Welcome to my Professional Learning blog.
My name is Matt Nicoll and I am a high school teacher in New Zealand, interested in improving the classroom experience for my students. I am open to trialing new approaches and hope to use this blog to reflect on my ideas and practices.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Basing Teaching on Learning

One of my main frustrations has been the assessment focus of many of our courses. This is not a surprise, as the media and government seem insistent on publishing results which look remarkably like league tables. However, at ULearn12, I was inspired with an idea which might overcome this frustration while also allowing my classroom to look more how I would like it to.

Specific Learning Outcomes

Every topic has Specific Learning Outcomes (SLO). These are often based upon the elements of the topic which may be assessed at the end of the topic (or in formal exams/internal assessments). Naturally, they are also aligned to the National Curriculum.
If the students are given a breakdown of each SLO for a topic, then maybe they can be given the freedom to work via their own route and their own pace (within a larger deadline) to achieve each SLO. This will require providing a possible programme to follow in the early days for each class, but hopefully the students will rely less on my guidance and find their own paths for achieving the same (or more, perhaps) as they did when the lesson/learning sequence was more prescribed.

Differentiated Learning

Yes, that wonderful catch phrase of education!! My classroom is already set up in groups to allow for collaborative learning but true differentiated learning opportunities are limited. Yes, I set a group of tasks, or scaffold the tasks each lesson; this allows many students to work at their own pace, but the learning sequence is still prescribed by me.

If students are told what they need to learn and by when, they can be helped to select groups which learn in similar ways and with students who want to learn the content in the same order. Hopefully, the students will find their own experiments and activities to do, and learn the aspects of each topic in far more depth than they would with me "teaching" each key concept.

Student-Based Tasks

A lot of my students already come up with experiments they want to try out in class, so I can see this approach leading to even more student-selected experiments. This is going to need some clear ground-rules:
  1. Three-days notice for equipment/chemicals.
  2. A clear method (so I can check that it will work and is legal!).
The same sort of rules are going to have to apply for activities, such as building models etc.
I can also see the value in getting each group to add to the class blog with their progress and findings. It may also be useful to get each group to make videos/presentations to explain the concepts/contexts they have investigated. These ideas are pretty exciting - if they work!!

Teacher Role

My role in the classroom is going to change a bit if this is successful. It is also going to necessitate some modelling of 'best practice'.
Early in the year, I may need a few possible lesson/learning sequences to be presented to the students, and allow them to create their groups based on the sequence which best suits them. Some testing on the types of learners they are may also be useful.
I am also looking at filming myself explaining some of the key concepts in each topic, just to ensure that the key assessed concepts are available to every student, regardless of the progress of their own group.


Naturally, the biggest constraint will be the time taken (particularly early in the year) to make videos of the key concepts being explained, and to provide alternate "pathways" to learn each SLO for the first few topics. Additionally, my technician is concerned at the amount of different experiments that may need to be prepared each lesson; I am not quite sure how to overcome this issue, to be honest.
I am fortunate enough to teach at a school where classroom management and student motivation are generally very high. I can imagine that student behaviour and motivation could be potential constraints to learning in this way.
A lot of my current students actually like being "spoon-fed". They like my notes and they like being told what they need to remember. Yes, each SLO tells them what they need to remember, but this link seems to be lost on them! I guess, a topic summary is going to be key prior to the formative and formal assessments.
Last, but by no means least, if there is any slip in student grades, this approach may be frowned upon.

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