Sunday, February 26, 2017

Supporting multilingual learning

Update on 2/28/17 
Now I need to correct myself  -  why am I talking about ELLs when the reality is about DLLs? 
Dual Language Learning is much more appropriate way to discuss bi- and multilingualism!

I have a habit of reading news feed of recent research in education. This one caught my eye today, so I shared it in Twitter: 

Too often assessments and evaluations focus on students' language skills instead algebraic understanding, problem solving, or critical thinking (e.g. math story problems, science performance assessments, or SAT). Such assessments and evaluations do not support students' learning.

My main takeaway from the article was the dilemma of reclassification, and whether it is done too soon or too early. When does an ELL student stop being one? 

The conclusion of the article was also scary.  There is a possibility of reclassification "focusing on demonstrating compliance as opposed to truly expanding educational opportunity."  Compliance to the policy should be secondary to students' needs, if we want students to learn, not just perform.  

Of course, I bring my own bias into this discussion: after living in the States for several years, I don't feel perfectly fluent in English, and probably never will. The punctuation rules and prepositions are still causing gray hair to me! My L1, Finnish, has no prepositions (however, we have lots of postpositions).

My youngest daughter was 13 when we moved to the States. She never qualified to the ELL program, but tested right out of it. Her own definition was that she wrote well but did not speak enough, and also had excellent grammar from studying English at school since 3rd grade before moving here. My son learned his English after we moved here, so he qualified for ELL program for two years, starting on 2nd grade. Today they both speak and write better English than I do.

But if 1 student out of 10 is still learning English, we really should emphasize the instructional practices that support language awareness. Realistically, in 21st century bilinguals (or multilinguals) are the majority. There seems to be a consensus about more than 50% people speaking more than just one language. This page suggests only 40% of world's population being monolinguals.

I addition to increasing educator's awareness of the ELL policy, there should be strong emphasis in supporting students' learning - and language learning - regardless of their home language. There is plenty of research showing how emphasizing the importance of home language supports learning English. Language awareness is what matters. Yes, the vocabulary and grammar are different, but languages of the same group are quite alike. Hence, a language like Interlingua is understandable to many.  Even if the home language doesn't belong to the same language family, the awareness of how a language works is an important step in becoming bilingual or multilingual. 

So, how to fairly assess what a multilingual student knows or has learned? Informal assessments, observations, and visual projects are better for avoiding misunderstanding. And if you just have to use a worksheet or test? For starters, please, don't use idioms and phrasal verbs. Keep the language simple. Provide more time. Then again - aren't these the best assessment and evaluation practice for all students?

Monday, December 12, 2016

Learning process

Learning is extremely individual, situational and contextual! One thing is granted, though: learning involves a change. How we perceive learning depends on the learning theories we believe in. See this post for further discussion about that: The Big Picture

Each individual learning experience is different because what we each see/hear/think depends on our previous experiences and the unique filters we have. Thus, while presented with the same information we process it in diverse ways. Even in a collective learning situation we all are engaged also in our own personal learning process. Understanding that learning and teaching are not the two sides of the same coin is the beginning. Students learn all the time, but they may not be learning things we wanted them to learn.

Effective teaching is much more than just instruction. It is helping students engage with their own learning process, and thus also requires handing over the tools of learning to the students: choices, self-assessment and -regulation, metacognitive strategies, goal-setting, and much more. This doesn't mean teaching becoming obsolete - what is needed is simply just a change of focus in the practice. A step towards student centered learning. Supporting the learning process requires the teacher to become a learning facilitator instead of being the source of information. See this post why knowledge cannot be transmitted: Information is shared, knowledge is constructed.  

When students are empowered to be in charge of their own learning process, they are also accountable for their own learning. After all it IS students' job to learn, and teachers' job to help students in learning. We cannot do it for students, every student must use their own thinking to engage with the materials and learn.

When learning is perceived as a product something very valuable is lost: the open-ended curiosity that drives students to learn more than what is mandated. Many scholars have described the same curiosity in different terms depending of their frame of reference: passion, element, purpose, and of course also having the intrinsic motivation to learn.

If learning is just a product: an essay, a perfectly filled work sheet, or an objective exam with closed questions one important part of learning is excluded - creativity. Please note that I am not only talking about the artistic ability to create, but hoping for students to have opportunities to apply their critical thinking skills, because we use the same problem solving skills in different situations, starting from social conflicts in early childhood and also while being engaged in the creative process.

While following the thinking of someone else we will never create the same competence as we do while thinking it through with our own brain! The copied thinking - just like a copied product - only leads to surface learning, which doesn't have much chance to be stored permanently in students' brain. Emphasizing the product over the process can really backfire in the classroom

Please visit NotesFromNina for questions whether learning is process or a product!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Quest for better learning

Learner-centered practices have been validated with years - no, decades! - of global research in education and psychology. Why are the authoritarian practices still so widely used in classrooms? I wish I knew!

I often admit to my own students (teachers and trainers pursuing their graduate degrees) that I am on an ongoing mission and my goal is to corrupt a teacher a day into learner-centered practices.  It usually makes people laugh, but I am dead serious: the only way we can spread the use of learner-centered practices is to use them in our own design and instruction.

Learning happens everywhere, all the time, and school learning is just a specific type of learning we do. Supporting students individual interests and personal strengths makes school learning easier and more intrinsically interesting.

American Psychological Association publishes excellent materials. Please check the Top 20 Principles for K-12 and Learner-centered education!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Schooling or learning?

What is the perception we have about education? Is it something that we actively engage in? Or something the educational systems do to us?

The difference between these two perceptions is huge. When people believe that education is a life-long learning journey, they are more likely to feel ownership over their learning -and their kids' learning-  and be empowered to search and find tools that help in learning. This type of learning happens everywhere, inside and outside of classroom and fosters students' curiosity. Learning is very subjective and learners are seen as agents of their own life and learning. Successful learning means creating transferable and applicable knowledge that is personally meaningful.

However, when learning is attributed to an external entity like school, it is more likely to think that a learning professional is needed to provide the "correct" learning materials or resources. Learning is done at school and for school, there is less personal investment in learning activities. Learning is very objective, there is a correct answer to questions, and the teacher can help you to find that answer. Successful learning means passing the tests or getting good grades.

I believe the current educational systems should foster the subjective life-long learning, because learning cannot end in graduation in the 21st century societies, where information and misinformation are available for everyone with few clicks on a computer.

The research report below about Low income families being less likely to use online learning tools prompted me to blog about this important issue. My first thoughts were how shared devices and mobile/internet access must be a contributing factor for not using online tools, but then I was also thinking about the ownership and empowerment we have about our own learning. I am working on my dissertation about learner agency and think that all too often we forget to emphasize the learning ownership.

One question to ask while creating the online tools is: does this app or resource empower students to learn for life or is it designed to help a student to pass a test?

Is it built for learning or for schooling?

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Big Picture for Learning Centered Education

The previous posts have discussed learning and teaching philosophy and dispositions, as these are important for the consistency and integrity of the chosen instructional methods in the classroom while beginning to emphasize learning-centered education.

Sometimes it is hard to recognize the underlying ideals in all the great resources that can be found in the internet. What has been helpful to me, is to think first what is the view of the knowledge and the learner in any given resource, and then either use it as it is or tweak it so that it better fits to my philosophy. The picture below shows an overly simplistic model of my thinking about why behaviorism shouldn't be the only learning theory used in the classroom, or while doing instructional design.

When the scientific model used in a resource only refers to the hypotetico-deductive model of reasoning, and omits all other types of inference, I know the mechanist worldview is emphasized over socio-cognitivist humanism. Examples of this are references to formulating hypotheses or following the "traditional" scientific method that is familiar from positivist or objectivist  view of reality (knowledge is measurable, objective and value free). Constructivist or subjective view of knowledge emphasizes situationality and contextuality of learning.

When education focuses on learning, the emphasis is not in arriving to the only one objectively correct learning outcome that has been defined during the instructional design phase, but in supporting students' reasoning skills and their ability to infer and support their claims with suitable references.

I think it is appropriate to note here that I am a qualitative researcher and strongly believe that qualitative and quantitative research must be conducted hand in hand in order to both create theories and test them. Students in 21st century MUST be taught both approaches, and we as educators have much work to do in getting there.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Agency and ownership of learning

Learning is an important part of being a human. We couldn't survive without the ability to learn and adapt to the environment where we live, work and learn. Human development doesn't end in adolescence, but continues throughout our lives.

School learning is a special type of learning, even though we often seem to refer to schooling when we are talking about learning, and keep on emphasizing teaching over learning. This must change, because students are the ones who need to own their learning, and teachers are there to help students to learn. The goal of formal education system is to help students to obtain information and construct knowledge, but also to become capable for independent judgment. Examples of situations where this judgment is important are reading comprehension, understanding scientific principles and being able to support one's opinion with facts.

Agency in any given social situation refers to the intentionality of one's actions and the opportunities to make choices. Agency includes the aspect of time, as the continued engagement in the process of choosing combines one's actions in the past, present, and future. Our choices today often result from choices we made previously.

In the classroom environment learner agency denotes the quality of students' engagement. 
Agency is not something students have, it is something students do. Students may choose to engage in their own learning, or just strategically or ritually comply with the tasks and activities presented to them - and the big problem in schooling is this detachment or disengagement that results from students having no ownership over their own learning.

Learner agency requires for students voice to be heard, so that they have ownership over their own learning. The first step is to make sure that students believe that their choices and actions will make a difference in their learning process. By supporting learner agency throughout the formal education it is possible to foster life-long learning, which is crucially important in the rapidly changing world.

Biesta, G., & Tedder, M. (2006). How is agency possible? Towards an ecological understanding of agency-as-achievement. University of Exeter School of Education and Lifelong Learning, Working Paper, 5. 
Priestley, M., Biesta, G., & Robinson, S. (2014). Teacher agency: what is it and why does it matter?.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Learning Strategies

Learning is such an individual experience! We all have our own way to learn, and the orientations, approaches and strategies we use for learning have been acquired during childhood and educational experiences, thus becoming quite stable by constant reinforcement and tending to last throughout our lives. However, it is possible to help students to become better learners by teaching learning strategies and metacognitive skills as byproducts of the subject matter.

We live in a world where life-long learning is a must. It doesn't have to be formal, academic learning, but being able to adapt to the new technology and the rapid changes in our lives. Where ever I teach,  I always want to support my students' self-regulated learning by engaging in process-oriented instruction and learning facilitation (as seen in Simons,1997).

Sometimes people confuse learning strategies with instructional strategies, but these are two distinctively different concepts. Instructional strategies are used by the teacher, learning strategies are in each students' own repertoire. Sometimes also learning styles are confused with learning strategies. Distance Learning Association has a good online presentation about learning styles and strategies.

Vermunt and Vermetten (2004) concluded that students' learning strategy patterns generally belong to one of the following dimensions: undirected, reproduction-directed, meaning-directed, or application-directed. TheKalaca & Gulpinar (2011) table below displays the learning components attached to each learning strategy (called learning style in the table).

Learning often gets hard for students who rely solely on undirected or reproduction-directed learning strategies. Both approaches focus strongly on memorizing the content without connecting the details to a hypernym (i.e.umbrella term). With external regulation of learning, these students aim to pass the exams, but find it hard to assess their own learning.

Meaning-directed students try to first understand the entities and then relate the details into these bigger concepts. Focusing on learning in the context, these self-regulating students try to connect the new information with their existing knowledge. They may be critical, as forming an opinion about the topic is important, and they may engage in independent search for additional material to better understand the concepts to be learned.

Application-directed students value learning about useful materials and topics, and they try to find practical applications for the content they learn. Being both externally- and self-regulating, these students reflect on their own experiences and relate their practical knowledge to the theoretical concepts to be learned.

Students in all four dimensions benefit from learning more about self-regulation and metacognitive strategies in order to become life-long learners, and able to choose from the information and misinformation that is available on every computer and handheld devise. The necessary instructional strategy for teachers - in addition to supporting learning process and teaching metacognitive strategies in various ways - is to learn how to ask non-googlable questions.

Kalaca S, Gulpinar M. A Turkish study of medical student learning styles. Educ Health [serial online] 2011 [cited 2016 Feb 12];24:459. Available from:
Simons, P. R. J. (1997). From romanticism to practice in learning. Lifelong Learn. Europe 1:
Vermunt, J. D., & Vermetten, Y. J. (2004). Patterns in student learning: Relationships
between learning strategies, conceptions of learning and learning orientations.
Educational Psychology Review, 16, 359–384