Confession: I have never liked New Year’s Eve. Too much pressure is associated with that one night: going to a huge party, dressing in fancy duds, and staying up late. Then, we have the angst over making New Year’s resolutions. Stressful!
For me, the best time to make meaningful resolutions is in the first days of the school year. This timing makes sense for teachers and students, but also for parents who may have more time to think now that their children are back to school. We have had a summer to reflect back on the past academic year and look ahead to the one to come. Starting school means new teachers, new classes, new supplies, new clothes, and most of all, a whole new school year with its amazing potential. Even now after, dare I write it, 40 school-starting Septembers, I still find this time of year just as exciting and full of possibility. It is a perfect opportunity to re-focus and make improvements!
There is something very powerful about writing down a few resolutions in the fall. By putting those positive hopes and plans into words and actually posting them somewhere, they can easily be referred to and you can keep on track with the direction you are hoping to follow for the year. Of course, this is a great exercise for students, too!
In our first staff meeting of this year, all of LEARN’s online teachers talked about trying new things. Everyone was excited to share plans and discuss ideas.
This year, it was our most experienced online teacher who most surprised and delighted all of us with his resolution for the school year. This teacher has been teaching for over 30 years, and has taught online courses for 16 (just in case any of you thought online courses were a new thing!) He has amazing results and every year he receives many notes from his students and their parents, thanking him for the time and effort he gives students to ensure their success. With his stellar history, what motivation would he have for changing the way he teaches?
Well…last year, this same teacher observed changes in teaching methods being embraced by other online colleagues. He witnessed their excitement for flipping the classroom. He watched them using social media to join and form personal learning networks (Twitter) and for students to share with a wider audience (blogs). He saw that they were interacting and learning with students and colleagues outside of the class space, and as he said, “I see how much fun you are having!” Even as a master teacher, he was still open to the excitement and possibility of trying something new that would provide him with more ways to connect to and help students.
My favourite part of being an educator is that I get to start fresh each fall and with each year, I have the opportunity to get better. Why not take advantage of the New Year and identify a few changes or challenges that will make this year a great one for you and your students?
“I believe that the theme ‘again and again’ is paramount in cycle one. Children (people) don’t always ‘get it’ on the first round, or second, or third. Children love to do the same activity again and again.” Peter Simons, Cycle 1 teacher, CQSB
Here’s the good news: children in Cycle One (grades one and two for those of you unfamiliar with the Quebec system) can set goals and reflect on their learning. I’ll say it again: six- and seven-year-old children can discuss what they did in the past, they can make plans for the future and can look back at their progress. I’ve seen their goals and heard their reflections in classrooms across the province. More importantly, teachers say that engaging in conversations about learning and not just about WHAT they are learning helps their students succeed in class. So why are some educators reluctant to embrace the practice of reflection and its alter-ego, goal setting? Misconceptions and misunderstanding abound, as many workshops on the topic target older learners, which leads Cycle One teachers to wonder if its even possible with their young students…and what it might look like in their classrooms.
Defining the terms
Reflection is thinking for the purpose of analyzing and evaluating our learning. We often talk of reflection in the context of portfolio practice, that is, in the context of using a process-based device for tracking student learning and growth over time, such as a portfolio. But even if you do not use portfolios with your students, you can still use the reflection cycle to improve your students’ awareness of their own learning. Goal-setting is part of the reflective learning cycle, and allows the learner to plan a focus for their learning.
So, with the intent of providing some pathways for exploring reflection and goal-setting with young learners, here are 5 myths about these practices and some reasons to let them go to the big myth graveyard in the sky:
Myth 1 – How can they set goals and reflect – they can’t even write!
This is an easy one and immediately obvious to most Cycle 1 teachers, who are very used to dealing with early- or non-readers and writers. What do we do when our learners can’t write? We talk, of course! We talk during circle time, we talk one-on-one, we talk in groups, we talk in pairs! We talk about what worked, what didn’t and why. We talk about our plans and the choices we make when we enact our plan. Planning and choosing are precursors to the goal-setting process, or as Epstein (2003) puts it, “planning is choice with intention” (emphasis in original) which is based on a goal. The other thing we do in Cycle 1 in addition to talking is drawing! Children can make regular representations of things that occurred or things that are to come, such as planning out a project or an activity. Over time, this planning can become more purposeful and tied to each student’s individual learning path, but it rarely starts out that way. In fact, by engaging in daily planning and reflecting conversations and visual representations (drawings, diagrams, etc), the Cycle 1 teacher can help lay the foundation for future self-reflection and goal-setting tied to learning, just as she helps to lay the foundation for lifelong literacy.
Myth 2 – Students don’t get what they are doing – reflection and goal-setting are just too abstract!
Lots of things are quite abstract, but that shouldn’t prevent us from taking the first steps to understanding, right? Moreover, while the concepts of goal-setting and reflection on learning might be abstract, the habits involved are actually quite concrete. Sitting with your students during circle time is one way to look back on an activity and to set goals for another one. Let’s use writing as an example activity:
With your students sitting together on the floor, you may ask them what kinds of things they remember about writing from recent activities. Students might say things like:
“we learned about capitals”
“putting a dot at the end”
“making a space between the words”.
You can write these down on a flip-chart or on the board (whatever you usually do) and suggest some goals of your own that are important to you, such as: “let’s use a new word” or “let’s use a word from the Word Wall” or whatever you happen to be working on at the time. Ask students what their goals will be and listen to a few students. This will allow students who don’t quite get it to listen to other children work through goal setting. When its time to reflect, students will have something specific to say about their work – they either met the goals set out, or they didn’t and it will be easy to see. In Cycle One you might not hear sophisticated metacognitive discourse, but you will be developing habits of mind that will prove useful once metacognition kicks in.
Myth 3 – Goal-setting and reflection are for older kids
I was reading over some research data and came across a goal set by a grade one student who wanted to learn to ties his shoes. This was his global goal, and not one related to any specific assignment or activity. It was clearly important to him in his life, and I bet he had more where that came from. I could picture him sitting at his desk thinking about what he intends to get done in Grade One, and by golly, he was going to master this shoelace thing! Did it matter that it wasn’t tied to the teacher’s goals of literacy and numeracy? Not really, since the act of setting a goal and working towards it will leave an imprint on this student that he can recall when asked to set goals in the future. In addition, it is important to understand the abstract idea of goal setting in a way that is obvious to the learner – in this case, the student understood goal-setting because he was allowed to choose a goal that was meaningful to him. The act of setting goals and reflecting from an early age is what makes more complex goal-setting and reflection possible later on.
Myth 4 – Cycle 1 students just don’t have the vocabulary for reflection
What do we do when we want to introduce new vocabulary, ideas or habits? We model and we scaffold and we do both of these over and over until we reach our goal. Scaffolding can be done in the form of questions or prompts, which can be oral or written on the board or on flip-chart paper. Here are some examples of prompts for reflecting on an activity:
I liked ___________.
I can ___________.
I feel ___________.
Next time, I will ____________.
Modelling can be done by the teacher or by peers, to share vocabulary and strategies. Listening to the reflections or goals of other students helps everyone acquire new vocabulary and clarifies new ideas. A teacher can also reflect out loud on some of her own actions. She can say “Last time, I asked you to bring me your work, but that didn’t work so well, because there were too many pieces and they fell on the floor, so this time I will try a different way and I’ll come see you at your desk.”
Myth 5 – Reflection takes too much time
I have difficulty with this one, because I always think to myself “Reflection takes too much time away from what?” From the next thing that you will be doing? Hopefully, we do not jump from topic to topic or activity to activity without pausing to tie them together in some way, to provide some coherence for our youngest scholars. And because it is THEM navigating the unchartered territories and not us, we owe it to them to allow them this time to consolidate, to make links, to understand and to set a new course for themselves. After all, if not us, then who?
Reflection and goal-setting do not come naturally, but they bear metacognitive fruit in the years following Cycle One! What myths are you busting in your own practice?
In my previous post on Action Research in the classroom, I wrote about the idea of action research as a form of self-directed professional learning. I think that we learn to be better teachers by asking questions about issues we have in our practice, and then taking steps to answer these questions. The issues we have are unique to us, unique to our way of seeing the world and our particular school and class situation. Our unique preoccupations lead us to reflect and ask questions about how we might improve our practice. Good action research questions a) come from our own practice, b) are in our sphere of influence and c) assume that we are where we are. The question, of course, is just the beginning…
In one of the many lives I lead, I work with dance teachers on their practice as art educators. I run a teacher development series that takes place every six weeks throughout the year. It is a very participatory series, with discussions and sharing of thoughts and ideas about teaching dance to adult non-dancers (although… we believe that everyone is a dancer). I am a big proponent of reflective practice, an process articulated by Donald Schön in his book Educating the Reflective Practitioner. The main question I have about my own practice is “Is what I am doing encouraging the teachers to become reflective practitioners?”. I started by unpacking the question into several subquestions:
Answering some of these questions allows me to see what evidence I need to answer my main question. If I have a clear picture of what I am looking for in a reflective practitioner, I am more likely to know it when I see it. If I know what it looks like, then I am able to figure out what I need to do to find out if it is happening. This leads me to the very important step of data collection. Hopefully, as you read this, you have your own question in mind. Having your own question, no matter how embryonic or hazy, will allow you to see how different types or sources of data can be used to answer it.
I think of data collection like being at an all-you-can-eat buffet. You have many options, but not all of them are going to suit your needs or your tastes. Also, as we are naturally drawn to some food over others, so too, are we naturally drawn to some ways of collecting evidence over others.
The evidence buffet is long and loaded with steaming dishes of data. On one side you have those sources which are primarily words and called qualitative or narrative. The other side is heavy with data which can be counted, tallied or rated. This is called quantitative data.
The important thing is not to get bogged down in the array of choices available, but to select sources of data that fit a few key criteria.
1. The data must work to help you answer your question
Let’s return to my main question: “Is what I am doing actually encouraging the teachers to become reflective practitioners?”. Although I have a fancy new still camera and enjoy taking pictures, I am not sure that taking photographs would go towards answering that particular question. I would probably lean toward interviews, documents from teacher development sessions, along with activity on our private Facebook group. In other words, there has to be a match between what you hope to learn and the data you decide to collect.
2. Several sources are better than one
One is the loneliest number, in love and in action research. Using more than one source of data allows you to be more certain that your conclusions will be accurate and will adequately reflect the reality you are studying. Researchers ideally aim for three sources of data. Three, unlike one, is a magic number.
3. Collecting data should be a natural part of your day
You are a teacher first. The best sources of data are those that occur naturally or can be built into the normal activities of the classroom. Snapping a photograph of your students during a Daily Five session, or making copies of key reflections for tracking are examples of data collection that do not interfere significantly with your work day. Another example is previously existing data, from earlier in the year or from previous years. In short, data collection should not take up too much of your time.
4. The data collection phase needs an end date
Action research is most manageable when finite, when it has a clear beginning and end. This does not mean that you cannot engage in research all the time. It just means that having a fixed timeline will help you either answer or refine your original question and lead to results. It will also help you plan out key moments of data collection – for example, collecting reflections at the beginning of every month to track their depth and quality.
You in your research
There is a belief shared by some that research should be free of bias and that researchers should strive for emotional and intellectual distance from that which is under study. Fortunately, the opposing point of view exists as well! I think that you should not divorce your values, beliefs and insights from your research. Your unique viewpoint and your privileged status as teacher-researcher is what will give your research an unmistakable ring of truth. Remaining aware of and communicating what you believe to be true about education and about learning, will also help you frame future research and find communities of like-minded educators. Like this one! Write and tell me how it’s going – I would love to hear from you.
I was animating a short morning session on the practice of Action Research last week. It was Friday, to be exact, the kind of rainy morning you wished you were cocooned in a bathrobe somewhere or sipping a nice mug of tea.The attendees were all teachers participating in a formal research study conducted by Concordia University here in Montreal. I had long thought that one of the things that would round out this research in the eyes of practitioners was the voice of the participating teachers themselves. What was it like in the classroom when they introduced the new computer-based tools? What did they do about little Johnny who can’t sit still long enough to write his name, never mind do his Daily Five? And what about the noise? People love stories. Teachers love classroom stories.
But is it enough to tell a good story? For a story to be compelling for educators, it has to answer a question or, perversely, to ask one. This is where qualitative approaches to educational research come in. I decided to go with Action Research because of its simplicity and straightforwardness. In fact, rather than providing my work-session teachers with a definition of the term action research, I asked them to brainstorm what it might be, based on the two words that comprise the term. I noted their responses on a slide in the Keynote presentation we were working from:
Intuitively, working with what they knew, the teachers were able to come up with the basic salient features of action research in about two minutes flat. Together, we found that
“Action Research is a fancy way of saying: let’s study what’s happening in our [classrooms] and decide how to make [them] a better place.” (Calhoun, 1994)
One of the main goals of Action Research is to lead to changes and improvements in teaching practices, and thus make schools (or online classrooms) better places to learn. More powerful than the most sophisticated workshop PD, action research is the cornerstone of reflective practice. Teachers who ask questions about their own practice and then decide on ways to take action are taking a mighty leap into self-driven learning (the kind we wish for all our students, no?). And if those same teachers follow up their planning with concrete action and the gathering of data about what they did, with reflection and sharing rounding off the cycle, they are engaging in the same kind of professional learning practiced by members of other professions, such as doctors. After all, why should they have all the fun 😉
The official Action Research cycle often looks something like this:
If you want to do some action research in your own practice, whether you are a classroom teacher, a consultant, a pre-service teacher or any other type of educator, you will probably want to begin by asking a question. A good question has the following attributes:
It comes from your own practice
It is in your sphere of influence (i.e. you can do something about it)
It assumes that you are where you are
A question from your own practice
Often we are told what is important by others. Equally often, some issues become trendy and frequently discussed. But these might not be important to you at this time. So ask yourself: “What is important to me? What do I care about? What do I feel will make the most difference?” and choose a question that speaks to your teacher’s heart, no matter what the pundits tell you is important. Your school is different from other schools and your group of students is unique. You have the best insights as to where you need to put your energies and you will approach the issue with more zeal if it comes from you.
A question that is in your sphere of influence
Asking a question like: “I wonder if a shorter school day would be beneficial to my very active cohort of students” might be very interesting indeed, but might not be possible to explore. Your question needs to be something that you can answer by taking action. You could ask instead: “How can I use the very active nature of my students to help them learn math?”
A question that assumes that you are where you are
It’s no good asking a question whose scope is so far beyond you that just looking at it makes you break out into a cold sweat. A novice computer user should not, for instance, ask: “How can I integrate a variety of Web 2.0 tools into and across my curriculum?”. He or she might be better off with: “How can I set up and use a classroom blog?” which is more focused and manageable for a novice. (And speaking of classroom blogs, here is a great one from Mary Ellen Lynch’s Cycle 1 classroom).
“Action research happens “in the swamp” where we live our day-to-day successes, frustrations, disappointments, and occasional miracles.” (Russell, 1997). I’ll be adding additional posts about action research between now and January. My challenge for you today is to ask a question from your practice and take the time this school year to engage in some action research of your own. Share your questions here! I would love to see them! We might discover some miracles along the way.
For more about Action Research:
Russell, Tom. (1997). Action Research: Who? Why? How? So What? An Introductory Guide for Teacher Candidates at Queen’s University. Found at http://resources.educ.queensu.ca/ar/guide.htm on October 7th, 2011
e-Lead: Leadership for Student Success – Action Research section. Found at http://www.e-lead.org/resources/resources.asp?ResourceID=9 on October 14th, 2011.
McNiff, J & Whitehead, J. (2005). Action Research for Teachers: A Practical Guide. London, David Fulton Publisher
I started running again at the end of August. Now, for those of you who don’t know me well (or at all), this may not sound like a big deal. I mean, I’m not a sloth. I’m a relatively fit individual who tries to stay healthy by working out regularly and watching what I eat. However, I’m not what one would describe as an athlete and certainly not a “natural” runner. I wouldn’t even say that I have an aptitude for the sport. I don’t glide effortlessly through the dewy country air with an unbearable lightness of being. No. My feet hit the pavement with an audible thud and my legs move with a heaviness that I try to conceal. For me, running is a struggle. It’s hard, sometimes it hurts, BUT when I’m done I feel lighter. I feel a sense of accomplishment that pushes me to continue.
So…what does all of this whining have to do with education? Well, a lot actually. The question I ask myself as I’m plodding along, hoping that my lungs don’t explode is: Why am I doing this? And more pressingly, why do I keep doing it? These cries of anguish got me thinking (and my neighbours too) about what motivates me to learn, and in turn, how and why the students I’ve tried to teach over the years are motivated to learn things that are potentially difficult for them.
In my opinion, one of the great equalizers in the classroom, if not in life, is motivation. But how do we as parents, educators and students harness its power? How do you motivate yourself or others to want to learn something and to keep on coming back for more? The literature in the field is ripe with theories. My particular area of interest is motivation as a variable in the acquisition of a second language or language learning motivation (LLM). So bear with me, fellow FLS/ESL teachers, as I try to make the connections between what motivates me as a learner, what I have observed when teaching kids a second language, and some of the research that supports this dialogue.
Here are my top 4 motivators for learning:
1. A goal. Not a big one, just something to set my sights on. My current goal is to complete a weekly “couch to 5K” running program by the end of October and then compete in a fun run for charity. Having to prepare for my goal gets me moving, and knowing that the goal is attainable pushes me to not only make an effort but to sustain that effort over time. In a classroom context, goals can be individual or defined by the group. They can be personal in nature or related to a learning situation. According to theorists, goals help to direct our attention toward relevant activities, they encourage students to regulate their effort, and they positively affect persistence (Locke and Latham, 2002). Of course, having too lofty a goal can backfire. For example: I’m finally going to learn to speak French this year and ace my finals. Baby steps people!
2. Regular, positive feedback. I’m not only talking about corrective feedback here. Right now, I don’t have a running buddy. I have to rely on the kindness of Robert Ullrey (see below) and his free podcasts to get my fix of the warm and fuzzies. He provides just the right combination of enthusiasm, running tips and jazzy music to keep me going. In my experience, just being an accessible, attentive and enthusiastic teacher, who provides a safe learning environment, garners points for positively affecting the motivation of students. If we revisit the notion of goal setting, feedback has been proven critical in showing progress and influencing performance. (Locke and Latham, 2002). Feedback encourages students to think about what they are doing in order to make adjustments, get better and stay invested. In a quick exchange with a physical trainer two weeks ago, I learned that I was a classic “heel-striker” and that my running form had a critical flaw that was causing me some pain. So, I changed my stance and I’m now back on track….literally.
3. A little success is always a good thing. Three years ago I completed my first 10K. This small victory has given me the courage to take on more athletic pursuits. I suppose you could classify this type of causal thinking under the attribution theory of motivation. Dörnyei (2001) hypothesizes that the reasons to which students attribute their past successes and failures in learning a language impact and shape their motivational outlook. In a school setting, these reasons (or causes) include: ability, effort, luck, task difficulty, mood, family background, and help from others. The locus of control is super important here. If students attribute failure to something they perceive to have little control over, like natural ability, their motivation for learning decreases. For a learner then, maintaining a positive self-image and a belief in his/her potential is critical to learning. In the language classroom, experiencing small successes also helps to increase self-confidence in a learner’s ability to communicate and lessens the anxiety of making mistakes.
4. Choice. Making choices gives me the feeling that I’m in control of my life. Nobody forced me to start running again. I’m the captain of my destiny! Of course, being cajoled into learning a second language is not ideal – but that’s what most of the FLS teachers I know deal with in the real world. Providing students with choice within the context of the classroom, as well as in the design of our courses and lessons is a good start. I would be remiss however, if I didn’t include a nod here to the theory of self determination and how it applies in a larger sense to motivation and learning. To be self-determined implies that learners have a choice in terms of their own actions…in both the initiating and regulating of what they’re doing. Another word for this would be autonomy. Deci and Ryan (2000) distinguish between two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. When we are intrinsically motivated to do something it is for the internal rewards we get out of it: happiness, satisfying our curiosity, the shear joy of running, etc. Extrinsic motivators might include things like: praise from a teacher, good grades, well-defined calves, etc. What theorists suggest is that when self-determination is shaped by intrinsic motivation and autonomy, that’s when the learning outcomes are the most beneficial. Which brings us full circle: How do we get students to motivate themselves to learn?
I have to admit that motivation is both an ill-defined and complex concept. LLM interplays with a myriad of factors including attitude, aptitude, context, content, and the list goes on. I’ve only tapped into a few of these. I’m currently working on compiling concrete how-to’s, strategies, tips or anecdotes that have to do with intrinsically motivating students. And you, how do you handle motivation in your classroom?
I’ll see you after my run!
References (for your reading and listening pleasure)
The LEARN community of bloggers is made up of pedagogical consultants, teachers and other educators working on a variety of LEARN projects. Together, we represent a wide spectrum of professional experience and opinions about education in the 21st century, especially when it comes to the anglophone community of Quebec, Canada. Learn Teaching and Learning blog.