Mar 25, 2012

ARTICLE: Effective Classrooms

What can we do to make classroom education more effective?

"We know that most classroom talk looks like it always has done: teachers asking ‘closed’ questions to try to prompt specific ‘right answers’ from children. Yet we also know children get more involved and learn best when teachers do the following:
  • explore students’ ideas through using ‘open’ questions 
  • encourage students to put knowledge into their own words (and offer them new vocabulary to accommodate new ideas) 
  • press the students to elaborate and justify their views, eg ‘How did you know that?’, ‘Why?’ 
  • allow students extended turns to express their thoughts and reveal their misunderstandings 
  • hold back demonstrations or explanations until the ideas of some students have been heard 
  • use whole class discussion to help students see where their study of a topic is coming from and where it is going 
  • at least sometimes, allow students’ comments to shift the direction of a discussion (and even, perhaps, of a lesson!)  
  • ‘model’ ways of using language to present rational arguments, so that students can learn by example."  
I don't spend enough time in other classrooms, so I can't speak to the types of questions that teachers use. In workshops, open-ended questions were pushed for a while, so I would hope that many of us are using them. I do my best to ask open-ended and higher-order questions as often as possible. It's a challenge, though, because those types of questions take time and patience. Many times, students will sit, staring. One could argue that teaching students to think will lead to more time later--the students will synthesize information on their own, but it's definitely a slow process early in the year.

"Collaborative group work can be a powerful aid to learning, in all subjects, and for the development of reasoning and communication skills; but in most classrooms, most of the time, it is quite unproductive, even a waste of time. This goes to show that just giving children the opportunity to collaborate isn’t enough – they need guidance. International research has shown that when children are helped to understand talk as a problem-solving and learning tool, and shown how to develop skills in using it, the quality of their talk and group work improves and so do the individual learning outcomes. For children whose out-of-school lives give them little exposure to reasoned discussion, this can be a life-changing experience."

This year--a freebie year--I made the decision to use as much collaboration as possible. I keep my groups small and I give them time to discuss problems and questions. With groups of 4, though, some of them do their best to slide into the shadows--the Math Ninjas. Through questioning and participation (writing on the board, for example), I incorporate those students, but it's lost time. Last week, I broke the students into pairs (because of numbers and grouping, one or two of the groups included 3 students). It was effective--the pairs worked well together, staying on-task and remaining supportive. However, as far as planning and organization, it was extremely uncomfortable for me. Yeah, yeah, I know--I should just suck it up. I do find that they need a lot of instruction before they start; otherwise, they quickly generate a short, incomplete answer or they give up, and discuss the latest news in the fifth grade. It's necessary to anticipate the actions of the groups and the quality of our questions. Do our questions warrant lengthy discussions? Are our "discussion" questions simply closed-ended questions? Are they answering a knowledge question or an evaluation question? 

Jeez, it's a lot to consider before the lesson even begins.

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