Sunday, October 14, 2012

Teaching How to Choose

Making good choices seems to come naturally for some students while others need some coaching in order to become successful learners and be able to navigate with more ease within the educational systems. By allowing choices we also communicate our confidence in our students as learners – it is about letting them know we believe they can do it, without necessarily saying it aloud.

There are things in the classroom that must be done without getting into negotiations about how and why, and we truly cannot let students rule and do whatever they please in the classroom. However, allowing certain amount of choosing makes it emotionally easier for students to agree with the mandatory things. But this is not the only benefit of teaching how to choose. Only through our own choices we create accountability for our own learning and also train our executive functioning. Learning to make good choices is a skill to learn and it highly contributes to our higher level thinking. We should not deny that opportunity from our students by having too rigid rules that allow no choices.

How to add more choices into your classroom? During a regular day we have many opportunities to allow choices, starting from choosing whom to work with. By asking students to choose a partner who can help them in this assignment you are also encouraging students to recognize the good study habits of others. Giving younger students a package of content to be learned by the end of this week communicates your trust in their ability to choose the best pace for their own learning, and providing a timeline about how big fraction of the content should be finished by each day helps them understand the percentages, too. By letting students choose which assignment they want to start with helps them understand their personal preferences. Also, having a strong structure in the assignments allows the content to be more individualized. I think the ways of introducing more choices in learning environments are virtually infinite, if there is the will to make the change to happen.

My personal credo about best teacher being the one who makes herself unnecessary by empowering students become autonomous learners carries my values within it. I believe, that only by allowing students practice making good choices in an emotionally safe learning environment where their opinions or beliefs are never ridiculed, we can help the next generation reach their full potential and become critical thinkers. There is no shortcut to wisdom.

Reflective Practice

It is a fancy name for thinking about your workday, and process the events in order to make better choices next time. Or, maybe I have a tendency to over-simplify things?

Educators make several instant and instinctive decisions during each and every workday.  Where do these judgments come from? How to be more aware about the reasoning behind these decisions?  Now, this is where the reflective practice steps in.

Reflecting upon choices not only increases the awareness about reasons behind certain decisions, but often also reveals other possible options. Recognizing these possible choices being available arises from the awareness of different practices – and this is exactly why having conferences and workshops, lectures and moocs, books and magazines discussing the best practices is so necessary. Yet, if participating or reading doesn’t transfer to the everyday work and life, one could rightfully ask whether it was time well spent.  Reflecting and implementing extend the benefits of any professional development.

The best and worst of reflective practice deals with emotions. You will explore areas that need improvement and those can invite you grow professionally, but you also will see your strengths and get to celebrate the success. And that actually is the main idea behind the stylish name of learning about your own teaching: being objective and finding out what works and why. Using the functional parts and discarding the unnecessary or harmful (even if it is something you are fond of) helps to improve your teaching practice

Some reflection happens in action while intuitively correcting your responses and “automatically” changing the way to interact with students.  Consciously thinking about the instructional materials and activities while doing the daily teaching, making mental notes about how well they work (or not) and planning for improvements is the foundation of reflective practice. To promote effective and student centered learning you need to think about the students’ point of view about the activities and materials as well.  Deeper reflection, the intentional improvement,  happens after you have done with teaching, and have time to think about your day.

A very simple way to begin your journey to professional reflection is to each day ask yourself these three questions:
1. What went excellently today and why?
2. What could have been better and how?
3. What do I want to change in my teaching?

Processing the events of your workday by writing these three things down either in a notebook or on computer makes it easier to focus on things you choose to improve and not go by the feeling, or become biased by an apparent success or failure. Exploring your own teaching by writing down some thoughts about the day, or at least the week, also creates a journal that reveals your own thinking habits and the way your teaching philosophy and practice have evolved during time. It allows you to get some necessary distance to what happens in the classroom, and see patterns and outlines of your own way of teaching, so that you can improve your practice.

This is the real accountability measure for a teacher, but because it requires ultimate honesty it cannot be implemented by someone else but the teacher herself/himself. Nor can it be forced. But, it can be supported and encouraged – just like learning.

And exactly like learning is a process, not a product, also teaching is a process, because being a teacher also means being a learner.