School is one big experiment of stimulus-response. We try things and measure the impact; try new things and measure the impact…until we get results that show learning. Many times, it seems like there are so many ingredients to consider, it can be overwhelming. I have been thinking about all the literature I have been reading, all the discussions within my PLN, all of my experiences inside schools and all the things I see and hear when working with adult learners. I have been wondering which things are the most powerful for learning; if I could distill it down to a few things, what would they be? I know what the literature says (See Hattie and Marzano’s work as examples – links below) but what have I seen? I think if we try these four things, we will see immediate growth:
- Share criteria for successful learning with students – You can call this learning targets, outcomes, standards, rubrics…whichever, but the point is that every time you start a class or learning experience, be explicit about where you are going and how it will look, both as you travel and when you arrive at the destination. Share the criteria each and every time. Even better, co-construct it with students. No surprises, no fuzziness. Even if you are engaging in inquiry and the destination is a little looser, share the criteria for strong inquiry (the process).
- Structure in daily feedback – Whether it is the students or you giving feedback, plan to do it every day for every student. If face-to-face isn’t an option, do it digitally, do it with peers, or ask for guests to offer feedback. If students can’t think about their thinking and their process, they can’t change it if it isn’t working. Also, consider that feedback isn’t advice or correction. Feedback focuses on those criteria in point number one and it invites further thinking and problem-solving. The most effective feedback can often be in the form of questions: Did this presentation have the impact you hoped it would? How can this paragraph more clearly reflect your thoughts? Why is this part unclear? How did you solve that problem? Did anything give you difficulty and what did you do?
- Equip students with the learning strategies they need to experience successful learning – I have blogged many times about learning strategies and how they are different from instructional strategies. I prefer the term “Habits of Mind.” Without explicit teaching and then practice in applying these strategies, students cannot grow. There is a difference in the mental processes of students experiencing success and those experiencing challenge. We have to build the repertoire of processes for all students so the processes can become independent habits. Things like activating prior knowledge, asking questions, organizing thoughts, conferring with others, identifying the main idea, and so on, are many of the reasons why communication works well for some and not for others. We cannot assume students know how to approach tasks, assessments and learning experiences. We have to help them get there. Looking at each learning experience critically and identifying all the places where challenge could be experienced helps us anticipate and prepare for support.
- Make reflection part of everyone’s day – As I stated in my introduction, school is like a giant experiment. We DO things all the time in school, but if we don’t stop to consider the impact or results, we can often continue to repeat ineffective practices. Observation is key to experimentation; without it, we cannot make strong conclusions. So, as educators, we have to stop and observe. We can heighten the impact of this by involving students in this part of the learning cycle. They need to reflect daily, too. It is an unhealthy system that depends on one person to decide whether learning is rich for all people. Students should be able to discuss their progress as clearly as teachers. Of course, this point is tied directly to my points about criteria and feedback. They are all connected and all essential. They also all require a paradigm of continuous growth and reflection as opposed to an activity-assess-activity-assess model, where this is not often built in.
In the end, I think all of these speak to the idea that learning must start and end with students. They tell us how to teach and how to re-teach. They tell us what topics to focus on and the ways to do it to increase engagement. They tell us when we are going too fast and when we are going too slow. They tell us when they need support and when they need extra challenge. We just have to be willing to listen and watch.
Hattie’s article (2003):
Marzano’s article (2001):