ELIZABETH OLIVER MARSH University of Connecticut NEAG School’s Two Summers Program 2012-13 • ELIZABETHMARSH@ME.COM
On Thinking and Learning Crafting a teaching philosophy is perhaps the most challenging tasks for a practicing educator. Often we are charged with writing our personal philosophies as a graduation requirement for teacher education programs, having just completed in-‐depth studies of psychological, philosophical, and pedagogical theories, only to find that our beliefs are often set aside during our first year of practice in favor of survival strategies. It is only with years of practice and time dedicated to true professional reflection that a teacher can adequately develop a learning theory that reflects their beliefs and their pedagogical personality. Certainly, in reading my first attempt at a teaching philosophy (over ten years ago), my thoughts have evolved incredibly, for the better. Of course, the basic premise that every student can and wants to learn has not changed over time, but I have become less fanatical about a particular school of thought, in favor of developing a series of theoretical tools and ‘tricks’ to appeal to the diversity of my students, as their needs change each year and in different disciplines. I have developed these tools and methods through years of reflective growth, collaborative exchange and maintaining a flexibility that focuses on the end justifying the means—if student learning is the intended goal, the techniques to achieve that goal can be derived from a variety of schools of thought: behavioralism, constructivism, developmental theory, social cognition, and situated cognition. My philosophical default is finding what works for which students and providing those experiences as often as possible to those students. Forming a deep understanding of the variety of theories of practice leads to better decision-‐making in the planning and implementation stages within the classroom. Having a ‘theoretical’ tool kit available to access when trying to reach a student is quite useful, as it seems that each student has different needs and differentiating for each student is a huge challenge 18 November 2012
to face. Luckily, teaching is not all trial-‐and-‐error, as we can capitalize on the research, time, and effort that theoretical researchers have put into fleshing out good practices through studies and observations. These theories give us, as practitioners, a great starting place, using what these experts say about how students learn and putting them into practice where and when they make the most sense. Leveraging these theories in the classroom aims to create an environment and an experience in which students learn best. In addition to a sound theoretical base, learning happens best in classrooms that reflect the teacher’s enthusiasm and personality; one’s teaching philosophy should reflect personal beliefs about learning and thinking. The foundations for my teaching come from my personal experiences as a learner, a sibling, an avid reader, and an enthusiastic traveler. My guiding principles are the pursuit of awe and wonder in learning and emphasizing and empowering student independence. For the last eight years, I have displayed two of my favorite quotes in my classroom and work every day to implement them into my teaching: “The world will never starve for want of wonders, but for want of wonder.” Gilbert K. Chesterton “To lead people, walk beside them ... As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. The next best, the people honor and praise. The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate ... When the best leader's work is done the people say, We did it ourselves!” -- Lao Tzu Incorporating a variety of teaching theories and my personal philosophy, I believe that student learning is best achieved when students are fully engaged in awe-‐inspiring material and content and when they believe that they can be successful independently of teacher support.
Engaging Learners Through Attention-Sustenance There is little doubt about the role attention plays in learning and constructing long-‐term memory in a meaningful way. To help learners move information into working memory, “it appears that, at least in most cases, we [learners] must pay attention to it” (Ormrod p. 163). Teachers, in an attempt to ensure 18 November 2012
students attend to the skills and content, should focus on creating “a variety of environmental support systems that enable them to make sense of new situations and help them tackle challenging tasks and problems (Ormrod p. 155).” After all, “instructional practices can have a significant impact on how students mentally process classroom material and thus also on how effectively students learn it.” (Ormrod, p. 157) Essentially, a teacher who is best preparing students to move content into their working memory will excel at both attention grabbing techniques and attention sustaining instructional methods. Some examples to look for in a ‘best practices’ classroom are further detailed below:
Attention Grabbing: In attempting to capture student attention, it is important that the teacher choose content that is relevant and meaningful, possibly even controversial (Ormrod, p. 150). Content should also include topics that are incongruous (such as myth busters) or mysterious, capitalizing the drive to problem-‐solve or to tie up loose ends (Ormrod, p. 146). This content ought to be introduced using several pointers from Ormrod, including motion, intensity, novelty, social cuing, emotion, personal significance, and variety (Ormrod, p. 181). Paired with powerful, provocative questioning and constant student monitoring, teachers can leverage these tips to capture student attention (Ormrod, p. 182).
Attention Sustaining: However, “even with attention-‐getting and appropriately paced instruction and activities, learners differ in their ability to control what they attend to and consciously think about (Ormrod p. 183).” Now that teachers have student attention, they must be careful not to lose it through explicitly modeling effective methods of using working memory and by avoiding activities that result in cognitive overload. 18 November 2012
Modeling effective strategies for encoding is vital in the learning environment. “When experimenters specifically tell people to use a certain encoding strategy to help them learn information, learning improves (Ormrod, p. 152).” By teaching content through chunking and creating activities for students that encourage chunking, teachers can help students begin to organize information within working memory (Ormrod, p. 168). Moving students from concrete, more tangible ideas allows learners to visualize a concept. From there, teachers can move into abstractions (Ormrod, p. 150) in support of schema construction. Explicitly utilizing the law of Pragnanz, wherein “individuals tend to simplify information for easier organization (Ormrod, p. 146)” externally models for students the process to be internalized. Building activities that require student translations or tasks ‘in your own words’ helps to encourage organization within working memory. As in the Sultan study, time and instruction should be provided for student to problem-‐solve, fail, restructure and then gain insight (Ormrod, p. 147). The value of failure leading to success is much more likely to be retained and accessed later. Avoiding cognitive overload ensures that teachers do not lose students along the way. To ensure that students do not get overwhelmed, constant monitoring and checking for understanding is essential. It is also important to manage the students’ environment and introduction to new material in a way that works with what students already know. “People store information in long-‐term memory most successfully when they relate it to things they already know (Ormrod, p. 173).” Activating schema allows students to access what they already know. Pulling that schema (which can be complex and complicated) requires only a small portion of the working memory, allowing other content and information to be plied at the same time. This can help to avoid cognitive overload. Eliminating any unnecessary distractions is central to avoiding cognitive overload (Artino, p. 430). “Regardless of how we view attention, one thing is clear: People’s ability to attend to the stimuli around 18 November 2012
them is limited, such that they usually can’t attend to or otherwise learn from two complex situations at the same time. Thus, learners must be quite selective about the information they choose to process, and they must ignore—and so lose—much of the information they receive. (Ormrod, p. 167)” Teachers can help in this selection process by eliminating competing, ancillary stimuli. Teachers can also honor the challenge and difficulty of moving material into working memory by providing students with mental breaks (Ormrod, p. 182). Because schema construction happens within working memory (Artino, p. 428), it is essential to use instructional practices that promote “abstractions and elaborations,” while students are mid-‐construction, leading to “germane cognitive load” (Artino, p. 429). One effective method for effective cognitive load is scaffolding skills and content to avoid overloading working memory, such as providing “pretraining” in prerequisite knowledge (Artino, p. 431) or “instructional tailoring” (Artino, p. 433). Addressing dual modality by providing content through more multi-‐modal materials (Artino, p. 427). In essence, the teacher is “helping the student ’off-‐load’ some essential processing from the visual channel to the auditory channel.” (Artino, p. 431) Ormrod references several more extreme constructivists’ belief that the role of the teacher is to be as minimal as possible. However, I still believe that students (as memory novices) still require a great deal of guidance, as they construct their understanding and as they learn to store information for later use. Although students may not have schemas available for every content or skill set, “instructional Guidance can act as a surrogate for these missing schemas, thereby promoting schema construction (Artino, p. 432).”
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Fostering Self-Efficacy and Personal Agency Educators often speak of ‘meeting the students where they are’. Traditionally, this phrase refers to differing levels of numeracy or literacy, but it can also be used to describe students’ affinity for (or dread of) learning opportunities and the skills that they have developed over time to fully engage in and own their learning. To encourage student success in the classroom, it is important to foster their feelings of self-‐efficacy. According to Ormrod, “not only do people with high self-‐efficacy try harder and persist longer but they also employ more effective study skills and are better able to delay gratification when their immediate efforts don’t pay off. As a result, people with high self-‐efficacy tent to learn and achieve more than those with low self-‐efficacy” (Ormrod, p.129).
(Figure from Ormrod, 2012, p.118)
As self-‐efficacy is central to student empowerment and independence, fostering the development of self-‐ efficacy and personal agency should be central tasks to learning. To scaffold for students whose levels of self-‐efficacy are low, it is essential to provide personal, behavioral, and environmental supports to promote growth and confidence in their learning. Perhaps when considering personal agency as a set of teachable skills, as integral as literacy and numeracy, students can become their own greatest agents. Capitalizing on Bandura’s personal agency (Ormrod, p. 113), I have always believed in empowering students to view their education as their own, as an extension of themselves, and to advocate for it as they would any other right. To support students in developing a sense of personal agency, it is necessary to build my teaching practices around the frame of reciprocal causation (Ormrod, p. 118). With that framework in mind, I can make informed pedagogical decisions that foster a supportive environment, clearly define self-advocating and self-regulating behaviors, and allow for students to reflect on their personal growth and development.
Personal: Meeting Students where they Are 18 November 2012
Many factors impact a student’s self-efficacy and ability to self-advocate (Ormrod, p. 129-130). Previous successes and failures (wherein consistent failure leads to lower efficacy), current emotional state, messages they receive from others (possibly unintentionally inhibiting success), and observations of others (peer influence) can have a detrimental impact on student self-perception. Lack of self-confidence usually exhibits itself in lack of engagement and weak personal agency. Students get into a cycle of not succeeding, and then choose to disengage, because if I try, I won’t succeed anyhow, so why bother? In an attempt to scaffold students towards self-efficacy, students should be in the practice of self-regulation. Self-regulatory activities include setting standards for oneself, participating in reflective observations for self-awareness, and evaluating personal performance. Self-regulation gives students some realistic perspective on their own successes and failures and the level of required support from the teacher should vary, depending on how successful a student proves to be in reflection and evaluation of their own performance. The theoretical basis for this practice is steeped in cognitive theory, where self-regulated learning is viewed as an extension of metacognition.
According to Gagné et al, another theoretical approach appropriate in developing personal self-efficacy can be through attitude learning. A direct method of attitude learning is through the behaviorist establishment of contingencies of reinforcement (Skinner, 1968). New learning, in this case the display of self-regulatory behavior would be rewarded positively. If the behavior continues to be reinforced, then it will eventually be rewarding in itself and therefore lead to habitual self-regulation (Gagné, 96).
An alternative approach is the more indirect modeling theory, popularized by Bandura (Gagné, 97). To ensure that modeling is most effective, the model must be both appealing and credible to students. If the teacher serves as this model, it is vital that a previously established and meaningful relationship exists between the student and the teacher. In attitude learning, the desired attitude is best shown through a series of choices and actions. Therefore, the effective model would be based on a series of choices wherein each opportunity within the choice allows for the desired attitude to be exhibited. The model would weigh each choice aloud, explaining the 18 November 2012
pros and cons for each choice and the possible resulting consequences for each choice. This direct modeling could eventually be replaced by simulated experiences, role-playing, and other interactive experiences (Gagné, 99), providing an opportunity for students to experience the choices and weighing pros and cons in an arena that allows for reflection and self-observation. Most important to this approach to modeling is that the teacher continues in the role of a good model, long after the learning target or activity geared towards attitude learning. Do as I do is much easier to model than Do as I SAY, and certainly garners (and ensures) more student respect.
Behavioral: Modeled and Reinforced According to Rushton’s research (Ormrod, p. 124), wherein altruistic behavior was modeled for, then imitated by children in the study, it is possible to learn altruistic, pro-social behaviors within the social cognitive approach. It stands to reason that other behaviors like self- advocacy, self-regulation, and self-efficacy could be learned within the same context. In pursuit of personal agency, target behaviors include risk-‐taking (choosing the tougher option), goal-‐setting, effort and persistence (not getting derailed by setbacks), and learning and achievement (just because I can’t today, doesn’t mean I can’t tomorrow). (Ormrod, p. 128) These behaviors should be constantly modeled and positively reinforced when exhibited.
“[S]chool should be a place where a student encounters more success than failure.” (Ormrod, p. 45) In that light, using positive reinforcement of a social nature works best. My experience is that personal relationships are the most effective way (beyond well-‐crafted, engaging activities and assessments) to garner appropriate behavior and habits of work within the classroom. According to Ormrod, positive social reinforcers, such as “teacher attention, approval and praise” (Ormrod p. 54) are especially effective, but without a meaningful connection, how much can a teacher’s approval really mean to a student? There is no doubt that social reinforcement within peer groups works as a method of shaping behavior amongst students (and adults), so it makes sense that it would translate into the classroom/school. Within the classroom, acknowledging positive behavior and habits of work is essential, and honoring them aloud 18 November 2012
with specific praise is also important. I often use a student’s name and then say something to the effect of, “Johnny has really discovered an effective way to organize his learning.” Knowing the student, I will either share his thought with the class or ask him to share and then praise again, very specifically. I also use generalized praise, “I like the way that we came back together from group work so quickly-‐-‐ I can tell you guys are ready to keep moving on with our learning.” I usually couple grouped praise with a thank you, to further illustrate that positive behavior is a conscience act. I also use non-‐verbals like signaling, thumbs up, pats on the back. I am careful to avoid using positive reinforcement in a way that is too vague or addresses minimally positive behaviors, as I think that can undermine the value of the positive reinforcement. I believe the most effective positive reinforcement happens immediately and often. It must be meaningful and specific, but it should not be administered in a miserly fashion. When you see great behavior (academic or social), you should praise it. If you can’t do so right then, follow up on it later with the specific student. This practice helps students to see that you are watching and monitoring, and that you notice when they get it right. Because the consistency of positive, social reinforcement plays such an important role in modeling appropriate behavior, one might mistake the theoretical basis for the practices above as behaviorist. In fact, social learning theory has elements of reinforcement and punishments, especially vicarious reinforcement (Ormrod, p. 114). As in Bandura‘s (and Professor Artino’s) example of aggressive behavior towards the punching doll, this element of social learning is, in essence, learning from the mistakes (or successes) of others. Certainly, there is an element of desired behavior leading to a reward, which then results in the continuation of the desired behavior, but because students can exhibit the desired behavior continuously after having seen a peer or model receive the reward, they can assume that when they exhibit that behavior, they can also be rewarded like the model.
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Environmental: Shared Success and Modeling A behavioral approach to modeling can create an influential environment. After clearly defining self-advocacy, modeling it is essential. “I ‘need’ to hear one of you at a time (I can’t listen to more than one of you at once)”, or “I ‘need’ hands raised before shouting out an answer (I use it to get feedback and give thinking time)” models expectations within the learning environment. To clarify ‘needs’, it is one’s best learning situation. When students then display appropriate advocacy, I encourage positive choices (Ormrod, p. 114) through frequent, positive reinforcement (Ormrod, p. 119). I model peer-to-peer feedback (mostly positive), so I expect third-person reinforcement to continue. As students see that imitation of behaviors brings praise (Ormrod, p. 114), they internalize these habits, even if imitation is delayed and pay-off isn’t immediate (Ormrod, p. 116).
Building from social learning theory, students can also receive support from the teacher and from their peers. When students feel they have the proper support to succeed, they are more likely to feel a greater sense of efficacy. Additionally, building group learning opportunities for achievement provides less risky learning opportunities for more tentative learners, provided activities are designed to avoid authoritarians and coattailers. This builds a wealth of successes upon which to reflect.
Cognitive theory plays a major role in motivation, wherein the amount of social support students believe they have has a major impact on their sense of personal motivation and agency. To ensure that students feel supported socially, it is important that students experience an atmosphere of “mutual caring, respect, and support among all class members” (Ormrod, pg. 499). To foster this kind of environment, it is essential to create situations in which students feel comfortable taking academic and social risks, and are greeted with affection and respect when taking those risks. It is through these risks that students experience success, and as each success builds on the previous success, students begin to build the confidence that is integral to self-efficacy.
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Artino, A.R. Jr. (2008). Cognitive load theory and the role of the learner experience: An abbreviated review for educational practitioners. AACE Journal, 16(4), 425-439. Ormod, J. E. (2012). Human Learning, Sixth Edition, Pearson Prentice Hall. Gagne, R. et.al. (1992) Principles of Instructional Design. (Fourth Edition). Belmont, CA: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York. Freeman Duffy, T.M. & Jonassen, D. H. (Eds.) (1992). Constructivism and the Technology of Instruction: A Conversation. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Elrbaum Associates, Publishers.
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