Reflective Practice

Sep 5, 2013 by

I’ve been re-reading Scott McLeod and Chris Lehmann’s great book on What School Leaders Need to Know About Digital Technologies and Social Media. (You should really get a copy- it’s even on Kindle!) There is a great section on using blogging in conjunction with the classroom, and how it has helped instill a level of reflection for many students when used in conjunction with other projects.  The interactive nature and the feedback it can offer- not just from peers or a teacher, but from the world at large, seems to inspire more thought and reflection in students than I’ve ever seen with any other traditional classroom practice.

When I went to my first education conference and there were long periods built in for reflection, I wasn’t sure exactly how to use this time.  I had been so used to going from session to session, activity to activity, in school and in life, that having time set aside just to think and reflect and digest information seemed almost foreign.  Yet we know reflection is a way to consolidate learning, and to examine, perhaps in detail, what’s going well and what’s not, which enables us to, in theory, come up with new approaches to confounding problems.  But where do we teach this practice to students?  Do we make time for it in the school day?  Do we make time for it in the classroom?  Is it appropriate to start teaching it, and if so, when?  Is there a developmentally appropriate point to institute reflection in the classroom?

Most of the kids I know basically look at the test, paper, quiz, or project as the culmination of their learning.  Teachers would call this an assessment of mastery, and parents might call it a pain, especially if it involves more than one trip to the craft store.  What happens after the assessment or project is completed?  For most kids, they get their grade, or a paper back, and unless it is meant as a draft, very little review and reflection of the work is done.  The test is crammed into a folder or backpack, or if it’s a really good grade, displayed on the fridge, and that’s the end of it.

The only structured reflection time that went on in most of my schooling was either when I came home with a 90 on the test and my Dad asked where the other 10% was, and I felt dejected, or when I was sent to my room for some infraction and asked to “Think about what you did and we’ll talk later.”  This latter form of reflection merely involved me sitting in my room, reading, playing with toys or otherwise enjoying the quiet from the fight, and perhaps a small amount of time devoted to trying to guess what I had done wrong in my parent’s eyes and guess what they wanted to hear so I could get out of trouble and move on as soon as possible.  I suspect for many of you, this isn’t unfamiliar territory and the story hits pretty close to the mark.

However, after reading about the teachers using blogging in the classroom, I realized how perfect this is to instill reflection into school and learning.  Just as I’m using this post to reflect on my experiences, kids could use a blog, whether classroom or personal, as a more open journaling experience, with a wider (and possibly more accepting) audience.  They can trade ideas, and flesh out their thoughts as they commit them to writing rather than as fleeting clouds across their minds.  It will give extra practice in writing and developing style and voice, in a way that so many other “5 paragraph essay”  assignments just don’t.  When feedback between a teacher and the students is an open exchange, the trust grows, and the dialog is no longer just one on one but communal.

If we want students to truly improve over time, maybe spending time meaningfully not just “going over the test” but to start differentiating instruction and using assessments as diagnostic about what students have mastered and where they need more support would be more appropriate.  Maybe asking students to do small reflections about projects and assignments, giving feedback about what they thought went well, what was harder, and even give them reinforcement for honesty such as “I didn’t manage my time well on this assignment” .  This then allows an opportunity to give the time management  kids additional support or scaffolding on the next assignment, to help them grow until they are ready to fly solo then just blindly expecting them to do “better.”

I think incorporating reflection in a more meaningful way into our classrooms is critical to build the 21st century skills of collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and communication we all say are important.  The trick is doing it on a consistent basis, and in a way that seems more coach like and less as an additional opportunity to criticize and bash a kid who is already struggling.  That’s why they never want to look at the paper with a sea of red- the assignment is over- it’s time to let the wound heal and try “better” next time.  But they won’t get better unless we can give them the tools hthey need- and they see the point in udsing these tools- to get a different result the next time.

Otherwise, we’re all just living the embodiment of this quote:

“The Definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

Using Digital Tools to Enhance Learning

Feb 4, 2013 by

This past weekend, I spoke at a great event at the Joyner Library at Eastern Carolina University to school librarians and media directors about creating a digital toolbox.  Librarians and media directors need to be a bit like Home Depot or Lowe’s- a place where you can get just the right tool at the right time to help make your project successful.

I think we often think of librarians as something out of time- a bookish sort of person, with glasses and a stern demeanor, who is more interested in quiet than anything else.  The group of librarians I met were anything but- they are dynamic people, aching to help the teachers in their school, and eager to share the love of reading and learning with any child that crosses their path.

That being said, there are a gazillion new web tools and apps that are available, and it’s often difficult to figure out which ones are good and easy to use, and which ones might bring an extra added dimension to any classroom lesson or project.  With a hat tip to Brandon Lutz and his great 60 in 60 Presentations, I culled through my personal favorite web apps, sites I learned about from other educators at Educon, and some of Brandon’s favorites, to create a list of about 90 resources that are pretty easy to use.

Every tool, like every tool in the hardware store, has basic and advanced uses.  Wordle, for example, can be a way just to make great pictures, or it can be used as a way to analyze word frequency in a text, which might bring deeper understanding to students about anything from the repeating of a phrase for rhetorical purposes in a political speech, or help them better understand their own reliance on catch phrases.  With each of these tools, I suggest you try a few, play with them, and become familiar with them, and then attempt to incorporate them into lessons where they help deepen meaning rather than just become a digital way of doing yet another diorama or poster.

Finding and Using Tools to Develop Higher Order Thinking Skills

With evaluating any tool (and that goes for paper and pencil as well as computer or tech stuff) we need to look past the bells and whistles and think about:

-What’s the end goal of the project or assignment? (Backwards Design)

-What’s the best way for the student to demonstrate the learning or mastery of the subject matter?

-Is there a way we can use a digital tool to enhance the demonstration of outcomes?  Does using a digital tool make the project easier to accomplish, more interesting, engaging, or allow multiple modes of expression?

-Does the tool help differentiate the learning for different learning styles that might be difficult in a pen & paper task?

-Can the tool enhance accountability for the student and teacher? (Nothing gets lost in the cloud.)

-Can we shift some learning of independent tasks from classroom time to at home time?  (Flipping the classroom)

In the end, tools should, by their nature, make a job easier or faster.  If it doesn’t, why use it?  If we use the excuse “Well, kids have to learn all this computer stuff, so let me just bolt on some technology here…” we tend to teach them to use a tool poorly, and many may not (ever) see the point.  For example, when one teacher, about 6 years ago, asked one of my kids to do a power point presentation, making sure to use a minimum of 5-6 sentences per slide, I got pretty upset.  That’s a task that should really be an outline, or note cards.  A Power point or any slide presentation, should be there to enhance the understanding and meaning of what is being said, and act, perhaps, as visual cue cards for the presenter to stay on track.   After all, who wants to go to a lecture and watch someone read their slides?


If you use these resources, please let me know what you think in the comments!

You can download the handouts for my presentation here: Digital Toolbox for Educators

The slides are also available on Slideshare, or you can see them below:

Video review of The Differentiated Instruction Book of Lists

Sep 27, 2011 by

I’m an education geek, so when friends have looked at my book, I don’t exactly expect them to be as excited about it as they might be over a novel that would appeal to a wider audience. When my friend, Diane Brogan, got a copy, I was flattered, but just like she said, I didn’t expect that it would be bedtime or pleasure reading. So when she called me up very excited and then showed me this video she did, I was thrilled!

Likewise, Chris Penn saw a copy this past weekend, and said we should put it out with a new name: Simply – “How to Teach Kids”. He thought it looked like a perfect teaching guide for the homeschooling families and parents as well as teachers. Of course, that’s what Jenifer and I hoped when writing it, but it’s much more powerful coming from others. Diane says it all :)

Understanding Differentiation

Jul 28, 2011 by

Differentiated Instruction has a mixed reputation.  It’s seen as potentially transformative, allowing all students to learn and understand the lessons and materials in the classroom.  It sounds like a great philosophy and ideal, almost like the dream of a perfect school.  Yet the devil is in the details- how do we make this dream a reality?  How can I start to differentiate in my class?  Where do I start?

Many teachers assume that DI is impossible, because they assume it will require essentially individualized lesson plans for each kid in the classroom.  When it’s often difficult to make sure kids with IEP’s get the accommodations they need, how would this work if every kid had their own plan?  It’s enough to make anyone crazy.  But let’s take a moment and look at another profession where people need to be treated as individuals, but without a group template or process, it simply wouldn’t work at all- Medicine.

My husband’s an OB-GYN.  He knows how the whole process works, from conception to delivery and beyond, and generally what tends to go wrong in between.  He needs to be a good diagnostician, which means being able to tell when a patient is progressing according to the general plan, and when their condition deviates from the norm and needs special attention.  He has to recognize some problems before they occur, and prescribe treatments to prevent conditions, as well as treat problems when they come up.  This is taking a basic treatment model for a condition- “pregnancy” and applying it to all different people, of different ages, races,  with pre-existing conditions and more, and tweeking it just a little to make sure the outcome is the best it can be for two patients- Mother and Baby.

If we apply this same template to teachers, teachers have to know how a normal student progresses through the year.  But then the teacher has to look for warning signs of a kid being in trouble before they actually get there, and do what’s needed to prevent problems before the occur.  They also have to know how to help kids who are really struggling, and know what tips or alternatives to use to make sure that child gets what they need as well.  That’s differentiating.

In our book, Jenifer and I discuss the hierarchy of needs in the classroom, based loosely on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  We made the following chart:

When students are in the classroom, they need to have their basic needs for “food clothing and shelter” met before they can really concentrate on the bigger things they need to concentrate on, like learning.  This means one of the key, foundational elements any teacher can do is create a classroom environment where kids feel safe and welcomed.

If you’ve ever wondered why we insist kids have a good breakfast every morning, it’s in part to make sure they have the energy to learn, but it’s also so they are not distracted by worrying about being hungry.  Some teachers I know even keep a box of snacks in their classroom- packets of goldfish or other things- to help make sure any hungry child has something to eat.  It makes the children feel more secure, and it makes the job o teaching just a little easier for the teacher as well.  Some other teachers keep a few hoodies or big sweaters from a thrift shop in the classroom, in case a child is cold for the very same reasons- when a child has a basic comfort need unmet, the chances they will concentrate on the business of the classroom goes down.

This is why the first step to creating a great classroom, even before we start talking about other steps to differentiate instruction,it’s about creating a classroom where you and the kids feel comfortable. Maybe even like a “third period family” for the time they are with you.

The more the kids have a sense of what is expected, that you will be fair, and that they are expected to respect each other, the more willing they will be to take risks and make mistakes when learning.  They’ll be more willing to go try a problem on a board or work in a group if they feel comfortable and that they won’t be humiliated or singled out for sharing their ideas.

By understanding a bit about Maslow’s hierarchy and how it effects a student’s motivation to learn and willingness to take risks, it will be easier to start thinking about ways to meet the individual needs of the students in your classroom.  And just like a doctor, the changes will often be changes that apply to many kids, not just one, and the small tweeks to head off problems in advance will serve everyone in the classroom well.

Related Posts

Howard Gardner on Education

Jun 13, 2011 by

This is a great video of Howard Garner, the “father” of multiple intelligences, from the Edutopia website.   Jenifer and I moderate a group on Differentiated Instruction and personalized learning on Edutopia, and we’d love to have you join us there as well. We’re hoping that our book, The Differentiated Instruction Book of Lists, will help classroom teachers make  personalized learning and project based learning a larger part of a student’s school experience, especially because this is the knowledge they rake with them, not just a series of facts stored in their brains.  The video is well worth the 7 minutes- let us know what you think!

Bonus Web Material!

May 18, 2011 by

This week, Jenifer Fox and I have finished the edits on The Differentiated Instruction Book of Lists, our book with Jossey-Bass Teacher that comes out August 1, 2011. There was so much Jenifer and I wanted to include in the book, but since books still deal with traditional things like “paper” and “ink”, we needed to cut a section or two and a few lists to make sure we didn’t go over our page limit. We decided we’d release this extra material here, providing you additional resources and links that just wouldn’t fit into the printed version.

For example, when the book comes out, we’ll have an additional bonus chapter here all about Differentiated Instruction and Neurological Constructs. These lists help teachers understand more about the neurological basis of learning styles, and how differentiating instruction can help students who have strengths and weaknesses with these underlying learning building blocks. The lists in this section include:

  • Definitions of Eight Neurological Constructs
  • Attention, First Understand, Then Apply These Recommendations
  • Understanding Memory
  • Tips and Strategies to Differentiate Using Memory Techniques
  • Advice on Increasing Executive Functions
  • Ten Strategies for Spatial Ordering
  • Ten Strategies for Developing Higher Order Thinking

These lists are “deep diving”- they go more in depth about how to figure out what a particular student may be thinking, and where they may be having trouble in the classroom.  It helps teachers understand more about the process of learning, including how a student’s executive functions, which includes skills like organization and self-monitoring, both change over time, and where they can be supported in the classroom.

Another bonus chapter we’re including on the web will be on Common Questions And Answers, including lists on:

  • What Can I Do Tomorrow?
  • How Will I Know if it’s Working?
  • Does Whole Class Instruction Still Work?
  • Take Home Points

We’ll also include more in depth links, suggested resources and recommended tools, to make your experience with the DI Book of Lists more interactive.

As always, please leave us comments and let us know what you’d most like to know about Differentiated Instruction, and we’ll be sure to make this website and articles responsive to your requests!