Sunday, November 8, 2015

Reflecting on Our Learning: What it's Like to Talk About Ideas

Note: This entry is a follow up to a post I did a few days ago about reading and responding to students’ assessments

In keeping with the spirit of protecting class time to reflect on the problem of being students, I reserved class time to think about a set of activities students had just completed. We had glossed over the major points of a essay they had recently and had written a response journal from the week prior. 

Students worked in pairs to discuss the text for five minutes, i.e., “Share what the text made you think, feel, and/or experience.” The only other direction was to talk back and forth, doing their best to share equally the full five minutes. 

Here’s the twist I added: After five (5) minutes were up, asked students to take a minutes, I asked students to take a breath, thank their partner, and then to think to themselves about the experience of sustaining a five minute conversation about ideas. Then I opened the floor to responses. I noticed three distinct (if overlapping) themes: 

One set of students exclaimed, often intones of displeasure, that they finished in two minutes. These dyads quickly completed the task, finding themselves bored, even though they thought the reading was interesting. They talked. They were done. Mission accomplished. And it only took two minutes with minimal effort - no sweat!

The second theme that emerged was from partners who also found the original text relevant and interesting. These students said they had to expend effort to fill the five minutes – they worked to keep the conversation going.  They broke a “cognitive sweat” to focus on ideas. They weren’t as much bored by the task as they were frustrated or anxious about what to say next. They wondered if they were simply repeating themselves. They were relieved, as was the first group, when I called time. But they experienced a stronger sense of accomplishment than did the first type of student. 

These students felt good about pushing themselves, kind of like how I feel when I achieve something I didn’t think I could do well, like actually finishing a set of a particular difficult back exercise at the gym. Students needed help, just as I might need a spotter when I try to lift more weight than I’m used to lifting. The majority of class fell in this category

The final theme emerged from students who said they ran out of time. Five minutes was not enough for all their ideas and connections. When I asked why they found themselves running out of time, students volunteered that making personal and intellectual connections to the text gave them plenty to say. They did the task, for sure. They also expended energy. 

But the crucial difference  in the third group was students' willingness and ability to find personal relevance and meaning in the task. They linked ideas. They saw applications. Conversations seemed pleasant, effortless - students' main beef with the exercise was wanting more time. I had a particular learning goal for the activity, and these students met that goal. But just as important, these students “hacked” the activity, making their own meaning and finding the overlaps between the class’ goals and their own interests. 

The big takeaway for me? While I can’t ever fully control student engagement, I can create a 
climate that encourages invivlement. I gained a deeper understanding of how students perceive assignments: as a task to finish, a cognitive exercise to practice skills, or as an opportunity to enlarge their understanding of themselves, their world. This is important insight into the problem of student engagement. I know with a little foresight, I can support students in any of the three strands I observed. 

The students’ responses remind me to do my best to pick relevant topics, themes that have direct application to their lives. That’s something I already strive to do already, but the reminder is always welcome. And when I prompt students to discuss texts, I can do a better job of prepping them, scaffolding the assignment with lots of “breadcrumbs” to help them make personal connections.  I can’t expect students to easily notice what’s taken me my whole college career to learn how to see. The scaffolding should, at minimum, include some sort of statement or prompt asking students to consider their purpose and energy level for the day. Not a huge production number, but something that reconnects them to their purpose and truth. 

The reflection - a process that only took ten minutes- also suggests I need to provide students with conversational tools to sustain discussion, sentence stems and sample sentence starters to use when talk begins to peter out. Students who ran out of things to say said they would have appreciated it if their partners asked them questions. Others said they were afraid they were boring their partners. A  list of phrases students could use to “check for understanding” would remedy those sorts of problems

So now what? I can scaffold my lessons and seek out the appropriate tools to support the kind of learning they want (and that I’m supposed to deliver). And when I do, students will see that their conversation with me indeed shapes our learning community - there is a feedback loop. 

One thing is for sure, the students' reflections help me with empathy.  I heard myself in the students’ feedback, remembering how often I still do certain assignments simply to tick something off my to-do list, even if I enjoy the tasks. I still find some tasks too challenging, regardless of how interesting or relevant. I find that I often need guidance (training wheels? pointers?) to help me experience success. The students' reflections also reminded me of the joy of learning - that buzz I get when time flies because the lessons are meaningful, when I’m able to find connections between my own reality and the task at hand. I want that for my students - opportunities for them to experience that sort of "high". 

And that’s just my takeaway. I have to ask students what effect "thinking about their learning" has one them - What was their "get"? That's a question I'll definitely return to later - and again and again, I'm sure. 
 Reflection and action (praxis!), I’m reminded, is recursive, something to iterate throughout the life of our learning community.