Saturday, January 17, 2015

Informal Learning


     The students sit in nice neat rows while the teacher is in front of the room talking. Students are sitting in those same nice neat rows working on a worksheet while the teacher sits at their desk. Students read from a textbook while doing a guided reading that came with it.
     These images are ones that many have in mind when they think of teaching. While these images appear dated to some, one would be surprised at the frequency with which the teaching profession clings to these images of what teaching should look like. However, there is slow but meaningful trend to change these images and to slowly alter the perception of what teaching is and what it should look like in the future. I think I have stumbled upon something that may add to that trend that I like to call the phenomenon of "informal learning."
     I want to begin first with a little of a shout to to Mark Barnes for his great insights on how to change your role as a teacher in Role Reversal. His thoughts and practical advice have really influenced and helped me to this conclusion. In Role Reversal, Barnes talks about removing yourself from the front of the room as much as possible, giving students choices with peer to peer and teacher to peer interaction. The key part that Barnes talks about too is feedback. Not only feedback from you but also from students as well.
     One of the simple things that Barnes recommends that is easy to do is to simply change the configuration of your room. Ditch rows and make the seating more student oriented in groups, pods or something that encourages students to interact and you to move about the room. This simple change has brought about changes in how I approach the class as a whole. Barnes encourages this. The whole purpose of the reversal is to take yourself from the front of the stage (Remove The Sage on the Stage) and make what you do centered around students. (Enter Guide on the Side) However, this change does not mean you can just sit there and have the students "do all the work."
     One of the biggest changes I have had to make while making this reversal is I have to move around the room a lot more. Since the students are either working in groups or by themselves, you have to make sure they are on the right track and you also have to encourage them to ask questions. It slowly begins to change the way you approach the entire delivery of material. (That is a longer post coming soon!) If you tried the traditional worksheet that requires no real thought or is just a guided reading, this approach would not be the one I would advocate. I have to admit that when I changed to this approach, I was nervous that it would be difficult for the students to truly grasp the material if I wasn't explicitly delivering it to them. However I have noticed something that I think is ignored in education lately.
     With this emphasis on test scores and data collection I think we as educators have allowed that to get us lost in those numbers. We have forgotten that no test, no data can change what we all know: there are so many opportunities now to reach our students. There are also things we have forgotten. I think we have lost the art of what I would label as "Informal Learning." What do I mean by that? Well, one of the aspects of my teaching that has changed with the Role Reversal is I have to move about the room and to remember that I have to have daily conversations with as many students as I can. During these conversations, though I have found that it is like lecturing to the class (in a way) but on a one to one basis. I have also noticed that I am asking more questions than I am answering. At least so far, I can see that it is having an impact on the students. First, I definitely get to know the students A LOT faster. You can learn a lot about a student during these content, but also casual conversations. Second, by walking around and asking questions of each of the "pods" (My room is arranged in groups of  four with room for walking about) student seem to ask more questions of me when it is in a small group setting. Students even help each other out during these conversations too! (This helping each other is yet ANOTHER blog post brewing) This informal learning process has great potential to really change the way I look at teaching, and honestly, it already has. I have only made this change since August and I am constantly refining it. I also think that the timing of it is important too.
     I know change is hard for some people. I personally don't mind it and actually prefer it to keeping everything the same all the time forever. I think change is a natural part of life, nature and by extension, teaching. Now don't get me wrong when I find something that works, I don't change it just for the sake of change. But I tweak it, I hone it, I master it as best I can. I have often stated that I will quit this thing called teaching when I perfect it. (Which might be never! Ha!) So when our district was fortunate enough to receive a massive grant that allowed for more integration of technology into my teaching environment, I was excited. I mean, you are going to hand me a Mac Book Air? Um...yes please!! I always try to look for the potential and not just problems when changes like this happen. In other words, I often ask myself: How can I make this work for me and my students?? Improvise. Adapt. Overcome. Just say those words over and over. These changes just make what I was naturally doing easier, not more difficult. So with my own role reversal AND the integration of tech, I have discovered this "Informal Learning" that I think has made, and will continue to make a great impact on how I approach teaching and how my students learn.
     I know that not everything in education works for everyone. I think the teacher's personality and how they interact with students whether it is in the classroom, the hallway or the cafeteria matters a lot with this approach. You have to have the ability to break through the traditional "I am the teacher" and "You are a student" type of thinking. We are all learners and it's okay to let your students know that you are. You have to be able to force yourself at times to get up and talk to your students even on days when you really don't want to. It is a lot of work. A lot. There are days when I don't sit down until lunch. But, it is so worth it! The results I have seen so far is amazing. I cannot wait for the next five years when I can hone this even more. Hoo rah!