Saturday, July 23, 2016

Student Engagement & Learning - Connected to Teaching Intentionality

I read an article this morning from Nira Dale entitled "Why Instructional Design Must Focus on Learning Outcomes, Not Learning Activities". While the article was focused on edtech tools and making sure the games, devices and activities used to engage students also focused on learning goals, the message actually pertains to all education activities, whether technology is involved or not.

It reminded me of when I was working in Virginia Beach, where the whole district was working with creating lessons using the Understanding By Design framework from Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins.  The key message, that I have continued to utilize in all my work, is that engaging activities for the sake of having a 'fun' thing to do with students does NOT enhance student learning unless the activity chosen connects directly to the learning goals and desired student outcomes. Seems obvious of course - but, you would be surprised at how many teachers create wonderful, fun, engaging experiences for their students, with and without the use of technology, that don't connect to a learning goal.

The key point is intentionality in your choice of activities/resources/tools. Which of course requires deliberate planning and knowing your standards and desired learning outcomes.

I've been working as an International Fellow for the Charles A. Dana Center at UT Austin for the past two summers and as part of this work, we really focus on this idea of Alignment and Intentionality. Basically, understanding your standards for the grade/content you are teaching, really looking at what students should have learned and been able to do prior (previous grade), what the learning goals/expectations are for what you are teaching, and what they should be able to know and be able to do for the next grade. Aligning the standards vertically so that you can see the learning progression, which then informs your choice of activities.

Understanding the learning progression and standards informs what you as a teacher need to do to help students learn and reach those learning goals/objectives. This clear understanding of the learning goals forces you to be very deliberate and intentional in how you teach - what you do to review skills from previous grades, how you introduce new skills and concepts, what engaging activities you choose or resources/tools you use to support students learning of the concepts. Activities chosen for students to engage in should not be because it would be 'fun' and 'engaging', but because they would directly enhance and support the learning goals.

To sum up:
1) Understand the standards and the learning progression (vertical alignment)

  • Know and understand the standards you are going to teach
  • Look at the related standards from grade/course before and after so you understand what students should already know and be able to do and where they are going after they leave you 
2) Based on the learning objectives you have defined and aligned from step 1:

  • Choose activities that will support the content and skills you have determined need some review - be specific, make sure activities align directly to the content and skills you are focusing on
  • Choose learning activities that will introduce, teach, and enhance student understanding of your current grade/content standards. Look for engaging activities that support your specific learning objectives directly. Be deliberate in the activities you choose - if you can't directly align them to the learning goals, then don't choose.
3) Build in deliberate formative assessment so you can assess students progress and keep learning objectives at the forefront

  • Activities you choose should allow for formative assessment - questioning, student discussion, student collaboration - so that you can continually assess student progress 
  • Activities chosen should provide evidence of student understanding related directly to the learning objectives.
Basically - make your classroom an engaging learning environment but choose those engaging activities deliberately and intentionally so that your students are engaged in productive learning that helps them reach the learning goals. Learning goals should guide all your instructional decisions - from the tools you use to the activities your students engage in.