Home Conference, where students take their portfolio home several times throughout the year, and share their learning journeys with their parents; again parents can provide feedback and reflections with prompts provided by the school.

Home journals/daily communication books can include pages for parents to note action taken at home or evidence of connections made between learning and the home environment.

For the students, teachers and parents the needs are similar. Reflection needs to be nurtured, scaffolded and prompted so that it can become a healthy habit and a part of the school environment. Change such as this takes effort, persistence and ongoing monitoring but the rewards are beneficial for all school community members.

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It takes time and thought

“Mr. Andrew, I put my investigation on my Technology wiki” – this was an email from a girl who is a member of a cohort I began with 15 months ago. This class of adolescents had been imported from the local school system. A few of them had some rudimentary English, but most spoke none. I was, ostensibly, their English teacher, but that was just the tip of the iceberg.

I speak enough of their mother tongue to have established that they had spent 6 years learning to be “invisible” – if they were not noticed by anyone, they would not be challenged. So, answering questions, let alone asking them was “out of the question”. Also, the boys, in particular, had been conditioned into making fun of anyone who stood out, and, actually thinking about anything seemed completely alien.

So, we began with some essential agreements about participation and conduct. The problems here were that few actually understood, conceptually, the implications of their agreements, and they were not used to anyone following up. Boundaries were set and agreements adhered to.

The main task was to be able to challenge them to think, but in an environment in which they could risk an answer without a classmate calling them the equivalent of “stupid”. In line with local practices, it was generally known that one girl had achieved the lowest mark in the Grade 6 exam in her feeder primary school. (The fact that she had passed didn’t seem to be an issue.)

Group work, with plenty of re-grouping allowed me to get around to each student and form a relationship with them. Classes became enjoyable, and we realised that we might actually be learning something. We got out of the classroom a bit, into the local area. We learned the difference between opinions and fact. We learned that providing information from the internet is not the same as answers to questions in our own words. We learned to work with each other.

Finding out local opinion about what is a good school

The English is slowly improving, but the real improvement is in the ability of my students to communicate their understanding, respect each other and enjoy learning.

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