Tuesday, July 17, 2012

#CyberPD Opening Minds Chapters 4-6

Children collaborating on drawing a picture from
Early Learning Central
A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary. - Thomas Carruthers

Although the titles of this week's chapters seem to indicate they are incredibly different topics, the theme that I found through each of them is shifting the responsibility for learning to the students rather than the teacher. The teacher is still responsible for the creation of a learning environment, and it is through the language that teacher uses (and associative practices) that he/she creates an environment where students learn from each other and individually become active agents in their own learning. This is done through thoughtful use of feedback, the creation of a culture of alternative thinking, and the development of social imagination.

Feedforward Rather Than Feedback (Chapter 4)

If the purpose of feedback is to improve further understanding and build skills while deepening perseverance in learning, than the more appropriate term might be feedforward (creating the worldview of progressing forward, rather than regressing back). Too often schools have focused on assessment (or using assessment as data) as the final hurdle to be jumped in a unit (or year) rather than a part of the learning process. Or, with Generation Me, students are praised with the mistaken belief that praise will increase self-esteem and motivation.

Johnston transforms the purpose of feedback to one that creates student narratives of agency and a dynamic mind-set of learning. He states, “The heart of formative assessment is finding the edges of students' learning and helping them to take up possibilities of growth” (p. 40). This means that feedback needs to focus on process and be non-judgmental, as judgement creates a fix-attribute mind-set. A focus on process helps students imagine and believe in the possibility of change and progress. The alternatives to straight-up praise or criticism is:
  • Talk about cause and effect - “When you did __________ , I noticed ______
  • Be positive (which doesn't mean praise) and notice strategies used
  • Provide alternative ways of looking at the work
  • Notice what is partially correct and work from what the students have shown they know

As teachers, we need to model these ways of providing feedback and encourage students to take up these models in their interaction with each other as peer interaction is the majority of a student's day.

Flexible and Collaborative Thinking (Chapter 5)

In a dynamic-learning frame knowledge is also dynamic. I know this is a radical idea for many people who grew up in a world of fixed-knowledge (Just the facts, Ma'am). When knowledge is dynamic, the construction of understanding is influenced by the perspectives and contexts of the individuals involved. Dialogue is the foundation of building flexible and collaborative thinking and the perception of uncertainty enables this dialogue. This means that we as teachers need to model comfort with uncertainty and expect disagreements but also explanation of personal positions. I have seen the teachers I work with do some amazing things to build knowledge together with their students. When a question comes up that doesn't have an immediate answer, the teacher says, “How can we find out the answer to that?” The teachers I've worked with use their whiteboard and chart papers to record their students' thinking and help them see the connections between ideas.

Social Imagination (Chapter 6)
Learning is fundamentally a social activity. Part of existing as a social being is learning how to read cues from others, imagine the perspectives of others and possible outcomes of actions. Johnston calls the first part “mind reading” - being able to read and interpret body language and cues accurately. Social reasoning is the ability to take perspectives and imagine possible outcomes. By helping students develop their social imaginations, they are also more likely to be able to self-regulate themselves and understand the consequences of their behaviors. Although these skills are not often listed in standards and benchmarks, nor tested, they are essential in building relationships with others – which provides the opportune environment for learning. Teachers can support the development of social imagination by asking students to imagine the motivations of book characters or classmates, posit multiple reasons for incidents, role play how to manage events, and guiding students to problem solve together.

If you would like to join the conversation about Peter Johnston's book Opening Minds: Using Language to Change Lives, check out #CyberPD on Twitter, or this week's host, Jill Fisch at My Primary Passion.


  1. Loved this:

    "the theme that I found through each of them is shifting the responsibility for learning to the students rather than the teacher."

    That is what we all need to focus on every day. Thanks.

  2. The term "feed-FORWARD" is so powerful.

  3. Suzanne,
    Thank you for your clear reflection. You share many ways to transfer ownership to students in our classrooms. In the coming year, this is a path I will continue to follow. Every year I feel like I get closer, but the target always seems to move. These chapters were packed with tools to help me find my way.


  4. What a great picture to accompany your post focusing on teachers setting up the learning environment and then allowing students to collaborate and grow together.

    I also love your background with your book stack!

  5. Suzanne,
    Thank you for reminding me of this oh-so-important quote: A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary. - Thomas Carruthers. That is what I strive towards!