Saturday, June 18, 2016

Let's make differentiation the norm

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Differentiation is becoming a natural part of a teacher’s work because technology is forcing us to personalise learning for the students in our care. We need to be able to draw on a range of strategies and methods and to adapt them as needed to help able students to harness the learning power of their brains.  Knowing about the way that the brain controls what information it takes in helps us to find effective ways to help all students to learn. Let’s start with a little revision to remind ourselves.
Students learn-
·         when they are in a positive emotional state and are able to focus on the task at hand
·         when they are actively involved in the learning
·         when the learning is important to them
·         when they have the necessary skill strategies for dealing with the intellectual challenge
·         when the teacher understands and supports high order thinking processes
Teachers are more effective if the learning is co-constructed and current findings from neuroscience are helping us to understand how building a knowledge of how the brain works helps teachers and students to become more effective.
Neuroscience findings.
Learning depends on understanding. Before you can understand a concept or a fact you have to remember it. Sensory information enters the brain through the sensory nerves… eyes, ears, mouth, skin, muscles, feelings and emotions. These nerve endings meet at the top of the brain stem at the back of the brain and like a spam filter, the information is transmitted via emotions to either the thinking prefrontal cortex where it is stored as working memory and understood, or consigned to the reactive automatic brain, concerned with survival, and filtered out. Just like computers, some brains have more RAM space available than others because the mental inbox is not cluttered with junk mail (irrelevant information). What is happening in the learner’s life has an impact on how new information is dealt with.  (Missing breakfast and being hungry/  arriving late and disorganised/ having a deadline to deal with and so on may well result in the information being filtered and re-routed).
You have to understand new information before you can apply it. The hippocampus in the brain links the new information to the knowledge that is already stored in the long term memory (any prior knowledge that you may have relating to the information) and sends the new links to the prefrontal cortex so that higher order thinking processes can occur. Once you have applied it then you are in a position to analyse and evaluate.  When the learning process is enjoyable then the message travels from neuron to neuron as electrical currents via the chemical process of dopamine, creating new links between the gaps in the neurons, helping the brain to process the new information. If this all sounds vaguely familiar, then that’s because it IS.  Each layer of Bloom’s taxonomy builds on the previous level. The creative process incorporates these elements naturally, and that’s the way our brain works.
Based on this understanding of how the brain learns new information, there are two aspects that I would like to address. Firstly…techniques for teaching at a rate that is suited to the rapid pace of many students within the strictures of the regular classroom, and secondly… looking for ways to support authenticity and relevance.

Do you know what your students wonder about?
Consider creating a wonder wall of questions on cards with velcro spots or bluetac to attach them. Visit these on a regular basis and talk about the question types that are there and discuss ways that they might be grouped and categorised. Your students will be able to think of lots of ways to address this. Initially there will be a large number of lower order questions and I have found it useful to have a couple of ‘what if’ questions to add to move student thinking up a notch. A favourite of ours is ‘able to be googled’ and ‘not able to be googled’ for the answer. We discuss fat questions with a range of possible answers as opposed to skinny questions with single responses too.  Students quickly catch on to the idea that higher order thinking questions are difficult to google for answers and enjoy adding these to the wonder wall. If you are teaching juniors then teach the difference between a statement and a question, and become used to rephrasing student statements into questions for them to think about. A good game to play in pairs is where one person picks up an object and shares a fact about it from observation or experience. The other asks a question about it. Next time, swap roles. Daily practice at this will help students to see the differences and encourage them to ask more searching questions.

Do you know what your students are interested in?
If you create opportunities for students to ask questions about the things that they wonder about then it is easier to notice things that they are interested in and to tie this interest into your key earning focus. You can use the wonder wall to identify themes that the students are interested in, or you can start with a theme and work backwards to identify the student questions that relate to it.

How can you find out what the students know about the topic already?
Brainstorming, KWL charts and Pre- tests are three traditional ways, but let’s deviate from the same old, same old for a change.

Ask the students to come up with some interesting questions that they might have about the topic. Students work in small groups to come up with as many questions as they can think of without editing as they go. The goal is quantity.
Write each question on a sheet of paper. Remind the students that they are not expected to know the answer. At a given signal, pass all papers to the left. Next person reads the questions written there by the neighbour and adds more of their own BUT they can’t repeat any they have already used.
Repeat several times. List the questions asked. Share the information. Ask students to identify what they don’t know already and want to find out. Have one or two ‘big’ questions of your own to offer if necessary. E.g. How does … affect… and what could you do about it?

Students spend time individually reflecting on the topic then pair up and share reflections. Pairs then form into quartets, Quartets into octets and so on and so on. This is an alternative way to move from small group to whole class discussion.

Conversation Doughnuts.
Students are numbered off. One or two. All the number ones make a circle. All number twos go to stand behind a number one. If the number of students is uneven then the teacher joins in as a number two.  Inner circle turns to face the outer circle and talks about what they know already about the topic. At a signal the outer circle moves two places to the left and starts a new conversation. (two places are better than one because it lessens the chance that next door neighbours were listening to each other’s conversations instead of focusing on their partners)

Conversation moves for group work
Have a set of cards with conversation prompts on them for each group. Participants choose one of the cards at random. The conversation continues based on the comment card that the group members hold.
Examples of specific comment moves:
·         Make a statement about the topic to open the discussion
·         Ask a question that shows you are interested in someone else’s comments
·         Underscore a link between two previous contributions
·         Build on something someone else has said
·         Summarise what has been said already
·         Disagree with someone in a respectful way
·         Give some evidence to back up something that has been said
·         Give your opinion about something that has been said

Picture concept links
Display a collection or group of pictures and ask…
In what ways might these pictures/ objects all link up to each other?
How might all these things link to the concept of … (the proposed topic )
How many different ways can you find to link these pictures together?

The only rule is that ALL the items/ pictures have to fit within your category. (an ‘odd one out’ is not acceptable).  It can be as simple as all the group begins with the same letter of the alphabet, or a more complicated link such as all the items relate to a particular culture / theme etc. It is up to the student to be able to justify how the things ‘fit’ within the category selected. The more links the better so don’t strive for a ‘correct’ answer. You may be surprised at the links that your able students make that you hadn’t even thought of if you allow time for this to happen..  If you give in to the temptation of sharing the link that you devised in the first place, then it will stop the hunt for new links. (I generally give students a week for this exercise before debriefing, and list the student suggestions as the week progresses so that we can see progress from simple links to more complicated ones).

Negotiating student product
If …… was the answer, what are the three interesting questions you can think of?
It is the student’s job to select a question that
·         sparks their interest
·         will increase their understanding about the topic
·         leads to other questions to pursue
·         provides an opportunity to observe, experiment, analyse, create and reflect
BUT I believe it is the teacher’s job to help the student to find interesting ways to do this and to ensure that he/she has the necessary skills so that there is choice and challenge in the task and the student is able to maximise the learning.

What if the kids are stuck?
Neuroscience findings support an increase in learning when there is a feeling of personal  accomplishment. Creativity will be increased if the students are able to use their personal strengths, but giving gifted students the opportunity to follow their own passions and interests can result in the need to be build a network of experts to go to when faced with a problem that is beyond the ability of the teacher. Universities may be able to help with questions relating to specific disciplines as they publish guides of their faculty members (online or hard copy) for those connected with the media to be able to contact for comment when necessary. This can be worth making an approach.
Failing that…

What do others think?
Could the question be approached from another perspective/ point of view?
Could it be reworded?
How would an expert in … approach this?
Do we have the necessary skills/ equipment/ resources to pursue this further?
Could we use social networking to help with this question?
Do we need more opportunity to observe, experiment, analyse, and create or is it time to reflect on the learning that has taken place and move on?

Assessing Product
Encourage able students to create learning maps. These reflections on the personal learning journey recorded as a road map or a treasure map are useful as a regular reflection on progress towards a learning goal. Experts in their field are often able to identify the obstacles and barriers that they have encountered and think about how these have contributed to where they are now.
Ask…How would a person working in this field view this work? Where to from here?
A teacher touches the future. Expand your influence beyond your lifetime. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Harambe's Legacy

Harambe is a kiSwahili word meaning working together or sharing.
The recent tragedy at Cincinnati zoo has prompted an outpouring of social media response that saddens me. The human tendency to point the finger of blame, and indulge in witch hunting made me squirm.  Those who do not respond to situations in a judgmental way, and are willing to make decisions based on a limited range of  facts while not having the luxury of a wait and see approach are in a minority.
Blame the zoo.              
Blame the parents.
Tranquillize the gorilla.
Review the gorilla’s actions over and over again through the camera lens.
It is a brave person indeed who is able to quickly assess the options in a way that challenges mob justice. The decision to end the life of a critically endangered animal in order to save one of our own species is one that most of us hope that we never would have to make. It is a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Anthropomorphism of animal behaviour is an instinctive human reaction but it is dangerous. Arguments that the silverback gorilla, Harambe, was acting in a protective way when he held the child’s hand prompt the question if he was being protective, then what was he protecting the child from? All of the female gorillas had already responded to their keepers’ safety procedures and left the scene. In the wild, infanticide by male gorillas is not uncommon behaviour.  Harambe’s intent is unknown to us. He is a different species.

Is it time to move the focus on to the panoramic view and think about the broader issue of why are zoos necessary? And if they are, then what needs to be done to encourage compassion, tolerance and co-operation to result in a world where we all work together for mutual benefit?

Our gifted students deserve to be given time to discuss and reflect on issues such as this because the future of many species depends on it.  AND as Stephanie Tolan so eloquently put it … ‘It's a tough time to raise, teach or be a highly gifted child... Schools are to extraordinarily intelligent children what zoos are to endangered species (cheetahs in her analogy) ... Every organism has an internal drive to fulfil its biological design. The same is true for unusually bright children. From time to time the bars need be removed, the enclosures broadened. Zoo Chow, easy and cheap as it is, must give way, at least some of the time, to lively, challenging mental prey. – Stephanie Tolan, Is It A Cheetah?
Is it time to embrace the way that technology is able to change the face of traditional schooling for our gifted students and admit that we are being given a wonderful opportunity for them to interact with others of high ability so that their decisions are better informed? It is certainly possible today. Perhaps it is time for schools to foster ways in which we can create positive relationships between communities to expand on ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ and to realise that for our highly able children the links are not necessarily right on the doorstep.

On the side of caution however,  the speed at which we are able to communicate on a global basis contributes to the ways that people think about things in both positive and negative ways. Everyone seems to carry a camera. A snapshot in time is still just that. A brief and limited view of a particular time and place. Are we missing other important cues these days by our current love affair with the camera lens?
Is our view of the world being limited by our ability to filter and edit out what we don’t want to think about?

Harambe’s death has provoked far more questions than answers. Maybe that is the legacy that we are left with. What do you think?

Saturday, June 4, 2016


Belonging is a circle that embraces everything, but what does it mean to belong? What are the signs that help us to know that we belong somewhere or tell us clearly that we don’t belong?  As a recently retired educationalist, I have been reflecting on the ‘me’ behind the mask of my chosen work life and the opportunities that stretch out in front of me for giving back to the communities in which I live. I am different. I know I am. I just don’t know if others will understand my need to follow my passion for making a difference now that I am not officially employed. I live in hope that I can use my life experiences to make a small positive contribution to the status quo that will enhance the lives of my grandchildren.
The school experience focuses on encouraging us to fit in. Students, new teachers, experienced teachers, administrative staff, support staff. We all have our place in the communication network that is education. I have always found this challenging.  We slot together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle but increasingly I am aware that there are those who seek positive change and it is people such as these that I gravitate towards because I feel a kindred spirit and a sense of ‘belonging’ rather than just fitting in. Some of these spirits are young students and I am encouraged by the thought that they will make a real difference to the future.
My current project, along with a colleague, is that of putting together a collection of stories written by gifted entrepreneurial students who have seen a community need and seized the opportunity to do something about it. We have chosen to focus on students rather than adults to showcase some of the ways in which gifted students have made a positive difference to the lives of others. Their stories are true. Their passions are evident and real. Opportunities abound and are just waiting to be recognised.  So far we have several contributions in the pipeline but the book has some way to go and I would really appreciate some help in getting the word out to young people who may be interested in contributing.  I believe that we can learn a lot from the group that makes us feel as though we really belong and contribute positively to our feeling on personal worth, and we learn from others. The book is a ‘give back’ to the N.Z. community in that ALL profits will be donated to the Starship Foundation with its focus on the welfare of children. Copyright for individual stories remains with the authors who will receive a free copy if selected for publication.
One of the disadvantages of getting older is that our links with the community gradually shrink. My network of like-minded people was never wide to begin with. The mask of an extrovert doesn’t fit comfortably for me. I am an introvert inside, sharing my passion with those who do not sit in judgment. Your help would be appreciated. If you know of a student who might be interested in participating and belonging to a group of like-minded individuals determined to make a positive difference, please pass on the message. A sense of belonging comes from being appreciated, understood and fitting in, but fitting in and belonging are not the same thing.  Stories can be dictated to and written up by an adult if preferred. There are no word limits but work will be subject to editing if necessary. Our hope is for the work to be ready for publication later this year.

To find out more, contact me by email at