self-reflection

Exploratory action research: improving teacher practice

 

Every year, I guide my students through the process of conducting a small research project.  For them, it’s often the first time they’ve done anything of the sort, so it’s really important that my students understand the importance of learning not only how, but also why they need to learn how to do this.  After all, it’s not always evident why future teachers also need to be able to conduct experiments.

I start by introducing my students to a few articles from “Champion Teachers: stories of exploratory action research“.  My students read stories about experienced teachers who take the time to explore their own practice of teaching.  The teachers in this booklet each follow the same general process: they think about a situation in their teaching that they’d like to work on, and formulate a question they want to work on or a problem they’d like to explore.  They then go through the steps of collecting some basic data, for instance through observation, before moving on to make a plan of action.  Then, they carry out their plan of action, again observing and collecting data as they go.  Does the new idea work out?  If so, why?  Or otherwise, why not?  They think about what their findings will mean for their practice in the future, and then share their findings with others.  Research done in this way, remains formal enough to insure fairly reliable results, while making it informal enough that everyone can join in, with research questions relevant to the daily practice.  It gives educators a simple set of tools to structure their thinking and acting so that they can easily improve their teaching.

While reading the articles in this booklet, my students soon discover that teachers are never “done” with training and improving their practice as educators.  They also learn that research doesn’t have to be a big deal.  It can be a little deal, too.  What’s important is the underlying formalized, structured thinking that defines the difference between research and randomized efforts at self-improvement.  This sort of thinking can be learned, and that’s what I focus on when working with my students as future teacher practitioners.

One way I help my own students in formulating their thoughts about their research project is to employ an adaptation of “Shark Tank“, a reality television program in which entrepreneurs pitch their idea to investors in the hope of taking their product to the next level.  In my adaptation, the students work in small groups.  Each student presents his research project to the group.  The various members of the group then ask critical, open questions meant to help the student refine his plan and make his research question concrete.  After each student has presented his plan and answered all the questions, the group decides which plan was the best by awarding them “money” with which that plan can be carried out.  The winning plans are then presented to the entire class.  Plans that gain the least amount of “money” are presented to me so we can work on improving that plan one-on-one.

This form of co-operative learning was well-received by the students in my class.  Not only did it help everyone get their thoughts organized on this otherwise very daunting project, but they also learned to listen carefully to each other and ask thoughtful, open, yet critical questions in order to help each other.  It also helped create a feeling of connection between the students, as they support each other in their individual quests for development.  And that, in my view, is a very good thing.


For further reading on exploratory action research, a link to the booklet: “Champion Teachers: Stories of exploratory action research

To learn more about the “Champion Teachers” in general, please feel free to follow this link: https://englishagenda.britishcouncil.org/continuing-professional-development/cpd-teacher-trainers/champion-teachers-stories-exploratory-action-research

http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/action-research?utm_source=twitter-google%2B&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=bc-teachingenglish

Teaching from the top-down: flipping Bloom’s taxonomy

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How many of us have learned about Bloom’s taxonomy, back in the days we went to college?  Very likely, one learned to start teaching at the base: knowledge and comprehension, before moving on to the higher levels of application and analysis.  And maybe, just maybe the children would be clever enough to move on to the highest levels of thinking: evaluation and creation.

And oftentimes, that’s how it works.  We teachers design lessons along this bottom-up line: first words, then phrases, followed by sentences, finally ending in some form of cumulative project such as short dialogues or stories.  Then we start over in the next unit or theme.

Then comes the “what-if?” In this case: what if we started from the top?

What if we first presented our children with a problem to be solved, before giving them all of the building blocks needed to complete the cumulative project?

What if we tickled their imaginations with a product that needed to be created,  allowing them to provide input where they could, asking questions when they came to an obstacle?

bloom_pyramid-2

What would happen?

First of all, I suppose some children might feel intrepid or even anxious.  Often unused to the risk-taking involved in exploration, they would find themselves faced with an open field of possibilities in this new learning experience.

Secondly, I suppose we teachers might first feel a bit guilty for allowing children fall flat on their learner’s faces, sometimes more than once.  We might feel frustrated because our learners might be less efficient than we’re used to.  Especially the first time around, when everything is new, and everyone is getting used to the process of learning from the top-down.

But what else might happen?

Some children have been chomping at the bit for a chance like this, and will happily move into the space you created.  They will discover a new zeal for learning and might even propose some projects of their own to work on.  Instead of writing a letter to a pen pal in Europe, they might wish to write that same letter to an alien on Mars.  And what’s to stop them?

We teachers might discover that lesson planning changes to a more flexible set-up, so that we have space to address questions that pop up in the middle of the lesson.  We will need to plan more towards what the children need, and less towards our own desires.  We will have to ask ourselves, how to play into that field, so everyone is productively busy?  More importantly, we will need to know what the children already know.  Which children will need support when going into a new project, and what sort of support will they need?  Will they need didactic scaffolding during the lesson?  Or will they need more pedagogical support in the form of encouragement and coaching?

We also might find out that some children don’t do well with a flipped task at all.  Some cihldren really do thrive on a bottom-up approach.  However, we might find that once certain children get the hang of a top-down, problem-based approach, their learning takes off in ways we could only imagine before, allowing us to give our attention to those needing the extra support offered by the bottom-up approach to learning.  We might also find out that there are multiple ways to solve a problem, each with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Something else we might find out is that children start taking ownership of their learning.  But also that they need guidance from us, their teachers.  They need to learn to think about their own learning, to self-reflect.  They need to learn how to answer questions such as:

  1. What is the problem all about?
  2. What makes this an interesting problem?  What does it have to do with me, and my own life?
  3. What do I already know about this problem?
  4. What do I need to learn so I can solve this problem?
  5. What can I use to help myself?  Who can help me?
  6. How will I know when I’ve solved this problem successfully?  (what are the success criteria?)
  7. kwlimage

    K-W-L is one way to help structure children’s knowledge about a topic or problem.  It focuses on the lower-level thinking skills.  Blank forms can be found by googling “KWL form” (images).

This K-W-L chart can be expanded on a bit, with another example of the K-W-L form:

KWHLAQ-v2-tolisano

Recently, I tried out this sort of teaching with my own students.  I gave them a rather large, complicated problem for them to work on.  Each class had to make its own book of English lessons for the children they were teaching.  At first, they had no idea what they needed to do, but as the course developed, they started to make the connections between what I was offering them in class and the problem they had been given to solve.  Piece by piece, they each solved their part of the puzzle, resulting in some very interesting, challenging, out-of-the-box solutions.  At the end of the course, each class had its own book of lessons.  In the meantime, the students had developed a wonderful sense of professional creativity while creating their lessons, a wonderful side-effect of flipping the taxonomy.

For further reading, here are a couple of articles I found that deal with this idea in more depth:

http://plpnetwork.com/2012/05/15/flipping-blooms-taxonomy/

https://www.learning-theories.com/problem-based-learning-pbl.html

Feel free to have a read and find out more!

Mirror, mirror… why bother with self-reflection?

mirror-mirror

I sat across the table from a young student while perusing his semester reflection.  “I don’t understand why we have to do this,” he said, “it’s just a waste of time, when I could be using the same time to write lesson plans or study for my classes.”  Why bother, indeed, I thought.  What was the point of the whole exercise?

Of course, I knew what the point of the exercise was, but how to get it across to my student, so he might learn to value the experience as much as he valued studying for his upcoming exams.  I started by asking questions.  What, in his experience, stuck out as a real success?  What made that particular experience so successful?  What did he do to create that experience?  Were there other factors contributing to that experience?  We continued to explore these and more questions in a short discussion.  He came out of this armed with resolutions and plans, without even realizing that we had just completed an entire cycle of reflection.  When I pointed this out to him, he began to understand that reflection is a tool, a means of improving his style teaching so that he can knowingly re-create successful experiences and be less dependent on coincidence.

There are many models one can use for self-reflection.  At the university I teach at, the model our second-year students use is called Korthagen’s Circle of Reflection.  Korthagen is a Dutch educational specialist who developed different models for reflection.  Using the Korthagen’s Circle of Reflection, students systematically explore their actions in a given situation.  This tool allows students to inform themselves about their own practice and make decisions about their future dealings.

korthagens-spiralKorthagen’s Circle of Reflection has five steps, as illustrated here.  Each step has specific questions that should be answered as part of the reflection exercise.

1.  Action:  What did I want to attain?  What was I trying out?  What was I paying extra attention to?

2.  Looking back:  What actually happened (from the teacher’s perspective and from the perspective of the pupils)?  What did we want?  What did we do?  What did we think?  What did we feel?

3.  Awareness:  How are the answers (from the previous step) interconnected?  How does the context (school) influence the whole?  What does this mean for me?  What is now the actual problem?

4.  Alternatives: What alternatives do I see?  What pros and cons are there to each one?  What will I take with me for the next time?

5.  Trial (step 1, but as a step into a new cycle):  What did I want to attain?  What was I trying out?  What was I paying extra attention to?

When coaching my students, I tell them to choose one specific incident that occurred during the lesson or in the course of the day, and to focus on that.  It can be something that went well, or something they want to improve, but it has to be one specific incident.  I look at their reflection and check that each step has been taken.  Sometimes, students skip a step or two, or stop when they are only halfway through.  In order to achieve improvement in their teaching, however, I insist they complete the entire cycle of reflection.  They groan, but they also grow, and they see that, too.

As a lecturer, I try to set an example for my students.  I hadn’t thought a lot about how to set an example in the area of self-reflection, however, until I received a box of notebooks from my own dad, who had worked in the field of education for decades before changing careers.  There were journals for each of the various positions he had held: as a teacher, a principal, a superintendent and later as a doctorate student.  His journals are a collection of practical items (what needs to happen this week), reflections on incidents, personal goals and business strategies, among other things.  Upon seeing his collection of journals, I decided that the best way to be a role model would be to start my own reflection journal.

When talking with my students, I teach self-reflection as a skill for life-long development.  Sometimes, I show them my own journal, (briefly!) to depict self-reflection as a healthy habit.  It’s not just something one does to appease the teachers that be, but it is also as a tool for steering their own growth.  This revelation often comes as a surprise to them, and helps them understand how important it is to not just think about their teaching, but also to record it in some fashion, so they can refer back to it at a later time.  They begin to view self-reflection as a valuable use of their time, and I, in turn, see their teaching improve as they move into greater awareness of their dealings.


Note:  Factual information for this blog entry was retrieved from:  http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reflectiecyclus_van_Korthagen