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Posts Tagged ‘classroom

This semester I had to resort to something I might have done as a classroom teacher 21 years ago. I had to manage expectations with a warning prior to a cooperative learning activity.

Some context: I model and teach assorted pedagogical strategies to future faculty. One of these strategies is a variant of the jigsaw method. This is a cooperative learning activity that replaces a long and boring lecture on even more pedagogical strategies and theories.
 

 
I have done this for many semesters, but I something changed last year. During the jigsaw, a few individuals would resort to selfish behaviours. I vividly recall three individuals at separate sessions: One shopped online, another used social media to chat with people outside class, and another played a mobile game.

An outsider might baulk at the actions of these three. They are Ph.D. students who are privileged to attend a well-respected university. Most students at this level are also sponsored for their studies, so this raises the privilege ante further.

I confronted these individuals to let them know they had responsibilities to their group — in a jigsaw cooperation, they were individually accountable and yet dependent on one another.

I realised I was reacting to this instead of preventing it. So this semester I set expectations like I used to as a classroom teacher. I told my learners that I would give them a verbal warning if they engaged in selfish behaviour, and if they persisted, I would ask them to leave the class.

No one crossed that line this semester even though a few were tempted. But I do not think that it was the threat of being confronted that led to positive behaviours. I also emphasised the rationales managing one’s self for the good of a group. The social pressure to conform and cooperate did the rest.

You might look at the obvious design and implementation flaw in the tweet below and wonder how this happens.

These are commonplace judging from the number of photos and websites that feature such flaws. They are easy to spot with a critical eye.

The flaws are obvious as is the physical harm users might experience as a result of such designs. However, some designs are easily overlooked.

One such less obvious design happens in “new” classrooms. These are helmed by agencies and vendors that claim they design for learning. They call these places hubs of learning or classrooms that are smart.

Recently I had a conversation with someone who had to test a new classroom. Some background: This campus had issues with pillars blocking views and platforms facing the wrong way.

Having experienced so many design flaws myself, I asked him what the problems were with the new room. Off the top of his head he mentioned that there weren’t enough writing surfaces. He also described a pillar with an odd configuration of displays. If I find this design faux pas, I will photograph it and update this page.

The people in charge were unhappy with the design flaws. This invariably led to delays in using the classrooms (time cost), modifications to correct the errors (effort cost), and budget negotiations (financial cost).

One reason why these errors persist is that these classrooms are designed without consulting progressive-minded policymakers and reflective educators. Most modern universities also have learning or pedagogy centres who can advise on these design. But these agencies are as easily overlooked as writing surfaces.

I suspect that many designs are based on photos of visits to cool-looking venues and administrators choose an item from A, another from B, and so on. All at the lowest possible price, of course. When this happens, the designers know WHAT to do and HOW to do this, but not WHY.

The WHY of the design of a classroom is not just about aesthetics or comfort. It is about pedagogy and learning. Including a person or a small team that has expertise in such design is not cheap, but it prevents bad pedagogical design of a learning environment.

It just takes sense/cents to save a dollar.

It is not my intent to propagate false dichotomies. But since some teachers (and a few people who teach them) do not distinguish between the flipped classroom and flipped learning, I have created another graphic to make a distinction:

The flipped classroom focuses on engagement. Flipped learning is about learner empowerment.

The flipped classroom focuses on engagement. It is about getting and maintaining the learner’s attention. On the other hand, flipped learning is about learner empowerment. The focus here is nurturing autonomy.

There are different flavours of both. Despite some common methods, there is no single way to do either. There are certainly no “best” practices for both.

A teacher might do both in a single session or over a school term. There will be times where a teacher might have to do both. The issue is finding a balance based on context.

This balance is rarely achieved because teachers tend to teach the way they were taught or in a way they are comfortable. New ideas are often assimilated into old ones so that the latter practices persist. For example, flipping the classroom with videos can simply reinvent homework and perpetuate ineffective lecturing.

One approach is not necessarily better than the other unless you have the learner’s long term development in mind. Which would you rather have: Learners who are extrinsically driven by your attempts at engaging them, or learners who are intrinsically driven because they are empowered to learn?

For what it is worth, I reshare the earlier graphic I made. It provides a huge clue on how to start on the journey of empowering learners.

The flipped classroom swaps WHAT happens WHERE. Flipped learning changes WHO does WHAT.

I discovered an unexpected source of ideas for flipped learning. It is a video of a teacher trolling his students after he banned them from flipping bottles.


Video source

At first glance, the teacher might come across as the embodiment of “do as I say, but not as I do”. After all, he did not want his students flipping bottles and did so himself.

Viewed through the lens of YouTube entertainment, the teacher was not only a master troll, he was also aware of memes and what connected with his learners. Even the groan-worthy references were gems.

Viewed through the lens of education, the video was a good example of practice, creative endeavour, and content creation.

The practice of bottle flipping required not just elbow grease, but also experimentation to determine the right amount of water. I have no doubt that there was much failure footage left out of the final video.

The teacher kept flipping bottles just like teachers might try flipping their classrooms. However, routine with both gets old quickly. Since the flipped classroom is still largely reliant on the teacher as driver, the teacher must design and lead interesting journeys. The teacher provided creative variations and levelled up the difficulty of bottle flipping. The same could be said about flipping classrooms.

The most important idea is that of having the agency to create content. This is one principle that distinguishes the flipped classroom from flipping learning. Learners must be empowered to create content so that they make their thinking visible, are teaching their peers, and acting on the feedback they receive. Only then does the flipped classroom transform to one that embraces flipped learning.

Bonus: This viral video also illustrated one strategy for creating videos for flipped learning. Every learner should show only what is critical. They do not need to create epic movies. They should be creating trailers that leave their peers wanting more.

I wanted to tweet a response to this question, but realised that a short form reply would not do justice. So here is my ramble.

There are many reasons for observing classroom teaching. I consider just three of of them:

  1. A preservice teacher being assessed during initial teacher preparation.
  2. Any teacher or educator being appraised for job performance.
  3. An educator participating in an open classroom initiative.

A novice teacher would probably be used to being observed by his/her colleagues or a supervisor. I experienced this as a student teacher many years ago and I supervised many student teachers when I was a professor at NIE.

Formal observations of authentic classroom teaching by student teachers are evaluations of growing competencies and opportunities for critical reflection. This is also probably the only stage in a teacher’s life where observations are the norm and their mindsets are pliable enough to mould.

Are observations of classroom-based instruction by preservice teachers valid?

Yes, if these such observations are combined with a mentoring programme designed to shape a novice’s knowledge, skills, and attitudes (KSAs), and an evaluation system that is aligned to the KSAs.

After a teacher joins the profession, classroom observations serve two more functions:

  1. Job appraisal (more common).
  2. To enable peer-based learning that is open, reflective, and career-long (less common).

Are observations of classroom-based instruction by inservice teachers valid?

Many institutions have observations for appraisal. If they are the standalone method or single-instance observations, they are not valid because they are not necessarily representative of anyone’s ability to teach.

Driven by the administrative needs, the teacher appraisal system here is like the rest of the civil service: Teachers are ranked to follow a normal distribution even if this does not make sense [some references].

Since there is often little administrative bandwidth to spare, such observations tend to be sparse and scheduled. If administrators and teachers are brutally honest, classroom observations can seem to be a bother and an afterthought.

Observations are more meaningful only if they are part of more comprehensive system. Such a system might be based on teacher-owned e-portfolios, teaching philosophies, student feedback, peer testimonials, teacher reflections, etc. This system is in always-on and regular-use mode to balance the once or twice a year formal observation.

Classroom observations for professional development are rarer. These are based less on the need to appraise or otherwise summatively judge a teacher. These observations are a result of open mindsets or culture.

A teacher with an open mindset might invite colleagues to sit in on a lesson and have clear expectations of of the what, how, and why feedback.

  • The WHAT could focus on questioning strategies, the HOW could involve a method of recording constructive comments, and the WHY could be for critical reflection.
  • Another WHAT could be to code the type of learning interactions, the HOW might be enabled with an observation template, and the WHY could be for research to inform practice.

Very few schools have a culture that promotes such constant listening and learning by teachers for teachers. These efforts are driven by openness, humility, and the hunger to learn about learners and learning.

So are classroom observations that are part of a larger learning system valid for professional development? Yes.

Are similar observations valid for appraisal and ranking? It depends.
 

 
My answer is no if the ability and value of the teacher is artificially constrained to a normal distribution. The problem is not the validity of observations, it is the use of the data to play the wrong numbers game (for more insights, read my reflection on investing in individuals).

If an appraisal system uses classroom observations as one of several methods for triangulation, the observations could be valid. This is despite the common perception that teachers, when informed in advance, take disproportionate effort to represent (or misrepresent) themselves.

This response is a product of human nature. You want to show off your best when observed. The fundamental issue is authenticity. Was the amount of preparation and the methods used typical of that teacher?

If a teacher can barely spend an hour planning for a whole week of lessons, how fair a measure is a forewarned teacher’s effort of a 30-hour planning for a single 30-minute observation?

That same teacher could normally not use any current technology and student-centred methods. However, for the observation the teacher could plan for mobile devices to be brought into the classroom for a jigsaw strategy. How representative is that lesson of the teacher? How valid is such an instance of classroom observation?

That is the likely crux of the tweeted question. Classroom observations are not valid if teachers are gaming single-instance or standalone observations. If an organisation has that many teachers manipulating the system, it has a bigger problem than observation methods.

All that said, classroom observations (single-instance and standalone, or part of a larger learning initiative) can be valid in the hands of a skilled observer and evaluator. Such a person would use protocols that are based on open but critical questions instead of a closed checklist, and rely on deep knowledge of teachers and teaching.

For example, a skilled and experienced evaluator will expect the lesson plans to likely be the best effort. However, the evaluator can also examine other lesson plans, records, and artefacts for comparison.

The evaluator will also realise that any plan is only as good as its implementation. Pretenders might be able to put pen to paper, but they are likely to struggle when trying to go beyond that. Even the best laid plans will vary with ability, and if sorting teachers is important, the quality of lesson planning alone will likely reflect the mindset and skills of a teacher.

A professional evaluator will not rely on the observation alone. Other than examining previous work, there should be pre and post-lesson discussions. These sessions are not just designed to be a rigorous evaluation of the teacher, they are also to put the teacher at ease, establish context, scope expectations, etc.

Finally, a well-designed lesson observation should provide for opportunities to observe teacher reflexion and to process teacher reflection. The former involves thinking on the spot and adapting; the latter is self-evaluating in hindsight.
 

 
So, is classroom observation a valid measure of teaching ability? It depends.

If it is based on purely administrative needs, not linked to teacher development, or otherwise poorly conducted, then it is easy to see how such observation is neither valid nor valuable.

However, if the observations are driven by teachers and fuelled by a culture of professional learning, and if there is comprehensive portfolio system complemented by rigorous evaluation methods, then classroom observations are more likely to be valid and valuable.

Sometimes I think I no longer need to repeat some messages because they sound old. But I am constantly reminded that I cannot be complacent.

The messages are diverse. They range from “Singapore does NOT cane you for chewing gum” to “gamification is not the same as game-based learning” or “flipping the classroom is not the same as flipping the learning”.

The cane comment surface just a few days ago. Strangely enough, it stemmed from a tongue-in-cheek remark on Singapore’s Schooling being Number One (the swimmer and our PISA results).

Someone else wanted to know if caning had anything to do with our results.

My reply, tongue firmly in cheek, was this:

We had a short conversation thereafter:

This reminded me of my stay in the US over 15 years ago when I had to remind people that Singapore was not in China and that we did not cane people for chewing gum.

While the conversation was not about caning and gum, I had to inform someone on Twitter that we do not cane boys as easily as we would flick a switch.

In the teaching and learning front, the runaway trains are gamification and the flipped classroom. Both vendors and ill-informed individuals push these without first knowing or caring about their histories, research, or critical practice.

I laud their enthusiasm, but when it is misguided, I make my stand: Gamification is not game-based learning and it is not enough to just flip the classroom.
 

 
Sometimes I wonder if harping on these messages makes me the squeaky wheel or the proverbial voice in the desert. Then I remember this Jon Stewart quote: If you smell something, say something.

As a watchdog, I have to be vigilant. As an educator, I remind myself that the old messages are new to someone else.

 
I was appalled when I read this article, For-Profit Coalition Seeks to Bolster the Flipped-Classroom Approach.

First it defined the flipped classroom like this:

A flipped classroom describes a wide range of educational methods, like just-in-time teaching, peer instruction, and the use of clickers.

It did not distinguish between the flipped classroom and flipped learning. JIT teaching and peer instruction can happen in both, but the former is critical in the flipped classroom and the latter is a key enabler of flipped learning.

How in the world did the “use of clickers” even get mentioned? My guess is the university context of lectures and trying to justify clickers as “interactive” or “participatory”. Clickers are neither and their novelty wears off quickly.

The only things flipping when I read the article were my finger and my stomach. All it had to do to flip my life switch off was to suggest LMS, interactive white boards, and smart rooms as means to flipping.

All these and clickers do little to change pedagogy. I have written for years how these constrain pedagogy or maintain outdated methods instead of encouraging progression.

The article also mentioned how the Flipped Learning Global Initiative would be charging a $5,000 annual fee for groups be identified as partners. Why do this? Errol St. Clair Smith, the director of this group said:

…the initiative’s leaders believe there is a $500-million market for products related to course flipping. They include training, software and hardware, and other services. They expect demand to grow to about $2.4 billion by 2020.

So that is what the effort is about: Taking advantage of a financial opportunity. Never mind that university faculty do not really change how they teach. Just sell them clickers. Lots of clickers.


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