Bridging knowledge

One way to remember facts better and faster is to connect them with other more familiar objects and events. From a neuroscientific point of view, this is helpful because it involves leveraging on brain cells’ immense capacity to interconnect with one another. This implies that learning of one fact can be enhanced by connecting it to another related or unrelated fact. The physical make-up of the brain allows for this to take place without any problem.

Additionally, people prefer to work on things that they already know than things that they are unaware of. It is common for people to reject new ideas simply because they do not know enough about it. All these go to show that it is educationally sound for teachers to teach new ideas/concepts by connecting them to existing ones, particularly the ones students readily identify with.

Teaching with analogy, TWA

Teachers naturally use analogies when answering student questions – e.g. when I teach the difference between zero-order correlation coefficient (relationship between two variables without the effect of a third variable removed/controlled) and partial correlation coefficient (relationship between two variables when the effect of a third variable is removed/controlled), I tell students that it is similar to looking at the quality of relationship between a couple (two variables) in the presence and absence of a mother-in-law (third variable).

When I provide this analogy, the difference between these two types of correlation become clear and it is easily recalled the next time students need to use the concepts to interpret relationships between variables. Also, notice that I used an analogy that invariably creates excitement among people because everyone has something to say about the topic. This adds to overall eagerness of students to learn concepts.

It helps to bring in the actual object a concept is being compared to – e.g. when teaching the human eye, its parts and functions, it is advisable to use TWA with the aid of an actual Single-lens Reflex (SLR) camera. When connecting an idea with an event, it is helpful to re-enact the event in the class and discuss how the event and its elements connect to the idea being taught.

Additional advantage

Utilizing TWA strategy allows students to engage in higher order thinking skills such as comparing, contrasting, analyzing, interpreting and synthesizing – they do so without much prodding by teachers. In other words, they learn to think critically in a natural way.

Pre-requisite

Almost every concept or idea taught could be connected to another object or event in life. However, the key is to connect new learning with things that students are familiar with and passionate about.

For this purpose, teachers need to know their students well. Personally, I do so by keeping track of what makes students tick at any point in time. Watching movies that they watch, playing games that they play and reading books that they read – could all contribute to this end. While arguably silly, these are some ways to get close to the hearts of students in order to reach their minds.

For example, I use Power Puff Girls cartoon characters to illustrate to student-teachers about the weakness of traditional education – i.e. the disproportionate head-to-body size indicates that traditional education developed only the head (the girls over-sized heads), but not the body and heart (unusually small bodies).

When teaching about the brain, its parts and functions, a teacher could bring in a brain model and ask students to compare each region and its functions to a factory that produces a variety of “cool stuffs” under one roof. Allowing students to figure out similarities among elements of the brain model and a factory encourages them to take responsibility for their own learning and make it a highly personalized experience.

Leveraging group processes

For many teachers, dividing a class into small groups and ensuring high degree of engagement in group tasks indicate successful implementation of co-operative teaching methods. This is a simplistic view of the whole phenomenon. Lack of proper understanding of group dynamics lead to situations where only a few students benefit from co-operative learning assignments, one or two outspoken students dominate discussions, inferior quality products are produced, and hostility prevails due to misunderstanding (negative group dynamics) among peers.

An effective implementation of co-operative teaching procedures requires not only the technical know-how of applying them. More importantly, teachers must know how to deliberately leverage on principles of group processes that determine the eventual success of group work. Students cannot be expected to get together and work on producing high quality learning products if they are not made aware of the social-emotional consequences of working with their peers.

Stages

A typical group work setting involves five psychological stages, namely, forming, storming, norming, performing, and self-renewal. While most people are unaware of their existence, these five stages manifest themselves in a variety of ways in different classroom situations and contexts. The individual and collective experiences of group members at each stage determine success or failure. It is also important for members of the group to move from one stage to another, without skipping or failing in any one.

Usually, teachers assume that successful groups accomplish their tasks well because they have no problem forming and performing. Contrary to this belief, groups only succeed when they go through the complete circle of the five-stage process. This is the reason why students should not be rushed when they work in co-operative groups.

Forming

At the initial forming stage, group members need to feel that they are accepted by others. Teachers need to be careful with group compositions, particularly if students are allowed to choose their own members. Normally, high performing students tend to team up with others with similar abilities. This should be avoided because it does not represent real-world experiences which are characterized by high degree of diversity.

Teachers need to appropriately mix students to form balanced groups. The first stage is the most difficult to pass because students from different backgrounds, abilities, preferences and expectations learn to trust and accept each other in a fairly short period of time. This is an important milestone to cross – once successful, the next four stages can be achieved fairly easily. When group members do not feel accepted, the resulting performance suffers.

Storming

Small group members who feel accepted proceed to discussing about ideas that relate to the task. This involves perspective taking, agreeing to disagree (dissolving differences), taking turns, listening with respect, playing distinct roles and sharing responsibilities. If unsuccessful, the group will be characterized by high level of hostility among members, power struggles, domination of roles and dissatisfaction with division of duties.

Norming

Once differences are settled and division of roles and responsibilities are accepted, students in small groups proceed to creating a work culture that defines their unique individual and group identities. Although a group is made up of individuals, norming allows them to become united. A united group is able to pursue academic goals more effectively than a disunited one.

Performing

If a group passes through each of the above-mentioned stages successfully, they would have little or no problem performing the assigned task. The quality of performance is dependent upon the collective effect of all the stages on individual members of the group.

Self-renewal

Lastly, giving students an opportunity to reflect on their individual as well as collective contributions to the group is vital to ensure continual improvement. Students could be asked to reflect on the quality of learning products (outcomes) and interpersonal interactions. Ending co-operative learning sessions without this stage is like having a good meal without dessert.

Making change happen

The study of attitude is very popular among social scientists because it significantly determines people’s emotion, cognition and behavior. Countless research support the fact that attitude shapes behavior and its eventual outcomes in other forms of psychological experiences. Because of this, people try to avoid negative attitudes and adopt and live by more positive ones. However, attitude is not as concrete as behavior. It could be equated to belief and faith in a supreme being, making it abstract and intangible.

Attitude cannot be easily quantified. In addition, it cannot be taught and assimilated like other skills we learn in life, primarily because of its subjective, abstract nature. If it was easy to change attitudes, self-help authors and speakers would have gone out of business long ago. On the contrary, the field is flourishing. The main reason being – one has to actively make a choice to change old, negative attitudes and adopt new, positive attitudes. In this sense, attitude and behavior are not directly connected. They only interact when another component exists, which is active choice on the part of an individual.

A matter of choice

While people may think that choices could be environmentally manipulated, it is ultimately a highly personalized experience. In actuality, choices cannot be manipulated unless it comes from the individual himself. There is also another complication – some people may choose not to make choices.

This is the reason why schools’ effort to bring about positive academic and non-academic behaviors by means of employing attitude-change tactics fail. When schools focus too much on changing attitudes, they are fighting a war with the unknown (literally hundreds of unknown personal choices of students). While this may work with some students, the majority may not necessarily feel the need to change.

Alternate approach

For those students who do not respond favorably to attitude-change tactics, there is another approach that might work. It involves the same two variables: attitude and behavior; employed in reverse order. The following diagrams illustrate the difference between the two approaches.

Slide1

The common approach presupposes that attitude determines behavior (e.g. If my attitude toward a particular food is negative, I avoid that food by all means). On the other hand, the alternate approach assumes that behavior determines and shapes attitudes.

Slide2

In 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo conducted the famous Stanford Prison Experiment that proved the effectiveness of the alternate approach. The experiment confirmed that people’s attitude does change with changes in behavior and behavioral expectations. College students who participated in this experiment were randomly assigned the roles of prison guards and prisoners (subjects did not have any previous experience in any one of the roles). They were asked to take their roles seriously and behave like actual prison guards and prisoners. The planned two-week investigation into psychology of prison life had to be ended prematurely after only six days because of what the required behaviors were doing to the college students who participated in the situational role-play. Prison guards became sadistic, prisoners became depressed, and everyone showed signs of extreme stress.

Implication for education

Providing an environment for positive changes is more effective than “preaching” to students about it. For example, if teachers want students to become more creative in their approaches to academic tasks, they should first of all model creativity (i.e., ensure creative seating arrangement, assessment tasks, teaching techniques, behavior management, etc.). If teachers want students to be honest with each other, then they need to display honesty with his/her own colleagues, administrators, parents, and students.

In short, academic attitudes can be changed by deliberately manipulating a learning environment and its accompanying behaviors!

Improving teaching, proactively

Since teaching quality directly determines students’ academic achievement, school leaders set in place systems and mechanisms to check on teacher performances on a regular basis. This includes monitoring lesson plans, examining study guides, validating test papers, and observing lesson delivery. While these are vital for operational purposes, it does not necessarily enhance teacher competency and improve overall student achievement.

The problem

Traditional systems for monitoring teacher performances require hours of paper work and documentation. This is one reason for burnout among teachers and administrators. In the end, teachers and leaders spend significantly more time away from each other, students and parents. More time is spent in front of a computer catching up on paper work for the sake of fulfilling job requirements.

Clearly, this is not what providing a good education means. Excessive paper work tempts teachers to take short-cuts (e.g., lifting lesson plans from internet) and makes it impossible to assess true competency level of teachers. Also, there is no guarantee that a school administrator can successfully monitor quality of teaching solely relying on documentation presented by teachers.

Solution

Is there a way to monitor teaching quality and at the same time reduce the amount of time school personnel spend away from each other?  In fact there is! It is called Microteaching. This technique is beneficial for one important reason – it is proactive, meaning that it tackles problems in teaching before they adversely affect student learning.

It focuses on positively building teacher competency in safe, non-threatening and mutually beneficial training sessions. Microteaching allows school leaders communicate their vision and expectation of how teaching should be carried out. It serves as an opportunity to train teachers and at the same time engage in quality assurance and control.

Features

Microteaching commonly takes place in teacher training colleges. It should not stop there. It should find its way into schools because it is conducted to boost teacher confidence by providing systematic support and feedback in a highly collegial setting. Teachers meeting in microteaching sessions try out teaching methods, classroom management techniques and assessment procedures in front of their colleagues, who in turn provide constructive criticism for improvement.

This involves collaboratively reviewing lesson plans, observing lesson delivery (either in real time or pre-recorded lesson in actual classroom), reflecting on and creating action plans to promote best practices. Microteaching sessions are usually facilitated by a qualified and experienced teaching consultant and/or school leader. It is said that microteaching is one of the quickest, most efficient, and extremely fun way to help teachers become competent.

How to do it?

Microteaching sessions typically contain three to six (or more) teachers, supervised by an expert in pedagogy. The session begins with everyone watching the recording of a teacher’s lesson delivery in an actual classroom. At the end of the video clip, teachers engage in answering questions like, “What did we see happen? How was the lesson delivered? What was good? What could be improved? How would I do it differently? How were students assessed? How effective was classroom management throughout the lesson?”

Additionally, teachers may reflect on and discuss in detail as to how the lesson was introduced, what was done to help students acquire, extend and apply knowledge/skills, classroom climate throughout lesson delivery and habits of mind developed in students as a result of being exposed to the lesson.

Through microteaching sessions, administrators explicitly communicate what kind of teaching they would like to see take place in the school and review lessons delivered by teachers without subjecting them to anxiety and stress. Teachers learn from each others’ strengths and weaknesses. It is a special time when teachers talk about teaching and learning in an intelligent manner.