Each year at this time, teachers begin to feel the eagerness (and stress) of the upcoming school year. Questions abound in our heads. “What will my students be like this year?” “Will I have enough time to cover the entire curriculum I’m told to cover?” “What will my lasting effect be on my students?” “How can I make their learning really relevant?” These are anxious as well as exciting times. There is no possible way for us to answer all these questions before the school year begins, nor will it do us any good to worry about them—yet the questions are important ones.
As American philosopher and leader of the progressive movement in education John Dewey so eloquently stated in 1944: “If we teach today as we taught yesterday, we rob our children of tomorrow.” With the increasing advances in technology, as well as an overload of and immediate access to information, our students require a learning environment that will prepare them for the complex issues they will face in their future. Many of the jobs our students will perform have not even been invented yet. Most of the technology they will use on a daily basis will be much more sophisticated than we can even imagine today. Therefore, the classroom of today must place less emphasis on the amount of material that is memorized and more weight on helping our students make connections to the content, think through real issues, and solve problems that have meaning and relevance to them.
Professor of education John Hattie wrote Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. In this seminal work, he states that research shows the practice of teaching has changed little over the past century. Even with the advances of technology and information access, teachers overwhelmingly still teach from “the front of the room” and provide students with little relevance to what many students believe is an outdated/antiquated curriculum.
Outside of the students themselves, teachers have the greatest impact on learning and achievement. So to assist you in advancing your practice toward greater effectiveness, based on Hattie’s work, I’d like to lay out the four critical factors that can have a substantial impact on student learning and achievement. These ideas work no matter what content area or grade level you teach.
Four Critical Factors for Learning and Achievement
1. Students must have clear and specific definitions of learning tasks and objectives.
Students must be able to articulate what they are to know (factually), be able to do (procedurally), and understand (conceptually) at the beginning, throughout, and at the end of every lesson. It is not enough to post learning objectives on the board as a passive reminder of the lessons. Students must respond to the objectives, state them in their own words, and define when they are addressing or nearing the goal.
Additionally, it is the teacher’s responsibility to engage students through relevant and meaningful tasks. Relevance means that the student can utilize prior knowledge to connect the new information to their personal life. Meaningfulness means that the student knows that the tools and strategies they are learning can be immediately put to practice to improve their lives. Make sure students can articulate the content’s relevance for them and the meaningfulness of the strategies and skills to their immediate usage to guarantee more effective learning.
2. Students need articulate examples of success and mastery.
To be sure students know exactly what is expected of them during each lesson and unit, teachers should provide student-created examples of quality products that represent success and mastery. Teachers may want to collect quality examples from year to year of what students have created for each unit of study. Let the students examine the materials and look for the characteristics of quality.
Students also need to have the strategies of self-regulation modeled for them. Self-regulation is the ability to manage and control your thoughts, behaviors, and feelings to achieve success. This includes setting goals, avoiding distractions during studying, and keeping a positive attitude toward learning. For more information on helping students with developing self-regulation, see Chapter 5 (Developing Student Self-Regulation) in Advancing Differentiation: Thinking and Learning for the 21st Century. Students need the tools of self-regulation modeled, practiced, and refined throughout their learning time.
Finally, students must celebrate the intellectual and creative risk-taking of all learners. This can be done daily, weekly, and monthly. Make time to celebrate classroom accomplishments as well as out-of-school accomplishments. Be sure to emphasize to students that the reason for nearly all accomplishments is the amount of effort one puts forth rather than inherent ability or talent.
3. Students learn more through the implementation of effective instructional strategies.
Resources abound proclaiming “best practices” in the classroom, but while most offer quite good ideas, many don’t have evidence to support their use. Make sure that you identify specific strategies that have evidence to support their implementation. This evidence can be gleaned from research, other successful practitioners, or your own action research.
Among those practices that have support are brain-compatible learning techniques, such as the variations in the ways boys and girls learn. Numerous studies have identified that, in general, boys process information more efficiently through visual displays, while girls tend to be more eloquent with written and spoken language. Keeping the brain in mind while teaching can have some substantial effects on attention, which leads to better learning.
Additionally, knowing that all students learn at different paces and through different methods, teachers are wise to apply effective strategies of differentiation. Keeping students’ interests, readiness for learning, and personal profiles in mind when planning and instructing can have significant effects on achievement. See Dr. Diane Heacox’s books Differentiating Instruction in the Regular Classroom and Making Differentiation a Habit as outstanding examples of efficient practices in differentiation.
4. Students require increasing levels of feedback that inform them of their success and can assist teachers in adjusting instruction.
Teachers who use pre-assessment at the beginning of each lesson, ongoing formative assessments throughout the unit, and quality summative assessment find much greater student achievement. The National Research Council states that frequent opportunities with assessments can help make students’ thinking and learning more visible to them, ultimately assisting them in building confidence toward learning. Students can learn how to adjust their learning strategies and skills when you provide them with chances to revise and improve their outcomes. Additionally, quality assessments can guide teachers in adjusting instructional strategies to ensure students’ successes.
You can make a difference in each of your students’ lives if you keep in mind these four critical factors of learning and achievement. I know that the coming school year will prove to be exciting and challenging. To paraphrase a famous quote by Bette Davis: “Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy ride!”
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