Here we are, 2018! A new year, a new start... sort of. While much of the world marks the start of a new year this week it can be a bit of a shift for educators to think of January as an opportunity for a fresh start. After all, late summer and early fall mark our new years. Our year is well under way, routines have been set, patterns nestled into. With the exception of people who change classes by semester or trimester, this time of year doesn't really feel like a new start. We've already tried the new things we wanted to try. Our goals for the year are already moving along. There is so much on the plate that thinking about adding on anything else feels ridiculous. I agree. In fact, in the past few years I haven't even made a New Year's Resolution, and it has worked out beautifully.
A high quality driving question provides motivation for learning. Often when we first start working with driving questions, or essential question, to frame learning the questions we come up with can feel a little, well, off. Just like with any skill, crafting good driving questions takes practice. The four tips below can help you make some gains. For each tip there is an example of a driving question using the following learning target:
Understands the structures and functions of the major body systems
1. Focus on the enduring understanding of the learning target. Many standards, competencies, and targets come with a lot of foundational skills and understandings attached. When we only think about all the pieces, we miss the big picture. Pulling back and focusing instead on the big picture can help us see what the essence of a target is. Here is an example using our test target:
How do body systems work together to keep our bodies running?
2. Place the target in a larger context. Sometimes a learning target is interesting enough in itself to motivate learning for most learners, others are not. If a particular targets feels dry when you think it, or try to make a question of it, then try thinking about where the target fits in the real world. The target itself should rarely be its own context for learning, and putting targets in a larger context makes them feel more relatable and interesting to many learners. Think about this example for our test target:
How do doctors and scientists know what is happening inside the body?
3. Find the debate within the target. There is nothing like a good academic argument to get learners interested in a topic. No, really. If learners get a chance to debate, take sides, and try to prove other people wrong about something almost anything becomes interesting and worth learning about. The debate within a learning target does not have to be a big heated one, just something that makes learners think and ask a few more questions. Consider this example with our test target:
To what extent should body systems be manipulated or enhanced by technology?
4. Find the fun in the target. We learn the most when we are enjoying ourselves, and all of us can describe times when we were teachers or learners when we had a ton of fun with a particular project, lesson, or unit. This one feels similar to putting the target in a bigger context, and the big difference is that this context should be smile inducing. Think about what a 4 year old would find awesome about the target, even if the learners working on it are 17. Try not to giggle at this example with our test target:
Why does our body need blood, bile, brains and other weird goo?
Socrates said "wonder is the beginning of wisdom." This quote is incredibly powerful because it reminds us that in order for any kind of learning to happen, we first have to be curious about something. The desire to know something, the question, is what sparks learning. In a learner centered proficiency based environment, we must make as much space as possible for learners to be curious and wonder.
One of the tenets of personalized learning, is that learners build and demonstrate proficiency through their own passions and interests. Another philosophical underpinning is that there is a culture that cultivates learner agency. Providing opportunities for learners to ask their own questions in any learning opportunity supports both these tenets. When learners ask their own questions, and then follow through with exploring the answers to those questions, they have much more investment and ownership of their learning. Here are some ways to make space for learner to ask questions in any social grade level or content:
1. Wonder Walls and Community Curiosity: Make being curious a public practice. I have always loved the idea of a giant mural-like display in a hallway where learners post their questions. Of course, there are many other ways to make wondering a regular part of any learning environment. In younger social grades, this can be part of the morning meeting. In addition to sharing what is going on in their lives, they then also share something they have a question about. Older learners might do this as part of an advisory group, or informal thinking exercises at the start or end of class. While this type of wondering might not tie directly to any content it certainly provides space and time for practicing asking questions, which is something our learners are not necessarily used to doing in school.
2. Questioning Protocols: Commonly, after learners interact with an input resource (something that gives them information about content or a skill) the first thing they are asked to do is summarize, or reproduce the important understandings. An interesting twist is to have learners ask questions instead. This can be as simple as learners writing down questions in a reading notebook, or even sharing them with a partner. If you prefer starting with something a little more structured, check out the questioning texts organizer form Engage NY, or questioning the author from the Wisconsin RTI Center. Don't forget about the Question Formulation Technique (QFT) from The Right Question Institute as well.
3. Learning Journals: Many classrooms already use learning journals as a way to hold and reflect on knowledge. Whether learners make daily or weekly entries, learning journals are a perfect place to start practicing asking questions. A broad list of questions might start off a learning opportunity, and as learners go through building their understandings they can narrow down their lists, make attempts at answering questions, revise answers, and ask new questions.
4. Opening Experiences: Field trip time often comes at the end of a learning opportunity, the culminating experience. Putting field trips, visitors, and other experiences at the start of learning opportunity drives wonder and curiosity. Not only will learners be set up to ask questions, they will also have the reason to learn the content. Questioning protocols such as the QFT can be easily applied to opening experiences, as can learning journals.
There are so many ways to introduce and incorporate questioning into our learning environments. If we want our learning communities to be learner centered, then making space for questioning practice is an essential piece of that evolution. None of us can be a learner with out being a wonderer first.
For most of us it feels like we are into the swing of the school year. Older learners are jumping into their learning targets, and our youngest learners are getting the hang of how school goes. Visions and Codes of Conduct hang on the walls, Parking Lots have some stickies, and we can pat ourselves on the back for including learner voice.
As we enter into the last few months of the school year, many of us are starting to turn an eye towards next year. It is a great time to think about the learning experiences we’ve put together for our learners, and how to grow them to be even more learner centered. One place to go is thinking about expanding learning opportunities to include targets at multiple readiness levels rather than only centering on one or two. We can describe this as having multiple access points. Some contents and measurement topics lend themselves more easily to this flexibility, while others take a little more thinking.
Flexible grouping is one of the best ways to meet learners at their readiness level, or Zone of Proximal Development. In order to figure out a learner’s readiness level in any given subject, there needs to be a pre- assessment. Given at the start of new learning, a pre-assessment helps both the teacher and the learner determine where to begin and are essential in learner centered proficiency based education. We cannot assume what learners do, or do not know, based simply on their social grade is school. Nor can we assume that performance in one content area or topic will indicate performance in others. In order to be truly learner centered and proficiency based, we need to use pre-assessment strategies to determine what our learners are ready for.
One of the core questions in creating a learner-centered proficiency based environment is “who has the control?” Posing this question in a variety of circumstances can help teachers and staff in a learning environment take steps to increase the learner-centeredness of any place or experience. Today I want to talk about this question in relation to handing out papers or materials for assignments and tasks.
When working in a learner-centered proficiency based system, it is really important that members of the learning community have some common understandings. I can’t think of any place where this is more important than with proficiency expectations. We’ve spent a good deal of time working on learning targets and assessments, and much of that work has focused on score 3 and foundational elements. It is equally important that we spend some time building common understandings about what it means to work a score 4, or exceeding levels of targets.
An essential component of learner centered proficiency based education is being able to meet learners at their particular readiness level in any area. Readiness level is another way of talking about the Zone of Proximal Development, the sweet spot of learning. In a personalized learning environment there should never be a moment when a learner is disengaged because they are being expected to work at a level that is either too hard or too easy. This is where flexible grouping comes in.
Have you ever visited a classroom, or a team, or a school, and felt like there was some kind of secret code the members all shared? Perhaps the learners and teachers were using hand signals, or using specific words and phrases which clearly had a meaning that was understood by all the learning community members. The communication took very little effort, and happened quickly and smoothly. Classrooms and schools that have successfully shared and sustained a common language are special places with an environment prime for powerful learning.
Courtney is the Instructional Coach for KIDS RSU #2 in Maine. She also hosts a podcast about personalized learning, and is available for independent consulting work.
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