Creating the Environment for Learning – Cooperative Learning


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My school recently started the process of implementing a new instructional model. At the heart of this model is Howard Pitler and Bj Stone’s book A Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works. Developed from the work of McREL and Robert Marzano, the book unpacks the different facets involved in embedding a culture of instruction. This is the third post in a series looking at cooperative learning.


In a post discussing learning intentions, Chris Harte splits the learning process up between skillset, mindset and toolset. This divide is a useful way of appreciating the environment offered by by Pitler and Stone, with objectives and feedback representing the skillset and growth and recognition representing the mindset. This leaves the toolset. In a separate post, Tom Barrett describes the toolset as,

Toolset (How you Get, Have, Use) – Means a set of widely accepted methods, techniques, models, approaches and frameworks that can create value in the chosen field.

In regards to the environment of learning, the main tool at play according to Pitler and Stone is cooperative learning.

At its heart, cooperative learning focuses on developing a culture of collaboration. In Alfie Kohn’s argument against competition, he captures a definition of collaboration, suggesting that:

Learning at its best is a result of sharing information and ideas, challenging someone else’s interpretation and having to rethink your own, working on problems in a climate of social support.

According to Kohn, this can occur at any year level and in any subject. However, there are a range of challenges to make this all happen, including group sizes, process and space.

Models, such as Tuckman’s stages of group development, which focuses on forming–storming–norming–performing, provide support in regards to process. While those like Cathy Davidson provide an intentional set of practises devised to foster perspective. Also, Mia MacMeekin provides a range of strategies and activities to refocus groups:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Providing his own take on things, Alex Quigley outlines a set of essential steps, including a focus on time, purpose and assessment.

In regards to the size of groups, there are those, such as David Weinberger, who suggest the strength lies within the networks, with “the smartest person in the room being the room.” The focus in this circumstance (which is often digital) is on the whole, rather than the particular strength of the individual. In relation to actual size, Donald Clark argues that three is the optimal number for small group work, while Jennifer Mueller suggests that groups above five starts to challenge motivation.

An influence on the size of groups is the structure of the space. This dilemma is clearly depicted by Richard Wells investigation into environments,

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License by Richard Wells.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License by Richard Wells.

What is significant about Wells’ diagrams is the dependency on flexibility of furniture, as well as the ever changing role of the teacher. Kohn captures this best situation well when he says, “a classroom where collaboration is taken seriously is a place where a visitor has trouble finding the teacher.”

Coming at the problem of group work, Alex Quigley offers up definitive set of questions to help teachers reflect on their practise:

  • What is the ideal number for the group size for this task?
  • Are students clear about what effective collaboration looks like and sounds like?
  • What are the group goals and individual goals for this task? Are they clear to the students?
  • How are you going to fend off ‘social loafing’?
  • Should personality differences influence our grouping decisions? Are there introverts in the classroom that should receive particular attention as we decide upon grouping students?
  • How should we group in relation to ability or skill levels? Are the groups separate by ability or mixed, or randomised? Does this make a difference?

The greatest challenge though with all of this is the question of accountability. It is this that cooperative learning captures.

According to Pitler and Stone, cooperative learning groups emphasize positive interdependence. This involves finding a balance between group work and individual accountability. As they explain,

Small-group work is valuable, but cooperative learning, with elements of positive interdependence and individual responsibility, is the strategy that rises to the level of significance.

One of the biggest quandaries with accountability and responsibility is making sure that each member has an equal workload. This equality though needs to go beyond simply prescribing roles. With a focus on group objectives, the attempt to capture a true sense of individual accountability is best done through the use of both formative and summative assessment. This can only occur though when cooperative learning is both consistent and systematic. (See Charles Garcia’s post for a further discussion of this.)

An example of cooperative learning is the Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS). Devised by the ATC21s group, CPS focuses on the Conceptual Framework for Collaborative Problem Solving, highlighting the skills and perspective that people bring, rather than the jobs they do. Rather than splitting a task between members in order to do something more efficiently, the focus is on process and the skills brought to bare. Significantly, with CPS there is a focus on authentic tasks. It is for this reason that predefined roles and responsibilities are limited. Interestingly, the team behind CPS only works when a task is authentic. It could be argued that it is for this reason that CPS and therefore cooperative learning are essential skills for those entering the 21st century workforce.


So what about you? What have been your experiences cooperative learning and collaboration? How have you grappled with the challenge of interdependence? As always, comments welcome.


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Computer Games in Education

Every maker of video games knows something that the makers of curriculum don't seem to understand. You'll never see a video game being advertised as being easy. Kids who do not like school will tell you it's not because it's too hard. It's because it's--boring - Seymour Papert

On a recent episode of 2 Regular Teachers, Rick Kaylor-Thomson and Adam Lavars raised the question of computer games in school. The game in question was in fact Clash of the Clans, an online multiplayer, which encourages players to work together in the creation of clans. A few students had raised the possibility of running a lunchtime club that focused on the game. Rick and Adam posed a range of questions, such as appropriateness and responsibility. Here then are a few of my thoughts and reflections to continue the conversation:

  • 13+: An interesting topic is the 13+ requirement, especially in Primary school. However, what is not often discussed is why so many applications are restricted to 13+. This relates to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (or COPPA), a United States federal law. The purpose is to restrict the data that can be collected on children without consent, it is for this reason that sites, like Edmodo, require parent approval. The issue with the COPPA law is that sites and companies are not required to verify the age of those signing up, this is what allows many children to use sites, such as Instagram and Facebook. One potential solution for schools is that accounts are managed by a teacher to bypass the 13+ issue.
  • Teachable Moment: One of the interesting points that was made again and again throughout the podcast was that the game was not ‘educational’. Common Sense Media suggests that the game offers the possibility to engage with others, to learn from experience and learn in a supported environment, especially in the beginning. These lessons are also clearly reiterated by Donelle Batty in her reflection on the game.  Personally though, I feel this only the tip of the iceberg, that everything can be educational and provides the potential for teachable moments. Some excellent examples of games in learning include: Festival of Gaming by Mel Cashen, Should Video Games Be Used to Help Use Learning in High School? by Bianca Hewes, Digital Sandpit by Ben Gallagher and Minecraft Across the Curriculum by Lee Hewes.
  • Violence: Some questions were raised about the inherent violence within the game. Common Sense Media describes it as follows, “The games is more about attacking non-player character such as goblins or the villiagers of other players.” This always makes me wonder if we critique traditional media the same way we critique games and so forth. The reality is that violence is a part of our world and within our literature. Do we teach colonisation to Primary students and deny that there was any conflict? I admit there are always limits, however I don’t think denial ever worked for anyone.
  • What Kind of Parent Are You?: Through discussion, there was mention made of parents and how they might see the problem. I was reminded here is Alexandra Samuel’s study into digital parenting. Samuel suggests that when it comes to parents, there are three clear types: limiters, enablers and mentors. Limiters keep their children away from the internet meaning that they are kept out of the digital world. Enablers trust their kids online, but leave them to their own accord. Mentors on the other hand, walk hand in hand guiding producing. I think that the reality is that each of these parents is going to have a different perspective on their children playing the game.

So what about you? What have been your experiences of games inside the classroom and out? I recommend going to the 2 Regular Teachers blog and leaving a comment to continue the conversation.


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Are Great Teachers Bad Teachers?


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Dan Carlin in his investigation of Genghis Khan quotes Lord Acton who once wrote that “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you add the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority.”  This implies that great people often only become supposedly ‘great’ at the expense of others. That is, whether it be Napoleon or Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, they all brought about great chaos and killing that was paramount to achieve their success over time.

This idea of the consequences associated with success got me thinking about teachers, teaching and learning. There are those out there who wish to reduce impact solely down to the work of the individual. This has many flow on effects, but the most problematic one is the birth of the ‘great teacher’.

I have lost count of the times I have been asked to reflect on my past and recall a great teacher. For me, these teachers were those that often pushed against the grain, who stood out in the crowd, maybe broke the rules, seemingly going above and beyond. Maybe these are worthy attributes to have, but at what cost? The question that often goes unasked is what context allows for the creation of such teachers and is it always positive? Who suffers and what is lost in the process? Are great teachers in fact bad teachers?

For so many, the word of the moment is collaboration. Whether it be Alma Harris’ Disciplined Collaboration, Cathy Davidson’s Collaboration by Difference or David Weinberger’s Smart Rooms, they all seem to celebrate the collective power of the group over the individual. The problem though is that it can be hard to break the traditional cycle of leadership and learning for a more distributed model. A focus on the individual has the tendency to produce an environment of competition, which sacrifices collaboration, in the hunt for greatness.

To re-imagine this situation, I want you to stop and think for a moment about a teacher who for whatever reason was not the greatest? Rather than dwelling on those individual attributes which made them stand out for all the wrong reasons, think about what teams they were a part of. Was there anyone else teaching that subject? Were they visibly linked with others or left alienated? How were they supported? Maybe these are more pertinent questions and help highlight the real problem.

In the end, I am left wondering, can greatness ever be good? What would schools look like if we had great teams which focus on building capacity, with no one teacher standing out above any other? Would this focus on community allow for more of a focus on learning? To be honest, I am really not sure. More than ever, I would love to know your thoughts on this matter, for in the end, it takes a village.


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Creating the Environment for Learning – Effort and Recognition


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My school recently started the process of implementing a new instructional model. At the heart of this model is Howard Pitler and Bj Stone’s book A Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works. Developed from the work of McREL and Robert Marzano, the book unpacks the different facets involved in embedding a culture of instruction. This then is the second post looking at effort and recognition. It often matters little what objectives are set or feedback is given if students approach their work with the wrong mindset. Playing an important part in motivating students, effort and recognition represent the how in regards to creating an ideal learning environment.

Effort

Central to the focus on effort is the work of Carol Dweck around mindset. For Dweck there are two mindsets which govern pretty much everything that we do. They are the fixed and growth mindsets. Those with a fixed mindset see things as black or white, either good or bad. They feel the need to always prove themselves and consider setbacks as failure. In opposition, the growth mindset embraces failure as an area for improvement, effort is rewarded and setbacks are seen as an opportunity for future learning.  Importantly, a growth mindset focuses on process, rather than outcome. This means re-imaging success to highlight improvement over time, rather than where they may sit in regards to some preconceived standards.

A part of this change in mindset is a celebration of hard work over time, what Malcolm Gladwell talks about in regards to the 10,ooo hours rule. Also, there is a focus on autonomy and how this sense of care influences engagement and persistence. Central to this is ongoing emphasis on effort when planning and preparing. This might include incorporating relevant stories, videos, articles, and discussions throughout the year. Larry Ferlazzo has a good collection of examples from film and television. In addition to this, it is important to provide models and structures to support the development of growth mindsets, whether this be planning documents, guides to studying, opportunities for reflection and rubrics to support understandings. At the heart of all of this is creating a common use of language which helps link work and success. This though can be easier said than done.

RECOGNITION

Associated with language and effort is an emphasis on recognition and praise. Connected with objectives and feedback, this is how to support students working toward achieving mastery of their goals. A focus on the goals not only helps personalise the learning, but also drives learning.

With such an approach, the challenge is not to recognise the wrong attributes, such as talent and intelligence. Singling these out often leads to people shying away from activities in which they may face failure, such as goal setting. As Pitler and Stone point out,

Praise can provide students with the motivation to continue working and striving to achieve at a high level, or it can create confusion and competition.

It is therefore important to highlight achievement, however great or small. This might be through the use of various concrete, symbolic tokens, such as stickers, coupons, awards, treats, or other types of prizes. However, such rewards are best aligned with routine tasks and rote learning.

In his take on the problem, Alfie Kohn questions the worth of all practices of carrots and sticks to motivate people. He does however provides four practical suggestions to blunt the damage that may be called:

  1. Don’t praise people, only what people do.
  2. Make praise as specific as possible.
  3. Avoid phony praise.
  4. Avoid praise that sets up a competition

In the end, like all initiatives, we are left with the challenge of developing sustained practice. Alex Quigley touches on the complexity of strategy and solution required to change culture, something that goes beyond a motivational assembly and a few inspiring videos. A quick, well targeted and stealthy approach may be more effective, one focused on metacognition and self-regulation.

Although Pitler and Stone argue that effort, and recognition thereof, is the only thing that we can have an influence on, Alfie Kohn points out that this may in fact be an example of fixed mindset. Kohn contends that to merely focus on effort without considering the wider conditions in which they occur does more harm than good.

An awful lot of schooling still consists of making kids cram forgettable facts into short-term memory. And the kids themselves are seldom consulted about what they’re doing, even though genuine excitement about (and proficiency at) learning rises when they’re brought into the process, invited to search for answers to their own questions and to engage in extended projects. Outstanding classrooms and schools — with a rich documentary record of their successes — show that the quality of education itself can be improved. But books, articles, TED talks, and teacher-training sessions devoted to the wonders of adopting a growth mindset rarely bother to ask whether the curriculum is meaningful, whether the pedagogy is thoughtful, or whether the assessment of students’ learning is authentic (as opposed to defining success merely as higher scores on dreadful standardized tests).

Adding to this argument, Peter DeWitt suggests that as teachers we need to learn to stop being so fixed in our own approaches and that this is in fact the real problem. Ironically, Dewitt suggests, teachers are in fact the biggest inhibitors of students developing a growth mindset as they fail to allow any sense of autonomy when it comes to learning. What is needed is an approach that goes beyond mere lip service and changes things from the ground on up.

So what about you? What is the place of effort and recognition in your classroom? How do you create an environment in which students are continually reminded that they are capable of learning the most challenging content and processes? As always, comments welcome.


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Creating the Environment for Learning – Objectives and Feedback


flickr photo shared by mrkrndvs under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

My school recently started the process of implementing a new instructional model. At the heart of this model is Howard Pitler and Bj Stone’s book A Handbook for Classroom Instruction That Works. Developed from the work of McREL and Robert Marzano, the book unpacks the different facets involved in embedding a culture of instruction. This then is the first of a series of posts covering my own reading, with this one looking at learning objectives and feedback. For before anyone can address the act of instruction, it is essential to set up an environment in which learning can occur.

Learning Objectives

The first chapter addresses the question of why in regards to the environment. The authors make it clear that learning objectives are essential for efficiency and understanding. Specific, but not restrictive, on learning, rather than activities, objectives are the why which drives instruction. They allow for a sense of narrative, connecting with previous and future learning. Made visible to both students and parents, via a workbook, on a whiteboard, as a poster or through a website, objectives provide the means to continually remind and reiterate on the intent.

It needs to be noted that such objectives should not be about simply telling students what they will learn, rather they provide the opportunity for co-creation. As is stated,

Such objectives though do not necessarily have to always be set for students, with the creation of personal objectives providing an opportunity to build intrinsic motivation.

Such personalisation includes using a KWL to identify what students know and want to know or providing a range of choices while staying true to the original objective.

One of the catches with objectives is that they can take on many shapes and sizes. Whether it be the big ideas and enduring understandings offered thought Understanding by Design, through-lines and provocations as provided through the Inquiry Model, the often quoted concept of learning intentions and success criteria or Chris Harte’s focus on skillsets, mindsets and toolsets. In addition to this, there is a difference in the language and complexity of an objective based on the intended audience, whether it be a class of preps or a group of adults.

Feedback

Just as objectives help define the why of learning, feedback helps to maintain this. According to Hattie and Timperley (2007) feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement. The problem though is that this influence can be both good and bad.

Only perfect practice makes perfect performance. If students don’t receive specific feedback in a timely manner, then they will keep doing their work incorrectly and reinforce bad habits.

The other challenge beyond being ‘specific and timely’ is not overwhelming learners with too much information. As Pitler and Stone suggest,

Keep the dollops—spoon-size portions—frequent and always targeted on the learning objective.

It needs to be said that just as objectives should not be dictated to students, feedback is not solely the responsibility of the teacher. For just as Steve Wheeler suggests that, “pedagogy is leading people to a place where they can learn for themselves,” feedback should support students with the skills to provide themselves and their peers with appropriate feedback.

The most common form of feedback is through the use of rubrics. These help students identify when they have achieved a particular objective. It needs to be recognised that for some, such as Alfie Kohn, this supposed strength is in fact a rubrics biggest weakness. While Dean Shareski raises concerns about the use of exemplars as being restrictive, especially when it comes to creativity. One comprimise is to give students a voice in the creation of rubrics. The Buck Institute of Education provides a useful ‘Rubric for Rubrics‘ to help with this process. Some other strategies that can be used to support the feedback process include the creation of checklists, gallery walks, providing opportunity for critique and review, as well as using different visible thinking routines.


However you approach learning objectives or the feedback process, Pitler and Stone make clear that what is important is that,

Students know what they are supposed to be learning, have clear direction on how well they are progressing toward that learning objective, understand their role as learners, and have an engaging and interactive place to learn.

So what about you? What has been your experience in regards to setting the why of the learning environment? As always, comments welcome.


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Why Blogging (Still) Matters


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My daughter recently started at a new school. One of the things that stood out to me was the use of Facebook for classroom communication. Every class is setup with a private page, where information is shared. To me this fits perfectly with the argument that we need to go where the people are and it seems these days a lot of people spend their time in Facebook. Already being there means that little effort needs to be applied to getting things going, whether this be signing up or instructions as to how to use it. The problem though is that just because people are already there does that mean that it is the best space for the task?

I remember when I was told of the changes to online permissions by the Victorian State Government. A part of a push to be more mindful of student data. My first thought was that the legal department were crashing the party. My mind was taken back to the supposed halycon days when a blanket permission slip would cover all sorts of online frivolity, with endless amounts of Web 2.0 programs and applications. However, times have changed. Doug Belshaw describes this as the move to the Post-Snowden Era. It is a scepticisim epitomised by Cory Doctorow in Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, when he says:

Without a thorough understanding of our computers’ workings, and without independent verification of their security, it’s impossible to trust our machines.

It is for this reason that we can no longer just use what may work best (as if we ever should have), but what is in fact the most appropriate on all levels.

Maybe the problem is where the data is housed, maybe it is about who is in control of content, maybe it is about the decisions of edtech company. There are so many things to consider. Some of these ethical questions include:

Does the service/app require an account to be created? If so, why?

Does the service let you delete content? This should apply not only to finished work, but also the elements of that work. For example, if you upload photographs to make a slideshow, does it let you delete those photographs later?

Does the service easily let you delete your account? Does it include an ‘Account Deletion button’ in a menu? (Check out JustDelete Me for a guide to deleting some services. The site also has a Fake Identity Generator to help you get started with a dummy account)

Does the service require you to login with a ‘real name’, or can you just use a private handle instead? If it does require a real name, why?

Does the service easily let you export the work you create in standard formats? (e.g. TXT, PDF, DOC, MP4, MP3, MOV, XLS, CSV, JSON,HTML etc) Can you save the work to your device and take it with you when you close an account?

Do you have full control over sharing/unsharing and publishing of work online?

Does the service only ask for necessary permissions? For example, many browser extensions ask for permission to access your data on all websites, or mobile apps ask for your location. Some of these permissions are necessary for the service to work, but if a service seems to be asking for a lot of unnecessary permissions, then it may be best to avoid it.

Does the service have a clear, easy to read and transparent privacy policy? Is there a link to the Terms & Conditions or Privacy Policy on the homepage? If it’s hard to find, hard to read, or non-existent, then think long and hard about why that is.

Does the service treat user data and content in an ethical manner? Do users have control over they license they apply to their work? Is the work easily embeddable on other sites? Will the company sell the work (or even worse, details about a user’s identity) to other services and advertisers?

How does this service make money? What is the business model? Online tools are expensive to build and maintain, so if there isn’t a clear model for how that service will make money, then it may be that data is being sold to advertisers, or the service will eventually move to a paid model or be sold or closed.

With the demise of the Ultranet, such questions have become more pertinent as schools search for the next digital solution.

In her post, Beyond the LMS, Audrey Watters recounts her experiences with Blackboard Collaborate and the problems she faced. After initially developing content in an open space provided by the institution, she was ‘encouraged’ to publish everything through the learning management system. From quizzes to resources to syllabi to discussion forums.  The problem she faced was that her and her students continually lost access to the content and communications once the subject was finished as the only way to access the content was through the site.

One example of an LMS that has been embraced by many schools of late is Compass. Like Watters’ experience with Blackboard, Compass too poses many similar questions. Although you maybe able to access past content, it is never made easy. One of the biggest curses is the amount of clicks to get anywhere. In addition to this, there is little avenue for students to communicate and collaborate. It is neither a campfire nor watering hole. Although as a platform it provides many of the same functionalities offered by the Ultranet, one absence is the possibility for meaningful student action. Whereas the Ultranet provided a space for play and creation, this is the one aspect that seems missing.  Maybe such spaces are walled to protect students. Maybe they are really about improving communication between home and school? Maybe they are about control and management? However, are we really supporting students if we are limiting their possibility for voice and choice through such spaces.

One solution to this is to publish your work, whether staff or student, at one canonical address and link elsewhere. This elsewhere could be Compass, Edmodo, Facebook or Google Classroom. Blogs offer the most obvious solution for such as a space. Whether it be as a portfolio, a social media stream, social bookmarking, class blog, project or subject space, they offer so many different possibilities. While a site like Edublogs may involve some effort in regards to another site to login to or to manage. It offers a lot more possibility and flexibility in the long run. Blogging still matters.

Although developing a canonical address in Edublogs may not go to the point of setting students up with a domain of their own, as Audrey Watters proposes, it does at least provide the possibility to take their data and do with it what they would like. Something Alan Levine describes as co-claiming. This is something that can be overlooked in the choice of spaces.

So what about you, how do you support students, while also considering some of the ethical questions? How do you push back against what is easiest, to consider what might be best? As always, comments welcome.


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REVIEW: Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement


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In Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement, Robert Marzano explores the power of academic vocabulary and background knowledge to support academic achievement. In contrast to tiered high frequency words, academic vocabulary involves subject area terms derived from curriculum. Going beyond the ideal of providing regular field trips and mentors within the community, Marzano outlines two indirect approaches for supporting student learning: virtual experiences and direct instruction.

In regards to supporting the learning of concrete terms, there are many ways of bringing in virtual experiences into the classroom. For some, experience comes via video, especially online, while others engage in the virtual through the act of speaking and listen. However, the most common format is through wide reading and participation within a sustained silent reading program. Summarising the work of Janice Pilgreen, Marzano suggests that SSR needs to focus on access, appeal, environment, encouragement, training, non-accountability, follow-up and time to read.

Sustained Silent Reading
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To support SSR, Marzano provides five steps to follow:

  1. Identify topics of interest
  2. Locate reading material
  3. Provide regular time to read
  4. Represent information in personal notebooks
  5. Engage with wider interaction with the information provided

In many ways, this connects with the process outlined in The CAFE Book by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser, where reading is broken up by regular conferences to provide encouragement and support. In addition to this, Donalyn Miller provides an interesting perspective on independent reading in her book The Book Whisperer. She presents a range of alternatives to breakup the usual habits, which include teaching readers rather than books, providing access to audio books, interacting with online reviews and creating book commercials.

The other answer posited by Marzano regarding academic vocabulary is direct instruction. When he talks about direct instruction, he suggests that this needs to be:

  • More than simply providing students with dictionary definitions
  • Incorporate both linguistic and non-linguistic representations
  • Involve multiple exposure over time
  • Integrate the teaching of word parts,
  • Recognise that different terms require different forms of instruction
  • Allow for word play and focus on terms with high probability of academic success.

To make sense of all this, Marzano outlines a six step process:

  1. Provide students with with a description, explanation and example
  2. Have students restate the term in their own words.
  3. Create non-linguistic representation, such as a graphic organiser or a Colour, Symbol, Image.
  4. Complete activities that add to the knowledge, including comparing, contrasting, classifying, as well as creating metaphors and analogies.
  5. Allow students opportunity to discuss terms with one another
  6. Provide the possibility for periodic word play.

For Marzano, the teaching of vocabulary needs to involve a whole school approach. However, some strategies to manage it is to use one book for all vocabulary, limit to certain subjects and split initial list between essential and supplemental.

So what about you, what experience have you had in teaching vocabulary? Have you used Marzano’s work? If not, what did you use? Also, what are your favourite vocabulary activities and games? As always, comments welcome.


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REVIEW: The Book Whisperer


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In an age of data and automated programs, Donalyn Miller makes the claim that the best way to improve reading is in fact to read. Focusing on independence, The Book Whisperer provides an outline for how to empower students to lead their own reading. As Miller explains,

I transformed my classroom into a workshop, a place where apprentices hone a craft under the tutelage of a master. I learned that being the best reader and writer in the room is not about power and control. Instead, I must be a source of knowledge that my students access while learning how to read and write. Instead of standing on stage each day, dispensing knowledge to my young charges, I should guide them as they approach their own understandings. Meaning from a text should not flow from my perceptions or, God forbid, the teaching guide; it should flow from my students’ own understandings, under my guidance.

This change in mindset meant scrapping non-reading warm-ups and fun folders to instead set students the lofty goal of reading forty books across the year, with the belief that students rise to the expectations made of them. This goal also came with the requirement to read a range of genres.

Throughout Miller’s book, she critically evaluates many of the elements commonly found in the classroom, including the whole class novel, comprehension tests, book reports, reading logs, popcorn reading and incentive programs. Some of the alternatives she provides are to teach readers rather than books, provide access to audio books, write online reviews, create book commercials, provide regular time in class and prepare for reading out loud beforehand.

One question I had about the book was the focus on the physical book. Miller talks about the importance of creativity, empathy and citizenship, yet I was left wondering why digital literacies do not have the same privilege. For example, I had a new member of staff in my office last year. A self proclaimed ‘non-reader’, he wears the title like a badge of honour. Yet there is something odd. I spent weeks thinking through how I could support him to discover the inner reader. Yet as the year unfolded, I discovered a certain fallacy to the idea of a ‘non-reader’. Although he may not have ‘read the book’, he could tell you every character and consequence from Breaking Bad. In addition to this, he was able to find an episode of The Simpsons to support every situation. Is this a problem with reading or do we just need to better recognise transliteracy, rather than be restricted solely to print media?

In the end, I do not believe every one of Miller’s strategies is necessarily scalable, including the expectation that teachers provide their own extensive library. However, she does demonstrate that with perseverance and refinement it is possible to develop new and innovative solutions.


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At the end of last year I wrote a post celebrating some of the ideas that inspired me in 2015. It got me thinking that it might be an interesting exercise to go back and reflect on those ideas and inspirations on a more regular basis. So after some guidance from Doug Belshaw and Ian O’Byrne, you can now subscribe to my monthly newsletter below.

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If you enjoy what you read here, feel free to sign up for my monthly newsletter to catch up on all things learning, edtech and storytelling.