What does it look like?


What does it look like?

Administrators visit classrooms. They may focus on “look fors” while visiting and consider “ask abouts” in their discussions with teachers. After reading Danielle’s Thoughts on Connectivism and Where We Really Are, and her struggles with finding ways to incorporate connected learning opportunities in her school where perhaps the administration and community has not yet embraced these ideals, I appreciated her list of “these-are-the-things-I-can-do”s. Because that’s what we’re asking for, right? For teachers to try to do things just a little bit differently? To consider the possibilities? To take risks and have an open mind?

After reading Danielle’s thoughts, Lisa Christen asked me to consider what connected, constructivist learning may look like in the elementary classroom. I told her that sounded like some fine material for a blog post. So here we go.

Opportunities for student collaboration – This is easy. Children are social creatures. Do they inherently know how to collaborate effectively to problem solve? No. So we need to model that for them and help them acquire skills for doing so. There are many ways to infuse technology into this practice, but the tools won’t ensure students are collaborating. Primary students can handle this. Example. Last week I observed a first grade lesson where students had just finished reading a picture book about the life of George Washington Carver. Their next learning task? Work in teams to invent something new with the “peanut” as the key ingredient. You get the same tools Carver had available to him. Brainstorm your ideas, draw your process, write your steps, present to the class. Think like scientists. The ensuing thoughts were not only hilarious, they were creative and sparked children’s interest in the process of invention. Peanut crayon? Genius. Peanut clay? I’d buy it. Students took on different roles: team leaders emerged, some jumped right into sketching their designs, others teamed up to describe their steps. Was there a test following this activity? Nope. Was there even a rubric? Nah. Did they learn anything? They clearly did. I watched them do it.

Outside of the classroom, there are so many opportunities for connected learning in which we need our children to take part. Skype with an author or a pen-pal class. Create and maintain a system for housing student blogs. The possibilities with writing, commenting, reflecting, and passionate learning are endless. Begin the process of having students develop portfolios of their work. What an amazing opportunities for them to grow and reflect as learners. Create a Twitter account for your class and use it to connect with other classes, schools, and parents.

Learning is connected – So many standards, so little time. Why we teach subjects in isolation in elementary school is truly mind-blowing to me. Here we are, in a school where a student is likely to spend his entire day with one-three teachers who know him really well. I believe we should be rewriting elementary curriculum to address basic skills in a way that is truly integrated across disciplines. Imagine the connections students could make if they spent two weeks immersed in Colonial Life. From the second they walked through the door, they were transported to a time of the early Americas where every problem they solved, piece of writing they composed, and book they read reflected essential learning strands grounded in that theme. They’d be living their learning.

Stay true to constructivist theory – What I want to emphasize here is that constructivism is a learning theory, not a method of teaching.  Constructivism suggests that children (aka people) learn by constructing knowledge out of their experiences. Students need to construct knowledge by connecting new material to the knowledge they already possess. (Or think they do.) Let’s also ask our children to “deconstruct” their knowledge. Question everything. Prove it to be so. Evaluate the “right answers.” Find the resources to do so. In an elementary classroom, this can be achieved with carefully thought-out processes for delivering content. Consider a math lesson where the objective for students is to learn how to add fractions with unlike denominators. In most instances, the teacher will demonstrate how to do this, explain the steps, review key vocabulary terms, then ask the children to practice a few problems, then do some for homework. Snooze. The child in that scenario is a passive, not active, participant in the learning process. Instead, present a story problem with fractions with unlike denominators as the key ingredients. Ask students to solve the problem. Give them manipulatives, access to resources, and each other to solve the problem. Don’t look for the right answer- look for the process, and for students to be able to explain to one another how they arrived at the “solution.” Bring the class together to evaluate the methods and determine a course of action for solving similar problems. Allow them to argue and make mistakes. Guide them along the way.

Student choice– In the elementary classroom, particularly in the primary grades, we are pretty skilled with providing differentiated learning opportunities for students based on their academic needs. Where we sometimes miss the boat is providing those same small group or individual, passion-driven learning experiences for students, or designing our lessons to allow for more student choice. How can this be accomplished when there is so much curriculum to “cover” and so many standards to address? We need to shift our energies from thinking that every student needs to master every standard, every year. It’s just unrealistic, and frankly, inappropriate. We need to start looking at the big picture. I believe we need to help our children learn how to read and comprehend what they read. From there, they will work wonders. Why not lay out for students the content topics to be explored in social studies for the year, and ask them to choose where they’d like to first start exploring? Or, within a science unit on ecosystems, give students the freedom to choose through which ecosystem they’ll show mastery of the big ideas? And allow them to choose the method in which they’ll demonstrate their learning. Maybe every once and awhile we need to just stop with the routine and give kids what they really want. They’ll never be more engaged.

Opportunities to connect with teachers outside of school – Here I’d like to see a focus on communication with the student and the family outside of school. One thing that has been really powerful for us this year is the development of our teacher webpages. While students are not always contributing content to the pages, the teacher is posting curricular topics, links to relevant material, examples of student work, photos, etc. to share with parents. The parent has access to our classroom experiences 24/7. We are fortunate in that parents are very involved in our school, but we need to do a better job engaging, rather than simply involving, parents in the learning process.

I met with a teacher today who truly wants to transform her practice and student learning. But she is at a loss. She doesn’t know how to balance the enormity of the standards and curricular demands with her passion for bringing individualized, engaging learning experiences to every one of her students. After combating a moment of helplessness where I thought, “How can I possibly tell her she can do this?”, we cracked open the curriculum and decided which of the listed standards were just unnecessary. We talked about the big ideas and ways she could start incorporating project-based, student-centered learning experiences into the content areas. We’ll support her. She’ll make mistakes, and I’ll be okay with that. She is so driven, so student-centered, that her students will learn more this year than ever before.

I’m confident about that, and I know that every time I visit her room and watch her children learn, I’ll know that’s what it looks like.

13 Replies to “What does it look like?”

  1. Thank you for the mention in your posting. It is always nice to see that real people are reading what I have to say. One thing that I feel I should mention is that my list was not a list of things that I will do, but a list of things that I am doing and have been doing for four years. My frustration came in that I wanted to do more but realized that I need to wait for my students and colleagues to catch up! I needed to step back and appreciate how far I had come in structuring a constructivist classroom to make myself feel less frustrated and that is what I did through my blog.
    Reading what you advised your teacher to do was great, that is how I approach it, do not be overwhelmed, pick out the Big Ideas and do the best job you can for your kids. It is far more important that they learn some things really well than try to cram them full of material that they will not deeply understand. Good luck and you will love what you see, I sure do!

    1. Danielle, thanks so much for your comments and clarification (I edited a bit.) 🙂 I can imagine your frustrations. I’m trying to encourage my teachers to take the step forward while not necessarily waiting for people to catch up, but rather bringing them along for the ride and supporting them along the way. And inspiring them, as you clearly do!

    1. Susan, thank you for reading and your comments. I am really enjoying the PLP learning experiences and appreciate your support!

  2. Lyn,

    I love that you and the teacher “cracked open the curriculum and decided which of the listed standards were just unnecessary.”

    Just start with a few standards and few new ideas. One change at a time; she’ll get it. Seems like she is lucky to have such a great principal.


    1. Thanks for commenting! It was a great conversation. But I’d argue that I’m lucky to have such a forward-thinking teacher willing to take risks for our students 🙂

  3. This is an outstanding post! You are exactly right when you say there are ways to incorporate authentic learning and student choice into lessons and continue to address the standards. Sometimes I feel like the standards are used as an excuse to why drill and practice activities must be the centerpiece of teaching. It is the easiest way to teach and the least effective. In fact, most of the standards can be infused into real learning although it may be more difficult to plan. Here’s where collaboration among teachers is so important. Imagine if the teachers you describe would share these ideas with two other teachers and those teachers would tweak it, use it and share with two more teachers and this would happen for every great idea. Eventually it would create a tidal wave of learning AND make planning for real learning so much easier. Collaboration can make for increased learning and easier planning. What more could a teacher want? One last point. Expanding on your point about student choice, what if teachers would lay out for students what needed to be learned in science and social studies for the year and students would pick the topics at which they would become experts. They would research the “essential questions” and construct lessons and experiments for the class. The teacher would then just facilitate the research, assist with student lessons and act as a coach rather than the speaker in front of the room. Again, thank you for this GREAT post!!

  4. Greg, thanks for taking the time to comment. I hope doing so didn’t make you late for work. 🙂 I agree that we can too easily focus on our instruction on the minutia of the standards and amass piles of activity sheets to help address this content. I don’t think it’s without good intention, just misguided. I think your points about teacher collaboration are dead on. Positivity and great ideas can spread throughout an organization and leave a lasting impact just as easily as negativity can. We need to make the choice to be better for our kids.

  5. Great post Lyn,
    I thought I’d share (Part 1 of) this post as I think you’d appreciate what Maureen said, http://pairadimes.davidtruss.com/learning-conversations/

    It was refreshing to hear Maureen Dockendorf, our staff development co-ordinator, (Director of Instruction), speak at our Building Leadership Capacity series introduction.

    She encouraged us to become ‘intellectual companions’ that enter into ‘learning conversations’. The part I liked most about her talk was the direction of the conversation. She spoke of:
    Not the Knowing, but the Process of Inquiry.
    Not covering the curriculum, but ‘uncovering’ the curriculum.
    A focus in innovation and creativity… how do we model this… every day?

    Maureen also spoke of the 5 needs that we (students/teachers/learners) have:
    The need to feel confident,
    The need to feel like we belong,
    The need to be potent- feel you have made a difference,
    The need to feel useful, and
    The need to have a sense of optimism.


    1. Dave, what a great resource you’ve shared. I love the list of needs Maureen outlined. I think we sometimes underestimate the power of optimism in all that we do! Thanks for your comments!

  6. Lyn,

    First I want to say “Thanks” for taking the time to write this blog post. This blog post is so much more than I ever expected when I sent you a tweet asking what you thought this might look like in an elementary classroom.

    I wanted to respond earlier, but I’ve been processing. I’ve been thinking of this a lot since I first read Danielle’s blog post.

    It made me feel good when I read your vision to be able to say to myself, “Check…doing that”, “Hmmm…I could focus on that a little more”, “Yep…working on that”, “Done”, “Did that”.

    I know there are many people who are either taking this walk on their own, stepping out of their comfort zone, or being a risk taker – risk takers that believe in what they are doing. I believe in what I am doing, yet that doesn’t stop me from sometimes thinking, “OK students…I believe this will help you with your learning, I see how hard you are working…show me I’m right.”

    After reading the following blog post today by @fisher1000 I knew I needed to come back and revisit your blog.

    I can see this, I believe this, I’m just trying to wrap my head around it. I would love to hear your thoughts after you read it.


    Thanks again.


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