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The Best Lesson I Never Taught

I broke a promise to myself today. I gave my students a worksheet. And it was the most powerful worksheet I’ve ever given.

Recently, our class have been reflecting on the success (and failures) of our term-long City of Glacier Park project, an experiment born from a belief that we could do and be more in our community. The project aimed to create more student-centred learning by increasing student voice and agency, using PBL and focusing on feedback over grades. We were guided by four overarching themes:

  • Critical Thinking
  • Creativity
  • Community
  • Collaboration

We were able to tick the first three boxes. Big improvement. But box four, collaboration, no dice. This was evidenced by the number of days that I felt like I was chasing my tail, trying to keep up with the never-ending revolving door of students seeking advice, permission, and answers. That’s when I came to the realisation that I had been peddling a lie: We didn’t really know how to collaborate.

Bring Your Journey To The World…

Blogging has been a powerful reflection tool for me this year. In the past, I’d used class blogs to share what we did, but never to reflect on the how or why of learning. Perhaps this is because I’ve never really been a sharing kind of guy. I’ve always kept my “best lessons” to myself. Kept parents at a comfortable arm’s length. Informed, but not too involved. So for this project, I committed to track my journey, share more with colleagues, attempt to engage parents, and build my own Personal Learning Network (PLN) by blogging and tweeting. I’ve been lurking on Twitter for years, but only started posting recently. I’m a little nervous now before I hit publish, because all of a sudden, it appears I’m not the only one reading my blog.

This brings me to the point of this post; you never know when something shared will result in a lightbulb moment for someone else. A flash of inspiration.

Gary Chu is a gradeless Maths teacher in Chicago, far away from Adelaide, and without even knowing it, he taught my class to collaborate. On Gary’s Medium blog I found a post titled Capitalizing on What Students Do Best: Socialize in which he shares Larry Geni’s work on the art of appropriate socialising for students. The blog contained diagrams which we used as a provocation to reflect on and discuss our collaborative practices. The consensus was that “we suck”.

C/- Geni, n.d.

Students loved the idea of collaborating for conversational learning, but in reality, they were mostly socialising. Moving away from the antiquated practice of accessing the curriculum entirely through the teacher towards a more student-centred model was something we were interested in pursuing, but how? Should the teacher be the most important person in the room?

C/- Geni, n.d.

Which brings me back to Gary who wrote this about group questions:

Whenever an individual raises their hand, I walk over to that individual, maintaining eye contact until I arrive at their desk…and then I abruptly turn to someone else in their group and ask them about the question. If they do not know, I walk away.

L1: Wait, where are you going?! Why did he just walk away??!
L2: Why didn’t you ask us first? We could have helped.
L1: [zero comeback]

Nine times out of ten, the learner who had the question did not ask their group. Well, at the beginning it is nine times out of ten. Once a group picks up on the whole “group question” thing, they are much more cognizant of utilizing each other as resources first.

This was my lightbulb moment. So simple but this changed everything. It took a little while for students to cotton on, but when I began using Gary’s walk-away technique, they were forced to engage in conversational learning. I say it was the best lesson I’ve never taught because I literally couldn’t have done much less to help. Students were tasked with using simple, compound and complex sentences in a constrained 100-word writing challenge. I outlined the task, shared this image, and walked away.

No explicit lesson. No scaffold. No explanation of sentence structure or clauses. Nada.

It didn’t take long for hands to start shooting up around the room. This was when the magic happened (and if I’m honest, a fair bit of fun for me…) If someone else in the group couldn’t tell me what the question was, I walked away. If hands at that table continued to be raised, it was feedback that the entire table needed help with that particular problem.

Students were forced to become their own best teacher today. I was no longer the most important person in the room. It was awesome. They researched on iPads, shared & discussed sentences, argued about clauses, and sought help from each other. Collaboration!

Then it happened.

A year seven student remembered a worksheet we had used the previous year to scaffold a similar writing task, found it in one of my textbooks, surveyed the class, and decided we needed 25 copies. By the end of the day, almost all of the sheets were gone. They were not to be found in the recycling bin either for a change. It is the most powerful worksheet I’ve ever given because I think it’s the first time a student actually asked for one.

As Gary says — Share the wealth.

I encouraged the kids to share the wealth today. If anyone has made it this far and you don’t already blog, I encourage you to share your journey with the world. We all have a story; you never know who yours will inspire. Thanks, Gary.

Poster C/- Mary Wade

Originally published at blogmoore2017.edublogs.org on July 4, 2017.

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Abe Moore

Abe Moore

Education blog. "I write because I don't know what I think until I read what I say" - Flannery O'Connor