Monday, January 23, 2012

When do we stop chewing their food?

The birds have found the feeder. We moved it and a suet holder closer to the house this winter since the trees that used to shelter them were cut down over the summer. I was afraid that their proximity to the house might frighten the birds, but it has not been a problem. In fact, it has made it easier to watch the birds as they feed.

During the spring and summer, I watched as the adult birds fed the babies. The adults would grab food from the feeder and place it in the mouths of the babies waiting on nearby branches. I do not anticipate seeing much of this behavior over the winter. I could be wrong, but I think the birds that visit our feeder and suet cakes have outgrown the need to be beak-fed.

When does this happen in education? In other words: when do we quit feeding learners information and expect them to fend for themselves? This came up this past week as I talked with university colleagues about student evaluations. We have all had comments that our students want more lecture because that is how they "learn" best. I make up that these comments are from students who have come to expect that the teacher's role is to gather and chew up educational information for students to consume. Is that too harsh?

For the sake of completing this post, let us assume that this learned helplessness is indeed the problem. What can we do about it? This is where I try to apply the Teaching-Learning Cycle and the Gradual Release of Responsibility. The Teaching-Learning Cycle provides a framework where I can identify the information and the processes learners need to make it on their own, monitor learners' progress toward these goals, and plan and implement appropriate supports. The Gradual Release of Responsibility represents an instructional approach which helps learners to "fend for themselves" through a series of lessons that begin with demonstrations, move to collaboration, and eventually result in independent practice.

I am fortunate that my colleague, who teaches the prerequisite course for the one I am teaching now, uses these frameworks in his practice. Even after only a few days I have seen a difference in my learners. Not everyone of these learners had John's section, but those who did are able to share with the rest what is expected of them in and out of class. I get the feeling that there will be a lot less gathering and chewing on my part this semester. And for that, I am grateful.

Monday, January 16, 2012

What is your dream?

Today, Grand Valley held a Silent March to commemorate Martin Luther King, Jr, whose birthdate was January 15, 1929. Along the way, placards lay out a timeline of the civil rights leader's life and some of his quotes. I find Dr. King's messages inspiring, and I believe that they are timeless. So I was grateful when Valerie Strauss shared several excerpts from his speeches and writings related to education in her column, "MLK's prescient thinking on education reform."

I especially connected with his piece for the Morehouse College student newspaper. In this writing, Dr. King discusses the purposes of education. Part way through the piece, he writes:
Education must also train one for quick, resolute and effective thinking. To think incisively and to think for one's self is very difficult. We are prone to let our mental life become invaded by legions of half truths, prejudices, and propaganda. At this point, I often wonder whether or not education is fulfilling its purpose. A great majority of the so-called educated people do not think logically and scientifically. Even the press, the classroom, the platform, and the pulpit in many instances do not give us objective and unbiased truths. To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.
The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.
Reading this, I immediately thought of phronesis - the idea of knowing what's available to do and what's worth doing. Of course, what is worth doing to one person may seem foolhardy to another. And another person might consider the "doing" just plain wrong. In the article, Dr. King writes about former Georgia governor, Eugene Talmadge. Dr. King considers Governor Talmadge intelligent but wonders, "yet he contends that I am an inferior being. Are those the types of men we call educated?"

How can education help us address such unintelligent presepectives? We must provide experiences that challenge unfounded beliefs. We must provide opportunities to reflect on those experiences. And then we must start over again because beliefs can be a difficult thing to change. But change they must, or it will be Dr. King's closing words in the article that will turn out to be most prescient:
If we are not careful, our colleges will produce a group of close-minded, unscientific, illogical propagandists, consumed with immoral acts. Be careful, "brethren!" Be careful, teachers!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Who controls the volume?

For that special date 11-11-11, NPR's All Songs Considered did a podcast based on the this clip from This is Spinal Tap:

No surprise - my thoughts went to education. I wondered about the ways I try to turn my teaching volume up to eleven. There are certainly times in my classroom where I want to REALLY impress upon my learners the importance of what we are exploring. While this might result in literally turning up the volume, it is more likely to manifest itself in elaborate planning and over-the-top presentation. It might get the learners' attention, and maybe even their interest, but this line of thinking seems too self-centered to be sustainable.

The podcast was really about the songs that listeners want to turn up to eleven, though. This was evident in the following exchange:

Bob Bollen: "I think most people, when they think of 'cranking up', they think of pop music. They think of turning up the radio that they’re listening to when that song comes on." 
Jacob Ganz: "Yeah, that’s the instinct. You’re listening to the radio and something comes on and you either reach to change the channel or you reach to crank it."
BB: "It was the original 'like' button. Only there was no feedback. If the station could have gotten that information that you turned the dial up …"
In my way of thinking, the listener represents the learners in my classroom. While I certainly have wished that I could receive immediate feedback on how engaged learners were in the lesson, when it is put this way I am uneasy. It too closely resembles a consumer approach to education - find out what they want and then give them more of it. This seems representative of some of the student-centered approaches that I find unsustainable.

Instead, I would like to have learners be more reflective about what they like or don't like about a lesson. Here is where the analogy breaks down because listeners do not need to connect with every song, but I want learners to be prepared to engage with every lesson. This is a metacognitive act that will allow them to participate more fully in boring lessons that they might otherwise tune out.

I still want to develop lessons that showcase my enthusiasm for the topics being addressed. Enthusiasm can be contagious. As the course goes on, however, I need to be ready to gradually release responsibility to the learners. They must find ways to connect to the learning regardless of their level of interest. After all, learners ultimately control the volume of what they want to hear. I just want to help them to make critical and sustainable choices.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Whose problem is it?

"Education systems, teachers, school districts all over the world are going crazy about problem-based learning - nothing like a good problem to solve. But they are looking at the wrong bit of it. The thing we're neglecting is to find a generation of problem finders."
The above quote comes early in Ewan McIntosh's talk at TEDxLondon. This really connects with my goal to foster sustainable learning. Here is the entire talk (it is well worth the eight minutes):

I want learners to come up with their own problems - to be able to answer, "Now what?" for themselves. Most times when I try to implement a problem finding curriculum, however, two issues interfere: trust and control. You see, I know what they need to know because I know what I learned and how it has helped me. How can I be sure learners will follow the correct path, find the right problems, if I do not lead them either explicitly or implicitly?

Here is a good example. Over the winter holiday break, I went on a hike through a state managed forest. Along the trail were a variety of signs describing interesting facts about the trees and forest management. The sign below was of particular interest to me.
I thought it had a lot of potential for use in a course on teaching and learning middle school mathematics that I am scheduled to lead this semester. It would provide a great context for the geometry section as I asked my learners to make Biltmore and Merritt Rule Sticks using the information provided. The problem was perfect, but as Ewan points out, it was also mine.

Given my interest in sustainable learning, I would be better off owning the problem myself and using it as a demonstration. It would offer an opportunity for thinking aloud about identifying problems in contexts that interest me - the first step in the gradual release of responsibility. Then, with my support, the learners could begin to find their own problems in whatever math content we must address. By the end of the course, hopefully, the learners could find problems for themselves.

With awareness and effort, I have gotten better at letting my learners lead the way. Every success allows me to trust them a little bit more and give up trying to control the curriculum. Maybe 2012 will be the year I learn to really let go.