Over the past years I have had an increasing focus on the student behaviors that produce desired learning results. My classroom observations and coaching have become increasingly focused on observing students’ actions in learning. I’ve determined that the teacher’s role is increasingly one of teaching the student “how to learn” the content rather than teaching the content.
The coach teaches the player how to learn soccer and the music teacher teaches how to learn to play a song. The learner has to do the work, practice, experimentation, etc. for the learning results to be achieved. The expertise of the teacher lies in teaching the how to learn skills.
During many observations I note students who are unclear about what the learning skills or strategies are that they should be executing to produce the learning outcomes. They know the product or task that they are to complete but not the learning process skills.
This problem is often present when students are working in some small group structure. Seldom are students clear on the learning behaviors the teacher is suggesting they execute to produce learning. I questioned a group of four middle school students who were in a group working with ten math problems on a worksheet. Each had a copy of the ten problems. When I asked them what was the most important thing to happen they quickly responded, “To get the 10 problems done.” The product, work completed, was the focus: not learning how to solve them. They did not have a set of behaviors to execute, such as each person does a problem out loud asking for help or affirmation from the others, perhaps in a pair and then checking with the other pair. Explaining, listening, coaching each other are the behaviors the teacher believes will generate the learning…that’s why she choose a group strategy, but the students were unaware.
I’m thinking that often the teacher’s as well as the students’ focus on the product (completion of task) over the learning process, has a derailing impact on the learning outcome. Very often when there is a questioning, exploring, or thinking component to a task, the presence of a worksheet or response sheet causes students too quickly to be getting blanks filled in or questions answered. When every member of the group has a “sheet” to hand in I usually note a decreased practice of the “how to learn” behaviors. In most cases as the teacher observes the groups her attention gets pulled to the product and her comments frequently focus more on getting to the outcome than coaching the students in their how to learn skills.
I recently observed a collaborative problem solving activity where the teacher and students engaged in the learning process and practicing learning behaviors. During a Genius Hour activity fourth grade students in groups of three were given small marshmallows and uncooked spaghetti and asked to build a tower. That was the extent of the directions: no other rules or guidelines.
Immediately I noticed the nonverbal postures of the students. Groups were on the floor around the room and in each group there was limited distance between members. Everyone was close to the work and leaning in. The student voices illustrated encouragement to each other. Questions and suggestions flowed between the members. This was a set of collaborative learning behaviors that I seldom saw in other observations. As I observed the teachers I noticed their positive nonverbals: smiles as they observed student’s struggles, failures and discoveries. Teachers encouraged and questioned but didn’t give answers in leading questions. Students realized the teacher was interested in the process of learning. “My falling tower didn’t frustrate her.”
I thought it would have been great to record that activity and share it with students as an illustration of the behaviors that are needed in math and reading collaborative activities. If teachers viewed the video, they would see that they have the needed skills and strategies that encourage the desired student learning behaviors.
As I pondered what I observed, I concluded that the marshmallows and spaghetti provided a task that allowed students to focus on what and how they were learning over the outcome of a product. I think the teachers were free of the product focus as well and they easily stepped into coaching the learning strategies.
In your coaching of teachers consider how to have them examine where they can increase the focus on teaching and coaching the learning behaviors. Not process over product but perhaps process preceding product. We may need the same focus in PLC work. Are there times that PLCs are in a rush to get the job done and miss the process that would create the educator learning?