Friday, February 8, 2013

Hurry up and Learn!
Our fast paced world seems to be leaking into our classrooms. The standardized curriculum guides and teacher’s manuals are bigger, the pacing guides include more content to cover in each lesson, and it feels as if at least once a week we are asked to squeeze one more topic into our teaching. Students must feel as if they are on the express lane of learning. The pace is rapid, the content is deep, and if you happen to drift for a minute, you’re lost. How do we maximize our classrooms for learning?

Step away from the front of the room and let students do the talking. Often, teachers are still controlling the front of the room ninety percent of the time. It’s time to step back and allow students more opportunities to hold in-depth and valuable conversations around subject matter. Letting them take time to reflect on their learning before moving on to the next thing allows them to own the material and share their learning with others.

Focus. We often have students multi-tasking in order to cover a lot of material, and at times, we are quickly finishing one project as we begin to explain how to start a new one. It has been proven that our brains cannot successfully perform two or more cognitive tasks at the same time. Think about what happens when people try to drive and text at the same time. The brain is alternating from one task to the other and we begin to make mistakes. In learning, these interruptions can lead to learning loss. Students need time to shift completely between topics and projects so their brain can focus.

Make it relevant. David Sousa, a former teacher and superintendent and current educational consultant as well as author, shares that our working memory is declining. Researchers have performed tests to understand capacity of the temporary working memory part of the brain, and for students under the age of 14, the number of things remembered dropped from five items to three or four. Researchers are not sure of the reason for the decline, but Sousa states this has “grave implications” in our classrooms. In order for information to be stored, it must make sense to students. “We’re in such a rush, we don’t give enough time for meaning.” Making content relevant to students is sometimes a challenge, but they will remember those things that matter to them.

Control the flow. We are inundated with information on a daily basis. As our devices get smaller, we are staying connected and glued to our social networks with a constant stream of data. Teachers need to help students develop management strategies. Too much information overwhelms the brain and slows down cognitive processing and we remember very little. If you are an avid media consumer, see if you can recall the plot and details of the last video you watched or the last article you skimmed. Watching students research is often an exercise in going from link to link with a lot of enthusiasm but very little direction or retention. Teachers can help by teaching students to locate just the information that they need and ignoring the rest.

Blend Content. As educators, we have fallen into some bad habits. We teach many subjects in isolation. Many high school and middle schools are driven by a differentiated schedule that takes students from math class to history class to science class with very little cross over. In elementary schools, there is more flexibility in self-contained classrooms but we still see content taught in isolation with regimented schedules. With the amount of content that each teacher needs to cover, I don’t see how we can succeed without finding more opportunities to blend. Rather than feeling frustrated about the many things we can’t fit in, maybe we can reframe our thinking and look at ways to weave those big ideas. Finding engaging projects that students can connect with that blend content may be one way to slow down the day.

Slowing down can apply to all of us. At times, when I’m sitting in my car, stopped on the freeway, I watch the cars zoom by in the express lane and wish I was there. However, when I get over the frustration and reframe my situation, I appreciate that I have been given an extra thirty to forty minutes to process and reflect on my day. That’s when my brain allows inspiration to strike and my best “Ah-ha!” moments happen. Still, it would be nice to sometimes be able to travel faster.

By: Kami Thordarson, Innovative Strategies Coach
Twitter: @kamithor

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