If there is a trait above all others that I want to imbue into my students, it is curiosity. Let that include a passion to understand, connect the dots, and answer questions like, “Why?” The first step toward reaching that goal would be opening their minds to fascinating bits and pieces of knowledge, be they about computer games or nature. That Wow feeling is addictive, as is the high of connecting the dots, solving a puzzle, and unraveling the mysteries of life itself.
I respect the job done by education programs around the world, but six to eight hours a day five days a week can only go so far. Teachers get tangled in a web of standards, mission statements, and assessments, and spend too much time on what their institution considers essential. While this is a good starting point, it has to often become an endpoint, something it was never intended to be. John Dewey, one of the most influential voices in American education in the early 1900’s, once said:
Education is not preparation for life. Education is life.
What does that mean? Decades earlier than Dewey spoke those words, John Adams defined them:
“You will ever remember that all the End of study is to make you a good Man and a useful Citizen.”
Renowned linguist, philosopher, historian, and scientist, Noam Chomsky says it this way:
“Education is really aimed at helping students get to the point where they can learn on their own. . . ”
Rephrased, this defines education as not about academic success, learning the 3Rs or graduating top in the class. The goal is bigger, more far-reaching, and more difficult to achieve. It’s about building lifelong learners.
If you use the VARK model of Student Learning, you know why I’m excited about it. VARK started as a questionnaire to help students and teachers understand their best approach to learning but has since become more of a guideline for teaching and learning. The questionnaire is deliberately short (thirteen-sixteen questions, depending upon which version you take) in order to prevent student survey fatigue.
The acronym VARK refers to four learning modalities — Visual, Auditory, Reading/Writing, and Kinesthetic. Though often classroom lessons focus on the Visual, with a bit of preparation, they can be taught using all four modalities thus accommodating students who learn best in a different way. Why go through this extra effort? VARK’s creator, Neil Fleming, explains it this way:
- Students’ preferred learning modes have a significant influence on their behavior and learning.
- Information that is accessed through students’ use of their modality preferences shows an increase in their levels of comprehension, motivation, and metacognition.
For me, that extra time and effort is a no-brainer. Let me back up a moment and explain how I got to that point. I realized after a few years of teaching that something was wrong with the methodology I had been taught. Lots of clever, smart kids weren’t getting what I was putting out. I taught in a way that addressed how the majority learned (because that covered most kids, didn’t it?) but that turned out to be more like a plurality. Or less. In fact, where that plurality of kids might be the biggest group in the class, those that weren’t learning in this prescriptive manner was an even bigger group. To say it another way:
What the Bell Curve considers the “typical student” was always far outnumbered by those who weren’t.
Interestingly enough, Dr. Fleming reports that Kinesthetics (the K in VARK) is the most common learning style though not the most common teaching style.
When that didn’t happen and I read about it a thousand more times, I dug into it. Inspired by the teachings of John Holt (1923–1985), this free range branch of homeschooling promotes learning through nonstructured, child-led exploration. There’s no set curriculum or schedule; students learn what interests them with guidance from involved adults. There are no worksheets, tests, or structure to provide evidence of learning or templates for teaching. The children pick what to learn, when, at what pace. The result — according to unschoolers, is a love of learning, tenacity to a task, and independent thought that prepares them for college and career better than traditional methods. In fact, if you look at the list of traits valued in popular education programs such as Habits of Mind and Depth of Knowledge, the reasons why parents unschool their children mirror the traits included in these lists.
What is it
According to Dr. Peter Gray of Freedom to Learn:
“Unschooling parents do not … do at home the kinds of things that are done at school. More specifically, they do not establish a curriculum for their children, do not require their children to do particular assignments for the purpose of education, and do not test their children to measure progress. Instead, they allow their children freedom to pursue their own interests and to learn, in their own ways, what they need to know to follow those interests. They may, in various ways, provide an environmental context and environmental support for the child’s learning. In general, unschoolers see life and learning as one.”
Over the years, I’ve struggled to teach in ways my students would understand. Standing at the front of the classroom stopped working so I researched (and tried in some cases) Whole Brain Teaching (WBT), Socratic Method, Understanding by Design, Mindfulness, and a lot more options that colleagues mentioned as helpful with their differentiated student groups. They all worked for a while and then, maybe when the novelty wore off, I was back to the same Bell curve of successes, failures, and those in between.
The same could be said of Standards and curricula adopted in my varied teaching gigs. That includes everything from Common Core to the IB philosophy, from Depth of Knowledge to Project-based Learning. I confess, I found it frustrating. Everything worked for a while and nothing worked in the long term.
That’s when I heard about John Hattie at an education conference I attended and his concept of Visible Learning. John Hattie is a teacher but more significantly, he’s an education researcher. His life’s goal is to determine what education strategies work best for the largest number of students. He engaged in a fifteen-year evaluation of over 50,000 research articles and something like 240 million students — making it the biggest evidence-based education research project ever — and discovered something no one expected and few believed: Almost any approach will work if delivered well. The one foundational element required for success is passionate, involved, committed, flexible teachers:
“The remarkable feature of the evidence is that the greatest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers.”
How can that be? According to John Hattie, what he came to call “visible learning” happens when we teachers look at what we’re doing:
“Visible teaching and learning occur when there is deliberate practice aimed at attaining mastery of the goal, when there is feedback given and sought, and when there are active, passionate, and engaging people (teacher, students, peers) participating in the act of learning.
If you have challenging students in your classes, there’s a good chance someone has suggested that you look into Whole Brain Teaching (WBT). Whole Brain Teaching is an active teaching method designed to maximize student engagement in lessons, positive interactions with classmates, and educational fun. Instruction includes vocal directions mixed with hand gestures, inflections, full body movement, head motions, and chants. Studies show that this multi-sensory approach is how the brain is intended to learn and will result in a much greater probability of reaching teaching goals.
Where it might have originally been intended for challenging classes — much like Orton-Gillingham started as a multi-sensory learning system for dyslexics — WBT has matured into a strategy that works for lots of learners, even the quiet ones. It uses “model and repeat” as ways to join the right and left sides of the brain (such as the hippocampus, the prefrontal cortex, and the motor cortex) in student learning with the idea that if the entire brain is engaged in learning, there is nothing left over for misbehavior or distraction. For many K-12 teachers, WBT has become their primary teaching strategy.
WBT is based on four core components (called Core Four — part of a longer list of techniques):
Orton-Gillingham started over seventy years ago as an instructional approach intended for those with difficulty reading, spelling, and writing, like what children experience in dyslexia. Sometimes, teachers recognized the special needs of a reading-challenged student, but just as often, it was blamed on disinterest or lack of effort, leaving the child to conclude s/he “just wasn’t good at reading.” When those same children were taught to read using the Orton-Gillingham (O-G) approach, many felt like that child who puts glasses on for the first time and his/her entire world comes into focus.
Since then, the Orton-Gillingham Method has enabled thousands of children to access worlds opened to them by reading, something they never thought would happen. In fact, it has been so successful, O-G is being mainstreamed into the general education classroom, as a way to unlock the power of reading for more students.
Have you ever walked into a classroom where students were engaged in serious on-topic discussion, debating ideas and challenging each other to provide evidence of their statements? And when you looked around for the teacher, s/he was calmly sitting in the back, observing, taking it all in but not participating?
Chances are, you entered a classroom using a discussion method known as Socratic Debate, aka Socratic Method, Socratic Circle, or Socratic Inquiry. Many teachers try this approach when they realize lecturing doesn’t engage students anymore. Sure, class members can memorize facts but too often the critical thinking required to analyze cause and effect — say, how a specific river encouraged ancient trade — eludes them unless the teacher spells it out, telling them the “right” answer.
In a traditional classroom, asking and answering questions is stressful to many students who are afraid their answer will be wrong. This is where the student-directed, no-right-wrong-answer Socratic Method shines.
What is it
It all started with this (supposed) quote from the iconic Greek thinker, Socrates:
“Let us examine the question together, my friend, and if you can contradict anything I say, do so and I will be persuaded.”
In a perfect world, vocabulary is learned in context: The phrases and sentences around the unknown word define the meaning. If that isn’t sufficient, students use affixes — prefixes, suffixes, and roots — to decode meaning. But because the world isn’t always that pristine, Dorothy Frayer and her colleagues at the University of West Virginia came up with a vocabulary teaching tool that has come to be known as “the Frayer Model”. Now used by thousands of educators, this approach to word study relies on analyzing words rather than memorizing definitions. Somewhat like Concept Circles, the Frayer Model uses a graphical organizer that asks students to describe words by much more than a memorized definition. They must:
- define the term
- describe essential characteristics
- provide examples
- provide non-examples
Because the Frayer Model digs deeply into understanding the word, it promotes critical thinking and a granular familiarity with unfamiliar vocabulary. It draws on a student’s prior knowledge to build connections among new concepts and creates a visual reference by which students learn to compare attributes and examples.
Created by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design (UbD) is a lesson planning approach that visualizes the end result (what students should understand) to better select learning activities (the path that will get students there). Tens of thousands of educators use it for unit and course planning; hundreds of districts and schools use it as the basis for their curricula. Look at who has adopted UbD:
- the College Board, to guide the revision of its Advanced Placement (AP) subject matter courses and for the development of its courses AP Seminar and AP Research
- the framework for the national curriculum in the Philippines and Puerto Rico
- the state of Massachusetts, for its Race to the Top federal grant program to create more than one hundred exemplary units and associated classroom videos
- the Next Generation Arts Standards
Additionally, the two largest textbook publishers, Pearson and McGraw-Hill, use the UbD framework in many of their textbooks and programs, similar to this example from Pearson’s biology curriculum.
Students learn best when they are relaxed, happy, and feeling loved. It is challenging to include those characteristics in classes when you are concurrently trying to achieve school goals, comply with curriculum timelines, juggle parent concerns, and blend your lessons with those of colleagues.
This is where mindfulness becomes important. It reminds teachers that the fulcrum for learning is the student’s emotional well-being.
Let’s back up a moment: What is mindfulness? Buddha once said:
“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”
If that’s the plan, mindfulness is the path. It teaches students how to quiet themselves — get to a place where their mind is settled sufficiently to pay full attention to the task at hand. Experts offer many suggestions for incorporating mindfulness into your classroom experience. Consider:
- pause and take a deep breath before beginning an activity or in the middle of performing it
- reflect on an activity as a group
- reflect on the student’s own experiences and background and how that relates to the topic
Delving into these rudimentary steps isn’t the goal of this article (find more about that in Janelle Cox’s TeachHUB article). Today, I want to show you how to take the incorporation of mindfulness into your classes to the next level. Here are five ideas: