Classroom Routine: Finding A Balance

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I recently read an article by Tom Sherrington (@teacherhead) that discusses regular and consistent classroom procedures. He outlines, in a neat table format, what was agreed upon among the staff of a school where he had worked previously, and I must admit that it looks well put together with some good ideas (e.g., orderly lines of students, behaviour expectations posted on the board, targeted questioning for specific students, etc.). It should be noted that Tom’s article does clearly state in the title that the classroom procedures outlined are indeed suggestions and should not be taken to “straight-jacket” the teacher. I wonder, however, whether this kind of thing can be too regimented or rigid, creating an environment that fails to maximize learning.

Teachers vary widely in how they approach their own classrooms and how they structure their lessons. In my own school, you will find those who are highly regimented with students sitting in rows of desks, their lessons broken up into 5, 10, or 15 minute sections, lecturing and seat work. You will also find those with a more organic, or less rigid structure, including desks in pods, or no desks at all, group work and collaboration being the most common student activity, the teacher functioning as a facilitator rather than lecturer, and something different happening in every class. I should point out that I do not consider one method of organizing a classroom to be better or worse than the other, realizing that all teachers fall somewhere different on the structure / routine / organization spectrum.

I’ve found my own approach to classroom procedure and planning has changed a fair bit over the ten years I’ve been teaching. I began not really knowing what I was doing, or at least it felt that way due to my level of inexperience and relative isolation from others in the school (as much my fault as anyone else’s). I tried to do things in a highly structured way: 5 minutes for hellos and to take attendance, 15 or 20 minutes for lecture, 20 minutes for students to work on questions, and 15 minutes to go over said questions. This wasn’t a particularly bad plan, but I wasn’t really thinking about the students and how they experienced the lesson, as I was more concerned with what I was doing.

After a while, as I became more involved in the school and felt more a part of the staff, I began to look more at what other teachers were doing and trying to find a balance of some sort to help me guide my planning. I had recently been exposed to inquiry-based learning through curriculum development in social studies I had been involved with and loved the student-centred focus of such an approach. I found IBL made a rigid structure to class (at least how I envisioned it) difficult, as students work at different ability levels, tasks, and paces concurrently. I had to reduce how rigid I wanted class procedure to be if I wanted to allow for more time for student inquiry. This also meant my classroom would switch from teacher-centred to student-centred.

Today, I try to find a balance between routine, structure, and providing an environment that is conducive to learning. I see all these teachers on twitter who have the most unconventional classrooms that look exciting and fully supportive of inquiry or project-based learning models and I wonder “Why can’t it be like this in my own classroom?”. The answer is that it can be like this, but to an extent. Teaching high school with standardized exams and considerable amounts of course content places stress on teachers to deliver curriculum rather than have students explore it. Therefore, a large part of what I do now is trying to meld these two approaches together, by having a hybrid classroom of sorts: one that prepares students for standardized exams, while providing daily opportunities to challenge students with inquiry and process skills.

Does this affect the procedures and routines that occur within my classroom? Undoubtedly, yes. More and more I see students grasp the idea of the task we are working on during the week and come into class, collect their folders of work from the file box at the side of the room, textbook from a class set or other material required for their activity and start in on their own without me having to do an introductory talk, mini-lecture, or establishing procedures for the day. I spend more time checking with individual students about their progress with an activity and helping them work their way through it. This, in its own way, is a kind of procedure, but it does require students clearly understand what we are trying to do and to be motivated, at least a little, to do so.

Have I figured out the best way to go about organizing my classroom and establishing expectations for students? Probably not, but I have tried to do things differently than in the past for the purpose of improving my own practice and the experiences that students have with history and geography while they are with me for 60 minutes a day. There’s a balance to be found in how this kind of thing works and part of teaching, I think, is continually trying to find it.

Trevor Mackenzie on Inquiry-Based Learning

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If you’ve poked around my website, you’ve probably noticed a section dedicated to Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL) that was linked to a major paper I wrote while completing my M. Ed. in education. The details of IBL are presented there, but in short this approach to teaching is about formulating driving or “essential” questions and building research and analytical skills through student investigation of knowledge. This is very different from the teacher at the front of the room lecturing all class long while students take notes. IBL has students actively engaged in uncovering or discovering information and using it for a specified purpose. The key point here is that students are not passive, but very much present and participate in the learning they do.

Trevor Mackenzie has been a recent lead teacher in this area, promoting greater use of IBL in classrooms. I recently read an article of his posted on the Edutopia website (the link is here if you want to check it out). A common issue that he tries to address is that students and teachers, especially from more traditional education backgrounds, are not used to this switch in teaching and learning. Teachers who attempt to jump in head first and give their students full freedom to conduct their own inquiries from start to finish are likely to be met with a lot of uncertainty and stress. Trevor advocates for scaffolding (starting at an entry level and building IBL gradually gradually to eventually gain greater independence), which he believes is necessary for the teacher and the student if IBL is to work. This is the same approach I suggest in the paper mentioned above.

Trevor has written a book about just this topic, called Dive into Inquiry: amplify learning and empower student voice, which I’ve picked up and and working my way through at present. It’s definitely worth a read if you think this kind of instructional approach could be for you. Inquiry is becoming a central part of the Social Studies curriculum in Newfoundland and Labrador, so it’s something I’ve already been bringing into my classroom, a little bit at a time.

Inquiry is most successful when strongly scaffolded. The Types of Student Inquiry act as a scope and sequence to support learners in their journey toward Free Inquiry. In my classroom, we begin in a Structured Inquiry model, transition to a Controlled Inquiry unit, move on to Guided Inquiry, and if all goes well, conclude in Free Inquiry. These four types of inquiry make up our time together in the course.

This structure allows us to successfully address the curriculum and the “must know” content and skills of each discipline, grade level, and course. In the Structured, Controlled, and Guided units, I plan to achieve specific learning objectives and unpack particular resources in order to best prepare my learners for whatever summative assessment they will see at the end of our time together. Whether it’s a provincial, state, or governing body exam or the SAT, I ensure that this material is learned during the types of student inquiry I have more control over.

Students should feel connected to their learning, certain about how to plan their inquiry, and comfortable with its responsibility. The Types of Student Inquiry structure our coursework and learning in a gradual release of control model, one where students learn essential inquiry skills throughout the year rather than being thrown into the deep end of the inquiry pool right away.

Here’s a quick video from Trevor’s website that introduces some of these concepts.

 

Inquiry: UN Sustainable Development Goals

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In World Geography 3202, my class recently covered a section on development of nations that includes discussion of measures used to determine relative levels of development around the world.

Development Outcomes

Source: World Geography 3202 Curriculum Guide (2004)

As can be seen from the unit outcome above, most of the emphasis here is on economic indicators of development, with five out of seven delineations specifically involving this content. It is important to realize, however, that while economic development is certainly important social development indicators are vital as well. What’s more, there is nothing in the outcome here that has students explore how a country may work towards improving its level of development and assessing challenges that may exist in doing so. I feel that, though it’s technically not in the outcomes, it’s important for students to explore this in order to gain a better understanding of the topic as a whole.

un_sdg_logoOne activity I had my class try was to do a little research on what goals have been set internationally to address socio-economic problems and, therefore, increase quality of life globally. To do this, students engaged in a controlled inquiry of the UN Sustainable Development Goals for the purpose of discovering what challenges the UN has identified as needing immediate attention and what is actually involved in doing so (it’s easy to say poverty should be wiped out, but what is involved in making that happen?). The activity sheet looked as follows (click to download):

5.7 UN Sustainable Development Goals

Due to time restraints and the fact that I didn’t want to stray too far from the outcomes for this course, this isn’t as indepth an exploration as I would like. I would also like to expand it to include assessment of significance and student judgement of which issues they would consider the most important to tackle by developing criteria to do so. What it does provide, however, is an opportunity for students to research content related to course material that is much more updated than what is provided in the student resource (before this activity, there would be mention of the UN Millennium Goals, the timeframe for which elapsed last year).

The activity is open enough to allow students to collect information on the Sustainable Development Goals, while picking and choosing details that they feel to be the most interesting to them. In column two, they must provide at least two details for each goal (most goals have at least six or seven), so there is some choice on their part and they must question and use their own judgement, informally, to determine which they will focus on.

In a course that desperately needs updating (it places far too much importance on knowledge and memorization over higher level competencies) and a shift of focus to increase relevancy, this kind of short activity can add a little bit more to how students experience the curriculum. It’s a small example of how the teacher can bring the inquiry model into the classroom. Most students enjoyed the activity and were quite engaged during the inquiry process.

Student Inquiry: Illustrated

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I hope to move this site more towards education and social studies more generally, and inquiry-based learning more specifically (more on this in future posts). For now, I’d like to share a great visual by Trevor MacKenzie (twitter: @trev_mackenzie), an educator from Victoria, who has summarized the four types of inquiry activities students engage in during learning.

InquiryEd

As you can see, there is a dichotomy between the role of the teacher and student, which changes from one category to another. First, the teacher can lead whole group discovery by immersing herself in the activity and serving as a leader and model in that discovery. Second, the teacher may create a less structured inquiry by providing some choice among specific content pieces to be used, but students do the bulk of exploration themselves. Third, the teacher provides inquiry guidance, but allows for greater student control of the task by opening up the options for task product, question formulation, and even the scope and focus of the inquiry. Finally, free inquiry gives students the greatest freedom in their choice of learning by removing restrictions around topic, task, and stated knowledge outcomes. In a sense, they learn based on their own interests and abilities, employing their strengths and developing competencies.

Such a model for learning is powerful in how it can engage students of a range of backgrounds and academic levels, but these four categories should not be considered a ranking system. There are times when each type can be beneficial – students new to inquiry may not benefit fully from guided or free inquiry if skills and understanding of what is involved have not been learned. It is important for the teacher to know her students and what will work best in their education. I view these as strategies the teacher can use to structure learning depending on the background of her students and the learning outcomes being taught. What teacher doesn’t want more options available when teaching students?

I believe Trevor is planning a larger publication on inquiry-based learning in the near future, so I’d recommend a follow on twitter. You can also check out his blog.