Thursday, 28 February 2019

Should we teach kids about the neurons in their brain so they can learn?

In discussions with Dr Jannie Van Hees around ways to use language learning effectively, a key idea she has discussed is the need to put the 'lense on language' so that our learners can achieve success.  An example of how we did this was the lesson we recently had with our year 9's who were learning about concepts in migration.  When Jannie drew a brain on the board and explained that making yourself learn these concepts helps the neurons in your brain move and become active, I felt that the kids felt more connected to their learning.  She reminded them that unless you use your brain, it will be inactive.  In the lesson, students were 'forced' to use their brains and re-energise them to ensure that the learning wasn't just 'surface' level but ingrained in the brains to allow for access when needed.  Following on from the lesson with Jannie, I decided I wanted to find out more about how the neurons worked in the brain and whether teaching something like this to our kids could help them be more engaged in their learning and improve outcomes.

The search for answers
I began like all good researchers do, I googled 're energise brain neurons education NZ'.  The first link was to the TKI ESOL site which gave specific examples of metacognitive (thinking about thinking) strategies and how teachers could scaffold learning using different templates and strategies. The title of the page was 'Thinking and metacognition' and although it didn't help me explain if teaching kids about their brains would be a good thing, I am locking this link away for later for when I need a few teaching strategies.

The second link was better.  It was a blog by a writer and educationalist called Dr Donna Wilson.  She has written a lot of books and publications.  She is an expert in the field. Her blurb read like this:
For more than two decades, Dr. Donna Wilson has been a pioneer in bridging brain science and psychology to educational practice. She co-developed the world’s first MS /EdS degrees in Brain-Based Teaching and Instructional Leadership (BrainSMART), as well as the first Doctoral Minor in Brain-Based Leadership. Dr. Wilson has co-authored 20 books and over 100 articles, book chapters, and blog postings.

The particular link that I'd clicked on was a blog post by Dr Wilson called 'Building a Metacognitive Classroom' Featured in New Zealand magazine' which shared a piece that she had co-written for our very own New Zealand 'Teaching matters' magazine.  I went to article itself and as I read it, I was excited to find out that teaching kids about their brain has a positive impact on engagement and achievement in school.  A Secondary school example of how a teacher in Georgia taught 'neuroplasticity' showed that 'emphasing that our brains can change and that we're always getting smarter as long as we are learning' was a proven strategy that worked.

Another article by Dr Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers called 'The boss of my brain' explains how 'explicit instruction in metacognition put students in charge of their learning'.  It goes on to talk about how lessons about neuroplasticity (how learning new information and skills changes the structure and functioning of the brain) are especially inspiring for struggling students, who may have internalised the idea that they cannot become academically successful'.  How cool would it be for our kids to know that if they used their brains 'more', they could redirect their learning and essentially achieve their best in their learning?

When looking for New Zealand specific examples of this type of learning, I came across a publication by an ex-principal in Rotorua, Eden Chapman, who was awarded a scholarship in 2016 to examine how our education system was applying Neuroplasticity in our schools and if this was effective.  He found that the few schools who did use strategies to address this, had to essentially buy expensive programmes to run them with specific learners.  It seems that my search had come to a bit of a dead-end.  Why weren't we teaching this more in our schools?

In synthesising what I have learnt in my search for answers so far, I found that kids need to know and understand how their brains work and this needs to be explicitly taught and continually reinforced for our kids, especially our struggling learners.  In my own teaching practice, I know I have become too complacent and don't push my kids enough to make them really use their brains to work.  When I think back to the lesson that Jannie and I taught recently, when we made the kids really learn the concepts using multiple opportunities to learn, this forced them to energise those 'neurons' and what grew out of this learning were kids who 'got it'.  My hunch is, that if kids are reminded that learning re-energises their brain, not their friends brains, but their own brains, they will feel empowered and motivated to learn and this will lead to positive outcomes.

Next steps:
I will continue to discuss with Dr Jannie ways to explicit teach how the brain works for the year 9's perhaps in our next unit, which will be a collaboration with the English department.  I also want to survey the students to see if learning about the brain is important to them and to see if they can make   a connection between knowing how their brains work and improved outcomes in social studies.

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Team-teaching with Dr Jannie Van Hees #1: 'Languaging' social studies through re-energising the brain

Today we had our lesson with my year 9 social studies class.  Jannie and I have been looking at ways to address the challenge that our kids have had with understanding and applying key concepts in the context of migration.  For this lesson, we wanted to engage the kids through slowing down the language with active learning and discussions.

The lesson:  
We started by getting the class to re-energise their brains.  This was a term that Jannie suggested would help kids to kick-start their brains and to force them to use them.  After a slow start (ie kids were shy) Jannie took a slight detour and talked about how in our brains we have lots of neurons and if we don't use those neutrons and think and force our brains to make connections using the neurons, our brains will slow down and as the saying goes, 'if you don't use it, you lose it' (I noticed the kids were engaged when they were shown this, and I wonder, if the kids knew how their brains worked, would they feel more empowered to use them to learn and apply stuff?  I'm going to do a bit of research around this).

In our planning meeting, Jannie and I agreed that we would focus on teaching the concepts and how to develop students understanding of the concepts through case studied examples.  In reality, we spent the whole double period learning and remembering what the words were and what they meant.  We used lots of different ways to engage with the concepts - individual recalling, pairs, groups, modelling, students challenging each other to remember etc.  (I filmed some of the lesson below so that I could reflect on the techniques and the lesson itself).

As the lesson progressed and students grew more confident in their knowledge of the concepts, I could see how slowing the learning of the language helped them feel safe and empowered in their use of the terms.  By the end of the lesson, students were standing up to share what they'd learnt and I was pleased to see this, especially from the kids who were usually the quiet ones!

For me personally I found it hard to spend so much time on learning and knowing the concepts and I was not used to taking it so painstakingly slow.  I am used to telling the kids what the words are, having them learn the definitions, then apply them to an example, then move on.  Parts of the lesson had me anxious.  On reflection, I could see that I was driven by the pressures of time - that little voice was saying 'hurry up, we need to move on to the next bit, hurry up because we won't finish everything, hurry up we're moving too slow'!.  After seeing what happened during the lesson for our kids, I have to rethink my thinking and learn to remember the 'why' around slowing the learning.  I shared my experience with a critical friend who understood my frustrations but helped me see that it is better off to pause and slow down the learning when they're younger and we can afford to this in year 9. "When you unpack the language now, then you can get back to the agenda and the kids will fly".

What next: 
Big Picture: I have to think about the overall big picture and how to plan around lessons like this where we 'slow the learning'.  What do we need to make sure we cover in our social studies curriculum?  Which achievement objectives do we have to meet and how much time do we have to meet them?   Are there things that we are teaching now, that we don't have to teach, and take out to accommodate for this new learning?  How can I measure whether this will work or not?

Applying these concepts consistently:  Over the next few lessons, I want to see if the students can remember the concepts and apply them to different contexts.   I want to find a way measure whether spending more time on the learning and knowing of these concepts will help them engage better with their learning and hopefully help them achieve success in improving their literacy skills.

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Understanding the inquiring teacher: CoL teachers meeting #1

I was fortunate enough to meet with Fiona, our Manaiakalani facilitor who talked me through our first CoL meeting for 2019 that I had missed. Here are some of my notes:

We talked about the inquiring teacher and how there were 3 styles of teaching approaches.

In Dr Graeme Aitken's background paper "The inquiring teacher: Clarifying the concept ofteaching effectiveness" (2007) he discusses the 3 views of effective teaching:
  • The 'style' view
  • The 'outcomes' approach 
  • The 'inquiry' approach
(My thoughts are that I can see both the 'style' view (ie that we think teachers effectiveness should be the focus) and the 'outcomes' approach (ie the data reflects the effectiveness of the teacher) currently working within our school system. The focus is on what the teacher does and whether kids get results).
The Inquiry model: “Since any teaching strategy works differently in different contexts for different students, effective pedagogy requires that teachers inquire into the impact of their teaching on their students.” (NZC, p.35).

There are two phases to the inquiry model: Inquiry 1 looks at knowing what is happening for the students in my classroom and inquiry 2 asks questions that explore teacher actions and that lead to student learning.

The cycle of inquiry establishes the process of inquiry one and two. It enhances the opportunity to learn for the teacher (learning about the impact of my own practice) and for the students (changed teacher practices aimed at increasing students engagement and success).

The approach to teaching effectiveness requires particular knowledge and skills and attitudes:

Knowledge and skills

  • Pose questions that capture the main dimensions between teaching and learning
  • Collect valid and reliable information
  • Analyse data to identify patterns and issues (Aitken, 2007)

a. Advancing knowledge implies "a genuine willingness to re-search one's own teaching - to open it to ordered and intentional analysis and critique".
b. Ideas from all sources. Testing my beliefs, not just to reaffirm them.
c. Fallibility: No absolute truths, our hypothesis may fail but keep searching.

I need to have an understanding that our ideas and beliefs might be wrong but that's o.k. We are inquirying into the impact of our teaching on our students.

My Wonderings: What does IMPACT mean? What does it mean to different people?

All inquiry cycles are intended to:
  • Be centred on a particular group of learners in your care in your context
  • Seeing the words 'in your care' has triggered interesting thoughts.
  • What does 'in your care' mean?
There are 8 attributes of an inquiring teacher: Efficacy, high expectations, curiosity, clarity, noticing, collegiality, criticality and resilience.

My thinkings out loud:
When I think about the challenges of student learning that I've come across, I have a few. One is when I ask the kids to argue why an issue is an issue, they research why other people think it's an issue. Dialogic conversation could lead to conceptual critical thinking leading to 'The Talanoa'. (The spoken word 'Brown Brother'). "We Pasifika people, are an oral people. We tell our stories through our voice, our music, our dance and yet you try and define us through reading and writing?" This is a persistent idea that gnaws away at me and I need to figure out how to word it better.

Back to understanding inquiry, when collecting data we need to look at:
  1. Achievement (reading, writing, maths relative to national norms)
  2. Rates of progress: Term 1 2018 to Term 4 2019.
  3. Achievement and knowledge of achievement
  4. Beliefs
  5. Community and family voice
  6. Systematic teacher observations of student engagement
Key takeouts:

  • Don't try and think of solutions yet
  • Think Globally
  • Make the main thing, the MAIN THING.

Friday, 22 February 2019

Meeting #3 with Dr Jannie Van Hees: Putting the lens on language

At the beginning of each week, my year 9 social studies class usually look at current events that are local, national and global.  We start with a socrative activity, where students have to answer 20 questions about events from the past week and then I get the kids to find an article on one of the events that they found interesting and summarise what happened, when and where etc.  Unfortunately I have found this exercise a bit of a waste of time, because many of the students still leave the classroom not knowing what they had read and some do not complete their summaries.

When I reflect on why this is, I find that they may not understand the language that has been written in the text and this becomes a barrier to their learning.  This then leads to a lack of engagement and a lack of motivation to complete the tasks set.

After discussing this with Dr Jannie, we focussed on designing reading tasks for the students in my year 9 social studies class that could focus on unpacking the language of current event article.  I have recorded our discussion and have written the key points below.  To understand the context, click on the link to the article below, then listen to our discussion video.

The article we discussed was "Man petitions to make 'Aotearoa' official, alongside 'NZ'".

My key takeouts:
  • Get the kids to answer 'What's the point ' which is also important to hold conversation.  
  • Support students to recognise complex word groups helps to build language capacity.
  • In the end we want to lift up language.  If we don't put the lens on complex language, they'll never produce it.
  • Although it might seem tiresome at first to slowing down the language, we can work together to inform each other. 
  • Don't get too fancy with doing a whole lot with it, but what we do know is that they need re-encounters.   It may just be having students' in groups and at the end, they complete a table with labels such as 'the main was' and 'my opinion was'. 
My next steps:
  • Design the lesson and do the lesson with the class.
  • Put language on my walls
  • Adjust my pedagogy in expecting the kids to have to write a proper summary of what they have learnt in class.

Meeting #2: Preparing for team teaching with Dr Jannie Van Hees

Today I had a meeting with Dr Jannie to prepare for our team-teaching lesson next Wednesday.  We discussed how to support our students with their learning with the focus being on understanding key migration terms.   We worked on a presentation and have agreed to work together to present the learning to the students.  We plan to use self-directed cues and to scan what is happening with the learners to know when to lead the class.  Below is the presentation we are using.

In my next blog post, I will reflect on how it went and what my key learnings were.

Meeting #1 with Dr Jannie Van Hees: Setting the platform

I have the pleasure of working with Dr Jannie Van Hees this year, who is supporting me and my learners in 'Languaging social studies'.  In our meetings in the past, I have been fascinated with the idea of looking more closely language but have not had the chance to sit down and unpack what that looks for me and my pedagogy with an expert such as Jannie.

At our first meeting today, we discussed language acquisition and what it looked like for the learners  in my classroom.  I talked about how they receive language (mainly from me and each other).

I wanted explore other ways to enable my kids to gain language, here are my notes:
  • Young ones adding to their toolkit, their 'kete' of language.  Older ones teaching the younger ones.
  • Conversations - language.
  • Technology - engagers and facilitators of thinking.

There are 4 ways to enable learners to gain language:
  • Acquisition - getting the language
  • Development - making it better
  • Sustaining - keeping it going
  • Transfer - using it across more than one area.

In social studies, conceptual understanding of key terms is important, such as:  Change, society, social issues, values, perspectives.

My key takeouts were that language needed to be more of a focus in my classroom and in my department.  Knowing what this looks like now, will help me understand what the next steps are towards 'languaging social studies'.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

School Goal #1: Raising Maori Achievement

In our department meeting today, we focussed on ways to address school goal number one, how to raise Maori Achievement.  Our achievement successes have been varied over the years, but generally our Maori students overall are still well below the national norm.

Culturally Responsive and Relational Pedagogy underpins student success. 

Introducing the goal
A way to introduce the goal to my team was to revisit some of our professional development the we as a school undertook last year around Culturally Responsive and relational pedagogy.  Culturally responsive and relational pedagogy is understood to be contexts for learning where learners are able to connect new learning to their own prior knowledge and cultural experiences.  

I printed off a copy of the front page and separated the definitions from the meanings, then handed the activity to my team.  There was a bit of reshuffling and refocussing and when it came to checking our answers, we all agreed that we needed to be reminded about each of the dimensions of learning as we got half of the answers wrong!

Site creation
I wanted to ensure that this goal was front and centre of our thinking, so I created a site on our department page focussed on tracking our progress towards our goals.  I like the centralised location of a site and how it allows us to find things quickly.  

I will continue to add resources to the site for staff to think about.  As I googled CRRP, I found some of the links that were coming up with our own staff blog posts about PLD that they've had on CRRP as well inquiries centred around Maori achievement.  I will be adding these blogs to our repertoire of resources. 

There are on average 3 students at each year level for each of our senior teachers.  At the end of the session, our homework was to ensure that we have had a meeting with each student and created a profile of learning for them.  We will also write down discussion points and goals to be shared at our next department meeting.  For my team, understanding how to address this goal will help them focus on setting goals during our appraisal meetings.  

Thursday, 7 February 2019

A Collaborative Approach to Inquiry: Level 3 Social Studies

This year, we have two year 13 level 3 social studies classes running at the same time.  We have never had two classes in level 3 social studies before and I'm excited by the challenge.  We have separated the group into two.  The class I will be teaching consists of all of the students that I'd taught at level 2 (plus a few stranglers).  The class my colleague is teaching will have students who are new to the subject.

My class have a good grasp of social science concepts and are used the class routines.  The other class did not do the level 2 course last year and are at a disadvantage.  We felt that by separating the classes this way, she would support those who need more help understanding concepts and building their confidence in the subject whilst I would support those needing the higher level learning. We have decided a collaborate approach to planning would allow me to support my colleague in teaching the skills and content of the course as well as help me gage where the students are at (and need to be) with their learning.  I am also interested in learning more about myself and my pedagogy by taking the collaborative planning approach to this course.

Our aim is to be consistent in our planning, so that we can be consistent in the delivery of that planning and to ensure that we can support the differing learning needs of our learners.

Our initial thoughts and plan to collaborate went like this:

  • Organise a site/collaborative teaching plan online.
  • Meet before the teaching week.  
  • Discuss the outcome so we could plan the process
  • Book in guest speakers
  • Look at the kids that we have and place them in 'learning groups'
  • Team teach during the double periods.
  • Revisit our planning and outcomes at the end of each session.
  • Revisit our planning and outcomes at the end of each week.
To make this happen, we will have to schedule in our meeting points, and limit our time for that planning to one hour.  (This is because my colleague and I are well-known to side track the task at hand and end up forgetting why we met in the first place!)

I am hopeful that what I can learn from this collaboration is to be more open to suggestions, ideas and feedback because I know at times I can be bossy and try to control things.  When I reflect on why I may think this, I figured that being the only teacher of this subject for such a long time has allowed me to be the expert (or so I think I am), so working collaboratively alongside someone may take some getting used to.  I'm open to the idea and need to put my 'active listening' hat on, so that we can make this work.

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