20 April 2013

Myths of learner-centred teaching and learning

Choice as critical thinking
I recently received this feedback from one of the course facilitators of my Flat Classroom project after she had read some of my Units and reflections on the teaching and learning going on in them.

Reading about the rich learning environment you've created for your students was a big wow! for me because you actually use choice as a critical thinking activity and I had never thought of it in those terms. You require students to consider what choices they need to make in order to make the best possible outcome...brilliant!

I have written before about the need for choice and voice in the classroom and I have really been experimenting with it this year. I have spoken to my PL director about it at school too and concluded that the reason many educators are reluctant to do so, is because it requires us to essentially 'give up' some control. I admit that I personally have only been ready for this recently - being strong in my teaching style and ability is vital for this kind of learning to work and I do know how hard it can be. In an attempt to address some worries people may have, I have identified some 'myths' I think are associated with this personalised, learner-centred style.

MYTH 1: You don't need to plan

Asking learners what they want to learn doesn't mean you don't need to plan. Quite the opposite. Educators must be strong and confident and know where the project is going before it starts - it is NOT about making things up as you go along.

I know that many teachers who haven't read about or tried this way of teaching and learning think that I just turn up and make things up on the spot. Teachable moments are always ones we should relish and make the most of but again, only work if you are strongly grounded in the requirements of your subject and curriculum. However, to keep a unit on track whilst allowing for learners to have a say in how to achieve it, means you have to have a very clear idea of how things could work and where you are going to allow that choice of pathway.

The difference is in the way of planning and perhaps how the planning is recorded. A 'scheme of work' on a piece of paper - how I started my career - lacks the freedom to be flexible. Websites or online schemas allow the fluidity that giving choice needs. My sites are 'built' to contain the assessment foci and curriculum links as well as the background and ethos to the unit. They generally contain some core assessment tasks but beyond this, they are often empty until the learning starts and grow organically as needs are identified.

MYTH 2: You can't cover core curriculum

I cannot say for sure how this translates into more 'content-based' subjects such as perhaps, science or geography, but English for sure is open to much flexibility in learning whilst at the same time covering the curriculum requirements.

Perhaps, being a 'skill-based' subject, English has always been able to offer choice and more personalised pathways, particularly in the lower school and through programmes such as the IB who allow free choice to teachers. The hardest course to personalise is the CIE IGCSE, as the texts are limited and there is no free choice, which I find challenging, as I like to offer texts that are current in some way or relevant culturally.

This year, we have had the luxury of developing our faculty plans from scratch - even down to ordering our texts for every year group. Backwards by design planning has meant we have identified exit point requirements and tracked back across each year group to ensure all the skills needed at IB level are covered at some point during the preceding 5 years.

To ensure the learning is tailored to the needs of each individual, my learners use an English Progression Grid that outlines each focus on the English National Curriculum, the choice of curriculum we base our learning on. Focusing on the reading and writing foci that are identified for each unit, learners highlight the skills they are sound in. Looking at the 'gaps' allows them to identify areas that still need work and so they choose one from each AF and add it to their personal learning path as a goal. Here is an example from our current unit (see EXAMPLE below for more details on this unit).

MYTH 3: You lose control

Not so. As stated earlier, you need a VERY strong idea of what you want to achieve at the end in order to be able to manage how each learner might get there. You must know how the requirements of your subject can be translated into each learners needs - and often, identifying this allows you to develop some great lessons. A personal learning path helps as outlined above.

Letting the learners identify where they need and want to go based on the requirements of the course means that they have control of their learning too - causing less conflict in the classroom and more control as everyone is clear and learning is authentic. You have to be very clear on the learning needs and develop each week accordingly - meaning you are actually more in control.

MYTH 4: It is not 'real' teaching

Translation: it is not 'traditional' teaching.

Remember, things evolve! One of the biggest hurdles we may face is this kind of teaching may not be recognisable as the kind of experience they had at school or were trained to do, and so conclude it is not 'right'. From parents, this is easier to stomach - learning is so different now and many are not versed in educational reforms or movements and research in new pedagogies, why should they be. It is, as I have written before, our responsibility to educate them to understand that we are doing what is right and what is sound, to provide the best opportunities and outcomes for their children. Educators who perpetuate this myth, however, make it harder for those of us who are blazing the trail.

Real teaching is doing what is right for the learners who are in front of us and that means letting them have a say in how their learning goes. We need to have the endpoint in sight and have a clear idea of the skills needed to be covered but the path each takes to get their should be their own. This is learner-centred.

Currently, I am teaching a unit called 'Dare to be Yourself'. I have written this specifically for my learners, with their needs in mind, based on my knowledge of where they are and where they need to go. This is learner-centred.

I have in place some written assignments that cover skills we need to address, such as writing to inform, argue and narrate. Learners are also challenged to write weekly blog posts outlining their Random Acts of Kindness challenge I have issued to them, as I noticed how they were not thinking enough about their actions (this is learner-centred). I also have an independent research project in place that builds on the research skills we worked on as a group last term but develops this further as it asks them to come up with their own topic, research question and method of delivery (building on skills developed at the start of the year). This is learner-centred. It also has a final project - as yet undecided, as learners are given a couple of weeks to settle into the project, understand the driving questions and how they may share this learning with the community, before deciding on what they want the final project to be. This is learner-centred.

I know where we are going. I know the learning that underpins the unit and why I chose and designed it for them - the big change for me is in that my lessons are not planned out in advance but rather evolve organically based on the needs arising each week. Every weekend means I write out a plan for the week to revisit or build on skills covered in the previous week based on the needs of the learners in front of me. This is not text-book teaching, this is not chalk and talk, this is not downloading and printing a scheme of work - this is learner-centred.