Teachers as designers of learning – part 2.

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How do you know if successful learning is taking place in your classroom?

The 5-6 year old children in this photo were playing “addition snap”. It was an activity I introduced to them to encourage them to practice their basic facts. Each child flips their top card to reveal the number value. The winner is the first to add the two values together correctly. It was not uncommon for the children to choose to play this ‘game’ when they could have chosen to play with any of the wide range of toys available to them at the same time.

With reference to the previous post – Teachers as Designers of Learning, I want to explore 1. the rationale for introducing this game and 2. how I knew it was a successful learning activity.

The first part is pretty easy. I saw an opportunity to introduce this independent maths game based on my awareness of the work of James Gee. Although I had already been teaching using the principles that James Gee promotes, it gave me the confidence that I could reference his work if I was asked to justify my rationale for applying this approach to teaching and learning taking place in my classroom. At the same time, it wasn’t a radical innovation. There was very little input required from me. I knew that there existed a positive learning culture that would allow this game to be played independently. I had worked hard to establish that culture over the preceding weeks and months. I knew that the some students were developmentally ready and these students had already displayed some competence in basic addition facts knowledge. And I also knew that they would be motivated to practice and develop this knowledge.

All I had to do was introduce the idea briefly to the whole class and more specifically to a few targeted students. I then observed them taking on the task successfully and enthusiastically. Eventually this activity spread like a virus. I listened, encouraged and supported. Occasionally I offered guidance and correction but ultimately it became the students’ game. The feedback was positive. The children were motivated and getting better at adding numbers together. That was all the evidence I needed to confirm that it was a success. That is how I define the iterative process of evidence-based teaching. Implement, observe, reflect, modify…repeat.

The biggest value in this process for me was how it informed and improved my overall approach to teaching. Upon reflection, I realised that this learning activity fulfilled all the principles of effective learning as described by James Gee. That is, the learning…

  1. was authentic and clear
  2. gave opportunity to embed new knowledge
  3. was pleasantly frustrating/comfortably challenging
  4. was happening in a positive, supportive learning environment

Of course it was at this point that I started thinking about how I could apply this new learning experience into other aspects of my teaching practice. The process continues. Once again….implement, observe, reflect, modify….and so on.

After all, isn’t this what ‘evidence-based teaching’ is about? Or at least, should be about?

And please note how there was no use of computer technology in this learning. The point being, effective learning can happen without computers or other technology. It is the thinking that is going on behind the learning that is critical, not whether the learning is being done on a device. In fact, it is important to be critically cautious about the role of technology in education. That is, “it is important not to conflate engagement with technology with meaningful engagement with technology that increases agency and supports learning among young people”.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Teachers as designers of learning.

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With regard to my teaching practice, I am always looking for inspiration and/or validation in order to help me bridge the gap between research and best practice. For me, the process of bridging the gap is an ongoing, iterative one that looks something like this…

  1. implement small changes to my practice based on my observations, experience and new knowledge,
  2. reflect on the impact (evidence) of those changes,
  3. make small modifications to my practice as a result of the evidence,
  4. compare the evidence of those changes to what the latest research reveals.

My discovery of James Gee is an example of how new knowledge can offer both inspiration and validation. James Gee promotes the idea that a recipe for effective teaching and learning can be provided by gaining an understanding of how successful computer games work. He says we have a lot to learn from games – as a model for creating/designing good learning. I’ve always held an ambivalent attitude towards computer games but I have also been curious as to what it is about computer games that makes them so compelling and successful.

So, what can successful computer games teach us about good learning design? Here are some key principles…

1. Authenticity and clarity – learners need to feel that what they are doing or being asked to do, matters. The learning goals need to be clear and precise.

2. New knowledge versus practice – the correct balance between new knowledge delivery and, opportunities to apply and practise this new knowledge, is critical. A good learning environment invites learners to solve problems and provides opportunities to apply different strategies. Of course, problem solving can’t be done without first providing some foundation knowledge. The teacher needs to be discerning about the type and volume of knowledge that the learners are being provided with. All knowledge does not need to be provided at the beginning. Knowledge is best served in a ‘just in time’ way. In this way it acts as an invitation to the learner to bring their curiosity to the fore.

3. Scaffolding –  the learning needs to be sequenced well and be pleasantly frustrating/comfortably challenging. Not too hard and not too easy. To be effective, learning needs to be able to integrate the body and the mind. This allows for a deeper level of learning to take place. The quality of the learning environment/culture is also critical. The cost of failure needs to be low.

4. Teacher/student relationships – the teacher needs to know the students well. Good learning happens when the learners feel comfortable and empowered. Regular, timely, appropriate feedback is essential to allow for the learner to be ‘nudged’ towards mastery.

How many of the points listed above feature in your own teaching practice? Can you identify the barriers that are stopping you from creating the optimal learning environment?

I encourage you to view the video to see the full description of the features of effective game design/learning design as described by James Gee.

I’ve also made a summary of the key points. You can find that below.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

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