This post begins a short series on my biggest takeaways from the text entitled, Visible Learning: What Works Best to Optimize Student Learning by Almarode, et al. The ideas I’ll highlight in this blog series form the foundation for my understanding of student centered learning and my subsequent development of the Lab In Every Lesson Chemistry Curriculum. Though there are only a few, they are, indeed, impactful.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR LEARNING TO BE VISIBLE
In the Introduction and throughout the first chapter, the authors of Visible Learning explain that are things we can do as educators that have a negative influence on learning, those that have a very small influence on learning, and/or those that have the potential for a very large influence on learning.
If you’re thinking, “Well, duh! That’s hardly revolutionary!” . . . think again.
The idea they present is that we are all assuming a certain amount of learning will be accomplished each year. We assume we (both teachers and students) will accomplish some standard level that’s acceptable. But, here, the authors remind us that there are decisions we can make that for our students in the classroom that don’t produce even acceptable results. Reading on into this particular text, you’d be surprised to learn that these aren’t obviously harmful actions or strategies! They just aren’t particularly effective. Yet, there are also decisions we can make that will produce learning gains above and beyond what we could imagine or anticipate! Do you usually aim beyond the status quo?
I believe you’re bothering to read this right now because you are a rock start teacher who wants to get the biggest bang for their buck! You set out to educate and guide young minds, and you’re searching for the best way to do that. You DO aim for the moon and you’re not into settling for reaching only the stars.
But, maybe your assessment data is poor. Maybe your classroom engagement and basic participation in classroom activities or assignments is low. Maybe you desire more or deeper, trusting relationships with your students.
All three of these would have described my plight before I switched to student centered learning in my science classroom.
I think of myself as an ambitious person. I’m always after excellence! Yet, year after year I experienced waning participation during class time, assessment data that did not – I thought—reflect the effort I was putting forth, and I really struggled to have meaningful conversations with support staff, other team members, and families about specific student’s abilities.
But, maybe I was looking at all the wrong data?! Maybe, I reasoned, if I took out that data representing those students who I knew were going through a rough time and couldn’t focus on schoolwork or otherwise, for some reason, weren’t even trying, then surely the data would show they were learning … right?!
It didn’t in every case. And, then what?
Well – at least I knew from working with them closely where exactly they were faltering . . .
Um . . . THINK AGAIN!
I didn’t work with them closely because I didn't use interactive science lessons, so I didn’t have that going for me, either.
I was certain I was having a small influence on learning, but I couldn’t settle for that. I could accept that I might not find the ultimate answer to this problem, but I couldn’t accept minimal gains.
On only PAGE 2, the author conveyed what became, for me, the primary message of this text:
Science classrooms where teachers see learning through the eyes of their learners and learners see themselves as their own teachers provide the greatest learning environments.
Well, when I looked through the eyes of my students I was BORED STIFF!!!
Yes, I teach online but I never ever wanted to be the BORING teacher!!! And, in my mind, teaching online is not an excuse for being boring.
When I read this, I realized I had so much to learn just about how to teach effectively, let alone how to do it for my learners in my unique environment.
The remainder of that paragraph goes on to explain that students in this learning environment – one in which teachers see learning through the eyes of their learners and learners see themselves as their own teacher -- would be actively learning, capable of planning the next steps, and aware of how to implement feedback.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I had never seen such an environment in action. I’d never witnessed what I will now forever refer to as an interactive science lesson. The only observation I’ve done of any other teacher was with my mentor teacher prior to obtaining my teaching certification. That teacher had very high expectations for her students and was rigorous in the amount she intended to cover throughout the year, but her methods were not rigorous at all. She used transparency notes and a projector! She even mentioned to me one day that “the teacher down the hall uses PowerPoint and all kinds of “techy” stuff, but that’s just not my style.” Yes, one teacher down the hall used PowerPoint and the other one used a sort of story-telling style, but they were all relying only upon direct instruction and note-taking, handing out workbook packets for students to follow along.
When I started at my cyber school, I tried to gamify a lot of learning – think BINGO!, Jeopardy, and memory matching activities. But it was always the same few volunteers who participated while the remainder of the group watched. So, I couldn’t even check that first box of planning for “active learning” let alone the remainder of those attributes mentioned by the author.
Don’t get me wrong . . . DIRECT INSTRUCTION ISN’T BAD!
In fact, the authors call out direct instruction as “the process of setting learning intentions, making them transparent for students, demonstrating them with modeling, evaluating if they understand using formative assessment strategies, and tying it all together with closure”. If that sounds like what you do, it’s all good! Those are best practices, for sure.
But – is there something better?!
LEARNING IS A PROCESS, NOT AN EVENT
We’ve been taught to move students through a progression of learning. Each taxonomy has their own connotations for each stage. In Visible Learning, they refer to this progression as “surface learning”, “deep learning”, and finally “transfer learning”.
But, maybe these phases of learning don’t have to happen separately?
Making the switch to student centered learning has allowed me to confidently report that single learning experiences can provide students to all three levels of learning, but not without challenge. That’s the keyword for me – it’s perhaps the primary lesson I learned from this text. And, it requires specific, intentional, and purposeful planning to create student centered learning experiences that allow mastery at all three levels to be demonstrated.
In his text, The Hidden Lives of Learners, Graham Nuthall suggested that students already know 60% of what we expect them to learn in our classrooms AND a large portion of what happens in our classrooms (80%) is outside the awareness of the classroom teacher.
Having my own children has helped me re-frame all this information so as to not get overwhelmed by it and feel defeated. As “teacher” in my home, it’s been my responsibility to teach my children how to complete physical tasks like holding an eating utensil, walking, and talking. Those learning situations were all very active! I could do all the demonstrating I wanted, but the only way my children would accomplish those feats was to do it themselves and try, try, try again after repeated failures.
But, remember the old adage, “Do as I say, not as I do?!”. Those of you out there who are reading as parents have undoubtedly been guilty of that at least once …. if not once DAILY!
Think about it – our children might have learned to use their eating utensil to get their food from plate to mouth …. but how fast they eat or how messy they eat might just be taken from cues they picked up just from repeated exposure – from constantly seeing someone else at the table do it regularly.
Our kids learned to walk. Do yours run in the house?! MINE DO!!! Despite what I feel have been my best efforts at setting rules and providing discipline, my children obviously have learned that it’s okay to run in the house because they JUST. WON’T. STOP. So, this business about students learning other things right under our noses …. it really shouldn’t be surprising at all.
TEACHER INFLUENCE AND IMPACT
Ultimately, this text forced me to confront what I find fulfilling about being a teacher . . . specifically, a science teacher.
When I chose science to study as a major in college, it was because I was good at it and scientists make lots of money! I stayed in science because it was very methodical, very logical, very step-wise, and required problem-solving. Even now, I always tell my students that chemistry is a DOING course in that most of the content requires them to think through and use problem solving techniques to reach a solution. In that way, it can be quite different from the course that typically proceeds it, biology. I don’t know biology standards very well, but my recollection of the course is that it’s very defined – there aren’t many variables. Ecology, for example, is what it is. The cell is what it is. There aren’t many “what happens if ….” scenarios.
But if we’re incorporating the skills of observation, hypothesizing and analysis into every lesson, all science content becomes “doing” science content and they become Scientific Method Masters! If we’re conditioning our students DAILY to go through that logical process for problem solving, then they are better prepared to tackle real life problems that require the same logical processes. After all, we are preparing our students for life beyond our classroom walls – to be informed, active members of society that make decisions as complex as those related to their health and their family finances and those as seemingly innocuous as driving down the road (being a good driver!) or making purchases at the store (being a consumer) or supporting various aspects of our community (even serving as personnel on our school boards!).
We are living in an age of fake news and are learning how to teach our own children and our students the difference between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, while reinforcing what we believe is right and wrong as we point out what we perceive as truth and lies. They must learn to do this on their own, without our support. Our future depends on it!
Our role as science teachers is hugely influential and so much more important than we might realize.
When we are reflective about our practice – seeing it through the eyes of our students -- we can re-frame our approach to realize improved outcomes.
What we do and how we do it matters.
Our goals need to be set sky-high because huge learning gains really are possible!
Challenging our students might just mean challenging ourselves to try something new. In that way, our classrooms look like true Learning Laboratories.