Tag Archives: active learning

Some Thoughts on Student Engagement

The educator and founder of the Understanding By Design curriculum model, Grant Wiggins, recently relayed the results of a survey he administered in a fairly typical American high school. The roughly 1000 students Wiggins surveyed attended a suburban school in the midwest and earned respectable test scores. The survey Wiggins used asked students questions about how they liked their classroom experiences. About 2/3 of the students attending the school answered Wiggins’s survey. Of the students who responded, about 95% reported feeling bored at some point during their school day. About half of the students indicated that they were either bored each day in many classes or a little bored for brief periods each day in one or more classes. In the most startling statistic, only about 5% of the students polled indicated they were rarely bored during a typical day at school. One of the most cited reasons by students in the survey for their boredom was that “the teacher talks too much.”

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Source: https://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2014/05/21/fixing-the-high-school/

After teaching for over a decade and observing hundreds of classes, I can attest to the dangers of too much “teacher talk.” However, is teacher talk, more commonly called “direct instruction,” always a bad thing? What causes student boredom? The fact is, no clear-cut reason has ever been established for what students mean when they say they are bored in schools.

In a 2003 review of the academic literature on boredom, Stephen Vodanovich concluded that there really is no agreed-upon definition of what boredom is (Vodanovich 570). One study Vodanovich found equated boredom with “monotonous or repetitive activities;” in another study it was equated with “a state of relatively low arousal and dissatisfaction which is attributed to an inadequately stimulating environment” (Vodanovich 570). These two definitions, while somewhat different, do present us with a starting point in trying to define what students mean when they say they are “bored” in school. Monotony, repetition, and inadequately stimulating environments are likely to cause student boredom. While this seems obvious when reading it here, the reality is it can happen in classrooms across the world (and in department meetings!). When planning, it is imperative to keep these causes in mind.

To find out definitively the reasons why students feel they are bored in school, a few years ago, a team of researchers began conducting what is perhaps the largest study on student boredom ever undertaken in American schools. Beginning in 2003, the group of scientists and educators from Indiana University set out to measure precisely what students meant when they said they were “bored” in class. The researchers’ intent was to isolate the factors inducing boredom and determine how they could use the student feedback to strengthen classroom engagement. What is now known as the High School Survey of Student Engagement Institute (HSSSE), these researchers administered a questionnaire to students across the country in hopes of figuring out just how engaged—or not engaged—high school students were. In 2009, HSSSE published a report on their findings. 103 schools from 27 states participated and 42,754 students answered survey questions about their classroom experiences. The data told the researchers at the institute a telling story about the state of student engagement in American classrooms.

The researchers at Indiana University defined boredom simply as a “temporary form of dis-engaging from school” (Yazzie-Mintz 6) then asked students two very specific questions about it in the survey. Students were asked the following: “Have you ever been bored in class in high school?” and “If you have been bored in class, why?” The scale of the HSSSE report makes their findings particularly valuable. Nearly half of all students reported being bored every day they were in school. 17% of students polled for the 2009 report indicated they were bored in every class they took. Only 2% of students reported never being bored in school (Yazzie-Mintz 6). This means that out of over 42,000 students, only about 850 reported that they were always interested in what was happening at school. These results mirror closely what Wiggins found in his single-school survey.

The researchers found the most oft-cited reason students were bored in school was lack of engagement during direct instruction, more commonly known as teacher talk. As the bar graph illustrates, when asked the degree of excitement or engagement students felt when a teacher used direct instruction, nearly 45% of all respondents said “not at all.” Of all the pedagogical models identified in the survey, teacher lecture was clearly the least liked activity. Only a little over 5% of students claimed they liked that model “very much.”

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Source: http://ceep.indiana.edu/hssse/images/HSSSE_2010_Report.pdf

For students, the most popular classroom activities in terms of engagement were discussion and debate, group projects, and projects and lessons involving technology. The 2009 HSSSE report made it clear to educators that students respond better to hands-on inquiry-based learning and not direct instruction (Yazzie-Mintz 11). So, if you are a teacher utilizing direct instruction frequently, the statistics indicate that between 1/3 and 2/3 (or more!) of your students will likely be disengaged and probably bored during your talk.

I learned this lesson the hard way. I can remember one lesson in particular that really stunk. At the time, I thought my idea was going to be a dynamic way to bring Greek history to life. I spent the better part of a weekend at the library researching the intricacies of the ancient Athenian political system. I created a PowerPoint presentation that touched on key facets of Athenian democracy from the Areopagus to the Boule. I felt my presentation was good—so good, in fact, I bet it could have been given to a class of graduate students. I was so excited that week to lecture about the Greeks! I had even found a flow chart describing how Athenians participated politically. What freshman in high school world history would not want to hear that explained? In what was my first year or two of teaching, I found nothing odd about the fact that during the presentation, I would be the only one doing the talking. This is what all my college professors did, I reasoned.

When I gave my presentation, I talked to my students about how Solon laid the foundation for Athenian democracy and how the reforms of Cleisthenes organized voters into demes to limit the power of the aristocracy. Throughout the course of about twenty-five slides, I broke down the nature of the Athenian political system as my students sat and listened during the 70 minutes of class. I did a great job of explaining the intricacies of Athenian politics; my graduate school professors would have been so proud. The only problem was my audience was about twenty-five fourteen-year-olds who after politely listening to me for a few minutes became more interested in what was for lunch than they were in my telling them about the history of ancient Greek politics. My excitement giving the lesson quickly dissipated as I realized the students did not care that much about ancient Greece—or at least my version of ancient Greece. I knew by looking into the eyes of my students as I talked about Solon that I had lost them.

As I progressed in my teaching career, I realized that the more I lectured, the more I bored many of my students. In fact, my Greek democracy presentation became legendary in its ability to induce boredom. I even used it to threaten students if they acted up. “Hey, if you guys don’t behave, I can always give my Greek democracy presentation,” I would say to nervous laughter. The reality was my students did not hate history. My students just preferred to be active in the discovery process instead of having me discover history for them.

I found that very few students wanted to sit for an entire class period and listen to me talk. Over the years, I found myself editing more and more out of my presentations in hopes of engaging students. In fact, I stopped giving the Greek democracy presentation all together. After a few years of teaching, I realized I was not as successful as I thought. I needed to listen to my students through surveys and daily feedback about what was and was not working for them. I needed to tailor my classroom activities around what they liked to do. In short, I realized a student-centered classroom was essential if I was going to engage, inspire, and get students to love history.

Sources:

Vodanovich, Stephen. “Psychometric Measures of Boredom: A Review of the Literature.” Journal of Psychology 137.6 (2003): 569-595. Web.

Wiggins, Grant. “Fixing the High School—Student Survey, Part 1.” Granted, and…~thoughts on education by Grant Wiggins.” N.p. 21 May 2014. Web.

Yazzie-Mintz, Ethan. “Charting the Path from Engagement to Achievement: A Report            on the 2009 High School Survey of Student Engagement.” Center for Evaluation & Education Policy. (2009): 1-26. Web.

Let’s Bring Back Dialogue

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In the April issue of Educational Leadership is an article called “The Art of Dialogue.” I think it’s an important read for both teachers and administrators. Oscar Graybill–director of Socratic Seminars International–and Lois Brown Easton discuss the benefits of dialogue in an organization over other forms of communication. “Genuine dialogue affects a school’s culture,” they write. The authors cite a former study that divides talking into four different categories:

  1. Conversation: talk about personal and social matters that is usually not directed or facilitated
  2. Discussion: talk that has a purpose and the purpose is often to make a decision
  3. Debate: talk that is an extreme form of discussion where people are forced to take sides
  4. Dialogue: talk that is more structured than conversation with the goal of engaging people in building their understanding of an issue

These four ways of talking all achieve different results. However, the authors contest that aimages focus on using dialogue during meetings can help people “dig deeper into ideas, become more thoughtful, listen well, recognize assumptions, and see connections.” For organizations, dialogue can help improve how people talk about ideas and can lead to more collaboration.

Learning and practicing dialogue take time. Schools that understand and value the benefits of a culture of shared understanding don’t just find the time—they make the time for teachers to practice both structured and open dialogue. –Oscar Graybill & Lois Brown Easton

I think it’s true that organizations do not make enough time for dialogue. The authors believe that if dialogue is implemented regularly the “resulting power shift breaks down traditional, hierarchical leadership.” I also think it’s true that organizations (and classrooms) need to find the time for genuine dialogue. A good place to start is with establishing norms for what successful dialogue looks like. The authors include a list of fifteen rules for guiding dialogue that I’ve included below. Let’s use them to bring back dialogue!

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Source

Graybill, Oscar, and Lois Brown Easton. “The Art of Dialogue.” Educational Leadership 72.7 (2015): n. pag. Web. 27 April 2015.

Something For Your Teaching Toolbox

Just a quick post to share a formative assessment strategy from one of the greats. This is from Carol Jago’s fantastic book With Rigor For All and is one of the more interesting ways9780325042107 I’ve come across to assess student understanding of reading. Since it’s now almost March, it’s also that time of the year when a new teaching strategy can energize you and your classroom. So, here’s a quick one for your teaching toolbox.

In With Rigor for All, Jago describes a method she has used to check for reading comprehension without resorting to a conventional multiple choice quiz. She starts class by telling students to “close their eyes and visualize the most powerful image they remember from last night’s reading” (58). Then she has students fold a piece of paper into four squares and quickly complete a four-step process to describe the scene.

  • In the first box, students draw a picture of a powerful image from what they read;
  • In the second box, students put their picture into words;
  • In the third box, students imagine they are professors of literature and write a brief lecture to a college class describing the scene they drew;
  • In the fourth box, students write a poem describing or responding to the scene they selected.

It’s clear that for students to be able to complete this task, they will have had to read the text. More importantly, questions like the four Jago used with her students will give a teacher a more complete picture of student understanding than they would have acquired from a standard quiz. A teacher will be able to see what scenes resonated with students and how they are responding to the action in the story. Teachers can then adjust instruction based on this robust student feedback. An activity like this might also get students to engage a little more closely with a text since they are the ones determining what is important in the story, not the teacher. Indeed, for Jago, this kind of assessment empowers students with choice. “Students,” Jago writes, “explored a scene from the level that they–rather than I–found powerful” (59). Choice, creativity, artistic interpretation, analysis, informational writing, poetry–all in one simple formative assessment.

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Source:

Jago, Carol. With Rigor for All: Meeting Common Core Standards for Reading Literature. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2011. Print.

Using Subtext in English Class

By Bree Valvano

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Image Credit: https://www.renaissance.com/products/subtext

As I continued to research and discover new ways to use technology, specifically the five new classroom iPads I have been given, I came across several articles that discussed an app called Subtext. This app allows you to download eBooks and create a collaborative reading area for students and teachers. The app allows users to define words, research concepts in a reading via the web, highlight lines, link to videos and other resources, mark notes, ask questions, and comment all in real time. If you know anything about me and my teaching philosophy, you know I had to learn more about this tool.

After downloading the app on my personal iPad and playing with it for a short time, I Screen Shot 2014-11-06 at 7.58.26 PMquickly saw the potential this app has for promoting collaboration and close reading of a text. Subtext allows you to create a classroom environment where students can collaborate when discussing a text. The teacher can embed information and web links for students to use while they are reading a text. The teacher can also add questions for students to answer, and/or the teacher can see the comments the students are making and add his/her own comments and answer questions. The teacher can also create specific assignments for the class that are linked to Common Core Standards. Since the Common Core focuses on close reading and using textual evidence to support arguments, this tool has great potential to assist teachers as they help students practice these skills.

As with any app, there are a few things you need to know before you get started. Students and teachers need a Gmail account to log into the app. Since most people are using Gmail and it’s free to set up an account if they are not, this doesn’t seem like too big of a deal. Also, the app itself is free, but you may need to purchase the text documents, depending on what is available. There are some free books, but not all books are free. You also need to purchase licenses so students can access the tool. The cool thing about the licenses is the fact that they can be assigned to a student for the lesson and then reclaimed, after the lesson, so you can use them again in another class. I personally think the cost is totally worth it.

I recently tried the app with my English IIH classes. They worked in groups to complete a close reading activity on Poe’s poem The Raven. Before the activity, I added questions and imagescomments to help the students analyze the use of language and literary devices to convey theme. I explained the features in Subtext, and the students got to work. While students were asking questions, I was able to add my comments and they were able to answer each other’s questions. Students were also able to use the features to look up unfamiliar words and search the web to find helpful information. At the end of the lesson, I asked students what they thought of the tool and the response was unanimous. They thought the app was both fun and helpful. They enjoyed being able to construct meaning and collaborate when completing a close reading of the text. I will definitely be using this tool again.

3 Free Ways to Change Classroom Dynamics

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When your class seems like it needs a break from the normal routine, try one of these ideas to energize your teaching and change the classroom dynamic. Listed below are three ways a teacher can get students re-focused during a lesson or unit and get everyone excited about the learning process. 

1. Screen Gather

For the times when information is given in a direct instruction format, try breaking up a lecture by getting students out of their seats. If yourby Johan Jansson presentation has images embedded in them, try having your students get out of their seats and congregate where the presentation is being projected. This method works particularly well when analyzing political cartoons, photographs, or even writing. By bringing students closer to the screen and each other they become more engaged in the learning process by becoming more careful observers of content and willing discussion participants. They also get out of their seats which is essential to keeping them active. When they are gathered around the screen, ask them to discuss what they notice and guide them to a better understanding. For great ideas about what kinds of questions to ask students when analyzing a cartoon or photograph, check out Visual Thinking Strategies and the Learning Network’s weekly feature “What’s Going On in This Picture.”

2. Seating Arrangement

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Are we still sitting like this?

Still in columns and rows? Admittedly, this is an effective way to create a workable classroom space which helps to explain its popularity since students first started attending school. However, it might be good to change your classroom dynamic by changing how students are seated. Get students moving throughout a lesson by having them rotate their desks into small groups. When students are going to complete an assignment or handout, have them do it collaboratively instead of in isolation by changing how they are sitting. By moving desks from columns and rows to small groups or even a large circle, interaction will increase and students might become more engaged. Don’t be afraid to have students change seats frequently during a lesson or to move their desks multiple times so they can work with different people around them. Try organizing students into clusters and not in columns and rows. For more ideas on how to create active learning environments, check out this issue of 360 dedicated to rethinking education spaces.

Such a neat idea!
Such a neat idea!

3. Work With Students

Teachers around the country are beginning to realize that classroom dynamics change when they start working alongside their students on projects. Some of the most fun I’ve had in the classroom came when I created with my students. This model is especially important when teaching writing. Besides teaching students how to write, we as teachers need to show our students that we are writing with them. There is no better way to do this than by experiencing the writing process alongside them. Let students know that this process is never easy. If fact, it can be one of the most frustrating things in the world. Share your writing struggles and triumphs with your students by writing along with them. This concept was recently illustrated by Tara Smith, a sixth grade teacher from Glen Rock, New Jersey who recently wrote a blog post about teaching writing and Penny Kittle’s influential book Write Beside Them. 9780325010977“It wasn’t enough to share mentor texts, to confer, to do all those other things that good writing teachers do,” she wrote on the blog Two Writing Teachers, “I needed to share my own writing life with my kids, and walk them through my thinking as I wrote.” Check out Tara’s thoughtful piece and try working along with your students, letting them know you experience the same struggles they do.

These three ideas are fun ways to reshape a classroom dynamic both literally and figuratively. Give them a try. Best of all, they’re free!

Jonathan Olsen