Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Reflect & Renew: Challenge #1 - How Students Learn Best

Hooray for the blog challenges posed by TeachThought's online community!  The challenges have been so, so helpful. And so I accept the January's Reflect and Renew in 2015 challenge. Perhaps not every day or every question. But I've come to appreciate keeping a commitment to writing and reflecting. Big time.

The first prompt asks, "What are my beliefs about how students learn best?"  I'll answer in a list, with the caveat that these are stated ideas and values. Applying and practicing these beliefs requires  daily commitment. A work in progress. Here goes: 

Strive for Relevance: Students learn best when the texts, lessons, and activities have relevance to their lives. That connection may not be obvious, so it's on me to help students discover how and why class activities relate to them. It's on me to make visible the invisible connections between content and their lives. 
Foster Making: Students learn best when they create knowledge, producing authentic "something-something" that expresses their unique voice (I teach English). Applying concepts and creating means more than composing a essays for me to grade. At my best, I create genuine writing situations with authentic audiences. I assign blog posts, tweets, and Facebook posts for students to communicate their vision. And there are other genuine writing tasks I've assigned, even more to try out. 
Embrace Mistakes: Students learn best when they feel safe. By safe, I'm not just referring to an environments that provides physical safety. I also mean the kind of classroom that promotes emotional and intellectual security, where it isn't just okay to make mistakes but actually a necessary part of the learning process, especially if I give students a space to consider what they may have learned from their mistakes . . .
Promote Reflection: Students learn best when they think about their thinking, even if their thinking was faulty. I'm beginning to see that I've got to build in reflections - written, oral, whatever - for students to consider how and why they approached their assignments the way they did. And those reflections should feed into their formative assessments. I can't expect students to completely nail new concepts or skills. Their final attempts may not accurately index what they've learned.  But perhaps upon reflection, students can express what they actually learned. 
When skillfully crafted, meta-commentary gets students to use the language and concepts of the discipline to explain how they would approach similar challenges. Using myself as an example, blog post reflections force me to describe, explain, and evaluate my own thinking. That's powerful learning. 
Create Community: Students learn best when they feel connected, not just to the topic, but to the their peers and to me. Learning is a social process, and the more I foster a community where we care about ourselves, each other, and each others' ideas, the more likely students can harness the power of community to deepen learning. 
Keep it Routine/Make it Novel: Students learn best when there is a balance between patterns and variety.  To build safety, we need structure, familiar patterns we recognize and expect. For students (myself included!) who may feel anxious about subject matter, routine mitigates anxiety. Yet we also have the human need for variety, alternation between not just different subjects but also between different modes of instruction that appeal different ways of learning . I strive for a dynamic balance. 
Self-Aware by Katsuhiro Otomo
The list is incomplete. No doubt. But it's important for me  explicitly state these beliefs, especially  as I get ready for the opening of a new semester - we begin next week! 

It occurs to me that these beliefs (an others I've neglected to mention) are mutually constitutive. More than overlapping, these beliefs produce and fortify the others. So it's about maintaining a dynamic balance act among these attitudes. I've certainly made the mistake of relying overmuch on one belief at the expense of another. It's more about synergy than about choosing one belief over the others. I'm living on that learning curve!

Another take-away: though the prompt asks me focus on students' learning, everything I've written applies to me. In order to feel burn of meaningful learning, I need to, at the very least, suspect that what I'm studying has some importance. I've got to feel free to make mistake so I can actually create knowledge of my own.  And as this month's TeachThought blog challenge reminds me, taking time to intentionally look at myself fosters the sort of self-awareness that hopefully makes me a better teacher.