Friday, June 22, 2012

Book Review: Choice Words

In July, Cathy et al at Refine andReflect are hosting a #cyberPD summer reading discussion based on Peter Johnston's Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives. In preparation (and while waiting for Amazon to deliver Opening Minds), I decided to re-read Johnston's Choice Words. It is a good reminder about the power of teachers' words in designing the classroom environment and creating students' identities.

Johnston begins with quoting Vygotsky (1978), which I think is a very powerful thing to remember, "children grow into the intellectual life around them" (p. 88). What kind of intellectual life am I creating in my classroom? What am I modeling through my words and actions about how to access and create knowledge? These are some big questions to answers - and it goes beyond naming the content and materials of the course. The foundation of teaching is the relationship between teacher and student, and since speech is action (Austin, 1962) teachers have the daunting responsibility of "naming" students - who is a good reader or struggling student? I need to be aware of how my language positions students in my classroom and be intentional in creating positive identities and attuned to how my students are rejecting, accepting and modifying the identities available. Johnston then elaborates in each chapter the power of particular ways of using language in the classroom.

When people are apprentices to an activity, any activity, they have to learn the names of things/actions and the importance of these things/actions. Students in my classroom need to learn the language of classroom activities, ways of thinking and doing, I can't assume they know it. Once something is noticed (and named) it influences the continued perception of everything (ie. I can't "un-notice" something). In the classroom, I need to help my students develop the language and habit of noticing and naming their thinking and actions using phrases such as "Did you notice ... What kind of .... What process did you use to ..."

Teachers have great power (and with it comes great responsibility) in creating identities for children. Naming one child a great writing and another a struggling reader can have long-range consequences. "Building an identity means coming to see in ourselves the characteristics of particular categories (and roles) of people and developing a sense of what is feels like to be that sort of person and being in certain social spaces" (p. 23) Yes, children have agency to reject, modify or accept the identities available, but some do not know how to use their agency. "Teachers' conversation with children help the children build bridges between action and consequences that develop their sense of agency" (p. 30). Agency is easy to feel when there is direct cause/effect, but so much in learning is delayed. Writing a story often doesn't have an effect until it is read by another person, and even then the effect is subtle. I need to help my students create and tell stories (narratives) about themselves that include them having choices, control and positive outcomes. Phrases may include things like "How did you figure this out? What problems did you encounter? What are you going with this?"

In my research and literature review of discussion in the classroom, I have seen that it is still prevalent to have the traditional IRE pattern of discussion in the classroom, which Johnston confirms. The teacher Initiates with a known-answer question, the student Responds with an answer, and the teacher Evaluates the answer and moves on. Whoever poses the questions determines the topic of conversation, and most often, the questions are surface level or shallow. "Learning to act as a recipient of information and to display receipt of information ... [ is not the same as] building on ideas in a shared endeavor [ in which] participants' roles can vary widely, such as leading a shared inquiry, playing around with an idea together or closely following other people's lines of thought" (quoting Rogoff & Toma, 1997, p. 475). Knowledge building requires authentic questions, space for trying out ideas, and ways of connecting ideas together.

Often students are asked to work in groups, not as groups. As I begin designing lessons, one of my goals is to help students learn the skills of creating a community that supports each other and depends on each other, while bringing out the best qualities of each individual. “Democracy is neither a possession nor a guaranteed achievement. It is forever in the making; it might be thought of as a possibility—moral and imaginative possibility. For surely it has to do with the way person attend to one another, care for one another, and interact with one another. It has to do with choices and alternatives with the capacity to look at things as though they could be otherwise” (Maxine Greene, 1985, p. 3).

A teacher's conscious and unconscious expectations of the student in front of them is evident in the way the teacher speaks and treats the student, and students will internalize and act accordingly, either accepting or rebelling against the perceived identities. One question I need to ask myself, and help my students ask is "What image of humanity is inherent in it [this situation]" (Young, 1992).

“I've come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It's my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized.” Dr. Haim Ginott

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Book Review: Visible Learning for Teachers

Title: Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning
Author: John Hattie
Publisher: Routledge
Year: 2012
ISBN: 978-0-415-69015-7

"When teaching and learning are visible there is a greater likelihood of students reaching higher levels of achievement" (p. 18).

This seems to be an obvious statement - kind of like the proverb, if you don't know your destination, how will you ever know you have arrived.  However, in my experience, many teachers do not make their teaching expectations and learning goals visible for the students they work with.  I've mentioned before my use of backward design and teaching for understanding, which asks teachers to 1) Describe what understanding looks like in your subject area (and then unit). 2) Plan backwards from the end of the unit (What should students be able to know and do?) to the beginning (What skills, strategies and dispositions to student need to learn and practice to get to the understanding?).  Hattie's book, originating out of  New Zealand and Australia, continues to support these ideas, but goes a step further  - insisting that the largest factor of student success is the teacher.  His book, based on meta-analysis of over 52,000 studies on student learning, elaborates on what he believes are the key moves that teachers can make to increase achievement - and it begins with the teacher's mind set, not with the program or curriculum.

Hattie believes that teachers are the major players in the educational process.  Again, this seems like an obvious statement, but more programs and curricula are trying to squeeze out the influence of the teacher with the mistaken belief that the research-based curriculum is the answer to all that troubles schools.    Schools do not have control over student background, prior experiences, or preferences, but teachers DO have control over their own beliefs, commitments, and ultimately, actions. It is the attitude and expectations of the teacher that determines the decisions and actions that happen in the classroom, for both the teacher and the students.

There is a difference between experienced teachers and expert teachers in 5 crucial ways.
1) Expert teachers identify the most important ways to represent their subject (integrating ideas)
2) Expert teachers are proficient at creating an optimal classroom climate for learning (trust)
3) Expert teachers monitor learning and provide feedback consistently
4) Expert teachers believe that ALL students can reach the success criteria
5) Expert teacher believe that they can influence surface and deep level outcomes

All of this happens before the teacher walks into the classroom.  Then, Hattie breaks down the lesson planning into - preparing, starting, flow of learning, flow of feedback and end of the lesson.  Being a meta-analysis, he gives a lot of statistics about the studies he has reviewed but there are some very basic ideas that are important.
*Know the students and begin with what they know
*Focus on creating dialogue (not monologue) in the classroom
*Aim students at the goal (be explicit about what they should do and how)
*Balance surface level knowledge and deep understanding
*Give feedback at multiple places and at multiple levels - including peer-to-peer and self-assessment
*Use errors as growth opportunities to see how students think
*Reflection should focus on the students - their learning and reactions, not teacher action

The last section of the books elaborates on what Hattie calls "Mind Frames" - the kind of thinking and beliefs that schools, school leaders and teachers need to have to promote success for all students:
1) Teachers/leaders need to believe that teaching has an effect on students - therefore, teachers need to evaluate the effectiveness of their interactions with students.
2) Teachers are change agents!
3) Schools should focus more on learning and less on teaching.
4) Assessment should be feedback - not a decision.
5) There needs to be more dialogue and less monologue (in classrooms AND in schools - professional development etc).
6) Teaching and learning is challenging - but this should be supported and embraced, not eliminated.
7) Positive, trusting relationships are necessary to support learning.
8) Teachers/leaders need to teach parents and the community the language of learning used in school and become partners in the learning process.

Appendix A includes a checklist for visible learning that includes much of the a fore mentioned items.  There is an assumption that the school environment supports peer visits etc - which in and of itself, is a good practice.  Appendix B lists the major details of each of the studies the author used to draw his meta-analysis from.

Overall, I can't say this was a fun read, as there were a lot of details of the studies along with effect sizes etc.  However, the major conclusions are significant.  At the last AERA, the theme was "To Know is Not Enough".  We do actually know a lot about what makes learning work, but we are still so entrenched in continuing to do things as they have always been done.  The way we taught 100 years ago will no longer work in an era that creativity and critical thinking is more valuable than following directions and learning one particular trade.  I'm glad I pick up this book (How could you resist the colorful cover?) as it highlights for me the importance of checking my own attitudes and beliefs about teaching and learning before I begin planning for the new school year.

John Hattie's early book, on which this book is based, is Visible Learning: A Synthesis of over 800 Meta-analyses Relating to Achievement.    At What Works Best, Atherton provides a summary, comments and some graphics from the book.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Summer Professional Reading #cyberPD

 I happened to stumble on Cathy's blog Refine and Reflect and found her posting about #cyberPD - posting and talking about your summer reading list.  I liked the idea and posted in her comment section, but figured I should post it here too. 

Opening Minds by Peter Johnston
Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning by John Hattie
The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller
Talk about Understanding by Ellin Oliver Keens
Digital Learning: Strengthening and Assessing 21st Century Skills by Ferdi Serim
Academic Conversations: Classroom Talk that Fosters Critical Thinking and Content Understandings by Jeff Zwier & Marie Crawford
Teaching argument writing, grades 6-12 : supporting claims with relevant evidence and clear reasoning by George Hillocks, Jr.

Caught in the middle : reading and writing in the transition years by David Booth
Exemplary instruction in the middle grades : teaching that supports engagement and rigorous learning edited by Diane Lapp, Barbara Moss. 
History and imagination : reenactments for elementary social studies by Ronald Vaughan Morris
Teaching literature to adolescents by Richard Beach et al

And, here are a few other people posting their lists:

And a Google Doc with suggestions: