Student Engagement – Not my problem?

My teacher inquiry context for this year is around the issue of student engagement. Shortly I’ll be posting my official plan (which, apparently I’ll change anyway) which has an outline of what I’m planning to do, what the research has told me so far and so on.

A conversation I had today with a teacher I respect started me thinking about the level of responsibility I have towards ensuring students stay on task and motivated during the day. I have often reflected at the end of the day and almost felt a ‘weight’ or burden over a student’s lack of focus. It’s easy for us to feel less than successful as teachers if we fail to engage every student in what we’re doing – after all, a great teacher has the entire class buzzing, enthusiastic and running home at the end of the day all pumped up and loving being a learner… don’t they?

This teacher believed that the bulk of a teacher’s time should be spent with the students who want to learn and have the right attitude. They felt that our responsibility lies in creating an engaging environment for learning and that the rest, to a degree, was up to the student to respond in a positive way. It sounds so liberating to us less experienced teachers who still want to change the world for every kid but have enough class time under the belt that classrooms aren’t like that. It’s also something I’ll keep reflecting on.

This slide share, by Steve Wheeler (thanks again, twit machine), has a quote that jumped of the screen at me.

He states on slide 4 –

‘We cannot ‘manage’ self organised learning for our students.
We can only
create conducive environments within which students will
organise their own learning.’

He’s obviously talking within the context of self management but I can see his belief about teachers creating environments for students to respond to. It’s this environment that, to a greater or lesser degree, that I feel I should be focusing on creating.

6 ways to meet my responsibility and create a positive learning environment.

1. Utilise both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators that are positive and negative (but focus on the positive) – have incentives and appropriate rewards for active engagment, provide opportunities for students to monitor and reflect on their own learning, have consistent and negotiated consequences with ready access for progress to ‘redemption’.

2. Making the learning relevant and authentic – discuss the ‘why’ we’re learning somthing and have a meaningful purpose or goal.

3. Provide opportunities for student responsibility and praise them when they respond.

4. Create and foster a sense of a learning community – encourage all points of view, experimentaion and risk taking. Role modeling ‘thinking aloud’ and encouraging ‘wrong – good answers’.

5. Making the class fun! – having fun and allowing yourself to look silly in front of the class.

6. Creating and maintaining ‘one to one’ relationships with each student. – “A student won’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

(Images used under Creative Commons – Zen, Sahtu Wildlife. Sourced from flickr)

Critical Thinking Odyssey!

We all hear a lot about how important critical thinking is for our students. Employers are saying that problem solving and team work are two extremely important traits they look for in their work force and it’s something I look to develop in my class programme as much as possible.

This year I’ve stumbled on an interactive game (and I use the word with hesitancy because that word has a bad rap in education circles) that is probably as much of an ongoing narrative and visual ‘epic’ as it is a learning experience.

Samorost 2 is the story of a pyjama clad hero in search for his alien abducted dog. samorostYou are the hero in this space odyssey that has you searching, experimenting, questioning and defeating various levels, or scenes, on your way to the dog’s liberation.

The benefits I’ve seen from children playing this are increased conversation (coming up with strategies) and negotiation skills, knowledge of machinery and basic physics (if you push this it will move that and turn this off, etc) and the accumulation of experience and hindsight that comes as each scenario is conquered (using prior knowledge).

I haven’t yet thrust this at my class but trialed it on my own two daughters (six and eight) at home. The free trial you can play on-line is only the first chapter but held my girls attention (completely undivided) for a couple of hours which, despite their dad’s computer fixation, was unusual. It was fascinating to watch them problem solve their way through the challenges and even occasionally, by my own questioning, have some help at times.

I’d be really interested to see how this would fair with my class of 9 and 10 year olds and I’ll post their progress soon. I’d also love to read of any others who’ve used Samorost in a school setting. How easy would it be to justify it’s place inside the curriculum you’re working within?

I’ve wanted to find some links to classrooms who have used Samorost (thanks to twitter search) and stumbled on an example at Mr Sales Blog. His class used it to inspire some creative writing (a year 6 class) and, by all accounts, they loved it. The class were asked to watch the start and then describe what they could see, hear and touch. I liked his encouragement to add mystery and atmosphere to their writing. What a great use of this game! His blog is one I’ll be keeping an eye on.

Changing our spaces

There’s something hardwired in me that responds well to change. There is no doubt that our schools could improve the way we do ‘school’ and the most of the dialogue at the moment is around the role that technology can play.

But what about the role of architecture and what I’ve seen phrased as ‘spatial politics’? This slideshare, by Esltechnology, (an ESL teacher at a middle school in Eastern Oregon) shows what can be the future of all schools if administrators are committed to a new, 21st Century pedagogy.

I can imagine so many different ways that students could be learning in these spaces. I wonder how differently I could teach in spaces like these. I think I would be amazed at how much my own teaching is defined by the space in which I teach. The challenge for me, and others with a similar mindset, is to keep confronting and questioning my own beliefs and teaching practice – while remaining in a pretty traditional classroom space.

I could see how easily you could operate a ‘self directed’ classroom and encourage student collaboration and independence. This challenge would require me to push the boundaries of my physical space and act as we would as if these spaces were ours now. Is this possible?

I can see three hurdles to overcome for the potential of self directed learning to be realised.

1. A desire by schools to risk the abuse of student trust. I have seen schools that allow students to use a variety of classroom spaces to work and learn in – libraries, small offices, playgrounds, utility rooms etc, which can often be unsupervised. With trust and responsibility comes the thin wedge of risk and abuse. I’m encouraged to see many school administrators making this move and enjoying the benefits.

2. A misunderstanding community. It’s not hard to anticipate parents who are unsure of the amount of work that results from this style of learning. The challenge to this hurdle lies in open, honest communication. It’s too easy for teachers to forget that parents don’t have the insight into how education is shifting in our schools. When parents are shown the quality of learning that occurs, as I’ve been told from one school, they are usually quick to support it.

3. Teachers who are unwilling to relinquish the control that comes with 20th century pedagogy. It’s with us, as teachers, that the hurdle would appear the largest and there are as many reasons for this reluctance as there are teachers – and there are many. The control that this style encouraged was due in large part to the limit of resources that students could use but technology has released these resources. Unfortunately, for the students, the control has remained. It’s with us, as teachers, that the hurdle seems the highest.

So, to come full circle – How does my classroom space reflect my goal of inspiring student responsibility and control in their learning?


What IS the change?

I’m often thinking about, listening to and having conversations about change – in SO many different areas of my live, both professionally and personally. Usually this dialogue is about how slow the change is occurring but what I’m realising is that, in a subtle but steady way, the way we teach and learn is absolutely, slowly shifting.

Here are some thoughts about this effective pedagogical change. These are ideas that I’ve heard, discovered and had light bulb moments about.


The change in pedagogy could be that the learners:

– construct the knowledge, not just reproduce

– engaged in dialogue, not listening

– present to others in own voice, not teachers

– work together, not against in competition

– reflect on learning rather than just do what is required.

Is this the revolution? It’s a pretty good start and one that keeps me REALLY enthusiastic about being a learner.

Change will take a major shift

An interesting ‘morning tea in the staffroom’ chat I had with another teacher led me to think about what has to happen for real change in our classrooms to occur.

I was having a regular ‘vent’ about how few teachers are using technology in their day to day practice. She believed, however, that they shouldn’t have to. Everyone has a strength, she said, mine being I.C.T and others being Art or Numeracy. It wasn’t until after our conversation that I realised the reason for our ‘disconnect’.

One of the reasons change is not happening (any where near as fast as we would like in some classrooms) is because so many still see tech integration as a ‘curriculum area’ rather than a teaching pedagogy. It’s not something we teach but something that can fundamentally change the way we teach.

This, though, is obviously not the shift. It is who has to take on board that conceptual difference that is the crucial factor. Anyone reading a random teacher’s blog has, probably, already grasped this concept. Real momentum will begin when we can break through to the multitudes of teachers, administrators and parents who haven’t made this transition.

And how many do you know?

At the moment this conceptual shift is ‘encouraged’. I’ve heard it said that we are the last generation of teachers for whom tech integration is an option.

How long will it be before it is part of our professional appraisal system? And then where will many teachers and schools be?

(Photo – Davd Reece / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Thinking Kids

It seems, sometimes, that children seem a bit lost in class when we ask them to think for themselves. The bain of a teachers life is dealing with questions like, ‘I’ve run out of room on this page, what should I do?

Last year I started a semi regular ‘Out of the Box’ competitive activity for getting groups to be creative and think together. Here are some examples of what we did –
– Five Photo Story
– Twitter Challenge
– Other Examples

This is a site I’ve found (thanks, Angela Maiers) that actually builds on this idea and shares the ideas on a website. It’s called ‘Think’. What a great idea – kind of the point of the whole thing.

Which level are you at?

This ppt from Jacqui Sharp shows a progression of ICT integration into classrooms. I’ve seen it reposted on a number of blogs. It makes for some great reflection time about your class and speaks to layout as much as management and delivery.

I’ve often noticed how a classroom layout reveals so much about a teacher’s learning philosophy. I wonder how my layout stacks up?

Best PPT how to video ever!

This is a link to something everyone who uses ppt for presentations should watch. It’s from Alvin Trusty, recorded at the ‘etechohio2009’ education conference and has some fantastic practical tips – beyond the standard, ‘Don’t read out all the words on the screen.’

How to Create a Great PowerPoint – Take 2.0 from Alvin Trusty on Vimeo.

(Another credit to my favourite personal learning network – Twitter. This is a retweet from AngelaMaiers)

Unlearning Your Community

One of my goals for the year is to open up the walls of our classroom to our community. What I mean, and I know this sounds quite ‘uber-romantic’, is that I really want to engage the students, our learning, the content, our approaches to things, our challenges and our trials with the people outside our little box at school.

So far I have this blog (along with our class blog). I’ve given parents the opportunity to comment on their childs strengths and learning styles. I want to connect each student up with a significant adult that can partner with them in reflecting on their efolio and I’m looking for other classes and schools to form some ‘buddy’ type relationships with.

More transparency has not always been something I, and many teachers, feel comfortable with and most of the reason has to do with fear. It can lead to conversations that become critical questioning, especially as a teaching and learning shift happens in our schools.
This post by Jeff Utecht, on his blog – ‘The Thinking Stick’, has helped me realise how important it is for us to engage and ‘re-educate’ our community about this shift – especially as they become more involved.

“Never before in the history of education have we been given the task to not only educate the children they send us everyday, but to re-educate a whole community on what it means to learn in today’s world. What it means to collaborate, to read, to write, to communicate, to research. If you can get your community to relearn you can change the system.”

This places incredible responsibility on our shoulders. What will I do as a classroom teacher? What will we do as a school? The adventure continues.

The Homework Myth

I’ve been listening to some interesting podcasts while running away the summer days. One with short, interesting interviews is Steve Decker’s , “Educational Insights“.

This podcast, ‘Homework, is it good?’ is an interview with Alfie Kohn about his book – ‘The Homework Myth’. He seems to have written a very balanced, well researched critique on the merits of what he calls, ‘getting kids to do a second shift.’
His book states;
1. No research has ever found homework to improve academic ability.
2. Homework can lead children to resenting school and could lessen their love of learning
3. There are better ways for parents to encourage discipline and hard work in their children

It makes me think about my own classroom. I provide options for those who want it, (I do expect them to be reading and taking responsibility for things like spelling and basic facts) but, otherwise, I limit homework to personal investigations and class ‘overflow’ activities. The book would seem to validate my practice.

What do you believe about homework?