When students aren’t learning, dig into their thinking

This year feels different from last year. There are all kinds of reasons why this may be the case but one of them definitely came to me after spending the last two days in two different schools in our Division, working with staffs – we are back to talking about learning.

I don’t mean to say that we haven’t been talking about learning in the past number of years, because we have, but with whole scale provincial curriculum renewal Pre-K to 12, we have been really focused on unpacking and making sense of outcomes, designing rubrics for each outcome and then thinking about assessment. We just haven’t had the time or energy (or the readiness) as a Division to really think about learning deeply beyond the curricular intentions (teachers think beyond it every day, of course). That being said, there is a time and place for everything and we were doing what we needed to do, given the circumstances. In fact, I would argue that it is because of all those years spent thinking about curriculum, that we are extremely well-positioned to have rich discussions about student learning. We know where we are going with clarity and this has given us the opportunity to explore the results of our instruction more fully. As a result, these start up days have filled me with excitement to talk about students, whether or not they are learning, how they learn, and why they learn or don’t learn with groups of people who share the same language and curricular understanding.

Yesterday, I spent the day with a staff exploring learning strategies. Their specific request was to discuss reading strategies for grades four to six students but, as I will explain, reading just cannot be separated that neatly from the other things students do, so we called it learning strategies. Here are some of our thoughts, learning and clarifications as a result of the day:

  • A typical learning experience (lesson, activity, etc.) is filled with complexity. When we plan learning experiences for students, we consider outcomes, criteria for success, ways learning could be lived out, environments that support and enhance learning, tools…the list goes on and on. We consider a lot when we teach. It is this very complexity that makes it challenging to identify exactly where difficulty occurs for students, when they are having trouble experiencing success or growth. As a result, we have to stay curious…often beyond our initial response, in order to determine where the issue (s) may be.
  • Staying curious takes a concerted effort. For example, when a student does not follow our instructions during a game in phys. ed., we may often conclude defiance or not listening. However, staying curious means stepping back and looking at the learning experience in all its parts. Some questions we may ask are: Did the student hear my instructions? Do they understand the words I used to explain the game? Do they have visual or auditory challenges? Is the game too complex? Why didn’t they pick up on social cues from their peers? At exactly which point did they show difficulty? Did they respond when I gave them a verbal cue? The point is, being curious means asking many questions before determining possible responses.
  • Many things we ask students to do in a day may seem simple but are often complex. In addition, everything students do is a mixture of expression and reception. They are taking in information and creating information to send back out. Even if we are asking a student to read an article and fill in a T-chart, they have to listen to our oral instructions, read the words, examine  (view) the structures and features of the text (pictures, text boxes), make connections, write their ideas in a certain way, read what they have written to ensure it makes sense…again, school is complex. This is true for every single learning experience in every class. Therefore, if a student is struggling, we have to look at all those parts (de-construct the task) and try to determine where problem started. Did they miss the instructions? Are they having trouble reading? Is the vocabulary too complex? Do they know how a T-chart works? Are they able to read their own writing? Do they know how to write what is inside their heads?
  • When we talk about learning strategies, we are talking about thinking. Learning strategies are those strategies humans apply to make sense of their world, make sense of their responses to the world and formulate an action or feeling. So, when we respond to challenges during a lesson, we are not responding to the activity itself or even the product we get, but to the thinking that occurs before, during and after a student’s engagement in a learning experience. This is hard because most thinking happens inside a person’s head unless they have a way to share it verbally, in writing or visually. Even then, there is thinking behind that expression that we can never know.
  • Learning strategies and instructional strategies are different things, although they are strongly connected. For example, if an effective learning strategy is to make predictions, then the instructional strategy may be to fill in a KWL or to Think-Pair-Share. Instructional strategies are the tools and methods we use to help students develop and practice effective learning strategies.
  • Everyone uses learning strategies. How we use them is influenced by our learning preferences (whether we predict out loud or on paper, for example), our prior experience and how well they serve us. Part of the trick is to build on the strategies students already possess. If we need a student to make predictions in order to improve reading comprehension, we can start by figuring out when they already make predictions and how this happens. Then we can build on that.
  • Learning strategies are not strand-specific. So, if a student is having trouble reading, we may have to step into another strand (speaking, listening) where they have greater strength, in order to develop the strategies that will make them better readers. Practicing strategies in ways that students will experience success gives us a greater chance of application in areas where things are a little harder. It also helps to think of learning in as broad a way as possible. Any message sent or received is a text, which means how we dress is a text, our houses are a text, graffiti is a text…once the idea of a text is opened up, we have infinite opportunities to practice strategy use in really engaging ways. All subjects are filled with texts and learning strategies can be used and developed all day with students. This is not simply the work of the ELA teachers.
  • The best way to figure out how students are already using strategies is to give them a task that is highly engaging, invite them to do it in groups (so you can hear and see their thinking) and sit back with a list of learning strategies, monitoring use. This is great baseline data. We have also been using our RAD (Reading Assessment District) results to inform our strategy instruction.
  • It is important to not just help students use strategies but to help them understand how a strategy is helpful today and how it will be helpful when they come in contact with new content and new contexts. It is the strategy we want to develop…the thinking. The content is simply the vehicle.


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