Learning While Teaching

“We must…consider the space between teaching and learning.  Students are part of the learning process, but they do not necessarily initiate it, and teachers cannot fully instruct it.”  (Symeonidis & Schwarz, 2016)

There is a space between teaching and learning where the magic lies.  Not only do our students deserve teachers dedicated to learning, but teachers deserve the best learning a school can provide. Professional learning comes in many forms.  Through my personal experiences I’ve found these tenants to be the most powerful in shaping my practice.

Utility – Beyond relevance, teachers need to see practical application to professional learning in their immediate environments.  Our go-to utility is students that are unengaged or outliers. Yes, these are clear sign-posts that a change in instruction could support.  But there are other, less obvious needs for utility.  To name a few…

  • Engaging in new technology without knowing where to start
  • Expanding instructional practices to include more student-led work
  • Seeing critical needs in the world and engaging students in real-life problem solving

Instead of mandating, let’s ask teachers. “What is your most apparent need in your classroom?  What is a dream that you wish you could achieve in your teaching right now?”

Multiple Modes of Learning – Just as we know lecturing and handouts don’t engage students, they also don’t engage teachers.  While more PD sessions are turning to modeling instructional strategies, reflection and time to talk with colleagues, we need more real-time support.  Why not try…

  • Using technology to preview and engage with professional learning before a whole group session
  • Creating and maintaining professional learning communities beyond the school walls
  • Providing additional resources in one central location
  • Making time and space for collaboration and reflection

Instead of planning sit and get sessions, let’s ask: “How do you as an adult learner engage best? In what ways could your colleagues and administration support your work?”

Different Paths – Every teacher from novice to experienced has a different skill set and a  unique approach to teaching.  Acknowledging and honoring these differences is not only critical, but a part of professional learning itself.  As learners, teachers need space to think metacognitively about their own learning and set authentic goals.  These goals should simultaneously align with the school’s mission and individual teacher needs. Shifting from stand alone professional development sessions to on-going professional learning means teachers have both responsibility for collective learning and freedom to follow their own educational interests.  How schools weave these two together hinges on the success of teacher professional learning.

A Broader Purpose – If I ever started my own school, it would be a learning school.  Teachers, administrators, parents, and of course students would all be learning while doing.  This is the real learning. The in the moment, let’s research it to figure out how, ask an expert, or just experiment.  The goal of school should no longer be to disseminate knowledge, but to grow learners.  As teachers, our role has changed from keeper of knowledge to facilitator of learning.  So let’s explore the space between teaching and learning and be teacher-learners together.

Symeonidis, V. & Schwarz, J. F. (2016). Phenomenon-Based Teaching and Learning through the Pedagogical Lenses of Phenomenology: The Recent Curriculum Reform in Finland. Forum Oswiatowe, 28(2), 31-47. Retrieved from http://forumoswiatowe.pl/index.phpczsopismo/article/view/458

An Interpretation of Phenomenon Based Learning

I work with 8 year olds.  They are ambitious, creative, determined, and real.  They want to be heard and take action to make a difference. And they can.

On Monday I started a rather scary (for me) project with my students using the Finnish approach to PBL – Phenomenon Based Learning.  In essence we started with a phenomenon – in our case book deserts in our community – and dove deep into the study, interconnecting subject areas and relying on both teacher expertise and student constructed learning.  There was only so much I could prepare before Monday since I didn’t know what my students would need.  That’s what made it scary.  Would we have enough to do each day? What if I couldn’t give them what they needed?  What if they didn’t care about book deserts as much as I thought they would? What if they got bored?

I kept in mind a line from one of the few English translated pieces on Phenomenon Based Learning – the teacher initiates the learning while the process of learning is negotiated by both the student and the teacher.

Hesitant to step completely out of my comfort zone at first, Monday and Tuesday consisted of much teacher initiation – questioning, writing, collecting data, reading and reflecting.

By Wednesday we had enough momentum that I didn’t even put a schedule on the board aside from the designated “project times”.  The students were perplexed.  What are we going to do all day?  With a list of student generated questions (we used the QFT approach) and ideas they created to collect, analyze and examine data to understand book deserts, they negotiated the work.  I was there to support, guide and occasionally assign.  I was there to push, offer advice and organize.  I was there as the overseer of all the parts and the glue that held them together.  At the end of that day (one that flew by for us all) students shared their learning and made connections to others’ work.  8 year olds discovered:

  • The average amount of books we have at home is 315.
  • Our school has over 37,000 books.
  • No one in our class lives in a book desert.
  • The amount of books in a book desert is equal to each child in our school getting to take one book home for one day in the year.
  • Books teach us knowledge but also teach us to love reading.
  • More girls in the world can’t read than boys.
  • No one should grow up in a book desert.

Let me just restate, 8 year olds discovered this.  I did not tell them this information, nor did I explicitly show them how to find it.  I initiated the inquiry, but they negotiated the learning space to make these revelations.

I was scared to take this leap. I surrendered control in my own classroom. I had to think on the fly, teach multiplication, averages, literary analysis and more without a lesson plan.  But my students trusted me and I trusted them.  Together, we are creating something more than parts to a whole.

Along the way, students began prototyping ideas of how we could help with this problem.  We love books, we don’t live in a book desert, and we want to help.  After daydreaming, wishing and brainstorming, the children settled the idea of creating a class company to make and sell books, generating revenue to donate to a local book charity.  And that is our work for next week in school.