Friday, October 31, 2014

Scaffolding Asynchronous Learning

After last year, I was convinced that there was something to asynchronous learning but changes needed to be made in my execution. There were too many students scrambling to catch up at the end of the school year. I asked students to share advice for next year's students; overwhelmingly, they told students not to fall behind. Not to mention, I struggled with how to run labs and maintain test integrity in an asynchronous course all year. I knew big changes needed to follow in order to maximize asynchronous learning. The two major changes needed were a shift in mindset and scaffolding mastery. 

1) Shifting Mindset
I fundamentally believe students learn at different rates and some need more or less practice in order to learn a new concept. However, I didn't organize my course as if I really internalized those beliefs. I tried to have the best of two competing ideas. I let students work through units asynchronously with common deadlines, like when to be ready for exams or labs. I thought the exam dates would help motivate students to work as fast as possible, which it probably did for some; however, for students who truly struggled with the content, it encouraged them to rush right before the exam, which was counterproductive and anxiety producing. I finally decided that I couldn't have it both ways. To that end, I finally agreed:

A) Not all students will get through the entire course.
  • I've identified the most important units; some units will be mandatory, while others will be optional. Students who work behind, will be allowed to skip the optional units later in the course. 
B) Not all students will have the same final exam.
  • Students will be tested on what they covered throughout the year. Some finals will be about 15 learning cycles, while others will be about 12 cycles. Students will get two grades on final exams, one based on how well they performed on their version of the final, while the other will be based on how much content was on the final. I still need to develop this idea but I'm thinking, for example, a student could earn 98% on 80% of the content.
C) No more common lab or exam dates. 
  • Exams will be similar to the quizzes in that each student will have a different set of questions and take it when they're ready. As much as possible, labs will be truly inquiry-based where students design their own procedures. This should limit the pressure to perform the experiments as an entire class. 

2) Scaffolding Mastery
Other than a change in mindset, which led to its own set of changes, I was encouraged to scaffold mastery at a presentation during FlipCon15. Some of the struggles from last year were due to some student's inability to handle working at their own pace. They need to develop this skill. Instead of starting the year full fledged mastery, I started the class similar to flipped class 101 (video at home, application at school.) I told students what to do in class and for homework the first few weeks of school. If some students needed an extra day or finished a bit early, I allowed for that accommodation; however, major assignments had deadlines. This was important because students needed to adjust to the workings of a flipped class and standards based grading before handling the asynchronous part. 

After the first few weeks, the students became familiar with my way of doing things. At this point, I told students that they could work at their own pace but to use my pacing calendar as a guide.
Pacing Calendar
The calendar suggested which assignments to do in class and for homework. This allowed for more freedom while having some supports in place. 

After two weeks of encouraging students to use the suggested calendar, I had a check-in conversation with my classes. One student offered a game changing suggestion - ask students to plan their week. Eureka! At the beginning of the week, students now create a plan for the work they plan to complete each class and at home. I sign the plan to acknowledge agreement. These planning talks have been eye opening, especially the realization that some students have no idea how long some activities will take. 

I've recently put other supports in place to help students plan. For example, I've asked students to create their plan as the standing weekend homework assignment each week. This helps save precious class time. I want the students to start the week with the ball in their hand. I'm even encouraging students to send their plans to me via email so that I can send them feedback before their first lesson of the week. 

The second thing I did was to create a unit overview chart.
Sample Overview
The chart lists each activity sequentially with an estimated amount of time it will take to complete some activities. The chart also includes any useful notes. For example, I specify when an activity must be completed in class or without group members. I also list sub steps or special instructions when applicable. The idea is to offer a quick reference to allow students to make informed decisions about their plans. 

At the middle of the week, I ask them to reflect in their journals about their progress, then again at the end of the week. I also have a template or graphic organizer to help students save time recording their plan.
Template planning calendar
I'm hoping this constant cycle of planning and reflection, along with the unit overview and graphic organizer will help students improve their weekly plans. 

Asynchronous learning can improve student outcomes, as students are better able to meet their potential. However, students are not used to this amount freedom and run the risk of squandering the opportunity. As educators, we have to provide the guidance to help students maximize their learning. I hope the change in mindset and scaffolding mastery will accomplish this goal. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Beyond Flipclass - a Post Back to School Night Reflection

A couple of weeks ago, I presented the curriculum to parents at Back to School Night (presentation, here.) While many of the components of my presentation were similar to last year, one major difference stood out: I rarely mentioned the term "flipped class." I still operate a flipped class but it has become a footnote amongst all of the other things I do in my class. Flipped learning, while still a structural element in my course, is no longer the focus- it is merely a tool or means to an end. 

I recall Ramsey Musallam (@ramusallam) explaining that flipped learning is not a pedagogy and Jon Bergmann (@jonbergmann) saying that flipped learning is not all about the videos. While these statements were intuitive, I am only learning their true meaning now. Using flipped videos should not be something to boost about because it really is just a way to present content. While using flipped videos is an improvement above synchronous lectures, they are still basically lectures. However, using flipped videos does make class time available to do the things a teacher may want to do. For me, flipped learning is a way to differentiate the pace of the course. Students can learn concepts at their own pace, revisit and redo work, get help from peers and/or the teacher - all during class time. Students can now provide evidence of their learning in a standards based format. Students have more time to design and redesign experiments, collect and re-collect data, as well as analyze data while I'm present to help troubleshoot. Students can choose how to demonstrate mastery of content, "white board" explanations and decide when and how often to take quizzes. They can decide to what extent to complete specific activities and assignments. In short, I've found my way to move along the teacher vs student centered continuum.

The videos that students watch are merely a resource - they present content and explain lab instructions. They are just a vehicle to move toward a more student centered classroom. Just as a person wouldn't spend too much time explaining the type of airplane used to go on a honeymoon to Hawaii, I didn't feel the need to explain the specifics of the flipped videos used to open class time for more student engagement and ownership of learning. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Spotlight on the Explore Phase: the Anatomy of Mastery Learning Cycles

Nemo // Pixabay

Over the years, I've become convinced that pre-teaching and priming help students internalize content. Rather than a lecture or video being the first exposure to content, I've experimented with having students explore or experience the content firsthand. This is the thinking behind the exploration phase of the mastery learning cycles.

Ramsey Musallam (@ramusallam) convinced me of the need to let students explore content before providing content. Primarily, students who engage in an exciting lab or activity followed by a challenge, are more likely to pay attention to a lecture or video, assuming the content will help them meet the challenge. These situations can create cognitive dissonance. Brains don't like unsolved mysteries, which is why cliffhangers are captivating. The same thing can be true for some learners. Challenge them with an interesting problem, then make helpful content available. The other benefit of pre-teaching or priming is the cognitive load of a video lecture is reduced if students have some intuition or experience with the concept prior to watching the video. 

In the inheritance unit, students begin with the "Baby Making Exploration." This is an activity where students form pairs, complete a trait inventory and use simple rules of inheritance in order to make babies. After drawing two of their children, they are challenged with figuring out the likelihood of future children having particular traits. At this point, they have some intuition about how traits are inherited but lack some of the content and tools to complete the challenge. Students learn these concepts through a video and revisit the initial challenge later in the learning cycle. Immediately after the exploration, a few students can successfully complete the challenge but after the video, all students are able to complete the challenge. 

Sometimes an exploration may not be an activity or lab but a case study or a new problem. For example, after the students learn about inheritance from the learning cycle described above, I provide some problems with results that contradict the content they just learned. They are met with a scenario that does not meet their expectations. This creates cognitive dissonance. They are asked to offer hypotheses explaining these seemingly abnormal observations. Undoubtedly, some students will be more motivated to watch the video since there is a reason to do so. 

In other units, students conduct experiments and are asked to use the data to make generalizations. After watching another video lesson, they are able to revise these conclusions. 

Whether the exploration is a lab, interesting problem or activity, I'm hoping students are gaining an intuition about content before taking notes. I am also hoping that they will pay closer attention and be more motivated to watch the videos. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

A Review of "How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed Ability Classrooms"

 Carol Ann Tomlinson's book, How to Differentiate Instruction in Mixed Ability Classrooms, was a brief introduction to differentiation. I read this book in order to improve my asynchronous flipped class. As I started to let students work at their own pace a couple of years ago, I immediately understood other accommodations can and should be made in order to meet the needs of my students. I read the book in the hopes of learning some tools of the differentiation trade.

Overall, the book was useful. Initially, I was disappointed because I already knew several of the techniques mentioned; I was hoping to pick up some more ideas. I'm already using tools like cubing, choice boards and tiered assignments. However, after greater reflection, I'm grateful for reading this book because I now have a better understanding of the guiding principles of differentiation and picked up a few ideas. Some of the ideas that I plan to institute as a result of the book are the following:
  • Challenge leveling: in problem sets and beyond the course learning opportunities.
  • Choices in learning materials: textbooks, videos, online articles, simulations, etc. 
  • Compacting: students who demonstrate prior mastery of a concept can "test" out of the unit.
It was validating to read that some of the strategies I already decided to institute were considered effective ways to differentiate. For example, I am holding all students accountable to be able to apply their learning but exceptional students will be allowed to demonstrate learning at a higher level by creating, evaluating and analyzing learning materials. These higher order products are organized in think-tac-toe boards, choice boards, 2:5:8 boards, etc. Another point of validation was the idea that everything does not have to be graded. It's okay for students to practice applying skills without the specter of a grade looming. It's also helpful to know that my approach of starting small and adding more opportunities for differentiation is appropriate. 

The greatest takeaway from the book was the cognitive framework for differentiation. Rather than gaining a random collection of tools, I have better insight into the paradigm shift, which will equip me with the ability to develop my own tools. For example, there are three major ways to differentiate - by readiness, interest and learning profile. I've tended to focus on readiness and interest. It's easier to differentiate according to ability (readiness) and interest by offering choices at harder and easier degrees of difficulty and allow some freedom in the details and topics of projects. It is much harder to tailor intervention and activities based on individual student learning styles or profiles. That will take a better understanding of learning profiles and the type of lessons that will cater to the various styles in my classes. Looks like I have more research to do. 

The other major insight is there are three major things one can differentiate: content, process and product. Again, I've favored some of these more than others. It's easier to differentiate student products because projects can be broad enough to allow students to decide which modality to use - a report, presentation, video, essay, photo journal, story, etc. In some ways, differentiating content can also be straightforward. I have already offered optional topics for students to learn. Some students will have an opportunity to solve dihybrid Punnett Squares or sex linked problems, while other students will only handle basic genetics problems. In addition, students are allowed to learn the content at their own pace. The most difficult, or time consuming, part of differentiating content is curating a library of varied resources that can make the content accessible to all students. I would love to create an iBook that some students can choose to read, rather than relying on watching the videos I make. 

Another piece is differentiating process. These are the sense making activities that help students process or understand the material. Right now, I don't have many options for students to learn and process the material. Students may complete the sense making activities at their own pace and even have the freedom to pick and choose how much of the activity to complete; however, they do not have freedom to choose WHICH activities to complete. They all pretty much have to do a problem set, lab and online discussion for a typical learning cycle. I'd like to give students a choice, or make the choice, about the nature of the sense making activity. 

The neat thing about differentiating by readiness, interest and learning profile and differentiating content, process and product, is there are a number of possible techniques in a given unit. In one learning cycle, I may differentiate the content by interest but keep the other variables the same. In a different learning cycle, perhaps I may allow students to submit different products according to their learning profile. The combinations are plenty and can be tailored to the particular topic and combination of students in my class. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Spotlight on the Hot Seat: the Anatomy of Mastery Learning Cycles

This year I've instituted mastery checks, which are one-on-one discussions with students to see what they know. I made this change because I was spending too much time as a study hall monitor checking off assignments, rather than talking with kids about what they did and did not know.

I'm using mastery checks in combination with standards based grading and Bloom's taxonomy. Students move through levels by completing certain tasks aligned to comparable levels of Blooms taxonomy - from understanding to creating. Students start with a level "1", which means showing no evidence of understanding the "I can" statement. In order to progress to a level "2", they meet with me one on one in the mastery check "hot seat" (or "fluffy chair" as one student affectionately calls it.)

I give students a small whiteboard and ask them to demonstrate what they know based on the "I can" statements. 

Work in progress on student whiteboard for the Hot Seat

Students solve problems and explain their thinking in real time. Once students successfully complete the mastery check, they receive permission to take the quiz. This mastery check allows me to identify issues and suggest remediation, before a student takes a quiz. Last year, these talks were less frequent and often happened as a result of a student failing a quiz. Instead of students wasting quiz attempts, they have a good idea if they are ready for a particular quiz, and so do I.

The other nice thing about the "hot seat" is I'm getting better insights into the common misconceptions. By identifying these misconceptions early on, I can adjust my practice in the moment when it's most helpful to students. I'm already considering making a video aligned to a deficit I'm seeing in mathematical reasoning; only students who have this particular confusion will be pointed toward the video.

Finally, the biggest anticipated impact will be to prevent students from hiding. Every student must talk to me before moving on. Rather than a mere suggestion or informal check-in that a student can blow off, students are getting the clear message that a one-on-one talk with me is mandatory. I've already identified a few students who tried to skip over some of the learning materials, like problem sets or notes. When they came to me, they couldn't explain why they were completing certain steps in a problem. I've had to redirect them to earlier learning opportunities they had not completed.

I'm hoping the hot seat or fluffy chair will provide better supports for my students. So far, these discussions have been enlightening and seemingly helpful to my students.