Monday, 30 September 2013

The Utility of Knowledge

This article, which I wrote, appeared in the New Straits Times, September 28th 2013.
In it I responded to the question of whether everything in school should have utility.
Click to enlarge for easier reading.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Power of Stupid Questions

A couple of weeks ago, I had just finished an explanation in front of a class and ended with the usual, 'Any questions?' The room was silent but I couldn't quash the sneaking suspicion that there was at least a little question lurking in someone's mind. We have a significant number of EAL learners with wide variances in our learners' profiles so it seemed unlikely that (despite my best intentions) my 'one size fits all' explanation could have reached everyone at the same level. At that moment, I remembered a blog post that I'd read recently on the power of the 'bad idea', which in turn had been inspired by Ewan McIntosh.
When you ask a room of professionals to come up with their “best” solutions to a problem you often tend to get great ideas, but not always the best ones. They can be contrived and almost always involve some self-censorship from the team: people don’t offer anything up unless they feel, explicitly or subconsciously, that it will get buy-in from the rest of the team or committee.
Ask people for their “worst” solutions to a problem and people tend not to hold back at all – laughs are had and the terrible ideas flow. And while the initial suggestions might feel stupid, pointless or ridiculous to the originating team members, these awful ideas can take on a spectacular new lease of life in the hands of another, unrelated group.
Taking the core of this idea - that people feel uncomfortable expressing their 'best' for the judgement of others - I took a moment to explain that if any individual in front of me had a question about what I'd just said, it was likely that others had too but were nervous about saying it out loud. I pointed out that they spent much more time together as a class than I ever did so they would be better placed to know the types of misunderstandings their classmates might have. We had a short discussion on how a team attitude might lead us to think about what others could struggle with, not just ourselves and then how we might consider asking the questions that they may not want to. And then I asked them to think of a 'stupid' question. Slowly, voices came forward asking for various forms of clarification from a simple rephrasing of something I'd said to requests for non-examples. And I felt the room relax as learners who remained tight-lipped lost the tension around their shoulders and relaxed into their chairs; I have no evidence for the belief that this was because their query had been answered with no action on their part, but I choose to believe it all the same.

Since then, I check instructions with this request for 'stupid' questions and learners' brows furrow as they try to think of a question that they may not need to ask, but that could help others in the room. The number of questions has gone up, and surprisingly they rarely are indeed 'stupid'. The stigma of asking questions has lessened and I feel we've accomplished something in that learners can carry on with their activities with more confidence and minimal stress over comprehension. 

Developing Socratic Seminars

Following on from our first attempt with Socratic Seminars, attempt #2 was much more successful. Discussion flowed much more freely, no doubt in part due to the wingman formation that we trialled. Learners' reflections indicated that they felt much more confident putting their views forward having refined them with their wingmen first.  Even one of the less engaged learners couldn't help but become engaged in the conversation as the learners started to communicate genuine insights and personal connections with their readings. They were asking more questions to clarify their understanding and prompting others to expand on their ideas for more detailed explorations, so it seems we have turned a corner in terms of building a trusting and safe environment for collaborative learning.

One issue with the wingman formation was that we didn't have enough time for everyone to be in the inner circle, but the learners themselves indicated that this was a small price to pay against the benefits of the new model. In any case, they felt they had still contributed through their feedback and looked forward to being the first in the circle next time. Actually, as I write those words just hit me - they look forward to it! As they expressed their thoughts on how it had gone, there was a real sense of pride from them in what they had achieved and they were lots of congratulations for the previously reluctant participants who had contributed (and presumably gained) much more this week.

As we discussed the place of these seminars in future lessons there was a resounding 'yes' that we employ them regularly so it feels like we've made a real breakthrough.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Beginning Socratic Seminars

I've been meaning to try Socratic Seminars for over a year now, following endorsements from those in my PLN that lauded them as the single most transformative tool for learning available. I was initially daunted by the fact that there were no local examples for me to observe but after reading Socratic Circles (Copeland, M) and watching various Youtube examples including this one below, I decided to give it a go.

I chose the reading (around the topic of language & power that we are currently studying), posted it to our homework site (to allow them time to digest and think of good discussion questions) and rearranged the classroom to accommodate the session.

On the day, we were fortunate to have one learner among us who had experienced Socratic Seminars in her previous school, and she warned us that it would likely take a few sessions before the discussion really flowed easily. That was certainly a warning to be heeded. With only 10 learners, the circles were quite small but the discussion was kicked off as learners consulted their notes (some annotations were more evident on some texts than others) and began to build on each other's knowledge. This was a real positive as other teachers had indicated that often learners can see the seminars as a debate rather than an opportunity to co-construct meaning. 

However, despite this positive aspect there were some negatives to be reflected upon too. In the feedback session after the first 'round', learners revealed that they had not received the text to comment on until after 10pm the night before - some glitch with our homework-recording system - so most had hurriedly scribbled some notes earlier that day and therefore hadn't had the thinking time needed to produce rich discussion. Also, we had two learners who did not speak at all; one from his long-standing painful shyness, and the other because of his lack of confidence in English (this is an IBDP course in Language & Literature). To encourage the shy learner, I will try the 'wingman' strategy exemplified in the video above, although I'm not sure how that will work with our smaller numbers; to support the second-language user, I will provide prompts - these will be useful to all learners in developing their speaking and listening skills and really something I should have considered beforehand.

Participants have started posting their reflections of the experience and this is what some of them had to say:

"After watching the video, I am siding with the "wingman"  Socratic Seminar. The reason is that I am shy and get nervous when talking in public. With the "wingman" method, I could tell the representative what my ideas are and he/she will share it with others. This way, I could participate even though I am not talking, but I might have to be in the inner circle to talk and when that happens, I hope I will be ready to speak to others."

"In the class’ socratic seminar on Thursday I didn’t think I contributed enough to be discussion that was going on, I had ideas to share but I often hesitated before speaking out. But I did notice I contributed more to the second extract that was analyzed and hopefully there will be more progress in the discussions to come. Also, I’ve learnt that it’s better to ask questions about things rather than keeping quiet during the seminar."

"We also applied an extremely useful way to discuss, which is using a Socratic circle where half of the class listen and take notes while the other half discusses important points and changing places after a certain amount of time. This definitely gave people the chance to take a breather to absorb information and to be stimulated by the discussion to brainstorm ideas and also gave speakers a chance to speak comfortably within a smaller circle. This also gave us the opportunity to evaluate the quality of discussion as some speakers might be overbearing or some might simply avoid taking the initiative to be involved in active discussion."

"During the last English lesson, we tried out Socratic circles as a way of discussing our ideas & findings of pre-read extracts. Although this was my first time at it, I didn't find it a struggle, mostly because I'm confident in speaking. However, I didn't perform to my best during the discussions. This came down to a lack of preparation, although I had read beforehand, I failed to fully annotate the extracts. Something I will need to work on, is reading between the lines. I'll need to make sure I can fully comprehend writers' ideas & messages; if not, to ask more questions. I'm perfectly happy with the formation we tried in class but since we're still a new group, the 'wingman' formation may help settle us down and ensure we're all comfortable, confident and contributing to the discussions."

Targets for future sessions:
  • provide language scaffolding in the form of sentence starters;
  • try the 'wingman' formation;
  • ensure learners have access to the required text well in advance of the seminar.