Louise Colbran joined Parramatta Marist from Macquarie University, where she lectured in English. She has a wealth of experience in teaching English through Project and Problem Based Learning learning to junior and senior students. Louise recently attended the 2015 Deeper Learning Conference, held at High Tech High, in San Diego. Below are some of her refletions on the event...
- Cogens – teachers engage students (from different demographics) in an honest conversation about their teaching practices
- Co-teaching – allowing students to teach, e.g., have them create lesson plans after providing them with the tools to complete the task
- Cosmopolitanism – create a culture within the classroom, e.g., assign students roles so that they feel they are an integral part of the class and can connect to the community of the classroom
- Context – recognise that each class is different and that each element of a classroom is different in different place
- Content – know and make visible knowledge limitations so that teachers and students learn together
- Competition – for example, competition between classes
Emdin’s address was inspiring and began an experience of interrogating my own teaching practices by hearing from, and adopting the role of, a student at High Tech High (HTH).
The first workshop I attended was “Effective Teaching from a Student’s Perspective,” facilitated by Elena Hoffman, a junior at High Tech High. The workshop was focused on the questions: How do students learn most effectively? How do students want to be taught? Hoffman shared with us a short documentary in which students from HTH offered their thoughts about learning and teaching. When asked how they best learn, students responded:
- when teachers listen to questions
- peer teaching
- when there is a balance between structure and freedom
When asked what practices made them learn least effectively, they were also very certain:
- when being told how to do something and they can see there’s another way to do it
- when there are no clear guidelines or expectations
- when they don’t get a chance to participate, but have to sit in class for a long time. This student suggested that she is easily distracted when not interested
From the responses to these first two questions, it was already clear: these students found they learned best in a student-centred classroom that treated them as individuals with agency. Students, for example, cited as the best aspect of their school system: equality with teachers; the feeling of being helped and mentored rather than instructed; teachers that interact with them and treat them as independent individuals rather than young children; freedom to go deeper into concepts; skills that are applicable to the outside world; revising and critiquing each other’s work, and skills that are transferable to other situations. These students valued a balance between freedom and structure; they appreciated acknowledgement of their voice, claiming they liked to have a say in how they do something (e.g., how they deliver results or the end product of a project), but that the teacher should provide parameters, e.g., what needs to be done and deadlines. They also valued the experience of peer coaching, with students helping each other rather than going straight to the teacher for answers.
The workshop ended with a chance for teachers to ask students questions about their experiences at HTH. These students had particularly insightful and revealing answers when asked how they know when they are learning. It was great, and reaffirming, when they responded: “when you have no idea of what you’re doing, become frustrated, and have to puzzle it out,” and “when you struggle.” It seems that these students could locate their greatest learning experiences in those moments when they had to work hard and structure their own approaches to problems. Hoffman also added that she found presentations and the questions that were asked after the presentation to be a key to her learning at HTH. She identified that she found that as a student, she had to know and understand the content and skills she had learned to be able to successfully present and respond to questions.
And this was something I too learned on my second day at Deeper Learning 2015, when I participated in a Deep Dive: “Should You Buy Fish?” presented by Libby Woodfin and Cheryl Dobberton of Expeditionary Learning Schools. This deep dive offered me the opportunity to experience being a student again – I was going to do a project. During this day-long session, I participated the same learning experiences that my students do on a day to day basis: I worked in a cooperative group, with people I didn’t know prior to meeting them in class, and I worked on a project that involved content which was quite unfamiliar to me – as an English teacher, I don’t often have to study and form opinions on fish! I was made to step outside of my comfort zone by engaging skills that I don’t often use (drawing), and I experienced the confusion and puzzlement of reading scientific studies of Pacific Cod. But I also experienced exactly what the students had identified in the previous workshop – the satisfaction and feeling that I had learned something when individually, and as part of a group, I puzzled out my own approaches and solutions, with the support of some great resources for scaffolding critical reading, analytical writing and integrating research into student writing.
The deep dive concluded with a presentation, which rather than merely performing a summative function, offered me the chance to synthesise all of the information I had taken on board throughout the day and, when asked questions, I was able to draw on knowledge that I didn’t realise I had absorbed. Presentation became a formative, learning experience for me.
My Deeper Learning experience culminated with an engaging keynote delivered by Camille Farrington. Farrington argued that, as humans, our desire for consistency is so strong that we bend our world to our own image of it; in short, the stories we tell ourselves about our world, and our place within it, shape the way we see everything. Farrington, like Christopher Emdin who began the conference, stressed the importance of stepping outside of our usual frame of reference by looking at things from a different perspective. And I think this view sums up my experiences at Deeper Learning 2015. All of the sessions have shown me how important it is to place the individual student at the centre of our practice as teachers, to create a classroom community that encourages confidence, agency and self-direction. As teachers, it is vital that we constantly look at our classroom from different perspectives in order to disrupt our own preconceptions that shape the way we view the learning space and our students’ place within it. From time to time, we need to become students again to understand and empathise with those we teach. Seeing our work from a student’s perspective can only make us better teachers.