Affirm, Challenge, Repeat.


The past three days have been a bit of a roller coaster for me here at the Klingenstein Summer Institute. We have heard from Dr. Kelley Nicholson-Flynn, an expert in Educational Psychology; had excellent discussions and have gained a plethora of ideas in the History Curriculum Group; been surprised and saddened by the state of school climate around LGBTQ issues as described by Dr. Eliza Byard from GLSEN; and shared tips on using technology in the classroom. Throughout these discussions, I have swung like a pendulum from one feeling to another: I’m so far ahead of the game…I’ve got so much to learn!

Perhaps the most insightful observation that Klingenstein has provided thus far is that Ontario’s education and human rights policies, and in particular Greenwood’s philosophy, is far ahead of many independent schools in America in regards to both approaches to assessment and LGBTQ issues. However, I need to improve my skill for deepening my students’ knowledge, which is brought to light through learning more about educational psychology.

Dr. Nicholson-Flynn’s talk yesterday morning built on the information that she shared with us last night. She started off by providing us with one tool that has been shown to improve perseverance in students, called a WOOP. This daily activity involves students writing down today’s study Wish, today’s best Outcome, any possible Obstacles, and then develop a Plan based on obstacles, using an “if _____ than ____” structure. This simple activity, which can be facilitated by an online app, has been proven to increase student’s abilities to overcome obstacles. I like the concept of WOOP and I plan to implement it next year in my GLS4O course where skills for post-secondary school such as perseverance, will be critical.

design_process_0Dr. Nicholson-Flynn continued on to discuss the teacher as a designer of experiences, which is one of my own intentions in teaching. In my practice, I teach design to students, but I also think of myself as designer. Dr. Nicholson-Flynn discussed the need to have clear goals, to think about context (how will this learning be transferred to an authentic environment), using formative feedback, and to always be adjusting our practice based on the results of that formative feedback. To me, this process mirrors the design process, something that I both teach and use myself (see image to the left). It is essentially a feedback loop to solve problems, and it is at the heart of my reflective practice in teaching. I’m so far ahead of the game!…

But, I’ve got so much to learn. As Dr. Nicholson-Flynn’s talk continued, I realized that in my goal to be constructivist in my approach to learning and in my focus on designing experiences for students to have authentic situations and connections outside the classroom, I have overlooked some very important requirements for learning to happen. Although some of these topics go against my feelings about memorization vs. deep learning, it became apparent that there are some skills and information that students need to automate and codify in order to find success.

First, Dr. Nicholson-Flynn talked about memory, specifically explaining the differences between working memory and long term memory and how the two work together in the brain. The big take away for me on this is that rehearsal is important for moving information from working memory to long term memory. But, rehearsal is not necessarily repetition. One way that I do use rehearsal in my teaching is through Learning Cycles. The guided practice portion of the lesson allows students to rehearse.  Other ways that can we maximize working memory and minimize distractions and interference include association, time to practice, giving students small chunks of information at a time to work with, and helping them apply that information to a realistic setting so that they are not simply memorizing, but understanding. However, I don’t often require students to then recall this information later on a quiz or test, which I now realize is a big oversight.

Rehearsal, or content retrieval, is one of the best ways to understand a topic, as a shown by a recent study in the NY Times. If that is the case, perhaps I need to change my view on testing in my classroom to be a tool to help students learn, rather than something I disregard as simply rote memorization and therefore not a true form or learning.

But the pendulum swings again…

Next, the conversation moved to the need for teachers to be conscious of students’ prior knowledge and misconceptions, an area where I felt ahead of the game. As Lee Shulman notes in his book Taking Learning Seriously, “Learners construct their sense of the world by applying their old understanding to new experiences and ideas.” In this way, prior knowledge can both help or hinder learning when that prior knowledge is too narrow, or is a misconception. We need to find out what prior knowledge and misconceptions students have so that we can teach them effectively, the solution for which is formative assessment.

For the next two days, we would talk at length about formative assessment in our curriculum groups. In Ontario, and especially at Greenwood, formative assessment has long been entrenched in our teaching practice. In fact, we have moved beyond using the terms formative and summative to recognize another important factor in student learning: metacognition. Currently, the practice in Ontario (and in my classroom) is to assess for learning (formative), of learning (summative) and AS learning (having students reflect on how they learn and why). This added piece of student reflection allows the students to see assessments as a tool for learning, and not simply a vehicle for obtaining grades. I believe that this distinction is important, and the discussions in our curriculum group helped me to clarify my understanding of why these policies are in place. (To read the full “Growing Success” document, which outlines Ontario’s assessment policy, click here and go to page 27)

One question that repeatedly came up in our discussion was “how do we get our students to buy into doing work if it doesn’t affect their grade?” In thinking about what I believed to be the value of formative assessment, I was able to firm up my own belief that assessment “for” and “as” learning will ultimately lead to better results on the “of” learning assessments. In particular, I was able to better understand the importance of the “as” learning piece in dealing with that question “why do we have to do this if it’s not worth any marks?” When assessment “as” learning is an integrated, regular, part of classroom and school culture, ideally, students would learn to be learners. By having them reflect on their own learning by using assessments as a tool, they begin to reframe their idea as a tool for learning rather than a vehicle for receiving grades.

Overall, the past two days have been full of moments of affirmation that many of my practices are on the right track, followed by moments of challenge where I realize that I still have so much to learn about being a teacher. Most of all, my days have been filled with valuable, meaningful discussions with incredibly intelligent, thoughtful and talented people. I am consistently impressed with the dedication and willingness to share in our History curriculum group, our Diversity group, and most of all in informal settings. These are the reasons that I got into teaching in the first place: so that I can work with motivated, caring people and so that I can constantly be challenged and find opportunities for growth in my career.

If you’d like to “meet and tweet” with the KSI participants, I created a list on Twitter, which can be found here.

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