Teaching about Learning…Undoing the Message We Sent

I’ve recently been engaged in several conversations concerning students not approaching learning activities with the necessary mindset to be successful learners. At the elementary level it was about students not engaging seriously in learning centers or independent activities. At a middle school it was round students not doing homework because in standards –based grading, homework wasn’t graded. At high school it was when students requested more work for extra credit or students taking “credit recovery” online-line or face-to-face classes. In each of these cases students see the task as work to be done rather than as a task that produces learning.

I have written about this topic in an earlier blog where I mentioned an article by Alfie Kohn.

Students Don’t “Work”–They Learn

Importing the nomenclature of the workplace is something most of us do without thinking – which is in itself a good reason to reflect on the practice. Every time we talk about “homework” or “seat work” or “work habits,” every time we describe the improvement in, or assessment of, a student’s “work” in class, every time we urge children to “get to work” or even refer to “classroom management,” we are using a metaphor with profound implications for the nature of schooling. In effect, we are equating what children do to figure things out with what adults do in offices and factories to earn money.

I think we need to “bite the bullet” and accept that students didn’t initially arrive at our schools with a “work” mindset to learning. Actually it’s more likely they entered kindergarten thinking that learning was play because that’s how most of their learning had happened up to that point. As educators, when we begin introducing, seatwork, independent work, classwork, homework, and work habits and we begin to tie grades to work being finished, correct, on time, neat, etc., students begin to take away the message that the completed work is the desired outcome rather than learning.

Elementary Centers– Teachers need to clearly identify for students the learning behaviors that the center is designed to instigate and the reason for those behaviors. If at a center students are going to sort pictures into matching pairs of rhyming words, they should know that the task is to name a picture and find another picture that represents a word that rhymes. “If you can’t find a rhyme, try deciding another word that some of the pictures might represent and see if that would rhyme. When you have all the cards paired, ask a partner to listen to you say the words for each pair and check that they hear the rhyme.

Hearing and creating rhymes will help you read and spell. Keep practicing each day and let me now when you are ready to say all the rhyming pairs to me.  Playing rhyming games is a good way to learn to read and spell new words.”

Middle School Homework– The way students have been assigned homework has led many to think that it is a requirement for their grade rather than a way to learn the desired knowledge or skills. One reason for this is that we often haven’t provided students with the reason a teacher assigned a particular task as homework. Explaining the purpose of the task is a start:

‘Translating these ten sentences will give you practice (repetition) with the sequence we learned today.”

“Work on these four problems and see if you get stuck anywhere. Decide what questions you can ask tomorrow to help get clarity”

“Increasing your reading fluency will improve your comprehension and make lots of future studying easier. Reading 30 minutes each night will build your fluency”

Of course it’s difficult to convince students of the connection of homework to learning when everyone in the class has been assigned the same homework. As a teacher aligns suggested homework to differing students’ needs the message that this is a task to advance your learning can be communicated.

Credit Recovery and Extra Credit– The practice of grading student work communicates a message that students are getting the grade or the credit for the work they did rather than for the learning that resulted from the completion of the task that was assigned. The reason for the report that had to be written or the presentation that had to be given was not the production of the final project….it was the learning that occurred in the process.

I think that conducting a reflection with students at the end of such tasks greatly helps the student identify the learning gained from the task. This time is also important for the teacher to assess the quality of the task in generating desired learning. Teachers should constantly be seeking ways to modify tasks to increase the learning outcomes.

Professional Development Credit-   This area may represent where the greatest change in “message sent” needs to occur. In way too many places professional development for teachers isn’t tracked as learning or even work, but often as time served. I cringe every time the “sign in” sheet is passed around a supposed teacher learning activity.

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