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Struggle & Success

As I was visiting classrooms last week, chatting with students about the work they were engaged in, one comment in particular left me thinking. I had asked the student what she was working on and she responded she was working on an assignment related to something she had recently read. When I asked what was the most challenging element of the assignment, she responded immediately with, “Finding the evidence in the text.” And then she followed with, “If I had known I was going to get this assignment I would have highlighted more as I was reading.” When I asked if that would have made writing the assignment easier she nodded her head. “Yes. A lot easier” was her comment.
Finding that right balance as a teacher is always hard. How much do I foreshadow what is coming, and how much do I ask unannounced. We want our students to struggle – to some degree. But we also want our students to succeed. The balance point between the two is a hard one to find, and is different for every student. Differentiation, at it’s heart, is all about finding that balance for each student.

Setting the same homework for every student in the class may not strike the right balance for all. Some may find the struggle such that they find no success. Some may find too little struggle as they cruise through the task. For some, the set homework might be just the right balance between struggle and success.

So as you go about setting homework, designing tests/quizzes, creating an assignment, expecting notes to be taken in a certain manner, plan a lesson, etc… consider that balance. And then consider how you might be able to adjust something in the task for some of your students so that for them, there WILL be balance.
Reduce the scope of the homework, give the option of submitting the quiz verbally, let each student choose how they want to take their own notes, give students options for how they present an assignment.
You might be surprised at the level of learning students can show when they can work with the right balance between struggle and success.

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Teaching is like cabinet-making!

This tweet (see right) was waiting for me on Monday morning when I switched the computer on. Tom is a teacher and administrator in Ontario, Canada and is a regular contributor to Twitter. His tweet leads to a research paper focussing on (obviously!) 21st Century Teaching and Learning. I have not read the entire paper (in fact, only skimmed the Executive Summary) and probably won’t, but it started me thinking. It brought into mind a number of observations I made last week as I was visiting classrooms and wandering the halls and helped me tie them together.

Teaching, like cabinet-making, is a lot about tools and how well they are used.
As I have shared with some of you, when given the chance, I love building furniture. The smell of fresh wood shavings, the satisfaction of taking a number of flat bits of timber and turning them into something useful, the challenge of creating something aesthetically beautiful, the joy of getting lost in the creative process.
As you begin to get lost in this process you soon come to realise the importance of good tools. A sharp saw. Fresh sandpaper. A straight rule. A solid workbench. A good broom. And sometimes, there are times when the design of the furniture has to be adjusted, simply because the right tool is not available.
Teaching is very similar. As teachers we have all sorts of tools available to us as we consider the creative process of leading students through their learning.
Sometimes we don’t recognise some of the most impactful tools we have at our disposal. For example, the humble classroom desk. It is so much more than something just to sit at. Used effectively, the humble classroom desk can be used for behaviour management, social dynamics modification, assisting student focus, keeping students on task, etc. And when we consider that many of our students are using laptops, classroom desks and how they are arranged, become an even more powerful teaching/learning tool.
Laptops, textbooks, classroom desks, tone of voice, where we stand in the room when we speak, wall charts, music playing, images shown on the Smartboard, room temperature, what we wear, classroom routines, expectations we have of students, online classroom spaces – these are all TOOLS that we have at our disposal to influence the learning environment of our students.

One of the biggest challenges as a teacher is to know what tool to use, when to use it and then finally, how to use it most effectively. Not an easy task by any means! Professional Development for teachers, at it’s heart, should be about expanding a teacher’s repertoire of tools and then about refining that teacher’s ability to use the right tool, in the right way, at the right time.

The research paper on 21st Century Teaching and Learning (which prompted this short article) highlights the use of digital tools in teaching, and the importance of learning digital skills (which I wholeheartedly agree with). At the same time, if I want to help a child learn how to add three and five, or the effect of static electricity, or how to throw a pot… a digital tool is not what I will be reaching for.
Famous psychologist, Abraham Maslow had a couple of words to say about tools. “If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.”
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