Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Empowering Students and Teachers -- Freedom Within Limits (Part 1)

Assessment drives instruction.  Well, so too, classroom structure drives instruction.  I believe this is why so many great ideas in education die.  Teachers give them up out of frustration.  The structure of learning time has to change in order for innovative educational ideals to survive.

This past semester, I set out to give my college students a world-class math education.  During the first couple of weeks I interspersed activities designed to teach and re-teach what an effective mathematics classroom should look like.  They got it.  They wanted it.  Then they got to work with what was prepared for them in the course.  It wasn't work that I had prepared though.  It was prepared by other instructors and handed to them through me.  It bombed.  I could tell that my students were frustrated that I was telling them one thing, and the work given to them was telling them another.  I was seen as an obstacle to completing their work and to their success because that's how they viewed success.

I realized that it wasn't that the ideas I had given them weren't good or desirable or effective, it was that the model was garbage.  This was the case in both classes I taught.  In one class, they read a textbook before class, took notes, then completed homework exercises on a computer during class.  Blah!  In the other class, they were supposed to function in groups by working through tasks prepared for them in a textbook.  In both cases, they had tasks given to them that they wanted to accomplish.  The moment they were given those tasks to complete, the role of the teacher changed.  Students were now empowered to take control of their own learning.  There was one monstrous problem though.  The teacher was removed from the equation!  In both instances, it became the individual's responsibility to learn, without much assistance.

I knew that what they were doing merely had the appearance of learning, but no substance.  That's why I set out to teach them more effective ways of learning math (though I would contest that they weren't really learning math in the first place).  The structure of the class did not allow for that though.  The structure defined my role as a teacher in both instances--wait until students ask you for help.  That's about the sum total of my role.  I can't do much else or they will get frustrated because they feel like I am impeding their success by preventing them from completing the task before them.  Bottom line, the structure of these classes gives students freedom, but no limits.

I have experienced much more success when I have been given control as the teacher to decide what my students will do.  In both instances above, I was expected to follow the structure of the class, although a vain attempt had been made to assure me that I could do whatever I wanted to within those limits!  But my freedom as a teacher was gone.

The problem with the tasks given to students in the second instance was that the task was too scripted.  The task was set up so that students had a smooth path to the goal.  The key to a successful task is a design that places students in a position that is just a little too difficult for them.  They can accomplish the task with the help of a teacher.  This ensures the teacher plays the role of facilitator, not observer.

Many educators and writers maintain that students need specific goals visible to them each day.  I prefer learning time constraints to agendas.  Students tend to rush to get to the end when they know there are a limited number of topics to explore.  On the other hand, when students know that learning is a never-ending journey, they tend to think deeper and not rush.  Time constraints allow for that, agendas don't.

I have described two typical classrooms where too much freedom is given: flipped classrooms, and group instruction driven through fill-in-the-blank textbook prompts.  The more traditional approach of simply lecture, homework, test, repeat doesn't even allow students the opportunity to take charge of their learning.  In this setting, any learning that occurs happens when the lecturer closes their mouth!

I am proposing that one way to empower students is by giving them freedom within the limits of smaller exploratory tasks, or tasks that are just beyond their reach.  When they finish, they are given another task.  When they finish that, another task is given.  This conveys the message that the limit is time not the number of topics.  There is an eternity of learning before them!  This gives the students freedom to work while at the same time giving the teacher the freedom they need to facilitate learning.  Both teachers and students are empowered in this model.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Is Blended Learning the answer?

I've been thinking about the book Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen.  In summary, for an educational model to be disruptive, it must meet the following criteria:

  1. It must be cheaper than traditional school.
  2. It must appeal to non consumers who will build a sustainable foundation.
  3. It must at first be sub par to traditional education for students already succeeding in that model. 
It will likely:
  1. Be simpler than a traditional school model.
  2. Not appeal to "successful" traditional school students AND teachers AND administrators.
I believe that some of the "non consumers" would include many kids in low-income schools and any kids, anywhere that are failing in traditional schools.  I believe this because the alternative to the disruptive model (Whatever that is) is almost the same as no class at all.   Why?  They are failing anyway.  Then for a disruptive model of education to thrive, it must appeal to said groups and meet their needs.

The blended learning schools I am seeing, reading about, and the one I work at are trying to appeal to students with whom many would consider successful at "playing school".  I believe this is the wrong direction.  We need to appeal to these non consumers that I am talking about and we need to succeed with them.  All we have to do is provide a better alternative than the one that they currently have and we will disrupt traditional schooling.  Innovations will come if we can do that.  In time, we will be able to provide a better product than what traditional schools already have.

Blended learning schools are very expensive.  I don't think it's sustainable.  It needs to be cheaper.  Part of the reason why it's so expensive is because these schools are purchasing learning software and hardware for every student.  This is not a better alternative to traditional schooling.  This is worse!  It must be cheaper than traditional schooling.

I believe that what we really need is innovative teaching and learning, not more technology.  The technology will come with the disruption.  It always does.  We are too worried about that.  We want it to be there, but it just isn't there.  What we really need is to innovate how we teach and how we learn.  Innovating how we teach is simple, it will appeal to non consumers, it will be cheaper, and it will be sub par to traditionally educated students at first.   As we innovate, we will find ways in which technology can better serve us.  The technology that has been developed and is currently being developed is not innovative, nor is it disruptive.  It is a replica of the traditional model.  It will not survive if it doesn't change.  

Whatever ways in which we decide to innovate need to be simpler and cheaper than traditional models.  I think this can easily be done by focusing on curriculum and content.  Many traditional schools purchase computers and textbooks.  The blended learning schools I am speaking about are purchasing computers and digital curriculum.  It's the same thing!  In fact, I think it's more expensive because teacher to student ratios are far below traditional schools.  If we purchase computers and provide our own curriculum, we can still afford to lower teacher to student ratios.  

Computers are not a necessity at this point.  Computers will eventually provide much needed innovation in teaching and learning.  What I am saying is that the innovations need to mostly come without computers at first.  As the innovations in how we teach materialize, the computer will then be used to make the innovations more efficient, effective, and desirable than traditional schooling.  Use of the computer can't be forced.  It will happen because it's needed, but we haven't developed the need yet.

How will innovating how we teach in simple ways be sub par to traditionally educated students at first?  Because they have learned how to play the traditional game.  They won't want to try anything innovative because they don't need it.  They don't want it.  In their eyes, they are already succeeding.  So what does this mean for innovative education models, or those who so seek?  If we are drawing kids who normally succeed or excel in traditional schools, we are doing something wrong!  It must mean that we are offering or trying to offer a traditional education.   Why else would they take the risk?  They wouldn't.  That means they aren't taking a risk.  

When we opened our doors last year, we attracted many students whom I am describing as non consumers.  Many of them have left by now and are being replaced by students who very likely succeeded in traditional settings.  It worries me.  It must mean that we are in competition with traditional schools.  If so, we must be offering a sustaining innovation not a disruptive innovation.  Besides, we can't compete with traditional schools.  We are too expensive.  And if we are competing with traditional schools, what's the point?

Friday, March 24, 2017

Teaching Students to Become Thoughtful: Are we there yet?

As a teacher, I work very hard to help change beliefs about learning math and about education in general.  I'm not concerned so much about my students understanding every detail about algebra as I am that they are learning how to think.  Students will often become needlessly frustrated with specific topics or concepts or problems.  I think they can sense my angst and they automatically assume I am feeling what they are feeling.  But I am feeling that way because of how easy they have given up, because they are afraid of making mistakes and won't take risks, because they are overly concerned with their smart status, and many other things.

I don't care about the problem in the moment.  I'm looking ahead.  I'm thinking about how they are approaching the problem.  I'm thinking about the mathematics of the task while they are thinking about the performance of the task.  I'm thinking about all of the things that puzzle me and wondering why they aren't puzzled.

As the year progresses, the feedback I receive from students becomes more and more positive.  I feel like they are starting to get it.  I feel like they are starting to think like mathematicians.  I think this starts to change my approach a little bit because I start to believe that we are finally thinking alike.  As I start assuming we are on the same page, the negative feedback comes in.  Students are again focused on the performance of the task and the "right" way of doing things.

It's hard to gauge what's really happening though because I have to readjust how my gauge works.  Why?  Because that journey changed me.  Yes, it changed students too, but in the process of converting students, I converted myself on a deeper level.  Now I think differently.  Which makes it harder to gauge where they are at.  

As students change, the temptation is to change the focus in teaching.  But the very things that helped students change their way of thinking, and, subsequently, my thinking, are the very things that will help them keep changing their way of thinking.  "Are we there yet?!"  This is where I have gone wrong.  I have assumed that students would arrive at some end goal.  That journey is never over.  Learning to think is a task with no bounds.  It's the task of a lifetime.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A 3-Tier Mastery Approach for Math at a Blended Learning School

Here are my latest thoughts on mastery design for my math courses.  Basically, students will work through 3 levels of mastery.  Students will repeat the 3-level mastery process for each concept, but the actual types of tasks--what they do, and what they produce--will allow for variety.  (At my blended-learning school, students may move at a faster pace if they desire.  This is not traditional lecture-led education.)

Level 1.  Students complete a task in which they explore ideas with an instructor.  Heavy instructor guidance.  The task will be such that it lends itself to guidance with an instructor. 

 Focus:  What scenario produced the concept I am trying to teach and how can I get my students to experience that intellectual need?  

Goal:  I understand this concept.

Level 2.  Students complete a task with a couple of check-in points near the beginning, middle and end with an instructor.  I don't think this should take much instructor time.  At this stage, the instructor checks to make sure they really got it from level 1 and continue to encourage deep thinking.   

Focus:  Mistakes: excepted, inspected, respected.  If we didn't make mistakes, we'd be done so why are we here?
Goal:  I can demonstrate my understanding of this concept.

Level 3.  Students complete a final task for that particular concept in which they work mostly independent with possible check-in points in the middle and/or at the end.  This task will conclude the learning for the topic and the student will produce something that demonstrates learning.  Students will keep this and compile with other similar tasks to create a portfolio of learning throughout the course.  

Focus:  What will students do to continue to develop, solidify, and demonstrate mastery of this topic?

Goal:  I can teach this concept.

With this 3-tier structure, I can keep them at level 1 until I feel they are ready to move to level 2 and then on to level 3.  One of the issues with traditional education is that students often arrive unprepared at what is supposed to be the concluding tasks for a topic.  Teachers then attempt to "review" the material until they are obliged to move on.  They don't need to review the material though.  They need to learn it.  They didn't get it the first time.