Posts Tagged ‘context’

A class begins, something is taught, hopefully something is learnt, the bell rings and then the next class begins. A unit of learning is begun, there are a range of activities occuring across days – weeks – months, hopefully something is learnt, then the unit ends and the next unit begins. A school year begins, a wide range of activities occur, assignments – possibly tests – are done, culminating projects are run with varying success, hopefully something is learnt, the year ends.

When one thinks about the flow of most of the learning that occurs within schools there is a particular pattern that arises – there is a beginning, a middle and an end. Sometimes the beginning, middle and end occur in one session. Sometimes it stretches across a few weeks and sometimes across the whole year. However, the habitual pattern is that there is a beginning, middle and end. So does it surprise you that over the years of schooling a learner could naturally develop the perception that learning is linear?

I had this insight recently during a conversation with a group of teachers at a primary school. The predominant unconcious context, and thus the subsequent habitual practices, within the school indicate that learning is perceived as linear by the students AND teachers. I then started exploring if that was the case in other schools, both primary and secondary, and found the same pattern. When I brought up my thinking with the teachers they all agreed. The way they often operate as educators could certainly develop a perception in their learners that learning is linear – start topic, do activities, end topic, next topic.

Learning, by its nature, is non-linear. The gaining of knowledge, whether by the individual or by humanity as a whole, is non-linear. Vygotsky coined the term “zone of proximal development” as a way of indicating that an individual learnt in a non-linear way. Piece by piece we gain knowledge and build a mental model through which we perceive the world. We begin with an incomplete model, given by our personal observations, the opinions and beliefs we grew up with. It is filled with misconceptions and misunderstandings. As we learn we slowly come to a more organised and consistent perception and interpretation of our world and how it works. The learning is non-linear but the explanations and ordering stem from an organised viewpoint . What often happens in schools though is that we “teach” in a linear fashion without honouring the non-linear nature of learning and thus engender a linear way of thinking about learning.


Context is Critical

“So what!” you may say – isn’t that the way schools have to operate?

Well, no.

As the saying goes, our context will eat our strategies every day of the week.This underlying context within the way that we teach will undermine any and all good evidence based initiatives because it stems from and leads to a particular mindset. How we as educators think abut learning influences our habits, our practices, and the way we create learning for others.

Let’s look at some of the common issues and complaints in schools that we could infer stem from this context:

All of these definitely have a range of underlying causes to why they occur but one of the common features is the way that teachers think about learning and thus operate as educators.

If we take the case that teachers have a big say in how learning is perceived by learners, then by shifting the context of the teachers implies we can shift the way learners perceive learning. Look around you at the dominant habits and practices of the teachers within the school.

  • What do they tell you about the context they hold about learning?
  • Do their habitual practices show that they are linking learning across lessons, classes, subjects, days, weeks, years?
  • Do they have anchor contexts and visible displays (which are constantly referred to) where students consistently and coherent develop the perception that they are exploring and building upon their understanding of the world?

If you think not then then the teacher context needs to shift to enable good pedagogical practices to occur.

If we begin by focusing on developing teachers to think from the context that learning is a spiral of increasing understanding and richness then I assert that these issues will start to shift. From this focus context teachers can begin to build habitual practices that are consistent with this context.

In Part II we will discuss what I mean by Spiral Learning and also give some simple HOWs teachers could use to go about shifting their context so as to develop a spiral learning context with the students.

I have been in a range of conversations with teachers and school leadership teams lately discussing the forthcoming Australian Teacher Performance Standards / Frameworks. I think that one of the things that the Australian Federal and State Governments (and any government worldwide) have to get clear is the context for implementing staff performance frameworks in schools. I am unclear whether or not they are clear about how to empower performance and productivity in schools.
To give you a sense of my thinking here is an analogy about supporting performance in schools (which is further thought development on my ASCD Edge blog)
In many team sports not everyone is in the position to score goals / points. In Soccer it is more often than not the strikers who are paid to be the goal scorers. In American football you have specific individuals paid a lot of money for their ability to score touchdowns. In Netball you have two specific positions (GA, GS) who are the only ones who can score. In Australian Rules Football, much like soccer, it is the forwards who are paid for their ability to score. Each member of the team, however, has a position to play and their job is to make it as easy as possible for their scorers to score. The team is considered to be a good / exceptional team if they are able to create the circumstances such that the scorers are put in the position to score more often and in an easier fashion.
In an educational environment, the only player who can score is the student. The game that is being played is learning, but the only individual who can kick the goal, score the touchdown,  ensure they learn what they need to learn …. is the student. You can’t kick the goal for them. Only they can learn. The students are critical members of a team put together to support them kicking the goals (learning). What you can’t measure a team on is the ability of the team to kick goals. What you can measure a team on is its ability to set the goal scorer up in such a way that it is easy for them to kick a goal. Many factors can affect the ability of a student to learn (score). One of those aspects is the ability of team they are playing with to put them into a scoring position. However, the following factors also count – If they had a bad day. If they live in poverty. If they have an illness. If they have a poor attitude. If they have a disability or are injured. You can list lots of factors here.
When you look at the essence of John Hattie’s meta-analysis on what impacts learning you will see the breadth of factors that can affect the performance of a student in his/her ability to score (learn). Yet there are only a certain range of things a teacher / school can control or have impact on. No matter what any one says – it is only the students who can score.
Using this context then, you cannot measure a teacher’s performance on whether a student scores or not. What you can measure is the ability of the teacher and, equally, the school to set up the environment such that the students can score. That is how performance frameworks should be set up. What you will find is that in schools where students DO perform – the habits, rituals, practices, pedagogy of the school, and school structures are set up to give the greatest opportunity for the students to score. Thus, while students scoring is an important measure for the entire team (the school and its staff), it is an incomplete measure for measuring the value and ability of individual team members (teachers).
In middle to high socio-economic circumstances there are many factors that allow for a student to score (learn), just as the richer sporting teams have a greater ability to perform.
Given all of this – what could be structures, habits, pedagogy, etc  that teachers and schools can implement to improve the ability of their students (the ones they have come to their school – not some imaginary perfect bunch of kids) to score?
What is your experience and thoughts?

The following is an except from my book Exceptional that will be published later this year. For those of you who are first time readers – welcome. For those of you who are constant readers – welcome back for 2012!

Everyone has an opinion about education. I do. You do. Kids do. Parents do. Grandparents do. Teachers do. Politicians do. The media does. Radio shock jocks do. Billionaires do. There aren’t many days that I don’t hear some comment about education from someone. Unfortunately for a large percentage of the population much of it is misguided and uninformed.

You might believe that is a big statement – not really.

You have to consider on what people base their knowledge and understanding. Opinions are based on what people know from reading, listening, others people’s opinions, media, cultural background, and on their life experiences. Life experiences have the greatest effect on shaping our perceptions.

For example;

  • If you are a student and your Grade One teacher created with you that “mistakes are your friend” and then set up the learning environment to allow you to make mistakes and learn from them, then you would probably love learning all the time.
  • If you are a student and you failed assessment under test conditions, despite “knowing the material”, how long would it be before you decide that you “don’t get it” and progressively build an opinion about you and school?
  • If you are a parent who has had poor educational experiences you can unconsciously impart your beliefs and mindset to your children (“I’m no good at maths”, “school is hard”, “I hated homework”, “I couldn’t wait to leave school”, etc).  If you have an ingrained belief that maths is “hard” then, unless you deliberately tackle that self-belief as a parent, there is a pre-disposition for maths being “hard” for your children.
  • If you are a “Tiger” parent with a strong belief that it is only by working long hours and doing lots of rote learning that your children will succeed, it is likely you will drive your children incessantly to perform academically – sometimes to the detriment of other skills.
  • If were teased at school, perhaps bullied, maybe even had a humiliating experience, that would affect your perceptions of education and learning. This is the same if you grew up in a tough socio-economic environment.
  • If you as a teacher believe that you don’t need to adjust your teaching practice and the way you structure learning in the classroom for different students and different generations of students (“I’ve been teaching this way for 20 years and it has always worked”, “I’ve always produced good results with my students … well the good students … the rest didn’t want to work and that’s not my fault”, etc) then this will affect how you teach.

Whatever the life experiences, people form a mental model or picture of the way that education is and then hold on to that – sometimes for a lifetime. And it is quite challenging to shift that mental picture when you have a lifetime of reinforcement from looking through the lens you have looked through for years.

I still vividly remember one student from my first year of teaching Engineering at university. He approached me to give him some one-on-one tutoring for a subject he had failed twice previously and he needed to pass it that year to finish his Engineering degree. I agreed, looked up the textbook and set a problem up on my whiteboard. My intention was to get a sense of what he knew and what he didn’t know. In my mind I thought I had a chosen a reasonably simple example. As this student approached the board to have a go at answering the question I heard him mutter to himself “this is going to be hard”. I stopped him in the moment and asked him if he realised what he had just said. He said “No”. I repeated back to him what he had muttered and said “That’s what we are going to go to work upon – your belief that it is hard. I am going to make sure you start to see how to think about the subject so you can make it easy for yourself”. It was an extraordinary learning experience for me as an educator because I really had to get into his world and understand what his misconceptions and understandings were first before having him step into my thinking and methodology. It took time and persistence on both our parts. And yes he did pass with flying colours when he took the exam again.

In this discussion I am not implying or asserting that people’s opinions are invalid. They all have some validity – at least to them and their personal experiences and understanding. For that student who struggled to the point of failing that Engineering subject twice, it was reality that the subject was hard – for him. However, that is my point really. Our opinions and beliefs are mostly personal. Understanding and experience on the small scale. People’s opinions are rarely built upon exploring and coming to grips with the context and assumptions upon which those lessons and understandings were built.

This is also true about governments and the media. How many governments have implemented change programs without actually looking at what the research shows works in schools and for learning (No Child Left Behind policy in the USA, Merit Pay for teachers, and so on)? How many millions of dollars have been spent on what looks good and is politically impressive rather than what actually works? How many media organisations report on education and learning from a very narrow perspective? How many rank or discuss the quality of schools based purely on standardised testing that only measure very limited outcomes of student abilities?

It is not easy or common to look at the context or assumptions within which you learn and understand things. These contexts are like the air that we breathe. They are often so invisible to us and just part of everyday living that we don’t think about it.  Shankar Vedantam discussed a number of these “unconscious forces that influence us” is his book “The Hidden Brain: how our unconscious minds elect presidents, control markets, wage wars, and save our lives”. We will go into much more depth about unconscious biases and mental models at another time. Suffice to say right now that people’s opinions are quite often not based on hard facts and research but hearsay,  personal experiences, and unchallenged underlying assumptions.

If we are interested in creating and building educational systems that will allow / encourage / support ALL young people to become exceptional then we have to go beyond the normal everyday opinions about education. Notice the emphasis on ALL. We need to look at the contexts and assumptions that underlie our beliefs and actions.

What do you think?

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