I think most teachers already realize that it's important to engage their students and that a student's learning engagement actually bumps up student achievement significantly. However, if they are at all like me, then they also need to be reminded of what works for kids. What is the best way to be reminded of this? By asking kids! Find out how kids best learn by asking the kids. What an amazing concept, eh?
I was fortunate enough to be part of a "Look to Learn" walk-through training this past week. Our district is training both teachers and administrators to go into classrooms for quick 4-minute snapshots of the "learning" (not the teaching) happening in classrooms. By asking the students themselves to explain what they are doing and why they think that they are doing it, you get a wealth of information. It was extremely enlightening -- and not at all evaluative. I only found myself evaluating one teacher -- myself.
I participated in these learning walk-throughs under the guidance of an amazing instructor, John Antonetti. My eyes were opened to the many ways in which I can improve student engagement in my own classroom as I looked for the following eight engaging qualities occurring in other classrooms:
(1) Personal Response
(2) Clear/Modeled Expectations
(3) Emotional/Intellectual Safety
(4) Learning with Others
(5) Sense of Audience
I went into some classrooms in which the students were very engaged and others in which students were compliant but not otherwise engaged. (To be engaged, a lesson needs to provide 3 of the 8 qualities listed above). In my learning walk throughs, I found that the students often knew the objective (or had clear/modeled expectations) but lacked other engaging qualities. This lead me to wonder if my students were actually engaged in my own classroom ... and how often? I'm talking about real engagement that creates an excitement to learn and do more -- even if the teacher leaves the room. I think we all know that, even as adults, if you really love to do something, you can do it for timeless hours without being told and want to continuing doing it well after the allotted time is up. Isn't that what we ultimately want for our students? To engage them so well that they can't help but to want to continue to learn more?
Of course there will be always be teacher-directed moments when a concept or activity is being introduced. That is also necessary to teaching. But I'm not talking about teaching here. I'm speaking about learning. Learning how to create learning. Thinking about thinking. You know, fun metacognitive stuff.
Learning walk-throughs are truly enlightening for the teacher(s) participating in the walk-through. I received the ideas, motivation and energy to create a better learning environment for my students. My thinking started to shift away from my instructional methods and move more toward the levels of engagement in which I am or am not providing for my students. Engagement is at the forefront of my mind when I go to plan my lessons now. It was always there, but I can't honestly say that it was always at the forefront. Now that it is, I plan to keep it there by continuing to do walk-throughs. I will voluntarily use my planning time to do walk-throughs simply because I believe it will help my planning. It is time well spent and well served.
My biggest take away from the day was the idea that we will learn our craft as teaching professionals by interacting with each other across disciplines and across grade levels with common expectations -- not by closing our classroom doors and practicing in isolation
Even as I see real value in participating in learning walk-throughs, I know that some teachers may not. Some may say that they are disruptive and may become evaluative in nature. Well, let's look at this from a perspective in which fear has been removed. Fear that the learning walks "may" become evaluative in the future. Fear that all teachers will be forced or mandated to do learning walk-throughs. Fear that we are bothering the teacher in the room in which we are performing the walk through. Fear that going into a room for a four-minute snapshot rattles an experienced, skilled teacher who already has the utmost confidence in his/her abilities.
In one entire day (from 7:45 - 2:00), I walked through classrooms in the High School, the Middle School and my own elementary school. Not once did we speak about the teacher or the teaching going on in the classroom. It was all student-oriented. It was not evaluative. It was not judgmental. It was a learning tool for my own teaching. What a great learning experience.