Saturday, 26 January 2013

Sharing Intellectual Control

We were fortunate enough to have Ian Mitchell visit from Australia. Ian Mitchell is the co-developer of PEEL (Project for Enhanced Effective Learning). What makes PEEL unique is that it advocates putting the responsibility of learning squarely on the shoulder of students. This sounds easy enough but it really takes allot of courage and confidence to let go of old inculcating ways of teaching, partly because it’s the way were taught and therefore we have a tendency to model that style in teaching. Also, I think many teachers equate being a “sage on the stage” with control and therefore classroom management.  However, I learned through Ian that by sharing intellectual control of learning raises student’s interest and engagement level.

The first thing we need to concede is that teachers are ultimately responsible for student’s passive learning tendencies as well as many of the prior misconceptions that students hold. Once these tendencies take hold they are extremely difficult for the student to relinquish. Therefore, as prospective teachers we need to develop a sense of shared intellectual control as early on as possible. As a first step, Mitchell suggests letting the students guide the content as well as the form of assessment. In order for the students to have choice, students first need to ask questions about what they want to know. One of the difficulties in starting, as Mitchell discovered, was that students really weren’t accustomed to asking thoughtful questions or asked questions in which they already had the answers to. In addition, a culture of trust needs to be fostered where students and teachers don’t rush to judge so that students feel safe giving the wrong answer or don’t fear they will be slighted by their peers.  In thinking about my own teaching, I really like the idea of creating a spark by either reading story or showing a video surrounding a topic and then opening it up to questions. Mitchell uses an example where a set of die are faced with interrogatives such as what, how, why, and when, which can be used to generate questions that are on the minds of students after seeing or hearing a narration. Working in groups, students generate questions based on the roll of the die. Seeing which groups can come up with the most questions makes things competitive, which students always like.

For the teacher who models the old way of teaching it may seem like a risky proposition to spend perhaps 3 days finding out from the students what is on their mind without getting any coverage of the curriculum. Also, student led course content may cause a dissonance in some veteran teachers because they rely on the same lessons from year to year.  What teachers need to consider is the pay off in student led learning. Students who embark on a path of learning that is of their choosing have demonstrated higher retention and comprehension levels. Also, by virtue of the fact that the focus is on student centred learning, there is less emphasis on teacher talk and classroom management. 

As mentioned by Mitchell another concern is that “tasks don’t become unmanageably open”.  What’s interesting is that over the past decade I’ve been an outreach educator for an outdoor education program.. There was no need to create a spark. The spark was naturally there. Questions ranged from weather, to plants, to physiology, to geology and hydrology. The questions generally come from every direction. In all my work with outdoor education there was always time in the day for debriefing. I always thought this was nothing more than sitting around a fire. Without recognizing it, I guess I’ve been debriefing since I was a child any time I sat around the fire.  The beauty of this outdoor program is that it served as a conduit for bringing content back into the classroom after debriefing and noting what was on the minds of students. In the classroom links to the curriculum were identified and expanded upon. What do you think the level of interest was in the class afterwards? How much time do you think the teacher spent on classroom management after the students sought out their own learning?

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