What Do We Teach?

The readings for this week all focused on the concept of what we teach in the classroom. A running theme throughout both chapter readings, as well as the article I chose (http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/instructional-design/using-fundamental-concepts-essential-questions-promote-critical-thinking/) which was all about the usefulness of essential questions, is that what we teach has to be meaningful. It has to spark interest in the students and engage them. Chapter 4 of Understanding By Design offered a useful acronym for instructional planning: WHERE. The first H stood out to me the most, standing for “Hook” and “Hold” the students’ attention. Such ways this can be done is through the use of challenging and thought provoking questions, ones that don’t necessarily have one correct answer. Students become more easily engaged when a question is seen as a mystery they need to uncover. Through this, they will not only be forced to think analytically and come up with their own possible explanations, but they will also be excited to receive the new information being presented. This also ties back to using essential questions; the correct EQ’s can also spark students’ attention and, if presented at the right time and in the right way, can resonate with the students and hold their attention not only at the very beginning of a lesson, but throughout the whole unit. As quoted from the article I chose, “If students memorize concepts but cannot think critically using those concepts, then the concepts are meaningless to the student and will soon be forgotten.” Thus, the crucial need for making learning meaningful rather than just using the common practices of coverage and lecture, as discussed in previous chapters, is evident.

Both readings also brought up the idea of using simulations in class to further engage students’ interests. I really love this idea mainly because I can recall times in my high school and middle school experiences when such a tactic was used–I can specifically recall doing a court simulation as well as countless debates in my 9th grade history class. As long as there is a clear goal in mind from the teacher, rather than just hoping for a good outcome, such simulations can be very rewarding. Furthermore, a lot of what the UBD chapter talked about reminded me a lot of the documentary we watched in class about the technical school. The students at this school were being directly immersed in the material they were working on, much like how a simulation or hands-on activity in the classroom works, and were constantly having their work critiqued and revised so that they could go back and make it even better. As this chapter mentioned, feedback is not meant to scare the student away or intimidate them; rather, it is for their own benefit so that they can simply continue to improve upon their work.

What We Learn Part 2

The readings for today focused again on what we learn and strategies that we can implement into curriculum that will allow students to learn effectively. The first chapter was about essential questions, which are open ended, thought provoking, encourage high order thinking, and so on. They differ greatly from lead questions, which are more so questions that require basic, factual knowledge of a concept. Instead, a question such as “How do the arts shape, as well as reflect, a culture?” represents a great essential question. This question encourages the student to go beyond a textbook answer and incorporate their own background and prior knowledge to answer a question that may or may not have one answer. An aspect of essential questions that I really liked from the reading is that they encourage transfer to other areas of learning. If a student is truly understanding the content he/she is presented with, and engaging with it in a thought-provoking, deep manner, he/she should be able to use this knowledge and apply it to another aspect of learning. This knowledge can be applied to the same subject matter, such as a math problem. With a math problem, the student can merely memorize the formula he/she needs to use for a specific problem, or they can understand why they are using that formula and be able to transfer those concepts to a different math problem. Transfer can also be applied to a broader scale & to different subject areas.

The second reading related back to the concept of essential questions as it focused on the difference between knowing and understanding. Understanding is what occurs when a child is meaningfully engaging with the information, and using an essential question is a great way to kick-start this. Knowing something is different in that although a child might know a specific piece of information, if he/she is not engaging with it and relating it to the big picture, he/she will easily forget this information. An example of knowing would be memorizing definitions for a test the night before. Relating this back to the first article, merely knowing a piece of information may not allow that student to transfer that knowledge to different areas of study and relate it to a bigger picture.

The article that I chose to read was about a new technique in reading aloud to elementary students that encourages deeper thought and understanding (http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/05/13/new-read-aloud-strategies-transform-story-time.html?qs=understanding+content). While the teacher reads the book aloud, rather than stopping and asking the students questions about their personal feelings, such as asking, for example, “have you ever felt lonely before?” if the main character in the story is feeling lonely, the teacher instead asks specific questions about the text as a way to guarantee that the students are understanding what is going on in the story. She may ask, “Why did this happen?” or “What did this mean?”. In doing this, the  focus is on the content rather than the feelings. Students are also engaging directly in the text and getting meaning out of it then they might not have before. It also allows the students to ask the teacher questions on ideas they might be unfamiliar with or confused about. Although these specific students were only elementary students, it’s never too early to begin teaching kids to start using higher level thought processes.

What Do We Teach?

The two readings for this week had a lot of valuable information about the content that we teach and how to do so effectively. One of the core ideas in chapter three of SMART is that content needs to engage and relate to the student, otherwise effective learning will probably not occur. Connections between the content and the student are crucial in curriculum, and such connections can be made to students’ specific backgrounds or to their personal feelings of self-empowerment. Without relevance, a lesson on the book “The Outsiders,” for example, is close to useless. I can clearly remember my 9th grade World History Governor’s School teacher implementing these ideas into her classroom, and because of that she still remains my favorite teacher today. During the first week of class, she had each student work in groups to write a rap about a specific person in history that we were learning about that week (I can’t remember exactly who). This was such an out-of-the-box idea that immediately interested and engaged our 14-year old selves. Obviously, Mrs. Carlton didn’t just arbitrarily assign this task; there was reasoning behind it, an end learning goal that she wanted us to achieve (this relates to backward design teaching). This assignment not only gave us students the chance to learn about this specific person in history in a fun and engaging way, but it helped us build core skills of sociability, teamwork, creativity, and independence in that we basically had free reign to express ourselves through this assignment. The way in which lessons and assignments are implemented makes all the difference in student learning and whether or not there will be genuine understanding and interest. As discussed in the backward-design article, having a clear end goal in mind is a sure way to plan lessons accordingly and with purpose, and to effectively run a student-centered classroom.

How People Learn: Learner, Knowledge, Assessment, and Community Centered Classroom

The four tenets of learning (learner, knowledge, assessment, and community) are all interrelated in the classroom, working together to form a cohesive, effective learning environment created by the teacher.

Learner: In a learner-centered classroom, the student’s background, beliefs, attitudes, and prior knowledge is the main focus. A teacher must cater to the students’ specific needs and build on them to reach a common learning goal. For example, in a learner-centered classroom, a pre-test with old and new material at the beginning of the year could provide a good starting point for the teacher to see where each student is individually in terms of their prior knowledge and the impending year’s material. From there, the teacher would know which areas the class needs to work on as a whole, as well as individual students’ needs, instead of diving directly into uncharted territory.

Knowledge: A knowledge-centered classroom focuses on the way in which information is being implemented, and the common goal is understanding. An example of this would be for a teacher to present classroom material in a way that is relevant to the students; which, in turn, demands knowledge of the students’ backgrounds and interests (learner-centered). A subject or topic that students once found boring can be completely transformed simply through the way it is presented. Technology can be an easy way to quickly gain the attention of students and thus strike up interest in the material.

Assessment: Assessment can be an intangible or tangible way for teachers to gauge the level of understanding on what has been taught amongst the students. One way to assess a classroom’s understanding is through the use of short-answer questions, which encourage deeper thought and do not rely solely on memorization. Feedback from the teacher, as described in the chapter, is crucial in order for the student to improve upon what they have already done.

Community: A community-centered classroom can be easily implemented through the use of “learning communities” in which students are assigned a specific group to work with throughout the year. Individual work is still assigned, but collaboration is also a large part of the classroom environment. Students learn to work together cohesively in these “learning communities” and come to rely less on the teacher and more on each other to answer difficult questions. Success for the classroom as a whole becomes more valued as competition fades away, giving way to a more welcoming, open class environment where discussion is embraced.