Sunday, 29 April 2012

Out of District: Student Travel Revisited

Years ago I was teaching an English 10 class about Shakespeare's London. Its one of my favorite lessons, and I thought I was really bringing 16th century London to life, when one student stopped the discussion short.  "Why don't we just go there", the student asked. "We could see England for ourselves". I explained that aside from the fact that modern London was very different from what I was describing, it would cost a lot of money to just up and take one's class to Europe. By the end of the week twelve students had decided they wanted to go. They found a tour company, raised the funds and approached me to be the teacher sponsor for their trip. Our principal pitched their proposal to the school board and the result was a trip of a lifetime to see London and Stratford first hand.

As I mentioned back in January, student travel is definitely worth the effort! The benefits far outweigh the reasons not to go.  Travel frees the mind and provides students with first hand experiences far beyond anything they can see on tv, find online or read in books. There really is no substitute for being there. Brightspark (Simplifying Student Travel) illustrates this point, listing 10 reasons why teachers should definitely consider traveling with students. 

SD 60 students have journeyed to Japan, Europe, Africa and South America. This past week I had the pleasure of chaperoning our secondary gifted program students on a trip to China. Returning with the class from Beijing it was easy to see the positive impact the trip has had on our students. Such trips provide experiences above and beyond the benefits of traditional instruction. Students return to share their stories with family, friends and classmates, and become live learning resources. Travel provides real life experience that can't help but broaden a student's perspective on on other countries and cultures.  

The BC Ministry of Education agrees. This year Minister of Education George Abbott traveled to China. In addition to working on bringing more Chinese students to British Columbia, the minister is seeking to create more opportunities for B.C. students to study in China, and to expand the network of B.C.-certified schools in China. Our trip last week was an educational tour, but the day is quickly coming when SD 60 students may be headed to China on learning exchanges. Earlier this year SD 60 Superintendent Larry Espe accompanied other BC superintendents to China in an effort to further develop and strengthen ties between the two regions.

St. Augustine wrote "The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page." Here's hoping the future brings our students many opportunities to turn as many pages as possible!

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Of Marshmallows and Radishes: Self Control and Self Regulation

In the 1960s, Walter Mischel tested four year old children for self control in "The Marshmallow Test": the children were each given a marshmallow and told that they could eat it anytime they want, but if they waited 15 minutes, they would receive another marshmallow. An amusing video version of the exercise can be found at Very Tempting Marshmallow Test on Youtube. Researchers concluded that children with good self regulation skills were more likely to do well at school. In fact, follow up research shows that positive results on the marshmallow test lined up well with beter success levels in later life.

Recently BC Superintendents and Board chairs had the opportunity to hear Dr. Stuart Shanker discuss self regulation with Minister of Education George Abbott. Dr. Shanker is well known for his work on self regulation in young children at York University. He suggests that "there is a growing awareness among developmental scientists that the better a child can self-regulate, the better she can rise to the challenge of mastering ever more complex skills and concepts. In the simplest terms, self-regulation can be defined as the ability to stay calmly focused and alert, which often involves – but cannot be reduced to – self-control. The better a child can stay calmly focused and alert, the better he integrates the diverse information coming in from his different senses, assimilates it, and sequences his thoughts and actions."

Shanker's work illustrates how much work goes into a student's efforts to self regulate. The term "pay attentiion" was never so relevant. From a very young age the effort to be calm, quiet and focused costs different children different amounts of energy. Their relative success at attaining a self regulated state depends upon a number of variables. Recognizing and adjusting to individual student needs will be increasingly important as teachers roll out the 21st century learning agenda.

Studies on self control aren't just restricted to children. A study by Florida State professor Roy Baumeister, using adult subjects, involved glucose and self control. Self-control was defined as doing what you should be doing as opposed to doing what you want. Baumeister surmised that self-control runs off of energy supplies in the body. Using radishes and chocolate chip cookies, Baumeister tested the effects that food restrictions had on energy for self-control. Both food choices were placed in front of study subjects for the experiment, and each participant was allowed to eat one, but not the other.

When subjects were forbidden to eat cookies, but permitted to eat radishes, they spent less time attempting to solve brain puzzles afterwards. When they were permitted to eat cookies, but not radishes, they persisted with their attempts to solve the puzzles for longer. Baumeister concluded that a resource was depleted throughout the time the subjects had to exert self-control not eating the cookies. In other words, a person's sense of self control was depleted, and as a consequence, people would not persist in work on a challenge. One might wonder how Baumeister's subjects might have done on the marshmallow test!

Whether measuring self control in adults or self regulatory skill in kindergarten students, it is clear that learning is hard work. Recognizing and adapting to the challenging needs of both the children and the adults in our system can only help in the efforts to advance personalized learning and impart 21st century learning.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Speaking Up for Quiet Learners

Recently, much has been made of the need for education to embrace personalized learning and 21st Century learning competencies. Networking, collaboration and the ability to work in groups are held up as skills to be taught to, and embraced by students. At first blush these competencies may seem like universally good ideas.  "None of us are as clever as all of us" proponents of cooperative learning, like to say. And yet in an ever increasingly loud and busy word there remains a significant number of quiet learners for whom the rush to group work and collaborative learning is difficult to downright painful. Sometimes labelled shy, quiet or retiring, such students must not be overlooked, neglected, or worse, forced to learn in manners that work against their natural talents and tendencies.

If schools are a reflection of the real world then its little wonder that the spotlight now seems to be on students who are out going and charismatic. The cult of celebrity is everywhere, as news and entertainment media bombard us with images of what successful people ought to be like. The reality is that the vast majority of us are more quietly normal than remarkable. According to experts like Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking well over a third to half of the students we teach are introverts. Such students preferred learning styles involve introspection, quiet thought and reflection, and time to process ideas on their own. Techniques such as group work, brainstorming and collaboration do not come easily to them.

Teachers need to take care not to label quiet and introspective students as shy, withdrawn or stupid. Such labels have a negative connotations and are hard to live down. The internet and self help sections at book stores are full of titles offering to help people overcome such shortcomings as shyness and being too quiet. Instead its possible, even likely, that the quiet student just learns differently and needs less interaction and stimulus in order to ponder and process lessons. It has been suggested that creativity is more likely to emerge from quiet solitude than from any brainstorming or group activity (see creativity @ Of course its important for creativity to eventually be shared with others but at least initially, it is important to honor all students learning styles and not force group participation too quickly.

Fortunately, the new BC ed plan with its emphasis on personalized learning and child centered education outlines that teachers, students and parents will work together to make sure every student’s needs are met, passions are explored and goals are achieved. This means student-centered learning that’s focused on the needs, strengths and aspirations of each individual young person. As we move to implement this plan it will be increasingly important to remember that quiet can equate to strength and creativity too.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Keeping the Magic Going!

Recently, at a meeting hosted by the BC Ministry of Education, Minister George Abbott pondered the issue of how student engagement declines as students advance into their secondary years. "How do we keep the magic of learning alive and keep school work from becoming drudgery?", Abbott mused.  The question was discussed and debated by our district team long after the meeting ended.

Much of my classroom experience has come as a teacher of English to secondary aged students. It really bothers me to hear students describe the subject as "boring". I make it a personal mission to ensure that no one leaves my classes without being challenged or engaged. Teens are curious animals. Developmentally caught between the innocent wonder of childhood and the supposed maturity of adulthood, they seem hardwired to challenge, resist and be just plain difficult. This resistance to being told or controlled can make them both aggravating and exciting to teach.

Certainly students still need to take some responsibility for their own learning. I don't hold much with sites like that extol the reasons why "school sucks" and suggest that if students protest about being bored they will just be punished by being labelled troublemakers or burdened with extra work. Being "too cool for school" is self defeating. While there may be "no way through it but to do it", teens need to recognize that the attitude they bring to school plays a major role in what they get out of the experience.

That being said educators CAN make the experience more meaningful and interesting for everyone concerned. The age of positional authority has truly passed. Whether or not one believes students should respect their elders, sit and listen quietly and attentively as less than active participants in their own learning, the fact is,  teachers have to deal with the students they get. Wistfully wishing for a return to some past ideal of  classroom management will not make it happen, and getting angry will only guarantee a poor experience for everyone. The good news is the teacher is an active agent in this relationship, and there are things that can be done to make the magic of learning and engagement happen!

If attitude is big for students, its essential for teachers. Authentic enthusiasm and legitimate interest for and in both the subject matter and one's students is a good jumping off point. Regardless of appearances to the contrary, teens, like all people, are curious and will want to see what a teacher is all about. Similarly, teachers need to be curious about what their students are about too. Joanna Budden summarizes this point nicely at the blog where she lists 6 things teachers should keep in mind when teaching teens. 

One of the biggest complaints from teens is they see no connection to what is being taught and their lives. As an English teacher, I believe great literature from any age should be able to sell itself, but it never hurts to find connections between then and now or to challenge students to find the same universal themes presented in the curriculum in contexts more current and relevant. Ultimately, the flow of information needs to go both ways. Today's teachers can learn as much from their students as the other way around. A genuine exchange of learning creates engagement, makes classes more interesting for students and more manageable for teachers. Creating connections is where the real magic happens. The days of being the sage on the stage may be gone, but the age of magic should never end no matter how old the learners are!