A reflection on my impossible “ways to be” and why I think they’re possible

We associate the brain and learning with the mental and psychological skills or behaviors, so this week’s focus on the physiological was important because it highlights the factors that learners cannot control – environmental factors of poverty, neglect, stress, malnutrition, lack of sleep, etc.  So much of education is focused on quantifying learning and placing a value on what is learned and how it is demonstrated and thereby measured.  What we don’t often communicate to students is that school and grades are just one area and measure of learning; there is a purpose but it cannot teach everything they need or want to know nor can it measure all that a student has learned or is capable of learning.  In our twitter chat this week, we shared our strategies for motivating students and supporting them to invest in their own learning; as I read through the blogs, we shared more in-depth strategies and tools to connect PBL, Differentiation, and Brain-Based Learning.  At the heart of it all, is the same issue – how can we meet the needs of our learners, and present content in a meaningful and effective way.

Jon commented that my “ways to be” were difficult or challenging to implement in the classroom.  This prompted me to think about why that is; it can’t simply be attributed to my use of these strategies in an after school setting and not a classroom.  So what is it about our “ideal” learning environment that makes it impossible?  How do we deal with that?

My Ways to Be – that will lead to ongoing differentiation and brain based learning in my classroom. 

1.  Build a learning culture that values group and reflection activities and processes to share what students think, feel, see, and like.

** An important reason for building this type of learning culture, is that it helps students to become accustomed to reflecting on their learning in a way that also helps others.  Do all my participants walk away feeling ready to  replicate this culture in other learning environments? No.  Not even all of them leave my program feeling transformed and ready to embrace the learning process; that simply takes time, repetition, and reinforcement.  However, my program is one stepping stone in a path of many learning experiences and environments.  My goal is to show students the value of reflecting, and how that practice can support them to transfer what they learn in different contexts further along their own life learning “paths”.

2.  Support students to organize their thinking based on their interests and multiple intelligences.

** We have been exploring differentiation and its application in our learning environments; understanding our students is an important aspect of doing this well, but it’s also a partnership.  We need to understand students’ needs, interests, and readiness levels, so that we can provide meaningful learning experiences. For their part, students need to understand the importance of being aware of how best they learn (metacognition); they need this to make better and informed choices about what and how to learn, but also to take ownership over the learning process.  We all need a system or process that we use to receive, dissect, digest, restructure, and share our learning; supporting students to own their own process is an important role for educators.

3.  Encourage social collaboration around common interests and goals.

** Why isn’t learning more fun?  It’s not good enough to say that the content is boring or irrelevant; or that the only way to “teach” ideas, skills, or concepts is by requiring it because it’s necessary.  As adults we HATE it when others try to tell us something is good for us, particularly when we don’t enjoy it or see its purpose and relevance to our goals or interests. Creating that type of learning environment is not only unfair and ineffective with young learners, but it doesn’t actually mirror life and work environments or situations.  Very few people can function in life or work without interacting with others; when we remove the social aspect of learning, we are not adequately preparing students for the real-life contexts that they will need to apply their skills, knowledge, and experiences.  While mastering  knowledge and skills should usually be demonstrated individually, the process for learning and developing them should be social because that is how they will be applied and will continue to develop and improve – through interactions with others.

4.  Provide individual support and feedback and celebrate effort and willingness to try new things.

** Perhaps one of the hardest things to do as an educator is to make time for individual students.  We can easily spend a lot of time supporting the students with the highest need, and we often notice those that are the most social and vocal, and we can feel relieved, proud, and grateful for the students who can hold their own and enthusiastically demonstrate learning and collaboration.  There are also the students who “fly under the radar”, they do enough to get by, they don’t draw negative attention, and they get along or know how to blend in with the group.  But no matter which category learners fall into,  individual time and attention is important to their learning process and should be differentiated for each student.  It doesn’t have to happen all at once and not every student needs to meet with you separately, but connecting individually with each student and seeing them as an individual learner is an important part of my approach to teaching.  When I know and understand the individuals in a group of learners, I am able to have “Ways To Be 1, 2 and 3.”  When the individuals are celebrated for their efforts they are able to appreciate their own unique contributions to the group and can become more willing to try new things; and again, maybe not right away, but its certainly possible over time, repetition, and reinforcement.

5.  Model and embrace learning through making mistakes and demonstrate a willingness to listen and learn from students.

** I cannot be an effective educator if I cannot learn from my mistakes; those mistakes rarely happen when I’m alone or in my planning or reflecting stages.  Almost always, they happen when I’m with students in the classroom, on a field trip, or during a presentation, despite all of my over-planning efforts to avoid them.  I’ve learned that these are often the most significant teachable moments because they are real situations that occur and involve problem solving to get through them.  I don’t expect that students will embrace or enjoy making mistakes but I know that modeling an openness and willingness to learn from that experience can help them not to run away or avoid problems and mistakes.    If they learn that the worst thing that happens is that the teacher acknowledges the mistakes and works with them to find a solution, that’s not such a bad thing.

2 thoughts on “A reflection on my impossible “ways to be” and why I think they’re possible

  1. I like your #3 in particular, but I would even take it a step further and say that demonstration of many skills need not even be demonstrated individually. Of course, we’re expected to test a certain way, but I don’t understand why–often, the skill that is being tested is never performed in a real-life environment that resembles the school testing environment. Really, you could use any test as an example. When, as a professional adult, will somebody be required to crunch a bunch of algebra equations with no ability to ask a friend or use outside resources? When, as a professional adult, would somebody ever be expected to write an essay on a topic they are unfamiliar with in a matter of 20-30 minutes, without any resources apart from a small prompt or excerpt? (Not to mention without the ability to use spelling or grammar check, etc.)
    We do know that these tests show whether or not students have skills that can be valuable later, but why can’t they be more suited to the way they’ll actually face problems in a real-world setting?
    If I need to write a paper or case-study, I get to use Word’s built-in tools, use the internet to research, or even call (or email) somebody I know that may be an expert. If somebody has to do their taxes, they don’t have to sit and suffer in silence–they can even use an accountant! Our entire testing system is so disconnected from the underlying reasons that people need to have basic knowledge…it often comes down to being able to catch students in the little minutiae that they don’t know. Tests are often built on those things, and I’ve seen it this week in AMP testing–test questions designed to see whether or not students remember the exceptions to grammar rules, or the most obscure skills that have no real-world application (things like…identifying gerunds!), and so on. We spend so much time teaching these little “gotcha” items that are likely to end up on these tests, yet those are easily fixed by software in real-life situations (or we would at least be able to look them up online or in a reference book.
    It is so unfair to the kids (and to us, for that matter) that it’s not surprising when teachers cite testing culture as a leading reason to look for other careers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I want to insert an emoji for “applause”, “high five”, or “two thumbs up”; it’s like we’re saying to students, you should learn these skills in case you are stranded alone in a desert and there is no 3/4G coverage and you need to calculate how long you will survive by completing this math problem without assistance. The reality is students have more tools than ever and increasing access to all sorts of information; what they need are skills to sift through it all, evaluate sources, and make informed choices about what tools and information best meet their particular needs in a given situation. Why can’t they have calculators and dictionaries to take open-book assessments, or create study guides that can be used to take tests. Do we really think letting students use these tools or strategies would be cheating? We’re not even giving ourselves enough credit to design effective assessments that allow students to demonstrate mastery without stacking the deck against them. You said it, it’s so unfair!

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