Thursday, February 28, 2013

Academic Coach

One of my idols is legendary coach John Wooden.  What he did for UCLA, basketball, and the lives of his players would take volumes to record.  I began learning of his contributions as I studied various coaching styles in my early years working with the PCS sports teams.  The lessons learned transcended the games.

In reviewing any practice plan of mine, when I would introduce a new topic or skill, there would be periods of short, focused instruction, modeling, low-risk practicing, group and individual development, then high-risk practicing.  At each stage I would create authentic opportunities to engage the athlete, enabling me to critically assess and provide feedback.  Of course, repetition would be elemental for any concept or skill to become automatic. 

During the course of any practice, complications would inevitably occur, resulting in a loss of instructional time.  I often found myself forced to make a decision.  Should I rush through the time-tested process and try to speed the learning, or should I eliminate one of the steps?  After much trial, and even more error, I learned that the best solution was to eliminate the short, focused instruction.  (I realize that this technique may seem counter-intuitive to most; however, it was at every other stage of this learning process that I could provide critical feedback to the learner.)  Therefore, I would place my athletes into some low-risk (consequence free; an objective-laden bell ringer; an exploratory game, etc.) situations without instruction, having them draw upon their previous experiences and my feedback for proper development.  I experienced more success with this approach than when I directly instructed them and reduced the amount of time for feedback and practice. 

Many educators present to one or two learning modalities.  We know it’s difficult to address every learning style.  Moreover, differentiation brings an additional level of difficulty to most presentations.  This is why I bring this Friday Focus to you.  Even when a student has had little or no prior exposure to a concept or skill, students can often learn that concept or skill through investigation or discussion that either builds on their basic prior knowledge or excites to spark new knowledge.  And when students are stuck, it doesn’t always mean they need you to tell them the answer.  Just asking kids the right question is often enough to help them move forward. 

Please know that I’m not suggesting teachers kick-back while students learn or don’t learn on their own.  Instead, students should be provided a chance to learn by doing, with access to resources that can help them (technology, books, a classmate, you).  Teachers, meanwhile, circulate to assess what children know and what they don’t know – helping troubleshoot as necessary.  This allows teachers to plan the post-activity whole-group instruction/correction/discussion as it would benefit the student.  It’s at this point when a teacher can facilitate the sharing of solutions and insights, address common misconceptions, and scaffold understanding to a deeper level. 

As I describe this Constructivist learning process, two popular instructional methodologies come to mind.  The first strategy being most like what I describe is referred to as project-based learning.  The second strategy would be the flipped-classroom model, but with little or video instruction.  In both approaches to instruction, the classroom time is spent in exploration, investigation, and collaboration on authentic tasks. 

Anxiety and uncertainty over the CCLS and new APPR requirements seem to have swayed many educators away from these methodologies, potentially stifling creativity.  In analysis of the new standards, it is my belief that as we become more comfortable with these new directives, we will realize the countless possibilities for expanding opportunities for deeper understanding through less “sage on the stage” instruction.  Telling a child that the pool is deep will not ensure that they know it’s deep until they jump in.  Affording students experiences to explore, access and build their own knowledge is at the “core” of the standards. 

As we all continue to delve into the new standards, I am confident that AAK will continue to be a beacon of excellence in the area of instructional strategy and methodology.  Have a wonderful weekend.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

I'm a Successful Failure

The idea of failure being a positive experience for children and their development is nothing new.  There have been volumes written on the topic.  Yet, when I was recently asked about my own failures, I froze.  Please don’t be mistaken; I’ve had countless “failures” and an equal number of set-backs.  My inability to answer and to clearly state a failure surprised me.  It was at this point that I authentically understood the value of failure.
Recently, I read an article by Jessica Lahey, entitled Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail.  The premise of this article supported exactly what the title indicated and I believe that few educators would disagree.  Lahey’s assertion perpetuated some lively discussion among several others whom also read the piece.
Failure, in and of itself, is not what we aspire to do.  Reflection of such experiences is the key to unlocking meaningful life’s lessons, internalizing new found realizations and moving on.  Only then is failure valuable.  Our disappointments enable our need for reflection.  True reflection leads to improvement and the potential for success.  As I once explained to my soccer teams, “We can learn more from a loss than a win.”
Personally and professionally I’ve provided myself quite a number of opportunities to fail.  However, I believe I have had very few meaningless failures because I reflected, changed, and moved forward.  My so-called failures became opportunities.  Everyone has experienced this phenomenon in one form or another.  In relation to our classrooms, our task is to provide opportunities for children to learn how to be successful at failing.  We must see the opportunities in each child as they struggle and teach the process of reflection. 
Have a wonderful weekend.