Interrupting the Forgetting

I often hear fellow teachers complain with surprise and dismay when students don’t seem to remember something they should know, even though “they learned it last week!”

I recently had a personal experience – standing in the shoes of a student – which reminded me that what students learn isn’t necessarily what we teach them, and when students learn isn’t necessarily during class.  And that English ought to have multiple words for “learn,” each with a different definition, depending on when the learning is assessed.

One week ago, I was a “student” in a 15-minute Georgian lesson taught by a colleague to demonstrate teaching methodology at a recent TESOL information session.  We students “learned” seven Georgian words for plate, cup, knife, fork, spoon, touch and pick up.  At the end of the 15 minute lesson, each of us was able to give and respond to instructions to touch or pick up the objects, with 100% accuracy.  In fifteen minutes, we had “learned” those seven words.

Something made me think about that lesson today, and I tried to remember my new Georgian vocabulary.  I could only remember two words:  chika (cup) and dana (knife).  I remember them because they both reminded me of words I knew in other languages: chica is small or girl in Spanish, and dana is a Sanskrit word meaning charity or giving.  I can’t remember anything at all about the other five words that I used fluently a week ago.  Today I might not even have been able to remember chika or dana if the teacher hadn’t asked us, right after the lesson, whether any of the words reminded us of words we know in other languages?  His causing me to notice the connections I made between the new vocabulary and my pre-existing knowledge was the essential factor that moved those two words from my short-term memory (15 mins) to longer-term memory (one week, so far).  And because I’m reviewing them by writing this right now, I’m reinforcing my brain’s pathways to chika and dana, so I’ll probably still “know” those two words six months from now.

We shouldn’t be surprised when the class doesn’t seem to remember what they “learned” last week.  It’s up to us as teachers to create the noticing and connecting experiences that help students move new knowledge from short to long term memory.  And then to constantly review prior learning, so that what students still remember this week is made permanent through multiple reinforcing experiences in the near future. Only then will students have “learned.”  And the corollary is: only then will there have been actual “teaching.”

In Peter Brown’s outstanding book Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, this is called “interrupting the forgetting.”

Swamp reflection

Report from our Reflective Practice Group 10/15

We met on Sunday evening in classroom space of the Canal Alliance, where many of us teach, and caught up with each other over mouth-watering home-made cornbread and carrot cake, home-grown cherry tomatoes, and other treats brought by the participants. Emily Goldberg and Tim Farey launched us in an “embodied cognition” activity that some of us had experienced in a recent workshop by Jiwon Chung about using theater in the ESL classroom.  Afterwards, we shared ideas for how to adapt the activity for use in our own classes.

The evening’s focus was on Reflection-in-Action, the reflection that we do on the spot, while teaching, to adapt to unexpected events in the classroom.  This concept was elaborated by Donald Schön (1930-1997), who observed that

Reflection-in-Action is the core of professional artistry.”

We began by reviewing the ELC (Experiential Learning Cycle), a reflective framework which begins with a concrete experience (the lesson) and then progresses to reflection on what happened, analysis of why it happened, and then action plans to apply in class.  These last three stages are all Reflection-ON-Action, because they occur after the fact; Reflection-IN-Action occurs during the initial experience.

ELC diagram

We began with two questions: “How often does your class go exactly the way you planned it?” (which drew laughter) and “When it doesn’t, how do you know what change is needed?”  Scattered around the room were several quotes and paraphrases of Schön’s philosophy, describing the circumstances that generate both the need and the capacity to react to what happens in the classroom, plus a few quotes from Carole Rodgers and Peter Senge on the same topic.  In pairs, we did a gallery walk and discussed what resonated for us.  One favorite was Schön’s observation (I’m paraphrasing a bit):

In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground where practitioners can make effective use of research-based theory and technique, and there is a swampy lowland where situations are confusing “messes” incapable of technical solution.  The difficulty is that the problems of the high ground, however great their technical interest, are often relatively unimportant … while in the swamp are the problems of the greatest human concern.

After the gallery walk with a partner, the full group shared some of the highlights of our reactions to the quotes about reflection-in-action. One of the things I personally really love about Schön’s perspective is that it is respectful and descriptive (and not prescriptive) of the intuition, knowledge and reflective capacity teachers bring to bear down in the swamp.  I find Schön reaffirming.

Next: we prepared to reflect collaboratively on our own critical incidents. Each of us “brought” an event from a recent class, where something unexpected occurred, we reflected-in-action and responded there and then.  Schön noted that among professionals, teachers have a special challenge when it comes to reflection-in-action, because we can’t take a ‘time out’ to evaluate the evolving situation. And he acknowledged that ‘reflecting-in-action’ is especially difficult for newer teachers, because they are juggling so many other things.  It’s a capacity that develops with experience.  So…since our group includes teachers whose years of teaching experience ranges from 25 years to a few months,  the very-experienced paired up with the less-experienced to reflect on our lessons.

We followed a protocol for reflecting, inspired by the Critical Response Process approach to giving and getting feedback: In Part I, each teacher took a few minutes to share:

  • What they had planned or expected to happened
  • What actually happened
  • How they felt and what they were thinking in that moment
  • How they reacted to the unexpected turn of events

During this time, partners just listened, but didn’t speak.  (Note that everything the teacher has shared up to now, is the “What happened?” stage of the ELC framework.)

Then, after all the teachers had described their critical incident, we moved to Part II (the critical thinking “So what?” and “Now what?” stages of reflecting in the ELC framework.)  At this point, the protocol was that each teacher asked her partner for input on specific questions s/he had about what had happened in the lesson.

I hadn’t experienced this Critical Response Process approach before, just read about it.  The day before our meeting, a teacher told me she’d had a particularly difficult lesson that week, and she hoped attending the meeting might be “healing” for her.  This was the impetus for me to try the teacher-directed approach to getting feedback.  When we’ve had a challenging or painful experience, we often feel fragile; we may have a specific burning question we want to explore, but we might not be up to hearing all of the advice a well-meaning colleague could offer.  This allows each teacher to manage feedback in a way that will be most helpful to them.

We all felt the meeting was fruitful and worthwhile.  One indicator of the meaningfulness of our gatherings is that when we discussed upcoming dates, no one wanted to skip December, even though it’s a busy time of year.  Another is that at the end of the one-on-one reflection on one another’s  lessons, the teacher with 25 years’ experience volunteered that she’d gotten valuable new perspectives from her partner.

And the teacher who’d had a difficult week wrote me afterwards, saying “I’m glad I could make it last night.  It was healing indeed.”

Coming up: 

Nov 8             Lesson Planning Time; How do we keep it reasonable? One of the most difficult challenges for new teachers is the incredible amount of time we spend planning lessons. What’s reasonable?  How do we streamline the process and use the time we spend more efficiently?  It can’t be a simple as developing a repertoire of lessons, because every class and every student is different.  Bring your issues, experiences, questions and ideas.

 Dec 13           Holiday Party + SMILE: Setting sustainable goals for ourselves.  We have high expectations for ourselves and for our students.  At times we want to do more AND simultaneously, we feel overwhelmed. The SMILE approach was developed by Josette Leblanc, a reflective teacher trainer who focuses on self-compassion for teachers.

 Where & When:  We meet at 6:30 for social/snacks, and the workshop is 7-9pm.  Address:  93 Larkspur, San Rafael, California, upstairs in the “86 Building,” which is across the parking lot from the Canal Alliance main office.

Bring a snack or beverage to share.

Everyone is welcome!

For more Information:

Learning Strategies and Reflection for my Adult Beginner Students

This semester, teaching at the Canal Alliance in San Rafael, CA, I’ve undertaken a small Action Research project.  This is a report on the first few weeks.

The Challenge:

For years I’ve been frustrated by the fact that so many of my adult low-beginner ESL students don’t have learning strategies.  They don’t seem to know what they must do to learn.  For example, when I launch a five minute pairs speaking activity, practicing a dialogue with a partner, they will do it just once, and then sit and wait for me to call the class back to order and move on to the next thing. As I see it, they are wasting a precious opportunity to practice and internalize the material by changing roles or substituting target language, and practicing the dialogue again and again.

Dialogue on board

Profile of the Students

It’s not that they aren’t motivated to learn.  I have over thirty students, who are mostly Guatemalans in their twenties, young men and a few women. They work hard during the day, often doing demanding, physical labor, and then come to an 8-10 pm class twice a week.  Clearly they want to learn English.

Over the years, I’ve observed that this behavior seems to correlate with limited formal education in students’ home country.  When I noticed this phenomenon, it was the first time I really appreciated that one of the most valuable things we learn in school is how to learn. Those who attended school longer are far more likely to embrace the notion of practicing. They do so enthusiastically, and they learn. But the others I worry about, because I believe they’re not getting as much out of the class as they could.

How to Help Students Develop Learning Strategies?

For some time I’ve been thinking about what I can do to change these students’ behavior. But recently, while researching how to develop learner strategies and autonomy, I read something that made me completely question that goal.

In MaryAnn Florez’ article “Reflective Teaching in Adult ESL Classes,” a teacher is advised “to think of ways to facilitate and foster learner input rather than ways to change her practice to accommodate the learners’ reluctance to speak.”  This was an “ah-hah!” moment for me.  It dawned on me that I need to facilitate my students’ reflection and awareness of what helps them learn! And perhaps I should stop thinking prescriptively. I would need to open myself up to learning from the students, rather than being so certain that I know what will help them learn.

Raising Students’ Awareness of What Helps Them Learn

So I decided that I would focus on raising students’ awareness of what they’re learning, how they learn it, and what works for them and what doesn’t.  As I know from my own reflective practice, this is not a skill that’s learned in an evening.  I made this initial action plan for every class:

  • Write the name of each step of the lesson on the board, and draw students’ attention to them as we progress through the class.
  • At the end of class, have students reflect on whether each of the activities did or didn’t help them learn.
  • For the first few weeks, just work on raising awareness, theirs and mine.

We could discuss the lesson in Spanish, but it happens that this semester I have a handful of students from Vietnam.  Since I don’t speak Vietnamese, using Spanish wouldn’t be appropriate.  All of the students are beginners, so talking about learning in English isn’t practical.  So I have to rely on primarily non-verbal methods of communication for the reflection and feedback.

Steps on Board

Feedback from Students

At the end of each class so far, students have been completing a form with the same list of lesson steps as was on the board, and a Likert scale of three faces (smiling, straight face, and frowning). Written above the faces in English, Spanish and Vietnamese is:

This did not help me learn     ……………………………………………     This helped me learn   

Esto no me ayudó a aprender  ……………………………………………. Esto me ayudó a aprender

Điều này đã không giúp tôi được hiểu ……………………………………..…   Điều này đã giúp tôi học được.

Individual Feedback Form

I hesitated about whether to ask students to write their names on the feedback form.  There’s an argument to be made for anonymity:  they might feel “safer” expressing their true feelings if I don’t know who made the comments.  But I opted to ask for the names for two reasons:  one is it would show them I’m interested in each individual. Second, if I didn’t know who was responding, the data would be much less useful; I wouldn’t be able to correlate feedback with students’ performance, participation and proficiency.

Validating the Feedback

Initially, I needed to confirm that students understood the purpose of the feedback form and that the feedback they gave me was actually meaningful to them.  If most of them just checked smiling faces, it would be useless. To tell the truth, I wasn’t really certain how I would know if the feedback was “real”.  Fortunately, when I looked at the results after five successive lessons, several patterns emerged, which persuaded me that I was getting valid data:

Group Feedback on a Lesson
Group Feedback on a Lesson
  • Observation #1: There are clear tendencies: straight faces and a few frowns clump around particular steps in each lesson.  My Interpretations:  If they had been randomly or evenly distributed, I wouldn’t know whether the “data” was valid.  This continuity suggests that students really are expressing how they feel about the activities.
  • Observation #2: After each lesson, the steps that students score with straight or frowning faces are predominantly in the beginning and middle of the lesson, when students are encountering and clarifying new vocabulary and grammar.  As the lesson moves towards the final steps, where students use the target language in freer, more fluent, personalized activities (such as asking for and giving their telephone numbers) the smiling faces become more numerous.  My Interpretations: This rating pattern is repeated after every class.  So one interpretation is that the earlier steps of the lesson are more uncomfortable, because students are more tentative, unsure, and don’t feel confident with the new material, but as they internalize it and are able to use it with confidence, they rate the activities positively. Unfortunately, this would also mean students are indicating what they enjoy and don’t enjoy, which isn’t necessarily the same as what helps them learn.  Another possibility is that there is something about how I set up the encounter and clarifying steps which isn’t effective.  Food for Thought.
  • Observation #3: Contrary to my expectation, the twenty percent who always mark only smiling faces aren’t necessarily the most proficient. My Interpretations: Several ideas:  Some students really enjoy class, regardless of how challenging it is; some students just don’t want to “criticize” the teacher; some students are just going through the motions and aren’t interested in reflecting or sharing what helps them learn; some students have no idea what the feedback form is about.  Inconclusive.
  • Observation #4: During one class, I forgot a couple of essential practice activities meant to help students clarify and internalize the meaning of the new vocabulary before asking them to use it in an authentic, personalized task (making a family tree).  I also assigned an activity from the textbook which (I later realized) required vocabulary that they hadn’t learned yet.  Students were confused and weren’t able to complete the activities.  My Interpretations:  This fiasco was nothing to celebrate as a teacher. But in terms of students’ reflections on the lesson, their confusion and frustration was clearly reflected in their feedback on the particularly problematic parts of the lesson, which allowed me to unequivocally validate their feedback.  (And it proved  the importance of properly sequencing and scaffolding a lesson so that students have plenty of chances to clarify and practice before they have to use new target language independently.)
  • Observation #5: Students in tight, collaborative cliques mark their feedback forms differently.  For example, there is a lovey-dovey couple who practically sit in the same chair through class.  She marks 100% smiling faces, while he always marks a few straight faces for some activities.  Three Vietnamese students who always come together and converse a lot as they work in class also mark their feedback forms differently. My Interpretations:  I might expect these tight groups to either copy one another’s answers OR reach a consensus before marking the form.  The fact that they aren’t doing either makes me believe each person is reflecting independently on their personal experience.

So I’m pleased with the initial feedback process. I believe students are doing some meta thinking about their learning. And it was exciting when I realized that getting student feedback wouldn’t just tell me about what helps students learn; it would also give me valuable information about how effective my teaching is, and point out areas for further reflection!

Next steps:

I plan to continue the Feedback forms after each class.  Soon I will also try to get students to discuss the following in small groups, and then write their individual answers in their first language:

  • How they usually feel at the beginning, middle, and in the final activities of the class, and why.
  • Which generic types of classroom activities help them learn, such as matching pictures and flash cards, substitution dialogue practice, written fill-in-the-blank, etc. , and why.

Questions I still have:

  • Are students marking what they do/don’t like OR what helps them learn? Do they know there is a difference?  How can I tease the two apart?
  • What can I do to deepen their awareness, so we can find out more about why they feel the way they do?
  • How can I shift the focus to developing an awareness of what they are asked to do during class vs. what they actually do?

What do you think?

I would LOVE to hear from teachers who have ideas about getting meaningful feedback from low beginners, and helping them develop learning strategies!

Monet weeping-willow-and-water-lily-pond-painting

Next RPG meeting: Sunday, October 11th.

Topic:           Reflecting-in-Action: Where and when do we learn to be effective teachers?

Usually, the answer is “in the classroom,” or “on the job.”  But what does that mean?  Does it happen in the classroom, the mechanical reinforcement of skills by repetition?  Or does it happen across the whole process of teaching: during planning, execution of the lesson, and reflecting afterwards?  What role does feedback play?  And whose feedback?  Students? Peers? Supervisors?  At what point in the process do we learn?

There are many models for teacher reflection.  We’ll explore the approach developed by Daniel Schön.[i]  Schön challenged teachers to reconsider the role of technical knowledge versus “artistry” in developing professional excellence. He distinguished “reflection-in-action” from “reflection-on-action.”  Reflection-in-action occurs in real-time, while we are teaching; it’s analogous to intuitive knowledge.  This type of reflective competence develops with time and experience.[ii]  Since our RPG group has both new teachers and very experienced teachers, this will be an opportunity for peer-teaching!

For this workshop, “bring” one thing that happened in a recent lesson that was different from what you expected; and which you responded to by changing your plan on the spot.  If you’re not teaching right now, think of such an incident that you observed.  It could be positive, negative, or just different. You don’t need to analyze it; we’ll do that together.

 Where & When:  We meet at 6:30pm for social/snacks. The workshop is 7-9pm.  Address:  93 Larkspur, San Rafael, upstairs in the “86 Building,” which is across the parking lot from the Canal Alliance main office.

Bring a snack or beverage to share.

Please carpool:  If you prefer to drive, please sign up here to let others know where you’re coming from.  There are usually people coming from San Francisco, northern Marin and Sonoma County, and the east bay.

RSVP: 415-717-3568

Everyone is Welcome!

[i] Schön, D. (The Reflective Practitioner:  How Professionals Think in Action (1984)  and Educating the Reflective Practitioner (1987))

[ii] Randall & Thornton, Advising and Supporting Teachers, (2001)